book review

Book Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

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“When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder.  Not literal murder, but pretty much anything else.”

I’ve never lost someone close to me to cancer.  Most of my loved ones who have passed have been from the older generation (great aunts, grandparents, etc.).  In this respect, I count myself very lucky.

The aching reality is that so many of our teens are living with cancer, living with a parent who has cancer, or living with the loss of someone close to them to cancer.  In 2012, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars beautifully portrays two teens whose friendship-turned-romance strives to overcome the daily battle of cancer remission and regression.  Augustus and Hazel bring lighthearted quip and literary banter into a very serious and sad scenario:  two teens living with cancer and falling in love.

But, this review isn’t about The Fault in Our Stars.  Daisy Whitney (The Mockingbirds) has crafted her own lovely story of Danny, a California teen who has lost his dad to a tragic accident and his mother to cancer.  This is not just another “cancer book.” 

 When You Were Here (Little Brown, June 2013) is a travelogue that takes its reader on a physical journey to Japan where we become part of Danny’s emotional and spiritual journey of healing.

The book came to me after Whitney posted on her Facebook wall that she had ARCs of her soon-to-be-released new novel.  It arrived a few weeks later with a hand-written note from Daisy and an address for an Enlish teacher in Oregon who I was to send the book on to when I was finished. 
When we first meet Danny, he is a surly, destructive, impulsive teenager immediately following his high school graduation where he gave the (shocking) valedictorian address.  He slams into cars parked on his street, destroys rare hand-crafted guitars, throws raucous parties, and closes himself to those who try to reach out to him.  Holland, Danny’s ex-girlfriend who dumped him several months earlier while away at college, enters the scene with a gentle understanding, lingering patiently in the background, taking his verbal blows in stride and re-appearing just as Danny seems to be about ready to let her go.

Danny’s journey begins when a letter arrives from Japan offering condolences and seeking guidance in removing and disposing of Danny’s mother’s medications from their Tokyo apartment. A seed is planted, and he embarks on aquest to unravel the mystery of his mother’s rapid decline and confront the man who was her last hope and healer.

I thoroughly enjoyed how Tokyo and its diverse neighborhoods and occupants portrayed the dynamic intersection of Western high-tech influences (i.e., robot-manned ice cream stands) and ancient Eastern philosophy and spiritualism (a temple made famous for its healing tea).  Quirky Kana embodies this with her Harajuku-style and Buddhist spiritualism.  Kana becomes Dana’s spiritual guide and companion.

This story is about death and love, true, but for me it is about the intersection of the two–healing.  How do we heal the rift in our hearts, souls, and minds when we lose a loved one either to death or parting?  How can two people help to facilitate that healing process when loss can become a major barrier between them?

I’m having a hard time letting go of Danny.  Since I finished it, there have been several moments each day when I want to reach for When You Were Here to pass it on to a colleague or student who I know needs it.  Those are the special books; the ones that will always be in circulation; the ones students come back and whisper to me how much it meant to them–and this one will definitely secure a place on that list.

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Period 8 by Chris Crutcher

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Title:  Period 8Author: Chris CrutcherPublishing Date:  March 2013


Summary (Goodreads.com)

In this full-length novel from Chris Crutcher, his first since the best-selling Deadline, the ultimate bully and the ultimate good guy tangle during Period 8.
Paul “the Bomb” Baum tells the truth. No matter what. It was something he learned at Sunday School. But telling the truth can cause problems, and not minor ones. And as Paulie discovers, finding the truth can be even more problematic. Period 8 is supposed to be that one period in high school where the truth can shine, a safe haven. Only what Paulie and Hannah (his ex-girlfriend, unfortunately) and his other classmates don’t know is that the ultimate bully, the ultimate liar, is in their midst. 
Terrifying, thought-provoking, and original, this novel combines all the qualities of a great thriller with the controversy, ethics, and raw emotion of a classic Crutcher story.


I first met Chris in 2006 when I brought my class to the lecture hall to hear “this great author for guys” my librarian recommended to me.  When we walked in I thought to myself, “no way is this man going to make my guys lift their heads off the table and listen to what he has to say.”  Boy, was I wrong.  Immediately, Chris started shaking their hands, talking sports, chatting it up in that “guy-way” I make a poor attempt at with my students.  By the end of the talk, even my most reluctant readers–boys and girls–were lined up to meet Chris and buy his books.

