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“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers’ exceptional new Iraq War novel, “The Yellow Birds.” This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway’s WWI novel “A Farewell to Arms” and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War short story collection, “The Things They Carried.” “The Yellow Birds” is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation’s wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like “The Yellow Birds.” In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John “Bart” Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart’s pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart’s lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart’s closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel “Murph” Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph’s death, is Bart’s pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman’s dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers’ word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart’s cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings — Bart’s breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness — are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes …

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead …

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel’s end, giving “The Yellow Birds” a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul’s ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. “There are days ahead when I won’t think of him or Sterling or the war.” Yes, that’s a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring — but never gratuitous — imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss “The Yellow Birds.” In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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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 Pact” by Jodi Picoult

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus

Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever encountered, teen or otherwise. It sheds much needed light on a largely hidden moment in history, when Soviet Premier Josef Stalin deported and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These innocent people — men, women, and children — were ripped from their lives, transported like cattle in filthy conditions, only to be beaten, starved, and worked to death at prison camps in remote areas of Siberia. Their only crime? Being deemed a danger to the repressive Soviet regime that had annexed their Baltic nations. Their real crime? Nothing other than being professors, teachers, doctors, army officers, and librarians.

We meet 15 year old Lina on the night in June of 1941 when Soviet NKVD (secret police) officers storm her house in Lithuania, taking her, her mother Elena, and her 10 year old brother Jonas into custody. (Lina’s papa has already disappeared.) Lina’s family has all of 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded onto a truck and, eventually, a train, bound for parts unknown. Mind you, they have done nothing wrong. The train car is a true horror: people are packed in with no room for movement and no bathroom facilities other than a hole in the corner of the car. Ona, a woman who has recently given birth, is left bleeding on a plank in the car, her infant daughter dying slowly from starvation. Author Sepetys captures the fear, humiliation, and anger that Lina and her fellow travelers feel, this utterly awful sense of shame and bone-chilling terror at what will happen next.

Eventually, over the course of six weeks, the Lithuanian prisoners make their way to Altai Province, in the southern portion of Siberia. Lina’s family, thin and weak, is thrown into a hut with a brute of a local woman, Ulyushka. Everyone at the Altai camp is forced to work at least 12 hours a day to earn one meager bread ration, which is barely enough to keep a person alive. Lina and Elena are eventually assigned to farm beets and potatoes, while Jonas works with Siberian women making shoes. The mother of the lone teen boy on the trip, Andrius Arvydas (his mother bribed an NKVD guard to have him deemed feeble), is forced into prostitution at the NKVD officers’ barracks. Many nights, the Lithuanians are roused from their sleep at gunpoint and threatened by the sadistic Commander Komorov to sign a “confession” condemning them to 25 years of hard labor. It is a lonely, miserable existence, filled with pain, hunger, and far too much sickness and death.

Lina’s escape from this wretched life lies in her sketches — of Lithuania, Jonas, Mrs. Arvydas, Andrius, her missing papa — and memories of a better life in Lithuania. Lina could be killed for her “treasonous” sketches, which she hides in the lining of her suitcase, but they are a lifeline for her. Many references are made throughout the novel to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose depictions of raw emotional pain are models for Lina’s work. [Click here to see an image of Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream.] Lina is one brave and talented girl.

After nearly a year in Altai, Lina and her family, along with hundreds of Lithuanian and other Baltic peoples, are ferried by train, truck, and ship to Trofimovsk, an absolutely desolate land that lies above the Arctic Circle. Trofimovsk makes Altai seem like a luxury resort. The polar night (continuous darkness) lasts for months on end; dangerously frigid temperatures and continuous blizzards threaten the group’s very survival; starvation, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy are constant killers; and the prisoners’ living conditions — crude, self-built mud huts in a polar region — are subhuman. Without the late appearance of Dr. Samodurov (a real figure, as described here), all the prisoners would have perished during that first miserable winter.

