A Beautiful Gift for a Sad Anniversary

All We Have Left, by Wendy Mills (2016)

Opening line: “Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.”

That opener gives you an idea of the intensity of this book. Wooo boy.

The smoke that main character Alia is referring to is the smoke from the burning floors above her and near-stranger Travis where a Boeing 767 crashed into 1 World Trade Center. The date, of course, is September 11th, 2001, and America as Alia knows it, is about to change. She was never meant to be at the WTC, but after a terrible fight with her mother, Alia’s only chance at getting into an incredible summer art program to develop her passion for drawing (specifically, drawing her kickass Muslim girl superhero comics), is to skip first period and head to visit her dad at work to convince him to sign the permission form. Only, when she gets there, her Ayah isn’t at his desk, and on her way back down, there’s an ominous explosion, and the elevator suddenly stops working.

Meanwhile, we also hear the story of Jesse, living fifteen years later. Jesse’s just trying to survive high school with her three best friends, while being as invisible as possible at home where her parents have not moved on from her brother’s death on that fateful September day when Jesse was just a baby. Jesse’s father, in particular, has spiraled into a raging alcoholic, angry at the world — and particularly all the Muslims in said world, who are responsible for his son’s death (in his eyes). But things start to shift for Jesse when cool, edgy Nick starts to take notice of her and invites her into a dark web of tagging buildings, something that starts as an adrenaline rush, but culminates into hateful graffiti.

This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, not only with the intensity of all that is happening on that terrible day in Alia’s world, but also with the regular shifting of perspectives and time periods. The pacing of the chapters was on point, and just when I felt the need to get back to the other character, Mills seemed to anticipate that and POOF, chapter end. I was swept up in both the girls’ stories — Alia’s a little more so, due to the obvious magnitude of her situation — and felt desperate to catch up to the little snapshot the prologue gave to both their narratives.

While there were some bits that felt unrealistic (some of Jesse’s moments with Dave, the resolution of the story), there were a lot of parts that felt incredibly authentic (Jesse’s whirlwind involvement with Nick and his dangerous friends, Jesse’s girl gang, Alia’s short moments with her older brother before school and her inner monologue upon first meeting Travis, Jesse’s visit to the 9/11 museum). Here’s what I think about this book on a whole: It captured me and brought me right back to that day, giving me all the “remember where I was” feelings that accompany any mention of September 11th. But I also felt like it does an excellent job of making it real for all of those teenagers who weren’t alive yet in 2001, or were just tiny babes like Jesse. The author mentions in an interview she did with The New York Times that when her teenage son finished reading the novel, he asked her, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I’m guessing for today’s teens reading about September 11th is similar to how I feel when I read about the Titanic. It seems too dramatic to be real. But it was. So very real. Mills also does an excellent job (I think) of representing Islam to unfamiliar readers. Especially at a time when our President-elect is someone who wants to restrict the immigration rights of all Muslims, we need so many more stories that show the truth of Islam among all the misinformation and misconception. I’m not sure how Mills did her research on this part, but her execution felt spot-on (to this non-Muslim reader).

I want to give this book to all my students. It would probably help if I’d stop hoarding it on my bed table and get it back to school. It also made me want to read all the other 9/11 fiction that’s come out this year, although it sets quite the precedent.

2.5 stars

A search for peace among war

51pf6phqmrlPax, by Sara Pennypacker (2016)

Opening line: “The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first.”

Get ready for a heart-breaker, friends.

Years ago, while playing in the woods, Peter stumbled across a dead mother fox and her litter of pups, all but one of whom were also dead. The tiniest one was somehow surviving, and Peter brought him home and named him Pax. Since that moment, the two, boy and fox, were inseparable. But now war is upon them, and Peter’s father is joining the effort, meaning that Peter must go live with his grandfather, where Pax is not allowed. Heartbroken, but seeing no other option, he releases him into the wild, where he hopes he will be safe. Pax, of course, doesn’t understand, and plans to wait until his boy returns. But when hunger sets in and danger lurks, that plan isn’t quite so easy.

