Sunday, June 24, 2018

After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay

Gifted basketball player Bunny has accepted a scholarship to a private school across town to increase his chances of getting noticed by colleges.  His best friend Nasir is mad because Bunny left without even talking to Nas about his decision AND now Bunny is dating the girl Nasir has always liked.  Since the two are not talking, Nas is spending more time with his cousin Wallace who is in danger of being evicted along with his grandmother.  In need of some quick money, Wallace starts betting against Bunny's team which is on its way to a state championship.  But when it seems like Bunny is unstoppable, Wallace pressures Nasir to step up the campaign against Bunny with some questionable actions.

 I am reaching my limit of books with African-American characters who live in bad neighborhoods and have to do desperate things or make horrible choices in order to try to get out of the bad neighborhood.  I work with a lot of minority kids and I know they want to see themselves in books and it is still a struggle just in general to find enough books with diverse characters in them, but I have to think that if I were a black teen, I'd also want to see some books with black teens who are having stories other than the one about escaping the ghetto.  There is my weary rant about African-American characters and the situation so many of them find themselves in.  So keep my weariness in mind as I say that I was not too moved by this book that many others have loved. On the other hand, I didn't especially dislike it, either.  So... a couple of things I liked:
  • How loyal Nasir is to his cousin even though Wallace is in a bad situation of his own making and is doing nothing to make it better.  But Nas feels that need to help family.
  • Bunny and Nasir both make moves to make up because their friendship matters to each of them.
  • The book is well-written and highly accessible for teens.
  • Both boys' dads have jobs that give back to the community.

A couple of things I didn't like as much:
  • I never got too invested in either main character.
  • The basketball games and their play-by-plays.  But that's only because sports are not my thing so I can't follow those descriptions.  I've had that problem in many other sports books and I basically just skip those sections to get to whether the team won or lost and it doesn't seem to take away from the story for me.
  • As mentioned, the setting.  

The List by Patricia Forde

Letta is an apprentice wordsmith in Ark, a community of people who survived the Melting thanks to their leader John Noa.  Noa believes that many of the problems in the world before the Melting came about because of how people used words to manipulate others so people in Ark are only allowed to speak using the List of 700 words.  Letta and her master are the ones who distribute the words to the rest of Ark. When a strange boy stumbles into her shop one day, on the run from the gavvers who police Ark, Letta nurses him back to help and learns that he doesn't believe Noa is the savior she has always believed. And then when her master is found dead and Letta becomes the head wordsmith, she starts to learn secrets and begins to doubt much of what she has believed her entire life.

This is a standard dystopia without many changes to the format, but it is a well done formula.  Things are not as great as they seem, their charismatic leader is not the savior they thought, the rebels might be the ones who know what's really happening, only a crazy plot can save their society, and so on.  Despite that, I was interested in the premise and spent a decent amount of time trying to imagine only using 500 words to convey everything I wanted to convey.  My only real concern about the book is whether my kids still care about dystopias or not.  I think the interest is waning.  But if it's not, I really need a list of the 500 words so I can try to craft my booktalk using only those to get them interested!

P.S. The cover looks more like a young girl getting ready for a fantastic adventure in the big city rather than an oppressed society.

Piper by Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg

Maggie lives in the small town of Hameln where she is ostracized because she is deaf.  She observes things in town and embellishes what she sees, turning them into fanciful stories.  Hameln is plagued by rats who are destroying everything as well as making people sick.  When a new man comes into town promising he will get rid of all the rats once and for all, the town elders agree to his terms for payment.  As the Piper spends more time in the town preparing to exterminate the rats, he meets Maggie and the two become very close, envisioning a future together.  But the longer the Piper takes to do his job, the angrier the townspeople become.

This retelling of the Pied Piper in graphic novel format was fine.  And I mean that in the most generic way possible for the word "fine".  The artwork is nicely done which I would expect for a graphic novel but the storytelling didn't do anything for me.  In particular, there were a couple of times where I was thumbing back through the pages to see what I had missed that resulted in us being at this point in the story.  I'm not sure what happened toward the end that left Maggie saying she thought she knew the Piper but now didn't know.  Yes, the people in town were angry with him after being stirred up by the previous rat catcher, but she didn't much care for the other people in town anyway...  At any rate, I wasn't taken with this version nor the elements added to try to explain any holes in the original story. 

The Academy by Katie Sise

Frankie loves fashion and has applied to a Fashion Academy without telling her parents.  She is very surprised when, out of the blue, her parents send her to a military academy instead.  Okay, so she did a few things she shouldn't have, but their reaction seems extreme.  Once Frankie gets to the Academy, it's worse than she thought.  There is almost no time to maintain her fashion blog, the classes are much more difficult than her former high school, and forget about the physical training!  But after a few weeks Frankie begins to see the value of some things she is learning at her new school and wonders if she could actually make a go of it there.

