Category Archives: Young Adult

MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers

We had an April meeting on the calendar for our mother daughter book club, but due to busy schedules, we had to cancel. I decided to read the book anyway: Monster by Walter Dean Myers.

Steve Harmon is a 16 year-old boy who is in detention in NY city jail awaiting trial. He has been accused of taking part in a felony murder – specifically, acting as the lookout for a drugstore robbery that ended with the owner being killed. As part of a way to deal with his stress and anxiety, Steve decides to tell the story of the trial and his incarceration in the form of a screenplay for a movie. He includes the dialogue and camera notes – close ups, flashbacks, etc.

The screenplay format is an interesting way to tell this story, and it’s very effective in Monster. There is some ambiguity over whether Steve actually did what he is accused of, and the format of the book allows Myers to get away with not really resolving it. There are moments of first person narration in the journal entries that punctuate the chapters, but most of the book relates the courtroom proceedings as they happen.

There’s a lot of stress in the book, as Steve talks about the violence in jail, his fears about his future, and the sadness he sees in his parents’ faces when they come to visit him. Myers did a lot of research interviewing inmates, and it shows. He includes a lot of detail about what it’s like to be young and scared in jail, awaiting your fate as a jury decides whether they believe you or what your lawyer has argued. It’s a difficult topic, to be sure, and I wonder how our group would have liked it. There’s also a bit of legalese in it, but not too much. I am definitely glad I read it, and I would like my daughters to read it at some point so that we can discuss it.

Monster provides a creative and compelling perspective on a world that most teenagers never experience. I found it to be a worthwhile read that made me think about my own biases and the conclusions I might have drawn were I in the courtroom – fair or not.

 

 

BEING JAZZ by Jazz Jennings

Our latest mother-daughter book club read was Being Jazz by Jazz Jennings. It’s a memoir by a 15 year-old girl who was born into a boy’s body. Jazz knew at an early age that she was transgender, and with the help of her accepting family, she transitioned by kindergarten. Jazz, who is now the subject of a TLC reality show, has become a well-known activist for transgender issues and has spoken around the country and received many awards.

Sadly, Being Jazz was too superficial for me (and the rest of our book club). There is a lot of talk about her TV appearances and all the good she has done. Jazz is very grateful for all of the opportunities, and she doesn’t come across as entitled or arrogant, but there is just too much of that and not enough soul-baring. I wanted to know more about what it felt like to be in the wrong body. I wanted to understand gender differences from someone who can’t identify with herself physically . I wanted to understand more about how she related to boys and girls differently. Instead, I got a memoir by a teenager about her life as a celebrity.

I don’t mean to knock the book too much, and I respect Jazz for her openness and courage in fighting for transgender rights. And I appreciated her honesty about her depression. But I wanted more of those things and less of the fights she had with her eighth grade friends.

Being Jazz is well-reviewed, so perhaps I am being curmudgeonly. In the end, it was a bit of a trifle. It could have been much more than what it was, maybe with the help of a (different?) ghostwriter.

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Our January mother-daughter book club read was The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It’s an old-fashioned type of book about England during WWII that was published in 2015 and written by an American author who lives in Tennessee and .

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada, a girl born with a clubfoot to a monster of a mother in London. Because she cannot walk due to her deformed foot, her mother has kept her inside a small flat for her whole life, never providing her with crutches or even a pair of shoes. Ada spends her life watching kids out her window and waiting for her little brother Jamie to arrive home from school. Her mother is unspeakably cruel, depriving her of affection, food and stimulation, and occasionally locking her in a roach-infested cabinet under the sink for small transgressions.

When Jamie is given the opportunity to go to Kent in the English countryside to wait out the war, his mother decides to send him but keep Ada behind. Ada instead accompanies Jamie to the train and goes with him to Kent. They are passed over by all of the families who have agreed to take in evacuees, and end up at the home of Susan Smith, a single woman who keeps to herself. Under Susan’s care, Ada learns to live.

