Category Archives: Young Adult

FLIPPED by Wendelin Van Draanen

flippedOur last mother-daughter book club read for the academic year was Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen. Flipped is the story of a friendship between Julianna and Bryce, who meet in second grade when Bryce moves in across the street from her. She is instantly smitten with him, while he is put off by her intensity and immediate attachment to him. For the next 6 years, Bryce basically tolerates Juli, and she continues to indulge her crush, sitting behind him in class and smelling his hair.

Fast forward to 8th grade. Bryce and Juli are still in school together, and she still likes him. Flipped relates what happens that year in chapters that alternate between him and her, in he-said she-said perspectives that reveal, of course, that both characters are more complex than they appear. Juli is a free spirit who raises chickens and mourns the loss of her favorite tree, while Bryce is a popular boy who keeps his emotions in check and cares what people think. But Juli starts to grow on him. He won’t admit it, but he cares about her feelings and admires her passion. And Juli gets to know Bryce’s family better and learns that he is not perfect. In fact, he can be thoughtless and inconsiderate, which we know, of course, because we see his side of things.

I liked Flipped. I thought the characters were textured and interesting, and the way the year played out was pretty realistic. The book had an old-fashioned feel to it, which I enjoyed. Oddly, the girls in book club did not it that much.A few thought it was boring, while a few thought it was anti-feminist, which I didn’t agree with, because Juli never compromises herself or acts like someone she isn’t – she just has a crush! She was a strong female protagonist.  I was surprised that the girls didn’t enjoy the book as much as I did.

FYI – there is a movie version of Flipped with a good cast – Anthony Edwards, Aidan Quinn, John Mahoney – which came out in 2010. We watched it after book club and we really liked it. Rob Reiner directed it and set it in the 60s, which felt pretty natural. So if you do read the book, check out the movie afterwards.

That’s a wrap for mother-daughter book club for 2015-2016. We’ll be back in the fall with a new year of books for 7th graders. (Any suggestions?)

RED THREAD SISTERS by Carol Antoinette Peacock

51V1x2hEuoL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Our May mother-daughter book club read was Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock. I’ve always been interested in Chinese adoption, so I was excited to add this title to our reading list.

Red Thread Sisters is about two Chinese girls who are best friends growing up in an orphanage. Wen was abandoned at age 6 by her family at the orphanage after her father lost his job and they couldn’t afford to keep two children, while Shu Lin was left at the orphanage as a baby because of a deformed foot. While the two often dream of being adopted, in the end, it is only Wen who is picked by an American family. When the book opens, Wen is meeting her adoptive family for the first time and having to say goodbye to Shu Lin.

Wen moves to the Boston area and tries to get used to life with her new parents and at her American school. She has a lot of trouble trusting that her parents will keep her and that she won’t be sent back to China if something goes wrong. Wen tries to reciprocate her younger sister’s affection, but she doesn’t know how to be a member of a family, or how to express love for someone other than Shu Lin. Meanwhile, she misses her best friend terribly, and feels guilty that she is in America living a comfortable, privileged life while Shu Lin is still at the orphanage.

Before she left, Wen promised Shu Lin that she would find her a family in the United States. She soon realizes that that is a hard promise to fulfill. At first, she tries to talk her new parents into adopting Shu-Ling too, without understanding how big of a commitment an adoption is. She then starts to learn more about the adoption process and how she can help Shu Lin’s chances of being adopted.

Red Thread Sisters prompted a good discussion among the group about girls in China, international adoption and the challenges of being integrated into a new family. We also talked about friendship and responsibility, and whether Wen should have made her promise to Shu Lin. The girls liked the book – it held their interest and they felt compassion for the characters. We all agreed that there wasn’t enough detail in the book: Wen seemed to have little problem understanding what was happening at school, and the months just seemed to fly by with no sense of her daily life in America. She was also pretty inconsiderate of her adoptive parents’ feelings, but that was in part due to her inability to connect emotionally.

Overall, Red Thread Sisters was a good perspective-broadening book, even if it wasn’t the best-written book we read this year. It led to a robust discussion between the girls and mothers, and that’s usually the sign of a good book club book.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

(I had some tech issues with my blog this week, but I’m back in business now. Phew.)

41bOj-am1RL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Our April mother-daughter book club read was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it?) Yes, I managed to make it until 2016 without reading this juggernaut of a book, which is the first of a best-selling trilogy and a blockbuster movie that pretty much everyone other than me has seen. I decided to include it in the mother-daughter book club list this year because my daughters had been asking about reading it, and I figured that I would read it with them.

