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Review: Mindy McGinnis’ “Not a Drop to Drink” and “In a Handful of Dust”

I always love when I come across a book or series with a female protagonist who is a total badass, and I’ve quickly learned that I need look no further than Mindy McGinnis and her YA books.  She creates these epic protagonists who you wish existed in real life (but only if they were on your side…).  For those of you who follow me on Instagram (@waitingforthesecondstar), you know how obsessed I was with McGinnis’ books during the month of October.  Her terrifying plot lines and tough-as-nails teenage girls were the perfect combination for Halloween reading.

During this time, I read Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, two companion novels that tell the story of Lynn and Lucy, a couple of girls fighting to survive in a world where fresh water is hard to come by, and even harder to protect.  The books were some of my favorite for the year, and so I wanted to put out a more formal review than what I usually post on Goodreads.

Mindy is a local author for me.  I have met Mindy three times, and she is spectacular.  I absolutely love going to see her at signings.  I adore her work because she’s unafraid to challenge gender stereotypes in her texts.  She’s also unashamed to go “there,” wherever “there” might be in a particular book (if you’ve read anything by her, you understand how dark and twisted her books can be!).  But in person, she’s super down-to-earth and fantastic, and I know I’m going to be a lifetime fan.

I’m going to split this review between the two titles, reviewing them separately.  I gave each of these books 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.  They are an excellent companion set focused on girlhood and growing up in a world that’s just gone wrong.  And while they’re shelved in the teen books, they’re definitely worthy of a crossover.  Not for the faint of heart, these twisted tales will make your skin crawl and your heart break.

So, shall we?

 

not a drop to drink

Regret was for the people who had nothing to defend, people who had no water.

Lynn knows every threat to her pond: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most important, people looking for a drink.  She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty, or doesn’t leave at all.

Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest.  But wisps of smoke on the horizon mean one thing: strangers.  The mysterious footprints by the pond, nighttime threats, and gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it…

With evocative, spare language and incredible drama, danger, and romance, Mindy McGinnis depicts one girl’s journey in a barren world not so different from our own.

Not a Drop to Drink follows closely the story of Lynn, a teenage girl who lives with her mom in the middle of nowhere, next to a precious pond of fresh water in a world where faucets don’t work and cholera is a constant threat.  Lynn’s mom has raised her on the idea of “shoot first, ask questions later,” and the closest she’s ever been to other humans has been through the scope on her rifle.  A terrible accident leaves her alone, and she has to reach out to her only neighbor, a man she hasn’t spoken to since her mom helped him get his foot out of a bear trap nearly a decade before.  And a set of city-slicker strangers will challenge the cold-hard shell of Lynn’s heart, forcing her to open up and take a chance at love in a world without hope.  Suddenly, with a very real threat just miles away, Lynn has far more to protect than just a pond.

This is a book that I would describe as “reads slow but has a lot going on.”  Sometimes, you pick up a book and the pages seem to turn really slowly, but you get to the end and you realize everything that happened and suddenly the book feels far more complex than you originally thought. (It’s kind of like feeling like a single day of the week drags by, but then Friday shows up before you expect it and you realize the week as a whole went by really fast.)  That’s how this book was, with everything that happened coming about in a matter-of-fact way.  The plot was chilling, action-focused, and it utilized characters as pawns in its game (so don’t get attached to anyone!).  And one of my favorite parts of McGinnis’ writing is that she takes these shocking moments and states them in such a straightforward way.  It adds to the darkness, the bleakness, and the horror.

Some of the events in this plot are somewhat predictable, but not in a bad way.  For instance, I had a pretty good idea who may show up in the final pages, and I was right.  But, that didn’t take away from the scene wherein Lynn meets this person, and what goes down is totally bone-chilling.  And, on the other hand, some moments were straight-up shocking!  Like, where did that come from?! So those moments helped to balance out the more obvious ones.

(Seriously.  Do NOT get emotionally attached to these characters!)

Honestly, I appreciated the fact that McGinnis was able to *remove* some of her characters from the plot, and she did so in such a way that it wasn’t overly emotional.  This wasn’t a John Green-esque bedside lament, but a “necessary evil” in the face of a dystopian future.  Most people find dystopian novels where no one dies to be unrealistic, and I have to agree, so I am so happy (is that demented of me?) that someone died in this one.  At the same time, I was equally happy that there is a companion book, because our two main characters–Lynn, and Lucy–had become so important to me.

(Okay, so you can get mildly emotionally attached to Lynn and Lucy, if you want to.  Just…you’ve been warned).

I also love that these books take place in Ohio, because it’s great to be able to imagine fields like the ones around where I grew up, and a city like the one I live in now.  Lots of books I read are set in other areas I’ve at least been to, but it’s definitely a neat experience to read something set where am.

There are several key characters in Not a Drop to Drink that I think really carry McGinnis’ novel to its conclusion.  Of course, there’s Lynn, a cold-hearted girl forced to grow up and do things no young person should have to.  I know some people have issues with her coldbloodedness, but characters like this are staples in McGinnis’ work.  You’re likely to find at least one terrifying woman whose sense of justice leaves everyone on edge.  I say embrace her, because we have far too many male characters in popular culture who would do the same thing, and we accept them with no questions asked.  This is the kind of subversive writing that I love, and Lynn is an excellent protagonist for a world where the girls get to be the badasses.

Stebbs is Lynn’s neighbor, and older man with a bum leg from his run-in with the bear trap.  He serves as the compassionate foil to Lynn and her mom, building the gap between the girl and the newcomers, Eli, Lucy, and Neva (these are the city slickers with no sense of living in the wilderness).  As a male character in a female-dominated text, I think Stebbs is excellent.  And he serves as an adorable grandfather figure throughout the series.

Eli is a sixteen-year-old boy who fled a nearby city with his brother and sister-in-law and their daughter.  Eli’s brother was killed before the trip really got started, and so Eli is trying to take care of his family.  He’s not as capable as his brother would have been, though.  I love Eli’s character, because he is so dependent on Lynn (again, some awesome challenges to gender roles here).

Lucy, Eli’s niece, is the instigator for melting Lynn’s cold heart.  She’s a seven-year-old girl with an earnest desire for life, and she is wonderful.  In this book, she’s largely treated as a child who’s still learning about the world.  It’s in the sequel that we get to see into her view (so more on her later!).

Neva is Lucy’s mother, forced to leave the city because she was pregnant with her second child (a dark world calls for dark laws).  After tragedy strikes her pregnancy, she’s never quite the same, but she manages to be a great mother one more time.  Neva is a definite foil to Lynn’s own mother, and while she is perhaps the most frustrating character to read, she’s again an awesome addition to the struggles that this small band of humans face in the wake of several tragedies.

Several awesome themes come out through this book, that I can’t stress enough for being so awesome.  The first, as you can probably guess by what I’ve said so far, is the heavy emphasis on motherhood and sisterhood.  I was often reminded of the work of Fannie Flagg while reading this, because so much time and energy goes into establishing powerful connections between women.  And men, because of their nature (usually faceless brutes coming to steal water from Lynn and robbing people on the road blind), are often seen as the “other,” for a fresh take on who our heroes should be.  The men we like in this story are kind and compassionate, containing many characteristics that may be somewhat effeminate, and they never upstage the women.  The bonds between women are powerful, and this book chooses to highlight that.

There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that family doesn’t end with blood.  Lynn ends up essentially adopting Lucy, and Stebbs becomes a great protector for the little family.  These relationships are key in a world without anyone else, but it also displays the important message that families look all sorts of different ways in the real world, too.  Again, an awesome element of diversity and inclusion.