Frankie is such a nice character which was such a happy surprise for me as I was expecting this to just be the standard formula of shallow-girl-learns-a-lesson.  Her priorities are a bit messed up as the book begins, but Frankie's heart is in the right place in terms of how she treats people all around her.  She truly believes in the power of fashion and uses her knowledge of it for good and to recognize people for their choices, which made me realize that pretty much every other depiction of fashion-obsessed people shows them as bitchy and shallow.  I became a little frustrated about a third into the book because Frankie had already said that she needed to take things more seriously and follow the rules a few times but then she had that revelation again and it was presented as something new.  But when she actually did get going, it was great - and not totally formulaic.  There was not a montage of her working hard and succeeding at everything she did.  She did well at some things and barely kept her head above water (literally, in one case) at others but her overall improvement was good.  This is a nice, easy story with a surprising dose of patriotism throughout.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Thornhill by Pam Smy

In 1982 Mary lives in the Thornhill orphanage where she is bullied and terrorized daily by one of the other girls who only shows a sweet face to everyone else.  Mary records her fears and the escalating bullying in her journal while making puppets to keep herself busy.  

In 2016 Ella has just moved into a new house that faces the burned out shell that was Thornhill.  Her father is often away so Ella spends time investigating the grounds of Thornhill where she finds broken puppet that she restores and places back where she found them.  She is hoping to finally meet the girl she sees on the grounds from time to time.

A student told me he was going to nominate this book for a reading program but then he didn't for several weeks.  But knowing that he had liked it enough to consider a  nomination, I added it to my reading list.  After leafing through it I had my doubts - I definitely had my doubts!  But then it turned out to be pretty darn interesting.  Mary's diary entries are creepy and heartbreaking as she allows herself to trust the other girls only to be betrayed by them all over again and let down by the adults around her.  And Ella's illustrated sections convey her loneliness and the way her life becomes slowly intertwined with Mary's.  Rather than feeling like a gimmick to pull in graphic novel readers, the graphic sections of the book seem like a perfect complement to the narrative.  In the end, a nicely scary book!

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

Imani is preparing for her bat mitzvah alongside her friends.  Imani knows what she wants for the big gift her parents have promised her - to meet her birth parents - but she doesn't know how to tell her mom and dad about her wish.  While she works on a way to ask without hurting them too much, she spends time with her best friend reading her great-grandmother's diary.  Imani's great-grandmother Anna wrote about her life in 1941 when her Jewish family bought her passage to the United States to escape Nazis in her home country of Luxembourg. Anna's large family, including her twin sister, planned to join her as soon as they had the money to escape but they never did.  Imani is drawn into Anna's story and finds it reflecting her own desire to find out about her roots while also reinforcing her love for her adoptive family.

This is a good story throughout but my favorite part happened close to the end with the discovery of an unexpected family member and the connections made there.  Prior to that, I was engaged with the story but not bowled over by it.  At times I found myself removed from the book, looking in at the story as I read Anna's entries about adjusting to life in the U.S. and wondering why she wasn't sending all this information in a letter back home instead of writing it in the diary.  It felt too plot device-y.  I also had issues with Imani's mother's reactions to her attempts to find out more about her birth family.  It is explained in the end but the length of uncomfortable feelings dragged on too long.  I've seen this in other books with adopted kids and am always frustrated with the parents who had to know their kids would eventually ask these questions and should be prepared to answer them.  Aside from those couple of issues, I like the revelations about Anna's life and her family and I enjoyed Imani's friends who were quite drama-free.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

From You to Me by K. A. Holt

Three years after her sister Clare drowned, Amelia is still grieving.  She is determined to take 8th grade by storm and not be the girl who cries about her dead sister all the time.  Her plan takes a serious hit when she is accidentally given a letter Clare wrote to herself on the first day of sixth grade.  Faced with a list of Clare's plans for the future, Amelia allows her best friend to convince her to complete the list on Clare's behalf.  Now Amelia is committed to doing things she would never have considered on her own.

This is such a gentle book of loss and healing and forgiveness.  Holt has an easy way of leading her readers to deep emotions without any obvious machinations or heavy-handed messaging.  Amelia is a completely sympathetic character struggling with her grief and guilt.  Of course she said something mean to her sister before she died but that's not even the main plot point at play here as it would be in many other books about grieving.  Amelia's just having an extremely hard time moving on because losing someone you love is impossible! On top of Amelia's struggles, I really enjoyed the secondary characters who were supportive but also not perfectly so as they made mistakes and became annoyed with Amelia's sadness.  Like real people.  And Amelia's annoyance with her mom about everything was just pitch perfect - speaking as someone who was a teen daughter and someone who had a teen daughter.  As for emotional, sensory investment... 1. All I could think about for the first third of the book was what kind of cheeses I had in the fridge and how they would combine in a grilled cheese sandwich and 2. I figured there was going to be some sort of cathartic scene and thought I was prepared for it until I started crying in a restaurant while eating lunch when the damn star said "Rosalie" on it!