By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When soldiers arrive at his hometown in Cambodia, Arn is just a kid, dancing to rock ‘n’ roll, hustling for spare change, and selling ice cream with his brother. But after the soldiers march the entire population into the countryside, his life is changed forever. Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a labor camp: working in the rice paddies under a blazing sun, he sees the other children, weak from hunger, malaria, or sheer exhaustion, dying before his eyes. He sees prisoners marched to a nearby mango grove, never to return. And he learns to be invisible to the sadistic Khmer Rouge, who can give or take away life on a whim.
One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids can play an instrument. Arn’s never played a note in his life, but he volunteers. In order to survive, he must quickly master the strange revolutionary songs the soldiers demand–and steal food to keep the other kids alive. This decision will save his life, but it will pull him into the very center of what we know today as the Killing Fields. And just as the country is about to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge, Arn is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier. He lives by the simple credo: Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.
I almost put this one down at the beginning. Not because it was bad, but because it was so good and yet so tragic. Ever since I became a mother, and I’m sure this is true for many women, I have a really difficult time reading about atrocities that befall children. Never Fall Down is full of those atrocities. However, I feel it’s really important to know that these things do happen so that we can prevent them from happening again (although I don’t think we, as humans, do a very good job of that).
One thing I really dislike about my high school education was that the history I learned didn’t focus enough on other cultures or on modern times (post-WWII). A lot of really awful things (and interesting and important events) have happened in the past 50-60 years and yet I had no idea until I stumbled upon them on my own (Cambodia’s civil war, the Biafran War, etc.). I think having read about them earlier would have made me more humble, more sensitive, more grateful for what I had, and better rounded. I also think I would have engaged more with current events. Never Fall Down gave me a much greater appreciation for Cambodia knowing that they have emerged from such an oppressive and cruel regime.
I know this book isn’t for everyone, but it’s still an important book. Arn’s story is absolutely heart breaking and shouldn’t be lost. It’s also a very powerful story of the ability of someone so young to survive and come through things that it would seem you can’t live through. And his power to accept and forgive and find beauty and purpose after such a unimaginable horror is nothing short of amazing and inspiring.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi, she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!
Why wasn’t there a hold list on this book when I requested it?! Everyone needs to run, not walk, to get a copy of this book. It was awesome.
Drama really spoke to the awkwardness of middle school/early high school romance. Some people are more experienced or in relationships; some people are questioning their sexuality; some people are interested when you aren’t (and vice versa); some people aren’t there yet; you can’t drive so your parents have to. It’s just all so, well, dramatic. Despite the fact that it’s all mostly wondering about crushes and quick kisses, I didn’t find myself wanting to roll my eyes at its relative purity, which I attribute to the sentiments and actions being very organic.
I was totally a drama nerd in high school and I imagine, had I been in drama in middle school, this would have been the story of those years. Although I was not nearly as confident, mature, or self reflective as Callie in some regards. But despite the fact that she felt a bit older than middle school it still seemed in line with the novel. As if she was someone a middle school reader could look up to or emulate without her actions appearing overtly didactic.
Even if you are or weren’t a drama kid, this book really speaks to the middle school experience. Plus the graphic novel format makes it very accessible even for the most reluctant middle school reader. Sure the format and story aren’t really for everyone, but Drama should be!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Growing up, Gaby Rodriguez was often told she would end up a teen mom. After all, her mother and her older sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers; from an outsider’s perspective, it was practically a family tradition. Gaby had ambitions that didn’t include teen motherhood. But she wondered: how would she be treated if she “lived down” to others’ expectations? Would everyone ignore the years she put into being a good student and see her as just another pregnant teen statistic with no future? These questions sparked Gaby’s school project: faking her own pregnancy as a high school senior to see how her family, friends, and community would react. What she learned changed her life forever, and made international headlines in the process.
In The Pregnancy Project, Gaby details how she was able to fake her own pregnancy—hiding the truth from even her siblings and boyfriend’s parents—and reveals all that she learned from the experience. But more than that, Gaby’s story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself.
This book would make a nice companion to Girlchild in some ways. It read a bit like the real story behind that book, minus actually living in a trailer and the sexual abuse.
I thought The Pregnancy Project had a really wonderful message about being your own person and defying stereotypes. As a librarian, I can see championing this message with patrons or students. Like Gaby says, sometimes all it takes is one person to be there for you, cheering you on. I agree with Gaby that you don’t need to be beholden to what other people think or what the statistics tell you and this is a great story for that message.
However, the book also felt very young. Or rather, Gaby sounds very young and inexperienced. She can be endearingly preachy in the way that only adolescent girls can be. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I was certainly that way in high school, as were a lot of my friends and I love her optimism. Part of my issue is just me as a reader coming to it from the other side of my twenties. I’m not exactly the targeted audience for this book.
While I found myself agreeing with her on a lot of points, such as how problematic shows like 16 and Pregnant are, I also think there is a lot more nuance to the topics she tackles. Nuance that you come to see with time, age and experience. Teen pregnancy isn’t always about simply taking a breath and not “going all the way”. There are a lot more emotions and baggage and history that can get tangled up in sex that someone in their teens (and far beyond) may not be able to disentangle. I was really glad she pointed out that abstinence is not always a realistic method of birth control.
