Category Archives: teen

The sparkling eyes of Mary Alice

ghost shipA ghost ship.  An evil tech gazillionaire.  A missing girl.  One boy in a red shirt.

There are so many details that add to and flesh out the characters in this excellent graphic novel – small things that quickly begin to link together everyone and everything in this book.  It’s a joy to read, quick but full of wonderful small moments – John Blake talking to the ship, shipmates who’ve escaped from other places and times. Fog fades in and out, and there’s time travel, long lost families and friends, debts to pay.

One storyline has ended, but there will be more, right?  Please?

The Adventures of John Blake:  Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman and Fred Fordham

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Luck and love and survival

survivors clubI first heard Michael Bornstein’s story on Iowa Public Radio this spring.  By the time I remembered to put myself on the holds list for it, there were quite a few people in front of me.  Anything they talk about on public radio, whether on the local shows or national shows, gets a bump in holds at the library.  It’s a nice reminder that there are other people out there listening to the same things I like, although I sometimes have to wait a while.

It’s such an incredible story – at any point, a wrong word or move could have and did mean that people he loved were led off in a different direction and killed.  Why is it that we humans seem to find, over and over, so many opportunities to dehumanize and kill each other?  It’s horrifying, and yet unsurprising, that after surviving Auschwitz and other camps, Michael and some members of his family returned home, only to be kept out of their homes and attacked by local bands of thugs who were looking for someone to brutalize and blame after the fact.

Michael was very young and very lucky.  What a gift to all of us that he shared the story, particularly now.

Survivors Club:  the true story of a very young prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

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Prequel? Do I care?

pearl thief cover USA_0Well, it depends.  This one, a prequel to Elizabeth Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity, was one I waited for, wondering if it would really match up with what I remembered of a character, her situation, and a time period.  Then, about five chapters in, I realized I didn’t really care if it was a prequel or not.  It’s just a good story.

Why?  The mystery involved in a missing man, a body, the Water Bailiff, and a family of aristocrats reminds me of great English mysteries where thin layers are peeled back, one after another, to reveal all kinds of ugliness, bitterness, secrets, and even good.  Julia Beaufort-Stuart is bold and afraid, cautious and confident, aware of her privilege but limited by its demands, too.

This book may explain a lot about the character she becomes in Code Name Verity, but while the connection is wonderful, it’s not necessary.  Julia and the story are enough.   Wonderfully enough.

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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Anger. Grief. Bitterness. Oh, and some fun.

optimists“This group…it’s like a twisted version of The Breakfast Club.

Hmmm.  I was just thinking the exact same thing.  And the author has now taken care of my whole intro to the book.  Whew!  That was hard work.

Petula’s art therapy group is an emotionally bruised group of kids which she would rather not be a part of.  If only she hadn’t thrown that cup at the other counselor…  They snipe at each other and make rude remarks, yet are somehow  exactly the kind of people she needs.  It’s only with Jacob’s arrival that they really begin to pull together and trust each other, however.

Adults are often making life miserable for Petula, but even the principal, her parents, and the goofy and well-meaning art therapist have their moments.  I loved the way the author took these wounded and struggling people and made them real, bringing their joys and sorrows into the light.  There is sadness galore, but there is also hope.   And it is funny, at least in the way that people joke after death or screwing up their lives or alienating their families.  Oh, and there are Canadians in it.  That’s a bonus, too.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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Swim with me a little while

fishgirlDavid Wiesner’s work has always been a magical and whimsical wonder.  In the author notes on this one, he mentions moving into unfamiliar territory – graphic novels – to grow as an artist.  I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this earlier, because this guy doesn’t even need words to tell a story beautifully.  Tuesday is one of my favorite picture books ever, and is one of the few author-signed books on my shelf, thanks to a family member who went to an ALA meeting several years ago.

Here, though, with Donna Jo Napoli (another wonder of storytelling), his genius rises to a whole new level.  The detail and movement in his art is perfect for the story, and it’s still magical and whimsical.  A girl without a name becomes a miracle.  Friendships grow on many levels.  We see smart girls and difficult choices and danger.   The innocent are protected and an evil is overcome.

More, more, more.

Fish Girl by David Wiesner & Donna Jo Napoli

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When your whole world is complicated

goldfish boyOne line on page 79 is what did it for me.  Matthew is watching the neighbor’s grandchildren playing outside.  Casey, the little girl, has drowned her doll in a wading pool.

“She is one scary kid,” I said to the Wallpaper Lion.

Matty talks to a scrap of wallpaper, but he’s judging Casey?   Excellent.

To Matty, world outside is maddening.  His Wallpaper Lion and obsessive hand-washing make sense.  Others in the neighborhood also have their quirks – Old Nina leaves a light on all the time, Melody saves notes to the dead and so on.  It turns out, Matty understands more about what’s really going on than most of the neighbors do.

There are more moments like this throughout the book, moments when Matty calls out the crazy in other people while clinging to his own as if his beliefs are rational and the others aren’t.  It’s done so well that you find you’ve entered into Matty’s world completely, and it does make sense.  Maybe he’s on to something?

