Thursday, December 14, 2017

New Fantasy/ SciFi Recommendations: Warcross, All Rights Reserved and Rosemarked.

It's time for holiday gifts and my thoughts turn to fun YA reads, which provide a break from assigned reading.  Fantasy novels immediately come to mind, so this month I will recommend three books that introduce new series that I think teens will enjoy. Warcross by Marie Lu (Legend series) focuses on Emi Chen, a bounty hunter who hacks into a popular virtual reality game tournament.  All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis is set in a world where every word and gesture are copyrighted and must be purchased for use.  Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne takes place in a plague ridden world where Zivah, a healer, and Dineas, a rebel, join to fight a mutual oppressor.

Warcross is the first book in a new high tech sci/fi series by acclaimed author Marie Lu.  Emi Chen is a hacker who makes a meager living working as a bounty hunter, tracking down people who bet illegally on a popular virtual reality game known as Warcross.  When she hacks into a Warcross tournament game to scavenge, she is discovered by the game's creator, Hideo Tanka.  He flies her to Tokyo and hires her as a hacker spy in order to find a villain known as Zero, who is after him.  She poses as a player on one of the tournament teams, but in this virtual world filled with double crosses, it is hard to know who to trust.  A former video game artist herself, the author's attention to game detail makes this a very believable futuristic read. The bombshell revelation and cliffhanger ending will leave readers clamoring for the next book in this thrilling new series.


The clever premise in All Rights Reserved sets up a dystopian world ripe for rebellion.  In the future all words, gestures and sounds are trademarked, cataloged and monetized, and everyone over the age of 15 is required to wear a cuff that charges them for every word they speak, causing many to go bankrupt. When Speth is about to give her last day speech and be inducted into the paying world, her boyfriend commits suicide, rather than work off his family's crippling debt.  Shocked and distraught, Speth refuses to read her speech and elects to remain silent.  Her defiance of tradition incites a media frenzy and inspires others to follow her lead and rebel against the powers that be, who have a stranglehold on communication.  Speth is a reluctant hero, who pays a high personal price as the figurehead of  the "Silents" movement. The ending, although satfisfying, sets up the upcoming sequel. I would recommend this to fans of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and other series about teen rebellion against a repressive dystopian society.


Rosemarked, the first book in a new fantasy series, introduces a plague ridden world where the authoritarian rule of the Amparans tyrannizes the people they subjugate.  The story is told by Zivah, a Daran healer, who has contracted the rose plague when she treats infected occupying Amparan soldiers, and Dineas, a Shidadi soldier rebelling against Amparan rule. He has survived the plague and is now umbertouched or immune, but she is highly contagious and can expect a shortened life span. Because Zivah saved the life of the Amparan commander, she is invited to live in the Capital to heal other plague stricken Amparans.  When the Darans ally with the Shidadi, the two are engaged as spies in order to find a weakness in the Amparan forces. Dineas infiltrates the Amparan military to learn the empire's plans for dealing with the rebels and then reports to Zivah in the Capital.  As they join together to fight a mutual oppressor, Zivah and Dineas develop a deep affection for each other. The detailed world building and complex characters will engage readers in this tension filled page turner.  The unresolved ending sets up the sequel Umbertouched, which will be released in 2018.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Quirky Teens: 36 Questions, Speed of Life, What to Say Next and Holding Up the Universe

Although the books I am recommending this month could be characterized as quirky teen relationship novels, they all involve teens who are dealing with the loss of a parent in unusual ways. 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicky Grant weaves a story around the real life psychological study where strangers develop relationships after asking each other 36 questions designed to create intimacy. Speed of Life by advice columnist Carol Weston involves a teenage girl who begins corresponding with a teen advice columnist after the death of her mother.  What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum (Tell Me Three Things) explores the relationship between an autistic boy and a popular girl, who has just lost her father. Finally, Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven (All the Bright Things) focuses on a girl who gains several hundred pounds after her mother's death. All of these books involve characters, who are quirky, yet sympathetic, and engaging stories that I did not want to put down.

Inspired by the 1990 psychological study "The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness," which was popularized in The New York Times36 Questions is the story of two strangers, Hildy and Paul (aka Betty and Bob), who show up to participate in a PhD student's experiment and collect $40 for their trouble. All they have to do is ask and answer 36 questions of each other, to see if it fosters affection between them.   However, making it to the end of the questionnaire is a major challenge for these two volatile characters.  Paul, the "bad boy" artistic loner, is only there for the money, and answers the questions in a caustic, snarky, manner.  "Good girl" Hildy's nervousness is manifested by earnest oversharing, which Paul taunts, resulting in Hildy exploding, throwing a tropical fish at him (it's complicated), and stomping out. Although they aren't supposed to know each other's true identity, Paul finds her on Facebook and messages her about meeting and finishing the experiment.  Attracted to him, but wary, she agrees to answer the questions online. By the end of the book they've laughed, cried, lied and discovered each other's secrets, but have they fallen in love? Their witty authentic dialogue, complemented by Paul's drawings, make this a fun read with serious undertones, which I highly recommend. I found myself marveling at the way the author wove the story around the study's questions and thinking about my own answers as I read. Rights for publication have already been sold in 19 countries!