Meanwhile, the moment Peter arrives at his grandfather’s, he knows he made a mistake leaving Pax behind. He will know no peace until he finds Pax again. So he sets out in the middle of the night, planning to hike the couple hundred miles back to where he left his fox. As you might imagine, things go array pretty quickly.

The chapters switch back and forth between Peter’s story and Pax’s, as both are desperate to reunite with the other. The alternating perspectives spur the story forward, allowing the reader to feel that desperation as well. Those who loved One and Only Ivan will love Pax as well, and it is well-deserving of its spot on the NBA Young People’s Literature longlist for 2016.

2 stars

 

 

My first challenge?

The 13th Floor, by Scott R. Welvaert (2015) 414c4elowpl-_sx349_bo1204203200_

Opening line: “Sam Wentworth hated moving.”

I brought this one home to read after an angry parent threatened to call the district office yesterday. Fortunately, I had no part of that conversation (the school psychiatrist brought it to my attention, and he was just lovely about it), but I’m holding my breath to see if it will develop into anything. The book is part of the Tartan House series, and I bought it last year when trying to build up the hi/lo collection of our library. And on that note, it fulfills its goal entirely. Rated at a 4th-5th grade reading level with fewer than 100 pages, this one is definitely high interest, especially for kids who are gamers or like watching gory movies.  It captured my attention, and I flew through it in under an hour.

Sam is new at school and falls in with the popular kids over their mutual love of video games. When one of the guys gets a bootlegged copy of The 13th Floor game (which is evidently banned in the US), they all become so immersed, they can’t escape, and it begins to take over their lives. The game IS really gory. Set in an abandoned insane asylum, there are blood and guts everywhere. I can understand the parent’s disgust. However, it does exactly what it set out to do, which is engage reluctant readers to keep flipping the pages. I don’t know. I think I could argue its merit if this actually becomes a challenge, but we shall see. Sigh…and just over a week until Banned Books Week…

Oh, did I mention that the moral of the story is anti-bullying? It was a little heavy-handed, but I guess another point in my anti-censorship campaign.

1 star

Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

ReadUp RunDown!

20160806_185340[1]Today I was so excited to be able to attend Greenville’s inaugural YA/middle grade lit festival, ReadUp Greenville, and I just had the best Saturday. We live about 40 minutes away from G-ville, which seems to be the perfect distance to the “big city.” (I’m a big fan of this “big city”, btdub. It’s small and lively and beautiful and friendly and there are dogs everywhere.) It was also lovely that the fest
didn’t start too early, so I still got to sleep in. Thanks, guys. 20160806_155656[1]

So this festival got together 25+ authors and put on 3 keynotes, 9 multi-author panels, bunches of book signings, AND an ice cream social. And most of the events (including the ICE CREAM) were completely free to the public. I mean, come on. Whoa.

Personally, I sat in on “First Years This Way: The Necessary Harry Potter Panel” with Cassie BeasleyTerra Elan McVoyBrendan Reichs, and Maya Van Wagenen; the Holly Goldberg Sloan 20160806_133449[1]afternoon keynote, where I learned she wrote the movie Angels in the Outfield with my heartthrob (“I called him Joey… other people call him Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I guess.” Presh.) and where she passed out fresh copies of her brand new ARC, Short; the “Magic: The Gathering(TM)” session, with three fantasy authors, Cassie 20160806_141852[1]Beasley again, Ryan Graudlin, and Maggie Stiefvater, all three of whom I want to be friends with now; and “A Whole New World,” with three authors who write in a middle eastern setting, Renee Ahdieh, Jessica Khoury, and Aisha Saeed.

There’s something magical about attending literature festivals (or conferences). I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but as author Cassie Beasley mentioned today, festivals are so great, because they are simultaneously fangirl sessions while also showing you that authors are just normal 20160806_145529[1]people. A bunch of the authors are my age, which for some reason makes me want to write again. (By write “again” I mean, for the first time since 9th grade.) It’s like, they’re doing it. I could do it.

