Sep 22, 2008

hole in my life

Jack Gantos, hole in my life, 2004, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

I know I haven't read much YA non-fiction yet but I feel inclined to say this book is my new YA-non fiction fav. As in, I'm a total Jack Gantos fan-girl omg!!! Er, well sort of. I DID really like this work and when I become a Young Adult Librarian this book is going on my list of recommended reading. Read on and you'll see why . . . .

When you think of what makes a children's author I'm sure the words 'ex-con' don't exactly come to mind. Nevertheless Jack Gantos is a well-known children's author who once upon a time (as in back in 1973), was a nineteen year old who got busted by the Feds for taking part in smugging hashish into NYC from St. Croix. That's not his whole story though. Jack tells us about the period of a couple years where he went from high school graduate to one-time drug smuggler to his decision to become a children's author. Unlike other stories of getting in with the wrong crowd and how teenagers go bad, this isn't a problem novel; and Jack isn't about to tell you he regrets his behavior. Jack doesn't BS the reader, he knows you'd probably feel the same way if you did the same thing and got caught.

I'm kicking myself now because when I helped out at an awards ceremony for YA student writers last spring, Jack Gantos was the Guest of Honor. In fact, the people in charge gave out this book to the winners and Jack signed the copies. I should have bought a copy and got him to sign it, but oh well. In writing this book Gantos has done a superb job. While his character does engage in recreational drug use and some months of crime to smuggle that one load of hashish, he neither condemns his actions nor glamorizes them. They are what they are, his experiences, his decisions, his past. You may identify with it or else find it completely alien to your own life experiences. I haven't read anything else he has written (children's or otherwise) so I can't say how it compares to that. I can say that the style of his writing is engaging. You don't read it because it keeps you on your seat nor because you're secretly hoping Jack gets shot by the drug smugglers, it is the way he tells his story that draws you in and keeps you there even though you know all along how the story will end.

Eleanor's Story

Eleanor Ramrath Garner, Eleanor's Story: An American Girl in Hitler's Germany, 2003, Peachtree Publishers.

The year Eleanor Ramrath turned ten, her parents moved the family back to Germany practically on the eve of Germany's invasion of Poland, and the subsequent outbreak of World War II. What was supposed to be a two year stint for her father to work as an electrical engineer turns into the family being forced to remain in Germany until the war is over. Living in Berlin, the family experiences the war firsthand, undergoing nightly bombing raids by the Allies, rationing, fear for their status as enemy aliens, and the constant hope they will emerge from this war able to return to America.

This book is one of my first forays into Young Adult Non-Fiction. I thought the plot was an interesting spin on the war-time memoir. Instead of the experience of an American living in the United States or a German living in Germany, Ramrath has the unique story of the experience of living as a German-American citizen in Nazi Germany. From the beginning you wonder if the parents will be allowed back into their adopted nation when the war is over (Ramrath and her older brother Frank were both born in the United States, her father was a naturalized citizen but her mother still had German citizenship).

The part of the book Ramrath does best are her vivid descriptions of how her physical environment changes over the years, months, and even hours of the war. You will not be able to forget the fates of those trapped under a neighboring apartment building. Nor will you fail to appreciate how devastating the bombings were to the city of Berlin. What Ramrath does NOT do well is to write about the physical and verbal abuse her father subjected his children to. She glosses over these aspects of her childhood as though it were the standard for anyone growing up during that time, which frankly I'm skeptical about. Ramrath also does poorly in describing what was happening to the Jewish citizens of Germany at this time. There is only one anecdote that deals with the treatment of these citizens (Her brother gives up his seat to an elderly Jewish woman and is screamed at by a fellow subway passenger). At a later point in the book she claims to have stumbled upon a "slave labor" camp, yet at the end of the book she makes the statement that she thought what happened to millions of people was a rumor until she was taught about it in history class upon her return to the US.