When I heard about Period 8, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC.  Thanks to a librarian friend who hunted one down at YALSA, I was able to devour this fast-paced, thrilling read one day over the winter break.

“Any subject is fair game.  No qualifications to enroll, no grade or credit, no attendance taken, but in a given year membership is consistent.  There were years when Period 8 was the only reason Logs taught, when the educational philosophy du jour provided him almost no satisfaction; years when his personal life was in such a shambles he could barely bring himself to the classroom each day.  But Period 8 always brought him to life and grounded him.”

As I raced through its final pages, closed its cover with a satisfied pat, I sat for a moment thinking, “did that really just happen?”  There were many appealing moments and facets of this book for me including its stunning finale.  First of all, as an educator and librarian, this third space that Mr. Logsdon (Logs) and his students create together feels like several smaller, similar experiences I’ve had with students through the years.  There’s this community that can evolve suddenly in schools, which allows all participants a safe place to do the unsafe, a place to belong, a place to stretch and grow.  They pop up in various arenas on campus, on stage in a school production, on the field formed through the team, in a band room, corner of the library, classroom, before, during, and after school–pockets of Period 8s provide a neutral space somewhere between the world that belongs to home and the world that belongs to academia.  I thank Chris for honoring that space with this story.

Secondly, the somewhat reluctant protagonist, Paulie Baumb, stands out, who battles his own heroic tendencies against his need to preserve himself and secure a future of his choosing.  At first I thought that Paulie was up there with my top five favorite male protagonists…but now I realize, Paulie is in my top protagonist list, period, male or female.  Paulie clings to the desperate hope that he is not his father’s son, while indulging himself in an emotional lashing for making a mistake that made him the unwitting pawn in a psycho-path’s twisted plot.  Tortured, honest, and brave, Paulie remains a role model throughout the book even when his choices are flawed. 

Finally, the plot!  I mean, wow, I think I saw it coming, but I didn’t believe that Crutcher would go there.  I’m still conflicted between feeling that the sensationalism and scandal is too far out of reality to make a satisfying resolution, but, “it” happens, right?  It’s difficult to convey my feelings about the plots twists and turns without spoiling the ending, so I’ll just leave it at that.  Knowing a little about Chris’ experience with mental health and teenagers, I’m leaning on my trust in him to craft a work of realistic fiction that is more real than fiction. 

Judging from the last page, I’d say there’s possibility that fans of the Period 8 gang might have more to look forward to in further installations, but until that time my mind is happy to grapple with the possibilities and wisdom Logs imparts on their final day, “Don’t listen to me.  I’m an old guy.  Turn me loose and I’ll want you to learn from my experiences.  I’ll remember things that happened to me in my time and think I should warn you.  But that’s all BS.  There is one teacher in this world and that teacher is experience.  Mine for me, and yours for you.”

Module #8: The Raven Boys

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Summary:
Blue has been told since she was very young that she will kill her true love.  While watching the ghosts of the soon-to-be-dead walk through churchyard endowed with tremendous spiritual energy, she’s drawn to  one spirit, a mysterious boy who speaks directly to her,  “Gansey, that’s all there is.”  She undergoes a quest with the real Gansey and his three Raven Boys, all students at the prestigious Aglionby Academy, to unearth the powerful ley line and unlock the mystery before someone else beats them to it. 

APA Reference:
Stiefvater, M. (2012). The raven boys.  New York, NY:  Scholastic Press.