Speed of Life focuses on Sofia Wolfe, who is still struggling with the death of her Spanish mother, almost a year earlier.  When teen advice columnist, "Dear Kate," speaks at a school assembly, Sofia talks her dad into attending Kate's talk for parents.  Sofia begins corresponding with Kate, who seems to be the only one she can turn to for solace.  When she finds out Dad has begun dating Kate, with whom he has rekindled a former acquaintance,  Sofia initially feels betrayed, but ultimately adjusts.  Complications ensue when Sofia goes to live with Kate and her angry daughter Alexa for the summer, and Sofia falls for Alexa's former boyfriend, Sam. Then an unexpected change in the family's dynamics creates a bond between the soon-to-be stepsisters. The struggles of changing schools, blended families, first love and grieving are dealt with sensitively by the author whose advice column "Dear Carol" appears in Girls' Life magazine.

The title of Julie Buxbaum's latest novel, What to Say Next, refers to a helpful hints notebook, David Drucker's sister has created for him. David is brilliant, but on the spectrum, and typically responds inappropriately in many social situations. The book is especially useful when popular Kit Lowell begins sitting with him at lunch, after the death of her father in a car accident.  Kit finds it difficult to reenter her high school social circle and finds David's quiet ways and blunt honesty refreshing.  As they grow closer, David's social awkwardness is further exposed when the notebook, which also contains his commentary on peers, is stolen, and many of his comments are posted on the internet.  In trying to help him navigate this disaster, Kit's own secrets are revealed, bringing their relationship to a poignant resolution.  The author uses split first person narration to give the reader insight into each character's perspective. David's insensitively direct comments are frequently hilarious, but troublesome. Kit's journey through grief and recovery makes for an interesting vehicle for this quirky love story, which I think readers will enjoy.

In Holding Up the Universe, the main character Libby Strout is known as the girl who had to be cut out of her house.  After her mother's unexpected death, Libby took solace in eating and became morbidly obese.  A medical intervention helped her go from 600 to 300 pounds, and she decides to reenter public school.  There she meets resident cool boy Jack Messelin, who is peer-pressured into bullying Libby and ends up with a bloody nose for his actions.  They end up in detention where they develop a fragile friendship.  He confides in Libby that he has prosopagnosia (face blindness) and is hiding it from the world. She encourages him to seek help and let people know that his insensitivity is frequently inadvertent, because he doesn't know who people are when he sees them. Together they navigate a new friendship, helping each other meet their problems head on.  Written in short chapters of alternating perspectives, this is a story of two understandably flawed characters, learning to love themselves, as well as each other. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Cultural comparisons: Auma's Long Run, You Bring the Distant Near, and Piecing Me Together

Young adult novels about kids from different cultures lend themselves to teaching the writing of comparison contrast essays.  Depending on the students’ level of sophistication, the essay can range from a simple four paragraph essay to a fully developed paper, where each topic is explored in great detail. As students are reading their novel, they should be noting similarities and differences between their own culture and the culture represented in the book. This month I am recommending three books that would lend themselves to this project. Auma's Long Run by Ecabeth Odhiambo chronicles the story of a young girl growing up during the AIDS crisis in Kenya.  You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins is a multi-generational story that captures the immigrant experience of an Indian-American family. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson explores the conflicts felt by an African America girl who is a scholarship student at an elite private school in Portland. 

Set in a Kenyan Village during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s,  Auma's Long Run is about a 13-year-old track star, who dreams of becoming a doctor.  After her parents die of the affliction, Auma is left with the responsibility of caring for her family.  Feeding her siblings and grandmother becomes more important than track practice and good grades, even though she is hoping to get a track scholarship to continue her education and follow her dreams.  The author draws from her own experiences of growing up in Kenya at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, in this poignant exploration of a girl conflicted between family responsibilities and her desire to find a cure for the disease that is killing her people. 

Told in alternating voices over three generations, You Bring the Distant Near follows the immigration of the Das family from Ghana to London to NYC in the 1970s.  Tara and Sonia are excited to embrace the American way of life, whereas their mother Ranee has traditional Indian expectations of her daughters.  However, Tara's interest in acting and Sonia's social activism are encouraged by their father. Twenty years later Tara is a Bollywood star and Sonia is a New York reporter married to her African American high school love.  Their daughters Anna and Chantal, echo their mothers' ideals and ultimately bring their grandmother around to a new way of thinking.  Nominated for the 2017 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, this heart-warming story is inspired by the author's own immigrant experience. 

