Thursday, July 30, 2015

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Violet Markey and Theodore Finch do not meet cute—they meet dire. Atop the bell tower at their school, each looking for a way out. A way out of relentless grief, in Violet’s case, and a way out of the darkness of depression, in Theodore’s case.  For Violet, this is the first time she’s been on this ledge, literally and figuratively. Finch, on the other hand, has become a morbid authority on the subject of suicide. Finch talks Violet down from the ledge and then joins her in safety, gallantly creating the public image that she was only up there to rescue him, someone all his classmates already know to be a “Freak.”

Neither Violet nor Finch jump or fall in the opening of Jennifer Niven’s emotionally charged young adult novel, All The Bright Places. But they do fall for each other, as the manic pixie dream boy antics of Finch prove an elixir for Violet, who has entombed herself in grief since the car accident that killed her older sister, Eleanor. And Violet’s embrace of Finch’s essential goodness allows him to rise above the “Freak” label his undiagnosed bipolar disorder has burdened him with for years.
When Finch offers/insists on being Violet’s partner for their Indiana state history project, one that involves “wandering” around the state in search of notable sites, All The Bright Places becomes, for a time, a clever gender twist on the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. Finch brings a brightness and spontaneity into Violet’s life that chips away been at her grief and survivor’s guilt.

But Finch is more than a manic pixie dream boy—he is also a depressed gnomic nightmare boy, one who has always ridden out his depressive episodes alone, as one would growing up with an abusive father and an emotionally absent mother.  And despite the brightness Violet has brought to his life, Finch finds himself unable to accept help, mostly because of his misguided but understandable notion that to accept such help means to assent to a label. Having endured the “Freak” label throughout his adolescence, Finch fears the yoke the “bipolar” label will add.

Using the shared narration of Finch and Violet, Nevin has crafted a moving depiction of a complicated teenage romance. She has also, to her credit, avoided any semblance of a simplistic happy ending, showing a respect for her teenage (and adult) readers that the young adult genre is too often without, particularly when dealing with weighty issues like mental illness and suicidal ideation.

Finch is a musician and a songwriter, and Violet is a writer, though writing too fell away in her passionless post-Eleanor life. Words, beyond their denotations, mean something to these characters. So I leave you with some words from Scottish songwriter Roddy Woomble, words that would fit well in Nevin’s plaintive author’s note:

“Don’t let the darkness become another form of light.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

Wayside School was supposed to be a one-story building with thirty classrooms. The builder accidentally made each classroom an entire level, making the building look more like a skyscraper than a school! (Oh, and no matter what anyone tells you, there is no nineteenth story.)

Each chapter in Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar focuses on a different character from one class in particular: the class on the thirteenth story. Mrs. Gorf is known for being the meanest teacher at the school. She turns bad kids into apples. Then something unbelievable happens (shh - only the kids in her class know what happened!) and she is replaced by Mrs. Jewls, a very nice lady who is incredibly nervous about her new job. Luckily, the kids take to her, and she stays.

Mrs. Jewls could not have known how very . . . unique these students would be. Take Sharie, who "spen(ds) all of her time either looking out the window or sleeping," then falls out of the window and stays fast sleep until she is caught by Louis, the yard teacher. Consider Kathy, who does not like anyone, or Maurecia, who is liked by everyone (except Kathy) but only really likes ice cream. Meet artistic Bebe, gum-chewing Joy, mysterious Sammy, the three Erics, and more.

The characters reappear in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger and Wayside School is Falling Down, each aptly titled, each illustrated in a similar manner. Just when you think things can't get any stranger at Wayside School, they do! Look at the cafeteria food closely, and watch out for the cows. Young readers will wish their school was as silly as Wayside School. Prepare to laugh 'til the cows come home. Really.

The last two books in the line, Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School and More Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School combine quizzes and logic puzzles with story bits. There's a new student at Wayside, and she doesn't quite understand how YOU + ME is a math problem. Oh, but it is!

