Friday, June 03, 2011

Review of The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen

The Gardener, by S.A. Bodeen; Feiwel & Friends, 2010.

S.A. Bodeen is also known as Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen and has written several children's books, primarily about characters living in modern Africa, in addition to two young adult sci-fi novels. The Gardener is her second YA sci-fi novel.

The Gardener is a quick read with a fast-paced plot and interesting characters. As soon as I finished it, I took it to school and loaned it to one of my male 6th grade students. Bodeen does an excellent job of presenting a young man who is working to discover who he is, both literally and in a psychological sense. I was not surprised to learn it is a 2011 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.

The premise of The Gardener centers around a research company that is attempting to locate an alternative food source for human beings. The reduction in food production because of industrialization and the destruction of the environment motivates scientists to make sacrifices that are, at best, distasteful, and at worst, murderous. The author does not take a definite position on the right/wrong side of the scientific debate presented, but allows the reader to think: What IF we run out of food? Would I be willing to make sacrfices for the greater good?

Classroom Application Ideas

1) Use The Gardener as a starting point for a roundtable or Paideia style class discussion about the "green" movement. Augment the novel with news articles about global warming. You may want to include selections from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or other important environmental works.

2) Ask students to write a diary entry from the perspective of one of the parents of the children being used in the experiment. How did they make the decision to give up their children? What were they thinking?

3) Use this novel as a quick-read companion for Frankenstein. How are Victor Frankenstein and "The Gardener" similar and different-- especially when one considers their motivations, techniques, and the consequences of their actions.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review of The Roar by Emma Clayton

The Roar by Emma Clayton; The Chicken House, 2009.

I picked up The Roar at an end-of-the-year book fair after having it on my "to read" list for a year and a half. The buzz about The Roar is that it's exciting, fast-paced, and will appeal to fans of dystopian action adventure (i.e. The Hunger Games). The buzz is accurate, in my opinion, and I'm eager to see where Clayton takes this concept in the sequel.

The Roar is set in a future in which people are crowded (extremely) behind "the wall", a giant concrete structure. Millions of people are hiding behind this wall because of The Animal Plague, a rabies-like disease which struck all of the world's animals and forced the government to basically raze the entire planet with poisons. Meat is now grown in tanks and most of the food is "fab", meaning it is fabricated out of mold instead of actually grown. London now consists of two levels, one of which is worse than the worst 19th century tenement and the other literally a golden city in the sky. The children of the poor refugees who live in the lower level of London begin playing what they think is a video game, but Clayton gradually reveals that it is much more.

The strength of this book is definitely the interesting premise and the suspense created by the gradual revelation of a "secret" being kept by the government. Character development tends to be one-sided. Good characters are just good, and bad are just bad. The reader is rarely asked to make any kind of decision about which characters to like and not like as the lines are so clearly drawn between bad and good. Likewise, the interpersonal relationships portrayed in the book are mostly flat. Good relationships seem to have no flaws; even when a friend is upset at losing the game, the dissonance created by that upset is explained away and wrapped up nicely by a "sick mother excuse". I didn't find myself really caring about the two main characters, twins named Ellie and Mika, though I was interested to see what happened to them because of my interest in the plot. I wouldn't be upset to see any character completely left out of the sequel, so long as the premise was the same and the plot continued.

This book would work well for middle or high schoolers, though older high schoolers may find it a bit juvenile because of the flat characters. The characters are primarily 12- and 13-year-olds so the book includes school, friends, bullies, parents, and identity crises. There are a couple of violent scenes, but nothing too drastic or graphic. The book would make an interesting read for a Science class as it deals with issues of environment, artificial intelligence, and genetic mutations.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review of Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen; Viking/Penguin (2009)

Dessen's latest novel follows the same basic format of many of her previous novels: a girl has troubles (usually involving a boy, her family, and some girl friends) and is able to overcome those troubles by rediscovering herself and forming new (or fixing old) relationships (again, usually with a boy, her family, and some girl friends). Despite her formulaic writing, Dessen's novels are always a treat because of the well-developed characters, the witty dialogue, and her deft creation of a world that is both locally recognizable and universal.

Along for the Ride follows Auden, daughter of two selfish and immature college professor parents, as she spends the summer in Colby with her father and stepmother. Auden is over-the-top in her dedication to her school work, but doesn't always use her common sense in social situations. Even so, Auden is easy to like and to identify with. Auden's love interest, Eli, is also easy to like and will no doubt make many teenage hearts quiver.