In Piecing Me Together Jade, an African American scholarship student at a private high school in Portland, aspires to be invited on a study abroad week to use her Spanish skills. Instead, she is invited to join Woman to Woman, a mentor-ship program for poor black girls. Jade's mentor Maxine is black, but she is from a wealthy family and is just looking to pad her resume. Although Jade is grateful for the opportunities she receives, she is also resentful that she is stereotyped as  the "at-risk girl from a bad neighborhood." Through her collage art Jade is able to express her reflections on the complexities of race and gender, as well as her loyalty to her community and family, and bridge the gap between her and Maxine.  In short poetic chapters, preceded by a related Spanish word or phrase, this thought-provoking novel inspires discussion and consideration of the issues of race and privilege in a prejudiced world. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Novels with a British Flavor: Murder, Magic and What We Wore, That Inevitable Victorian Thing, and Genuine Fraud

Having just returned from a trip to London, I have found myself gravitating toward books related to that area of the world.  London is steeped in history that is a gold mine for authors, looking for a colorful setting. Murder, Magic and What We Wore by Kelly Jones is a Regency novel, involving spies and a young protagonist who finds she is a "glamour artist." She can turn any item of clothing into a disguise.  That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston is a revisionist novel which supposes the British Empire never fell. The Crown Princess, Victoria- Margaret, opts for a summer of freedom before undertaking her royal duties.  e Lockhart's new novel, Genuine Fraud, about a young orphan who imagines herself as a superhero, is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. Told in reverse order, the suspense is palpable, as the truth is revealed.

A Regency novel is one which was written during or set within the Regency era between 1811 and 1820, when George IV was the Prince Regent in England and Napoleon was dominating Europe.  In Kelly Jones' Regency mystery, Murder, Magic and What We Wore, Annis Whitworth's father has died and left her and her guardian aunt penniless. Determining that he was a spy, Annis longs to find out the truth behind his death.  When she attempts to alter a gown for her mourning period, she discovers she has the magical ability to quickly turn any article of clothing into whatever she wants it to be. In need of money to pay off her father's debts, she disguises herself as Madame Martine, a "glamour modiste,"  and sets up shop as a seamstress.  Meanwhile, she is trying to convince the War Office that her abilities lend themselves to her becoming a spy.  Her maid Millie, who helps her with her disguise, as well as her quest to find her father's murderer,  is actually much more  suited to the task. In getting to the bottom of her father's death, Annis discovers a great deal about her parents' lives as spies, as well as a plot to help Napoleon escape from prison. The fiercely independent female characters, creatively detailed fashions and quirky humor in this novel are great fun and a wonderful introduction to the Regency novel for young readers. 

That Inevitable Victorian Thing introduces Victoria-Margaret, who is in line to become Queen of the British Empire, which never lost the Revolutionary War.  Genetic matchmaking technology now determines one's mate, so she asks to be allowed to disguise herself as a commoner, Margaret Sandwich, so that she can spend a summer in Toronto among people she will one day rule.  There she meets Helena Marcus, whose parents are geneticists, and her best friend, Augustus Callaghan, at a debut party.  Augustus is  heir to his family's Canadian/Hong Kong lumber business which is plagued by American pirates. He makes some questionable business decisions in trying to thwart the piracy. Although not a genetic match, Helena and Augustus hope to one day marry.  After Helena and Margaret quickly fall into a flirtatious friendship, they decide to spend the summer together at the Marcus cottage up North at Lake Muskoka, where Augustus' family also owns property. There the three grow closer and ultimately discover one another's secrets in this light revisionist history set in the near future. Chapter headers, including maps, gossip columns, and correspondence, flesh out this alternate world and make this a uniquely entertaining read. 

Genuine Fraud is a psychological thriller which is told in reverse order, and focuses on a young anti-hero who is on the run after her best friend supposedly commits suicide.  Jule West Williams narrates her story as if she is a super hero.  A capable fighter and master of disguise, she inserts herself into once situation after another, pretending to be something she is not. After a series of social maneuverings, Jule makes friends with Imogen Sokoloff, a rich adopted heiress, who flits through life befriending people and then casting them off.  When she tires of Jule, Imogen finds leaving her behind is not so easy. She owns a flat in London, which Jule takes over, along with Imogen's identity. The narrative twists will keep readers guessing as to what is real and what is merely a fabrication Jule has created to live a "heroic life."   Fans of e. Lockhart's previous novels, such as We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, will love this captivating new novel that reveals one surprise after another until the very end.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Embedded Research: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, The Pearl Thief and The Thing with Feathers

In his article “Creating Possibilities: Embedding Research into Creative Writing,” Jason Wirtz coins the term embedded research.  Embedded research is information that is embedded so seamlessly into the story that it enriches the detail and realism in the story without seeming didactic. As we begin another school year, I am reminded of one of my favorite language arts units.  Initially, I would have my students read a book from a suggested list and identify the embedded research in the story.  In literature circles they would discuss how the embedded research enhanced the story. Then they would do their own research and embed it in a story of their own.  This month I would like to recommend three new titles that include embedded research.  Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers is technically a non-fiction book, but it reads like historical fiction in that Deborah Heiligman (Charles and Emma) imagines the brothers' lives based on letters they exchanged. The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein is a prequel to Code Name Verity and tells the story of artifacts buried in the peat bogs of Scotland.   The Thing with Feathers by McCall Hoyle embeds research about Emily Dickinson's poetry into a novel about a girl with a seizure disorder. 

