Towers Falling

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Towers Falling
Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
July 2016

When Deja starts 5th grade at a new school near her destitute family’s one-room apartment in Brooklyn, her guard is up so firmly that it seems no one can reach her. Then some friendly classmates and a string of school assignments that hint at a great tragedy – September 11 – start to break down her defenses. As she digs for more information on 9/11, the reach of the effects of the tragedy, now 15 years in the past, become ever more apparent. It all culminates in the realization that her father was working at the World Trade Center on that day. Addressing issues of homelessness, racism, acceptance, and friendship, this book should be a home run for middle grade fiction, but the delivery falls flat. Unlike her bold handling of Hurricane Katrina in Ninth Ward, Rhodes approaches September 11 with a timidity that shows a lack of trust in her middle-grade audience. Confusing phrasing, unrealistic dialogue, and Deja’s inexplicable cluelessness about 9/11 prevent deep investment in the story. If you can make it to the final pages, Deja’s father’s description of escaping the burning tower is a welcome reward. Otherwise this book seems to be written for adults who are afraid to approach the topic of 9/11 with children, making it potentially useful for teachers but a disappointingly lackluster read.

More books about 9/11 and the World Trade Center

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (I once unintentionally talked to 1st graders about 9/11 using this book)
Fireboat
 by Maira Kalman
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

Half the World

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Half the World
Joe Abercombie
Del Rey
February 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

Thorn, a girl training to be a warrior of Gettland, has to work twice as hard in the training ring for half the respect (sound familiar, ladies?). When she is questionably accused of murder, it takes the minister of Gettland, Brother Yarvi, to rescue her from execution and start her down the road to become one of the greatest fighters in the kingdom. Brand grew up training with Thorn, and in defending her against the murder charge, gets his own warrior dreams dashed. Luckily Yarvi sees potential in him as well and recruits Thorn, Brand, and a band of misfits from different kingdoms to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to gain allies that will help the king and queen of Gettland lead an uprising against the High King and his abusive minister Grandmother Wexen. Thorn and Brand each have their moments to be the hero of the journey, but when they return to Gettland a year later and without as much support as they had hoped for, they find things have changed and war is threatening to bear down on Gettland. They must be ready to fight. Strong female characters and a thrilling duel at the end makes Half the World a compelling read that stays true to its high fantasy roots but includes a much more diverse characters, including people of color and some kick-ass women. Books like this move the genre in the right direction.

Half the World is the second book in the Shattered Sea series. I didn’t read the first book and never felt like I missed any information from the first book, Half a King. The next book, Half a War, is already out and is going on my to-read list.

Read Alikes

Graceling by Kristen Cashore
Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin

Windows and Mirrors

Earlier this year children’s author and illustrator Grace Lin gave a TED Talk about the import role of children’s books in helping a child see both the world and him or herself. In order to do that effectively, we need to offer children books with characters like them, no matter their race, religion, gender, class, or background.

For more resources about diverse children’s books, please visit We Need Diverse Books. You can also look for the “diverse books” tag on my reviews and posts.

Bones and All

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Bones and All
Camille DeAngelis
St. Martin’s Press
March 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

Sixteen-year-old Maren lives with an unusual affliction – spontaneous cannibalism. Since she was a baby, whenever she has warm or romantic feelings toward a person, she can’t stop herself from eating that person, causing her and her mother to be constantly on the lam, running from the last incident before law enforcement got suspicious. Now Maren is 16 and her mother has left her to fend for herself with only some money and Maren’s birth certificate, which happens to list her absent father’s name. With nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, Maren hits the road to find the father she never knew. Along the way she meets regular, friendly people who just want to help her as well as other cannibals who have learned to cover their tracks as well as Maren has. Her journey takes her all over the Eastern U.S., making this a horror/road trip novel as well as a something that is borderline paranormal romance. The premise is compelling in its strangeness if you can stomach the cannibalism, which is rarely described in gory detail. In the hands of a more indulgent or Stephen-King-esque writer, this could have gotten really gross, but DeAngelis gives you just enough detail to let your imagination fill in the gaps. However, this lack of detail begs a lot of questions. For example, at the end of a feeding, Maren is left with a grocery bag’s worth of remains, much less space than is needed to simply pack up the bones of an adult human. So what’s in the bag? Just clothing? Did she eat the bones (as the title suggests) and any parts in the bag are just what she refuses to eat out of necessity or decency? What are her teeth like to allow her to do this? How is this even possible? Am I overthinking this? How long until I can eat a medium-rare steak without thinking about this book? This almost goes without saying, but there is also a lot of suspension of belief going on. Things seem to happen too easily and a lot goes completely unexplained.

