summer reading 2013
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Jan 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Amir is twenty years old when she marries her husband, a boy named Karluk from a neighbouring village. Adjusting to life in a new household can be trying for any young bride, and Amira’s husband is eight years her junior. Amira was a strong, sophisticated hunter and horsewoman in her village, but though their villages were next to each other, their customs are very different. As Amira introduces Karluk to the foods and pastimes that were popular among her comrades back home, the warmth she feels for her young husband grows.
This was one of the series I read over the summer and it was so fabulous. This is what graphic novels/manga should be. The story is engaging and well written, even if it’s essentially uneventful. The art is incredible. What I wouldn’t give for an ounce of that artistic talent. *Sigh*
What really struck me about these books (especially the first two) was how it fit well within the New Adult category. I’ve talked a bit (or a lot) about how I don’t really see myself as an adult, but new adult is a category I could identify with. The story is about a girl in her early twenties who is newly married. She is finding her place both as a wife to her husband and in a new family. While we may not live in such a traditional society, it’s still awkward fitting in with your in-laws! Amir’s situation is not unfamiliar or unrelatable at its core.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to high school students based on the story alone, it’s a good introduction to the culture of Central Asia. The art really captures the clothing, housing, and art of the culture. I do think there is a segment of younger girls who would really connect with Amir. However, I think Amir’s story and position is incredibly relatable to the new adult and the new bride and while I don’t know much about the author (who is apparently a famous manga author) or her usual audience, I got the impression she is writing for a younger adult set (as opposed to a young adult set, if that makes any sense).
I enjoyed this one so much that I went on to read the rest of books available in the series. They were all equally good, although some of them are quite different. I would also note that the last couple books (volumes 4 &5) focus on much younger girls/brides. The girls are really silly and quirky, which makes them very relatable and fun despite the fact that they are getting married so young.
One of the books I read this summer was the much acclaimed, Newbery Honor book Wonder which I would like to share my impressions of, but I would also like to use that as a springboard into a discussion about book awards*. I highly recommend reading this short post over on Crossreferencing by Mark about the Morris and the Excellence in NonFiction awards. Not only is it funny, it touches on a lot of my thoughts about awards.
First Wonder. From GoodReads: August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?
It was a very enjoyable book. The story was sweet and very middle grade appropriate. But it felt, to me, like the author was trying very hard to make a bullying/tolerance book not feel like a bullying/tolerance book. Auggie was a great kid, but he was too perfect for the role. His family was just a bit too perfect and up to the challenge of raising a child with great needs. (Also they must have a ton of money because keeping him home and sending him to expensive tutors and eventually prep school couldn’t have been cheap. Not to mention the medical bills. I wonder if having a family that simply struggled more financially would have made for a more authentic and interesting story?) The kids at school felt strangely like tropes- the free-spirt non-judgmental girl who didn’t take a second look at Auggie’s deformity, the kid too easily swayed by his peers, the mean kid who has equally mean, insensitive parents, etc. Maybe these complaints are typical of middle grade novels, but the more quality middle grade I read, the less I think so. Wonder was not the Newbery winner, but bullying and tolerance are hot, hot topics right now and I wonder if they weren’t so hot would Wonder have garnered the same attention it has. As I said, it’s a good book, but I’m not convinced it was a great book or even one of the greatest books of last year.
More often than not I scratch my head over the book award winners. I suppose they are trying to find books with broad appeal, but I think that can get in the way of selecting a winner. They also often feel like they are following trends or pushing an agenda (as with Wonder and bullying). Sometimes I feel like award committees have chosen pretentious books that are not all that good and wouldn’t really appeal to their target audiences, but adults seem to like them and/or feel they are necessary for kids to read. The Excellence in Nonfiction Award has nominated a book about the Kennedy assassination this year (The President Has Been Shot by James Swanson), but the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have the same significance even to people my age, let alone current middle and high schoolers. I’m sure there are kids who are interested, but they are probably a lot more interested in the World War II titles that were nominated.
On the flip side, awards can draw the attention of adults who put books in kids hands to books that are well done but about topics kids might not pick up on their own. I’m thinking specifically here about drawing the attention of teachers who might find books like The Milk of Birds, In Darkness, Never Fall Down, and The Good Braider and use them in their classes (I discussed this a bit here). Sure these books could fall into the category of adults-think-you-must-read-this, but they are so wonderfully written and do work for their target audiences I think some of that is negated.
