Category Archives: Young Adult

JAKE AND LILY by Jerry Spinelli

I am not on track for a record year of reading. Life just keeps getting in the way. Oh well!

I am almost done with the audio of Fates and Furies, which I have been listening to for several weeks. I  am in the home stretch and while I am tempted to just read the rest, I like the narrator of the second half and I want to hear it out. I have very mixed feelings about the book, and I’ve read a bunch of reviews and can’t seem to find anyone who sees it like I do. Review soon…

I am reading In The Language of Miracles too, which I think I would enjoy more if I didn’t read it for the 5 minutes before sleep every night. It’s very well-written and I want to get far enough in that I can’t put it down.

I did manage to finish a middle grade book for our mother-daughter book club last weekend. We read Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli. It’s about eleven year-old twins, Jake and Lily, who are going into sixth grade. They’ve always been very close, and have a special bond that lets them know what’s going on with each other even when they’re not together. But now they’re in middle school, and Jake is starting to want to spend time apart from Lily. He wants to hang out with other boys and do things that Lily doesn’t like to do. Jake goes along with a neighborhood bully who assembles a group of 4 to ride around on their bikes and find “goobers” (a.k.a dorks).

Lily, meanwhile, is devastated by Jake’s defection. She is left facing the summer without her best – or any – friend. She spends her days moping around and lamenting her brother’s decision to her grandfather, who finally urges her to move on make new friends.

I thought Jake and Lily was OK, but not great. There isn’t a whole lot to the story beyond what I summed up above. Lily does nothing but whine about Jake until the book is almost done. Jake’s story is more interesting, as he takes the blame for something his friend does and has to confront him about it. But in the end it isn’t a very memorable or deep book. I also thought it was a little young for 6th grade. Also – I didn’t buy the twin superpowers that Jake and Lily had, or their birthday tradition of sleepwalking to the train station.

None of the girls loved Jake and Lily (including my own eleven year-old twins), but it did prompt a robust conversation. There ended up being more to discuss than I expected. (Sometimes that’s the case with books we don’t like.)

So that’s where I am. I hope to pick up the pace going into the end of the year.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

Whoa. Two weeks since my last post! Not good. My kids are back in school and I’ve been up late at night doing other stuff, I guess. I am halfway through two books – My Sunshine Away and Did You Ever Have A Family, so expect some reviews soon.

Meanwhile, I interrupted my adult reading to read our first Mother-Daughter Book Club book of the year: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. This book ended up on our club reading list because it was one of the summer reading recommendations from my daughters’ school. Mockingbird is about an 11 year-old girl, Caitlyn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Her beloved older brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, and her father, a widower, is deep in his own grief. Caitlyn is trying to process what happened to her brother and make it through the 5th grade with her limited emotional vocabulary, without a whole lot of support.

Mockingbird is a good middle-grade introduction to Asperger’s and spectrum disorders. Caitlyn’s syndrome manifests in a number of ways: she is extremely literal, she has trouble reading other people’s emotions through body language, she’s not empathetic, she hates loud noises and finds colors “messy”, and she likes memorization and definitions. Caitlyn’s school counselor spends a lot of time trying to get Caitlyn to make friends and understand how others are feeling. Over the course of the book, Caitlyn makes some progress on these fronts, and she and her father begin to connect and share in their grief.

Our book club conversation ended up changing my feelings about the book. One of the moms/daughters in our club has a family member with autism, and they explained that the book oversimplified several components of spectrum disorder and didn’t give an accurate picture of what someone with autism is really like. They took issue with some of the therapies Caitlyn’s counselor used to help her understand other people’s emotions, finding them patronizing and insulting. To be fair, Caitlyn has Asperger’s, which is high-functioning autism, and the author has a daughter with Asperger’s so she was clearly basing the character on her real-life experience. But my friend’s and her daughter’s reactions did color my view of the book. Also, I was bothered by the way that Caitlyn’s guidance counselor kept trying to “fix”or change her, rather than accepting Caitlyn for who she was and helping her navigate the world as Caitlyn.

The girls found Mockingbird to be very sad. They felt sorry for Caitlyn and her father, and were touched by the friendship Caitlyn developed with a younger boy who had also lost a family member in the same shooting. The book was appropriate for 5th-6th grade and held their attention. I found it very sad and compelling as I was reading it, but took issue with the end goal, which was to “fix” Caitlyn rather than work within her limitations.


Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

I am no stranger to depressing books. I read quite a few of them. I actually quite enjoy them. But I think I met my match in Out of My Mind, our December Mother-Daughter book club pick.

Out of My Mind is about Melody, a fifth-grader with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair. She can’t speak or move, and has spent most of her life unable to communicate with those around her. But she has a vibrant mind, and she has lived in the prison of her body, misunderstood by almost everyone else, who thinks that she is mentally challenged just as she is physically.

In sixth grade, Melody starts attending “inclusion classes’, where she joins normal fifth graders. She is given an aide and eventually obtains a computer device which speaks for her after she types words into it. Suddenly, people realize that Melody is smart – so smart that she makes it onto her school’s academic quiz team, handily beating everyone else. But she yearns for the acceptance and companionship of her peers, which sadly remains out of her reach.

Out of My Mind is such a sad book. It’s sad for many reasons – Melody’s inability to communicate with her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents; the callousness of her fellow fifth graders and even her teachers; the fact that Melody’s situation isn’t going to change at all in the future. In an afterward, Draper said that she didn’t want her readers to feel sorry for Melody. It’s hard not to feel sad for her, though, given her situation, and for her parents, who love her desperately but can’t change her reality.