In discussion materials and an author note afterward, Sepetys describes “Between Shades of Gray” as, ultimately, a love story. The Baltic people survived by using love as their sustaining force. I agree. Despite its devastating subject matter, this novel is warm, uplifting, and hopeful. Lina’s love for Elena and Jonas, for her imprisoned father and lost homeland, and, finally, for the strong, kind Andrius, buoys what otherwise may have been a bleak and depressing tale. There is so much life and love in these pages, so much hope and triumph, that it goes a long way in easing some of the pain. The prisoners continue to maintain their national and familial pride — Lina creates patriotic artwork, the Lithuanians celebrate their holidays in the depths of work camp blight, and the homesick and heartbroken share cherished family photographs that were hastily grabbed after arrests — which is beautiful and inspiring. Even small kindnesses, like the Siberian co-worker who saves Jonas from the ravages of scurvy, add to the impression that although we have seen the worst of humanity, the best of humanity still quietly endures. So, yes, love IS the central theme here. And what a necessary message that is for young people to receive.

“Between Shades of Gray” also impressively tempers even its most beastly characters, including some of the heartless NKVD officers, the stoic native Altains, and the “bald man,” an embittered Lithuanian prisoner who constantly criticizes his fellow detainees. Sepetys uses one NKVD officer, the young Nikolai Kretzky, most dramatically to show the withering effect of these atrocities on a basically decent Russian who is “just following orders.” The real villain here, the one never actually seen, is Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who masterminded the deaths of MILLIONS of innocents. As a stand in, we get all the people who spared themselves but made that devastation possible — Lithuanians who gave information, Soviets who abided by a culture of fear and secrecy, and NKVD officers who channeled their own personal failings into either wholesale prisoner abuse or, at the very least, willful ignorance of the horrors surrounding them.

I absolutely recommend “Between Shades of Gray” to students in upper middle school and higher. This is a difficult book, and I don’t mean to minimize that in any way. There is violence, death, and depravity, but much of it is handled “off screen” and little of it is overwhelming in detail or presentation. As mentioned above, the sum effect of this novel, the feeling you are left with at the end, is one of joy and promise. Please, give “Between Shades of Gray” a try. You will be glad you did.

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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

As if being an unpopular sixth grade girl isn’t difficult enough, try adding the slowing of the Earth’s rotation — and all its cataclysmic effects — to the mix. That’s the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable debut novel “The Age of Miracles.” While I don’t normally review books written for the adult market, “The Age of Miracles” should appeal to teens, as it is essentially a coming of age tale set against a dystopian backdrop. Although more subtle and literary than novels geared directly toward teens, its subject matter and almost cringe-worthy realism should win over many younger fans.

We meet Julia and her family on an ordinary sunny Saturday morning in California. Except, this particular morning isn’t so ordinary after all, as Julia soon learns that the Earth’s rotation has slowed overnight. The slowing will continue to increase to a point where sunlight — and darkness — will last for long days on end. As the Earth slows even more, vegetation dies, animal life is depleted, strange weather patterns emerge, sunlight becomes toxic, and people begin to suffer from “gravity sickness.” If all this sounds terribly bleak, quite surprisingly, it’s not. These events are all filtered through Julia’s sensibilities, and she presents much of the horror in a stark, matter-of-fact manner. Julia’s almost detached observations place the slowing in the background as a quiet force that is never sentimental, overpowering, or showy. The real drama, interestingly enough, occurs among the human beings.

A conflict erupts between “clock timers” (folks who adhere to the dictates of the clock, regardless of sunlight or darkness) and “real timers” (those people who follow the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise, regardless of when they occur). It’s a classic “us against them” struggle, with all the attendant fear outsiders can generate in a trying time. A class schism also erupts, as those with money can afford artificial lawns, personal greenhouses, steel shutters, and sunlight radiation shelters. But none of these are the central source of human tension in “The Age of Miracles.” Instead, it is the family interactions and middle school relationships that form the real heart of this novel.