You also get a really great glimpse at a dark, dark world.  Anymore, readers of YA frequently take comfort in worlds that seem more hopeless than our own.  This book certainly provides that kind of a perspective.  And yet, it’s handled with such taste.  Innocence is still preserved in the integrity and honesty of the characters.  This would be an easy thing for McGinnis to leave out, and yet it’s there, and it’s beautiful.

And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book tells a story of a girl who learns how to save herself.  Lynn is the leader in this outfit, and she directs Eli, Stebbs, and others along the way.  When fate threatens to intervene and turn her world upside down, she’s the one that tells it, No.  Whether this was intentional or not, I think it’s greatly important, because this is another book out there for young women to read and remind themselves that they are powerful.

Not a Drop to Drink is an excellent girlhood, dystopian story with a unique premise and challenging conclusion that leaves you begging for more.

Fortunately…there is more!

in a handful of dust

The only thing bigger than the world is fear.

Lucy’s life by the pond has always been full.  She has water and friends, laughter and the love of her adoptive mother, Lynn.  Yet it seems Lucy’s future is settled already–a house, a man, children, and a water source–and anything beyond their life by the pond is beyond reach.

When disease burns through their community, the once life-saving water of the pond might be the source of what’s killing them now.  Rumors of a “normal” lifestyle in California set Lucy and Lynn on an epic journal west to face new dangers: hunger, mountains, deserts, betrayal, and the perils of a world so vast that Lucy fears she could be lost forever, only to disappear in a handful of dust.

In this companion to Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis thrillingly combines the heart-swelling hope of a journey, the challenges of establishing your own place in the world, and the gripping physical danger of nature in a futuristic frontier.

This book is told with a closer eye on Lucy, and it begins in a community that’s been established around Lynn’s pond and Lucy’s dowsing abilities.  When polio strikes that community, and Lucy may be the carrier of the disease, Lynn and Lucy have to leave the town altogether.  So, they set out for California (from Ohio!) and take on all the perils between here and there (ha! Because I’m in Ohio).  Lucy is confident with Lynn at her side, but as their journey wears on, she has to learn how to find strength from inside herself.

The plot of this one seems to move more quickly, perhaps because the girls are actually travelling.  This plot was also far less predictable, as so many of the things and people they encountered as they went along were shocking, terrifying, revolting…aye!  There was also more focus on character, since it was just Lucy and Lynn for a lot of the book, and this read very much like a coming-of-age story for Lucy.  She’s now the age Lynn was when they met each other, and she admires Lynn’s strength, but she knows she doesn’t want to live like Lynn.  For these reasons, this was my favorite of the two books.

And for that reason, the ending of this one nearly ripped my heart out.

(Do. Not. Get. Emotionally. Attached…I think you get the point.)

This one also had me sobbing at different moments from the writing alone.  McGinnis powers up the prose, for sure.  I felt so much of this, physically and emotionally.  I was raw and reeling for over 24 hours after finishing it.  This writing really built into the settings, and you feel like you’re crossing the mountains or the desert with the girls.

Character names are somewhat less important to this plot (or, rather, more important, because naming anyone would give a good bit of the plot away), but I can summarize some of the themes I noticed in character placement and why I enjoyed them.

This book is still very female-driven.  Many of the men are Bad Guys or accessories, and the two girls are the main carriers of the plot.  I like this because it remains consistent with the first book.  However, McGinnis also provides some more devious women in this book, some girls and grown-ups as bad as the men.  (And, there is one spectacularly wonderful man who helps to counteract some of the darkness from the other men!)  This complicates the plot, I think, and adds an edge to what McGinnis has created.  Girls are now reading and thinking about what type of girl they want to be, just like Lucy is thinking herself.

Several themes repeat themselves in this text.  For instance, sisterhood and motherhood are brought right back to the forefront.  Lucy treats Lynn like a mother, and they set themselves apart from almost everyone they encounter.  There’s an inherent distrust of anyone else that stems from the world they live in, but this blatant fear creates a fierce bond to exemplify the pure strength and resilience of women when they work together.

Survival is a more significant element in this book, because life-sustaining substances are harder to come by.  There’s also a fascinating interplay wherein Lynn has become the kind of person she would have shot, no questions asked.  Also, Lucy is wrestling with more than physical ailments, as McGinnis takes a good stab at anxiety and “adulting” fears.  There’s also an underlying theme of what makes an appropriate way to survive, because in this text many people are encountered who do things the wrong way.  And hope is personified in the other side of individuals who show up with good things.

And finally, as I mentioned above, this book is about becoming yourself.  As I said, some readers take pretty serious issue with Lynn.  She’s cold, man; ice cold.  So this story is of a more human character, Lucy, who admires Lynn’s strength and yet wonders what her strength will look like on its own.

In a Handful of Dust is a spectacular sister/mother/daughter story of survival and self-discovery, with just the right amount of darkness and hope to keep the pages turning.

 

Put these two together, and you have a super kickass masterpiece.  These books won’t be right for everyone, and yet I can’t praise them enough.  We need more books like this, where women take on a role that men would normally fill, and then make it their own.  And we need more books that offer hope in unusual forms, heroes in unusual capes, and families in unusual sizes.  I’m so grateful to Mindy for writing books like this, and I look forward to reading more of them.

 

Cheers, and happy reading!

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What Happened When I Read Hillary’s Book: A Review of “What Happened”

What Happened

I pre-ordered Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened almost as soon as it was available (and marked down on Amazon).  I got my copy a whole afternoon early (you go, Amazon!  I’m sorry I say mean things about you), and decided to read it immediately.

I wanted to read this book for extremely personal reasons, all centered around my own reaction to the results of the 2016 Presidential Election.  Reading this would be an intimate experience for me, not a public one.  So when a friend of mine asked, as I neared the end of the book, whether I would talk about it here–on my blog–I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to that.

I try to remain as unbiased and indirect on here as possible.  I make sure my most offensive and arguable opinions are based around my taste in books.  What I love most about the book blogging community is that, despite our diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and ideas, we can come together under the same opinion that books are AWESOME.  And the last thing I want to do is say or talk about something divisive to hurt the common ground we share.

But this book affected me in ways that I can’t ignore, just like last year’s United State Presidential Election, so I feel like I need to talk about what I thought.

I’ll try to treat this with as much professionalism as possible, but I may also gush over how wonderful it was to hear the emotions and feelings of this powerful woman from her own pen.

So, here we go.

 

What Happened is, quite literally, what happened in 2016 and in everything that led up to Election Day.  Hillary splits her time between discussing political history and revealing some of the personal moments from her experience on and leading up to the campaign trail.  She talks about many of the hot topics that hit her campaign, including race, gender, and sexuality discussions, her emails, and general campaign decorum differences between herself and Trump.  She is, most definitely, writing to her constituencies, addressing their questions about what happened, rather than trying to explain herself to those who did not believe in or agree with her.  Therefore, her tone is one of camaraderie and understanding rather than explanation and justification.  She concludes with a hopeful look to the future, one in which another several women will be leading the way.

In reading this book, I felt that Hillary Clinton was actually telling two different stories: a political one, and a personal one.  Each story resonated differently with me, and their combination gave me a different overall impression.

The personal side of this book was beautiful.  Hillary is extremely honest about her emotional responses before, during, and after her campaign.  She speaks very honestly about where and when she struggled, what gave her the energy to keep going (her family, of course), and what still breaks her heart today.  It was this element of the book that led me to want to read it.  I was devastated over her loss, and I wanted to know how she was coping and what she recommended for us.  These moments humanized Hillary Clinton in a beautiful way.  I loved getting to know the woman behind the movement.

