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“Every Day” by David Levithan

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

David Levithan is an amazing, amazing writer who needs no accolades from me. Nevertheless, I’m giving them to him. 😉 Levithan is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels, the incandescent “Boy Meets Boy,” and co-author of books you, dear reader, and I absolutely adore, like “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

“Every Day” is Levithan’s latest book, and the concept is blow-your-mind unique: A is a genderless entity, a being or soul, who inhabits a different 16 year old body each day. Boy, girl, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, fat, slim, popular, suicidal … you name it, A has been that person for one day. A’s host remembers nothing of the “lost” day, apparently because A is able to implant alternate memories. A can access only internal facts about the host — locker combinations, sibling names, etc. — not emotional connections. A is, however, subject to the biological or chemical constraints of the host body and any corresponding emotional conditions caused by those constraints. (There is an absolutely harrowing day when A, in an addict’s body, uses every bit of mental energy to combat nearly overpowering drug cravings; similarly, A’s one day as a clinically depressed girl is devastating.)

When we meet A, A is in the body of Justin, a typical brooding high school guy with a chip on his shoulder and a pretty girlfriend. That girlfriend is the vulnerable, often heartbroken Rhiannon, who basically stays with Justin because (a) she thinks he’ll become a better version of himself, and (b) she’s afraid to be alone. Lo and behold, when A is in Justin’s body, Justin is, indeed, a better version of himself. A ignores the “rules” and has Justin do some un-Justin-like things, like ditching school and taking Rhiannon to the beach. Even worse (or better?), A-as-Justin is suddenly more caring, attentive, and open, leading the beaten-down Rhiannon to emerge more fully from her protective shell. In one epic day, Rhiannon falls in love with “Justin” again, while A, for the first time in A’s life, falls in love, too.

Except, of course, that epic day has to end. When A next lands in the body of Nathan, an overachieving, straight-laced guy, he drives for hours and crashes a party attended by Rhiannon. “Nathan,” posing as a gay, non-romantic interest, dances the night away with Rhiannon and later contacts her by email. (A keeps a personal email account.) Unfortunately, A has to keep Nathan out late for the party — the switch to the next host always occurs at midnight, regardless — meaning that Nathan wakes up on the side of the road with no memory of how he got there. When Nathan’s story of demonic possession goes viral — and when Nathan himself starts emailing A demanding answers — A’s anonymity and very existence become threatened. Still, being smitten and nursing the hope of finally living a regular life, A risks all and reveals all to Rhiannon. She reluctantly agrees to keep meeting A, in all A’s different bodies, while she sorts out her feelings.

“Every Day” is so thought provoking and raises such intriguing questions about personhood and identity and love, that for these reasons alone — not to mention the beautiful writing and amazingly complex one-day characterizations — it’s a winner. Do we really love the person inside, or is the exterior an inevitable factor? A slowly realizes that it’s easier for Rhiannon to connect with him when A is inhabiting a hot guy than when A is morbidly obese or female. A is such a remarkable character, mature beyond A’s earthly years, yet still a teenager who can be rash and impulsive. But A is different in one crucial way. Unlike the rest of us, A sees no gender or sexual orientation. A exists as a pure identity. An essence. A being. Seeing how this all plays out is illuminating and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful. Huge kudos to David Levithan for pulling off the logistics of the hosting so smoothly and for making the romance between A and Rhiannon so incredibly ill fated (and, thus, so incredibly intriguing).

[Total side note, but as I read “Every Day,” I thought of Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane was born as Tom Gabel, but she knew from a very young age that she was a woman. Tom married Heather Gabel a few years ago, and together they had a daughter. Tom struggled all this time with gender dysphoria, the technical term for feeling like your external anatomy and the sex roles assigned to it don’t line up with your internal gender identity. In May of 2012, Tom came out publicly as transitioning to a woman, Laura Jane, despite the prejudices of some in the punk and wider communities. Laura Jane is an absolute inspiration of being true to who you are. And you know what’s cool? Heather has stayed with Laura Jane, saying that she fell in love with the person who is Laura Jane, not the external male who was Tom. Awesome. A would be proud.]

There are some truly genius touches here — A inhabits twins on back-to-back days, allowing A to see the after effects on the host — as well as so many captivating insights into the relationships between teens and their peers, parents, and siblings. I highly recommend “Every Day” to older middle and high school readers. It’s really like nothing else I’ve ever read, and a full week after finishing it, I still find myself thinking about A. Which, sign of a great book, y’all. Please check out “Every Day” and see what you think!