Regardless of if this festival forces me to open up a new Word document (or really, Google doc, because who can afford Word?) and pen my first book, there’s something so rejuvenating about lit festivals. Seeing bookish t-shirts, bookish totes, and bookish pins everywhere you look and hearing people laugh and nod at all the bookish references that are casually slipped into talks, just makes me feel like I belong. Despite going to the festival solo, I never felt lonely, because I was totally among my people.

A-Plus, ReadUp Greenville. Three Stars.

 

Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

Beauty in Imperfection

519dibqx6ql The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful, by Myquillyn Smith (2014)

Opening line: “As a child, I didn’t have huge dreams, impressive ambitions, or fancy prayers. I was a simple girl who looked forward to having a family and settling down in a little white house and growing something — you know, like a garden.”

Lately, I feel like I have been nesting. I promise I’m not pregnant. My husband says it’s probably all the folic acid from my new multi-vitamin. Maybe it’s just because it’s summer and I finally have the energy to do something more than lay down on our delicious couch the moment I walk in the door. All I know is that I just re-did our laundry room, turning it from a dark, wood-paneled scary place into a bright, happy, airy place in which I would gladly spend time. I think it’s my favorite transformation we’ve made in this home, and it’s no more than 40 square feet.

In any case, perhaps it’s my nesting tendencies that drew me toward this book, although I shelved it on GoodReads months ago. I finally put a hold on it at the library though, and have enjoyed reading through it over the past couple weeks.

Myquillyn Smith (I love the juxtaposition of that delightfully complicated first name paired with the most popular surname in America… a foreshadowing of her style, for sure) is the author of the popular Nesting Place blog, which developed into this book a couple years ago. At the publishing of this book, she and her husband moved 13 times in 18 years of being married (and I think they’ve moved again since), living in a whole assortment of different types of places, from renting to buying, from condos to mansions. Over the many disheartening moves, she came to the conclusion that if she waited for the perfect house to build her home, it was never going to come, and she’d be waiting forever. Instead, she could build her home no matter how the house was shaped. This book is a collection of what she’s learned doing just that.

For the most part, it seems that her main point (or at least, my biggest takeaway) is just to not be afraid to experiment and try things out. She was a big fan of asking for forgiveness from landlords rather than permission, and just went for it. Another thing she stresses is to make decorations useful and useful items beautiful. It’s clear she and her family live in the home. She repeats over and over that imperfection is beautiful, and very much the goal.

Repetition was in fact pretty common throughout the pages, and not just about imperfection. There’s a lot she repeats from chapter to chapter, and I wasn’t overly impressed by any of her ideas. However, that being said, I did feel generally inspired by the end. I felt ready to take on small tasks around the house (like said laundry room), and not worry so much about making our house perfect in this first year we own it. That was one major issue I had after buying our house — it felt like we had to make so many decisions right away, decisions we were going to have to live with for a long time. Smith gives me the assurance that we can change things whenever we want to, and small, subtle changes can have huge impact.

One of the appendices at the back of the book is what Smith calls The Imperfectionist Manifesto, which I loved. Some of my favorite tenets include:

  • WE BELIEVE that home should be the safest place on earth.
  • WE BELIEVE that authenticity trumps perfection.
  • WE BELIEVE in mismatched sheets and unmade beds.
  • WE BELIEVE that the things in our house are meant to serve us, not the other way around.
  • WE BELIEVE that both pretty pillows and dogs should be on sofas.
  • WE BELIEVE that toys and homework and smelly shoes and spilled milk are signs of life.
  • WE BELIEVE in using the good stuff now, not waiting for some future better purpose.
  • WE BELIEVE that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Okay, so that was 8 out of the 13 tenets. But I couldn’t pick just a few! Setting in to our second year of homeownership, in a house that is not anywhere near “complete” yet, I think these are some good words to live by…

1.5 stars