Her brief discussions of abortion were another place I think she addressed things as too black and white. I also didn’t feel the topic was especially germane. While she may be pro-life, not everyone is. Abortion a touchy subject and I think it is also a very personal choice. Even if it wasn’t a choice she would have made, many girls do make it to avoid the gossip, lowered expectations, limitations and general disappointment she faced. I think by putting it down she detracted from her own message of being non-judgmental.
As a side note, I think this was a fabulous, if over-the-top senior project. The school where I was working does a similar project although the time allotted to it is much much shorter. Every year I found myself wishing students would choose something more than cake baking and decorating. I don’t think everyone needs to go to quite the extreme of faking a pregnancy, but I do think making a difference and really learning something would be a great goal.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book. Gaby’s perspective is something I would be very interested to hear in another 10 to 15 years and once she’s become a mother herself.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.
His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.
But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.
For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.
Okay, despite reading the blurb about this book, I thought this was going to be a fantasy novel set in another world. Maybe I was mixing it up with blurbs about The Scorpio Races (which I don’t actually think is set in another world, either), but I was very wrong. And also very confused for the first few pages. Every time something modern and familiar popped up, like a car, I would think, oh I guess they have that in this world.
I was also prepared to dislike this book mostly based on the fact that the main character’s name is Blue. I hate it when authors come up with names that are different. I know they usually do it for a reason, but it just always makes me think some overwrought teenager named them. Thankfully The Raven Boys won me over after the first ten pages, which, incidentally was the point at which I thought, hey wait a minute, this is set in our world. Palm to forehead.
The characters in this were all really unexpectedly complex, even if they felt a bit young to me (which I think is more a function of my getting older than anything). Blue especially had a few really naive moments that I probably had as a teen. Besides being a group of misfits, they’ve got a lot of baggage that makes them a bit mysterious and interesting. Plus they’re on a quest to find the corpse road to raise a legendary king and I am all for dark, atmospheric quests.
I loved that Gansey was so manic about this quest, even to the point that he built a model of the city in his living room and keeps a journal of ephemera. If I ever go looking for something, I want to do those things. Adam was a bit infuriating for being so principled about leaving his family. I’m not really sure how true to life his refusal to seek help was just so he could do it for himself, but it also made him rather admirable. Blue seemed a little flat to me at first, but I think she has a lot going on under the surface and some of her plot points (her mother and Neeve, her father) will surface later in the series. I would guess she’ll be the one to change the most by the end of the journey.
Ultimately, though, it was Ronan I really loved. He’s got tons of baggage, but his f#%&-you attitude was refreshing. Punch first, ask questions later. He is clearly intelligent and even though it was a bit ambiguous at the beginning, he is clearly a good person. And he has a pet raven. Anyone with a pet raven is awesome in my book. Read this article about it, you will agree. Judging by the cover of the next book and it’s title, he’ll play a much bigger role.
I think another reason I connected with this book was because I went to a private school that was predominantly wealthy. I was not, so the way Blue and Adam feel awkward about money and infuriated by some of the feelings of entitlement rang pretty true for me. On the other hand, I was really irritated by Gansey beating himself up over comments he would make about money. I always felt that the reactions of Blue and Adam (and others) were not so much about Gansey being insensitive (self-confident doesn’t necessarily equal entitled) as it was about how they were misinterpreting his naivete about money as entitlement.
One of my favorite YA blogs, Forever Young Adult, read this book for their book club and has an awesome post about predictions for the next book in the series, The Dream Thieves. You can read that post here and be sure to scroll through the comments.
It could have been the creepy scene in the graveyard or the entanglement of love and death for Blue that sucked me in. Maybe it was the mystery surrounding it all. Or maybe it was the Tarot card readings and fortune telling. Or maybe it was Gansey’s neurotic obssession with the spirit road and his journal stuffed with ephemera. Or all those things. Whatever it was I am hooked.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She’s not comforted by the news that she’ll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?
As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don’t know what to say, act like she’s not there. Which she could handle better if she weren’t now keenly aware that she’d done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she’s missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.
With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that’s not enough for her now. She doesn’t just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.
This one was a light read despite the technically depressing subject. It was enjoyable, but it was a bit too upbeat for my tastes. Maybe it was realistic, but I felt like there would have been a bit more of a struggle on Jessica’s part coming to terms with the loss of her leg. Of course, that could just be the cynic in me. That being said, I think it did an admirable job dealing with a difficult subject. I also think it could be really heartening for the right reader while also having a broader appeal. As far as the writing, it took me a little while to get into it. But the short chapters and terse sentences really won me over.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Apr 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually wantto live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what doyou hold on to?
I am really not much of a zombie person, but I am not above enjoying a good creepy zombie read from time to time. This Is Not a Test was well worth the read. A few of the characters were pretty irritating, but I never felt like it was unrealistic (aside from the whole zombie aspect, of course). I think maybe I liked this particular zombie story was because it wasn’t actually about zombies. It was really about the characters and the baggage they brought with them to the situation. Especially Sloane. And because she has survived some pretty horrific trauma and a recent collapse of life-as-she-knew-it long before the zombie apocalypse, it made the perspective on the whole catastrophe and the pettiness of some of the other characters an interesting one.