After cleaning up the kids and feeding them proper amounts of food, Susan slowly starts building up Ada’s confidence and teaching her about how to interact with the world. As the book progresses, their relationship deepens. Susan has her own demons – she has been ostracized by the town and disowned by her father, presumably because of her sexual preference – but she sees Ada for who she is: a bright girl who has been severely deprived through her life and who deserves respect and opportunity.

The tension ratchets up as the German bombs get closer to Kent and evacuated children begin returning to London. Will Ada and Jamie stay in Kent with Susan, or will their mom show up and lay claim to them?

I liked The War That Saved My Life a lot, as did the girls and moms in our book club. There was a lot to discuss about Ada and Jamie and how they responded to life with Susan. Were they likable? Sympathetic? Was there anything redeeming abut the mother? Would we have taken in evacuated children? How would we have responded to such a dramatic change in our lives?

I listened to half of The War That Saved My Life on audio and read the other half. I liked the narrator, who had a plucky British accent that made Ada seem perhaps a little happier than she really was. But it was a good production and I enjoyed the audio a lot. I needed to finish the book quickly so I chose to read the second half rather than listen to it.

Overall The War That Saved My Life was a good pick for book club and seemed to have been enjoyed by everyone. It’s a good piece of historical fiction for the middle grade set.

BOOKED by Kwame Anderson

41zviprzzyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our December Mother-Daughter book club read was Booked by Kwame Anderson. It’s the story of Nick, a seventh grader dealing with the demise of his parents’ marriage, a crush on a classmate, a budding soccer career and bullying.

What makes Booked interesting is that the story is told in verse. This style highlights Nick’s emotions and inner dialogue, which makes it all more poignant and genuine. What could have been a somewhat unremarkable litany of middle school woes becomes transformed into something lovelier. Nick’s father is obsessed with words – he even wrote a dictionary – and while Nick feels burdened by his father’s requirement that he read the dictionary, he too is a gifted linguist and finds power in expressing himself. He ends up joining a book club (because the girl he likes is in it) and finding some escape through reading as well.

Booked was a quick and interesting read, and our group of 7th graders found enough to talk about – what role did the quirky librarian play? Were the adults in Nick’s life paying enough attention to what he was going through? How did the use of poetry change their feelings about the book? What was in the mysterious dragonfly box? In the end it probably won’t be our most memorable book of the year, but for the verse alone it was a good choice.

We have identified a theme running through many of our book club books this year: kids being left to themselves to deal with some weighty problems, and adults generally being unaware and unhelpful. While this theme is a bit frustrating – we adults aren’t that bad! – it makes sense. How else to present adolescent protagonists who grapple and grow throughout the book? I am curious to see if this theme will continue into 2017.

THE ART OF NOT BREATHING by Sarah Alexander

Sadly, my month of non-reading continues. Hoping to snap out of it soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a review of our November mother-daughter book club book, The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander.

23203977The Art of Not Breathing is an odd, sad book. Elsie is sixteen and feeling very alone in her fractured family, which consists of her unhappily married parents, her older brother Dillon, and her twin brother Eddie, who died by drowning five years earlier. Elsie is convinced that her father blames her for Eddie’s drowning, and while she vaguely remembers that day, there are a lot of details that she can’t get a handle on. Why was Dillon there too? Did he try to save Eddie? What role did her parents play?

Elsie feels like an outsider in her family and at school too, but when summer comes, she accidentally falls in with a group of older boys who free dive, a rigorous sport involving diving to low depths and holding one’s breath before coming up. Elsie decides to try free diving, and her connection to the group of divers leads her to a boyfriend and, ultimately, the answers to her questions about Eddie’s death and the role she – and others – played in it. Meanwhile her family falls further apart as Dillon develops anorexia and her parents grow more estranged.

Dark, huh?

Yes.