The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future. What was once North America is now a country called Panem, which is made up of a Capitol surrounded by twelve districts. The Capitol keeps the districts in line through controlled deprivation and an annual event called The Hunger Games. In the Games, each district sends a boy and a girl to compete in a televised fight-to-the-death in which only competitor can survive. In District 12, a sixteen year-old named Katniss volunteers to compete when her younger sister’s name is drawn in the lottery – the ultimate sacrifice.

The Hunger Games is a stressful book. As a reader, you feel the ever-present brutality of the Games on every page. Some of the deaths are pretty gruesome. But the violence, while considerable, is manageable, at least in book form. Katniss is a formidable heroine – smart, physically strong and stoic. One of the main themes of the book is her relationship with the other competitor from District 12 – Peeta. She and Peeta ultimately decide to work together to help each other stay alive, and concoct a plan to ensure that they don’t have to try to kill each other at the end. The question, of course, is whether Peeta and Katniss can garner enough viewer and sponsor support to make it through the Games, and whether The Capitol will be persuaded by their story to allow them each to live.

I am impressed with Suzanne Collins’ ability to conjure this bleak society yet make it feel like a place that we can relate to today. The reality TV/mass entertainment aspect of the Games really hit home for me and made me embarrassed for the hours of reality TV I’ve watched over the years. While people may hate the Games and what they represent, they tune in and watch. Their allegiances and reactions impact the outcome, which is partially in the hands of the Gamemakers. How much has reality TV anesthetized us to violence and danger in the name of entertainment?

I found The Hunger Games more stressful than my daughters did. They really liked it, and picked up the sequels immediately upon finishing it. I have a hard time with any book in which kids’ lives are in danger, so this one ranked high up there in the stressful/disturbing camp for me. My daughters didn’t have as hard a time with the violence. Maybe it seemed too unrealistic to them?

We had a good discussion of the book at our meeting – we covered a lot of questions, including several about loyalty, strategy and what the girls would do if they were in the same situation at Katniss. We also discussed Peeta and Katniss’ relationship (was it for real?) and The Capitol’s motivation in holding the Games every year.

I’m glad I read The Hunger Games and will likely take a look at the sequels and the movies too. I can understand why it has done so well.

 

SPY SCHOOL by Stuart Gibbs

My 11 year-old daughter starting hounding me to read Spy School by Stuart Gibbs as soon as she discovered it – and him – last year in 5th grade. She read Spy School and then its two sequels, and then anything else by Gibbs that she could get her hands on. And when it came time for me to pick the books for our Mother-Daughter book club this year, she insisted that I include Spy School.

So I finally read it for our book club meeting yesterday. And she was right – it’s great! It’s not my usual fare – thriller/adventure – but it was quite entertaining. Spy School is about a 12 year-old boy named Ben who is chosen to leave his typical public school to attend spy school run by the C.I.A. outside of D.C. Spy school is exactly what it sounds like – training grounds for kids who have shown aptitude to become a spy, with classes like self-defense and cryptography. At first, Ben is thrilled, as this is his dream come true. But once he gets to the school, he realizes that may not be cut out for it… and that he might be there under false pretenses.

As the plot unfolds, Ben finds himself being chased by an assassin, bullied by a dumb upperclassman, collaborating with the coolest girl in the school, and let down by the administrators who are supposed to protect him. There is a lot of action, as Ben is constantly on the run from danger. It’s a relatively lighthearted book, despite the high stakes of the story, with a lot of humor thrown in. Ben is a typical 12 year-old: nerdy and girl-crazy, quick to question authority, but underneath it all excited and earnest about what he’s doing.

Some reviewers complained about bad language – “damn” and “ass” – but that it didn’t bother me, and it didn’t come up during our discussion yesterday.

I am impressed by how much my daughter enjoyed this book and its sequels. She was totally involved with the story and loved trying to figure out who was after Ben and why. Some of the girls in the book club didn’t like reading a book with a male protagonist, while others didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed getting a boy’s perspective.

Don’t be bothered by the fact that Spy School is totally implausible. (Why would these kids be in spy school in 8th grade? And how could so many high-ranking intelligence officers converge at this school and be unable to figure out who is trying to infiltrate it?) Gibbs has created a really fun world for middle-grade readers to experience without the weightiness or complexity of the typical spy or adventure novel.

 

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.

RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

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.