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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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“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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“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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“The Lions of Little Rock” by Kristin Levine

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I hope that even my younger blog readers have learned about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education. Maybe you’ve even heard about the “Little Rock Nine,” brave students who began attending all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas during the fall of 1957. The Little Rock Nine, despite the Supreme Court decision several years earlier, required the assistance of armed National Guard troops to protect them from violence while going to school.

But did you know what happened the next year in Little Rock, in the fall of 1958? Did you know that the Little Rock Board of Education voted to close ALL the high schools in the district to prevent further integration of black and white students? I didn’t either, not until I read Kristin Levine’s poignant new novel “The Lions of Little Rock.”

“Lions” is narrated by twelve year-old Marlee, a painfully shy, largely silent girl who excels at math but is rendered mute with fear when called upon in class. Marlee has a few friends, bossy Sally and her follower Nora, but barely speaks to either of them. Thankfully, Marlee is much more comfortable at home talking to her school teacher parents and older sister Judy. When her folks decide to send Judy away so she can start attending high school again, Marlee is left more alone than ever.

Enter new classmate Liz, a brash, outspoken girl who immediately befriends Marlee. Liz is a smart girl herself, and she recognizes a kindred spirit in Marlee. The two join up for an oral presentation on Native American history, with Liz offering Marlee a magic square math book — the holy grail! — if Marlee promises to speak during the presentation. Liz patiently works with Marlee to overcome her fear of speaking in a pretty ingenious manner, bringing her to the Little Rock Zoo to talk to all the animals.

Marlee blossoms in believable ways through Liz’s friendship and encouragement, and it’s just lovely to see this self-doubting girl begin to recognize her own courage. Except, on the day of the big class presentation, Marlee arrives at school to find Liz gone. [Awesome note: Marlee does the entire presentation herself anyway.] The real shocker? Liz isn’t coming back. Ever. Turns out Liz is a black girl whose light skin allowed her to “pass” as a white student and attend Marlee’s still all-white middle school. Classmates and parents are outraged at Liz’s “deception,” which adds another undercurrent of danger and unrest to an already volatile situation in Little Rock.

Marlee and Liz try to maintain a clandestine friendship, despite the pervasive threat of violence and against the expressed wishes of their respective families. But there is real danger lurking in Little Rock, especially now that Red, a total loose cannon and older brother of Marlee’s classmate JT, has made it his goal to punish Liz. Red has already threatened and terrified Marlee. Now he’s stolen some dynamite, hidden it in his trunk, and seems to be waiting for the right moment to strike.

Instead of accepting racial segregation and fear, Marlee instead uses her newly discovered voice to join a women’s education committee (!), speak out to her classmates, canvass her neighborhood, and help prepare for a crucial Board of Education vote. I won’t reveal any further details, but, trust me, “Lions” is a beautiful, touching exploration of Marlee’s growing bravery, which unfolds in a gradual, authentic manner. It’s also completely age appropriate for a middle school audience, as even scary or complex events are presented with a gentle hand.

As much as I loved Marlee, the other characters are wonderfully developed as well. Marlee’s seemingly stoic, cold mother is painstakingly revealed to be a far more warm and layered woman nursing her own doubts. Popular JT, who bullies Marlee into doing his math homework, is later shown to have his own fears about Red’s potential for violence. Even some members of an anti-integration group are not depicted as cardboard villains, but rather as basically decent people who are too afraid or ill-informed to do what is right.

“The Lions of Little Rock” is a masterful piece of historical fiction that melds drama, actual events from the civil rights movement, friendship, and family. It is an absolute gem of a novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. So, yeah, I loved it. Please go out and read it now. 🙂

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Icefall” by Matthew J. Kirby

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I never would've read Matthew Kirby's Nordic adventure "Icefall" were it not on the discussion list for my Book Fest Sleepers group. I don't do fantasy, which is immediately how I pegged "Icefall," based on its glowing glacier / magic hammer cover. My bad, Scholastic. My bad. "Icefall" is a rousing, action-packed tale of — get this! — historical fiction set in Viking times. This is not a fantasy story. At all. And before you run screaming in the opposite direction, please let me add that historical fiction is not one of my faves, either. But "Icefall" works in a genre-busting, hey, this is just a great story kind of way.

Plain middle sister Solveig, younger brother Harald, and gorgeous older sister Asa are sent by their father, the King, to a frozen fjord for the winter. The King hopes to keep his heir, Harald, and his other children hidden and safe from a rampaging foe, Gunnlaug. A trusted young soldier, Per, accompanies them on the trip, as does long-time slave Ole and household servants (and mother and son) Bera and Raudi. Before the inlet freezes completely, a warship full of berserkers — think giant, fierce warriors in bearskins! — arrives, sent by the King in a last gasp effort to defend his children against Gunnlaug's forces.

