Category Archives: YA

Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood

I’m a far-ranging reader, happily reading a picture book one minute and a book for adults the next.  Professionally, being a 4th grade teacher and reviewer, not a librarian, I tend to read only YA that really intrigues me for one reason or another and I have to shamefully admit that until now what I’d heard about Marcus Sedgwick’s books — that they were dark and creepy — did not make me want to read them. But recently, I saw something interesting about his latest, Midwinterblood, just as a copy showed up in the mail and so I took it home to read.

Wow.

The book has an unconventional structure that someone told me is like Cloud Atlas, but while it does have a sort of similar time sense, I’d say it is otherwise completely different.  Beginning in 2073 on the island of Blessed, it moves back in time, with an epilogue connecting back to the book’s start. There are seven stories in total, all set on the island, heading back and back and back through time. And by way of these distinctive narratives we are startled to encounter characters we have already met in the earlier stories, characters who care, hate, most of all, two who love throughout eternity.  Separately these are ghost stories, love stories, and even something that might be termed dystopic. Playing on tropes of folklore, horror, myth, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Sedgwick imaginatively weaves something highly original and completely compelling. While Midwinterblood is its own distinct thing, mulling it over now, I think of Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times and the stories of Margo Lanagan.

Most of all, it is gorgeous. Highly recommended.

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Filed under Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, YA

Eliot Schrefer’s ENDANGERED

I absolutely did not want to read this book. The advance reader copy sat on my shelf for months untouched as I assumed it was yet another book offering a simplistic view of Africa, one that focused on the plight of an exotic animal while barely acknowledging the complications of the people who lived around it. Having lived in Sierra Leone for two years in the 70s, I’m techy about how the continent is represented, especially by well-intentioned outsiders who focus on its animals at the expense of its people.  That said, I know that it is very, very hard to even begin to present to anyone, much less to a young person, the horrible complicated conflicts such as what happened in Sierra Leone a decade ago and what is still happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Still it was only when I saw that the book was a finalist for the National Book Award that I finally picked it up.  And then did not put it down again until I was done.

The story is from the point of view of Sophie, the product of a Congolese mother who runs a sanctuary for rescued bonobos and an American father. When her parents split up, because schooling would be better in the States she returned there with her father, coming back during vacations to be with her mother. As the book begins Sophie is traveling to her mother’s sanctuary when she spots a young bonobo with a trader and buys him, recklessly ignoring the Congolese sanctuary worker who tells her they never do that, it will cause problems, that they only rescue those that are brought to them.

At the sanctuary Sophie works to save the young ape whom she names Otto. It takes no time at all for the two of them to become permanently connected, Sophie functioning as the young bonono’s mother. Schrefer quickly and effectively gives us a sense of the sanctuary, of Sophie’s mother, the other workers, and the specifics of the bonobos who are the closest of the great apes to humans.  Schrefer, without sentimentality, again and again throughout the book shows readers this commonality, making readers think hard about ourselves as humans and our relationship to others in this world.

Shortly after Sophie’s arrival the war arrives at the sanctuary.  Schrefer does not shy away at his depiction of the horrors of this. In fact, it was this that won me over completely. For I followed closely the conflict in Sierra Leone, a place I knew well long ago, and there are many commonalities to what has happened in the DRC;  the drugged child-soldiers, the frightened villagers, the many dreadful things that have been reported from both regions are all too familiar to me. Schrefer presents them truthfully, at times terrifyingly, and sensitively all steadfastly through Sophie’s eyes.

Unable to abandon Otto, instead of leaving the country with the UN, Sophie flees with him.  At first she stays with other bonobos, but eventually she has to leave them too and sets out on a difficult journey to find her mother who had been releasing bonobos back into the wild in another part of the country when the war began.