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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The List” by Siobhan Vivian

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Shame on me, because “The List” was my first introduction to author Siobhan Vivian, who has written three other novels for teens. If any of her other books are even remotely as captivating and incisive as “The List,” then I need to get on them asap, y’all. Because “The List,” about a yearly list of the ugliest and prettiest girls in one high school, is a total winner. I am still thinking about this book a full week after I finished it!

One Monday in September, Mount Washington High School is plastered with an official, embossed copy of The List, designating which girl is the most and least attractive in each grade. The List is an annual tradition at Mount Washington, and, aside from it bearing a Mount Washington seal, no one knows who is behind it or how the girls are chosen. All anyone knows for sure is that inclusion on The List dramatically changes each girl’s life. What we learn in this novel is that those changes, for the favored and the ostracized both, can be surprisingly complex.

Throughout the novel, we follow the eight girls’ lives as they intersect in the days following publication of The List. Of these eight characters — loners, freaks, popular girls, a homeschooled transfer student, brats, athletes, etc. — four-time ugliest designee Jennifer Briggis is one of the most intriguing. Jennifer was once best friends with the beautiful, popular Margo Gable, who is, of course, the prettiest girl in the senior class. After a freshman year meltdown at being named ugliest, in each succeeding year, Jennifer has tried to make it seem like she’s in on the joke here and thus unbothered by The List. But when Margo’s friends reach out to Jennifer in sympathy and include her in shopping trips and parties, we start to see how clingy and, perhaps, devious this perpetually bullied girl is. It’s shocking stuff, frankly, and one of the most compelling portraits of a teen bullying victim that I’ve ever encountered.

The other girls are depicted in equally nuanced manners. We have freshman swimmer Danielle DeMarco, who had always prided herself on her strength and athleticism but who now sees herself as ugly and mannish. When Danielle’s boyfriend becomes distant and avoidant post-List, Danielle is devastated. She tries to become stereotypically feminine, but ultimately reacts in a more powerful, life-affirming way. Junior Bridget Honeycutt is the most heartbreaking character. Bridget views her “prettiest” label as a validation of the eating disorder she had developed over the summer, and so she plunges headfirst back into the world of starvation and juice “cleanses.” Bridget’s final push to wear a smaller dress size — and her emptiness at achieving this awful goal — is gut wrenching.

Then there’s Sarah Stringer, the ugliest girl in the junior class, who is really just an outsider with a punk edge and a fake aura of toughness. The night before The List’s publication, Sarah had slept with her best friend, the quietly attentive Milo. After The List, Sarah pushes everyone away in just about the most effective manner ever: she stops bathing, brushing her teeth, and changing her clothes. The mythic List makers and popular kids will have to literally suffer her existence. Sarah’s attempt to strike back really amounts to her donning an extra layer of armor in protection against further hurt. When Milo finally breaks through Sarah’s defenses and reaches the vulnerable girl inside … oy! Didn’t I say this was a compelling novel?

Author Vivian perfectly captures the impact of labeling teen girls in both seemingly positive and negative ways, and shows how that labeling can quickly create pressure to fulfill false expectations in either direction. She also expertly conveys the fragility of each girl’s sense of self worth, but never in a didactic fashion. I especially loved the ambiguous ending here. What is the real cost of popularity? Of anonymity? And is either worth it? While there are few neatly tied bows to the individual stories, you will think — A LOT — about each girl long after you’re finished reading. If that’s not the sign of a good book, I don’t know what is.

“The List” is most definitely geared toward high school girls. There is age-appropriate language, some drinking scenes, and sexuality. I wholeheartedly recommend this timely, thought-provoking novel, which will resonate with so many young women. “The List” is out now. Read it!

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Posted by on July 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Skinny” by Donna Cooner

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Donna Cooner’s debut novel, “Skinny,” is a timely, gripping story about an obese girl’s struggle to control her weight and, as importantly, to control the destructive, self-critical voice in her head, which she labels Skinny. It is as good a debut novel as I’ve read in years, and one that ALL teens should find relevant. This is NOT an obesity novel; it’s a beautiful, universal story of learning to accept yourself.

