The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Cover of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Captain’s Log:

Module 15

Port of Call: Alexie, S. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

First Lines: I was born with water on the brain. Okay, so that’s not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease.

Summary: Arnold “Junior” Spirit is an indian teenager living in the town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation. He is frequently bullied and only has one friend, Rowdy, who is always getting into fights. Junior’s life is hard, his family lives in poverty, and yet he is still fighting off the apathy and hopelessness he sees overwhelming others. He draws cartoons (often included and providing greater insight in the book) and on his first day of high school he gets so mad at seeing that their textbooks are 30 years old that he throws a book and accidentally hits the teacher. His teacher comes to see him afterwards and pleads with him to get off the rez while he still has that energy and anger to want to change inside of him, so Junior switches to Reardan High School in an all-white town 22 miles away. Seen as ‘betraying’ his people, his friend Rowdy stops talking to him, and he is outcast by the rez society even more than he already was. On top of that, he must try and fit in at his new school in the face of oftentimes blatant racism.

A Cartoon drawn by Junior

First Impressions: This was the first book I have read from the perspective of a modern native american living on a reservation. I knew living conditions were poor, but had no idea how poor. This book is semi-autobiographical for Sherman Alexie, and I found it to be a fascinating, sometimes horrifying read. I read this book very quickly and would be very interested in reading a sequel.

Suggestions for use: This is a story about persevering in the face of adversity so I would recommend it be read by teenagers having trouble fitting in. I also feel this book addresses culture-clash and race issues in a powerful way, so this book is recommended for pretty much anyone else – we all deal with racism at some point in our lives.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ Screenwriter, novelist and poet, Alexie bounds into YA with what might be a Native American equivalent of Angela’s Ashes, a coming-of-age story so well observed that its very rootedness in one specific culture is also what lends it universality, and so emotionally honest that the humor almost always proves painful. Presented as the diary of hydrocephalic 14-year-old cartoonist and Spokane Indian Arnold Spirit Jr., the novel revolves around Junior’s desperate hope of escaping the reservation. As he says of his drawings, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He transfers to a public school 22 miles away in a rich farm town where the only other Indian is the team mascot. Although his parents support his decision, everyone else on the rez sees him as a traitor, an apple (“red on the outside and white on the inside”), while at school most teachers and students project stereotypes onto him: “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” Readers begin to understand Junior’s determination as, over the course of the school year, alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors lead to the deaths of close relatives. Unlike protagonists in many YA novels who reclaim or retain ethnic ties in order to find their true selves, Junior must separate from his tribe in order to preserve his identity. Jazzy syntax and Forney’s witty cartoons examining Indian versus White attire and behavior transmute despair into dark humor; Alexie’s no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief. Ages 14-up.”

Staff. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. Publishers Weekly, 254(33), 70.
School Library Journal: “/* Starred Review */ Gr 7–10— Exploring Indian identity, both self and tribal, Alexie’s first young adult novel is a semiautobiographical chronicle of Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA. The bright 14-year-old was born with water on the brain, is regularly the target of bullies, and loves to draw. He says, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He expects disaster when he transfers from the reservation school to the rich, white school in Reardan, but soon finds himself making friends with both geeky and popular students and starting on the basketball team. Meeting his old classmates on the court, Junior grapples with questions about what constitutes one’s community, identity, and tribe. The daily struggles of reservation life and the tragic deaths of the protagonist’s grandmother, dog, and older sister would be all but unbearable without the humor and resilience of spirit with which Junior faces the world. The many characters, on and off the rez, with whom he has dealings are portrayed with compassion and verve, particularly the adults in his extended family. Forney’s simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. Reluctant readers can even skim the pictures and construct their own story based exclusively on Forney’s illustrations. The teen’s determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner. Alexie’s tale of self-discovery is a first purchase for all libraries.”
Shoemaker, C. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. School Library Journal, 53(9), 190.
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A Bad Boy can be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone

Cover of A Bad Boy can be Good for a Girl

Captain’s Log:

Module 14

Port of Call: Stone, T.L. (2006). A bad boy can be good for a girl. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.

First Lines: I’m not stuck up.

I’m Confident.

There’s a big difference.

Summary: Three girls record their encounters with a ‘bad boy’ in their highschool. Each is a confident, unique girl who nonetheless find themselves entranced by a relationship with this charismatic, handsome heart-breaker who knows all the right moves. Their stories are written in unrhyming verse, and the book flows very well despite it’s thin-columned formatting which I usually find to be distracting. First we follow Josie, who gets her heart broken by the boy ‘T.L.’ and leaves a note in the back of Judy Blume’s Forever in her school library to warn others of this dangerous playboy. Each of the following two girls (Nicolette and Aviva) also become involved with T.L. before, or despite, receiving warnings from other girls. Soon there are many notes in the back of Forever talking about each girl’s experiences and lessons, and while there is heartache and anger, each girl finds strength within herself to learn from the experience and grow into a more confident, savvier woman.