The personal moments in this book also include a lot of Hillary’s explanations as to why she supports the policy that she does.  This part resonated with me a lot.  I am the only Hillary supporter in my direct family, and I’m also one of the only ones who would claim to be “moderate” or “liberal” (I find myself to be moderate, but when we have those few and infrequent political discussions they claim I’m more liberal).  Many of my family’s conservative beliefs stem from a religious, moral foundation.  While I share a similar foundation, I’ve disagreed with many of their convictions for years.  This has often presented either an impasse in our discussions, or some of my family members conclude that I don’t actually believe what I claim to believe.  To read someone who also has similar convictions talking with passions about the things I agree with was empowering and encouraging.  And Hillary doesn’t just list numbers–she talks about her real-life convictions on discussions around hot-button issues, and where they stem from.  That was absolutely enjoyable.

She is also so honest in her evaluation of Donald Trump, it would be scandalous if she was still in office.  Yet, as someone who had wanted to see her take the stage on Inauguration Day, I felt her convictions were more than justified (and cathartic).

And, of course, she is apologetic about where her campaign fell short and why.  While some of these feel glossed over due to the way the book is written (categorically, and then chronologically), she hits hard on those topics that the media claimed she was unwilling to discuss.

The other half of Hillary’s book was focused on the political history surrounding the campaign.  This is where many people grew frustrated with her, because she speaks directly about people like Bernie Sanders and why their campaigns were destined to fail (or how they hurt her campaign).  This is where she writes about the “cold-hard facts,” the statistics, the realities.  She looks at a developing history surrounding her own career, as well as Democrats and Republicans in general.  She looks closely at the issues that decided the campaign and what role policy, partisan politics, and the media played in each.  This is where the chronology is most important, because she helps us see both how Trump unexpectedly won and why so many people decided to support him.

These sections I found a little less interesting, if just because I’m not a political science-minded person.  I appreciate historical context and facts, but dates and details are a little more mind-numbing to me.  And, while I think it was important to the writing of this book, I felt like it wasn’t why I wanted to read it.  That it was written for a different audience than me.

Which leads me to my evaluation of the book as a whole–I think the two different elements, combined in one, hurt the message of each individual piece.  And I think this is why many people (who should love her book; I’m ignoring the one-star reviews on Goodreads from Trump supporters who just want to watch the world burn) criticize her integrity and purpose in its creation.  It’s because she talks about flaws in Bernie’s campaign next to moments in which she expresses personal frustrations with the Congressman that lead some people to say she’s bashing Bernie in the book.  That’s not the impression I got, but I can understand why people may think that.

The combination also seems to weaken some of her apologies.  While she may be expressing conviction over a decision she made, she would also be talking about a whole history of people that created her situation.  At times, this felt like a cop-out, which hurt the overall integrity of the piece.

In the end, I think Hillary’s book appealed to two separate audiences who may or may not appreciate both book elements.  I don’t know that she could have picked one or the other, or if she would have been capable of writing two different “what happened” titles, but at minimum, the collaboration of the elements could have been stronger.

 

My final conviction over this book is that it was necessary.  Millions of Americans, including Hillary, were left reeling after the election results.  Many people were asking the question this title mimics.  Others, like me, were asking “what’s next?” or “what do we do?”  This book is encouraging because it addresses those concerns.  Hillary validates them by confirming that she feels them too.  And expresses regret at what was lost, but hope for what may come.  And that, right now, is what we need.

Thank you for making it to the end of one of my more partisan posts.  I appreciate your support.  May we seek to always be inclusive in our reviews and discussions, giving voice to all beliefs and convictions, while still returning to the fundamental idea that books have the power to bring us together.

“What do we do now?” I said.  There was only one answer: “Keep going.”

–Hillary Rodham Clinton

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50 Years of YA, Part 4

Warning: This post may contain a majority number of books I found less than amazing on this list.  So sorry for so much negativity!

#1: The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

According to Ponyboy, there are two kinds of people in the world: greasers and socs. A soc (short for “social”) has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. Ponyboy is a greaser, and he’s always been proud of it, even willing to rumble against a gang of socs for the sake of his fellow greasers–until one terrible night when his friend Johnny kills a soc. The murder gets under Ponyboy’s skin, causing his bifurcated world to crumble and teaching him that pain feels the same whether a soc or a greaser.

This is a book that has slipped on and off my radar since I was in high school, but I never took the time to sit down and read it.  I know there’s a definite shortage of books in the children’s/YA genres with male protagonists, but when I was younger I didn’t want to read any of them.  So, while I might have enjoyed reading this one, it always fell under a pile of other books with more female leads.

Needless to say, I’m excited that I finally got to experience Ponyboy and Johnny.  There’s a lot to be said about the fact that Hinton was only 16 when she wrote this; it feels like a book written by a kid for kids (and not in a bad way).  As I was reading it, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for people to sit down and read this book when it first came out, and to finally have a voice that seemed to resonate with their own.  Now, I’m a little too old to relate to all of the teenager-ness, but I still love the book’s authenticity.

There’s not necessarily anything extraordinary about this book, in my mind, but I love what it stands for and what it sought to accomplish.

 

#2: The Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.

Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

So, the whole Earthsea trilogy is actually on the list, but I don’t think my non-fantasy-reading mind can take two more books like this one.  Don’t get me wrong–the book is excellent, and there’s a reason it’s withstood the test of time.  I just don’t read fantasy if I can avoid it, and I’m going to in this situation.

I definitely understand why this book is on the list (of course it is!  It’s an incredible time capsule, teen read, and all-around excellent book!).  The character alone are powerful and inviting.  There’s depth here that I don’t notice in a couple of the other early teen titles on this list.  Also, the wrestling with self which is personified in this book’s quest (hopefully I’m not giving too much away) is something all young people can definitely relate to.  And, while I found the story long and tedious, it really is a nice short fantasy novel that I’m sure serves as a great introduction to the genre, if you like that sort of thing.

In the end, I prefer this fantasy to others I’ve read.  I’m glad it was included for its historical significance and its ongoing impact.

 

#12: Sweet Valley High, Francine Pascal

Will Jessica steal Todd from Elizabeth? Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are identical twins at Sweet Valley High. They’re both popular, smart, and gorgeous, but that’s where the similarity ends. Elizabeth is friendly, outgoing, and sincere — nothing like her snobbish and conniving twin. Jessica gets what she wants — at school, with friends, and especially with boys. This time, Jessica has set her sights on Todd Wilkins, the handsome star of the basketball team — the one boy that Elizabeth really likes. Elizabeth doesn’t want to lose him, but what Jessica wants, Jessica usually gets … even if it ends up hurting her sister. Meet the Wakefield twins, their guys, and the rest of the gang at Sweet Valley High….

This is another book where the entire series is on the list, but I could barely make it through the first one… Unlike The Wizard of Earthsea, I feel like this one has far less redeeming qualities.  These books play on the good/evil twin motif, which is fine.  Unfortunately, I feel like it pushes it to an uncomfortable extreme and fails to fully resolve anything.

Okay, I just hate Jessica.

More than that, though, I think these books (at least the first one) attempt to portray teenage girlhood in an accurate light, but it over-portrays only certain aspects of that life, and it’s a narrative specific to the rich and white.  I understand that it’s a product of its age, but some of the language surrounding the Wakefields and their disinterest in other families and associating with them made me very uncomfortable.  If this list is honoring books held exclusively within their contexts, I can almost allow it.  However, whereas most of the other books I’ve seen as beneficial in contemporary classrooms, I’m glad to know that this series has lost most, if not all, of its following.

