Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
For the month of April, I chose a teen title to blog about, and the one I picked was a lucky choice.
“Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi is set on the United States Gulf coast following an unnamed apocalyptic event. It’s pretty much every person for themselves, and life is hard and cruel, although small communities have sprung up. Nailer, a teen age boy, is a scavenger of huge cargo tankers, along with crews of other young people who can fit into the small spaces of the ships to search for prized copper wire. A devastating hurricane upsets the already delicate balance of life, and after the storm has passed Nailer and a friend find a large passenger sailboat that has been wrecked. Amazingly, one person has survived, a teen age girl who claims to be from a very wealthy family. She says they will pay richly for her return- but does she really want to go back, and is she telling the truth?
What I really liked about this book was the imagined look at what life could be in the United States if there was a total breakdown of modern life as we know it. It’s a world where living by your wits and skills are the main keys to survival, and trust is not given lightly. “Ship Breakers” is a National Book Award finalist, and fortunately there is a sequel, which I definitely am going to read.
Sixth grade was a big birthday year for me. My older sister gave me earrings with my birthstone and proceeded to pierce my ears, using the ice cube/potato/“match-sterilized needle” method, without our parents’ permission. Luckily my earlobes didn’t get infected, and I could hide the evidence from Mom and Dad till my earlobes had healed by keeping my longish hair down around my face.
That same birthday a friend gave me The Outsiders. This book rocked my world. I grew up in a smallish town, where the main social difference I knew to that point were country kids vs. town kids, and we didn’t fight. We just had different lives. I read the book over and over, and then again every few years into my 20s. I knew the first sentence by heart and thought it was cool how the author (S.E. Hinton) wrapped that sentence back into the last line of the book.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” With this sentence, Ponyboy Curtis launches into an amazing story which just doesn’t quit. He’s about to get jumped by the Socs for being a greaser. The ‘Socs’ are the rich west-side kids, who hold beer blasts, drive fancy cars and jump ‘greasers’ for fun. Ponyboy, his brothers and friends, are ‘greasers,’ the poorer east-side kids. They have a reputation for robbing gas stations, holding gang fights and wearing their long hair greased back. But not all greasers are alike, and neither are all Socs, as Ponyboy learns, after a lot of violence, heartbreak and growing up.
I’ve recently been re-reading The Outsiders, and I can’t put it down. It still grabs my heart. It ranks in my memory right up there with The Pigman and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I have not read much in the way of teen novels lately, but did get around to Paul Griffin’s 2010 effort entitled The Orange Houses. It concerns three rather unlikely allies, brought together by various circumstances into a state of friendship. The novel takes place during the course of a little over one month and the stories of these three individuals are told in alternating chapters.
First, there is Tamika, or Mik, who has been partially deaf since childhood. She attends a tough high school and manages to close herself off to the world around her by using her disability as an excuse.
Then there’s Jimmi Sixes, a nineteen year old war veteran, whose girlfriend committed suicide while he was enlisted. He turns to drugs, and despite trying to straighten up his life, his thoughts are regularly interrupted by a nagging question...Is life really worth living? And if so, then at what expense? Although he is Mik’s protective friend, (especially from the bullies she encounters at school), he is nonetheless detested by her mother as being a bad influence.
Finally, there is Fatima, a rather gentle soul who is an illegal immigrant from Africa. She arrives in New York on a ship all alone, with only the clothes on her back. She is looking and hoping for a better future in the United States and longs to see the Statue of Liberty up close. She is also a whiz at making beautiful, folded paper creations that are endearing mementos to those she shares them with.
This novel is a fast moving and absorbing read, ending in a dreadful outcome that the reader will not soon forget. The “orange houses” in the title refers to the projects, where all three characters reside; a place that offers little hope of redemption, where poverty prevails and where life is put on hold. The book made it onto the 2010 list of the best books for teens.
Reading this novel, brought back very fond memories of meeting one of my favorite teen authors, Robert Cormier, who did a book talk at Kent State University in the late 1970s while I attended library school there.
During the mid to late 70s and beyond, Mr. Cormier had written The Chocolate War, published in 1974 and I Am the Cheese, published in 1977, probably his most prominent and attention receiving books that were later made into movies. His other works included Beyond the Chocolate War, Tunes for Bears to Dance To, After the First Death, and Other Bells for Us to Ring.
