Sunday, March 30, 2008

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles

I recommend this book for: high school

Maggie had a crush on Caleb a long time ago - before he was arrested for driving the car that hit her, ruining her leg, her tennis career, and her life. He was drunk, and the accident was a hit and run. After nine months she's finally going back to school, and he is being released from juvenile detention. As they come into contact again, all of their hurt and other emotions come out, ending with the most surprising one of all. Maggie's normal life has been wrecked by the accident, but so has Caleb's, and the story of their friendship and more is thrilling to read. I really appreciated Maggie's strength, the complexity of Caleb's character, and (although it upset me for about 30 seconds when I first finished the book), the lack of a traditional happy ending. A few plot threads weren't tied up as neatly as I would have liked, but then, that's real life. Compelling stuff!

Professional reviews.

So, there's obviously teen drinking in this one, although Caleb does not drink after his return from prison - but his friends do. Caleb does continue to hook up with his ex-girlfriend, who is now dating one of his friends.

The small print

If you read reguarly (I'm not sure that anyone does, but if so, thanks a lot!) you've probably noticed that I've started discussing the content of books that some might find objectionable in small print at the bottom of each post. I'd like to clarify my intention in doing this. I am in no way attempting to censor these books or to suggest that young people should not read them - it is the job of individuals to determine what they should or should not read for themselves, and of course parents have the right to determine what is appropriate for their children.

What I'm trying to do with the small print is to let people know that if they object to strong language, some of these books may not be for them - ditto for sexual content, drug use, lots of violence, etc. I know some parents are very concerned about these issues, so I'd like to be able to give a heads up - I think that's part of good reader's advisory, as I certainly don't want to send anyone home with a glowing recommendation for something he or she will find offensive. One of the more frequent questions I get asked about teen literature is "Will this book be appropriate for my middle schooler?" and I'd like to be able to answer that question by letting parents know what is in the book and letting them decide for themselves. Consider it fair warning. If it's not important to you, you can skip the small print from now on. I hope that makes my intentions clear.

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt

I recommend this book for: high school

Mariah is the coolest girl in the freshman class at a small private school. Anna and Emma have been best friends since 3rd grade, but they're practically nobody until Mariah starts hanging out with them. Then she invites them to spend the night with her at her older boyfriend's house - no parents, and public school guys enough for everyone. They lie to their parents, thinking no harm will be done, but when they get caught, they concoct a story about being attacked by a man with a knife. Suddenly the three girls are heroes in their community, the center of attention at safety assemblies and rallies to take back the streets. Then a man is arrested for the crime, and the girls have to face what they have done.

This was an interesting book that brought up a lot of issues about honesty and the consequences of actions. I had a hard time getting completely into it for a few reasons - one was that all of the male characters (with the exception of the police officers, and to a degree, Emma's brother) seemed to be almost completely centered around sex. The other was that Mariah seemed very one dimensional up until the point where the homeless man was arrested - then she had misgivings about what she had done and began pondering the consequences of her actions, but not before. Not a favorite.

But hey, they liked it . . .

Okay, now for the small print stuff - as you probably gathered from the part above, sex plays a huge part in this book. There's the made-up sexual assault, but there's also the party where Emma loses her virginity to a boy she has just met, and Mariah's older boyfriend is just using her for sex. Nothing more graphic than hickeys gets described, but the attitude is very casual. There's drinking and swearing as well.

Re-gifters by Mike Carey, Marc Hempel, and Sonny Liew

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

This one is a definite winner! Dixie is a Korean-American girl who practices hap ki do, but her balance is completely thrown by Adam, a cute boy in her dojang. She blows the money she was supposed to use to enter the national hap ki do championship to buy him an expensive birthday gift, only to have him toss it aside in favor of a Superman Returns dvd from a popular girl. Her family is too poor to pay for her entry now, and a lot rides on her doing well in the tournament. Several twists follow, which made for a story that fit together perfectly and a climax that made me want to laugh out loud and cheer (okay, I really did laugh out loud, but I managed to keep the cheering inside my head. . . I think.) I studied hap ki do in college, and I was happy to see that the authors used the Korean terms accurately - at least, as far as I could tell. The characters were lively and enjoyable in both the art and the dialogue, and I was left hoping for more volumes chronicling the life of this heroine who literally kicks butt.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rucker Park Setup by Paul Volponi

So I just found this one in my manage post sections and realized I had never posted it . . . I read the book months ago, but here's what I remember about it!

I recommend this book for: high school

Mackey and his best friend J.R. live and breathe basketball, spending most of their time playing at legendary Rucker Park. They can't wait to play in the huge championship there, which could mean hitting the big time for both of them. Then J.R. is stabbed on the court, and Mackey, feeling immensely guilty, has to choose how he will go on.

This was a gritty book, full of basketball and street violence, rappers and gangstas. The narration puts the reader inside Mackey's head, which isn't always a pleasant place to be. Readers may not agree with all of his choices, but they certainly could generate discussion - what would other people do if they were in Mackey's sneakers?

No professional reviews on Amazon, but there is some more info.

*Contains violence and mature language

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

I recommend this book for: grades 3-6

One of the true tests of popularity for books is when the holds list reaches 20 or more (due to at least one kid asking for it daily). This book has it, at least in my system.

Greg Heffley is keeping a journal - NOT a diary, even though that's what it says on the cover - and not because he wants to, but because his mom thought it would be a good idea. In it he chronicles his (largely unsuccessful) quest for popularity and his adventures with his best friend Rowley, which include getting chased by high school kids on Halloween and hosed down by Greg's father, performing as a singing tree in the school musical, and trying to avoid a really old and smelly piece of cheese on the basketball court.