And maybe this is where my arguments and thoughts about awards are wrong. Maybe awards are simply for the best books of that year. Maybe they aren’t intended to take into account popularity, interest, and target audience. Maybe I need to be scratching my head over why they don’t take these things into consideration and whether they are worth taking into consideration. Who are the award lists for, the target audiences of YA, MG, and children’s literature or for the adults who curate and select that literature for students, children, and patrons?
Ultimately I wonder, should I be reading through the awards lists? Do I read the nominees, the honors and winner, or just the winners? Do kids pay attention to these lists and/or actually read these books and, more importantly, enjoy them? I honestly don’t know. I would like to use them as a convenient way to beef up my list of books I could recommend and my backlist I can draw from. But if kids don’t read them and don’t like them, it isn’t worth the time. Does anyone out there have thoughts or ideas? I am very curious to know. Mark’s thoughts, that aren’t exactly glowing recommendations for the awards lists, are the first I’ve heard expressed in that vein.
*When I say “book awards” I am primarily referring to the awards given out by ALA and most specifically by YALSA and ALSC.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Dec 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This summer I picked up two books that featured refugees from the Southern Sudanese conflict. The Good Braider is a novel in verse about Viola’s escape from South Sudan to the United States. While her life should in theory be better is is wrought with the trauma of what she lived through and the difficulty of finding a place in a new culture. The Milk of Birds is a correspondence between K.C., a girl from the US, and Nawra, a Sudanese girl who is living in a refugee camp.
Both books really shed light on a conflict that, despite Angelina Jolie’s best efforts, is not well known in the United States. When I reviewed In Darkness and Never Fall Down I talked about how important I think it is that kids have an awareness of what life is like for people who live outside the Western world and the first world. The question for me, though, is how do you get kids to read these books. All four are beautifully written with incredible stories, but how do you sell a book that is so tragic? They feel like books that a special kid would pick up, an already interested and compassionate student. While it’s great for those kids to read these books, I want others to read them too.
I could certainly see reading any of these four books in an English and/or History class. That would certainly broaden the audience…assuming the students actually read their assigned novels. In fact reading the books across disciplines and discussing both the writing, the novel format, the story, and then the history would be very powerful. But…but. How many teachers will use current YA literature in their classes? It’s not a classic so why read it in school? I don’t have an answer to this conundrum (if you do please share!). I’m simply thinking out loud here. I just really wish these beautiful, terrible novels had a bigger audience.
As a side note, while I enjoyed both The Good Braider and The Milk of Birds immensely, I thought The Milk of Birds fell a bit flat with K.C. I haven’t read a lot of books with two narrators, especially narrators that are so different, so maybe this how two-narrator books work. K.C. was a bit flighty and sounded so modern. This was compounded by the more formal tone of Nawra’s letters that alternated chapters. At one point I thought it might have worked better to not include K.C., but after finishing the book I think it wouldn’t have been as powerful. I think the fact that she has her own issues is really important. Although she has champagne problems, they are still relatable and they are still issues. Nawra, despite her incredibly difficult situation, never once belittles K.C.’s problems. She understands that they are just as real to K.C. as her own are to her. K.C.’s voice was also incredibly authentic. She sounded exactly the way I would have sounded if I were writing letters at that age. I think as an adult reading this book I was just left wanting a more mature narrator to complement Nawra. Especially since Nawra was so wise and mature beyond her years. In the end the book was so well written it didn’t matter that K.C. wasn’t the narrator I wanted.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Nov 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodRead: In this hilarious chapter book mystery, meet a girl whose parents have been kidnapped by disreputable foxes, and a pair of detectives that also happen to be bunnies! When Madeline gets home from school one afternoon to discover that her parents have gone missing, she sets off to find them. So begins a once-in-a-lifetime adventure involving a cast of unforgettable characters. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who drive a smart car, wear fedoras, and hate marmots; the Marmot, who loves garlic bread and is a brilliant translator; and many others.
This is the funniest book I have read in ages. Maybe ever. The characters are ridiculous. The plot is ridiculous. The whole premise is just plain silly. I tend to have a dry, dark sense of humor and there are definitely dry and darkly humorous moments, but the sheer silliness of the book (and a few wink, wink kind of moments) totally bowled me over.
While this is clearly fantasy and you have to believe that animals can talk and interact with humans, there are all these little moments when you realize Horvath has been almost literal about applying the fantasy story to the real world. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny buy a house that comes with a SmartCar. I assumed it was a rabbit-sized car, but it turns out it’s an honest-to-goodness, human-sized SmartCar. They have to have Madeleine drive it because, as rabbits, they are too small. And for some reason these moments are some of the funniest moments of the book.