His novels were famous at the time for their complex intensity. They covered sensitive as well as controversial themes, such as abuse, violence, revenge, betrayal, and conspiracy.
All in all Cormier, who passed away in late 2000, was considered by many experts as a gifted author and a major influence on teen literature. To this day, KPL still owns many of his books in their collection, and if you are not familiar with his writings, whether you are a teen or not, do yourself a favor and check them out.
The Orange Houses
This book is the story of Sam Lewis and the events that unfold during the 33 Minutes until Morgan Sturtz kicks his butt at recess (and then around 60 more minutes of aftermath). The author speaks directly to his tween audience, and gets it right. The voice of middle school is heard loud and clear over food fights, fire alarms and friendships. It’s funny, fast paced, heart-warming and breaking all at once. It’s the perfect book to recommend to kids that are starting to outgrow the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The lessons in 33 Minutes on friendship and staying true to one’s self will stick with the reader long after the worst day of Sam’s life and his middle school years have passed. I think it would be awesome to have a teacher like Ms. Z who can say: “This sucks….Wait. Be patient. You’re not going to be here forever. And in the meantime, even though you and this place don’t fit together so great all the time, be you.” Now, a sigh of relief from me that middle school has passed and that authors like Todd Hasak-Lowy are writing realistic books for tweens to read during the transition of middle school. Meet Todd at Bookbug in Kalamazoo on May 5 at 4 pm!
“The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” sang Geddy Lee, lead singer of my favorite band Rush when I was a teenager growing up in a Chicago suburb. This is not the case in Shaun Tan’s book of mini-surreal masterpieces, Tales From Outer Suburbia. In these suburbs, there is a water buffalo that answers questions in an empty lot, a dugong (manatee type creature) that appears on someone’s lawn, ICBMs in everyone’s backyard, and a man wandering around in a diving suit.
I found the stories from Tales From Outer Suburbia to be a little too bizarre at first, but my compulsion to finish books that I’ve started carried me through until I slowly became enchanted. The stories feature physical manifestations of the hopes and fears of the people who live in these suburbs and they wove their way into my psyche and released strong feelings of wonder, healing, and letting go. The strange story lines somehow open you up and leave you thinking about them long after you have read them.
I especially identified with a story about two brothers who have a map of their suburb and decide to walk to where the map ends to see what is there. It reminded me of a 10 mile hike my brother and I took to complete the hiking merit badge. We weren’t going to get “out in nature” anytime soon, so we just decided to walk around our Chicago suburb (which, oddly enough, included a stop at the public library to pick up some 8mm films). The experience did have a surreal feeling and it completely changed the way I felt about where I lived. Walking gives you such an intimate connection with your surroundings and it empowered me, as I went to places I had only gone with my parents up to that point.
I was so struck by the book that I asked my son if I could read him the extremely short stories before he went to bed. He agreed and loved the stories and I got to have the nice experience of reading aloud to him that I hadn’t had in several years and to talk a little bit about what it is like to have an older brother who is always right.
Tale From Outer Suburbia
An idea hatched in our KPL Innovation Team to celebrate the popularity of teen novels to adult readers during the month of April. No other segment of the publishing industry has consistently grown over the past few years. Adults are unabashedly checking out novels specifically written for teens. In 2012, Amazon listed John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as one of the overall Ten Best Books of the Year which is quite an accomplishment when measured against the adult competition. I spent the first half of my career at KPL as the Teen Services Librarian and during that time a new “Golden Age” of Teen Literature had begun. During that time I read hundreds of novels for teens and below list the five titles I would want with me if stranded on a desert island.
1.Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas – The creator of the cult classic TV show Veronica Mars pens a now classic tale of Steve York, troubled teen and son of an astronaut. York is charged with writing an essay about his life in order to graduate. The result is a hilarious look at one teen’s transformation from shooting star to crashed space debris.
2. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher – Disfigured Sarah and formerly fat kid Eric are unlikely friends. When she enters a mental institution, Eric learns the story behind her “accident” and demonstrates incredible loyalty to readers. The in-class discussions the teens have in this novel are amazing.
3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – Melinda is raped at a party right before entering high school. When she is discovered calling the police by her friends, they turn on her because they are unaware of her situation. She decides not to speak during the school year and is haunted in the halls every day by her attacker.