This book is very easy and interesting to read, you really get a feeling for the girls’ individual personalities, and the reader gets caught up in their emotions and painful life-lessons. This book does describe sexual encounters, although the language stays tasteful and non-explicit, but the story does not glamorize the sex, nor does it condemn it. Instead, the author takes a very healthy and realistic view of the girls’ sexuality and emotional states that led them to make important choices. Ultimately this is a very important book for girls to read, because it addresses sexuality and relationships from a strong-female point of view, and each girl learns important lessons about herself and boys like T.L.

First Impressions: I found myself interested in the story from page one, and probably read the entire book in less than an hour. This is a powerful book, and while I can see that its approach to sex may be controversial for some, I think it has a very important message most girls should hear.

Suggestions for use: Great reading for pre-teen and teenage girls developing their own personailities and identities, particularly those who are becoming, or already, sexually active.

Reviews:

School Library Journal: “Gr 9 Up–Three girls succumb to the charms of one sexy high school senior and emerge wiser for the experience in this energetic novel in verse. Josie is a self-assured freshman who values her girlfriends over boys until a hot jock focuses his attention on her and her simmering hormones break into a full boil. Confused by her behavior, yet unable to control her desire, she acts out every romantic cliché she has ever disdained, until the boy drops her and she experiences the chill of rejection. It is Judy Blume’s Forever that sparks Josie’s fire again, and finding a few blank pages at the back of the library’s copy, she sends a warning to the girls of her school. Next readers meet Nicolette, a junior who sees her sexuality as power. A loner, she’s caught by surprise at her own reaction when this popular boy takes notice of her. Suddenly she thinks she sees the difference between sex and love, and then, just as suddenly, he’s gone. Finally, Aviva, a pretty, smart, artsy, and funny senior, is stunned when the jock seems to want her. She gives up her virginity, only to be disappointed in both the sex and the boy. Furious, Aviva heads to the library to check out Forever, now crammed with the words of girls who suffered the same fate at the hands of the same boy. The free verse gives the stories a breathless, natural flow and changes tone with each narrator. The language is realistic and frank, and, while not graphic, it is filled with descriptions of the teens and their sexuality. This is not a book that will sit quietly on any shelf; it will be passed from girl to girl to girl.”

Oliver, Susan. (2005, December 19). Book of the week – a bad boy can be good for a girl. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6291077.html

A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy:

“The Plot: Josie, Nicolette and Aviva are 3 different teenage girls who each fall for the same bad boy, TL. A book in verse.

The Good: The verse is the same sort that teenage girls write, so you really get into the heads and into the emotions of the three narrators.

This is frank in its treatment of teens, sex and sexuality. While its blunt, it’s not graphic … meaning I’ve read things that are more explicit in most mainstream romance novels. Meaning, the teens who would be reading this probably will have read those novels.

Josie is just starting high school and says, “I’m not stuck up. I’m confident.” But it’s easy to be confident and sure of yourself when you’ve never been in a situation that could cause doubt or could bring temptation. I’ve read studies that wonder why do girls change at 12, at 13, lose their confidence? I think because its easy to be strong when you’ve never been tested. Josie is tested. And luckily is made stronger by the experience rather than broken by it.

Nicolette is a junior who sees sex as “all about the power. Who’s got it and who doesn’t. If I say who and I say when and I say what then I have it. Simple as that.” She’s about to find out it isn’t that simple.

Aviva is a senior, but since she’s not in any one particular clique she’s a bit out of the loop about the gossip. She’s elated that TL knows her name. And finds out she also believes what she wants to believe.

Each girl struggles with the conflict between how TL makes her feel — emotionally flattered and physically turned on — and what her head is telling her. Because with each girl, there are signs that TL is indeed bad: a manipulator. A liar. A user. And each girl, for one reason or another, refuses to see the truth of the situation because of emotions and hormones. Hears the whisper, this isn’t quite right, yet ignores it.

Is a bad boy good for a girl? Each girl is left a little older and wiser. Wiser about herself. And while I hate to talk about “messages” and prefer to let the story speak for itself, I hope that the teenagers reading this will be able to apply this to their own lives and recognize the bad boys before they get hurt.

TL is, no doubt, self-involved, a manipulator and liar. He’s a user. OK here’s a comment that’s not about the book but about the boy: he’s not unique. Why? Why do boys and men think it is acceptable to use people this way?

In the book, TL’s protected by his status (jock, popular) and his friends, including girls. The book also shows how girl v girl competition over a guy allows a guy to be a player. And finally — communication. The girls who are his victims are silent from fear or embarrassment, or ignored because they aren’t the cool kids. Or, as is the case with Nicolette, suffer from “it won’t happen to me”-itis. There’s also very much the “blame the victim” attitude amongst TL’s peers: that the girl should have known better. (Ah yes the wonderful, if you’ve been lied to or manipulated, its your fault for believing, rather than the fault of the one who lied. Great stuff, logic. Not.)

A final thing I like about this book is that there is no good boy. At first, I was a bit upset about that, thinking, there are good guys out there, it would be nice to have at least one show up. But when I reread ABBCBGFAG, I realized it would have been easy and expected to have at least one girl end up with a guy who is not “bad.” Because the point of the book isn’t the boy, its the girls.”

