NaNoReadMo: Punkzilla


Adam Rapp
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


What’s the rhythm, Langston? Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast


Hold Fast
Blue Balliett
Available March 2013

How can a bicycle accident, a Dutch diamond heist, an old Langston Hughes poetry book, and some librarians launch a hard working, hard dreaming family on the South Side of Chicago into homelessness and a search for their missing father? Blue Balliett has the answer in her surprisingly ambitious new mystery Hold Fast.

Balliett tackles much heavier subject matter in Hold Fast than she did in the Chasing Vermeer series that made her into a household name in mysteries for children. Not only does she tackle issues and the experience of homelessness, she also writes against race. She is a white woman writing about a black family living in South Side Chicago, a neighborhood with areas of extreme poverty, and the success with which she portrays the Pearl family (at least to this white girl!) speaks both to her writing ability and her research. I also appreciate the smart, virus and resourceful character she has created in Early Pearl, the main character and heroine of the story. Not nearly enough middle-grade chapter books have characters of color, let alone ones as worthy of admiration as Early, though at times she can be a little too good to be true.

Even more rare than non-white protagonists is characters that are homeless. My librarian heart cries out for more books that say “Hey kids, guess what! Some people have real problems!” You know, problems beyond unrequited crushes or falling in love with a vampire/angel/ghost/werewolf. Even I learned something from this book about living in a shelter, desperately looking for a job, trying to figure out who will watch your kids even if you do get a job, and the list of terrifying things I never want to experience first-hand goes on. Thank goodness some of us only have to live that nightmare from the safe distance of books.

The layout is also somewhat avant garde as children’s books go, with chapters opening with dictionary definitions of the chapter names – many of them onomatopoeia – and a line-drawn symbol representing the same word. The symbol reappears throughout the chapter. If this sounds weird or confusing, that’s my fault for trying to describe it. I suggest you grab a copy of the book to kook at if you get a chance…or just take my word for it that it’s kinda cool, if a tad gimmicky.

My librarian heart also fell hook-line-and-sinker for Balliett’s references to classic literature (the title comes from Langston Hughes’s poem “Dreams”), the importance of reading, the Chicago Public Library, and word play at all socioeconomic levels. I don’t want to ruin anything by saying to much about the public library’s role in the mystery, but let’s just say I enjoyed, with some skepticism as to the mechanics, the library being the center of some intrigue and excitement. Storytime at my library can get crazy and all, but it can’t compete with missing persons, jewel heists, and questionable HR decisions.

To be honest, I don’t read many mysteries, but I may have to start if I can find others that combine the heart, smarts, and library love that Blue Balliett has packed into Hold Fast.

Buying it for the library?: I already did!
Recommending it to: boys and girls grades 5-8