Based on the 658 letters Vincent wrote to Theo during his lifetime, Vincent and Theo is the story of the love and devotion between two brothers.  Theo Van Gogh is an art dealer who champions his brother Vincent's work, as he himself tries to succeed in the art world.  He supports Vincent financially and counsels him to move away from dark dreary paintings toward a more colorful palette, that art lovers now know and love. Vincent's bipolar behavior would try the patience of most, but Theo sticks by him until Vincent commits suicide at age 37. Theo dies a few months later.  Structured like a walk through an art gallery, each section of the book chronicles a period in Vincent's life, creating a vivid examination of art, mental illness, and brotherly love. Heiligman introduces each "gallery" with a black an white reproduction of a representative work and documents her research involving visits to various sites and a list of her sources. This book is a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner for 2017.

The Pearl Thief focuses on Julie, a main character from Code Name Verity, and her summer adventures in 1938, when she returns to her family's Scottish Estate, which is soon to be sold and turned into a school.  While wandering the estate, she is knocked unconscious and rescued by two "Travelers" or gypsies, who take her to the hospital.  She can't remember what happened, but Dr. Housman, an antiques scholar cataloging the family's estate is now missing, along with a cache of river pearls.  The bigoted townspeople suspect the Travelers, but Julie knows her new Traveler friends Euan and Ellen McEwen, could have nothing to do with it.  As she works to solve the mystery, she and the McEwens discover ancient artifacts buried in peat, body parts presumed to be the scholar's, as well as the missing pearls.  Adding to her confusion are her conflicted feelings for Frank, the chief contractor on the renovations, and Ellen with whom she shares experimental kisses. Whether they have read Code Name Verity or not, readers will enjoy this complex historical narrative about Julie's formative experiences before she becomes a WWII spy.

In The Thing With Feathers Emilie Day has been home-schooled since her dad died and she was diagnosed with epilepsy.  Her best friend is her seizure dog Hitch, who is a wonderful character in the story.  Then her mother enrolls her in public school, and Emilie is forced to interact with the world, initially without Hitch.  In addition to being befriended by Ayla who wants her to join the staff of the school literary magazine, she is paired with star basketball player Chatham York for a project on Emily Dickinson, and he talks her into tutoring him. Now she must decide whether to confide in her new friends about her condition or keep silent.  As she begins to recognize that everyone has issues (Ayla's mother abandoned her and Chatham's sister is autistic), Emilie takes a leap toward friendship and first love.  Each chapter begins with an applicable quote from an Emily Dickinson poem. It is suggested that Emily Dickinson herself was an epileptic, which might help to explain her famously reclusive existence. This coming-of-age story is told in first person present tense, helping the reader engage with Emilie's plight and ultimate triumph.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Teens Dealing with Death: Solo, Words in Deep Blue, Zenn Diagram, A Short History of the Girl Next Door

Coping with the death of a friend or loved one is not easy for people of any age. For children and young adults the experience may impact who they become as adults.  Reading about how the main characters deal with death in their lives may inform the readers about coping mechanisms and support systems that enable the young person to move on from the devastating experience. This month's books recommendations involve teens struggling with this issue.   Solo by Kwame Alexander (The Crossover) is a novel-in-verse which chronicles the life of a boy whose mother dies, leaving him in the hands of his addicted rock star father. Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Graffiti Moon) focuses on a girl who works in a book store, cataloging a collection of books that contain correspondence between lovers and strangers. Unable to cope with her brother's death in a drowning accident, she hides her sorrow and focuses on other people's lives. Zenn Diagram by Wendy Brant is a paranormal romance about a girl who survives a car accident that kills her family, but leaves her with the ability to sense people's secrets by touching them.  Finally, A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck explores the emotions of a boy whose best friend and secret crush dies, leaving him bereft and unable to deal with his unrequited love. 

Solo, Kwame Alexander's latest novel-in-verse, introduces 17-year-old Blade, whose drug addicted rock star father has provided a glamorous lifestyle that is filled with turmoil since Blade's mother died.  When Dad derails Blade's commencement speech, he decides to hit the road with his girlfriend Chapel, whose parents disapprove of him.  However, before Blade can convince her to leave with him, he catches Chapel with another guy and his sister hits him with a bombshell.  Blade is adopted.  He revises his plans and determines to find his birth mother, which leads him to Konko, Ghana, where his mother does charity work.  There he finds not only his roots, but also a new perspective on family.  Blades' original rock ballads are scattered throughout the novel, giving it a lyrical quality readers will enjoy.