These books are fun to read out loud in an elementary school classroom. Have kids discuss their favorite character, or vote for the character with the coolest-sounding name. The chapters are very short, so it's also great for kids who are just latching on to chapter books as well as reluctant readers. Students could also create a new character - a new student, a new teacher, a new....rat? - and write a new chapter mimicking the author's writing style.

The books in order:
- Sideways Stories from Wayside School
- Wayside School is Falling Down
- Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger
- Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School
- More Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Read this book: Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

I rarely say this, but you have to read this book. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the kind of history writing that teachers dream about it. It's factually accurate, for westerners covers a little known period of history, is passionately written and filled with riveting prose. Simply put, this is the book you have to read if you want to understand modern Russia.

Have I persuaded you yet?

I was fairly surprised that Anderson would be the one to write a book like Symphony as it is straight up history and built around an adult protagonist (composer Dmitri Shostakovich). Anderson is a great writer, but still, for all that he has written historical fiction in the past,  this title does not give him the room to manufacture drama. He had to follow the story exactly where it took him and let it tell itself as events occurred. As a Russian story set first in the time of the last tsar and then under Lenin and Stalin, there is a lot of politics and some of the pages are far less gripping than others. But Anderson is patient and smart and so exceedingly skilled that he makes the machinations of the Soviet state in the Russian breadbasket during the 1920s read as incredibly exciting.

I don't know how he does it, I just know that he does and you have got to read this book.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

It all started with a post on tumblr. Simon Spier was checking out his high school’s unofficial tumblr, supposedly “a place where you can post anonymous confessions and secret random thoughts, and people can comment, but no one really judges you. Except it all kind of devolved into this sinkhole of gossip and bad poetry and misspelled Bible quotes. And,” as Simon puts it, “I guess it’s kind of addictive either way.”

Anyway, this post by someone calling himself Blue was different and it just resonated by Simon. It put into words some of the things Simon felt and stuck with him so much that he had to comment on it, pseudonymously (using his secret Gmail address), hoping that Blue would respond. And Blue did.

Now Simon and Blue are emailing each other. A lot. About being gay. About their families. About pretty much everything, except their true identities. Blue doesn’t know the person he’s corresponding with is actually Simon, and Simon doesn’t know who Blue really is. Which Simon would really like to change, because he is totally falling for Blue.

Then Martin Addison—seemingly harmless Martin Addison—uses a library computer right after Simon, heads to Google, notices that Simon forgot to log out of his secret Gmail account, and reads some of the emails Simon and Blue have exchanged. And, well, you know, it’s not that Simon is ashamed or afraid of being gay. Because he’s not. It’s just that he hasn’t told anyone about it yet (except for Blue, who doesn’t even know the person behind is Simon), and it’s not Martin’s place to share this with anyone. But Martin has a crush on Abby, one of Simon’s best friends, and if Simon doesn’t help him out with Abby… Well, Martin just wants to let Simon know he has screenshots of the emails, and who knows what could happen with them.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia

Former underground fighter Owen Z. Pitt thought he had turned his life around, thought he'd finally found a way to have a perfectly boring, respectable life. After all, what's more boring and respectable than being an accountant, right? But when his boss turns out to be an out-of-control werewolf, those less-respectable skills at buttkicking allow Owen to survive a vicious attack. Of course, the whole werewolf thing comes as a bit of a shock, but it all begins to come into focus when Owen is recruited by a mercenary bounty-hunting organization called Monster Hunter International, devoted to hunting and exterminating paranormal threats to the planet, and making big bucks in the process.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Freedom. Love. Family. Tyranny. Trust. 
All words that come to mind in relation to the epic story Sabaa Tahir has woven for her readers. 
The more I read, the more I wanted to know about the lives and society she had created for us. I wanted to know how far she would push her male and female protagonists and the cast of characters around them. What each of them was willing to do to secure freedom, to love, for their family - or in spite of it, all in the face of a tyrannical regime. 
Who could be trusted to help Elias and Laia - could they even trust each other? 
I thoroughly enjoyed finding out! For all of those readers out there looking for a new world to sink their teeth in to with new protagonists to cheer for - even if you don't really WANT to cheer for them - I highly recommend An Ember in the Ashes. I seriously hope that she gets to continue this story for us in the VERY near future!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A List of Things That Didn't Kill Me: A Memoir by Jason Schmidt

Youth non fiction is not something I read a lot so when I picked up this book it was partly to fill that void and expand my horizons and it was partly because the name of the book was so intriguing I actually thought it was a fictional tale and I had to look at the call number a few times to convince myself that it wasn't.