Burns, Liz. (2006, February 6). A bad boy can be good for a girl. Retrieved from http://yzocaet.blogspot.com/2006/02/bad-boy-can-be-good-for-girl.html

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Cover of Tales from Outer Suburbia

Captain’s Log:

Module 13

Port of Call:  Tan, S. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

First Lines: When I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed…

Summary: Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories and illustrations bound together by a theme of urban mystery. The stories are sometimes wondrous and upbeat, but can also be hauntingly eerie and thought-provoking. The stories are illustrations in a variety of styles, from full-color pages, to pen-and-ink, to eclectic collages and newspaper headlines. Many stories are open-ended, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the strange occurences taking place. The tone of this book is understated, almost matter-of-fact in its prose, and there is something very detached and artificial in this book that brings to mind the ‘suburbia’ mentioned in the title. You get the impression that the characters in the various stories are surrounded by strange and wonderful things, and yet are incapable of realizing it.

First Impressions: I found the pictures and stories to be lovely. They made me think, and caught my attention, and yet I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this book. Its subdued tone bordered on the creepy, striking too close to home as a commentary on modern society’s flaws (both good and bad). The art reminded me of Chris Van Allsberg’s mysterious black-and-white style.

Suggestions for use: I think this book could be used to encourage creative thinking and writing. A teacher or parent could read a story and then ask the students to come up with their own explanations, or make up a story about what happens next.

Reviews:

Booklist: “Gr. 7-12 /*Starred Review*/ After teaching the graphic format a thing or two about its own potential for elegance with The Arrival (2007), Tan follows up with this array of 15 extraordinary illustrated tales. But here is an achievement in diametric opposition to his silent masterpiece, as Tan combines spare words and weirdly dazzling images—in styles ranging from painting to doodles to collage—to create a unity that holds complexities of emotion seldom found in even the most mature works. The story of a water buffalo who sits in a vacant lot mysteriously pointing children “in the right direction” is whimsical but also ominous. The centerpiece, “Grandpa’s Story,” recalling a ceremonial marriage journey and the unnameable perils faced therein, captures a tone of aching melancholy and longing, but also, ultimately, a sense of deep, deep happiness. And the eerie “Stick Figures” is both a poignant and rather disturbing narrative that plays out in the washed-out daylight of suburban streets where curious, tortured creatures wait at the ends of pathways and behind bus stops. The thoughtful and engaged reader will take from these stories an experience as deep and profound as with anything he or she has ever read. ”

Karp, J. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. BookList, 105(7), 50.

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ The term “suburbia” may conjure visions of vast and generic sameness, but in his hypnotic collection of 15 short stories and meditations, Tan does for the sprawling landscape what he did for the metropolis in The Arrival .Here, the emotional can be manifest physically (in “No Other Country,” a down-on-its-luck family finds literal refuge in a magic “inner courtyard” in their attic) and the familiar is twisted unsettlingly (a reindeer appears annually in “The Nameless Holiday” to take away objects “so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart”). Tan’s mixed-media art draws readers into the strange settings, à la The Mysteries of Harris Burdick . In “Alert but Not Armed,” a double-page spread heightens the ludicrousness of a nation in which every house has a government missile in the yard; they tower over the neighborhood, painted in cheery pastels and used as birdhouses (“If there are families in faraway countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them,” the story ends). Ideas and imagery both beautiful and disturbing will linger. Ages 12–up.”
Staff. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. Publishers Weekly, 255(44), 59.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Captain’s Log:

Cover of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Module 10

Port of Call: Kelly, J. (2009). The evolution of calpurnia tate. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

First Lines: By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns.

Summary: Calpurnia Tate is the only girl in a large, well-to-do Texas family. She has an interest in Nature and forms a friendship with her grandfather whom she discovers to be an avid naturalist and experimenter. Calpurnia wishes to learn more about the sciences but struggles against her parents expectations for her as a young lady coming into puberty at a time when women were expected to stay in the home. This is a story about a girl discovering her identity and desires and her attempts to merge those desires with her existing social responsibilities and roles.

First Impressions: I found Calpurnia to be an engaging and open character, with an inquisitive mind and active imagination. I enjoyed watching her grow throughout the story and wish there was a sequel to continue Calpurnia’s journey to womanhood.

Suggestions for use: This can be seen as an empowering book for girls interested in science, and is also a good read for those wishing for some American historical fiction.

Reviews:

BookList: “Gr. 4-7 /*Starred Review*/ Growing up with six brothers in rural Texas in 1899, 12-year-old Callie realizes that her aversion to needlework and cooking disappoints her mother. Still, she prefers to spend her time exploring the river, observing animals, and keeping notes on what she sees. Callie’s growing interest in nature creates a bond with her previously distant grandfather, an amateur naturalist of some distinction. After they discover an unknown species of vetch, he attempts to have it officially recognized. This process creates a dramatic focus for the novel, though really the main story here is Callie’s gradual self-discovery as revealed in her vivid first-person narrative. By the end, she is equally aware of her growing desire to become a scientist and of societal expectations that make her dream seem nearly impossible. Interwoven with the scientific theme are threads of daily life in a large family—the bonds with siblings, the conversations overheard, the unspoken understandings and misunderstandings—all told with wry humor and a sharp eye for details that bring the characters and the setting to life. The eye-catching jacket art, which silhouettes Callie and images from nature against a yellow background, is true to the period and the story. Many readers will hope for a sequel to this engaging, satisfying first novel.”

