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Tag Archives: best of 2007

“The Wednesday Wars” by Gary D. Schmidt

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Yeah, like every other librarian in the free world, I adored it. End of review. 🙂

Okay, in all seriousness, I loved "The Wednesday Wars" to a level that surprised even me. When it first came out and I read the description, I thought, ugh, the character is really named Holling Hoodhood? And it's historical fiction set during the Vietnam War with comedic elements and Shakespeare and the warm hearted nostalgia I associate with that old tv show "The Wonder Years"? Um, no thanks. But! I. Was. Wrong. Truly, I cannot imagine a better book for middle school readers.

Our story follows Holling's 7th grade school year, including his Wednesday afternoons with English teacher Mrs. Baker during which the two read and discuss the works of William Shakespeare. Mrs. Baker at first seems a bit stern and aloof, but we quickly learn that she's actually generous, empathetic, and, in her own way, funny and kind of cool. She challenges Holling to look more deeply into Shakespeare's text and savor the imagery, words, and themes. Mrs. Baker even wholeheartedly supports Holling's stage debut as the fairy Ariel in the town's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Yes, I said fairy. And did I also mention the yellow tights with feathers on the rear end that are sure to make Holling the laughingstock of Camillo Junior High?

Over the school year, we also see Holling's sweet friendship with Meryl Lee develop into something more, despite the fact that their fathers are fierce business rivals. Even better, we discover how deeply Holling cares for his older sister when her misguided plan to run off to California stalls in the Midwest and he must rescue her. That's what's great about "The Wednesday Wars": all the plentiful humor — about such things as evil rats in the classroom ceiling tiles, chalk dust covered cream puffs, and Doug Swieteck's older brother and the 8th grade penitentiary crowd — is balanced perfectly by genuine, heartfelt emotion. As distant as Holling's father is, Holling himself is warm, good hearted, and sincere in an authentic way. Holling is not a hero, but he and his friends manage to do the right thing more often than not, all while learning real, often touching lessons in the process. There are so many wonderful moments in Holling's story, when characters stand up for each other and reveal their hearts in small, lovely ways. The goofy humor will hook younger readers, but it's the honesty and quiet beauty of these scenes that will remain long after the book is finished.

As I said, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's got history, Shakespeare, friendship, baseball and moments that will make you giggle and perhaps give you a small lump in your throat. "The Wednesday Wars" has something for everyone, and I hope all you middle school readers will give it a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

PS – I listened to the audiobook of this story, and I have to give props (again!) to Joel Johnstone, who also narrated "Thirteen Reasons Why."

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Posted by on March 7, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

One quick disclaimer before I launch into my rave review of Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why": I listened to the audiobook version, which is performed with compelling depth and emotion by Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman. While I think the text alone should make a fantastic read, the audiobook brings it up to a whole other level, as we get to hear the sad, increasingly desperate voice of suicide victim Hannah Baker.

Yes, as stated in the preceding sentence, high school student Hannah Baker is dead as the novel begins. Her suicide, shrouded in mystery and rumor — as her life often was — has devastated her sort-of-friend and one-time hookup Clay Jensen. As the novel opens, Clay has received a mail package with no return address. Inside, he finds a set of cassette tapes (think 80s-style Walkman) recorded by Hannah in the time before her death. Hannah has directed one side of each tape (13 in total) to a friend, classmate, or enemy who in some way contributed to her emotional destruction. Clay listens to the tapes through his headphones as he retraces Hannah's last steps, visiting the home of a peeping tom, the local coffeehouse and diner, and the site of a climactic party. As each tape passes, Clay is increasingly horrified to discover that the most popular girl in class, the cheerleader, and the guy who is everyone's friend have committed awful — or at the very least terribly mean-spirited — acts upon Hannah. At the same time, Clay keeps searching his memory for the instance when he, too, wronged Hannah. Clay is confused, because he genuinely cannot recall feeling anything for Hannah but longing, affection, and, finally, sorrow.

At first, I thought Hannah's voice from beyond the grave, and her insistence that the tapes' recipients retrace her steps, keep her secrets, and pass her package along to the next person, smacked of an ugly vindictiveness. But as Hannah's heartbreaks become clear, as the awful toll of each misery, ill-founded rumor, and broken friendship pile up, I lost any sense of animosity toward her character. Instead, I felt much like Clay, wanting only to reach through those tapes and somehow stop this sad, broken girl from completely destroying herself.