In Words in Deep Blue we learn the story of Rachel and Henry in alternating chapters from each character's point of view.  They were best friends before Rachel moved away from their small town in Australia, leaving Henry a love letter that he never finds.  Rachel returns three years later, having lost her brother in a drowning accident, which she does not disclose.  The bookshop Henry manages is up for sale and Rachel is hired to catalog the shop’s most unique feature, the Letter Library, which contains books with inscriptions, notes, and years of correspondence between lovers and strangers.  Although things are strained between them, they begin to rekindle their relationship as they work side by side. Interspersed with excerpts from the Letter Library, this story of missed connections plays out, revealing a universal story of love, loss and second chances. This is an essential read for lovers of literature. Filled with literary references and philosophical meanderings, the book bears witness to Henry's quip, "Sometimes science isn't enough. Sometimes you need the poets."

Zenn Diagram explores the way people's lives intersect in mysterious ways.  Eva Walker is a math nerd, who, since a car accident left her an orphan, has been gifted with the ability to detect people's hidden fears and struggles by touching them. She uses this ability to diagnose math issues in the students she tutors, but otherwise avoids touching anyone, because sharing other people's secret angst is too stressful. When Zenn Bennett arrives for tutoring, she is unable to sense his problems through touch and begins to hope he may be the clue in getting to the bottom of her disturbing abilities.  Then a shocking family connection almost derails their budding romance and Eva realizes she must work through it, if she is ever going to have a normal life. Eva's first person narration is engaging and her relationship with her adoptive parents and quadruplet siblings is refreshingly positive.  Readers will enjoy this quirky romance which deals with young love, grieving and forgiveness.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door doesn't come out until September 26th, but I couldn't resist telling you about this distinctive take on the grieving process. When high school freshman Matt Wainright begins to view his best friend Tabby romantically, his world is turned upside down. Tabby has just gotten involved with senior basketball star Liam Branson, while Matt is struggling to establish himself on the JV team and in Tabby's heart. Just as his behavior begins to sabotage their relationship, Tabby dies tragically in a car accident.  As people shower sympathy on Liam, who has lost his girlfriend, Matt's grief and anger escalate and he begins imploding. The only place he feels any relief is writing angst-ridden poetry in his English class. When Matt gets into a fight with Liam, he is suspended and sent to his grandparents where his grandpa helps him deal with the overload of emotions that he doesn't know how to handle.  The story vacillates from hilarious (Matt's self-deprecating reflections are delivered by an incompetent movie director in his head) to heartbreaking when he makes one bad decision after another.  This unusually flawed protagonist makes for a unique and heartwarming  read.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Summer Reading: One of Us is Lying, Alex Approximately, and Alex and Eliza: a love story

Frequently, writers find inspiration from other artistic representations of a story that they are in essence retelling.  A chapter in my book, "Classic Connections," is devoted to books inspired by classic literature.  The novels I am recommending this month are inspired by dramatic performances.  Alex Approximately by Jenn Bennett (The Anatomical Shape of the Heart) gives a nod to the film You've Got Mail. In the book a New Jersey teen has an online relationship with a California boy based on their shared love of classic film.  When she moves to the West Coast for the summer, she struggles with the decision to meet him in person. One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus was inspired by John Hughes' film The Breakfast Club. In this re-imagining five students from differing social strata show up for detention and one of them ends up dead. Melissa de la Cruz (Something in Between) was motivated to write Alex and Eliza: a love story, when she went to see the musical Hamilton on Broadway. This imagined courtship between Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza Schuyler weaves together fact and fiction for an enchanting read. 

In Alex Approximately, classic movie buff Bailey "Mink" Rydell is heading from the East Coast to California to live with her dad. Throughout her junior year Mink has been involved  in an online relationship with a film geek named Alex, who happens to live in the same surfing town as her dad.  She decides to surreptitiously discover his identity before she reveals herself to him.  Meanwhile she is working at the oddball Cavern Palace Museum, where she is tormented daily by a security guard named Porter Roth.  When they get locked in the museum together one night, Mink begins to look at Porter in a different light and wonders if she should give up her search for Alex and focus on Porter.  What she doesn't know is Porter is actually Alex, approximately. This book is great fun and all the references to classic film are a bonus for movie buffs.

One of Us is Lying turns The Breakfast Club into a murder mystery.  Five students end up in detention, only four survive. Simon, who authors a brutal gossip app containing dirt on kids at his high school, drinks a glass of water laced with peanut oil and dies of anaphylactic shock.  He has damning information about all four remaining detainees: Bronwyn, the brainy good girl; Cooper, the baseball hero; Addy, the girl in her boyfriend's shadow, and Nate, the drug dealer. Now murder suspects, the four team up to find the real killer, upending their lives and finding romance along the way. This fast paced thriller will keep readers guessing, as the pressures of high school and the dangers of social media are explored in alternating chapters from all four suspects' perspectives.

Alex and Eliza, a fictionalized version of the romance between Alexander Hamilton, an aide for General Washington and America's first treasury secretary and Eliza Schuyler, a socially connected young woman, includes some historically accurate information and much imagined. Alex meets Eliza and incurs her wrath, when he delivers news to the family that her father is to be court martialed. He can't forget her fiery nature and two years later pursues her in Morristown, NJ, where she has come to inoculate soldiers against smallpox.  Although he comes from humble beginnings, he ultimately earns her love and rescues her from a disastrous engagement.  The story ends with the wedding of the two, who become a political power couple in the early days of a new nation.  Although many of the characters are real, much of the action, including Eliza's engagement to Henry Livingston and Hamilton uncovering Benedict Arnold's treason,  are fictional embellishments to add pizzazz to the story.  Told from Eliza's perspective, the story sheds some light on the civic minded woman who aided her husband with his political writings throughout his career.  This is an entertaining read for those who enjoy "history light."