Sophie is a remarkable character, full of grit and gumption, and readers are bound to be riveted as her efforts to save Otto and herself are tested again and again as they make their journey.  Schrefer does an amazing job communicating their physical and emotional hardships, giving readers a feel for the community and ways of the bonobos and how they link to us humans, and also a straightforward view of the way the conflict affects humans as well, both the victims and the transgressors.

By the end, I was completely won over. Schrefer has crafted an outstanding work about Africa, about bonobos, and about the complexities of the relationship we humans have with the world around us.

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Filed under Africa, YA

Coming Soon: Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity

I am a coward.

I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.

So begins Elizabeth Wein’s extraordinary Code Name Verity, due out in the US this May. The story of a passionate friendship set in the landscape of World War II Britain, women pilots, espionage, Nazis, the Resistance, and occupied France, it is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read.

The book begins as an account by one Verity — a young female British spy who has evidently been captured by the Gestapo in France and is now being forced to write out all she knows in a brutal situation of torture and misery. Day by day Verity relates both the experiences of her prison (and of those who supervise and manage her) and those of her past. Twisting in and around time, Verity introduces her dear friend Maddie who became a pilot at a time when female ones were few and far between. She tells of their unlikely friendship, of their parallel developments as pilot and spy, and of the events before, during, and after the night Maddie flies her to France for a mission that goes very, very wrong.

Code Name Verity is a harrowing, riveting, and deeply emotional read   — harrowing as there are references to torture, riveting as it is a thriller of the sort that keeps you agog to figure out just what is happening, and deeply emotional because of Wein’s brilliant writing. Who is Verity exactly? What was she sent to do? Has she compromised her mission? Her friend? Her country? Can we trust her account? Can we trust her?

Beautifully written from the most elegantly composed sentences to the exquisitely developed characters and the intricate puzzle of a plot, Code Name Verity is outstanding.


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Filed under Other, YA

“What is the apocalypse but an everlasting snow day?”

Couldn’t resist that quote today (as NYC copes with a blizzard) from Scott Westerfeld’s piece at a New York Times’ debate on YA dystopic literature (guess we never get tired of discussing it, do we?).  Others in the fray are Maggie Stiefvater, Jay Parini, Paolo Bacigalupi, Andrew Clements, Lisa Rowe Fraustino, and Michelle Ann Abate. So far no actual debating, but it is still early.

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The Horror of War in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay and Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men

Reading about war, reading about young people in war, reading about the realness of combat and armed conflict is a journey into the heart of darkness. It is not for the faint-of-heart.  In a recent interview, SLJ’s Rick Margolis asked Suzanne Collins, author of Mockingjay (the final book of The Hunger Games series) and the daughter of a career military man, what she hoped young readers would take away from her books. She responded:

One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.

That war makes monsters of men is the gut wrenching theme of Patrick Ness’s forthcoming Monsters of Men, the final in his Chaos Walking series. Also the child of an American military man, Ness is fierce and uncompromising in this intense book.   As in Mockingjay, there is a horrible, hard-to-make-sense-of conflict going on in a dystopic future. While Collins’ takes place on Earth Ness’s takes place on a planet that has been colonized by people from Earth — at first the war is a civil one among the colonists (a terrorist against a megalomaniac), but in the final book it becomes one against the planet’s indigenous people.  In both books war is hell. There are rebels, terrorists, and enormously complicated characters, adult and young adult alike.  While both address issues of today — Collins’ Hunger Games are reality television of the nth degree while Ness’s Noise (the curse males on the planet have of being able to hear each other’s thoughts) is clearly a statement about our plugged-in world — most of all they are addressing that ancient conundrum — why war?

And when I say war, I mean war.  In your face war.  Body bag war.  (I’m old enough to remember seeing those body bags on television coming back from Vietnam — something we don’t see today, I should point out.)  Mockingjay opens with protagonist Katniss on a killing field.  The first word of Monsters of Men is war.  Dreadful things happen in both books because of war.  Innocents are slaughtered.  There is horrific emotional and physical pain. There is heartache of the sort that seems almost impossible to bear.  People are broken. Some are healed completely and some are not. People fall in and out of love.  People question. Some forgive. Some take vengeance.  That all is fair in love and war is utterly beside the point if not completely specious.