 

#42: They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, Susan Campbell Bartoletti

“Boys, let us get up a club.” With those words, six restless young men raided the linens at a friend’s mansion in 1866. They pulled white sheets over their heads, hopped on horses, and cavorted through the streets of Pulaski, Tennessee. Soon, the six friends named their club the Ku Klux Klan and began patterning their initiations after fraternity rites, with passwords and mysterious handshakes. All too quickly, this club would grow into the self-proclaimed “Invisible Empire,” with secret dens spread across the South. On their brutal raids, the nightriders would claim to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers and would use psychological and physical terror against former slaves who dared to vote, own land, attend school, or worship as they pleased.

This is the story of how a secret terrorist group took root in America’s democracy. Filled with chilling and vivid personal accounts unearthed from oral histories, congressional documents, and other primary sources, this is a book to read and remember.

As you can probably tell, this is one of a different sort of book on this list!  It was very educational and eye-opening.  There’s a lot of history to the South and the KKK that I didn’t know, until I read this book.  Bartoletti does a great job of tracing the group’s growth through history, and tying into what would have been contemporary context when the book was published.  It actually sheds a horrifying light on some things today, for those who follow (willingly or unwillingly) American news and politics.  This one’s for the history fans!

 

#47: Midwinterblood, Marcus Sedgwick

Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve lived another life? Been somewhere that has felt totally familiar, even though you’ve never been there before, or felt that you know someone well, even though you are meeting them for the first time? It happens.

In a novel comprising seven parts, each influenced by a moon – the flower moon, the harvest moon, the hunter’s moon, the blood moon – this is the story of Eric and Merle whose souls have been searching for each other since their untimely parting.

I’ll be honest: I was lost.

This book was so confusing, and in the end, somewhat disappointing.  I was intrigued through the first two parts, and then I just lost track of the timeline and couldn’t find my footing.

I appreciate the unusual and the unconventional, but I’m starting to think this list has a few too many titles added purely because they’re “different.”  I’m sure this book is great to some people, but I just didn’t get it.

 

Again, sorry for the depressing reviews! I’m hoping my next set of 5 will be happier.  (If it helps, there are more series on this list than Earthsea and Sweet Valley that I’m actually enjoying, so I’m waiting until I’ve read their sequels to review them!)

Cheers.

 

 

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50 Years of YA, Part 3

I could write an introduction, but y’all know what’s coming.  Let’s do this!

Note: I decided to try including synopses with the books from here on out.  We’ll see if I remember to do this, and if it sticks.

 

#4: The Friends, Rosa Guy

A powerful, award-winning novel about friendship.

Phyllisia Cathy–She is fourteen. Her problems seem overwhelming: New York, after life on her sunlit West Indies island, is cold, cruel and filthy. She is insulted daily and is beaten up by classmates. What Phyllisia needs, God not being interested, is a friend.

Edith Jackson–She is fifteen. Her clothes are unpressed, her stockings bagging with big holes. Her knowledge of school is zero. She has no parents, she swears and she steals. But she is kind and offers her friendship and protection to Phyllisia.

“And so begins the struggle that is the heart of this very important book: the fight to gain perception of one’s own real character; the grim struggle for self-knowledge.”–Alice Walker, The New York Times

This book offers an interesting look at what it means to reach an age where you can identify your own prejudices.  Phyllisia is an extremely relatable character.  She just wants to be considered normal and to fit in, and after moving to this new place, it’s not coming as easily as she thought it might.  I really enjoyed her character in the sense that I think young people can look at her and see themselves.

Edith is the perfect foil to Phyllisia: Aware of who she is and unashamed of it (at least, willing to admit that nothing will change for her without her initiating the change).  She’s also a character you enjoy reading about, because she so perfectly depicts goodness.

I have a few issues with how the plot of this book is carried out.  In many ways, I think it is too didactic for the teenage reader.  They can spot a phony solution.  And the trauma that Phyllisia experiences as she’s learning to accept people who are different is almost textbook sentimental literature.

Despite its shortcomings (many of which are most likely a result of its age), The Friends is a story that offers an alternative perspective, and I can understand why it was included on this list.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for “fun” reading, but it’s one to take a look at if you’re interested in what YA was like in the Beginning.

 

#5: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, Alice Childress

Benjie can stop using heroin anytime he wants to. He just doesn’t want to yet. Why would he want to give up something that makes him feel so good, so relaxed, so tuned-out? As Benjie sees it, there’s nothing much to tune in for. School is a waste of time, and home life isn’t much better. All Benjie wants is for someone to believe in him, for someone to believe that he’s more than a thirteen-year-old junkie. Told from the perspectives of the people in his life-including his mother, stepfather, teachers, drug dealer, and best friend-this powerful story will draw you into Benjie’s troubled world and force you to confront the uncertainty of his future.

Can I just say, I love this title?

This book is really neat due to its style.  Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character (although sometimes, like in the case of Benjie, they have mutliple chapters), and each of these characters shares his or her perspectives on what’s happening in Benjie’s life.  This gives the author the opportunity to personify the different ideologies and persons surrounding a heroine epidemic.   The other really neat part about this book is that it’s written in dialect.  It was difficult to read at first, but you quickly get used to it as you get to know the characters (and each character has a slightly different way of speaking, too).

This book, like The Friends, is from an early time in the world of YA, and therefore it has some weaknesses in terms of how engaging the plot is.  When reading it, I could definitely see this one being required reading in a freshman high school classroom.  Again, another you wouldn’t necessarily pick up for “fun.”  Yet I can also see how it could be challenged and banned in certain communities.  It’s brutally honest about how young people find and use and sell drugs, at least within the context of its day.  It also deals heavily with race issues, which in the story and in history were not resolved.

It was during the reading of this book and The Friends that I started to see this list of “50 Best YA Books” in a new light.  While I began reading these books because I thought they represented what teens loved, I think a more accurate description of them would be books that educators, librarians, and booksellers offer for their value to young people.  It doesn’t make me want to stop reading through these titles, but it does kind of change my approach to them.

 

#24: Kit’s Wilderness, David Almond

The Watson family moves to Stoneygate, an old coal-mining town, to care for Kit’s recently widowed grandfather. When Kit meets John Askew, another boy whose family has both worked and died in the mines, Askew invites Kit to join him in playing a game called Death. As Kit’s grandfather tells him stories of the mine’s past and the history of the Watson family, Askew takes Kit into the mines, where the boys look to find the childhood ghosts of their long-gone ancestors. Written in haunting, lyrical prose, Kit’s Wilderness examines the bonds of family from one generation to the next, and explores how meaning and beauty can be revealed from the depths of darkness.

I actually listened to the audiobook for this title, and I have to admit, I got lost.  It was hard to follow the story.  I don’t think it was the fault of the performer or anything; I just think this text is probably best read on your own.

The overall feel of the book is very weird, but in kind of a good way.  I love the haunting images and rhythm to the writing.  And the relationship between Kit and his grandfather is sweet and believable.  Having just recently experienced the loss of a grandparent, I was able to relate to the pain behind the struggles his family was facing.

Because I got lost with the overall plot of this story, I really have no idea what was going on with John Askew.  I think if I had read the story in print, I would have grasped it better.  However, there are 50 books on this list and I don’t have time to reread at this point.  If the title still sounds interesting to you, find it in print!

 

#26: Hole in My Life, Jack Gantos

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

I didn’t recognize the title of this book, but when I saw the cover, I had a gigantic “Aha!” moment.  I’m pretty sure every single boy in my class in middle school checked out this book from the library, at least once.  In my mind, it’s the quintessential book guys chose when they had to find something to do during Silent Reading (oh, how I miss that designated half hour of the day!).  For that reason, I wasn’t super excited about this book.  I figured it would have very little to offer me that I would find engaging.

