Sometimes, an "issue" book is simply an "issue" book. The protagonist is a cutter. On drugs. Pregnant. Homeless. Abused. Et cetera. The book revolves entirely around said issue, and things progress much in the same manner as an after-school special (which, come to think of it, do they even make those anymore?). These books often serve as cautionary tales rather than actual stories, where plot trumps character and message trumps style.
It would be wrong to categorize FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE as simply a book on obesity. While Andrew Zansky, the novel's protagonist, does weigh in at 307 pounds, his weight is simply one facet of his struggle as a teenage misfit. He isn't the fattest kid in school; he's the second fattest. He isn't friendless; he's got Eytan, skinny as Andrew is big. When Andrew meets new girl April, he's instantly smitten, but he tells her he's a jock, which is a complete lie. In an effort to impress her, he tries to make a soccer goal during gym class, and he ends up putting a few kids in the emergency room...and he loses his gym shorts in the process. Utterly embarassed, Andrew expects to sink to the very bottom of the social plane after this fiasco, but a chance encounter with O, the star quarterback of the football team, changes everything. Instead of joining Model UN with Eytan, Andrew decides to try out for football (where April is coincidentally going out for cheerleader). Andrew goes from being the fat kid to becoming the secret weapon of the team, and he suddenly finds himself invited to parties, and even getting private football lessons from O (in exchange for tutoring). His crush on April only intensifies when he discovers that she too was once heavy, and she has further altered herself through tinted contacts and teeth whitening in an attempt to become pretty.
What I love about Andrew is that as a narrator, he's emotionally available. Yes, he's a teenage boy who thinks about sex constantly and is distracted by breasts and makes "your mom" jokes and stuffs his face to cover up his sadness over his parents' divorce. Yet he is honest in presenting himself, and that vulnerability makes the reader root for him all the more, as he is surrounded by false faces and ulterior motives. This isn't a novel about Andrew going from a size 48 to a 32 and getting the girl and winning the big game. It's about a kid who realizes that there is a space between the person he is and the person he wants to be. It's about a boy truly becoming a man as he stands in the shadow of his cowardly father. It's about someone who tries something new, falls down a lot, reaches for things he can't have (or shouldn't have) and eventually discovers that perhaps the path that those around him choose to tread--the path that says do whatever it takes to be who others want you to be--is not the path for him. I also appreciate the fact that his high school is populated by kids of various backgrounds--Latino, Korean, Jewish, African American, Chinese--and that ethnicity affects way these characters definte themselves.
Author Allen Zadoff makes his YA debut here; he wrote a memoir called HUNGRY about his own journey from obesity to a healthy weight. Andrew, unlike Zadoff, does not emerge from the fat cocoon a skinny butterfly. He's still very big as the novel ends. That, however, isn't really the point. What matters is that Andrew faces some of the demons in his life--from bullies to mini bagels--and he makes choices. One of my favorite authors, Gary Schmidt, says that writing for young people is all about characters making decisions, and that is why this novel works so well. Andrew wants things, and he is denied them, and yet he has the courage to try for them anyway. That is the stuff of good fiction, particularly teen fiction, and that is why I heartily recommend this book.
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Grandmothers, mothers, teachers at all girls' schools, listen up.
(Well, librarians and other teachers listen up too.)
Here's that sweet little book that comes along once or twice a year and works its way into the hearts of its readers. That book that spreads itself out like the coziest of handknit blankets and wraps itself around you while you read it. That book that you open in front of a roomful of girls (or in front of your daughter, or granddaughter, or the little girl you babysit) and when you are done with the chapter you are reading, they beg you to read just a little more.
Sophie (11), Anna (9) and Trudie (7) live with their parents in an apartment on the Lower East Side in New York City. They live above the family business, Breittlemann's Doll Repair. Bisque and china dolls are very expensive, so the girls don't have any of their own, but they are allowed to play with the dolls that are waiting to be repaired by their papa. There are three dolls that have been waiting longer than most, unclaimed, and the girls have come to think of the dolls as "theirs."
