"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Runner and other books for teen boys

I read Runner by Carl Deuker two weeks ago. It is a very exciting story about a boy, Chance Taylor, who ends up as a runner for a very shady character because that person promises him money. Chance's father, a Gulf War Veteran and an alcoholic, can't seem to keep a job or pay the bills. Chance suspects that the items he is picking up are drugs, but he never looks because he really doesn't want to know. If he "knows" what he is picking up he will have to confront the fact that he is participating in illegal activities and he needs the money. He continues even when the activity seems riskier and riskier. The book has a tremendously exciting climax where Chance's dad has an opportunity to redeem himself and it ends on a note of hope.

Several boys at my school have indicated how much they enjoyed reading this book and have gone on to read other books by Deuker. This got me thinking about how few reliably good "boy" books I know about to recommend to these reticent readers. For the most part male readers are pickier than female readers. They want shorter books with action-filled plots and they often insist that the protagonist be a male. Some won't even consider the book if the author is female. No wonder so many fabulous authors hide their gender behind their initials: J.K. Rowling; K.L. Going; S.E. Hinton; A.M. Jenkins. So with all these 'rules' in mind, it is no wonder that I am always struggling to increase my list of reliably good books for boys (of the reluctant reader type.) Listed below are few I have found that usually work. I would greatly appreciate other suggestions from you, dear reader.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers--- this is written in a movie-script format. c. 2000
Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan (The Lightning Thief, book 1) --- these books are written at a much lower reading level than high school, yet my boys eat these up. Hot, hot, hot right now.
The Contender by Robert Lipsyte--- a coming-of-age story that centers around boxing. c. 1987
Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going---I have to assure boys that this book is about friends and Rock-n-Roll not about diets before they will try it.
Cirque du Freak and Demonata series by Darren Shan--- both of these series have loyal followers. Cirque du Freak, especially, is written for younger readers but that does not deter my high school boys.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Michaelsen--- though action-packed, this book is a bit too long for many male readers at 241 pages.
DriftX series by Todd Strasser--- car racing; boys zoom through this three boy series and want more!
Raiders Night by Robert Lipsyte--- witness to a crime, steroids, football, this book has a compelling storyline.
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series by Michelle Paver--- one of our SPED teachers has more luck getting boys to read this fantasy series than I do.
I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak--- older boys really like this book even though it breaks all the "rules" about length. It is definitely for mature readers.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie--- Boys often tell me that this is the first book they have actually completed since they were very young. I only have hardcover copies of the book so I often have to talk boys into reading it since it looks longer than it is.
The Boxer and the Spy by Robert Parker--- Parker, who usually writes for adults, has written a perfect book for reluctant readers...it is short, a mystery, involves sports, and espionage.
With a bit of cajoling these authors usually work: Kevin Brooks, Chris Crutcher, Robert Cormier, and John Flanagan.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


How's this for some literary synchronicity?

Two weeks ago I finished reading a memoir about a man who went to prison for drug smuggling. He justified his decision to be part of a drug ring because he needed the money. The events happen in the 1970's and he is living the life of a hippie. (A Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos)

In Tales of the Madman Underground, the story also takes place in the 1970's and Karl, who works five jobs because he has no money, has a mother who is a hippie and an alcoholic. (By John Barnes)

Next, I picked up a fiction book in which the main character participates in drug smuggling because he has no money. He lives on a small sail boat, Tiny Dancer, with his alcoholic father. (Runner by Carl Deuker)

This week I started a new book, which thankfully isn't about drug smuggling. Three chapters into the book I find out that the main characters are going to put on a musical called -- you guessed it -- Tiny Dancer. (Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan)

Here's the definition of synchronicity, just in case you are still unsure what it means:
syn·chro·nic·i·ty -n.

  1. The state or fact of being synchronous or simultaneous; synchronism
  2. Coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related...
Four books in a row. Synchronicity.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Celebrate National Library Week

This is National Library Week. If you haven't done so yet, head to your local library tomorrow and allow yourself a few minutes of bliss.

Here is a tiny snippet of the interview that author Neil Gaiman had with blogger Kate at The Book Case:
  • KP: In American Gods you expanded on the idea that there are gods and spirits everywhere in our world, not just in temples but in places like roadside attractions, and so I wondered if you had any thoughts about what kind of gods or spirits might live in libraries.
    NG: I have no idea, but I do know that I’d like them. There’s a wonderful kindred spiritry of the library, people who like being in libraries, people who are comforted by books, people who like being around the ideas of the departed. And I know that whatever gods or spirits are in libraries, they’re my kind of people.
I love this quote best: "people who like being in libraries, people who are comforted by books", because I know that I have many, many students and friends who come to the library each day because they are comforted by books. Thank you Neil Gaiman for sharing your love of libraires with us all! You are my kind of person.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes

I was right when I said that I thought this book would be my kind of book. This coming-of-age story set during the first six days of the school year in 1973 in a blue-collar town in Ohio had everything I like in a YA novel: angst-ridden teens who are actually trying to better their lives; superb writing which is humorous and poignant in turns; historically accurate; characters who are multifaceted-- not just one-dimensional; and dialogue which seems real and well-timed.