I will say the writing style took me some time to get into, but after I got past it, I was pretty hooked. The telling sign for me was that scenes have replayed in my head since putting it down several weeks ago.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Apr 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.
This one took my by surprise. I really, really enjoyed it. So much that I didn’t really want to start another book after it, actually. And I’m hoping there will be a sequel.
Normally I am not a huge fantasy reader. At least not high fantasy and I would probably shy away from anything with dragons. I can’t really say why. Maybe because the world building gets a bit complex or intricate? Maybe because I start thinking of people who dress up to play Dungeons and Dragons? But Seraphina was so effortless to read and the characters are all so engaging. It’s just a well written story with well-fleshed-out characters and a world that is easy to slip into. Plus the mystery and intrigue is very captivating. I appreciated that the ending didn’t come abruptly and didn’t work out exactly how I would have expected. It definitely left me wanting more.
As a side note, this book made me think a bit of the Patricia Wrede series Dealing With Dragons which I read in middle school and absolutely loved. This was a bit darker and quite a bit more complex, but satisfied me in the same kind of way.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Oct. 11th, 1943–A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.
When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?
I chose this book because it was getting such good press and I will allow that it was a good book. And there is one scene that keeps playing over and over in my mind; a scene that really shook me because I know I have a friend like that. But ultimately, I went against my nature reading this book.
I do not like World War II books. There I said it. I’m sorry, I just don’t. I don’t find it to be an overly interesting time period. The whole war was a fiasco and a tragedy of epic proportions and we have a lot to learn from it, but that doesn’t mean I need to enjoy reading lots of upsetting fiction. It’s not even that I am against fiction that upsets me, it’s just that I’m not into WWII upsetting me.
All that aside, this was a good book. It took me awhile to really like the two narrators, but I did eventually come around. They’re plucky girls with very different personalities, but they are good girls and I liked them in the end. It was also a rather “astonishing” story about friendship (as the cover blurb says). The girls don’t really spend that much time together and at first I found myself questioning, well how good of friends can they really be if they only spent a few months together and then spent a couple years writing to each other? Then I realized that that, in a nutshell, is a description of my best friend and me. (Trish, are you reading this? This is you and me.) And after that little revelation, I had a whole new appreciation for this book. It reached out to me in a way that I wouldn’t exactly expect it to for all readers, but most people have a good friend. Plus there are spies and bombs and planes and women’s rights to recommend the book too. Something for everyone. Even people who don’t like WWII.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, a topic that continues to haunt and thrill readers to this day, this book by critically acclaimed author Deborah Hopkinson weaves together the voices and stories of real Titanic survivors and witnesses to the disaster — from the stewardess Violet Jessop to Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia, who came to the rescue of the sinking ship. Packed with heartstopping action, devastating drama, fascinating historical details, loads of archival photographs on almost every page, and quotes from primary sources, this gripping story, which follows the Titanic and its passengers from the ship’s celebrated launch at Belfast to her cataclysmic icy end, is sure to thrill and move readers.
I was not originally going to read this book for the YALSA Hub reading challenge, but after I read their interview with Deborah Hopkinson here, I immediately put in a request for the book at the library. I was not disappointed. As terrible as it is to take delight in such a tragedy, this was a fascinating book. I recently came to learn a lot of the details and events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic through a research project I helped put together in the library, but I think Hopkinson made a wise choice focusing on the people on board. It made the disaster much more horrific. While I wanted to keep reading I had to keep putting the book down to take a steadying breath.
It was funny for me to think that even though I knew how the book would end (the boat sinks!), it didn’t make it any less exciting, riveting, or nerve wracking. There were a lot of characters to keep track of, but as the book wore on I got into the swing of it and could hardly put it down. Even if you aren’t especially interested in the sinking of the Titanic this book is worth the afternoon it will take to read it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The diverse mythology of angels is explored in this lushly painted graphic novel from high-profile fantasy authors including Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and Bill Willingham (FABLES).Deep in the woods outside of a magical kingdom, a strange group of faeries and forest creatures discover a nearly dead angel, bleeding and unconscious with a sword by his side. They call a tribunal to decide his fate, each telling stories that delve into different interpretations of these winged, celestial beings: tales of dangerous angels, all-powerful angels, guardian angels and death angels, that range from the mystical to the mysterious to the macabre.
I had a hard time with this one from the get go. It starts out with a really contrived “voice over” narrative that I found nearly impossible to get into. It got worse when the stories began reading like an exercise in angel lore rather than a fluid story. Quite frankly, it all felt like it was trying a little too hard.
That being said, I’m not much of one for angels so I was probably predisposed to not click with this book. I think the idea of stories within stories is really interesting and the ending has quite a twist to it. I can certainly see why this might appeal to the reluctant reader who likes fantasy, especially fantasy with darker undertones. The differing art from story to story was also an interesting concept.