On the one hand, after reading this book, I can TOTALLY see why a certain school demographic was attracted to it.  There’s language, sex, and drugs on pretty much every page.  I went to a rather sheltered public school, and so this was probably one of the first introductions to anything grungy and on-edge for these young teenagers.

On the other hand, I ended up really enjoying the “memoir” aspect of this book.  Gantos is an excellent writer, and it shows through this very personal story.  I love reading memoir, and this actually did not disappoint.  I still struggled to really connect with any of his life experiences.  But, to me, the mark of a good memoir is that you end up relating to its speaker even if you have no personal experience with what they went through.

In terms of required reading and recommending this to young people, I think this book continues to speak to young men entering into the stage of life in which Jack’s experiences occurred.  And I think this one will stay relevant, as evidenced by its inclusion on this list.

 

#41: Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

I’m not going to lie–this book was extremely difficult to read.  It wasn’t that the prose was stilted or that the plot was slow-moving; it was just so emotional and dark.  As someone who has struggled with body image issues in the past, Lia’s internal dialogue gave me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.  The blurb from Goodreads does not lie–this is the most emotionally wrenching book by Anderson I have ever read.

I personally cannot stand when serious emotional and physical issues are used for entertainment purposes.  There are several very popular TV shows and movies I refuse to watch because I think there’s a limit to how much violence we should willingly take in for the sake of a good story.  As I began this book, I wondered if its content would fall in the same category.  In the end, though, I agree that this story is important.  The struggles Lia and Cassie face are not glorified, by any means.  Instead, they’re exposed for what they truly are: an illness, real and powerful, that no one can fight alone.  And this story likewise highlights the important role family and friends play in combating the darkness many people face on a daily basis.

This is not a fun book, by any means.  But it’s beautiful, and it’s important.  I’m glad it was included on this list and that I finally was able to read it.

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Happy #NationalBookLoversDay! Disney Book Tag

Hello, Book Lovers, and Happy National Book Lovers Day!

I’m spending the majority of my day at a virtual library conference called SLJTeenLive.  I am enjoying hearing from YA authors about their books and what they’re reading.  It seems to be one of the best ways to spend a day dedicated to book lovers!

I also thought it would be fun to honor the day with a Book Tag.  I’ve never done one before on this blog, and it seemed like the perfect way to highlight some of my all-time favorite works, as a lifelong book lover!  I stumbled across the Disney Book Tag a few weeks back.  It’s categories highlight some of the best titles I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to share them with you!  I hope you enjoy.Image result for disney book tag

The Little Mermaid:
A Character Who is Out of Their Element

Wonder

Wonder, for me, is the uncontested winner for this category.  Auggie is thrown totally out of his element when he goes to school for the first time.  His classmates, even, experience some of the Little Mermaid syndrome as they learn how to relate to him.  This book has a powerful message about bullying and acceptance.  I can’t say enough about how much I loved this story and its characters.

 

Cinderella:
A Character Who Goes Through a Major Transformation

Ranma

I thought I’d be a little humorous with this one and name the Ranma 1/2 manga series.  Ranma, the main character in this story, has fallen into the Pool of Drowning Girl during his martial arts training.  Thus, every time he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl!  And every time he gets splashed with hot water, he turns back into a boy.  Absolute madness ensues in adventures galore as he uses his curse to get out of bad situations.  Absolutely hilarious and adorable, this is one of my favorite manga series.

And, you have to admit, fluid transgender modifications make for a fairly large transformation!

 

Snow White:
A Book with an Eclectic Cast of Characters

Coville

I feel like any fantasy series is a good fit for this category, but I wanted to honor one of my favorite stories from my childhood: Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles.  With all of the mysterious and wonderful characters that usually appear in a fantasy world, this series is captivating.  Cara is one of my favorite female lead characters ever, and I loved reading about her adventures in Luster.  Also, if I could have my own Lightfoot,  that would be pretty cool!

 

Sleeping Beauty:
A Book that Put You to Sleep

Hook

Most of my followers know how much I love Peter Pan, so you may realize how painful it was for me to add this book to my DNF pile.  The film Hook is one of my favorites, but the story version was too long and detailed to hold my interest.  I know Terry Brooks is a huge and important name in fantasy literature, but I found this work unreadable.  Rarely, if ever, do I say that the movie was better than the book.  But in this case, I’ll go even further–don’t bother reading the book; just enjoy the movie!

 

The Lion King:
A Character Who Had Something Traumatic Happen to Them in Childhood

Perks

Spoiler Alert!  But not really–it doesn’t take long when reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower to figure out that Charlie has experienced something traumatic in his past.  The Big Reveal of what that was shook me the first time I read this book, and it inspired me to write my senior thesis on this title in my undergrad.  To date, Charlie is one of my favorite characters, and in many ways I consider him a friend.  I am grateful to the story Stephen Chbosky tells through him.

 

Beauty and the Beast:
A Beast of a Book that You were Intimidated by,
but Found the Story to be Beautiful

Anna Karenina

I actually signed up for a class because Anna Karenina was on the syllabus, and I knew if it weren’t required reading, I would never make it through the entire book.  I’m so glad I took that class, too, because this ended up being one of my favorite classics of all time.  The story is beautifully written and hauntingly memorable.  If you haven’t experienced Tolstoy, I beg you to give him a go.  And if you really want to dive in, push yourself to read this amazing story of love and betrayal.

 

Aladdin:
A Character Who Gets Their Wish Granted, For Better or Worse

Down with the Shine

This is another sort of ironic inclusion, because the premise of this book is essentially be careful what you wish for.  I spent the entire time I read this book wondering if it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, because it combines a very literal experience with satirical extremism.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s sort of both.  (And, while several people have their wishes granted, I can think of one specific young man who asks for an enhancement to his anatomy in the form of a metaphor, with hilarious and disastrous consequences!)

 

Mulan:
A Character Who Pretends to be Someone They Are Not

Thirteenth Tale

Another (potential) Spoiler Alert!

If you haven’t yet experienced the mystery that is Vida Winter’s life, you need to read this book.  The plot twist at the end is totally mind-blowing.  I’ve read this twice, and I bet if I read it a third time I would discover even more hints toward the revelation of the mystery.  This is such a great book for people who like to try and solve the riddle, and a perfect fit for this Mulan category.

 

Toy Story:
A Book with Characters You Wish Would Come to Life

Peter Pan

I mean, do you even have to ask?  I would love to meet Peter Pan in real life.  I feel like we would have a blast reading books together.  And I’d love to go to Neverland, even if at this point I would have to be a pirate or an aborigine (because, unfortunately, I’ve Grown Up).

 

Disney Descendants:
Your Favorite Villain or Morally Ambiguous Character

Mindy

So, I’ve never experienced The Descendants, but I like the connection this category makes.  And this book cover is actually a stand-in for another of this author’s books, The Female of the Species.  My sister has my copy, so I couldn’t snap a picture of it today.  However, in terms of a villain/morally ambiguous character, you needn’t look any further than Alex.  The Female of the Species opens with the line, “This is how I kill someone.”  And the story that follows will haunt you and challenge you on your ideas of morality and justice.

I just received Not a Drop to Drink in the mail this week, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to read it yet.  If it’s anything like her other book, I know I’m going to love it–and perhaps it has its own ambiguous character to inspire us!