Karl Shoemaker wants his senior year to be 'normal' rather than one dominated by the drama associated with the forced therapy group he has been a part of since 4th grade. As he tries to distance himself from the group he realizes that he can't and doesn't want to distance himself from the friends he has made in the group, The Madman Underground. This rag-tag group of kids who all have pretty hefty problems are truly his support network. Adults, like his hippie, cat-loving, alcoholic mother, may let him down but the members of the Madman Underground never do.

The subtitle of this book is: A Historical Romance, 1973. I was in high school in 1973 so I was on the lookout for authentic, accurate cultural references and the book was full of them. Here are a few that I found charming/funny: Karl sprayed his pits (he put on deodorant); the hoods came in the bathroom to smoke (the drug-users, hard-core kids--most schools at that time period had a smoking area but often the hoods would come inside and smoke in the bathroom when the weather was bad outside); Marti drove a Ford LTD (I think half of my friends' parents had LTDs when I was in high school); she was such a J.D. (juvenile delinquent); platform wedges (shoes that gals wore that made them about five inches taller); references to Kent State and Vietnam (The National Guard killed four students on the campus of Kent State who were protesting the Vietnam War.) Barnes did a great job placing the plot accurately in the early 1970s.

Common Sense Media, an organization which reviews books and films and gives them an age-rating for appropriateness (rather than ban or censor them), grades this book as 16+. I would agree that this is a book for a mature, older teenager. There is quite a bit of profanity and talk of sexual issues. But I think that readers of Marcus Zusak (I Am the Messenger); John Green (Looking for Alaska; Paper Towns); and Libba Bray (Going Bovine) will enjoy this book also.

Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book:

Karl talking about his dad's politics:
"Before then I just knew that good guys rooted for the Indians, voted Democratic, and went to United Methodist. I wasn't sure whether it was Republicans, Tigers Fans, or Catholics who were the real evil in the world." p. 195

Dick is Karl's AA sponsor:
"Dick came over to say hi; that was okay, talking to your sponsor was a good thing to do. 'Hey, are you feeling okay? Or is it a depressing book?'
'I'm a teenager. I live to read depressing stuff.'

'Yeah, I remember that. Wait'll you hit your mid-twenties and find out smiling is okay again. But you're okay?' " p.101

This book is 530 pages long but it felt like a short book. I didn't want it to end.
It's that good.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A blogger's dilemma

Here's my dilemma: Should I blog about a book that was published eight years ago or more? That is half a life ago to a teenager. Is there a time limit? Five years old, OK, ten years old, not OK? I am really conflicted about this. If the book were some classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, what could I possibly have to say about the book that would add to the discussion? Nothing, so I don't do it. But what about a lesser known book that has been around for a while but I think it still has value to my students and to other young adults? At what point does no one want to hear about an older book? If it is new to me (I just read it) then it will be new to them, too. Right?

I struggle with these questions every day on my job when I am asked to recommend books. Some books always seem to work no matter the copyright date, such as Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson, Forever (1975) by Judy Blume, and The Contender (1987) by Robert Lipsyte while others are wildly popular one year and no one wants to read the next. Since I have only been a teen librarian for a few years I haven't been reading YA lit for that long. I am still trying to catch up by reading as many of the best-of-the-best YA titles from the past as I can. But should I blog about these older books?

There is no one in the room to ask except the dog and she doesn't read and loves me no matter what I do, so I guess I will answer my own question. I will try to keep my blogs fresh and relevant. If I enjoy a book but I think that enough has been said about it in other sources and I have nothing new or enlightening to say, then I won't blog about it. But if I feel that it has value to my students who might read the blog or to the broader readership then I will. Sound fair?

On that thought, here is my review of the book, Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, published in 2002:

Jack Gantos is an author of mostly children's and some young adult literature. Back in the 1970s when Jack was just out of high school he ended up going to prison for drug smuggling. This is memoir about the events that led up to arrest and his experiences in prison. On the surface it is just another "don't do drugs" memoir because "if you do, look where you might end up, like I did." But it really isn't about drugs or even drug smuggling, it is about a boy who wanted to be a writer with all his heart but he didn't know how to find his voice, to find a story worth telling. Actually landing in prison gave him the time to do both.