One scene in particular really got to me: Melody’s mother comes home from work after Melody has set up the device that can speak for her. Melody has the device tell her mother that she loves her, for the first time. Age eleven. It was such an emotional moment – I was very moved.

My daughters (age 10) liked Out of My Mind but found it to be pretty painful too. (So much so that they didn’t even want to skim through it to review for book club, because they had read it last year.) As a group, we had a good discussion about it, with most of us pretty outraged at how mean some of the kids were to her. We of course had access to Melody’s thoughts, which no one else did, and we got a much better sense of who she was as a result. That made her isolation even worse.

I would recommend this book to middle grade readers, but suggest that a parent read along to help the reader process some of the particularly sad parts.

AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko

The October Mother -Daughter book club was Al Capone Does My Shirts, the first in a series of three by Gennifer Choldenko.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is set on Alcatraz in the 30s. Moose is a 12 year-old boy who has moved to Alcatraz so that his father can work as a prison guard and his older sister Natalie, who has autism (which wasn’t yet recognized as a disorder) can attend a special school in San Francisco. Moose has left behind good friends and a regular baseball game in Santa Monica, and he’s missing them both dearly. On Alcatraz, his friends are limited to the five children of other prison employees, and he has to take the ferry to San Francisco to attend school. Worse, his sister’s admission to the special school is revoked after two days because her condition is more severe than the school had expected. So Moose is forced to take care of his sister in the afternoons, instead of making friends and playing baseball.

My daughter read all three of the Choldenko books last year and loved them, so I included Al Capone Does My Shirts on the Mother-Daughter Book Club list for this year. I had assumed that the book would be focused on the inner workings of the prison and its famous convicts, told from a kid’s perspective. Instead, the book explored Moose’s relationship with his parents and sister, and how Natalie’s autism impacted the family. Moose was forced to take responsibility for his sister at an early age, and his mother, who was so focused on her daughter and trying to “cure” her, barely noticed the sacrifices she asked her son to make.  His father was sympathetic to Moose’s situation, but was helpless to change it because of the double shifts he took on to help the family make ends meet.

I liked Al Capone Does My Shirts. I thought it presented a realistic depiction of autism and how families are forced to adapt to accommodate children with special needs. It was depressing at times, for sure, but realistic. I also liked Moose’s friendships with other kids, particularly the warden’s daughter Piper, a great schemer and manipulator whose heart was ultimately in the right place.

The girls (age 10) and moms had a mixed reaction to the book. Most liked it a lot, while others thought it lagged in the middle and some found it too depressing. But it inspired a good dialogue about Moose and whether it was fair that he had to take so much responsibility for his sister. The girls were also intrigued by Al Capone and how he could exert so much influence even beyond the prison’s walls. There were also questions about whether it is fair to bend the rules to achieve a good end, or if obedience to rules should transcend everything else.

A few of the girls had read the other books in the trilogy (Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework), and the verdict is that they are even better than Al Capone Does My Shirts.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.

I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.


WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart

I don’t usually read YA fiction that everyone else is talking and blogging about, but I made an exception for We Were Liars by E. Lockhart because someone told me, “Read it. Don’t read about it, just read it.” I was intrigued by her advice, and requested it from the library. The fact that all copies were checked out and I had to wait until it came in only heightened my curiosity. It eventually came in, and I read it.

If you want to replicate my experience, and you’ve been curious about this “Gothic tale of failed romance in an entrenched East Coast family still enslaved to the rigid WASP codes”, then don’t read the rest of this review until you’ve read We Were Liars. (Then come back and tell me what you thought.)

If you want to know more before you commit to We Were Liars, then read on, but beware that it might spoil your experience a bit.

We Were Liars is about a privileged family with an island off of Martha’s Vineyard. Each summer, the patriarch of the family and his wife, along with their three daughters and a collection of grandchildren, come to the island and live in the four estates that have been built, one for each nuclear family. The story is told from the perspective of 15 year-old Cadence, the oldest grandchild. The “Liars” are two of Cadence’s cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and an Indian boy named Gat whose uncle is dating Johnny’s mother.

The Liars are thick as thieves each summer, and the book is rich with the smells and sounds of that epic season, when it seems that each sense is heightened not only by the weather and physical surroundings but also by adolescence and the sense that nothing is ever as important as when you are a teenager. There is a lot of commentary about the family, and the daughters’ infighting and currying favor with the rich grandfather, who controls the pursestrings and the inheritances. Gat serves as the Liars’ conscience: he is the one that points out that Cady never bothers to learn the names of the help and raises questions about income redistribution and the fundamental unfairness of property ownership.

Something happens during that fateful Summer Fifteen, however, when Cady finds herself in the ocean one night, barely dressed, with a head injury so severe that she leaves the island for the rest of the summer and doesn’t return for two years. What happened that night? Why was she on the beach by herself, and why can’t she remember anything about it? Why won’t her cousins and Gat (which whom she is in love) engage with her and fill her in on what they remember?


Like fans of “The Crying Game” (she’s a guy!) and “The Sixth Sense” (he sees dead people!), people who have read We Were Liars will tell you not to tell anyone anything about it. Yes, there is a spoiler. I was pretty much on notice that there was going to be a spoiler, and I have to say, I didn’t find it too hard to figure out what it was. Unlike the people on Goodreads who are all, “OH MY GOD I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING”, I saw it coming. So I was not as blown away by We Were Liars as I might have been, but I did like it. It’s a quick read and I enjoyed the dark and dramatic atmosphere that Lockhart created.  I gave it a solid 3 stars out of 5 on Goodreads.

Have you read it? Did you figure out the spoiler beforehand?