The characters I enjoyed the most were Auden's stepmother, Heidi, and Auden's father. I wouldn't mind reading a novel geared towards adults about the two of them. At first, Heidi seems like a stereotypical ditzy stepmother, but Dessen gives Heidi more and more back-story and depth as the story progresses. Her relationship with Auden's father also seems stereotypical at first, but its twists and turns surprised me. Similarly, Auden's co-worker Maggie seems to be a typical "clothes-boys-make-up" type of girl, but turns out to be more like Auden than any reader will expect.

Dessen's unique, quirky touches aren't lost in Along for the Ride. Readers will remember Colby from Dessen's other novels, as well as The U, and some of the characters. Dessen says that she doesn't want her work to be too region-specific, but Carolina girls will easily place Colby on the map. Non-Carolina girls will be able to relate to Colby, as well, however. Eli and Auden's late night trips to Park Mart and the local convenience store made me laugh as I could picture myself doing the same thing.

Classroom Applications
I regularly suggest Dessen's novels to my middle school students (with the exception of Just Listen and Dreamland, which attempt to tackle topics that may be too difficult for middle schoolers). I plan to recommend Along for the Ride, as it is fun and easy to read, but still has enough depth to make it worth the time it takes to read it. High schoolers and college students will also enjoy this one.

Extension Questions:
1) Predict: In ten years, do you think Heidi will still be Auden's stepmother? Why or why not?
2) Eli and Auden both have trouble sleeping, but for different reasons. When have you had trouble sleeping, and why? How was your experience similar to/different from Auden and Eli's?
3) One criticism of Dessen's work is that everything works out too perfectly in the end. Do you agree or disagree with this criticism? Explain.
4) Read the interviews with Sarah Dessen on this page:, and view Sarah's personal website: After viewing these sites, create FIVE interview questions that you think Sarah might not have been asked before and that she might enjoy answering. For each, explain why you think she might enjoying answering the question.
5) Dessen has been praised for her creation of interesting secondary characters. Which secondary character was your favorite, and why? How is this character different from or similar to another character from literature or someone you know?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Review of Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman; Putnam Juvenile, 2006.

True confession: I bought this book because the cover said that Stephenie Meyer recommended it. It was only $3 in the bargain section at Books-A-Million (my very favorite bargain section- Sorry, indie book stores!), so I might have purchased it anyway... but Meyer's name was a clincher. I was expecting a cute, fluffy teen romance that would make for a good hour or two of reading, and Enthusiasm definitely delivered-- and then some.

This story centers on a very basic idea: two girls (Julia and Ashleigh), the best of friends, fall for the same handsome boy (Grandison Parr). Shulman builds on this idea by adding many allusions to classic literature, especially Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. For example, when Julia and Parr first meet, their conversation creates a sonnet, just like Romeo and Juliet's first conversation (as Julia's teacher explained earlier in the novel). As an Austenite myself, I loved looking for little pieces of Jane's novels and references to her characters. Julia wonders if a classmate of Parr's is a "W____" (Austen fans will immediately know WHICH "W"), and Julia and Ashleigh refer to boys as "Darcys" or "Bingeleys". I will concede this may annoy readers unfamiliar with Austen's heroes, but I found it quite funny. It made me smile, and I needed a smile! Also, Shulman doesn't keep the plot on a traditional trajectory and have the girls fight over Parr. In fact, Julia selflessly avoids him and focuses on herself, which was refreshing to read in a teen romance.

Shulman's dialogue is witty and natural, and the voice of her teen characters and adults is well-developed. Character development was equally well-done; she manages to create secondary characters who are not simply flat caricatures. Sam and Zack Liu, Julia's mother, and Julia's stepmother (the "Irresistible Accountant") are all treasures.

Although Enthusiasm is far from grandiose, it is well-written and enjoyable and would make a great addition to a classroom library.

Classroom Applications

This novel would be most appropriate for students in grades 7-10, particularly females. I don't want to stereotype any of the young men out there, but I don't know any young men personally to whom I would recommend this novel. Although it is a romance, the focus is on the development of an intellectual relationship between a boy and girl and a friendship between two young ladies, so I would feel comfortable using this as a book club/lit circles novel in the classroom. The frequent use of literary allusions makes this even more of a classroom-ready novel.