Anna is our narrator, and her story is tinged with the unique frustrations and tribulations of the middle child:
I listen to their footsteps as they go, but I don't follow them right away. I want to be alone down here for a little bit. Sometimes it's hard being a middle sister, and I just need to be by myself. Sophie is smart and pretty and good at so many things; Trudie (her real name is Gertrude, though we never call her that) is little and cute and cries to get her way. I'm just the one sort of stuffed in between--at nine I'm not old enough to do some things, like light the kitchen stove, but too old to do others, like snuggle in Mama and Papa's bed on a cold morning.
Despite her feelings, though, and the family's relative poverty, theirs is a happy life. It is a loving family, and the girls love what their parents do, so they are happy to chip in with shop chores. School is also a source of happiness, as is their friendly Jewish neighborhood. And, of course, the time they are allotted to play with "their" special dolls is treasured. Anna often tells her private troubles to Bernadette Louise (the name she has given to "her" doll). The year passes, and is told in charming fashion.
On August 2nd, however, everything changes: Germany declares war on Russia. Although the war has not yet touched the United States, it begins to immediately affect Anna's family: the parts that Papa uses to fix the dolls come from Germany. Because Germany has declared war on Russia, the US has stopped trading with them. No more doll parts. No doll parts, no work for the doll repair shop.
The family comes up with some creative ways to survive the war, and Anna and her sisters grow through the experience. "Their" special dolls play an important part in both their growth and the story, as McDonough brings us beautifully to a satisfying and hopeful ending.
The reader gets a very nice portrayal of the 1930's Lower East Side and the experience of being Jewish at that time, in that neighborhood. It's not as big a part of the story as it is in ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY, but it's done in a very matter of fact way that I always appreciate. There's a lovely family relationship here, and the sibling rivalries, troubles and joys ring true. Most of all, we see Anna learn to be resourceful in some completely normal ways, which is refreshing. She's not super gifted - she's not a prodigy - but she's clever and creative in a way that comes from love for her family and a true desire to contribute in a difficult time. She's an excellent example for children without being obnoxious about it.
I think this book will have a long life.
(I also think it will sell better in paperback - this is one of those books that I wish had simultaneous hard and softcover print runs. Especially in this economy, it can be hard to get parents to spring for a $14.99 hardcover that's 116 pages long.)
Secrets are, by nature, phenomenally interesting. (Also, they're far better when they belong to someone else and you overhear them.) It's why we love James Bond and Alex Rider and Sydney Bristow and Jason Bourne...secrets are their livelihood. It's also why we love novels, because the act of reading fiction in itself is a form of spying, at least in part. I like a character with a secret, and I like it more when it's something unexpected. Usually revealing a narrator's secret in a review would be called a spoiler, but in the case of Eddie Corazon in MUCHACHO, passing on his secret will only do one thing: make you want to read this book more. Eddie Corazon, juvenile delinquent, is a secret reader.
If somebody asks me do I like to read, I say, "Yeah," and then I give them a look that tells them they better not ask me what I like to read because this ain't Oprah's book club.
Eddie lives in small-town New Mexico with his family, which includes a large group of cousins, some of which are in and out of jail on a regular basis. His family has lived in New Mexico for three hundred years--his abuelo says, "We didn't cross the border, mijo. The border crossed us." He's had some issues with the school system, and he's enrolled instead in Bright Horizons alternative school, where the students pride themselves on getting rid of teachers in record time. The lure of his cousins' illegal lifestyle is strong, but he's promised his mother he will get a diploma. While Eddie privately devours The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the collected works of Sherman Alexie, he feigns apathy in his classes and refuses to engage, even though his mind is constantly wrestling with the issues he'll face once he graduates. What kind of future can he possibly achieve when even the brightest kids from his neighborhood can't go to college? Why bother getting a minimum-wage job when he could make easy money now selling with his cousins?
Everything changes on the day Eddie starts taking ballroom dancing to fulfill his fine arts credits, and because his teacher tells him, "You'll meet lots of girls." He is partnered with Lupe, a new girl at Bright Horizons, and he is initially drawn by her looks and the sweet smell of her hair, but upon speaking with her over lunch, he discovers she is brilliant, and funny, and unlike any other girl he's ever met. Lupe dreams of being a doctor, and slowly, Lupe's own desires for a future of her own choosing fuel Eddie's passion to be more than what he is. He decides to write her a poem: I wish I could be Lupe's rosary/ so she could hold me in her hands/ and tangle me up in her fingers/ and press me to her lips/ and pray me into being a good man/ one bead at a time.