Here’s what I found most amazing about “The Age of Miracles”: middle school kids can be just as horrible, careless, and insensitive as ever, even when life as they know it has been catastrophically altered. Julia is bullied at the bus stop, dropped by her best friend, used by a popular classmate, and excluded from the birthday balloon tradition at school. She pines away for Seth Moreno, the mysterious skater boy who lost his mother to cancer and is alternately warm and indifferent toward Julia. She worries about her unshaved legs and buying her first bra. She tries to mediate the cold hostility between her philandering father and controlling mother, all while seeking her own small piece of independence. Above all, much of “The Age of Miracles” is about one girl’s overwhelming loneliness, which almost trumps the fact that her entire world is, literally, falling apart around her. And you wondered why I called this a “remarkable” novel? Because it is!

I’ll give nothing else away, because Julia’s story should be savored by the reader. Walker is a beautiful storyteller who uses spare language and quiet emotion to convey Julia’s fears, pain, and small triumphs. There is not one moment here that is artificially rendered. Everything is conveyed with an almost heartbreaking honesty and stillness. Although written for adults, aside from a bit of language, minor drinking, and the themes involved, older teens should do just fine with this novel. “The Age of Miracles” is a stunning, haunting book about growing up. Please go out and read it now.

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Posted by on August 13, 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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“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Y’all, summer reading preparations have kept me from writing up my book reviews. But, I promise, I have been reading! Scout’s honor. :-p

Here’s a review of one of the BEST books I’ve read this year, Elizabeth Wein’s intriguing, twisty, deeply engaging World War II novel “Code Name Verity.” When was the last time a book was part history lesson, part spy game, and part emotional drama? Yeah, I thought not. How about that same book also featuring two FEMALE leads, one a British spy and one a young British pilot? That’s right. Unique concept, beautifully written … read on for more, friends.

The novel is divided into two sections with two separate narrators, and it’s up to us as readers to piece the overall story together and decide how much is truth and how much is a lie. In the first section, we have aristocratic Scot Julie (Verity) who works as a spy for the British. Julie was captured inside occupied France and is being held by the ruthless Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) as a prisoner of war in a commandeered hotel. Julie has been starved, terrorized, and tortured for information, which she is finally revealing in a confession written daily on recipe cards, prescription pads, and other leftover reminders of normal life. Julie’s confession is structured as the story of her friendship with a young British pilot named Maddie (Kittyhawk), and throughout her discourse, Julie interweaves secret details of British planes, airstrips, codes, and missions. Repeatedly, Julie laments that fact that the Gestapo have broken her and that she is now the worst kind of coward and traitor for revealing these details of the British war effort. But is she?

In the second half of the novel, we hear much of the same story from Maddie’s point of view. Maddie’s plane, carrying Julie to her mission, crash landed in occupied France, and she’s now being kept hidden by some French Resistance folks. Maddie records the story of her pilot training, her friendship with Verity, and the crash landing, as well as details of the Resistance effort to return her and other downed British pilots safely to England. Maddie figures her British superiors will want a full recounting, and the writing helps her maintain her sanity as whole days pass with her trapped in a claustrophobic barn loft. Straight off, we notice some striking differences in Maddie’s account, most tellingly her repeated conviction that Julie is the bravest, strongest, and smartest young woman she has ever met. Interesting. Even Julie’s staged meeting with an appeasing American journalist is markedly different here than in Julie’s version.

I really cannot reveal more plot details — I won’t ruin it for you! — other than to say that “Code Name Verity” ultimately becomes an absolutely heartbreaking story of friendship, honor, and sacrifice. The two lead characters, Julie and Maddie, are both believably terrified while also being believably brave, feisty, and selfless. The secondary characters are also well developed, especially the Gestapo Captain von Linden, Julie’s captor, who is strangely kind and charming while also being incredibly sadistic. I think teens will be drawn in by the spying, codebreaking, planes, secrecy, and adventure, all of which keeps the story flowing even when we’re not exactly sure what’s happening. And the big reveals at the end — when the whole truth (?) is finally revealed — are staggering. I wanted to go back and reread everything again to catch all the clues!

“Code Name Verity” is a brilliant novel that is perfect for boys and girls who are older middle schoolers. Although there is torture and violence in this story, the majority of it is very discreetly presented and entirely age appropriate. I adored this beautiful, gut-wrenching novel, which will surely be one of the best books published for teens in 2012. Please check it out.

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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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