As I read the book I kept thinking that chapters of this book would be wonderful reading material for the students in a creative writing class. Gantos talks a lot about his dream of becoming a writer and different techniques that he used to try to build up his skills and his repertoire. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

On the craft of journaling:
"...I tried to be organized on my own...I arranged my journal in a series of sections. The first and most obvious was my daily entry section, which I filled with a wild stream of thoughts in a conscious effort to capture my true feelings, true motivations, and crazed activities of each day... The next section was my favorite. Each time I read a book I cataloged the parts that struck me dumb with envy and admiration for their beauty and power and truth...The third section was plain and simple vocabulary building, where I'd write words and definitions I wanted to learn and use. Words like: vicious, impunity, paroxysm, unctuous...The fourth section was devoted to the moments of inspiration when book ideas came to me in full-color flashes, like bits of film remembered, or a forgotten conversation suddenly pulsing to life." p. 21-22

On catching the girl:
"I thought having my own place would automatically attract girls to me. I was mistaken. I was the spider who could not coax any flies into his web. I wanted girls to find me interesting. But maybe it was my whiny Holden Caulfield imitation...that got me nowhere. Or perhaps my sitting in the library with an intensely cheerless, poetic look on my face only scared girls away." p. 24-25

After using drugs the first time and experiencing paranoia:
" 'I don't have to do that again,' I said to myself. But I must not have been listening." p. 34

On being a journalist (this seems very relevant to me today with journalists reporting "news" that gets the people on the fringe all whipped up):
"I remembered reading a quote from a newspaper journalist that stuck with me: 'Where there is blood, there is ink.' " p. 62

After arriving in prison:
" At sundown the naked bulb overhead came on and beneath it I'd slump into a drama of my own self-interrogation. There was nothing else to do by beat myself up. That first week there were no books. No writing paper and pencils... just me sitting on the edge of my bunk, slowly grilling myself under that yellow light." p. 156

On writing about feelings:
"There was nothing to do but to feel the despair of the that moment, until after feeling it over and over I picked up my journal and wrote it down and emptied it out of me..." p. 183

Would this book be worth your time even though it was written several years ago? I'd say yes, especially if you, like Jack Gantos was, are a budding author looking for your voice. And while you are at it, visit Gantos' website. It is fabulous.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I finished reading this book last Saturday. For a week I have been reflecting on the wonderful pool of talented YA authors out there and Kristin Cashore is definitely one of them. Graceling is Cashore's debut YA novel. It is impeccably written with details that add to and broaden the story and the reader's understanding of the characters and their motivations. The plot is exciting, often exhilarating, and quite unique.

The tale is about Katsa, a graceling, or a person born with a particular talent. Her talent is an amazing ability to fight, even kill if need be. Because of her "grace" she is used by her uncle for henchman-like duty around the kingdom and everyone is afraid of her, until she meets Po. Po, a Prince from a neighboring kingdom, is also graced. With his grace Po is able to help Katsa redirect her talents and her strengths and to break away from her oppressive uncle. But the adventures and the tension increase as the two friends go out together to try to find answers to the mysterious kidnapping of Po's grandfather.

I do want to give this warning- there are a few R-rated scenes in the book so I would not recommend this book for younger teens. Fantasy and romance readers will be thrilled with this book as will readers looking for just a well-told, exciting tale. I look forward to reading the prequel, Fire.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring Vacation Reading List

Ah, spring break! Time for rest, relaxation, and reading. (The new three R's!)
Here's my reading list for the week. I admit that it is very ambitious to think that I can read five books in one week. But one can try, right?

1. Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I am 9/10th of the way through this exciting, adventure book. The plot has already climaxed so I am not sure why the story needs so much time to wrap up, but I shall see soon.

2. Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos. This memoir was a Printz Honor book several years ago. I'll be checking it off two of my lists when I complete it. Gantos is the author of very funny school-age children's books (Joey Pigza series) and a few YA titles. I am thoroughly enjoying his writing style. This book is a quick read and I'm already half way through it. I'll be sure to blog more on this book soon.

3. Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips is the selection this month for one of my book clubs. Reviewers tend to talk about the literary merits of this book that deals with two half-siblings and their father a world away in Korea. When I read reviews I always try to scan both the positive and the negative ones trying to get a perspective on the book, figuring the truth will be somewhere in between. The reviewer that gave this book one star was practically beat up by other reviewers in the comment section. Essentially they were saying, "How dare you not love the book the way I love it." We'll see where I fall?

4. Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes. This book won a Printz Honor this year and I am very anxious to read it for several reasons. It is my "type" of YA lit-- full of angst-ridden teens and parents with more problems than the kids. It is set in 1973, when I was in high school. Will I be able to relate? Reviewers say the prose are very realistic and heart-felt. Can't wait!

5. Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran. Another book club selection, I should put some priority on this book since this month I am the host and will need to lead the discussion. The setting is Ireland and the protagonists are Iranian sisters who run a cafe. I haven't read the first book in the series, Pomegranate Soup, so I am hoping I won't feel lost. A Booklist reviewer says, "For all their robust living, Mehran’s Irish are a familiar and universal mix of libido and repression, piety and profanity, xenophobia and generosity." Sounds good but often my biggest problem with books I've never heard of before is just getting started.

Guess I'd better stop blogging and start reading. What is on your reading list this Spring?