 

Professional Review:
Fiction * The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater Scholastic Press, $18.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-545-42492-9

By grounding this new series in what might be called everyday weirdness–a rich teenager’s obsession with legend and glory, a shabby household of female psychics with a pay-per-minute hotline–Stiefvater (TheScorpio Races) avoids the burden of building a seamless alternate world, instead saturating our reality with magic. Haunting, distinctly individual characters are at the forefront: Blue, an outsider in her own home because she isn’t clairvoyant; Gansey and his posse of misfits, who lack any sense of home and seek meaning elsewhere; and Barrington Whelk, a Latin teacher with a secret. Gansey and his fellow “ravenboys” attend exclusive Aglionby Academy–itself out of place in working-class Henrietta, Va.–and Blue’s goal is to avoid them at any cost. She can’t, of course, but Stiefvater doesn’t rush this inevitability. Hopes, fears, quirks, and forebodings gather gradually, coalescing as living portraits. It’s a tour de force of characterization, and while there is no lack of event or mystery, it is the way Stiefvater’s people live in thereader’s imagination that makes this such a memorable read. Ages 13-up. Agent: Laura Rennert, Andrea Brown Literary Agency, (Sept.)

The Raven Boys [Review of the book The raven boys]. (2012). Publishers Weekly259(31), 67.

Impressions:

My “BFF” Maggie and Me at NCTE12

After devouring Stiefvater’s series The Wolves of Mercy Falls, and her 2011 Printz Honor Book The Scorpio Races, I–and much of the YA-obsessed world–waited eagerly for the release of her “boy” series.  Our patience was dually rewarded with this spectaculary, multi-dimensional ensemble story of a band of misfits and their supernatural quest.  Much like in The Scorpio Races, Stiefvater deftly crafts a world based in realism with supernatural or mystical elements.  Her prose is so well crafted that the reader forgets where the realism ends and fantasy begins.  Whether it be ley lines, psychics, and deadly rituals or mythological man-eating water horses,  her books do not leave the reader on the outside edge looking into a fantasy. 

The ensemble cast of characters truly makes this a “character-driven” novel.  Although at times I found myself doubling back and re-reading following abrupt perspectives to the story, I appreciated each character’s unique history, puzzles, and purposes for the quest.
I’m very eager to continue on with Blue in her boys in the next installment.

Favorite moments:
“She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, that strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness.”

“When Gansey was polite, it made him powerful. When Adam was polite, he was giving power away.”

“I guess I make things that need energy stronger. I’m like a walking battery.”
“You’re the table everyone wants at Starbucks,” Gansey mused as he began to walk again.
Blue blinked. “What?”
Over his shoulder, Gansey said, “Next to the wall plug.”

“Where do you live?”
Adam’s mouth was very set. “A place made for leaving”
“That’s not really an answer.”
“It’s not really a place.”

“My words are unerring tools of
destruction, and I’ve come unequipped with the ability to disarm them.”


Library Uses:Both The Raven Boys and The Scorpio Races would make for an excellent bridge between readers who typically enjoy realistic fiction into the fantasy genre.  Host a “meet the author” event featuring a new author who has made a strong impact in their genre.  Show trailers, provide book talks for participating classes, and invite students to explore Maggie Stiefvater’s website for behind the scene videos into the making of her book trailers for a unique perspective on digital storytelling (www.maggiestiefvater.com).


Stiefvater created her own trailer for The Raven Boys


Behind the scenes look at creating the music for The Raven Boys book trailer.

Module 14: You Don’t Even Know Me

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Summary
In this collection of stories and poetry all told from the perspective of teenage boys, Flake presents the sometimes hilarious but reflective voices that are not always heard in classrooms.  Some stories deal with very serious topics such as teenage pregnancy and marriage and some are light-hearted takes on girls and how to impress them. 

APA Reference
Flake, S. G. (2010).  You don’t even know me.  New York, NY:  Jump at the Sun.

Professional Review

You don’t even know me. Sharon G. Flake. Jump at the Sun, 2010. $16.99. 978-1-4231-0014-0. Grades 8-11. Realistic, sometimes gritty, short stories and some poetry convey life for black, mostly urban, teenage boys. With different formats and themes, the narratives touch on teen pregnancy, AIDS, and violence but also convey a sense of hope and the richness of life.

ODEAN, K. (2011). NO EASY ANSWERS [Review of the book You don’t even know me]. Teacher Librarian, 38(4), 36.



Impressions
While reading this collection I most appreciated the diversity of the voices represented.  Urban male teens tend to be pigeon-holed into one stereotype in pop culture–the hardened thug.  Flake, however, shows us the hopes, zeal for life, and the importance of relationships to urban boys. 