When we meet Ever, she is 15 years old, weighs 302 pounds, and is absolutely miserable. Despite having a loving, supportive father and stepmother and a pretty cool best friend in Rat, Ever is crushingly lonely and angry at just about everyone: her thin, cool stepsister Briella; her seemingly carefree classmates, including crush Jackson and super popular Whitney; her parents; Rat; and, especially, herself. Ever’s entire world is veiled in hatred of herself, her body, and her peers. It’s an exhausting, isolating way to live.

After the most humiliating public experience on record during a school assembly, Ever bravely decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery, despite the very real risks involved. The surgery severely restricts the amount of food and liquid Ever can consume without becoming physically ill, so over the course of one summer, she begins to lose a dramatic amount of weight. Rat is Ever’s cheerleader and coach during this time, carefully charting her weekly weight loss and exercise (and her choices of music ;-)). Unexpectedly, Briella also slowly becomes involved in Ever’s transformation and starts to become actual friends with both Rat and Ever.

When school resumes in the fall — and with the help of a makeover from Whitney, of all people, who takes Ever on as a project — Ever starts to turn heads and gain acceptance from her peers. Ever, who has always kept her singing talents hidden, even decides to try out for the school musical, Cinderella, finally turning toward the spotlight she has continually shunned. But Skinny, the voice that constantly criticizes and demeans Ever, is alive and well, despite Ever’s physical makeover. So when her dream date with Jackson results in something other than a fairy tale ending — leading to a cascade of self hatred — Ever finally realizes that she must start loving the person she is on the inside, lest she never escape Skinny’s grip.

Yes, “love yourself” is a fairly cliched message, but it’s handled here so deftly that you won’t mind. You will absolutely understand the relentless nature of Skinny’s criticism and how thoroughly it corrodes Ever’s sense of herself. Seeing Ever discover a more positive inner voice is incredibly gratifying for us readers. Plus, there’s so much more here: a believable love story, blossoming girl friendships, small and large triumphs, an opening night of Cinderella that had me reaching for tissues again and again … seriously, what’s not to love?

Scholastic is releasing “Skinny” in the fall of 2012. [Thank you for the advanced copy at Book Expo, awesome people of Scholastic!] My friends, please be on the lookout for this remarkable novel. You will not be disappointed. Happy reading!

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Posted by on June 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Pink” by Lili Wilkinson

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Pink" is an Australian import, originally published Down Under in 2009 and recently released in this country by one of my favorite teen publishing houses, HarperTeen. In the interest of full disclosure, I read "Pink" primarily for two reasons:

(1) The goth girl / girly girl lip cover. Look below. It rocks!
(2) There are so few teen novels with a bisexual main character, so I was dying to see how author Lili Wilkinson portrays what still seems like a taboo subject in teen literature. (Which, FYI, it really shouldn't be taboo.)

What I found is a funny, witty, heartfelt story about a high school student who transfers to a private school to reinvent herself. Gone is black haired, loner Ava, the one with acerbic goth girlfriend Chloe and no interest in school activities; in her place, we have pink cashmere sweater Ava, she of the lustrous brown hair, impractical shoes, and a sudden interest in both the school musical and one of its handsome lead actors. Much of this story is about Ava's desire to be someone else, someone more like Alexis, the cute, perfect, popular girl who immediately befriends her. Following Alexis' lead, Ava tries out for the school musical (a gangster show called "Bang! Bang!"), with disastrous results. Wanting so much to belong to the theater crowd, even tangentially, Ava joins Screw, the unpopular stage crew composed of lovably geeky misfits like nerdy Trekker Jen, sweet schlump Jacob, gay (with an h!) performer Jules, and ginger-haired wiseguy Sam.

So that's basically the story. Ava reluctantly becomes friends with the Screw kids, while trailing after Alexis and her crowd whenever she can. She hooks up a few times with gorgeous actor Ethan, but it's all a lot of work being perfect for the popular kids, hiding Chloe, her bisexuality, and pretty much her entire life. She also sort of, maybe, kind of starts feeling something for Sam, the outcast Screw leader who challenges her at every turn.

The lessons here go down gently. We learn that many of the other characters — Sam, Jen, Alexis, Ethan — are also hiding their own painful secrets. But none of these revelations are done in a horribly heavy handed, after school special manner. The themes of acceptance and being true to yourself are usually conveyed in a charming, enjoyable way. Trust me, this is so not an issues book!