This boy's life was harrowing almost from a very young age. His parents' divorce affected him financially as his father's erratic behavior and anti-establishment nature lead him to constantly uproot them and even when they settled somewhere it was usually next to other people with substance abuse problems and dubious parenting skills.

The events in this story occurred in the late seventies and early eighties and while I am not saying things in this book don't occur now, the advent of technology certainly makes it easier for behavior to be monitored and addressed.

The book is heart wrenching at times and you really feel for Mr. Schmidt. He writes about things in such a matter-of-fact, dispassionate manner that it makes it even more difficult to read. He mentions few details about school in his formative years and as a former teacher I am quite shocked that he didn't need counseling and/or  lengthy visits with the school social worker. It is a testament to his natural intelligence and drive that he was able to pick up his schooling later on despite having missed a fair amount of instruction due to his father's reticence about the education system and Mr. Schmidt's own behavioral issues.

In addition to being a coming-of-age story, this is a story about a deadly health crisis, its toll on a family and on the psyche of a young boy. I imagine that writing this book must have been very cathartic for Mr. Schmidt as his father dealt with a host of issues which he struggled to deal with adequately. Because of the strong language, drug references and other strong content I recommend this book for ages 13+.

You can see this and other reviews on my blog here. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki

Rose Wallace's family have been going to Awago Beach every summer since, in Rose's words "like forever."

I'm going to be honest, this beautiful graphic novel had me hooked as soon as I saw the illustrated Tim Horton's coffee cup nestled snugly in the cup holder of Rose's father's car. I had no idea this was about a Canadian holiday, luckily, I had no idea what this story was about before reading it, which is, I think, the best way to approach it. 

Due to the aforementioned Tim Horton's cup, This One Summer caused a deluge of memories for me: Visiting my grandparent's cottage on the lake in southwestern Nova Scotia, canning to the tiny sandy beaches sprinkled around the lake like smears of whip cream against the dark green backdrop of the woods beyond them. Making campfires, roasting s'mores, accidentally putting a fish hook straight through my friend Cory's finger and watching him faint from the sight of it and my brother and I having to literally carry him the half mile back to the - wait, I'm going off on a tangent here, back to This One Summer.

Every summer, Rose meets her friend Wendy, who stays in a nearby cottage. This particular summer, Rose and Wendy decide to plough through as many horror movies as they can, rented from the local convenience store, which also sells a barrage of candy and of course, turkey jerky. Rose is also struck by the boy who works at the store, even though he's much older, 18 to her 13? 14? We're never really told how old Rose is but it doesn't matter, her experience throughout this story can cover the entire tween to early teen experience.

The summer isn't spent in idyllic bliss, however. Rose must deal with her parent's constant bickering, which surrounds a family secret that I won't spoil here, you'll just have to read it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

MIKE'S PLACE by Jack Baxter & Joshua Faudem, illus. by Koren Shadmi

Riveting is the first word that comes to mind, once you've finished this graphic novel from :01 First Second and stopped saying things like, "Oh my G-d, oh my G-d."

MIKE'S PLACE: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv tells the interwoven stories that form the whole of the suicide bombing that blew apart a popular club in Tel Aviv in 2003. It starts in 2003, just before an American filmmaker named Jack turns up in Israel to start an independent movie about Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian on trial in Israel for orchestrating terrorism, only to find that another film crew was already well in-process.

Instead, Jack decides to film at Mike's Place, a popular bar where politics weren't allowed. As Gal, the owner of the club says early on, "Mike's Place is the real Israel--the best part of the Middle East." Jack hires Joshua, a bartender from Mike's with a degree from film school in Prague, to be his cameraman, and shooting ensues, including lots of interviews with the people who work at the club as well as footage of what it's like at Mike's Place each night.

