Friday, March 18, 2016

This Way Home by Wes Moore

Elijah is already being scouted for college basketball which is his ticket out of his rough neighborhood.  His coach lets him know that some recruiters will be watching at the upcoming street ball three-on-three tournament. When one of his best friends, Michael, shows up with some brand new shoes for their team Elijah is so anxious to make a good impression he ignores his uneasy feeling and uses the new gear.  Turns out the new stuff was provided by local gang Blood Street Nation and now the boys are indebted to them.  But when their mothers find out about the gang tie-in, they make Elijah and his friends give up the clothes and go back to their old tattered uniforms.  But renouncing the gang has some serious consequences.

Let's just start with the moms making the boys give up the gang presents.  When the boys do that, the gang retaliates in an extreme way and then all the mothers are shocked and spend some time wondering how anyone could have ever guessed that the gang would do something like that.  Ummm...EVERYONE?  Anyone who has read or watched or lived a gang story knows that you don't just say "I'd like to be out now" or publicly diss the gang without suffering an extreme consequence.  And these people live in a gang-infested neighborhood so surely they would know that.  That's just one of the issues I have with this book.  Another is Elijah's lackadaisical attitude towards finding a solution to the problem of the gang threats.  He takes his time thinking about what to do, time I don't believe he would have in real life.  And his best resource, a former special forces soldier who is something of a mentor to him, does some Mr. Miyagi stuff but there is no scene that points out how imploding the shed means he should do THIS to solve the problem.  It's just too unrealistic which is surprising for a book that I think is meant to be very realistic and gritty.

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

Olivia has grown up with the knowledge that her father murdered her mother when she was a toddler and then disappeared.  Now 17, Olivia is emancipated and free of the foster system when she is visited by two police officers.  They tell her that her father's remains have just been found and it now obvious that he was murdered at the same time as her mother and is no longer a suspect.  Olivia's whole world is upended.  She returns to her hometown to attend her father's long-delayed funeral and finds herself investigating her parents' deaths which, of course, puts her squarely in the sites of the killer.

This is a typical April Henry book which is to say it is not the greatest book ever but it IS entertaining, quick, has a good female protagonist, keeps your guessing, and leaves you satisfied at the end.  It will be wildly popular and is already being requested by my students even though it's not out yet.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson

Five tough girls are fast friends at a summer camp filled with some unusual things:  three-eyed foxes and yetis, among others.  Their disbelieving counselor is searching for a way to get the girls back on track but the camp owner doesn't seem that surprised by their stories, hinting that something even bigger might be in store for the girls who believe in "friendship to the max"!

I was really looking forward to this girl-power graphic novel but just wasn't taken with the story much at all.  Nor did I feel like things were explained, not the least of which was the title.  The kitten holy did come up in the story but as I write this I'm not able to remember anything about it.  I am, however, a quick, skim-my reader...  Fun enough but not as great as I anticipated.

Fort by Cynthia DeFelice

Wyatt and Augie are having a great summer and it's just going to get greater once they have finished building their fort in the woods behind the local junkyard.  With the fort complete the two boys can hang out in the woods catching their own food and cooking it over a fire, just being boys.  But their great time is marred by two local bullies who come and mess up the fort.  That's bad enough, but then Wyatt and Augie find out that the bullies have also been messing with a mentally challenged boy in the neighborhood.  The two friends decide it's time to teach the bullies a lesson.

I like the two main characters in the book and was somewhat amused by their story but wasn't engrossed in it.  A literary "Home Alone".  A good choice for boys who want to read something quick and all about things boys find interesting.

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

Maddy has what is popularly known as Bubble Boy disease.  With virtually no immune system she cannot leave her carefully controlled home environment without risking immediate death.  She spends her time reading and playing Scrabble with her doctor mother and talking with her nurse, Carla.  She hasn't left her home in 17 years.  One day she observes a new family moving in next door and notices they have a teenage son.  When the new neighbors come over to introduce themselves with a bundt cake, Maddy's mom rudely sends them away.  That's when Maddy and Olly begin communicating, first with notes in the window, then online, then, finally, in person after Olly has been thoroughly decontaminated before entering the house.  When Maddy's mom finds out about their relationship she bans Olly from Maddy's life but now that Maddy has had a taste of a real life, she wants more, no matter what consequences it might bring.