Phelan, C. (2009). The evolution of calpurnia tate. BookList, 105(17), 80.

School Library Journal: “/* Starred Review */ Gr 5–8— A charming and inventive story of a child struggling to find her identity at the turn of the 20th century. As the only girl in an uppercrust Texas family of seven children, Calpurnia, 11, is expected to enter young womanhood with all its trappings of tight corsets, cookery, and handiwork. Unlike other girls her age, Callie is most content when observing and collecting scientific specimens with her grandfather. Bemoaning her lack of formal knowledge, he surreptitiously gives her a copy of The Origin of Species and Callie begins her exploration of the scientific method and evolution, eventually happening upon the possible discovery of a new plant species. Callie’s mother, believing that a diet of Darwin, Dickens, and her grandfather’s influence will make Callie dissatisfied with life, sets her on a path of cooking lessons, handiwork improvement, and an eventual debut into society. Callie’s confusion and despair over her changing life will resonate with girls who feel different or are outsiders in their own society. Callie is a charming, inquisitive protagonist; a joyous, bright, and thoughtful creation. The conclusion encompasses bewilderment, excitement, and humor as the dawn of a new century approaches. Several scenes, including a younger brother’s despair over his turkeys intended for the Thanksgiving table and Callie’s heartache over receiving The Science of Housewifery as a Christmas gift, mix gentle humor and pathos to great effect. The book ends with uncertainty over Callie’s future, but there’s no uncertainty over the achievement of Kelly’s debut novel”

Schultz, J. (2009). The evolution of calpurnia tate. School Library Journal, 55(5), 110.

Manjiro by Emily Arnold McCully

Cover of Manjiro

Captain’s Log:

Module 12

Port of Call: Arnold McCully, E. (2008). Manjiro: the boy who risked his life for two countries. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux.

First Lines: No Japanese ship or boat… nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoso acts contrary to this shall die.

Summary: This story is a biography of one of the few Japanese citizens to travel to the United States during the Tokugawa Shogunate’s period of inforced isolationism. Manjiro is a fisherman, and a boy, who is stranded on an island with several other men when their ship is caught in a storm. After some time, they are rescued by a U.S. whaling vessel and taken back to the states. The story details Manjiro’s travels through a foreing culture, his experiences as he finds a place for himself in America, and eventually his return to Japan at the risk of his life.

First Impressions: I’ve had a long-time interest in Japanese culture and yet I had never heard the story of Manjiro. Beautiful full-page pastel illustrations follow the storyline closely and display historical scenes from both the U.S. and Japan.

Suggestions for use: The story of Manjiro is one about overcoming unexpected circumstance, finding new ways to live and learn, and of the power of ‘home’ and belonging. I would use this story to teach about living in another country, or surviving in the face of adversity.

Illustration from Manjiro

Reviews:

School Library Journal:  “Gr 3–6— A fascinating episode from Japanese history, related in an oversize picture-book format. In 1841, while 14-year-old Manjiro and four men were fishing, their small boat was destroyed in a storm, and they were cast away on a tiny island for almost six months. Though they survived a drought and an earthquake, they feared for their lives. “For over two and a half centuries Japan had been closed to the outside world. Anyone who tried to return after leaving the country could be put to death.” They were finally rescued by a New England whaling ship. At journey’s end, Captain Whitfield took Manjiro home to New Bedford, MA. Whitfield married and bought a farm where the boy learned to plant, cultivate, harvest, and ride a horse—a skill reserved for samurai in Japan. Despite increasing homesickness, he attended school and graduated at the top of his class. In 1849, the California gold rush lured him to San Francisco where he collected $600 in gold dust in 70 days. Finally, after a nine-year absence, he headed back to Japan with two of the original castaways. When they arrived, government officials jailed and questioned them for seven months. He told them of America’s desire to trade and of railroads, telegraphs, drawbridges, and wristwatches. At last, he became an honored samurai. An author’s note gives background on Japan’s 250-year isolationist policy and how one curious, determined boy opened the door to the Western world. McCully’s realistic watercolors are striking against white backgrounds and show the contrast between traditional Japanese and 19th-century New Englanders as well as the tumultuous seas and perils of a fishing life. An exciting account of a pivotal period in U.S.-Japanese history.”

Auerbach, B. (2008). Manjiro. School Library Journal, 54(10), 134.