Take a look.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

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What’s personal is political

dreamlandWill and Rowan are separated by close to a hundred years, but their efforts to confront racial discrimination and adapt to society’s expectations for them are strangely similar.  In the 1920s, Will has a tough time resisting the verbal and physical threats of Ku Klux Klan members who will eventually burn down the African-American part of Tulsa.  In the present day, Rowan isn’t sure she’s the right person to stand up, either.  Both characters make mistakes, alienate friends, and eventually find their way.

I’ll be interested to hear how readers who are African American or Native American see this book.  For me, it started a little slow, but became very compelling, especially since both sections mirror real history and current events.  I don’t know a person who hasn’t messed up something in adolescence, immediately regretted it, but then struggled with how to fix it.  It could provide a great starting point for discussions on race, expectations, and how we make choices.  The parallel lives also do a nice job of illuminating how much and how little changes over what seems like a long time.  It worked for me.  Give it a look.

Dreamland Burning  by Jennifer Latham

For another perspective, see this review at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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A priest, a doppelgänger and a gorilla go into a bar…

murderers-apeActually, it’s mostly just the gorilla.  But while reading this book, I was reminded so strongly of two other great, complicated, similar stories that I’m including all three in my intro.  This one’s just for me, people.

The Murderer’s Ape is shelved with the teen books in our public library, but I don’t remember any teens or children in it.  (It’s kind of unusual to have a middle grade or teen novel populated almost entirely by adults.)  The book is narrated by Sally Jones, a gorilla who understands human languages and is something of a mechanical genius.  She also plays chess, reads and writes, types, and appreciates Portugese Fado music.  She travels the world and solves tricky and dangerous mysteries.  In 588 pages, there is a lot to keep track of – political intrigues, lost loves, the majaraja’s wives and mother, untended graves, how to build an accordion.  I could feel the real world falling away as I read, leaving Sally Jones and her friends and the quest to free an innocent man.

It was a bit of a slow start, but once it got going, it reminded me of Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango series, which I happened across a few years ago and was just thinking of re-reading not long ago.  Between Sky and Earth begins with Vango (a seminarian about to become a priest) escaping from the police just as he’s about to make his vows in Notre Dame de Paris.  It’s an absolutely wonderful adventure, crossing oceans in zeppelins, avoiding Nazis, protecting the innocent, revealing corruption and honoring friendship.  The story continues in A Prince Without a Kingdom.  Find them if you’re looking for an epic escape.

And then there’s an even more obscure story, The Saxonian Affair.  Some years ago, my husband told my son stories during the time they spent together commuting, always coming to a cliffhanger as they pulled into the garage.  In it, a detective who isn’t really a detective finds out he looks exactly like Prince Ruprecht of Saxonia.  Marco’s adventures take him across several continents at different points.  We finally self-published the first group of stories just for us.  Once in a while, I tell my husband he should really write down the rest of them, since the world (mostly me) is really missing out on the lesser known characters of Alice Dodds and General Tostito.  But at least we’ve got Marco, Princess Marie, and all the others – it means I love the Vango stories and The Murderer’s Ape even more.  So, I might be biased.  No, really, I am biased, but I still think you’ll love this one. 

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

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Never give up

undefeated When I was in a different job and the kids were in first grade, we’d sit together and read in a quiet corner or a loud hallway.  Some would ask me, “Why don’t you just read it?”  Maybe they weren’t interested, didn’t want to, or were afraid they’d do it wrong – it could be any number of things stopping them.  But when you’re learning to read, you need the practice.  You need a lot of practice.

Jim Thorpe practiced constantly.  Even when he sat down, he visualized the next race or what he could do differently the next time. Things might have slowed him down once in a while, but it doesn’t sound like anything stopped him.  Whether on the football field or in an Olympic stadium, he and his teammates worked and prepared for excellence, even when many of the words written and thrown out at them were racist, belittling, and just plain wrong.

I’ve been waiting for this book for several months, because I’ve enjoyed Steve Sheinkin’s past work for young people.  The Port Chicago 50 and Most Dangerous are non-fiction favorites of mine, and this is a great addition.  Even if you aren’t a football fan, you might find yourself reading about the big games with a surprising amount of intensity.

I’m also a fan of Bill Bryson–graduate of the high school up the road from me.  I’m always telling people how much I like his work.  He could write about pineapple plantations or particle physics, and I’d read it.  He can write about things I’m not interested in at all, and I know I’ll still love reading it.  Bill Bryson, here’s your new buddy.  Write about anything, Steve Sheinkin.  I’ll read it.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

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For friends of Jane

secrets-in-the-snow-coverMurder.  Social climbers.  Love.  Jane Austen references.

Jane Austen is one of my go-to authors if I’ve just had too much of anything – teen drama, fast-moving action thrillers, strange stories that start off one thing and end up another.  Once in a while I enjoy reading the various offshoots of her work, which either use Jane as a character or set stories in the world of her characters.  There are modern romcom versions, graphic novels, zombies.  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a favorite of mine. The Stephanie Barron Jane mysteries and Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated Pride and PrejudiceEligible— are also good examples.

Secrets in the Snow is a new addition to this collection, focusing on a teenaged Jane Austen.  Michaela MacColl has taken bits and pieces of Jane’s life and her books and thrown in a murder, and it works.  There are lies and secrets and love… everything you’d expect.  It’s a good read for a cold, snowy day (which would match the cover) when you need a break from the real world.

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

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