Get ready to be swept up

51zohd5wlplThis is the Story of You, by Beth Kephart (2016)

Opening line: “Blue, for example. Like the color that sun makes the sea. Like the beach bucket he wore as a hat, king of the tidal parade. Like the word and the hour of nobody awake but me. I thought blue was mine, and that we were each ourselves, and that some things could not be stolen. I thought the waves would rise up, toss down, rinse clean, and that I would still be standing here, solid. I was wrong about everything.”

Okay, so, confession time… sometimes I buy books because they’re pretty. Perhaps you think this is an irresponsible use of school money, but I say, IF IT’S PRETTY, THEY’LL CHECK IT OUT. I mean, I did. (Plus, of course, it had some great reviews, so low risk). I feel like I’m just rewarding the graphic designers for doing their job well.

So, because #IJudgeBooksByTheirCovers, there was a chance this would be a dud. But GUYS, I LOVED THIS.

As someone who reads a lot of middle grade fiction, I’m sometimes wildly surprised by beautiful writing. That’s not to say that middle grade fiction doesn’t have good writing, but it has its audience. And that audience is primarily made up of 8-12-year-olds. Not 28 year old former English majors. So when I come across a book whose language and writing is as beautiful as its story, I may become obsessed. I mean, check out that opening line I included at the top. Usually, I just have an opening sentence. But I couldn’t stop at a sentence! I just couldn’t!

Mira lives with her mother and younger brother on Haven, a small island just off the Jersey Shore, where the summers are filled with tourists and the off-season is filled with racing around the 3 sq miles of island with her two best friends, Eva and Deni, on their “modes” (of transportation): a golf cart for Deni, a skateboard for Eva, and a pair of old school skates for Mira. Mira’s brother, Jasper Lee, has a crippling congenital illness that requires weekly treatments on the mainland, so on this particular Wednesday, it’s normal that her mother and brother hop in the car and head off of Haven. It’s normal when the clouds roll across the waves, because as the weather forecasters tell them, it’s headed back to sea. It’s normal.

But it’s not normal when her mom calls to tell her that Jasper Lee had a terrible reaction to one of the medications and has to stay at the hospital for several days. It’s not normal when she sees a dark shadow of a person walk up her boardwalk to her house and shuffle around for a while before walking away. It’s not normal when the wind and rain pick up and it’s clear the storm did not head back out to sea.

After a terrifying night, which Mira almost doesn’t survive, she is forced to head out to check out the damage of the island, and see how she’s going to pick up the pieces.

Like I said, the lyrical and poetic writing just swept me along with the story, and made me stay up way past my normal sleepy-girl bedtime. I hope my students will be swept along like me, rather than stuck at what may not be as straightforward as they’re used to.

2.5 stars

All the cliffhangers

16101054SYLO, by DJ MacHale (2013)

Opening line: “It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death.”

Oh boy. Let’s talk about a cliffhanger. Right from the very beginning.

Ninth-grader Tucker lives in a peaceful island town off the coast of Maine where no one is concerned with much more than lobster festivals and football games. In fact, it’s at one such Friday night game that the star of the football team drops dead moments after making a spectacular touchdown. Then later that night, Tucker and his best friend Quinn are out on a bicycle joyride to work off the weirdness of the evening, when they experience something out of this world. A strange shadow giving off an eerie melody hovers just off the cliffs where Quinn and Tucker watch, before it explodes.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy mess. Soon the President is putting the island under a quarantine and a special military unit called SYLO has taken control of the island. But no one is giving them any answers. And the answers they are giving don’t make any sense. As aggravating as this is for Tucker, I swear it was just as aggravating for me, especially when we reach the end of 400 pages with still no answers. This may appeal to fans of Maze Runner, as I got the same sense in that one and had to keep reading the whole gosh darn series, despite the fact that I didn’t really like it. I liked this one more, but still find it annoying that I am compelled to read the remainder of the series to figure out what the hell is going on. If someone wants to spoil it for me, that’d be fine.