Instead, "Pink" is breezy and very readable, with plenty of humorous moments provided by the Screw kids. I loved the sense of camaraderie among the Screw members; these were the truest, most fully developed friendships in the book. By comparison, it was hard for me to understand why Ava twisted herself around for boring, toothy Ethan and nihilistic, one-note (that note being bitchy) Chloe. Both characters felt incredibly empty — almost impersonal — to me, while the Screw kids and Ava were leaping off the page with complexity. While I appreciate the efforts to show some vulnerability and soften Ethan and Chloe, for me, they just never progressed beyond cardboard stereotypes. Unlike Alexis, Sam, Jen, and many of the other characters, neither Chloe nor Ethan ever seemed real, and so I had a hard time caring about or understanding Ava's attraction to either of them.

Because of that vacuum at the center of the story, Ava's explorations of her bisexuality seem more discussed than actually explored. Yes, she considers / ponders / analyzes the issue, but it remains mostly a cerebral exercise. And, since Sam is so beautifully shaded — he can be sweet, sullen, charming, shy, boisterous — it is natural for us readers to favor him in any romantic triangle. We just know him better. Having said that, the romance angle largely goes nowhere. I was disappointed in how "Pink" ultimately shies away from really embracing Ava's bisexuality. The love story ends on a vague, unsatisfying note, with some cliched lines about life being messy and confusing and that no one should ever force you to choose. Yes, bisexuality is a perfectly normal orientation that should be accepted like all the others. We can shout that one from the rooftops until the rest of the world understands! But in a novel about one bisexual teenager, I need a more definitive conclusion. I was let down by the ending, plain and simple.

Don't get me wrong. I'd still recommend "Pink." It's a fun, often lighthearted romp that touches upon some universal issues of identity, acceptance, understanding, and friendship. The pages fly by and, with the exceptions discussed above, the characters have plenty of depth and the ability to convey genuine emotion. They will draw you in! The screwball antics at the "Bang! Bang!" show and the gross-out "would you rather" games played by the Screw kids provide plenty of levity and lots of laughs. "Pink" is a book that I can see being read by many high school girls, regardless of their sexual orientation, since it has wide appeal (and, again, that killer cover). I just feel the potential was here for this novel to have been so much more.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Out of My Mind” by Sharon M. Draper

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Sharon Draper's middle school novel, "Out of My Mind," reads like a younger, more hopeful version of Terry Trueman's groundbreaking "Stuck in Neutral." In this book, fifth grader Melody has cerebral palsy, which has mostly rendered her body useless. Although she retains full movement of her thumbs, Melody has a form of quadriplegia that requires her to use a wheelchair; be fed, put on the toilet, and bathed by an assistant; and which makes speech nearly impossible. Melody's parents have always believed that there's an intelligent, capable mind beneath that limited exterior, but her elementary school has kept Melody in a special ed room where — except for one great teacher — she is left mostly ignored and uneducated. The true shame here? Melody is whip smart, with a nearly photographic memory and a thirst for knowledge. She just has no way of fully letting the world know everything that's going on in her mind.

Yes, Melody can communicate in a rudimentary fashion by using her thumb to point to words on her wheelchair's tray. But this crude, imprecise method often frustrates both Melody and those around her. Kindhearted neighbor Mrs. V, who babysits Melody and her toddler sister Penny, challenges Melody by exposing her to a range of music, new ideas, and vocabulary flash cards, while new school aide, Catherine, a college student, also strives to push Melody further. Yet, despite their efforts, Melody still cannot fully participate in life around her.

All that changes when Catherine, Mrs. V, and her parents help Melody obtain a communication device. When Melody is connected to her Medi-Talker, she can use her thumbs to create whole sentences and ideas. At long last, Melody can express herself, and she's just about bursting forth with the desire to share and participate. In her inclusion history class, Melody can finally display some of her smarts by entering a multiple choice trivia quiz. At first, her classmates — and, unbelievably, even her teacher — think Melody must be cheating by having Catherine change or provide her answers. When Melody again takes the trivia quiz challenge, alone, she scores the highest in two grades and makes the team.

From there, Melody sees her tentative friendship with able-bodied classmate Rose develop, while two other classmates and team members, Claire and Molly, overtly mock her at every opportunity. Because Melody narrates her story, we see her fears at joining the quiz team — both academically and socially — as well as her frustrations with the limitations of her body (she drools, spills things, sweats, etc.). Draper perfectly captures the angst of middle school, with all the petty slights and cravings for acceptance, all of which are amped up for Melody because of her disability. So while bratty Claire can throw up at a team dinner and survive with her popularity intact, the fact that Melody's mom has to feed her mac and cheese freaks everyone out and becomes a lasting source of shame.