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Social Awareness: The Hate U Give, The Unlikelies, and Love and First Sight

According to Robert Selman,  past chair of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Human Development and Psychology department, “Good children's literature not only raises moral dilemmas, but also generates the feelings that are associated with situations where moral conflict and confusion exists.” He suggests that through reading about social conflict students can vicariously experience the resolution of problem situations. This month I will review three very different books that explore situations that their main characters navigate, giving readers a chance to empathize with people struggling with a variety of problems.   The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas focuses on an African American girl, who witnesses an unprovoked police shooting.  The Unlikelies by Cary Firestone introduces a diverse group of "Hometown Heroes" who begin a movement attacking bullying.  Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist deals with the problems a blind boy deals with when he is mainstreamed into a public high school.  

Starr Carter, the main character in The Hate U Give, lives in a poor black urban neighborhood, but attends a suburban prep school where she plays basketball and has a white boyfriend.  She successfully navigates these two very different realities until the night she witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed friend Khalil, when they are driving home from a neighborhood party. Although her parents want her to stay out of the news, she is challenged to come forward about the injustices following the event.  Khalil is painted as a drug dealing thug and the officer is not charged.  Starr, who has known Khalil since childhood, realizes she owes it to him to speak out, even if it endangers her family.  This examination of the complexities of the race issues in America is beautifully written and takes a topic that is very current and examines it on a very personal level.  An in-the-works movie adaptation further confirms that this is an important book that teens will want to read.

In The Unlikelies Sadie is brutally attacked while trying to save a baby in the back seat of her drunk father's car. A video of the rescue goes viral and Sadie becomes an unlikely hero. At a local luncheon recognizing her and other local teens' heroics, she meets a new group of do-gooder friends.  They decide to begin a movement attacking "internet trolls and bullies" and championing their targets.  Things get more serious when they go after a heroin dealer in the hopes of helping an addicted friend.  The diverse group of homegrown heroes (Haitian, Salvadoran, white and mixed race teens) will charm readers and inspire them to attempt to make the world a better place, as well as help them confront their own issues with prejudice, loyalty and friendship. 

In Love and First Sight Will Porter, who has been blind since birth, decides he wants to be mainstreamed at a new high school and learn to live in the sighted world.  Told exclusively from Will's point of view, the reader navigates the challenges with him as he is bullied, develops friendships and ultimately falls in love.  When he is given the opportunity to undergo a dangerous surgical procedure that may restore his sight, he is conflicted, but proceeds.  The depiction of the recovery process is heart-wrenching in its detail and leads the reader to understand Will may be better off blind.  The slow painful process and uncertainties about his recovery, as well as his disorientation as his sight returns, are not something one would expect to read about in a YA novel.  Any time a seemingly simple decision is revealed to be anything but, it gives readers an opportunity to think about what they would do in the main character's place. The author, Josh Sundquist, (We Should Hang Out Sometime) is a ParaOlympian and motivational speaker, who is no stranger to adversity.  He survived cancer and the amputation of his leg at age thirteen and is the first person to be named to the US Paralympian Ski Team and the US Amputee Soccer Team. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Colorado Teen Literature Conference

I facilitated the Blue Spruce workshop at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference last Saturday and as always had a wonderful time and got new ideas for future reads.  The keynote speakers were Gail Carriger and Greg Neri and I also attended a "Happily Ever After" workshop with Entangled Teen Crush writer Lisa Brown Roberts.  Gail Carriger is probably best known for her steampunk series called The Finishing School.  Greg Neri refers to himself as a "mashup DJ of a writer" who likes to sample real life and remix it into a story.  Although best known for Tru and Nellie, his re-imagining of the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, he spent the majority of his talk on Ghetto Cowboy, a book about urban cowboys in Philadelphia. Lisa Brown Roberts did a workshop with fellow romance writer Jenna Lincoln, examining trope driven novels that lead to happy endings. Her latest book Resisting the Rebel is a bad boy/good girl story wrapped around  the fake girlfriend/boyfriend trope.