The Art of Not Breathing is compelling in that it makes you want to read on and find out what happens. You also feel just terrible for Elsie, who is trying to hold things together but is breaking down inside. Her unwillingness to confide in anyone is frustrating, because it only makes her more isolated. But she is dealing with a lot – way more than someone her age should be expected to. Our group of twelve year-olds didn’t love this book (though it was recommended by someone in the group). They all found it very sad, and were frustrated with the adults and the situations Elsie was put in. We all found free diving intriguing but also scary. And of course, poor Eddie… the most tragic figure of all.

On the plus side, The Art of Not Breathing does send a message about being yourself and not caring what people think of you. It also conveys the importance of emotional trust, especially when dealing with grief.

 

 

THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT by Jenn Marie Thorne

51tzzsl0zgl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Our October Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was the very topical The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne. The book is about Kate, a sixteen year-old girl who discovers that her father, whom she never knew about, is a Republican senator from Massachusetts who is running for president. This news comes to light (via a leak to The New York Times) a year after Kate’s mother died in a car accident and five months before Election Day.

Kate has a decision to make: keep living with her aunt and uncle in South Carolina, or move to the Senator’s house in Maryland with his wife and twins and live a life in the spotlight while she travels with the family on the campaign. She moves to Maryland, and what follows is a whirlwind of campaign stops, photo opportunities, interviews and events, with some time squeezed in to get to know her new family.

The Wrong Side of Right is about a young woman figuring out who she is and what she stands for, without much help from the people around her. She finds an unexpected ally in her stepmother, but is repeatedly disappointed by her father’s remote disinterest despite her attempts to get to know him. The plot of the novel is implausible in many ways – the secrecy of her paternity and the convenient timing of its reveal, for example – but the depiction of the modern campaign definitely rings true. (If only our current campaign were as tame as the one in the book!). Cell phones abound, and there’s even a love story thrown in to keep teen readers interested. (With the president’s son, no less!) Kate is a relatable, imperfect main character whose situation might be highly unusual but whose feelings are not.

The Wrong Side of Right was enjoyable and compelling, and I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen. Our book club had a good discussion about the reality of living through a presidential campaign and the ethics of the Senator’s behavior throughout the book. Not everyone finished the book, as it’s pretty long, but those who did seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. And it was perfect timing, with the current election three weeks away.

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

51usrhmubkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our mother-daughter book club pick for September was The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The Giver is one of those books I’ve always heard about but had never read, and because it was on the girls’ summer reading list for school, I made it the first book of the year. I’m glad I did.

The Giver is about a futuristic society that celebrates Sameness. There is no color, no music, no variation. Children are born, assigned to parents, grow up, and are given roles in the society based on their talents. They marry, raise their own two children, and then live out their lives until they are “released” to another land.

The book centers on Jonah, a boy who turns 12 and receives his vocational assignment: a Receiver. This means that he receives memories from an older member of the society, who passes along institutional memories from many generations back. These memories are of sensations long gone – pain, joy, love – as well as evils that have been eradicated, like disease and war. They even contain memories of nature that have basically been engineered away – snow, birds. As the Receiver, Jonah must process and absorb these memories, but he cannot share them with others unless he is asked to advise the community’s elders.

The Giver is a disturbing but thought-provoking book, and one that is great for middle school readers. It prompted discussion questions about the costs of giving up freedom in exchange for predictability and safety, and about individual responsibility in a place where most people don’t understand what is really happening. What is the role of parenting in this society, and of marriage? Would you want the responsibility of being the Receiver?

We ultimately concluded that while there are a lot of things wrong with our world today, the answer isn’t to get rid of emotion, variety and individual choice.

I can understand why The Giver was such a sensation. I am always surprised to find that I like dystopian books as much as I do – Station Eleven, The Age of Miracles, The Hunger Games. Maybe it’s time to broaden my horizons a little more? More important, the 7th graders (I can hardly believe I just typed that – we started this club when they were in 1st grade!) enjoyed it too and seemed to get a lot out of it.