1.5 stars

Attempts at Activism

51j12b62vzalIt’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going!, by Chelsea Clinton (2015)

Opening Line: “What’s the first thing you remember reading?”

I fell for the pretty cover design on this one. Saw it in the airport, loved the colorful dots, seemed like an inspiring title.

Chelsea Clinton (yes, that one) takes on the world with this one book. Or she attempts to, anyway. Designed as an introduction to all the major problems facing our world, she attempts to engage and inform young people so that they will take these problems on to solve them. An inspiring undertaking, indeed, perhaps a necessary one. But cover to cover, it’s a bit dry.

Broken into four parts, Clinton goes after what she sees as the four major problems facing us: poverty, equal rights, illness, and the environment. She examines each problem, providing lots of troubling statistics, in addition to a couple of profiles of young people who are combating those problems. She gives LOTS of specific ways for readers to help, ranging from telling their family and friends what they’ve learned in this book, to starting fundraisers and writing senators.

In general, it’s an impressive undertaking, and a good-intentioned one at that. It will be these young readers who will be responsible for fixing all these problems and changing the world for the better. But there are some issues with it. The first thing I noticed that I disliked was the voice. Clinton often talks directly to the reader, interjecting with personal details from her experiences. Instead of making me feel connected to the author and the problem, it felt forced and a little insincere. Also, I think this book tackled way too much. Each problem felt glossed over, and I didn’t feel like I learned much I didn’t already know. Perhaps that wouldn’t be true for her intended audience, but for me, I found myself wishing for deeper coverage on each subject.

I can see the purpose of this book. It will be great, for example, for a couple of former coworkers of mine who do a unit on activism in their 6th grade ELA classes. But past that… I’m not sure I see middle schoolers grabbing this one off the shelves and sharing it with friends.

1 star

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad cow world

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray (2009)

Opening line: “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.”

Oh boy, this book. Where to begin.

I guess let’s begin with a summary. Cameron is your average dissatisfied high schooler, just trying to get by with the minimal effort. His parents and twin sister seem uninteretsed and disconnected, and Cam isn’t motivated to fix anything, until he gets a serious health diagnosis: Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, more commonly known as “mad-cow disease.” This perfectly sums up the contradictions of this book. It’s a whirlwind combination of perfectly mundane ordinary high school personalities and reactions, mixed with the absurd. I mean, really, who gets mad-cow disease?? Then things get weirder. Cam starts having what he’s sure are hallucinations, involving a pink-haired punk angel named Dulcie, fire giants that are hunting him, and a speaking garden gnome. Dulcie convinces Cam to go on a wild journey to find Dr. X, the only person who can cure him. He must also bring along a kid from school, a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo. Cameron decides he has nothing to lose, so off they go.

The whole story supposedly parallels Don Quixote (although I don’t remember much from when we read it in Spanish senior year), which Cameron is reading at school before his diagnosis. It’s an epic roadtrip novel, a journey of self-discovery, mixed with the super weird. I don’t know. It has great elements and hilarious characters, but something about it… I had a really hard time getting into it and then also finishing it. After listening to the whole first section of my audiobook, I realized I had already started listening to it the year before, but had moved on to something else. I’m trying to figure out why it was awarded the Printz, because they usually know what they’re talking about, but I’m just not sure. I think most teens wouldn’t hold out for the whole thing, as I didn’t the first time around. I think it’s just a little too off the rocker for me to connect with. Those fire giants, man.

Anyway, I did finish it eventually, although I had to renew it (which I hardly ever do with audiobooks). Maybe I’m not a huge Libba Bray fan. This is the third Libba book I read (Great and Terrible Beauty and Beauty Queens), and for both of them I thought I would like them more than I actually did. (Beauty Queens was the best of the three, though.) I’m still holding out hope for The Diviners, though, because it looks real good.

1 star