***

So, that’s it!  I had a lot of fun working through this challenge, and I’m so happy to have mentioned so many favorite books on this very special day.  Celebrate today in your own way: by reading a new book, picking up an old favorite, tweeting a favorite quote, or visiting a bookstore.  And if you have favorite titles to meet these categories, let me know!  I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

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Manga Review: Library Wars

Library Wars

Last week, I finished Library Wars, a manga series by Kiiro Yumi.  This is only the second manga series I have ever finished (I’m still working my way through Ranma 1/2, which is a little longer, and I’ve read a handful of stand-alones in between).  I found the series through another bookstagrammer’s (The Paige Turner) vlog.  As a librarian, I was intrigued by the title, and I was super excited to read an action-packed adventure about my profession.  We don’t get a lot of kick-ass representatives in our field–other than The Librarian(s), who are more like archaeologists than actually information professionals.  I couldn’t wait to see how this plot portrayed us.

In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves–the Library Forces!

This book is the next chapter in the conversation started by Fahrenheit 451.   The Library Forces are actively fighting against censorship and for the right to information–hell yeah!  I think what I loved most about this series from the beginning was how accurately it approached librarians.  Word for word, it represents a normal day in the information field!

Okay, okay, so maybe the National Guard-esque protection force is a bit of a stretch, but many libraries are in constant battles over banned and challenged books, as well as the rights of their patrons to information and to privacy.  Taking it to the violent level is of course great for its entertainment value in these books, but perhaps some of the valiant action scenes from real-life are more imagined than acted out.  (We’re still kick-ass, though.  Jus’ sayin’.)

No, the more accurate representations of librarians come when Iku and her team have to help in the stacks.  Yes, librarians do spend an inordinate amount of time finding books for patrons, and the system is a little bit like learning to read a map.  Kasahara’s struggles were amusing, but I’ve had identical conversations with student workers that Dojo has with her on her abilities and efforts.

The relationship between Dojo and Kasahara is also handled well.  I have to admit that the trope found in many mangas, in which the guy and girl like each other but won’t admit it, rubs me the wrong way.  I’m not big on romance, and I don’t appreciate when coincidence pushes into the realm of impossibility in terms of almost-slips and missed opportunities.  Yet this relationship was very tasteful.  The author works to shape an infatuation that began before the two knew each other, but the interest was modified when each discovered the other’s personality.  While I did grow sick of some of the situations concerning romance and attraction, the actual affection found between these two (and other couples in the series) was fairly tolerable.

This series was also a first for the author, and that comes through in the earlier books.  It’s around the fourth or fifth volume that the plot really hits a stride, and you can begin to get to know everyone outside of the general story.  At one point, I thought there were giant plot holes in between two of the volumes; then, I realized I had skipped a book!  Whoops!  At times, I do think the subtleties to some of the illustrations are difficult to follow, but the artwork is beautiful.  In the animated form, I’m sure everything is communicated for successfully.

I highly recommend this story, particularly for those who are deeply invested in political issues surrounding privacy, censorship, and information ethics.  It’s not really a bibliophile’s book–very little reading, if any, occurs in the entire series.  However, if you find yourself appreciating your right to read and learn what you want, you will most likely appreciate this manga’s characters for the work they do to get that freedom for their world.

Again, give it a couple books to pick up before you give up on it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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50 Years of YA, Part 2

Second verse, same as the first…let’s get to it!

 

#22: The Facts Speak for Themselves, Brock Cole

I had never heard of this book before taking on the challenge of reading these 50 YA titles, but after reading its description I knew it would be one of the first I picked up. This book begins with Linda, our protagonist, giving a statement about a murder suicide that she has witnessed.  This book is her personal account of what brought her to that scene.

The premise of this story is far more intense than its actual exposition, but that doesn’t stop the plot from being absolutely chilling.  Linda’s young life is so traumatic; she goes through so much at such a young age, and in the end she sounds so numb to whatever awaits her in the future.  Incredibly dark and gritty, this book demands to be included on this list, if simply because I’m sure parents and conservative groups have been challenging and banning it since its publication.  I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but you really grow attached to Linda’s voice as she tells this story.  So many times, I wanted to reach through the pages and give her a much-needed hug.  This is a very honest look at where American culture can lead when the American Dream fails.

My one big critique on this book has to do with Mom.  I am so sick of weak maternal figures in YA literature who are incapable of caring for themselves or their children.  I totally get that this is Real Life for far too many people, but I think this version of the teen story has been told.  I would like to see more self-empowered mommies in these books from now on.

 

#30: Looking for Alaska, John Green

Okay guys; I have a pretty big confession to make:

I am NOT a John Green fan.

That being said, I understand why, if we are including Green on this list, this was the book that was chosen.  I have to admit that this one left a pretty deep impression on me, and not just because it was one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to, and I was still getting used to how having a voice actor read to you can really bring a story to life.  Several books have been written on this topic, but few so directly address the questions without answers that accompany a traumatic death.  I recently finished All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, and I can see how her approach to teen suicide is slightly different than Green’s, and that each has an important message to send to those who may be wondering or struggling or recovering.

Not my favorite inclusion on this list, but I can at least appreciate what the list creators were going for by adding it.

 

#31: American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang

This was one of the first graphic novels I ever read, and it is still one of my favorites!  I have heard Yang speak twice now, and his passion for his work is what makes me love his comics so much.  The fact that this one gets personal and works at describing some of the ongoing prejudice present in adolescent culture makes it that much cooler.

I think what makes this book unique is the portrayal of the many different hats children of immigrants must wear, and how complicated fitting in can be.  The content isn’t exactly new, but it’s a fresh set of eyes, and in a unique format from what most coming-of-age books are.

Plus, who doesn’t love a book with a Monkey King in it?!

In all seriousness, this is a great starter graphic novel for those getting used to the form (it reads left to right, so if manga freaks you out for its different layout, this is a good baby step!).  It’s also good for all ages to get a peek into what growing up Chinese American might be like.

 

#45: Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

Confession Time #2:

I hated Eleanor & Park totally and completely, and after reading it I had written off Rainbow Rowell.

So, when I came across this title on my list of 50 YA Books, I was not excited to read it.  But I saw that a copy was available immediately through my library app, Overdrive, and I thought, “Oh well, might as well get it over with.”

Now? I am so glad I gave this book a chance.

Around the middle of the first chapter of this book, I realized how closely Cath’s experience during her first days at college resembled mine.  Immediately, the narration of her anxiety began to speak to me, reaching out and bringing comfort to a time in my life that has been long over, but had left some discomfort yet unsolved.  In the end, I discovered that this particular Rowell novel tells an important story of what anxiety, depression, and grief can look like–for different people and in different ways.  Reading this, I felt understood without feeling like the happy ending was sugar coating my own struggles.  At some points, I knew Cath would be okay because I had been there; in others, it seemed that her experience was telling me the same thing.

I always read others’ Goodreads reviews when I’m most of the way through, or finished with, a book, and I saw a lot of backlash against this title for its treatment of fandom.  I have to say I agree with them–I actually really hated the Simon Snow parts.  I had trouble following them, and really didn’t care what happened to whom.  [The inclusion of a wizard in this plot also pretty much cemented my belief that Rowell cannot come up with an original story if she tried…Romeo & Juliet, Harry Potter…].  I don’t know much about fandoms because I have never dived all the way into one, but I respect these readers’ opinions on how it was portrayed.

My counter to that, however, is that I don’t think that fact that Cath’s identifying with a fandom is what’s important here.  Instead, I think Rowell just picked something out to be the example of a crutch or obstacle brought to college, or the cusp of adulthood, from someone’s childhood.  Those of us who have started “adulting” have realized that certain aspects of who we were ten years ago don’t fit into the mold of who we are becoming.  We have to make the difficult decision to dump this thing that is a huge part of us, or to modify it to fit us as we change.  Cath’s struggles with her writing and her fanfiction display this–her molding of her old self into the new.