Library Uses
During National Poetry Month in April, the library can host an open-mic event for students to read from their favorite poets or read their own works.  Leading up to the event, create a display of poetry students might find engaging.  You Don’t Even Know Me can be part of a display geared towards boys finding their voices through poetry alongside The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur and many other collections of poetries by urban and male voices.  Flake’s poems or stories would make excellent podcasts, recorded with photographs depicting some of the images and scens in the poems. 



Module #5: The First Part Last

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Summary:
Bobby and his girlfriend Nia are in love and happy, until Nia discovers she is pregnant.  Told in alternating chapters between “Now,”  Bobby struggles to take care of his newborn daughter without the presence of Nia, and “Then,” Bobby and Nia struggle together to determine what will be best–keep the baby or put her up for adoption.  It’s the “first part” of the story that is kept until the very end when we fully understand the situation Bobby finds himself in and the greatest struggle of all. 

  APA Reference:
Johnson, A. (2003).  The first part last. New York, NY:  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

  Professional Review:

Section: Grades 9-12

Fiction
JOHNSON, Angela. The First Part Last.
144p. CIP. S & S. 2003. RTE $15.95.
ISBN 0-689-84922-2. LC 2002036512.
Gr 8 Up-In this lyrical novel, 16-year-old Bobby narrates his journey into teenage fatherhood, struggling to balance school, parenting, and friends who simply do not comprehend his new role and his breathtaking love for his daughter. Winner of the 2004 SRT Coretta Scott King Author Award and the 2004 YALSA Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence.

The First Part Last (Book) [Review of the book The first part last]. (2004). School Library Journal5064.


Impressions:

First Part Last is such a gentle book, with a deeply sensitive narrator. Reluctant readers will enjoy the short, engaging chapters and the realistic setting and situations. Many will also find familiarity with Bobby’s struggle to be a single, teenage father and the heart-breaking loss he keeps tucked away. 

Library Uses:
Paired alongside Flake’s You Don’t Even Know Me, this title could be part of a book talk that targets adolescent boys, particularly those who seem to hide a lot behind the “tough guy” facade. 

Module 15: Forever

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Summary
A senior in high school, Kath meets Michael at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party and nineteen dates later, they are in love.  This isn’t just any kind of love; it’s the kind that lasts forever.  The two are inseparable, as Kath works through her confusions and fears about sex and what “making love” will mean for them as a couple.  A summer apart tests their trust in one another and belief in “forever.” 

APA Reference
 Blume, J. (1975).  Forever. New York: NY, Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Professional Review
Katherine and Michael find each other, and it’s first love for both of them.  Katherine loses her virginity, finds out about contraceptives, and learns about VD with lectures inserted as needed.  Actually, both kids are so kind and considerate, so understanding, so everything, that readers may wonder what’s wrong with them.  Finally, she realizes that first love isn’t always Forever, that she is growing and accepting changes.  Sniff, sniff.  Obviously it’s not a quality book, but that fact won’t bother the many girls who will read it, identify, cry happily, and recommend it to their friends.  Librarians buying for junior high schools should be aware that the sexual scenes, while not at all explicit compared to the run of adult novels, may be more than parents of young teens bargain for. —Regina Minduri, Alameda County Library, Hayward, Calif.

Minudri, R. U. (1975). Forever (Book) [Review of the book Forever]. School Library Journal, 22(3), 95.
Impressions

Made famous by the many challenges and attempts to ban it from school and public libraries, Blume’s novel is not just about sexual awakening, but of the universal experience of “true” and “first” love; oftentimes, teens first adult experiences are wrapped up in those relationships.

What I most appreciated about Forever is the expansive cast of female characters who all explore varying issues and angles to sexuality: Kath’s best friend Erica who makes it a goal to “get laid” before she goes to college so she can have the experience behind her; Kath’s grandmother, a New York lawyer, who played a pivotal role in the development of Planned Parenthood and sends her pamphlets about birth control, reproductive rights, and venereal disease in the mail, which ultimately leads to Kath visiting the clinic for contraceptives; and, Kath’s mother who has an open and honest relationship with Kath and does not shy away from having non-judgmental conversations about sex without condemning or condoning.