4. Feed by M.T. Anderson – In the future humans are implanted with feeds to help them digitally navigate the world. Titus and his friends love being able to interact with one another, immediately order clothes, and listen to the latest music. His view changes when he meets Violet, a girl with a damaged feed and little hope for the future.
5. Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block – Five short novels combined to make a magical book featuring the eccentric Weetzie Bat and friends. A modern fairy tale of mysticism, and hot dogs that is filled with inventive slang, colorful settings, and most importantly a huge dose of love in a dangerous world.
Rats Saw God
Artemis Fowl is a 12 year old boy genius who kidnaps a fairy in order to get her gold. This is the first in a series and is titled Artemis Fowl. Artemis is what every 12 year old boy wants to be. His mom has dementia so he is not hampered by her rules and having to go to school, yet he does miss her and would still like to have her back as his mom. Artemis has a man servant with the last name of Butler who is huge and protects Artemis. The first thing that happens is that Artemis captures a fairy book. With this first chapter we are introduced to Artemis and find out that he has a castle, has a great computer network, that he is always two steps ahead of everyone and that Butler is very strong and dedicated. Artemis uses the knowledge in this fairy book to ambush Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon fairy unit. He holds her hostage and demands a ton of gold. The fairies try to get Holly back but are defeated time after time by Artemis. Root, a commander in the LEPrecon unit decides to send in a dwarf named Mulch. This book is written for a teen age audience. It is heavy into to fairies, dwarfs, goblins, trolls etc. It also has the gassy fart humor that teen age boys enjoy. The drawf can unhinge his jaw and tunnel through dirt. Prior to starting he also opens the back flap of his tunneling pants because what goes in the jaw comes out the other end. He also builds up a tremendous amount of air pressure and he actually is able to use this to incapacitate Butler. This book is full of details about fairy life. This is book one of a series. I got my copy from KPL's digital audio collection but we also have them in hard copy. I look forward to “reading” (having them read to me) the others.
Having spent the first part of my KPL career working in the Teen Services area, I had the opportunity to be exposed to a whole new genre of literature that I’m quite sure didn’t really exist when I was a teen. As a result, and because I had to know what I was talking about when recommending books, I read perhaps a disproportionate amount of teen literature as an adult. Among some of my favorites, in no particular order, were:
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
As I review this list, I recognize that the overriding theme of most of these titles is self-identity, obviously a developmental hallmark for kids between the ages of 12 and 18. I also recognize honest characters, humor, and intelligent writing as some common features of many of these books, things that I would think are important to kids today who are looking for a book that will be worth the time it takes to read…no small task in this digital age of immediate gratification.
What’s worth noting, however, is that those themes still speak to me as an adult and that sometimes, tackling them through the eyes of young protagonist gives me just the perspective I need in my own life.
If you haven’t been to the Teen room lately, you owe it to yourself to check it out and perhaps find a book that will appeal to you.
Beach reads can be great, but they imply a certain amount of fluffiness that simply doesn't come to mind when I think about Huntley Fitzpatrick's My Life Next Door. Not that you'd know that just from a quick glance at the cover art and brief description... so I was surprised when I quickly discovered that My Life Next Door is most definitely not a turn off your brain and settle in for a comfy, sedate ride kind of book. Instead, it was filled with angst, painful decisions, and intense romance and friendship and family drama.
The characters of My Life Next Door are one of the best aspects of the novel. Each has a very distinct personality, so, despite there being quite a few children running around in various passages, each character was easily identified. I felt like I knew these characters... like maybe I lived on the other side of the Garrett's growing up and we all happened to be neighbors. I found myself tightly wrapped in the emotional ups and downs of these characters.
The main character, Samantha, is not perfect, though she's spent much of her life trying to fit the image her mother so carefully cultivates. I cheered each of Sam's rebel moments, proud of her for doing something for herself rather than her mother. And I appreciated the fact that Sam really didn't do anything that would be harmful to herself. Her rebellion wasn't full of drugs, alcohol, and sex, but rather the bravery to accept the sometimes messy, but rewarding parts of life outside of one's comfort zone.
Huntley Fitzpatrick is a talented writer and I can easily imagine her novels gaining a healthy following, much like Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti's novels. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting news of her next project!
My Life Next Door
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.