I did find myself wondering if the intended age range for this book would get the jokes and I’m still not exactly sure. I think there is plenty of humor and adventure in this book for younger readers that, even if they don’t get all the jokes, they will still love the book. Plus with multiple readings they will pick up more and more and this is most certainly the type of book you read over and over. I also think it’s really for the quirkier reader. I actually think this would make the perfect read aloud because, like the movie Shrek, there are several layers of humor and story going on which make it interesting and funny for adults and kids alike.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Oct 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear–part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify–and he’s always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm’s mailroom in order to experience “the real world.” There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm.
He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a picture he finds in a file — a picture of a girl with half a face — that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.
Personally: I really enjoyed this book which I was relieved about because it sat on my TBR pile for years. I had also recommended it to several people, and while I know I can recommend stuff I haven’t read, I don’t really like to. I think what appealed to me most in this book is something that’s been bothering me a lot lately in the YA I’ve been reading, and that’s crappy parents. I am so, so tired of books where the parents suck. I know that characterization frequently drives the character and it can be the reason a character has the issues and baggage they do, but I’m so tired of it. Marcelo’s parents on the other hand, are awesome and very real. His dad in particular is shown to be complex. He makes some poor decisions and can be total prick, but he’s also vulnerable and caring. I know bad parents exist, but I don’t think they are one-dimensionally bad. No one is and I love that Stork showed that people are not black and white, but gray.
I also appreciated that this turns the tables on the experienced boy-doe eyed girl schtick. Marcelo is the inexperienced and immature one. Whereas Jasmine is a bit more worldly (although not sexually experienced, that we know of). She recognizes their budding romance much sooner than Marcelo. It was refreshing to see the girl take the lead in the romance.
Target Audience: Honestly, I could see a wide range of young adults enjoying this. It’s long and well written, so it’s not for the hi-low audience necessarily, but if you like realistic fiction with a bit of romance, it’s great. Marcelo also has a sense of justice and fairness that makes him really likable and he’s kind of unintentionally funny. The sense of justice turns into a major plot point so kids who are unfailingly nice and always do the right thing will find something to connect with in the plot. Marcelo does have some form or autism and you really get into his head in this book, but it never felt like the author trying to beat you over the head with sensitivity even though you do come away feeling sympathetic.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Oct 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides.
In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
I don’t have a lot to say about this book except that I should never read about serial killers and for some reason I forget that from time to time. I was so throughly creeped out by this book that I didn’t sleep for a week. But the description above is correct, it is a sympathetic portrait of Dahmer. As Backderf says, what Dahmer did was unforgivable, but you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy in some ways too. He needed help and never got it for a lot of reasons. Mostly because all the adults in his life sucked. My Friend Dahmer was an interesting look at a story many people are familiar with.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Ben and Rose secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known. Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his mother’s room and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out alone on desperate quests to find what they are missing.
Set fifty years apart, these two independent stories–Ben’s told in words, Rose’s in pictures–weave back and forth with mesmerizing symmetry. How they unfold and ultimately intertwine will surprise you, challenge you, and leave you breathless with wonder.
I am ready to go live in a museum. Actually I have been ready since I read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (what kid wasn’t ready after that book), but Wonderstruck made me remember that desire. In Wonderstruck, Ben’s mother has recently died and while poking through some of her things he finds a few clues to who his father may have been. Using the clues, Ben runs away to New York City. He ends up at the natural history museum where he is befriended by one of the curators sons who hides him in an old storeroom that just so happens to be connected to his mysterious father. Toward the end of the story Ben visits a miniature model of the city that was originally an exhibit at the World’s Fair.
So, I’m not the biggest fan of the mixed graphic novel and written novel mediums, but Selznick’s stories are so good that it ends up not mattering. There is just something so cozy about the story and it’s settings. It might have to do with the scenes or the model of the city Ben visits, but I fell in love with this book. Plus Ben is such a neat kid. He’s got pluck and courage and curiosity. Just an all around great story about family and living in museums.
As a post script, I highly suggest reading the Author’s Note at the back where Selznick talks about how he got the inspiration for this story, it is so interesting. I could also see it being pretty inspiring for aspiring writers because his inspiration came from something serendipitous and mundane (he was given a behind the scenes tour of the NYC Natural History Museum and happened to catch a documentary on deaf culture and how the move from silent films to talkies impacted it).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough.
Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.
Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby?
I don’t usually have a hard time enjoying the books I read to keep up with YA/MG publishing, but there are times when I go out of my way to finish a series or read the latest from an author I really like. Sarah Dessen is one of those authors that I choose to keep up with.
I wish these books had been out when I was in high school and that I had been aware of them. As much as I loved this story, I think I can generalize about Sarah Dessen’s books a bit in my reviews. She does such a good job of showing characters that aren’t perfect and are human. They think about boys and sex and clothes, but they also think about school and jobs and college and eating and driving and awkwardness. They also tend to deal with less than perfect families. We all struggled with being a teen (must be an echo in here, I just said that in my last review too) and Dessen gives teens a way to see that it’s all normal. Plus her writing is just so good; it’s so easy to fall into the story and hope it will never end.
I think The Moon and More was particularly wonderful because it’s about that last summer between high school and college (or whatever is coming next). I remember that summer. It was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. Emaline’s summer really throws her for a loop. She was so sure about what was coming and it all changes, a disorienting experience we all share.
In reflecting back on my teen years, I always feel like I didn’t deal well with the confusion and hormones and relationships, everything that came with those years. Even though Dessen’s girls aren’t perfect they do tend to have a certain togetherness that I wish I had had as a model for how to deal with situations. Emaline is no exception to this and it made me love the book that much more.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Like many ambitious New York City teenagers, Craig Gilner sees entry into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School as the ticket to his future. Determined to succeed at life-which means getting into the right high school to get into the right college to get the right job-Craig studies night and day to ace the entrance exam, and does. That’s when things start to get crazy.
At his new school, Craig realizes that he isn’t brilliant compared to the other kids; he’s just average, and maybe not even that. He soon sees his once-perfect future crumbling away. The stress becomes unbearable and Craig stops eating and sleeping-until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, isolated from the crushing pressures of school and friends, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.
I have to admit I only found out about this book because it was a movie. That we watched. Before I read the book. It was a totally fabulous movie too. Which is why I picked up the book.
I talked a bit before about books-into-movies and I have to say this falls into the category of the book and movie were equally good. Since the book came first it deserves credit for the great characters and their development, but the movie really brought a few key scenes to life for me. Plus it had a great soundtrack.
That being said I really loved this book. You get into Craig’s head in a way you can’t in a movie and his struggles are so relatable. He’s got more intense anxiety than most people, but we’ve all been teens and I think what Craig goes through isn’t all that far removed from what we all experienced. The doubt about ourselves. The pressure to fit in, to do well, to seem like we have our sh*t together.
Craig’s a good guy though and so are the people he meets. They’re all suffering but Craig sees them for the people they are not just their neuroses. They also act as a catalyst for Craig to crawl his way out of his depression and anxiety. A lot of the people there won’t get better. Ever. And Craig recognizes this and decides he doesn’t want that or himself. All in all, a great story about self-discovery and choosing the light over the darkness in all of us.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?
I have to admit I am a sucker for books written by Nigerian authors and/or set in Nigeria and that is the reason I picked up Akata Witch. I suppose if I had to booktalk this in a few seconds I would call it a Harry Potter read alike. But I feel kind of like I’m copping out comparing this book to Harry Potter.
It definitely shares a number of similarities. The four kids are wizards and witches. Sunny, the main character, was unaware of her abilities/ties to the magical community. There is a lot of learning about the power within yourself and your own inner strengths. There is also some good friendship material. It even kind of dragged in the same way I felt the first Harry Potter book did toward the beginning. But for some reason I just preferred these kids and this magical community to the Harry Potter one. Probably because I’m a sucker for Nigerian books.
All that aside this was a fun read. The story was pretty compelling and exciting. I loved that it felt very grounded in Nigerian culture and especially its traditional magic. I cannot speak to how closely it mirrors Nigerian magic, but it certainly feels authentic. Really this is what made Akata Witch stand out to me more than any other wizarding book (I’m looking at you again, Harry Potter). The depth of the culture really made the story more vibrant. And there was the added conflict of Sunny and Sasha feeling torn between being American and Nigerian. That just made the book feel more mature to me than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Sunny is a likable girl and she’s a pretty quick study so I never felt like shouting at her to stop being so naive or dense (I had that experience with a number of other books I read this summer). The other kids are fun too and possess enough sass and cheek to make them interesting, believable, but not exasperating.
All in all a fun book.