Joining the team gives Melody her first real sense of freedom, of belonging, and it's intoxicating for the reader to experience that as well. Again, Draper expertly conveys Melody's voice here. Later, when Melody's teammates betray her in an almost unimaginable way, Melody's heartbreak is incredibly real and painfully shared by the reader.

In fact, what I LOVED above everything here was the unflinching realism in Draper's portrayal of characters and events. The author never shies away from showing us the ugliness (or, more often, the weakness) of folks of all ages who really should know better. But she also gives us small kindnesses and momentary victories. Melody is brave and fragile at the same time, smart, shy, bold, scared … she is an incredibly rounded, believable character. I was absolutely blown away by the big quiz team finale in Washington DC; Draper avoids the pat "overcoming obstacles and winning" climax and instead gives us something so much more authentic and compelling.

Read this book for the wonderful characterizations, the precise narrative voice, and the absolutely beautiful use of language and metaphor throughout. I think "Out of My Mind" is a must read for teachers, librarians, students, parents — really anyone — who wants to better understand how challenging and fulfilling life can be for a child with a severe disability. This lovely, hopeful book will provoke lots of discussion and maybe, just maybe, open some minds and hearts as well.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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“Firegirl” by Tony Abbott

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

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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“Schooled” by Gordon Korman

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Schooled" is the story of Capricorn ("Cap") Anderson, a young teen who was raised in virtual isolation on the Garland Farm commune with only his grandmother, Rain. When Rain falls from a tree while picking plums, Cap's entire existence is radically changed. Because Rain will need at least two months of rehabilitation for her broken hip, Cap — for the first time in his life — must leave the commune, move to a house in town, interact with other teenagers, and attend a regular middle school. Mind you, Cap has never seen a television, computer, cell phone, or ipod. He has no idea how people use money, checks, and property. In fact, he can't even understand why someone would need a school locker!

Cap is placed at the suburban home of social worker Flora Donnelly and her beautiful, somewhat bratty high school age daughter, Sophie. Many years before, Flora's parents had been members of the commune, so Flora knows full well just how jarring it is to be thrown into modern life all at once. As for Sophie, she either ignores the "freakazoid" or, in her more evil moments, dumps water on him while he practices tai chi on the front lawn.

Unfortunately, Sophie's "freakazoid" label, while harsh, is also fairly accurate. To his new classmates at Claverage (nicknamed "C Average") Middle School, Cap might as well have landed from a different planet. With his tie-dyed shirts, hemp sandals, and long hippie hair, Cap is literally stuck in the 1960s. Even beyond his appearance, Cap's behavior — his desire to learn all 1100 students' names, his complete failure to get ruffled by bullies or teen pranks — is completely foreign. Unlike his peers, Cap literally sees only good in people, regardless of the situation.

Cap's classmates, including football jock Zach and popular girls Naomi and Lena, immediately size him up as an easy target. They conspire, successfully, to get Cap elected 8th grade class president, thinking the results of putting someone so clueless in charge will be hilarious. But what begins as a cruel joke eventually becomes a life-changing experience for both Cap and his peers. Slowly but surely, he wins them over with his simple innocence, generous spirit, and refusal to compromise himself.

This book's theme — an outsider teaching conformist teens the true meaning of individuality — reminded me of Jerry Spinelli's "Stargirl." But this book is so much more gentle and lighthearted in its tone. While author Gordon Korman is clearly trying to impart a lesson, he does so in a thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable manner. I also liked the use of rotating narrators, which allows the reader to understand Cap's story from his perspective as well as those of his classmates, Flora, and even Sophie. The actions of a mean-spirited jock look awfully different when you see exactly why he's behaving the way he is.

I really liked this book. It's a quick read, and I found myself chuckling in delight quite a few times. And not to give anything away, but the ending is truly heartwarming. Plus, this is a completely clean book, with no harsh language or adult situations, so it'll be great for readers in grades five and up. I hope you like it, too!

FROM A KINNELON LIBRARY TEEN REVIEWER:

The book "Schooled" was hysterical. I enjoyed it so much! The characters in the book were so unique. I loved reading this story.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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