In the end, I misjudged Ms. Rowell, and I’m grateful that I gave her another chance.

 

#50: Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez

Yes, this book is the “last” on the list (because it was published most recently), but it is not the last one I will be reading!

The whole time I was reading (read: listening to) this one, I had a hard time remembering that it is YA.  Think of everything that gets a book on the banned list, and you’ll most likely find it in this story.  Dark, traumatic, and with a brokenhearted ending, this book brought me to tears and filled me with anger.  I think the most important lesson this fictional story has to offer is that This Could Be Real.

It’s rare to find a YA title so hopeless, and yet I think young people who read this will feel empowered because the author chose to show them the Truth, in her eyes.  This is not an easy read, for sure.  But it’s a story that should be celebrated for what it captures.

 

That’s all I have for you today!  I’m working on another book from this list right now, and I’ll put another list on here when I’ve caught up a bit.  Until then, happy reading everyone!

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50 Years of YA, Part 1

Hey, guys!  I haven’t posted in a while.  I’ve been working on a post about my reading of Beartown by Fredrik Backman (it’s brilliant, I must say.  Everyone should read it).  However, I’m not quite ready to post about it yet.  My review has been giving me a bit of writer’s block, so I’m holding off on it for now.

Some of  you may know that 2017 is considered the 50th anniversary of the YA novel (based off of the publication date of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton).  To celebrate the year, Booklist has compiled a list they call “Booklist’s 50 Best YA Books of All Time.”  It starts with Hinton and ends with our more contemporary literature.  While they openly admit to this not being a full-proof list, they have a number of interesting titles on it.

I love YA, like many readers, and I thought it would be fun to see how many of these books I have read and could read over the summer.  I don’t think I’m going to read all of them, but I’m going to make an effort to get through as many as I can.   As I go through this YA journey, I figured it would be the perfect sort of review to share with you.

I had read several books on the list before it was published, and I have since found lots at my local library, so I have a small list to share with you today.  More are on hold or sitting on my TBR shelf, so this will certainly be a post that will have a “Part 2” and maybe a “Part 3.”  It’s also going to be much more informal than other posts I’ve made, but I’m good with that if you are, too!

So, without further ado, here’s what I have So Far:

 

#3: The Pigman, Paul Zindel

John and Lorraine have created a game out of prank calling people, which is how they first encounter Mr. Pignati, or The Pigman, whose grief over the loss of his wife leaves him desperate for companionship.  Their adventures with and without him will have you laughing and then regretting alongside them.

This book reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, which makes sense, considering they were published around the same time.  The story is told as though John and Lorraine are typing up their account of the events, and their voices (particularly Lorraine’s) greatly resemble Holden’s.  Moreover, they’re apparent disregard for consequences easily reminds the reader of a certain high school student wandering the streets of New York and contemplating ducks…

I liked this book, but there wasn’t necessarily anything spectacular about it for me.  I think because I was part of a generation whose authors were unafraid to touch on the tough subjects surrounding growing up, I find this particular book’s approach to grief and suffering to be commonplace.  Booklist says that, when it was released, it was one of the first books of its kind to address “teen life in all its darkness and complexity.”  For a first introduction to its themes and ideas, I would say it was probably shocking.  Zindel also does a great job of not writing down to his audience; even though the teens are telling this story, they don’t offer some cookie-cutter “moral” to the story in the end, which is always a “plus” in the world of YA.

Overall, I liked it a lot more than The Catcher in the Rye, and I can see why it was included on the list.

 

#6:  I Know What You Did Last Summer, Lois Duncan

[Do you guys remember that first book you read that freaked you the heck out?  For a lot of people, it was probably that “Scary Stories” series.  For me, it was Duncan’s masterpiece.  Goosebumps for days!]

Something happened last summer involving four teens.  They thought no one knew about it.  That is, until a stranger contacted one of them, saying he knew what had happened.  What follows is a dangerous series of events that ends in a “surprising” twist that “no one” can see coming!

I’ll be honest, though–I re-read this after I saw it on the list, and I now realize that 10-year-old me had a very simplistic idea of what “scary” is.

I can certainly understand its inclusion on this list.  This was also one of my first introductions to the processing of “guilt” as a teen (or, in my case, tween), and Duncan certainly hopes to achieve an intimate understanding of what someone might go through when faced like a situation like this.  All lame-movie-making aside, the inspiration behind the threat in this book is both personified and very real fear.

It was great to return to one of my childhood favorites.  Lois Duncan’s books are all sufficiently creepy and spooky, and it’s pretty cool to see one of them featured on this list!

 

#9: Gentlehands, M. E. Kerr

This book comes with a really interesting concept–a young guy develops a relationship with his grandfather, only to find out that the same man is a wanted Nazi officer.  Unfortunately, in this particular telling, I think the actual heart of this story was overshadowed by a rather lame love story.

Buddy comes from the rough side of the tracks, and Skye is the daughter of a wealthy family who visits for summer vacation.  Their connection feels rather inauthentic, and the added drama of the hatred and distrust from Buddy’s parents toward those with “money” detracted from the overall purpose of the story (in my opinion).  Also, I always find it so difficult, and therefore weird, to tell a summer fling story from the perspective of the guy.

I liked the idea of this book a lot, and it makes me wonder if accounts like it are out there.  But I don’t think I would recommend it as anything more than a romance.

 

#11: Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden

I think Booklist’s write-up of this one says it best:

“Garden’s novel, centered on Annie and Liza’s romance, revealed gradually through Liza’s memories, has all the iconic markers of teen romance, but it was truly groundbreaking: this teenage lesbian love story was the first of it’s kind to have a happy ending.”

I really enjoyed reading through this romance.  The story moves from friendship, to general acceptance of their identities, to discoveries considering how the world perceives them (incorrectly, I might add) and who they can turn to for help.  I like the parallel that appears between them and a couple of the other characters in the story.  And, for once, the flashback really seems to balance out the storytelling elements.  This one is definitely worth the read!

 

#14: Howl’s Moving Castle, Diane Wynne Jones

That’s right, folks–the very famous Miyazaki film was first and foremost a YA novel.  The same lovable Sophie appears to help the Wizard Howl in his escapades, just as the film portrays.

I’ll be honest–I found this book incredibly boring.  I don’t think it carried the plot well, and there were several parts of the book that I simply skimmed (without losing any part of the plot).  It is, perhaps, a perfect introduction to other fantasy novels (i.e. Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan), which I also struggle to get through.  Thus, for those who more greatly enjoy this genre, it may be a brilliant execution.  I, for one, will stick with watching the film.

 

#18: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Chris Crutcher

This book was actually a required reading title I read way back in high school, almost a decade ago.  Chris Crutcher, the author, actually came to our school to talk about his books (we could pick from a list of them, and I chose this one).  The actual plot of this story has faded for me, but I didn’t feel the need to re-read it, like IKWYDLS.

The one thing I know for sure is that Crutcher attempts to address the Tough Stuff in everything he writes.  This book alone deals with abuse, body image issues, high school drama, and so much more.  The characters are very relatable.  You feel for their experiences and recognize similarities in your own life, even if they don’t reach this extreme.

I think it’s great the Crutcher’s books are being used in the classroom (as many of these are, or might be).  One of the hardest lessons most people learn in high school is that there are no easy answers to most of Life, and authors who are unafraid to point that out in their work should be included in the curriculum.

At the same time, this was a school read, so I don’t know how fun it would be to read on your own time!  Jus’ sayin’.