While I feel strongly about my critiques I also realize that the reason she glosses over much of this is because of her audience. She probably feels that it was not appropriate to discuss such topics as child abuse and the Holocaust to her projected audience. It brings up an interesting question to my mind, how much is too much discussion of such difficult issues in YA literature? I'm not sure myself as of yet. Probably once I read more I'll have a better answer for you.

Sep 17, 2008

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch

Joseph Delaney, The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch, 2006, HarperTrophy.

Thomas J. Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son who has the (mis)fortune to be able to see and hear things most people, excluding his Mam, cannot. It is because of his birth and gift that he is apprenticed out to the local Spook who goes about the County ridding it of witches, boggarts, and ghosts among many other evil things. The problem is Tom finds himself getting into worse and worse trouble after he strikes up a friendship with Alice, a girl with pointy-toed shoes, the kind of girl the Spook has warned him to avoid. And there's the problem with Mother Malkin, the witch imprisoned in one of the garden pits who Tom accidentally helps escape.

To say I'm not a horror fan would be the understatement of the year. When it comes to horror films I absolutely cannot watch them. Now, books of the horror genre are another story. Yeah, I can still spook myself if I'm reading the stuff at night (which is why I tend to save my occaisional forays into horror for daylight reading) but generally my mind doesn't linger on what happened the way it does when the blood, gore, and things that go bump in the night are presented on a movie or tv screen. Plus I was a total R.L. Stine Fear Street series junkie as a kid. This book is not like any of R.L. Stine's work. It is a clever mix of horror, adventure, and fantasy that creates a world similar to but set apart from the picture of England you have or know.

Delaney's characters are complex creations who make it difficult to predict where the plot will go despite the supernatural elements. We are not given all the insight and background needed to fully understand them but the reason for this is that the book is only the first in a series, so the author would not want to give us all the information right away. While there is hidden potential for a romance between Alice and Tom, the friendship is a curious one that alternates between a need for friendship, convenience, mutual admiration for the abilities of the other, and suspicion of what each is capable of doing and in Alice's case what she is capable of growing up to be. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the book and it will be fun to see how it plays out in the sequels.

The book itself has the appropriate amount of supernatural terror, gore (the description of Mother Malkin's cakes especially!), suspense, and plenty creatures of the night which will put a definite chill in the readers bones without giving them nightmares, even if I am a wuss who only read this book during the daytime. You'll want to call Mother Malkin, Madam Malkin after the Robes Shop owner in the HP series, but this witch isn't anything like the ones in JKR's popular world. Fantasy fans will enjoy the book but it has wide-reaching appeal that really should be enjoyed by any young adult (male or female) who likes to read.

Sep 15, 2008

Boy Meets Boy

David Levithan, Boy Meets Boy, 2005, Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Paul has known he was gay since kindergarten. Noah's the cute artsy guy who just moved to town. Tony must revert to bible study subterfuge to get out of the house. Joni&Chuck can't be separated. Kyle may or may not hate Paul. And Infinite Darlene (formerly known as Daryl) makes juggling the dual title of star quarterback/homecoming queen look effortless. Set amongst a backdrop of a semi-utopian community that made even this liberal skeptical, the book tells the love story between Paul and Noah set against the sub-plots of their friend's dramas, duels, and Dowager dancing. You may not know better than the school bookie what the odds are Paul & Noah end up together but the journey to what may be is a well-written escape that should appeal to fans of Levithan's prior work.

As sweet and fun this story reads, it's setting in a sort of liberal utopia makes even this reader skeptical. Like Nick and Norah's Infinte Playlist it is really hard to believe that teenagers (even wealthy ones) talk, think, and act like the characters in this work. That being said, the book is a safe space and thus it feels revolutionary. The fact that Levithan includes a transgender character (Infinite Darlene) is pretty amazing considering that this group of teens rarely get mention even in books on teenage sexual health and sexuality. I could see this book potentially being challenged because of it's loving and accepting language about the varieties of sexuality however it is for that very reason that it is vital to include it among ones young adult fiction collection.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, 2006, Random House Children's Books.