As winter surrounds and covers them, Solveig and her siblings adjust to their icy, isolated home. Brokenhearted Asa mostly stays in bed and steals furtive glances at Per, while young Harald bravely tries to buck up and grow into the man everyone demands he become. Solveig becomes a sort of apprentice to Alric, the skald (storyteller) who accompanied the berserkers to the fjord. Alric teaches Solveig the power of mythmaking, and observant, sensitive Solveig — long overlooked by her father for these very traits — displays a natural talent for weaving tales around the evening hearth fire.

When a traitor emerges in the group (the few cows are slaughtered, berserkers are poisoned and killed), the hungry, frightened occupants of this far-removed world begin to turn against each other. I loved how the claustrophobic setting and thickening suspicion heighten the suspense as the story progresses. Very well done! When Gunnlaug's marauders arrive in early spring, the survivors have been weakened by fear and illness, making them easy prey. Solveig then must use every bit of her ingenuity and skill to keep her clan together and find a means of escaping Gunnlaug's clutches.

Along the way, we learn much about ancient Norse belief systems, including death rituals, runes, ravens, and such gods as Odin and Thor, whose hammer figures prominently in the story (and on the book's cover!). We are also treated to the complex, touching relationship that develops between Solveig and Hake, the fearsome leader of the berserkers, in which love, loyalty, and sacrifice are all richly presented. And while the climactic scene is telegraphed long in advance — again, the book cover! — it does nothing to undermine its dramatic heft.

I was truly blown away by how much I enjoyed "Icefall." It's a perfect novel for middle grade readers (boys *and* girls) who are looking for an exciting story full of intrigue, action, and even mythology from a long-ago era. Its icy setting, amazingly dimensional characters, and well-integrated themes of courage and faith only enrich the experience. While the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, enough plot threads are resolved to provide a satisfying conclusion.

PS – I can't leave this review without mentioning author Kirby's technique of inserting snippets from one of Solveig's stories throughout the novel. When we finally realize why Solveig is reciting this particular story to her surviving clan members, her actions resonate more powerfully. It's a wonderful device to introduce portions of each character's history, and, as importantly, to fully capture the emotional bonds Solveig has forged with each of them. Brilliant.

PPS – "Icefall" is out now. READ IT!

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Sunrise Over Fallujah” by Walter Dean Myers

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

If there's another teen novel about the current Iraq War — is there? — I don't know of it. That's why I was so excited when I heard the venerable Walter Dean Myers had written "Sunrise Over Fallujah," since I knew he'd handle the subject with his usual combination of raw power and sensitivity. I was not disappointed.

We're right at the start of the war, in April 2003, when Robin "Birdy" Perry, a new Civil Affairs (CA) Army recruit from Harlem, is in Kuwait with his squad waiting to make the arduous drive into Iraq. Birdy is right out of high school, and he joined the Army out of a sense of duty and a desire to have his life matter. Birdy's letters and emails to mom and his Uncle Richie (from Myers' Vietnam War saga "Fallen Angels") are interspersed with first-person recounting of the initial formation of his CA squad and their collective experiences in Iraq.

Birdy's CA squad is accompanying an Army Infantry unit, the idea being that the infantry guys will make the area safe for the CA group, which will then try to make a human connection with the Iraqi civilians. (You know that whole bit about "winning hearts and minds"? That's the deal here.) While Birdy and his mates are not supposed to encounter any violent resistance, the instability created by the initial American strike and the subsequent insurgency make every encounter a potentially deadly one.

Birdy quickly makes friends with two of his squad mates, the friendly, blues-loving Jonesy and the steely, worldly Marla (ok, he's also kind of crushing on Marla). Their banter during terrifying Humvee rides in hostile areas adds a nice sense of camaraderie and even humor to the story. There's a large cast of characters in the novel, some of which you may at times confuse; I know I did. One of the other important players in the story is the physician's assistant Captain Miller, whom Birdy comes to deeply respect. Miller tries valiantly to retain her sense of compassion and her faith in the fundamental goodness of people despite some truly awful experiences. Birdy, too, ends up seeing and even doing things that he has a hard time believing are right, despite the reassurances of his military superiors. We see firsthand his sense of confusion — both literal and moral — as life in Iraq becomes more and more frantic and chaotic.

I found "Sunrise Over Fallujah" to be a gripping, troubling coming of age story. The Iraq War is presented here in all its contrasting nobility and ugliness, and we discover just how harrowing its consequences can be on Birdy and the rest of his squad. I realize the subject matter may be a bit heavy for some folks. However, while the issues raised here are challenging, the book itself moves at a fast pace and is fairly straightforward. Birdy is so believably portrayed that you'll be frightened, disgusted, hopeful, and angry right along with him. If you're looking for a serious and timely read as we move into summer, I think "Sunrise Over Fallujah" is an excellent choice. It's an easy enough book to read, but it's one of those that will remain with you afterward. Recognizing the war-related violence depicted here — even just the weight of the subject matter — I'd recommend this novel to readers in grades 8 and up.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“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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