Gail Carriger's keynote speech was very brief, outlining how she transitioned from archaeologist to YA author. Then she spent the rest of the time eloquently fielding questions from teens in the audience.  I was struck by the fact that when asked what "Harry Potter House" she identifies with, she had a detailed answer.  Investigating further I found quizzes online that place one in the proper house. (She and I are both Ravensclaw)  I wondered if she had been asked that before.  When asked about her favorite character in her own books, she said "Vieve" and talked a bit about her Finishing School series, which begins with Etiquette and Espionage.  Like her adult series the Parasol Protectorate, this series is set in an alternate history version of Victorian era Britain, where supernatural creatures such as werewolves and vampires are part of society.  The first book introduces the headstrong, calamity seeking 14-year-old Sophronia, who is sent by her mother to Mademoiselle Geraldines' Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.  What her mother doesn't know is in addition to dance, fashion and manners, the girls also are trained in the "fine arts of death, diversion and the modern weaponries." The school is set on a chain of dirigibles  and is manned by mechanical servants as well as "sooties" who work in the boiler room. Sophronia's friend Vieve is a cross dressing lesbian whose aunt is one of the teachers.  She invents many useful devices, such as one that interferes with mechanicals long enough for the students to evade their watchful eyes.  In Etiquette and Espionage the girls are tasked with finding a prototype essential to communications which is sought after by flywaymen who are determined to have it. This spy-school romp includes subtle commentary on race, class and gender identity. Kids will love Sophronia and her band of misfits in this madcap espionage/adventure mashup.  Additional novels in the series include Curtsies and Conspiracies, Waistcoats and Weaponry and Manners and Mutiny.

Greg Neri, (pen-name g.neri) the 2011 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, was inspired to write Ghetto Cowboy by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn,  The story begins when Cole's mom takes him to live with the dad he's never met in the mean streets of Philadelphia.  The last thing he expects to see there is a stable full of horses complete with black cowboys.  He changes his slacker behavior of skipping school and goofing off, and is soon hard at work in the stables. Then the city threatens to shut down the stable and take away the horse Cole has come to love.  He decides that it's time to fight back and stand up for what is right.  School Library Journal's review says,"Cole's spot-on emotional insight is conveyed through believable dialogue and the well-paced plot offers information about a little-known aspect of African-American history, as well as a portrait of contemporary urban stable life." Neri also has written novels-in-verse, including Chess Rumble and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash, and is soon to release Paulie and Artie, a book about Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's childhood friendship.

Lisa Brown Roberts writes for Entangled Teen Crush publishing, which features contemporary romances between 16-18 year-olds with trope driven stories, whose "heat level" can vary from sweet to suggestive. Her latest Resisting the Rebel is a cut above when it comes to teen romance.  In the story Mandy Pennington, the high school spirit committee leader and all around extra-curricular queen, is secretly crushing on her friend, Gus.  When he takes her to a party and then hooks up with her archenemy, Mandy flees and is inexplicably rescued by Caleb Torrs, who has a loner bad boy reputation. He enlists her in a scheme to pose as fake girlfriend/boyfriend so that she can make Gus jealous and he can get his stalker ex-girlfriend to leave him alone.  One of the things that makes this book stand out is Mandy's passion for everything from the 70s.  Her mother, who recently died of cancer, has a closet full of clothes and music from the 70s and embracing the 70s makes Mandy feel closer to her mom. The book's chapters are titles from appropriate 70s songs.  Caleb predictably finds her music annoying, but secretly finds her style adorable.  Unpredictably, he is the good student who agrees to tutor her, so that she can keep her grades up and remain on the dance squad.  Their disagreement over Catcher in the Rye, a book he loves and she hates because Holden Caulfield is such a whiner, makes for hilarious, yet thought-provoking dialogue, as he struggles to help her write a paper about the book. There is no doubt that the two will end up together, but the journey to that destination is an enjoyable one.  If you are looking to recommend PG-13 rated romance for teens, Entangled Teen Crush books are a safe bet.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Inventive Pairings: Frostblood, Defy the Stars and The Impossible Fortress

In order to appeal to both male and female readers, authors of young adult novels attempt to come up with a male/female duo as the main characters for their novels.  This month I am going to recommend three new action packed books with very inventive pairings for their protagonists.  Frostblood by Elly Blake imagines a world filled with Frostbloods whose powers are ice born and Firebloods with fire born powers.  Ruby and Arcus, despite their opposing powers, are drawn together in a plot to overthrow the Frost King.  Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray finds a teen soldier teaming up with an enemy android to end an interplanetary war. The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak is a comedy set in the 1980s that pairs a geeky boy who dreams of being a computer game designer with a female computer programming whiz.

The first book in the new Frostblood Saga introduces Ruby Otera who lives in a world where the ruling class of Frostbloods have abilities that are ice born.  She is a Fireblood who hides her fire born powers, until the day her mother is killed trying to protect her in a Frostblood raid.  Her powers exposed, Ruby is taken prisoner, but is rescued by a band of rebels who hope to use her powers to overthrow the Frost King, a maniacal ruler, who is controlled by the evil Minax.  Ruby is trained by a band of monks, including the mysterious Arcus, whom she comes to love.  When she is once again captured and forced to compete in the king's competitions between Firebloods and Frostblood warriors, Ruby hopes to find a way to destroy the throne and create a new world where Firebloods and Frostbloods can live together in peace.  This thrilling page turner is filled with exciting battles, magic and romance, and sets up an intriguing world for the books to come.The sequel, Fireblood, is available now.