I actually really hate editions of books that blast COMING SOON TO A THEATRE NEAR YOU ZOMG!!! on the cover. In fact I've been known to not buy a book even though I really wanted it simply because it's got annoying amounts of promotional advertising on or in the book itself. I made an exception for this book because my local library didn't have a copy I could take out and for the love of all YA novels that look snarkily hip and fresh and a million other things I wanted to read the darn book.

Man, was that a bad choice. I have a confession to make to you all. I wanted to like this book. Badly. Namely the previews for the forthcoming film adaption make it look so bad ass that I expected said bad-assery to have originated with the book. That SO did not happen. But instead of complaining ahead of time about my personal feelings regarding this novel, let us move on to the review.

NICK is a whiny, broken hearted bassist in a queercore band. Having just been dumped by his girlfriend Tris, he's naturally less than pleased to see her show up at his gig with her latest guy in tow when he's got no one. So what else can he do but ask the girl standing next to him to pretend to be his gf?

NORAH is a snarky rich girl from Jersey with no other plans than to keep her bff Caroline safe from the clutches of sketchy guys, and oh yeah, go work in the same South African kibbutz next year as her terminal ex-bf Tal. She happens to be standing next to Nick when he sees Tris headed his way and thus decides to ask a random stranger to be his gf for the next five minutes.

What follows is a night that takes these two from a punk-rock club in Lower Manhattan to all around the hipster circuit of New York City. Evading ex significant others, trying to keep tabs on your friends, watching transexual nuns in burlesque perform The Sound of Music and happening on a surprise show by mutual favorite band Where's Fluffy? may just turn a five-minute pretend relationship into something real.

With this formula one would think the book is set up for success, sure to please the reading needs of any YA reader. And while I have seen many gushing reviews of the work on the Visual Bookshelf app through Facebook, I've gotta say something tells me you either love this book or you hate it. With all the name-dropping of NYC clubs, hotspots, and retro music the characters feel a bit plastic. My biggest problem with the book was the lack of chemistry between Nick and Norah who were supposed to be beginning like, THE most significant relationships of their young adult lives. I'm actually convinced that Nick and Norah were written to be David Levithan and Rachel Cohn but in their teenage years. I haven't read any of Rachel Cohn's previous work so I cannot speak for how this compares with that, and I've only read one other David Levithan, Boy Meets Boy, but compared with that I think DL did a better job in that book.

What do you think?


Judy Blume, Forever, 2007, Simon Pulse.

Back in middle school this was THE book to check out among my friends of the female sex. In fact we were pretty impressed that our school library even had this book and let us check it out. Although I may be under the impression that everyone and their mother has probably read this book at some point in their pre-teen or adolescent life, for the purposes of my YA Literature Class this will be the first book I write about. I'm still a Judy Blume fan and even now when I am no longer a teenager, I cannot bring myself to dislike this book. My friend, if you do not like Judy Blume then you probably ain't gonna like this book.

Kath and Michael are high school seniors who begin dating after a New Year's Eve party. Despite having relatively little experience in dating and the physical side of it, the two plunge into their relationship without thinking what the future (namely graduation) will bring to it. As the months pass Kath and Michael precariously navigate their way through the varied emotions and complications that a physical relationship between two teenagers brings. Nevertheless Blume's novel is a gentle introduction into the pleasures and perils of the emergence of teenage sexuality.

As I said before, I'm a JB fan. This book is a book that when I read it today, it still resonates with me; not because it is what I am currently experiencing but rather because it reminds me how it felt to be a teenager making dating and relationship decisions. Unlike Seventeenth Summer, Blume's Forever is well-written enough that the material doesn't seem so out-dated that you feel like you're reading a historical fiction.

For more Judy Blume go to her website: