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

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