 

Whew.  I need a break!

More to come in the future.  In the meantime, happy reading everyone!  If you’re looking for something fun to read over the summer, I suggest YA.

 

 

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Echo

This week, I listened to the audiobook Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  This book had a profound impact on me for so many reasons, and the greatest treasure of this story is that it’s written for children but has the power to speak to anyone.

Echo is four stories wound into one, one of which is almost a folktale, and three of which are about three different children–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–and their lives during the tumultuous time of World War II.  Each story is staggered and feeds into the next one, for one epic finale that I will try hard not to spoil here.  All I will say is that the one thing holding them together is a harmonica, which mysteriously appears in each of the stories.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this book engaged me from the first page.  In a way, the stories were timeless even as they were attached to a time period.  Munoz Ryan follows her characters closely enough that important references to significant events like the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor serve as landmarks more than important plot points.  I also think this particular novel, in using a historical setting, still has a profound message to offer to contemporary American culture.  As I was listening to the stories, some of the conversations and experiences felt by central and exterior characters gave me goosebumps, because what was said in the 1930’s and ’40’s sounds disturbingly like some of what is rising in our political climate today.  It was almost scary, as an adult reading a children’s book about people who lived during Hitler’s reign, to think about there being any parallels between that time and ours, but Munoz Ryan subtly points them out–whether intentionally or unintentionally–in the most profound ways.  Even as a historical fiction book, this story is timeless.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book in consideration of its main genre (juvenile/young readers), is the fact that each story ends at first with a cliffhanger.  All four characters come to a time when it seems that hope is lost, and their story pauses until the very end.  And, really, the end does not directly address what happened to immediately resolve whatever situation the characters were left in.  It is set, instead, several years into the future when all three of the children are grown and reflecting back on their experiences.  I am proud of Munoz Ryan for including this in a book meant for young readers.  I think, too often, we are quick to protect children from the reality that life offers no easy answers.  This is particularly true in literature.  Books have quick resolutions–both because of the shorter texts for easier reading and because the Happy Ending seems so very important.  Munoz Ryan forgets both of these things, and writes a lengthy text full of despair and angst.  The Happy Ending is still (relatively) present, but readers have to commit to the story to get there, which makes it that much more beautiful.

The children in this book experience serious hardships in life; however, despite some of the extremes experienced by them contributed by the time period and the story itself, the messages are still relatable.  Friedrich is bullied for most of his life due to his birthmark.  While children today (hopefully) do not have to fear that they will be sterilized or sent to a concentration camp for not meeting a particular higher standard of “human,” bullying is an issue that culture is still trying to resolve.  Moreover, body image issues are a very real and present problem with people of all ages, even those who are very young.  Friedrich’s experiences are still relevant today, and I’m sure many young people have felt comforted and connected to him for what he went through.

Friedrich and Mike are also missing parents.  Mike is an orphan who feels very responsible for his little brother, and Friedrich’s mom died shortly after he was born.  In a time when broken families and single parents are a perfect example of the norm, young people must feel connected to these boys who are raised and adopted by single individuals (Mr. Howard, of course, serves as a good example of the “stepfather,” or the newer adult addition to a family).  Each of these boys experience their struggles around specific contexts, but the timelessness of belonging and love lead their stories to speak to people today as well.

Ivy’s family is transient, and she is constantly experiencing what it is like to be the New Kid.  Her story is unique due to the nature of her dad’s job (in connection with the Japanese internment camps) and her special school, but the anxiety she experiences over making new friends and going to a new school are extremely relevant.  Moreover, she has a family member in the armed forces and for the first time her life must learn how to live normally without her brother with her.  These emotions she goes through can mirror what children and young readers still experience and provide them comfort that they are not alone in what they are going through.

These struggles, while told through a child’s perspective, can also speak profoundly to any reader.  I was rooting for each of the characters to find success, to be safe.  Each segment held my attention to the end, and I desperately wanted to reach the point in the story where I would know that everything would be okay.  Each experience spoke to me in my past and present, and in so many ways brought me comfort that I didn’t even know I needed.

Munoz Ryan’s storytelling talent goes beyond just captivating characters; it shines brightly through the plot that twists and winds in several directions until, quite unexpectedly, even the mysterious folktale becomes linked to everyone else.  The coincidences are a stretch, but not unbelievable.  Everyone is brought together at the right place and right time because of powerful circumstances, and not convenience.  In every chapter and on every page, Munoz Ryan builds toward a crescendo that resounds with hope and community, reminding us that these characters endured and flourished and that they found a place they belonged.  There are many great storytellers out there who manage to make small connections between the beginning and end of their tales, and Munoz Ryan should be included among them.

One way in which the audiobook was made even better than the physical one, in my opinion, is that the music associated with each person and on each instrument was played and sung in the backgrounds of the chapters!  Harmonicas haunted the openings and closings of each Part.  Pianos and singers hummed out familiar tunes in context with the stories.  It definitely pulled you into the story more, and as a music lover I appreciated the aesthetic results.  It makes me wonder how you could enjoy this book in print without also looking up music and songs to accompany when they are mentioned in the story!

I cannot say enough that, regardless of your age, your preferred genres, your experiences, or your perspectives, you should read this book.  The message is more than timeless; it’s relevant.  The stories reflect on an important time in our country’s history (a time that has a certain amount of significance today), and yet it is coupled with just the right about of fantasy to make it magical.  Echo left a big impression on me that will resound for many books to come.

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Read. Learn. Repeat.

This weekend, I finished listening to John Elder Robison’s Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.  This is the second book I’ve read by Robison, the first of which was Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

Switched On recounts Robison’s experience in a study that looked at his brain’s reaction to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  As someone with a disorder listed on the Autism Spectrum, he had always struggled with understanding and expressing emotions.  This treatment was designed to get him “in touch with his emotional side,” so to speak.  He had a positive, though not “cured,” reaction to this treatment, which is perhaps evidenced best by the fact that he reads his own audiobook with a certain level of inflection and intonation you would not expect from someone with Asperger’s.

This book was a stretch for me, which is why I chose to listen to it on audiobook.  The language was extremely technical, as Robison himself is most comfortable in the world of machines and electronics.  He compared his brain experience to his work in the music industry, which was interesting although impossible for me to understand.  Some of the technical jargon and scientific language was also difficult to follow.  While at times I worried this would detract from my understanding of what the memoir was trying to say, however, in the end I felt like I connected to Robison at the point where his voice took us.  The overarching message and story was very engaging and emotionally charged, as Robison expresses for the first time what it feels like to “feel” like other people do.

I personally take as many opportunities as I can to learn more about people on the Autism Spectrum.  The way they perceive the world is fascinating to me, and I want to know more about what struggles and obstacles they may be facing.  I think that we should all take advantage of opportunities to learn about people who are different.  We may never be able to understand everyone in every situation, but we can take small steps toward discovering the way the world looks to others.  For me, that sometimes means trudging through rather scientific memoirs on topics I don’t understand.  At the end of his story, Robison made me appreciate what he has gained from science’s assistance in his life; I can also understand his optimism toward future discoveries.  These are developments I don’t need for myself, but that I can rally behind and support for other people.

I’m in no way insinuating that I’m good at this all of the time, either.  In fact, I’m hardly good at it some of the time.  I really like reading books where the protagonist is just like me.  I want it to be easy to relate, and to feel like not only do I understand “her” (it’s usually a her), but also that we understand each other.

Still, reading is a wonderful opportunity to explore how others live.  That’s what we praise it for–we want to go to other lives in other worlds.  Stories like John Elder Robison’s offer people like me the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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