Throughout the graphic novel, other stories are interspersed - we see two British citizens who are preparing some sort of attack, and learn about the relationships among the people at Mike's Place, including a bit of their history and the nature of their relationships. We learn, too, a bit about everyday life in Israel along the way.

The book is split into six sections, each one introduced with words from the Qur'an. As the authors say at the close: "Our long-time friend and prominent Muslim-American cleric, Imam Benjamin Bilal, helped select the scriptures from the Qur'an that are quoted at the beginning of the six chapters of this graphic novel. We wanted to show that if Asif and Omar (the bombers) had perhaps meditated upon and understood these sacred words things may have worked out differently for them and for the victims of the terror act they committed in the name of their religion and politics."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Round Ireland With a Fridge by Tony Hawks

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Tony Hawks hitchhiked around the perimeter of Ireland in 1997 with a fridge to win a one hundred pounds from a drunken bet with a friend.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Six by Mark Alpert

The Six

A hardcore science fiction joyride.


What happens when you take six dying teens and upload their brains into the most technologically advanced robots ever created by man? You get a team of unruly superheroes who are the only hope for destroying a rogue Artificial Intelligence hell-bent on the destruction of all humanity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress

The best way to describe Nancy Kress's writing is that she writes emotionally engaging sci-fi, like extended versions of Twilight Zone episodes that would make really cool movies, except you know Hollywood would really mess them up.

On the eve that Geneticist Marianne Jenner is celebrating her recent discovery she is asked -- invited almost against her will -- to assist in a project being arranged by the aliens that have recently parked their vehicle just alongside the moon. Yes, the aliens have arrived, and set up a sort of floating embassy in New York harbor, and everyone is reading their own personal mania into their arrival. It's the end of the earth. They've come to save us from ourselves. They are proof of God, or no God, or they are our new gods. They say they are here to help us, to share their technology, to save us, but we've all seen that show, twice (hello V), we won't be fooled again. Or will we?

On the emotional side of things Dr. Jenner has three adult children, one a cop for homeland security, one a scientist, and one a drugged out loser strung out on Sugar who's never felt like he belonged anywhere. While they argue the point and value of the alien visitors it is impossible to avoid they are all intricately linked to the success or failure of the visitation. In the end lingered the big question: who is saving whom?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Writing by Example

Suppose you've never changed the headlight on a car, but you want to try it. You come across these instructions:

Undo the bolt at the top of the air filter box, lift the top open and remove the filter from the engine compartment. Then, undo the fasteners holding the air dam in place and remove it from the filter box (driver's side bulb replacement only.)

Huh? You might, reading that, take your car straight to a local garage and ask them to just do the job at any damn price. Or you'd run to the Internet and search for a YouTube video to show you what and where, for starters, an air filter box is.

If you are like me, you need a clear example to follow when doing or DIY project or even when trying something more abstract, like writing fiction. There are a lot of fiction writing instruction books out there, and while most of them give you examples to follow, the examples are usually only individual sentences or paragraphs. The focus of most writing instruction is on dispensing advice and wisdom: how to schedule your writing time, or how many words a day to write, or what types of stories to start with, or what editors are looking for, or what basic plots nearly all stories fall into. Some of these books are interesting or even inspiring reads, but few are really useful when it comes time to actually transfer the stuff in your brain to words on a page. What you need is someone, preferably a seasoned pro, to actually show you how it's done. You need the equivalent of a YouTube how-to video for the writing process.

That's what The Anatomy of Curiosity brings you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's ListI constantly have students asking for books about the Holocaust, and now I have another great one to add to my collection.  THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX by Leon Leyson will add an interesting perspective for students searching for more knowledge about that terrible time in the history of our world.

Leon Leyson lived in Krakow, Poland, with his family.  His childhood was filled with family, school, and friends until the Nazis arrived and at the age of ten he was forced to leave school and begin the fight to survive.