I can see why kids like this book - it has really funny moments, and Greg is fairly clueless, which makes him an interesting character. He's also ridiculously self-centered (which you could argue is an adolescent trait, but I'd like to think that most kids have a conscience, which Greg doesn't seem to develop until the last few pages), and some of his antics are more mean-natured than oblivious. I really couldn't like him as a character, which kept me from being a huge fan of the book - but the kids are dying to read it, particularly some of the reluctant boys, which I am a huge fan of, so yay Jeff Kinney!

Reviews that are less conflicted.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

His Dark Materials and an informed public

Right, so I started off on a tangent from my last post about The Ruby in the Smoke, and just kept going, so although I intended to just ignore the whole controversy and take the high road, it seems my dander is still up. Here we go!

I loved His Dark Materials. I am a Christian. I was not offended - in fact, I admired the characters in the novels who were strong enough and sensible enough to recognize the difference between what was the right thing to do and what an organization that was abusing its power to keep the rest of the population under its strict control said was the right thing to do. I think the whole debate that broke when the movie came out is ridiculous. If you want to read it or watch it, do so. That goes for any book, film, tv show, etc. If you don't want your kids to read it or see it, I respect that, but do the world a favor and develop an informed opinion by actually reading it for yourself first. How else will you know what you think of the material? You can always stop if you find it inappropriate. You can prevent your children from reading it or watching it- that's your right as a parent. What you do not have the right to do is say that because you find something inappropriate, no child should have access to it. That takes away the rights of other parents and their children. We often hear in library land that if we removed everything that offended someone, there would be nothing left on the shelves, and it's quite true. Need an example? I hate Elmo. But I respect that others want to experience Elmo, so I haven't checked out all of the Elmo videos and destroyed them. I haven't complained to the administration. I choose not to watch Elmo myself, but I don't keep others from having the opportunity to do so. This is how a public library works.

Intellectual freedom aside, I would say that Pullman wasn't maligning religion in his books at all - he was condemning the kind of organization (and I personally think it could be religious, governmental, what have you) that keeps people in ignorance. "Don't read that, it could hurt you!" Of course, I'm just a crazy liberal librarian who doesn't believe in banning books, but it seems to me that standing up against something just because you got a chain email about it or there was a notice in the church bulletin, without having any personal knowledge, is dangerous. For one thing, where did the folks writing that get their information? How far along the chain would you have to go before you found someone who had actually read the material firsthand? It makes me think of the Middle Ages, where nobody could read the Bible except for the priests, and sometimes not even them . . . people just had to blindly follow whatever the priest said was in the scriptures, and I don't think I need to go into detail about how much corruption there was in those days because of it. That's the kind of thing the characters in His Dark Materials are fighting against - keeping people in the dark. And how do you get out of the dark? Personal knowledge. Read the book - unlike all of those unfortunate serfs, we have the option (and I might even add, the responsibility) of finding out for ourselves. Don't just take anyone's word for it.
Develop your own opinion.

End of rant. For now.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

Before there was Lyra, there was Sally Lockhart. I picked this up thinking, "Victorian mystery? Feisty heroine? What's not to like?" And I'm rather pleased with this one, overall.

Sally Lockhart is the 16 year old daughter of a recently deceased merchant. Within the first couple of pages she accidentally kills a man with a few words - "the seven blessings." What does the message mean, and who sent it to her after her father's death at sea? As she investigates she learns that her father was murdered and that, somehow, a ruby famous for causing destruction is her inheritance - if she can find it before the others who want it do. A fun mystery and adventure in the underbelly of London, complete with street children, opium addicts, betrayal, and yes, a bit of romance.

But don't take my word for it . . .

*This is a very clean read - sex mentioned only obliquely, only a few instances of profanity, and for those Golden Compass-haters out there, no portrayal of religion** - but opium is a huge presence in the novel. Although the effects of the drug are clearly portrayed (a few characters are completely ruined as a result of their addiction, and realistically so), there is also an important plot point that hinges on Sally having an opium dream. She uses it only once, and fearfully, but it is portrayed as the only way for her to get a crucial answer to one of her questions. Just thought you might like to know!

** See the next post for my rant about the His Dark Materials controversy - it became longer than my original post, so I decided to make it a separate post.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell, ill. by Nathan Bean

I recommend this book for: grades 4-5

Emmy is miserable, and for good reason. Although she gets good grades and has won 2 whole shelves full of awards and trophies, nobody notices her. Not her classmates, not her teacher, and not even her parents, who recently inherited a large fortune and now spend all of their time taking expensive vacations. Emmy spends all of her time in the care of Miss Barmy, a nanny who enrolls Emmy in every kind of class imaginable, forces her to take all sorts of vile medicines and see the school psychologist regularly, and is generally cruel. Emmy is upset about her life but fairly resigned to it until the first conversation she has with the class pet - a rat who sneers when students make mistakes and bites any finger that comes into his cage - about the merits of being bad. That's when the excitement begins . . .

As it turns out, rodents have special powers. They can all talk, but the Rat's bite can make humans understand rodent speech, among other curious effects . . . Emmy's experiment with being bad leads her to some new friends - human and rodent - who help her to find out what is really going on in her house, and how to save her parents and herself from Miss Barmy's clutches.

I thought this was a fantastic book. It reminded me of Roald Dahl mixed with the Rats of NIMH, and it made a delightful combination. The rodent and human characters are interesting and . . . perhaps believable isn't the right word, but their relationships work. The names of the adults are silly and reveal something of their character (in addition to Miss Barmy, there is Cheswick Vole and Professor Maxwell Capybara). My only complaint is the openness of the ending - after enjoying these characters so much, I really wanted to know what became of all of the rodents, whether Joe and his father managed to get along better, and what family life was like for Emmy and her parents in the end. Overall, though, this is a very fun read!

Reviews from the pros.