I won't say too much else about the plot, because it's important to follow Hannah's story of betrayal in the order in which she presents it. As I mentioned, it's the impact of all those actions, the sum total upon Hannah's psyche, that makes this book so devastating. I think as soon as you start reading, you'll be hooked. Even knowing in advance that Hannah is dead, this gripping novel is full of suspense. It also works great as a discussion book, as "Thirteen Reasons Why" raises lots of complex issues like the effects of teen gossip, self-destructive sexual behavior, loneliness, and, of course, suicide. Since many of these topics are a bit sensitive for younger readers, I'd say this one is targeted squarely at high school age folks. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Truly, this is one of the best books I've read in the past year, and it deserves every bit of praise I can heap upon it.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You” by Peter Cameron

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You," author Peter Cameron's first novel for teens, appears on a few "Best of 2007" lists, including those put out by Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, and Amazon.com. Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations for this dark, ironic, yet oddly sincere story of 18 year-old James Sveck. Sadly, those expectations weren't quite met. Maybe it was just too much hype?

Ok, so here's the basic plot outline, although, be warned, not too much happens in this story. Basically, James is spending the summer before his freshman year at Brown University working in his mom's NYC art gallery. The gallery, by the way, features garbage can art produced by an artist who has renounced names, and, not too surprisingly, James has lots of free time on his hands. At night, James roams the Internet looking at Midwestern houses (of all things!), envisioning a life away from college, NYC, and, above all else, people his own age. See, James is a true introvert, and he often feels so uncomfortable around his peers that he's reduced to what honestly can be described as terror. As the story unfolds, we learn that during an American Classroom trip to Washington, DC, James freaked out from the sheer pressure of having to be social and engage the other teens on the trip. In fact, as becomes clear, James is suffering from not just a stifling depression but also a severe and nearly complete sense of alienation from all people and things.

While this novel is beautifully written (among others, there's a wonderful passage where James describes the purity of thoughts and the compromise of language), the bottom line is that the entire story takes place in James' head. What we have is essentially a series of observations, reminisces, frustrations, and fears, very few of which are grounded in any real action. As such, although James is a fascinating character, this book is often challenging — if not downright boring — to read. I can't imagine there are many teenagers who would be interested enough to even finish the book, which is a shame. If there are some older, high school age teens out there interested in a sort of "Catcher in the Rye" style story, you might want to give this book a try. However, for those looking for a story about a teen boy facing the challenges of depression, Ned Vizzini's "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is, in my opinion, a much stronger choice.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Before I Die” by Jenny Downham

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I recently read Chris Crutcher's "Deadline" (reviewed below), which tells the alternately funny and touching story of a dying teen's last year on Earth, during which he triumphs, finds love, and struggles to accept his fate. How strange, then, to find another "teen dies of fatal illness" novel published mere months after "Deadline," one which also follows the same general plot line. Is this the new wave in teen fiction?

It's unfortunate to have to compare the two books, but it's natural — isn't it? — to measure one slowly fading teen's story against another. Essentially, "Before I Die" is "Deadline" set in England with a female lead character and an overall harder, more abrasive edge. Tessa is dying of leukemia, and when this fact becomes clear, she embarks on a somewhat misguided effort to fulfill a list of things to do before she dies. Tessa has a very authentic voice, and she acts, sounds, and talks like a real teenager. This means that Tessa can be petty, spoiled, petulant, and selfish. As such, this also means that Tessa can be a tough character to like and support at times. Her behavior is often so self-destructive (sex with a stranger, diving into a filthy river on a whim, shoplifting, fleeing a hospital stay, etc.), that, while you may in theory want to support a character who is trying to squeeze all life's experiences into a short window of time, you can't help but be annoyed at her antics. Even worse, Tessa's dad is portrayed as so steady, caring, and long suffering that it's difficult to separate Tessa's desire to live and create memories from the awful effects of her behavior on poor dad.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews recently named "Before I Die" one of the best teen books of 2007, and it's easy to see why. Author Jenny Downham has a lovely writing style, and she's able to nicely intersperse descriptions and observations that feel like bits of poetry into Tessa's account of her final year. I thought the second half of the novel, after Tessa opens herself up to her neighbor Adam, loses and regains love, and watches angrily as her health rapidly declines, was quite beautiful to read. Downham is able to create real emotion at Tessa's end, but not in a saccharine or falsely sympathetic way.

Most likely, girls will be drawn to Tessa's story, and I have no problem recommending it to high school readers. There is an abundance of serious subject matter here — death, sex, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy — so it's definitely a story for older teens. If you give it a try, let us know what you think.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

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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