This book reminded me of a grad school conversation in a class about censorship and gatekeepers. Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book and a man of almost consummate children’s literature knowledge, taught the class and on the last day asked us to think of topics that are still so taboo in literature for children, which in our case included YA, that they are never written about. We didn’t come up with many ideas but cannibalism was one that we agreed was off-limits for children’s lit. The Alex Awards are for adult books that appeal to teens, so I can’t quite check cannibalism off the list of verboten topics based on Bones and All, but it’s pretty close.

Read Alikes

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

The 2016 Hub Reading Challenge: Challenge Accepted

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Every year the Young Adult Library Services Association’s literature blog, The Hub, hosts a challenge to read at least 25 YA titles that were awarded or honored by the Youth Media Awards that year in a limited amount of time (this year the challenge runs January 25 through June 23). This is my first year doing it, and of course, I’ll be blogging all about the books I’m reading here. You can also find the books I plan to read on my Hub Challenge Goodreads shelf.

While there are 90-some-odd titles to choose from, my choices will be limited to whatever titles I can get in e-book from my libraries back in Boston, making it a little extra challenging. I’m living in Israel up until the last 3 weeks of the challenge and English books are expensive and difficult to find here. If I run out of options near the end, I may be forced to buy an e-book or two but I’m going to get as far as I can on library books.

Anyone can participate in the challenge, so please sign up! You can read more about the challenge – guidelines, a list of eligible books, prizes – and declare your participation at The Hub blog.

NaNoReadMo: Punkzilla

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Punkzilla
Adam Rapp
Candlewick
May 2009

Jaime, aka Punkzilla, is a 14-year-old runaway on a road trip from Portland, Oregon, to Memphis, racing against time to see his older brother Peter, aka P, who is dying from cancer. Told in a series of letters addressed to P but kept, most likely permanently, in his notebook, Jaime rehashes the last few months of his life – escaping the military academy his parents sent him to, living as a homeless teen, doing meth and other drugs, stealing electronics and committing other petty crimes to survive – and his current road trip across the country. On his way he meets all manner of people in encounters that range from scary – getting mugged in a men’s restroom and later preyed upon by an adult sexual predator – to formative – falling in love and losing his virginity to a girl with Lupus and striking up a friendship with a transgendered man named Lewis. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is full of run-on sentences, swearing, anecdotes, soul searching, and identity questioning, Punkzilla presents in a raw and unflinching way the kind of teen that society pushes to the margins and largely pretends doesn’t exist, and it will have you rooting for him to make it to his brother and through life all the way.

As someone who grew up relatively sheltered and privileged, Punkzilla had passages that I found hard to read and others that made me plush but in a way that makes you feel more alive when you come out at the other end of it. Since I first read this book, I have come to work with teens who have similar issues to Jamie – homelessness, criminal history, abuse, and drug addiction, among other things. I so appreciate books like Punkzilla both for providing me a small window into harsh realities and for giving me something that I can hand these kids that’s not another sugarcoated teen problem novel full of “first-world problems.” They may not be the most uplifting or best selling (through Punkzilla did get a Printz honor), but books like this are so important when we talk about teens seeing themselves in the books they read and feeling that their stories are represented.

Read alikes:

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Keesha’s House by Helen Frost
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
 by Hunter S. Thompson

Who are they protecting?: Censorship of books for teens

As someone who selects and hands out children’s and young adult books for a living, I’m no stranger to censorship. Granted, here in liberal Boston it doesn’t happen as often as I imagine it does in some other places, but it does happen. And when it does, especially with books for teens, my mind always goes back to an opinion piece Sherman Alexie wrote for the Wall Street Journal back in 2011, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.”

In the article, Alexie, a well respected adult author who broke in big on the YA book scene in 2007 with his semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, explains how books about traditionally controversial topics – sex, violence, addiction, crime, abandonment – can be lifesavers, especially for teens suffering from these issues. He knows firsthand because of the reaction teens had to his book and the fact that Part-Time Indian has been challenged in no less than 3 school districts across the country. He also knows because he was a teen who lived with abuse and addiction:

In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?

“Wow, you are way, way too late.”

The notion that censorship of books could somehow protect a teen who had already faced down those demons and lived through it is not only too-little-too-late, but it is also incredibly condescending. Pretending that the horrors of the world that so many teens suffer through do not exist and should not be shared in the safest and most private space of all – a book. Alexie puts it best:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

Every year around this time, Banned Books Week attempts to bring censorship back into the public consciousness, and year after year people write and talk about how censorship is bad. However, it’s not enough to denounce book banning or censorship. It is so much more important – and difficult – to talk about why censorship, not the content it supposedly saves people from, is harmful and who is harmed by it, and the purposes that censorship really serves – fear, control, and the selfish protection of the adults who take these books out of teens’ hands.