Are there somewhat erotic and overtly sexual moments in Forever? Oh, yes! But, even though sex is an ever present topic, the perspectives and reflections of the characters present a well-rounded conversation that every teenager could benefit from participating in. For some, the only way that will happen is through reading the book.

Library Uses
Forever is an excellent title that appears on the most frequently banned books lists that could be included in a display, book talk, or trailer promoting Banned Book Week.  Given the popularity of Judy Blume’s work over the generations, the library could collect personal responses to the novel from adult and teen readers spanning the three decades the book has been popular. 

Module #7: Mockingbirds

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Book Summary
Alex wakes up in a strange dorm room with a strange boy, evidence of the previous night’s events scattered across the room.  It’s clear what happened, but Alex has no memory of any of it after leaving the concert with her friends.  As pieces of her memory come back to her and she confides in her best friend and her sister, she realizes the truth–she was date raped.  She can stay quiet about it, try to move on with her life, or she can find someone who can help her take a stand.  She seeks the assistance of a student organization, The Mockingbirds–named after Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Will they right the wrongs inflicted upon students by fellow students, or will Alex be left standing alone in the end?

  APA Reference
Whitney, D. (2012).  The mockingbirds.  New York, NY:  Little Brown.

ImpressionsThe opening chapter as Alex rises from a stranger’s bed, naked and disoriented, paints the picture of a too familiar scene.  Whitney approaches the sensitive and sometimes taboo topic of date rape with an honest victim’s perspective.  When Alex realizes what has happened to her, we wonder why she doesn’t fight harder, tell the authorities or her parents.  Whitney constructs Alex in a way where we not only understand, but we empathize with the many stages of grief she must wade through following a traumatic event.  Perhaps the most poignant scene comes right on the heals of resolution.  Alex confides in the one adult she trusts to counsel her that she doubts herself and the accusations she’s brought against another student.  A vague memory surfaces of that night that makes her question the whole course of events.  This realism and honesty stems from Whitney’s personal experiences, which breathe purpose and heroism into her debut novel.

Professional Review
Section: The Book Review

WHITNEY, Daisy. The Mockingbirds. 339p. Web sites. CIP. Little, Brown. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-09053-7. LC 2009051257.
Gr 9 Up–Alex wakes up in a strange bed, naked, and with a terrible headache, lying next to a boy whose name she doesn’t know. A junior at an elite boarding school, she is used to a controlled and nearly perfect life. Among all the talented and special students at Themis Academy, Alex is a standout as a classical musician. How could she have been so stupid as to have sex–for the very first time–with this stranger? It takes several days, and the support of her roommates and friends, for her to piece together the events that led up to that horrible morning. The portrayal of the aftermath of alcohol-fueled sexual assault is particularly well drawn. Alex is confused, disoriented, and deeply shamed, but her friends help her understand that, no matter how drunk she was, sex without consent is rape. There is no help from the school authorities, who have failed to protect students from one another in the past, so Alex turns to the Mockingbirds. This semisecret society is an ingenious student-initiated justice system that holds individuals responsible for their actions. Just like in the world outside, the wheels of justice turn slowly, but ultimately Alex has the satisfaction of holding her assailant to account. Particularly poignant is Alex’s growing relationship with a kind and caring boy who helps her regain her equilibrium and look to the future. Written with a deep awareness of post-trauma experience and a keen ear for high school dialogue, this novel makes an impassioned case for youth taking responsibility for the actions of their peers.
~~~~~~~~
By Carolyn Lehman, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA

Lehman, C. (2011). The Mockingbirds [Review of the book The Mockingbirds]. School Library Journal57(3), 175.

Library Uses
The Mockingbirds fits well with additional titles that address social justice and standing up for those who are dis-empowered.  Paired with other books that deal with difficult topics for teens such as Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson,  Lay that Trumpet in Our Hands by Susan Carol McCarthy, and Harper Lee’s iconic work, these books allow students to safely explore complex themes.  The library may promote these titles by timing a book talk or display with the English department’s study of To Kill a Mockingbird.