In the new Sci/Fi thriller, Defy the Stars, Earth has used up all its resources and is attempting to take over planets that are connected to it by Gates between the worlds.  Noemi is a teen soldier from the pristine planet of Genesis She is on a practice run before a suicide mission to destroy the Gate and stave off an attack by Earth, when she discovers an Earth ship abandoned during the last war.  Abel, an intelligent robot who seems human, has been waiting there alone for 30 years, hoping to find a way to return to his creator on Earth.  When Noemi rescues him, she finds he has been programmed to recognize any human as his new superior and he knows a way to destroy the Gate.  Enlisting his help, they travel throughout the universe, hoping to recruit other worlds in their mission to destroy the Gate and end Earth's imperialistic wars. Although Abel thinks he must obey Ruby, his passive aggressive behavior toward her adds a great deal of humor to the story.  As the book progresses Noemi finds herself more and more drawn to this android who ultimately overcomes his programming to help her put an end to the wars.  This thought-provoking adventure is filled with philosophical explorations of religion, terrorism and what it means to be human.

The Impossible Fortress. a nostalgic comedy, opens with 14-year-old Billy and his buddies trying to get a hold of the latest copy of Playboy magazine, which features nudes of Wheel of Fortune's Vanna White. After several failed attempts to steal it from Zelinsky's Office Supply store, they cook up a scheme for Billy to befriend the owner's daughter Mary, who is a whiz at computer programming. Billy, who dreams of being a computer game designer, has been trying create a game on his Commodore 64 computer.  He enlists Mary's help and they develop a game called The Impossible Fortress to enter into a contest for young programmers.  As Billy is falling love with Mary, his buddies are cooking up a money-making scheme, selling copies of the pictures, before they have them.  Filled with period details and pop-culture references, this is a delightful comedy-filled caper. These novels are all appropriate for middle level, as well as high school readers.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award

The CO Blue Spruce YA book award winner was announced at the CCIRA conference today, along with the new nominees for 2017.  The 2016 winner is The Amazing Book is Not on Fire by Dan Howell and Phil Lester. The authors are Youtube sensations who share their awkward teenage lives on the internet. The 2017 nominees include *All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, * The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, *I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, *The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, *Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore, This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, and The Treatment by Suzanne Young. Those that are starred have already been reviewed in this blog.
Carry On is a companion book to Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  In Fangirl, twins Wren and Cath write fan fiction for a fantasy book whose main character is Simon Snow, a wizard who has been compared to Harry Potter. Carry On is Simon's story. Unlike Harry, Simon is not a very good wizard. He can't get his wand to work, his roommate may be a vampire, and he has a monster running around wearing his face.  This book appeared on many best books of 2015 lists, including Time magazine and School Library Journal.
Outrun the Moon is a wonderful historical fiction about 15-year-old Mercy Wong who lives through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  She lives in Chinatown, but finagles her way into attending St. Clare's School for Girls. Mercy is an outcast at school until the earthquake forces her and her classmates into a temporary camp at the park, where she rises to the occasion and helps those around her survive. A sequel is said to be in the works.
Six of Crows is the first in a duology starring six dangerous outcasts in the magic infused city of Ketterdam, who are offered vast sums of money to liberate a scientist from a maximum security prison. Kaz, who heads the crew, recruits his friends to help him with the heist. The story is told from multiple points of view and along the way readers find out each person's backstory which leads them to Kaz's gang. This page turner ends with a cliff-hanger ending, followed by the sequel Crooked Kingdom.
Still Life with Tornado, the latest by A.S. King, involves a 16-year-old artist, Sarah, who is devastated when a piece she created for a show is destroyed.  She wonders if life is really worth living.  She has a dysfunctional family, her brother is missing, her art teacher is dismissive and cruel, and she has lost her ability to draw.  Her 10, 23 and 40-year-old selves help her navigate the waters of depression, as she wanders the city trying to find a reason to go on. This book appears on many best books of 2016 lists including The New York Times and Booklist.
Thicker Than Water is a heartbreaking story of family tragedy and drug addiction. Cecelia Price is locked up and forced into treatment, after being accused of killing her brother.  After her mom dies, CeCe's brother, a star soccer player, is injured and gets addicted to painkillers.  As his life spirals downward, and their father is in denial, CeCe takes matters into her own hands to try to save the family.
This Is Where It Ends is a story about 54 minutes during a school shooting. The story is told from the perspectives of four different teens, who all know the shooter and have reason to fear him.  During a school assembly at Opportunity High in Alabama, the troubled teen locks the doors and begins shooting, randomly killing staff and students.  Two boys who were not in the auditorium mastermind a rescue operation.  This debut novel also made many best books of 2016 lists.
The Treatment is the sequel to last year's nominee, The Program, about a futuristic society, that deals with teenage depression and suicidal tendencies, by wiping the troubled teens' memories. The followup finds teens working with rebels to put an end to the program.  Protagonists Sloane and James find the key to unlocking their memories, so they can take down The Program, lies with the Treatment, a pill that can bring back their memories but at a high cost.
Promotional activities, book talks and author responses are available at www.coloradobluespruceaward.org.