Literary Devices to teach: allusion, flat/round characters, irony, dramatic irony/unreliable narrator, foils

Themes/Topics: the different types of friendships and romantic relationships, family relationships (especially daughters and mothers/stepmothers), the search for identity, sacrifice

Extension Questions

1) Why does Julia remain silent when Ashleigh tells her that Ned is her "Bingeley"? What does this reveal about her as a person?
2) Do you think Ashleigh will "grow out of" her habit of having different obsessions? Explain.
3) Explain why Julia calls her stepmother, Amy, the "Irresistible Accountant." What role does Amy play in the story? How is she similar to/different from Julia's mother?
4) What was your reaction to Shulman's inclusion of references to Austen and Shakespeare? Did you like it, find it annoying, or not really care either way?
5) People have some very different opinions of Jane Austen: Mark Twain remarked that her books made him want to "beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone," but former Chief Justice John Marshall said "she is pleasing, interesting, equable, yet amusing." J.K. Rowling says Jane is her favorite author. Based on these opinions, how do you think people will feel about Enthusiasm?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review of Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz

Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz. Hyperion 2007 ($8.99 paperback version)

The first word that pops to mind when I think about this novel is "Pffftt." I know that "pffftt" isn't REALLY a word, but it's the sound I made after almost every page. I had Blue Bloods on my "to-read" list since it was published in hardcover, and chose to read it this weekend as a bit of pleasure reading. Big mistake. Reading this novel was more pain than pleasure. It reads like a list of "hot" designers written by a 16-year-old girl who watches too many reruns of Sex and the City. It shares a lot of the same aspects of the popular Clique novels, which I liked as fun pleasure reading, but lacks the sense of humor, the ability to see itself for what it is. Blue Bloods, unlike the Clique novels, takes itself WAY too seriously.

The major problem with Blue Bloods is the premise. I could forgive the slow development of the plot, the lack of depth in characterization, the rampant historical inaccuracy, the bizarre "twins-but-sometimes-lovers" dynamic, the dialogue that is vapid, sour, boring, stale (etc., etc.), and the just plain bad writing. Really, I could. If it weren't for the fact that these rich Manhattanite vampires are supposed to be the descendants/reincarnation not only of the original Separatists who landed at Plymouth in 1620, but also the legion of angels cast out of heaven after Lucifer's rebellion.

Yes, seriously. The archangels Michael and Gabriel are even characters. See why "Pffftt" is the sound I associate with this novel? You just made that sound, did you not? I loved the idea of "blue bloods" being not only a term for the richest of the rich but also a unique conception of the vampire, but de la Cruz ruins the unique idea with this bizarre and completely unbelievable twist. It would have made more sense to have the creatures be just angels rather than try to make them angels, vampires, Puritans, and everything in between.

I won't waste any more time on this review, other than to say this novel is definitely not going on my suggested reading list (it's in my box to take to the used bookstore). If your students are fans of vampire fiction or the new batch of upper-class fluff, suggest that they pick up a copy of Twilight or The Luxe and leave Blue Bloods alone.

(You may notice a lack of classroom applications accompanying this and the previous review. This is not because I am abandoning the creation of apps; I simply didn't feel they were appropriate. For Wintergirls, the novel is not one that would work in a classroom setting because of the intense, personal, emotional content. For Blue Bloods, it is because the novel is not classroom quality.)

Friday, April 03, 2009

Review of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. Viking (Penguin), March 2009.

This new novel by Anderson, of Speak uber-fame, is truly difficult to read. There were several times when I had to put the book down because I felt like I was going to be sick. Anorexia in general is a difficult topic to read or hear about, especially when so many girls have personal experience with it, either via their own behavior or that of a friend. Anderson makes it even more difficult with her intense first person narration and unusual stylistic touches. This difficulty does not mean that the book is not well-written or worth reading. On the contrary, this difficulty is part of what makes the book great. Like Living Dead Girl, which I reviewed in a previous post, Wintergirls SHOULD be difficult to read. A book about anorexia that is easy to read is likely not, in fact, a book about anorexia at all.

The story centers on a "wintergirl" (a term of Anderson's invention, alluding to the myth of Persephone) named Lia who has been previously hospitalized for her anorexia and is having a major relapse after her fellow wintergirl and best friend, Cassie, dies in a horrible way. The story is built primarily on character and relationships, especially Lia's relationship with her stepsister, Emma, her mother and father, and her stepmother. Details about her relationship with Cassie are gradually revealed as a secondary back-story (the back-story develops from end to beginning as the main plotline moves from beginning to end).

Lia's stepmother, Jennifer, breaks the "evil stepmother" mold and is one of the most positive influences in Lia's life. I enjoyed this break from stereotype, especially when I read Anderson's acknowledgements and learned that she has a good relationship with her own daughters' stepmother, the woman who "nudged" Anderson to write about anorexia. Lia's sister Emma is a well-developed character, and I have to admit I am still worried about her. What will happen to her now that the novel is over? Will she become a wintergirl like Lia (some of the novel seems to suggest this is a possibility), or will she learn from Lia's mistakes? Lia herself has a voice almost as strong as Melinda's from Speak. She shares some of the same sarcasm and dark humor that characterized Melinda. She also shares the same triumph and final grasp at hope that Melinda is able to achieve.