The books, each in their own unique ways, are harrowing reads.  While I know others have read these books without pause, I needed breaks.  It took me days to complete Monsters of Men as I had to take psychic breathers from it.  Mockingjay was a bit easier, but as I wrote here, I knew I couldn’t finish it before bed.  Again, these are not for the faint-of-heart.

Joseph Conrad may have had something different in mind when Kurtz died shouting about “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness, but there is no doubt in my mind that war is horror.  I lived in Sierra Leone in 1974-76. It was a beautiful country with wonderful people and it was unimaginable to me that it could become something different.  But it did — somehow people in that country turned into something else, into brutal killing machines. For some reason I cannot fathom; I do not have the imaginative ability to do so.  Real or not real?  is a question posed in Mockingjay. Real as it feels, the real thing is worse, real war is worse.  That people we love, admire, respect can kill other people seems impossible to me.  No matter what.  Yet it happens.  And we need to think about it.  In Mockingjay and Monsters of Men Suzanne Collins and Patrick Ness push young readers to do just that.

Crossposted at the Huffington Post.

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Filed under Patrick Ness, YA

Thalia Kids’ Book Club Camp

Today Betsy Bird reminded me of this amazing summer day camp just down the road from me.  One of my students went and from what she told me, what Betsy wrote, and their blog posts — well, it sounds phenomenal for kids who are obsessed readers and writers.  Looks like a nice balance of talking about books, writing, engaging with authors, cool field trips, and more conventional camp fun (e.g. Capture the Flag).  And for those in the NYC area, there appears to be one session starting today with slots left, a YA one for kids 13-15 years-old.  Libba Bray, Barry Lyga, and Kekla Magoon, and Krista Marino are slated to visit.

WNYC did a feature on Norton Juster’s visit; here’s their video (with my student in it!):

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Filed under Children's Literature, Reading, Writing, YA

Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner

I’ve never been much for card games — hearts, poker, bridge all seem to be part of a world that has a language I simply cannot learn.  I suspect numbers are part of it — being able to count quickly and efficiently in my head, being able to see/hear a sequence of numbers and remember them, being able to do various simple operations accurately in my head.  Can’t do any of it.  As a result when I read that Louis Sachar’s latest book was about bridge, I stayed away for quite a while.  Until a respected friend’s enthusiasm got me curious.  So I read it a while back and liked it tremendously.

The Cardturner is the story of 17 year-old Alton who ends up with a summer job as his elderly blind uncle’s cardturner at various bridge tournaments. Pushed by his parents who think his doing so will put them in the running for the dying man’s money, amiable Alton observes the workings of bridge, the world of competitive bridge, and the various personal relationships of that world.  Spilling out and around the cards are stories of family, loss, and love some of which end up including Alton.  There’s a sweetheart of a younger sister, a slippery best friend, and a very intriguing love interest.  Not to mention an I-didn’t-see-this-coming twist at the end.

Confession time — I took Alton’s advice. After noting that he was unable to finish Moby Dick because of the endless stuff about whales he writes, “So here’s the deal. Whenever you see the picture of the whale, it means I’m about to go into some detail about bridge. If that makes you zone out just skip ahead to the summary box and I’ll give you the short version.” Me? After trying a few long versions I gave up and then stuck with the short versions.  Because of this I  wasn’t going to write a post about the book because I felt weird doing so having not read every word. But then I figured that there might be other readers out there like me, those who are staying away because bridge leaves them cold.  And so here I am waxing enthusiastic about this book because the writer gave me a way to read it that made it work for not-interested-in-bridge-me.  And so I say to those of you like me  —take a chance and read this book, skipping the long versions with impunity. Hopefully, you’ll be glad you did!

Sachar’s latest, a charming and unique book.


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