Kirkus:  “In this incredible true story, a poor Japanese boy, through fate and enterprise, bridges the cultural gap between Japan and America at a time when Japan was isolated from the world. In 1841, 14-year-old Manjiro and four other fishermen became castaways on a desert island for six months until rescued by an American whaling ship. The resourceful, adaptable Manjiro soon became Captain Whitfield’s favorite, eventually returning to Fairhaven, Mass., where Whitfield educated and mentored him. Initially regarded as a foreigner, the enterprising Manjiro became a popular, respected member of the community, but never forgot his family in Japan. He subsequently worked on a whaling ship and in the California gold rush to save enough money to return to his native land, where he was instrumental in teaching Japan about America. The historically rich text and the realistic watercolor illustrations capture Manjiro’s life and times—both in Japan and New England—making this a first-rate introduction to a relatively unknown young figure in Japanese-American relations. (author’s note, map, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 7-11)”

Manjiro. (2008, September 1). Kirkus Reviews.

14 Cows For America by Carmen Agra Deedy

Cover of 14 Cows for America

Captain’s Log:

Module 11

Port of Call: Deedy, C.A. (2009). 14 cows for america. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers.

First Lines: The remote village waits for a story to be told. News travels slowly to this corner of Kenya.

As Kimeli nears his village he watches a herd of bull giraffes cross the open grassland. He smiles.

He has been away a long time.

Summary: Kimeli is returning to his people in Kenya with a story from his life in New York City during the September 11 attacks. His story touches the people in his village who choose to make a gift to help those in America deal with the pain of the attack. The gift is 14 cows, a great treasure to the Maasai, given from one people to another in goodness and generosity of spirit.

First Impressions: The emotional impact of this story for me was unexpected. This is a simple, but beautifully illustrated story about a kindhearted people who have great empathy for others. Definitely a touching book.

Suggestions for use: Use this book to talk about relationships between cultures that are very different, or in a unit about September 11 and its effect on the world. This can be a great book for getting kids to think about people in other countries, and to find a mutual sharing of emotions and regard.

Illustration from 14 Cows for America

School Library Journal:

/* Starred Review */ Gr 2–5— Kimeli Naiyomah returned home to his Maasai village from New York City with news of 9/11 terrorist attacks. His story prompted the villagers to give a heartfelt gift to help America heal. Deedy and Gonzalez bring Naiyomah’s story to life with pithy prose and vibrant illustrations. Each block of text consists of a few short, elegant sentences: “A child asks if he has brought any stories. Kimeli nods. He has brought with him one story. It has burned a hole in his heart.” The suspenseful pace is especially striking when surrounded by Gonzalez’s exquisite colored pencil and pastel illustrations. The colors of Kenya explode off the page: rich blues, flaming oranges, fire-engine reds, and chocolate browns. Full-page spreads depict the Maasai people and their land so realistically as to be nearly lifelike. Gonzalez manages to break the fourth wall and draw readers in as real-time observers. The book’s only flaw is the less-than-concrete ending: “…there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort” is an important message, but not a particularly satisfying one for children. Fortunately, their questions will be answered by Naiyomah’s endnote, and it provides a fitting conclusion to this breathtaking chronicle.

Dash, R. (2009). 14 cows for america. School Library Journal, 55(8), 89.

Publishers Weekly:

A native of Kenya, Naiyomah was in New York City on September 11, 2001. In his and Deedy’s (Martina the Beautiful Cockroach ) lyrical account, he returns to his homeland and tells the members of his Maasai tribe a story that had “burned a hole in his heart.” The narrative avoids specifics and refers to the events of 9/11 obliquely as the villagers listen to him with “growing disbelief”: “Buildings so tall they can touch the sky? Fires so hot they can melt iron? Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?” Until they read Naiyomah’s concluding note, children may not fully comprehend either his story or the villagers’ subsequent actions: the tribe elders bless 14 cows, revered in Maasai culture, and symbolically offer them to the American people to help them heal. Featuring luminous images of the Maasai in vivid native dress and sweeping African landscapes, Gonzalez’s pastel, colored pencil and airbrush paintings appear almost three-dimensional in their realism. A moving tale of compassion and generosity. Ages 6–10.

Staff. (2009). 14 cows for america. Publishers Weekly, 256(31), 45.

The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo

 

Cover of The Big Splash

Captain’s Log:

Module 9

Port of Call:  Ferraiolo, J.D. (2008). The big splash. New York, NY: Amulet Books.

First Lines:

Summary: Matt Stevens is a Jr. High private investigator. Back in Ellie (elementary school) he was good friends with now-turned organized crime boss Vinnie Biggs, and Kevin Carling, his former best friend who is now Vinnie’s right hand man. Vinnie has come up with an ingenious way of getting rid of bullies and those who stand in the way of his organization. His goons and assassins ‘take out’ his targets through the judicious use of squirt guns, cat-pee water balloons and, the ultimate weapon, a diaper smeared with chocolate. From that point, the taunting of the student body alone is enough to ruin Vinnie’s victims’ social lives and send them permanently to the ‘Outs’ to live out their remaining school years as social pariahs. Matt refuses to get involved with Vinnie, his moral standards forcing him to stay away from his former friends, but when Vinnie’s best former trigger-girl, Nikki Fingers, is taken ‘out’ by a mystery assassin, Matt gets coerced into taking the case. Written in noir style, The Big Splash is a new take on highschool drama and mystery, with a fair amount of humor thrown in for good measure.