The unusual stylistic touches I mentioned share a lot in common with online writing formats. For example, the novel isn't divided into chapters, but numbered like "posts". Also, she uses "strikethrough" to indicate thoughts that Lia has, but chooses to repress (usually cravings for food). There are a couple of blank pages during a pivotal scene, although the use of blank space is far less unusual than the strikethrough dialogue.

Wintergirls succeeds at its core purpose- to present a truth about a girl dealing with anorexia and the underlying pain that often leads to eating disorders, and the larger truth that there is hope and the possibiliy of recovery for people dealing with this devastating illness. This is a novel that defies classification as pure "YA" as adults can easily relate to the pain Lia feels in her Winter and cheer for her as she begins her long path towards Spring.


I had the pleasure to hear Ms. Anderson speak tonight at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC (a lovely store which I highly recommend). I was struck by how genuine she was (I commented to my professor that "She didn't even wear dress up clothes." She had on some adorable "custom" Converse). I witnessed her interactions with a group of teenage girls and she was incredibly patient and kind to them. Several comments she made during her remarks and the question-and-answer session were memorable, but a few comments particularly so. Her advice to teachers is to let our habits and attitudes as readers serve as a model for students, as this will teach them more than any direct-teaching ever could. Also, she strongly advocates working with the public library and local librarians in helping students procure and use library cards. She talked about the different processes for writing historical fiction and "YA" novels, as well as the moral issues one must consider when writing about difficult topics like sexual assault and anorexia. I would encourage any fan of her work to see her speak if possible.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam Young Adult 2008.

A nameless narrator and her two young friends deal with racism, becoming a young adult, discovering their identities, hope and loss during a two-year span in the mid-1990s.

There is a lot to like in this novel, which I expected from Woodson. The first aspect that will strike many readers is her use of dialect. I felt it was respectful to African American Vernacular English while also using "standard" English during portions that were only narration and not dialogue. Woodson has an excellent grasp on the voice of urban youth, not portraying them as ignorant but as quite knowledgeable in the ways of the world and American culture.

Woodson's deft incorporation of popular culture impressed me. She seems to have a genuine understanding of the effect that music and the people who make it have on teenagers. This is often taken for granted in young adult literature. She doesn't try to portray Tupac as perfect, but represents the affection that his fans felt (and still feel) for him. She does an excellent job of explaining the reasons behind the depth of this affection, even almost 15 years after his untimely death. She uses the girls' connection to Tupac to show how his marginalization in the courts and in the press parallels the marginalization of many young African Americans in the United States.

This book is certainly not perfect. It does draw on some stereotypes, such as the black boy ball player who gets a scholarship to college, without going beyond those stereotypes to create new characters. There are however, some very unique characters, such as the gay "Queen" who isn't afraid to be himself and has the support and love of his family.

Woodson incorporates several themes into the novel. The idea of hope and loss is particularly well-developed. She juxtaposes happy, hopefuly events (such as Tash's release from jail and JayJones's scholarship) with great loss (such as Tupac's death and D's farewell). She uses this juxtaposition to show how hope and loss coexist, and how we have to choose to be hopeful if we want to survive.

Classroom Applications

This is a quick read that is sure to be appreciated by students, especially fans of 2Pac's music. Although my students (7th graders) aren't old enough to remember Tupac, his music and its importance to American culture continues to influence them. As far as reading level and content, I think this novel could be applied to both middle and high school classrooms-- most appropriate for grades 6-9.

Literary devices/terms to teach: non sequential plot, allusion, dialect

Extension Questions
1) In what ways are D's interests and personality similar to Neeka's and the narrator's? How is she different?
2) What do you think happened to D after the events of the story ended? Explain.
3) Why did Woodson choose Tupac as the girls' favorite rapper and not another artist? They are certainly other artists that people feel a connection with. Explain your answer.
4) In ways do the girls connect to Tupac as a person, not just as a musician?
5) Compare and contrast JayJones and Tash. How are their personalities similar? Do you think JayJones will learn from Tash's experiences? Why?
6) What stereotypes, if any, do you see represented in this novel? How does the novel go against stereotypes?
7) Why are the girls shocked to find out the D's mother is white? What was your reaction? Explain.