Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

When Clara decides to reenact "Carrie" at the school dance her nemesis Rose thinks Clara's pranks have gone too far. The girls get into a fight that also starts a fire in the school.  As punishment, and a way to pay for the damage they caused, the two girls are required to work on Clara's dad's food truck for the summer.  Even worse than being forced to sweat all day next to her enemy, Clara is missing out on a trip with her mother who is an influencer with access to the best party scenes.  Although neither girl wants to be there, Rose takes the job seriously and digs in.  Eventually even Clara begins to get on board, especially when cute boy Hamlet keeps showing up to flirt.

I relish the books that give me a break from all the heavy themes and mind-bending world-building in so many other things I read.  That said, not all "light" books are the kind of break I want because they can be too inane even for fluff.  The Way You Make Me Feel was precisely the type of fun book I love, but with diverse characters to boot.  Clara is very difficult to like at first with her prank that is not funny and her attitude toward pretty much everyone but Rose in particular.  Although Rose is also held to blame for the fight, I can understand why she was so upset with Clara and appreciate her willingness to take the job seriously.  Eventually, Clara comes around to appreciating both Rose and Hamlet and is a much better character with actual potential.  When she flees to be with her mom, it feels a little contrived given Clara's personality change.  But of course there had to be some way for her to see what she already had.  If you just want a somewhat light story with some heartwarming moments, give this a chance.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

When getting ready for school one day Carter is surprised to find a real English butler at his front door.  The butler tells the family that he has been willed to them by their paternal grandfather.  Although skeptical, they need his help right away when their car breaks and the butler takes them to school in his huge auto.  The butler eases the burden for everyone in the family, especially since Carter's dad is in the military and stationed overseas.  But the butler is also something of a pain because he expects the kids to do their homework and chores.  Additionally, he expects Carter to learn to play cricket and has soon managed to recruit an entire team and secure a field for practice.  

I am a big Gary Schmidt fan which is why I requested this book but I have always felt that his books have much more appeal for adults than teens.  Despite that, there have always been a few students who get into his work and are able to grasp some of the deeper themes in his writing.  I just don't see this being one of those books.  There is SO MUCH cricket! Why is there so much about a sport that will not be familiar to most Americans, teens in particular?  If the butler had just had Carter play it as part of the story that might've been okay, but a knowledge of the play by play is necessary to follow so many of the passages. Then there is the typical formal phrasing we usually get from Schmidt and the reveal of what is really happening with Dad which is supposed to be emotional but since I was not invested in the story or Carter's relationship with his dad, it all just fell very flat.  There are lots of books I read that I do not care for personally but that I can still sell to my students.  This is not a title I would even purchase for my library because I don't see any audience for it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

Zoey has to deal with too many other things in her life to be overly concerned about school.  She has to take care of three younger siblings while dealing with bullying at school because her clothes aren't clean most of the time.  Currently, her family doesn't have to worry about food or housing because they are living with her mom's boyfriend Lenny, although her mom does seem to be more distant than she used to be. When Zoey's teacher tells her to prepare for a debate by choosing an animal she thinks is the best, Zoey knows immediately that the octopus is her choice.  Although she forgets to bring in her homework, Zoey's teacher sees something in Zoey and strongarms her into joining the debate team, even though she doesn't participate much.  But as she listens to the techniques for discrediting your opponent, Zoey begins to see how those tactics are evident in her home life.

This is so wonderfully written with several passages that made me stop and think.  Although Zoey's family is food secure at the moment, they are still fairly poor and Braden illustrates the disparity between her life and that of her classmates in such a quiet, but powerful, way.  The one passage that really stood out to me was Zoey watching a boy leave his house with a smoothie that his mother pressed into his hand at the last minute.

I try to picture my mom pulling herself out of bed to make me a smoothie because I'm tired in the morning.  As if she wasn't exhausted.  As if she didn't have to take care of Hector.  As if Frank wouldn't throw a fit for getting woken up by a blender.  As if we had a working blender.  As if we had bananas.  As if.

Wow.  The way she lays out all of Zoey's problems in one paragraph, narrowing it down to something as simple as just having a banana available says so much more than a sentence talking about all the things that have to balanced to keep her life running somewhat smoothly.  Although Zoey talks about her life being more stable than she has known in the past, it's clear that things are precarious.

Being poor is a big part of Zoey's life but that is only part of the picture.  She also has too many parenting responsibilities, bullying at school, and an absentee mother with a new boyfriend. There are so many threads with which my students will relate.  The ending is too neat but with all the worry throughout the story, I am pleased to see hope there, even if it's more than is probably realistic.