Eddie is no longer simply a secret reader; he becomes a secret writer. His poems are scattered throughout MUCHACHO, and they lend a wonderful intimate quality to the story. What I love about Eddie's character is that despite the front he has to maintain for his peers, his family, and sometimes even for Lupe, as we read his story from his point of view, he's actually being open with us. His voice is sincere, and he bares his thoughts and emotions to us as readers, because he can't bare them to anyone else in his world. We become his confessional, and it is a privilege to spend time with him on the page. His journey is not an easy one, and a misstep with his cousin leads to confrontation with Lupe's father, and Eddie is faced with a choice about the kind of man he wants to be. Without revealing any crucial plot elements, I will say there are a few wonderful scenes in the book set at Black Cat Books and Coffee, which is a real independent bookstore in Truth or Consequences, NM. My hope is that teens and adults alike will read MUCHACHO, because Eddie's story is so compelling, and its telling so lovely, that it shouldn't be missed. There is so much beauty revealed in the midst of his chaos, and there are amazing connections to be made across social and racial boundaries. This is exactly the sort of book that should be read in 11th and 12th grade, but very rarely is. This is the kind of book that Eddie himself would like to read, and one that librarians and teachers and parents and volunteers should slip into the hands of the secret readers in their lives.
Note from Melissa: I am fairly desperate to read this book myself, and am ordering it at work tomorrow.Order this book from an independent bookstore!
There are days I go to collect the mail, and rather than the usual stack of bills, it's all requests from charities. Children's charities, health-related charities, feminist charities, religious charities. Each one is deserving, and each one shows real kindness to real people that I will never be able to help with my own two hands. There are always far too many groups asking for money, and there are moments when it feels like the small checks I send from time to time are simply too insignificant to make any difference at all.
Yet imagine a world with no charities at all. This is a world where there are no free lunches, no good deed without recompense. This is the kind of world where everything costs, and I mean everything. It's the sort of place where you can sell your own child to buy medicine for yourself, or even sell your own emotions for food and lodging. This is the city of Agora, and it's the setting for THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, a compelling first novel. Mark and Lily are two such inhabitants of Agora, and each of them have been sold. When Mark wakes from an illness that nearly took his life, he discovers he is now owned by Dr. Theophilus. The quiet doctor lives in a strange old house owned by his grandfather, Count Stelli, an astrologer. Mark's presence in the house is a secret, as Count Stelli would never allow a plague survivor under his roof, and when the secret spills, it is Lily, the girl Count Stelli owns, who comes to his rescue. Lily wants to see the world, and when Stelli kicks out his grandson, she goes with the doctor, and Mark takes her place as Coun Stelli's servant.
The stars play a role in THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, as Mark is trained by Count Stelli to make astrological predictions. He learns the constellations, studies the charts, and learns from his Master's gruff, cruel ways. On Agora Day, the celebration of the city's founding, Mark is called upon to make a prognostication before the crowds, and on that very same day, Lily decides to put a very daring plan into action. While Mark attempts to predict the future using rather unorthodox methods, Lily does something that she's never done before. She very deliberately and purposefully does something for the benefit of two others, and when they try to barter back the value of her kindness, she refuses. Her rebellious act of kindness starts a ripple effect inside of her, and it becomes large enough that it spills out into the people around her, and a revolution of attitude begins to take root. At the same time, Mark's predictions miraculously come true, and thus begins his meteoric rise to fame and power in Agora.
Mark becomes the star rising up into the heavens, and Lily, the star falling low enough to see the hurt and need in her city. Both stand poised to change Agora for good or for ill, and they are unaware they are being watched. A secret society exists in Agora, one that owns a document with contents that can drive the reader to madness. What is the Midnight Charter? The answer may be more than Mark or Lily can bear to know.
THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER does what all good speculative fiction does: it makes us examine our own world through the lens of another. This is a powerful debut, and one complicated enough to make both young adult and adult readers fall under its spell. There is a richness of place in Agora, and yet one that is quietly frightening (Miss Devine's shop is enough to make me shudder!). I have no idea where Mr. Whitley intends to take Mark and Lily once the book ends, but I do know I'm very interested to follow them into another book. THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER will likely challenge you, but in keeping with Agora's bartering system, it will give you a truly unique story in return.