First Impressions: Although I love noir, I wasn’t feeling this book at first. However, after a chapter or two I got into it. I liked when Matt’s relationship with his mother was explored, and that made me take more of an interest in the story. Also, this book feels like the first in a series, and there are certainly bigger questions that deserve to be answered in consecutive books.

Suggestions for use: A great introduction to the noir style, I would use this book to get kids interested in mysteries, or as a recommendation if they want a mystery more closely derived from real life situations. This is an entertaining book, so any middle-schooler looking for a good read would probably enjoy this story. Perhaps this could be a step up from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly:

“/* Starred Review */ The seventh-grader version of a Raymond Chandler PI, Matt Stevens coolly navigates the mean streets (okay, the mean hallways) of Franklin Middle School in a first novel with an ingenious premise: junior high noir. Matt’s classmate, the once-bullied Vinny Biggio, commands a whole “organization,” complete with hit men, in this case boys and girls who use loaded squirt guns, stealth attacks and their peers’ predictable responses (choruses of “Jimmy peed his pants!”) to ensure their targets’ permanent and total ostracism. The plot has to do with the spectacular takedown of one Nicole Finnegan, aka Nikki Fingers, the school’s most feared “trigger-girl,” that is, until her recent retirement from Vinny’s operation. Just who ordered the hit on Nikki, and why? Twists and curve balls keep readers guessing; extended jokes like one about a petty thief’s desperate need for cash (“On the surface, Peter was a happy-go-lucky model student, but underneath, he had a dirty little secret: He was a Pixy Stixer”) will keep them laughing. With crisp prose and surprisingly poignant moments, Ferraiolo’s debut entertains on many levels. Ages 10–14.”

Staff. (2008). The big splash. Publishers Weekly, 255(37), 67.

School Library Journal:

 “Gr 6–8— Matt Stevens is a seventh-grade Sam Spade who attends a middle school with an organized crime ring run by Vinny Biggs and his goons. Biggs traffics in forgeries, stolen exams, and candy, and has his competition regularly put in the “Outs” with humiliating water-pistol stains to the pants. A kid in the Outs is outcast for life—so when Nikki Fingers, Biggs’s most-feared former hit woman, is taken down by an unseen assailant, Matt is hired by both her sister, Jenny, and Biggs himself to find the culprit. The result is a punchy, clue- and twist-filled plot that falls somewhere between Bruce Hale’s “Chet Gecko” (Harcourt) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (Knopf, 1974). Ferraiolo cleverly adapts hard-boiled whodunit roles to a slightly cartoonish middle school arena (Joey “the Hyena” is framed for the crime; Katie Kondo is the vigilant hall monitor chief; Jimmy Mac heads the school paper; Sal Becker runs a root-beer version of a dive bar in his toolshed). Matt’s strained relationship with Kevin, a former best friend who’s now working for Biggs, brings depth to his character, as do his crushes on both Jenny and Kevin’s sister. An intriguing personal mystery involving Matt’s father, who disappeared years earlier, remains unsolved by the end of the book, and Matt’s mother has secrets yet to tell. Well paced, funny, and suspenseful, with some real commentary on bullying and mob mentality, this book will have fans eagerly awaiting the next installment in this faux noir detective series.”

Pollard, R. (2008). The big splash. School Library Journal, 54(11), 120.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 10:21 am  Comments (1)  
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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Cover of Life As We Knew It

Captain’s Log:

Module 8

Port of Call: Pfeffer, S.B. (2006). Life as we knew it. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc.

First Lines: May 7

Lisa is pregnant.

Dad called around 11 o’clock to let us know. Only Mom had already taken Jonny to his baseball practice and of course Matt isn’t home from college yet, so I was alone to get the big news.

Summary: Miranda is a teenage girl living in Pennsylvania. Her life revolves around her friends and social life – her friend Megan is becoming increasingly religiously fundamentalist while her other friend Samantha is falling into a promiscious lifestyle. Miranda also is an avid fan of Brandon Erlich, a local figure skater increasing in fame, and who inspires her to want to ice skate. In the midst of this busy, teenage life, Miranda pays little attention to the news about the asteroid about to hit the moon. Everybody expects the asteroid hit to be a minor occurrance, but instead it knocks the moon into a new orbit and sets off a chain of events that effect the entire world: tidal tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, volcanic ash that creates an early winter and power grid failures send Miranda’s family into survival mode. Living off of canned food and the firewood they were able to gather, Life As We Knew It is a gripping story that makes you think about what could happen if our world was effected by a cataclysmic disaster.

First Impressions: From the moment I read the description of this book I was interested, as this sort of survival/post-apocalyptic sci-fi is one of my favorite genres. I was unable to put this book down and read it in a single day while travelling across the country by airplane. This book made me want to go and stack up on canned goods.