This is a nice, angsty teen romance and will likely be received with open arms by my teens.  I enjoyed the story just fine but wasn't blown away by it as others have been.  I assume that's partly because I guessed the big twist well in advance of its actual reveal, but it was still a pretty good twist and I was happy with it.  Yoon also did a nice job covering up the twist which made me feel like I was probably wrong in my guess so that was fun. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hawk by Jennifer Dance

Hawk is a First Nations teen track star hoping to win an upcoming meet in his town in Canada.  Recently, Hawk has been running out of energy while training with his best friend and when he finally gets to the doctor to figure out what's happening, he learns that he has leukemia and is facing several years of hard treatment to save his life.   He has never felt close to his parents who gave him over to his grandfather when he was young because they didn't feel prepared to raise a baby.  So Hawk is happy when his grandfather comes to stay with them during some of his treatment.  Soon after he arrives the family goes out to an event where his father works with a logging company.  Hawk and his grandfather see an osprey get stuck in an oily pond, the result of the toxic runoff from the logging.  The two rescue the osprey and Hawk begins to have dreams about it that seem to mirror his own path with leukemia.  

I was all in on this book for about the first third even as the story of the osprey broke my heart a couple of times.  I love the juxtaposition of the fish hawk's story with Hawk's own journey and I was moved by the rape of the land where Hawk's dad worked.  I could even see how the explanation of what the company was doing to counteract the mess they were making made sense to those who worked there.  Hawk's grandfather felt a little heavy-handed at times, especially as the story went on.  The environmental themes were so nicely interwoven at the beginning of the book without coming across as "here is a lesson you must learn".  I was thinking particularly about how moved my students would be by the ospreys' losses without realizing they were reading a story about the environment.  But later the book became more didactic and less fun.  Still, Hawk's growing relationship with his parents and his friendship in the hospital ward felt realistic and not forced.  I just wish the overall book had been shorter and more focused like the initial chapters.

See No Color by Shannon Gibney

Alex has always know she is adopted.  It's not hard to tell since she is a biracial girl with white parents and siblings.  Her father was a professional baseball player and Alex is following in his footsteps, beating the boys on her team.  But several things are starting to change for Alex.  Alex's body is maturing which is affecting her ability on the diamond.  Her younger sister, always the family's rabble-rouser, shows Alex a stack of letters from her biological father - letters her parents have kept hidden from her for years.  If that weren't enough to throw off her equilibrium, Alex meets Reggie, a black boy who makes her start thinking about who she really is.

I wish I had a lot of positive things to say about this book but it rubbed me the wrong way in several areas.  Before I get to those issues I will say that it is fine and I have no problem with it in my collection, but it's not the great biracial character book I thought it was going to be.  It's also not that great of a story, in my opinion.  

So, a couple of the problems I have involve Alex's adopted parents.  I can sort of buy their reasons for keeping the letters from her but when she finds the letters I don't understand their outright anger and refusal to talk to her about her biological parents.  In a different section Alex is talking to Reggie's mom and gets the idea to go to a black hairdresser.  Alex's mom takes her without an issue and doesn't embarrass her so that's all okay, I guess.  But both of these incidents bother me for this reason:  Alex's parents know she is not white.  As people who have adopted a baby from another race, why didn't they do anything to find out more about her heritage or unique needs?  I can't say that wouldn't possibly happen, but based on several conversations in the book I would say that Alex's parents are racists.  The kind of racists who don't believe they are, but racists nonetheless.  

Having said that, perhaps my next complaint shouldn't be an issue, but I also had a problem with the way in which Alex completely turns her back on her adopted parents.  Once she begins to discover more about being transracial and the African-American community she basically doesn't seem to care about her parents at all anymore.  That's hard for me to swallow since I've worked with students who have abusive, drug-addicted parents yet will still defend them tooth and nail.  

Finally, I have a concern about the physical relationship between Reggie and Alex.  I don't care that their relationship gets physical, it's the description of what happens between them. They don't have intercourse, but while they are heavy petting (is that even a term now?!), the author describes how Reggie puts a finger inside Alex.  I've defended a lot of books where teens have sex so it's not the sexual contact in and of itself that bothers me, it's the graphic, and in my opinion, completely unnecessary description of what exactly happens.  Now I will say that the scene is quite a ways into the book which means that only a pretty good reader is going to get there so that doesn't usually cause a problem, but why do I need that particular detail?

I just wish the book had stayed focused more narrowly on Alex disappointing her adopted father in terms of baseball and her growing identity as an African-American young woman.