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Here's the sad truth of it: I am in the second round of braces. I suffered through the first round while in middle school, and now, years later, I found myself back in the orthodontist's chair with some wayward bottom teeth. (Why couldn't they have behaved as well as the top teeth? Why?) I'm currently in month four of a proposed six month treatment, and let me tell you, it's every bit as uncomfortable as I remember. While I appreciate the fact my foray into brace-dom is only going to be a quarter of what I experienced the first time, I cannot WAIT to get this metal out of my mouth.
As I started reading NERDS, my current situation gave me a lot of immediate sympathy for Jackson Jones, who, on page 4, is having a conversation to one I had five months back with my orthodontist. (However, Jackson is a bully, and popular, and athletic, so our similarities pretty much end at the braces). The braces cause a huge ripple effect on his life, and overnight, he becomes a shadow of the kid he used to be. Friends ignore him, and his enormous headgear is too big for sports helmets, so his athletic career comes to an abrupt halt. He accidentally gets stuck in a locker and discovers that it's a passageway into the headquarters for NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society. NERDS is a government-run organization that uses kids (with supercharged "upgrades" that turn their weaknesses into strengths) as secret ops, mainly because kids are so at ease with the technology the job requires. Also, the fact they're kids makes them less likely suspects. When the scanners come upon Jackson, they find his weakness is his teeth, and so his braces are upgraded, making them into offensive and defensive weapons. When the currently employed NERDS from his school discover he's found his way into their lair, they are incensed. Jackson was, until quite recently, the bane of most of their lives, and forgiveness for his bullying ways is slow in coming.
NERDS is a fun middle-grade romp, with a great multicultural cast. Boys and girls are equally adept using their extraordinary "upgraded" skills, and a girl leads the team (code name Pufferfish, who is allergic to lies and betrayal). The art, by Ethen Beavers, is wonderfully Cartoon Network-esque, and the chapter breaks are fun takes on ID scanners: fingerprint, optical scan, and one where the scanner demands cash. Michael Buckley has already proved his ability to manage a large cast of characters in his Sisters Grimm novels, and that comes in handy here, as there are a lot of names to remember, and code names to boot. The book does weigh in at over 300 pages, so that may deter less confident readers. NERDS gives the geeks and underdogs of the world a chance to shine, and that's something this current Braceface is glad to see.
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I guess it was okay.
Okay, fine. I'll write more.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CATCHING FIRE (excluding actual plot points, because even if Scholastic hadn't asked very, very nicely for us not to spoil the plot, I wouldn't anyway, because the surprises in this book are so awesome that I can't imagine ruining them for anyone):
1. It's fantastic.
2. It's better than THE HUNGER GAMES.
3. No, really, it is.
4. Suzanne Collins is going to blow your mind. Seriously. You're going to reach a point in the story where you are going to yell "SHUT UP! SHUT! UP!" or something similar. You are not going to believe where she takes us.
5. You are going to try to read this book slowly. You are going to fail. Give in. Plow through. You can always read it again.
6. The end will crush you like a tiny, tiny bug, because you will realize how long you have to wait for book 3.
7. It is the prettiest galley I have ever seen. It has raised letters. It has a shiny crimson cover. COME ON, Scholastic. We would have read this thing if you'd printed it out on used paper grocery bags. It didn't need to be this pretty! And there certainly didn't need to be so many of it at BEA (says the person who got one in the mail almost two weeks before). In fact, as happy as I am to have read it early, did galleys of this need to be printed at all? CATCHING FIRE was already a guaranteed New York Times bestseller. It was already going to appear on the fall sales order of every bookstore in creation. Couldn't the promo money have been better spent elsewhere, on books that actually needed it? (More on this in the BEA followup entry I have yet to write, because I saw it all over the conference.)
8. If you have read this far, and you haven't read THE HUNGER GAMES, then I do not know what to do with you. I do not understand how you have not yet read THE HUNGER GAMES, and I especially don't understand why you are still reading this. You don't even know Katniss and Peeta yet. You have no idea what a mockingjay is. Go take care of that, would you?
And while you're at it, preorder CATCHING FIRE from an independent bookstore.