Suggestions for use: This book could prompt great discussion about natural disasters and survival, or as a unit on the effects of the moon or natural events on climate change. Of course, this book was compelling enough that I think many readers will pick it up just for fun.

Reviews:

BookList:

“/*Starred Review*/ A meteor is going to hit the moon, and 16-year-old Miranda, like the rest of her family and neighbors in rural Pennsylvania, intends to watch it from the comfort of a lawn chair in her yard. But the event is not the benign impact predicted. The moon is knocked closer to Earth, setting off a chain of horrific occurrences: tsunamis, earthquakes, and, later, volcanic eruptions that disrupt life across the planet. Written in the form of Mirandas diary, this disquieting and involving story depicts one familys struggle to survive in a world where food, warmth, and well-being disappear in the blink of an eye. As life goes from bad to worse, Miranda struggles to find a way to survive both mentally and physically, discovering strength in her family members and herself. This novel will inevitably be compared to Meg Rosoffs Printz Award Book, How I Live Now (2004). Pfeffer doesn’t write with Rosoff’s startling eloquence, and her setup is not as smooth (Why don’t scientists predict the possibility of this outcome?). But Miranda and her family are much more familiar than Rosoff’s characters, and readers will respond to the authenticity and immediacy of their plight. Each page is filled with events both wearying and terrifying and infused with honest emotions. Pfeffer brings cataclysmic tragedy very close.”

Cooper, I. (2006). Life as we knew it. BookList, 103(1), 127.

School Library Journal:

“Gr 6-8 –Pfeffer tones down the terror, but otherwise crafts a frighteningly plausible account of the local effects of a near-future worldwide catastrophe. The prospect of an asteroid hitting the Moon is just a mildly interesting news item to Pennsylvania teenager Miranda, for whom a date for the prom and the personality changes in her born-again friend, Megan, are more immediate concerns. Her priorities undergo a radical change, however, when that collision shifts the Moon into a closer orbit, causing violent earthquakes, massive tsunamis, millions of deaths, and an upsurge in volcanism. Thanks to frantic preparations by her quick-thinking mother, Miranda’s family is in better shape than many as utilities and public services break down in stages, wild storms bring extremes of temperature, and outbreaks of disease turn the hospital into a dead zone. In Miranda’s day-by-day journal entries, however, Pfeffer keeps nearly all of the death and explicit violence offstage, focusing instead on the stresses of spending months huddled in increasingly confined quarters, watching supplies dwindle, and wondering whether there will be any future to make the effort worthwhile. The author provides a glimmer of hope at the end, but readers will still be left stunned and thoughtful.”

Peters, J. (2006). Life as we knew it. School Library Journal, 52(10), 166.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Cover of Leviathan

Captain’s Log:

Module 8

Port of Call: Westerfeld, S. (2009). Leviathan. New York, NY: Simon Pulse.

First Lines: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised. Behind them stood two ranks of diesel-powered walking machines stood ready to fire, cannon aimed over the heads of the cavalry. A zeppelin scouted no-man’s-land at the center of the battlefield, its metal skin sparkling.

Summary: Alek is the son of the Archduke of Austria and is suddenly whisked out of his bed for his own safety when his parents are assassinated. Europe is thrown into turmoil on the brink of the first world war, and Alek must escape and survive until he can find allies to reclaim his birthright. He and his advisors hide from German clankers, giant war machines, while those who want him dead try to hunt him down. In the meantime, in England, Deryn Sharp has inherited her deceased father’s love of airships and decides to sneak into the British Air Service disguised as a boy. During an early training exercise she is separated from her base and is picked up by the British Darwinist ship Leviathan a giant flying whale that houses complex eco-systems all working in harmony as a deadly war airship. Her skills as an airman keep her onboard as a midshipman, and she goes with the Leviathan as it is assigned to a top secret mission to the Ottoman Empire. On the way, they encounter German forces and crash into a glacier near where Alek and his advisors are hiding. Alek makes the choice to try and help the stranded airmen and the two meet and form a friendship despite their differences and the secrets each is trying to hide.

First Impressions: I loved this book from the minute I saw the cover. I thought the alternate history to WWI was cleverly constructed and I am eagerly looking forward to the next book, Behemoth.

Suggestions for use: This book is a great inroduction into sci-fi and steampunk, so I can see using this book to introduce teenagers to these genres. I think this book has greater significance if the reader has some knowledge of WWI. This might even be a great companion story for students studying this period of history.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“/* Starred Review */ Gr 7 Up— This is World War I as never seen before. The story begins the same: on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, triggering a sequence of alliances that plunges the world into war. But that is where the similarity ends. This global conflict is between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksandar’s people turn on him. Accompanied by a small group of loyal servants, the young Clanker flees Austria in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine that walks on two legs. Meanwhile, as Deryn Sharp trains to be an airman with the British Air Service, she prays that no one will discover that she is a girl. She serves on the Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem. When it crashes in Switzerland, the two teens cross paths, and suddenly the line between enemy and ally is no longer clearly defined. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and that’s a good thing because readers will be begging for more. Enhanced by Thompson’s intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld’s brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.”

Campbell, H.M. (2009). Leviathan. School Library Journal, 55(9), 176.

Publishers Weekly:
“/* Starred Review */ Launching a planned four-book series, Westerfeld (the Uglies series) explores an alternate 1914 divided between Darwinists, who advocate advanced biotechnology, and Clankers, masters of retrofuturistic mechanical engineering. Austria-Hungary’s Prince Aleksandar is whisked away into the night by trusted advisers; he soon learns that his parents, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, have been murdered and that he has been targeted by prowar Germans. Half a continent away, Deryn Sharp successfully passes as a young man to join the British Air Service; her bravery during a catastrophic first flight aboard a genetically enhanced jellyfish (“The creatures’ fishy guts could survive almost any fall, but their human passengers were rarely so lucky”) earns Deryn a post on the living airship Leviathan . The fortunes of war lead Aleksandar and Deryn to the Swiss Alps, where they must cooperate or face destruction at the hands of the Germans. The protagonists’ stories are equally gripping and keep the story moving, and Thompson’s detail-rich panels bring Westerfeld’s unusual creations to life. The author’s fully realized world has an inventive lexicon to match—readers will be eager for the sequels. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)”
Staff. (2009). Leviathan. Publisher’s Weekly, 256(34), 62.

Muchacho by Louanne Johnson

Cover of Muchacho

Captain’s Log: Module 7

Port of Call: Johnson, L. (2009). Muchacho. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

First Lines: I seen Miss Beecher today at the library checking out a old lady’s book. She had her head tipped down so I couldn’t see her face real good but I knew it was Beecher on account of her hair is the exact same color as a car I stole once. Bronze metallic. Beecher doesn’t look like a regular librarian but at least she didn’t look like she was falling off a cliff the way she did most of the time back when she was trying to be a teacher.

Summary: Eddie Corazon is a Mexican-American living in one of New Mexico’s poor neighborhoods. He grew up surrounded by crime, gang bangers, and racism, and is struggling to even graduate high school. Eddie has a lot of cousins, including his primo Enrique who once shot a man in front of him, but his cousins are also a lifeline, forming a protective gang of their own that keeps them from being forced into a life of drug running. Eddie starts to find purpose in his life when he meets Lupe, an incredibly smart and beautiful girl who thinks he’s interesting, and who opens his eyes to the possibilities he has, if only he could get his life on track. Slowly, Eddie begins to change himself, and to become a man his family, Lupe’s father, and himself can respect.

First Impressions: I was hesitant to get into this book because I assumed it would be depressing. However, the story was much more upbeat and meaningful than I anticipated. Now I think this is a very carefully constructed book with a number of useful messages about shaping your own destiny, no matter the terrible circumstances you find yourself in.

Suggestions for use: Definitely a powerful book for inner-city kids, teenagers in difficult neighborhoods, and very empowering for poor latin-americans.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Gr 9 Up— High school junior Eddie Corazon and his Mexican-American family live in a crime-infested town in New Mexico where kids are often pressed into service as drug runners if found on the streets alone. Eddie has his older cousin to look out for him, and he tells of the day when he was eight, and felt so proud to ride along with Enrique, drinking beer and smoking. But when Enrique stopped the car, knocked on a door, and shot the man who opened it in the face, young Eddie messed his pants, “smelling the stink of hopelessness that hung around my life.” Eddie is now in an alternative high school and brandishing his role as juvenile delinquent until he meets Lupe, a bright girl with dreams of college. Keeping her as his girlfriend is the impetus for change, but poignant memoirs of a caring former teacher and the book The Four Agreements play a major role in Eddie’s transformation into a reflective honor student. In the end, the future appears hopeful for the teen, though his change is a bit too didactic as he writes, “you can open a book and follow the words to some new place.” Sometimes the first-person narrative is disjointed, and the story and characters don’t always ring true. While the content may appeal to reluctant readers, the nonlinear story line will be a challenge. Also, the heavy-handed message could be a turnoff, and the numerous allusions to contemporary literature, while interesting, will be lost on most struggling teen readers.”

McClune, P.N. (2009). Muchacho. School Library Journal, 55(9), 162.

Kirkus:

“An experienced English teacher, prolific writer and speaker, Johnson gives life to a sensitive, contradictory character, Eddie Corazon, a Hispanic teenager—”muchacho”—overcoming the obstacles that thousand of adolescents face as high-school students in the United States. Eddie lives in a diverse and hostile environment. He is challenged every day by peers of different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles at his alternative school for at-risk students. Some of them envision their future in the streets and are not afraid to end up in jail, but others dream of graduating from high school and attending college. Eddy is crossed by different emotions, but perhaps a book, a teacher and a girl—”Lupe full of grace”—will make a difference and transform one of the most challenging and distressing periods of his life into a new beginning. Eddie’s first-person narration and street language will hold teenagers’ interest. Set in New Mexico, one of the states with the highest drop-out rates among Hispanics, this novel unveils the social pressures and struggles of teens living in inner cities.”

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2009, retrieved from NoveList database October 19, 2010