Monthly Archives: November 2007

“Firegirl” by Tony Abbott


This slight, serious novel packs quite a punch. It reminded me a bit of Jerry Spinelli's "Stargirl," in that it told the story of an outsider who attends a school for a short period of time and has a huge, unexpected, and bittersweet impact on one student's life.

In "Firegirl," Tom is a Catholic middle school student in New Haven. Since Mrs. Tracy’s class at St. Catherine’s is small, Tom knows all his fellow students pretty well. However, only one of these students is his actual friend, a troubled, sort of manic boy named Jeff. Tom spends much of his time devising outlandish superhero fantasies. In these dreams, Tom rescues his beautiful, popular classmate, Courtney, using such off-the-wall talents (what he calls “small powers”) as an indestructible finger or high-pitched whistling. As Tom says, small powers are better tools because they are like a secret identity, allowing an otherwise lame or useless guy to do the most incredible things.

Near the end of September, Jessica Feeney becomes a student in Tom’s class, sitting right next to him. Although the class has been warned that Jessica is a burn victim, Tom and his classmates are completely unprepared for her appearance. Jessica’s face is horribly scarred and misshapen, her hair has mostly fallen out, her rough skin is patchy shades of pink and white, her hands are gnarled, and she must wear thick stockings to protect her legs. Tom’s first impulse upon meeting Jessica is to run or scream; after that, he tries to endure her presence by averting his eyes.

Because she is still receiving extensive treatments for her burns, Jessica often misses school. One day, Tom, her neighbor, is asked by Mrs. Tracy to hand deliver Jessica’s assignments. After tons of vicious rumors have swirled around the classroom about Jessica — she started the fire intentionally, she killed her sister, she’s on the run from the police, etc. — Tom feels both ashamed and afraid upon entering Jessica's condo. Although he is uncomfortable for much of the visit, he is surprised by how well he and Jessica get along. In fact, he even shares with her his hidden fondness for superheroes with small powers. Even better? She understands.

Later, during a pivotal moment in a classroom election, Tom is horrified to find himself not standing up for Jessica in the way he had hoped. What follows is a somewhat sad but honest resolution to a story of learning how to find courage, trust yourself, and, ultimately, grow up. When I say that, though, I mean these changes take place in a small, realistic way, which makes the book all the more compelling.

This is a short, extremely easy-to-read story that is truthful, emotionally gripping, and rather sweet and hopeful in a way. I think it's a tremendous choice for middle school students looking for a serious book to read.

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Posted by on November 30, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini


Warning! This book looks a lot thicker and harder to read than it actually is. So although "It's Kind of a Funny Story" tops out at 444 pages, it's honestly not as long as you might think. Please don't let the book's size discourage you from reading what is an insightful, wry, touching look at the effects of mental illness on one ninth grade boy.

Ok, with that disclaimer out of the way, let's talk about the book. We start right out seeing that Craig is in the throes of clinical depression. He can't eat, sleep, study, or even hang out with his friends anymore. His thoughts tend to "cycle" (his word), keeping his mind on an anxious track that blocks out the rest of the world. One night, in the midst of this violent inner turmoil, Craig decides to kill himself by leaping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He stops himself by calling a suicide hotline and, in the middle of the night, checking into a local hospital.

This is where the book truly takes off, after Craig is committed to the psychiatric ward of the hospital for a five-day stay. What starts out as a scary, unsettling experience for Craig becomes an awesome journey during which he makes new friends, gets a girlfriend, rediscovers his love of art and mapmaking, and begins to take his first brave steps away from depression. I think you'll come to adore Craig's fellow patients, all of whom have their own quirks and eccentricities, and the very believable relationships he forms with them. Even better, you'll admire the way Craig starts to forgive himself for his perceived failings and frees himself from the stressors that have been attacking his life.

Author Ned Vizzini, who wrote the very popular "Be More Chill," spent time in psychiatric care immediately before writing this novel. He does a terrific job of removing some of the stigma from mental illness and showing that Craig's depression is an illness for which he should not be blamed or embarrassed. The book ends on such a hopeful, uplifting note that it may help give some comfort to teens who are fighting their own battles against anxiety and depression. I highly recommend this sweet, funny, and ultimately inspirational story to high school age readers.

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Posted by on November 21, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie


In the interest of full disclosure, let me first say that I had the hardest time getting into "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." I thought the book was a little slow in the beginning as it introduced Arnold Spirit, Jr., a Spokane Indian afflicted with childhood brain damage. Arnold ("Junior" to his Native American friends and family members) lives on a reservation with alcoholic parents and a sister who hides in the basement. His best friend, Rowdy, is a violent, short-tempered bully. Arnold himself gets beat up on a pretty regular basis by teens and adults alike. Despite — or maybe because of all this — Arnold can envision a better life for himself, one free of the alcoholism, poverty, and hopelessness that afflicts so many of his fellow tribe members.

As his freshman year begins, Arnold makes a brave decision to leave the backward reservation school for Reardan High School, an exclusively white school located 22 miles from his home. Once Arnold begins attending Reardan, the pace of the book — and my own interest level — picked up considerably. Yes, as you might suspect, Arnold initially gets picked on by other students who view him as a freak because he's (a) Native American, and (b) a skinny geek with thick glasses. But Arnold is able to break through all kinds of stereotypes by challenging a bully, befriending the most popular girl in class, studying with a fellow smart nerd, and even joining the basketball team. Arnold's newfound confidence in himself helps him to excel at basketball, and he even leads the Reardan team in several crucial battles against the reservation school. The longer Arnold attends Reardan, the more he becomes a new, stronger, but possibly "less Indian" person.

The book is narrated by Arnold in short, spare, easy-to-read paragraphs interspersed with cartoons depicting various aspects of Arnold's life. Author Sherman Alexie is a poet, and there are some really beautiful, heartfelt descriptions that will literally make you stop everything and re-read them. That's the unexpected and ultimately satisfying thing about this book; Arnold can go from being a gross, foul-mouthed, immature teenager to someone who can share all his pain and sorrow and hopes and fears in truly special ways. So while you might start off disliking Arnold, just as I did, I have a feeling he'll win you over with his great combination of grit, humor, and honesty. Plus, this is one of the few teen novels that explores in any level of depth life on a reservation, so for that reason alone, it might be worth checking out. For fans of comic-style novels, and for anyone looking for a funny, touching, quick read, this will be a good choice. Since there's lots of rough language, I'd recommend it for boys and girls high school age and up.

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Posted by on November 12, 2007 in Uncategorized


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“Deadline” by Chris Crutcher


Author Chris Crutcher has visited the seemingly unrelated themes of death and censorship in his previous novel, "The Sledding Hill." If you were a fan of that book — or if you're just intrigued by a story detailing one year in the life of a teen who has a terminal blood disease — then you should definitely check out "Deadline."

Although the idea behind "Deadline" might sound morbid, the book is not depressing at all. It's actually pretty funny, touching, and even uplifting. Surprising, right? Ok, so we start out right away learning that Ben Wolf is going to die. Ben's a senior in Trout, Idaho, a small town with an even smaller high school. When Ben learns his diagnosis after taking a blood test for the cross-country team, he decides to keep the news to himself. Since Ben is 18 and thus a legal adult, the doctor has no choice but to agree to maintain Ben's secret. Ben also decides to reject all treatment for his illness, as he doesn't want to spend his last few months bald, sick, and miserable. Instead, Ben vows to squeeze all the life out of his remaining time, even going out for the football team. This is a big deal because (a) Ben is really small (123 pounds), and (b) his stronger, taller, slightly younger brother Cody — who's actually in the same class as Ben — is the team's star quarterback.

Besides football, Ben also wants to win over Dallas Suzuki, the very tall, smart, half-Asian volleyball player in his class. Ben is shocked (in a good way!) to even get a date with Dallas, although Ben soon learns that his dream girl is keeping some heavy secrets of her own. That's actually a big theme of the book, that keeping secrets, lying to yourself and others, destroys everything. Ben sees this firsthand when he befriends Rudy McCoy, the night caretaker at a local auto shop. Most folks see Rudy as nothing more than the town drunk, but Ben discovers he's a whole lot more.

Aside from the football action, which dominates the first half of the book, we also regularly see Ben in Mr. Lambeer's current events class. Ben challenges nearly every statement his conservative, close-minded teacher presents to the class. See, Ben has been reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and he's figuring out that you can't just accept everything at face value. Since he knows he won't live much longer, Ben wants to push his classmates and his teacher to question the beliefs they've always held. Along these lines — and despite great resistance from the town and school — Ben decides as a class project to start a petition seeking to name a street in Trout after Malcolm. If nothing else, Ben figures the failure of the project might help the town confront its own prejudices.

What works really well here? It's the relationships that form the center of this story. Ben and Cody are such terrific friends, even beyond the bounds of brotherhood. They support each other in football, school, and at home, and it's nice to see a realistic depiction of brothers who genuinely like each other. There's also a great bond between Ben and his football coach / family friend, the understanding, fatherly Coach Banks. Coach is a believable mentor for Ben, as is, in his own broken-down, twisted way, the drunken Rudy. While the character of Dallas always seems like she's just a bit beyond the reader's reach, everything else works so well that you won't mind. Like I said up front, "Deadline" is not terribly sad or depressing, because Ben is so smart, ironic, witty, and yet sincere that he's able to keep the story of his own death from turning bleak. At its heart, this is a book about doing something with your life, no matter how long or short it is, and it should give most of you high school age readers a lot to think about. I'd definitely recommend it.

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Posted by on November 5, 2007 in Uncategorized


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