Load your blow dryer and stockpile lip gloss: Beauty Queens hit the beach

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray; published by Scholastic, New York, 2011; 390 pages.

When a plane loaded with 50 Miss Teen Dream Pageant contestants crash lands on the island on which they were supposed to parade around in their state-approved costumes, well, it’s not pretty.  What’s a girl to do with no electricity, little food, and missing luggage?  Should they continue practicing what their coaches taught them or figure out how to get fresh water?  What would pageant sponsor, The Corporation, want them to do, especially when The Corporation’s most-watched television stars, a boatload of sexy pirates, finds their way to the island?  And who’s this Elvis-wannabe; is he really the leader of a nation?  There’s so much more than a title to win or lose here.

I love Libba Bray’s sense of humor and nothing-is-sacred style.  I love this book for those reasons.  I especially love that she slips in a few commercials (approved by The Corporation, of course), some of the contestants’ profiles, and an homage to Lord of the Flies.  Every girl, whether she’s a make up maven or a mole out to uncover the unpretty pageant world, will devour this book.  I had planned to take it to the beach with me, but I couldn’t wait and read it in one night.

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 9+ (adults will enjoy it too)

Cover art: The bikini clad torso is armed with a bandoleer loaded with lipsticks of many shades.  Armed and ready to do battle, this Beauty Queen is the perfect cover image for this book.  It says it all and young ladies will pick it up.

From Reading List: Best Fiction for Young Adults (YALSA) nominee 2012

Hello, boys & girls…Th1rteen R3asons Why is now in paperback

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher; published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, New York, 2007 (paperback edition, June 2011); 288 pages (hardcover edition).

What would you think if a package arrived for you with no return address?  Secret admirer?  A gift, just because?  You probably wouldn’t expect what Clay Jensen found in his anonymous box.  “Hello, boys and girls,” her voice from the grave, or so it seems.  Hannah Baker committed suicide just days ago, but a shoe box with 13 recorded sides of audio tapes has been delivered to Clay.  As he listens to Hannah, he discovers that he is but one of 13 people who will listen to Hannah’s suicide note.  All the events that snowballed out of her control are revealed.  All of the reasons why she took her life are tortuously exposed in her own words.  What will Clay take away from this experience?  What will you?

It was hard to read this book as an adult.  I know that all the events that piled up, one after the other, on Hannah’s shoulders should have been survivable.  She should have confided in an adult, someone she could trust with the whole truth.  But I also remember what it was like to feel responsible for other people’s choices, to bear the burden of guilt that was not mine.  Compound that with a preponderance of bullying (in words and actions) and the burden could seem unbearable.  Jay Asher has captured that helplessness in a compelling read, sure to spark conversations.  Hopefully, some of those conversations are between hopeless/helpless young adults and trusted adults.  Asher and the publisher have included a suicide hotline phone number and website in the book (I reviewed the hardcover, so I don’t know if it’s included in the paperback edition just released).  “Need to talk?”  1.800.SUICIDE and www.hopeline.com are on the back jacket flap.

In addition to the suicide hotline, other Web resources connected to the book are available, including a discussion guide with talking points (http://www.thirteenreasonswhy.com/im/pdfs/tl-guide-13-reasons-why-color-1.pdf).  Also visit the book’s dedicated Web page (http://www.thirteenreasonswhy.com/); read “Hannah’s” blog, Hannah’s Reasons (http://hannahsreasons.blogspot.com/); and participate in the 13RW Project (13 Reasons Why) here: http://www.13rwproject.com/#/reviews/220).

As for the book itself, I was immediately listening with Clay’s and Hannah’s voices in my head.  I guess that’s what the author intended, since he based the books on a set of cassettes!  At first I wondered if young adults would “get” the use of pause, stop and play icons that I’m used to seeing on tape decks, but (duh!) they’re the same icons used on CD and MP3 players.  Anyway, incorporating the icons into the body of the text gave me context clues for what Clay was doing, or who was currently narrating, without having to muddy the rhythm of the story with such mundane statements as, “Clay paused the Walkman to consider Hannah’s latest accusation,” or whatever Asher would’ve resorted to writing.  Very seamless way to progress the story.

Kudos to Jay Asher on his debut.  It was a quick read that also made me pause and think; a hard achievement by any author!

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 9+

Cover art: Hannah is sitting on a playground swing looking rather ghostly in her beige ensemble.  The significance of the playground is explained at the beginning and throughout the book.  The use of what appears to be tape labels is a clever way of adding the title and author to the cover.  Interesting art that will probably encourage teens to pick it up and read the description (that is, if they haven’t already heard of the book and the forthcoming movie).

From Reading Lists: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) 2008, Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers (YALSA) 2008

Yin and yang of Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan; published by Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, New York, 2010; 310 pages.

We’ve all Googled ourselves to see how many people have the same name, right?  Well, for Will Grayson, there are at least two in the Chicagoland area, at least in this collaborative novel by superstar authors Green & Levithan.  Each author has created a Will Grayson; one straight, one gay, both angsty teens.  A chance encounter in a most unexpected location leads the pair, and a wonderful cast of friends and family, through a painful but ultimately redeeming journey for love.  But not romantic love necessarily, but “love” in the neighborhood sense, in the familial and friendly sense.  In terms of unconditional “being there” for one another.  And the standing ovation at the end of the book just might have you standing, applauding, too.

Ah, my experience with collaborative books is not great.  I don’t really enjoy reading them.  Too often, the author’s disparate voices detract from the storytelling.  To get around that issue, Levithan and Green each speak, in alternating chapters, as one of the Will Graysons.  We start with Green’s Grayson: straight, two parents at home, close friends, and struggling with typical teen troubles.  Then we shift to Levithan’s Will: gay, single-parent family, struggling financially, and written in all lower-case (to express his depression & self-esteem issues).  As their paths cross, the storylines cross and we see both sides of their journey.  Immediately, I was sucked into their stories, wondering how their paths would cross.  Both characters were accessible from the start; I was a little concerned about the depths of depression Levithan wrote about, but the further I read, the more understanding I had for his biological and environmental triggers.

Really, this collaboration works.  It works as a story.  More importantly, it works to compare the lives of young men whose lives aren’t really that different after all; they just approach problems from different perspectives.   In the end, aren’t we all looking for unconditional love from those closest to us?

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 10 and up

Cover Art: Eh, a burst of red light from a black background, not really an attention-getter.  But I had to do a double-take to see if the title was just Will Grayson or if was doubled as the type was superimposed.  (All the intriguing background images DID NOT pop on my library copy as they do in this picture of the cover).  IMHO, I think the authors’ reputations will put this book into the most hands.

From Reading Lists: Sexual Identity, Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) nominee 2010

Summer adventure is As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins; published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2010; 352 pages.

Listen to Lynne Rae Perkins read an excerpt! http://www.teachingbooks.net/book_reading.cgi?id=4485&a=1

Download the Reading Guide from HarperCollins: http://files.harpercollins.com/PDF/ReadingGuides/0061870900.pdf

Fifteen year old Ry is anxious to get to the Summer ArchaeoTrails Program, but he’s also anxious to stay wired.  So after he disembarks from the train to find a cell phone signal, he is, well, alarmed to see the train move away, well before the estimated 40 minute break was over.  Now what?  Stranded in a desert in Montana, he starts to hike.  His feet take him to a small town where he finds Del.  Del is anxious for an adventure too.  So together they hit the road, in Del’s modified Willys, to get Ry home to Wisconsin.  When Ry’s grandfather fails to answer his phone, and Del and Ry find a mystery at home, the duo head for the Caribbean to try to locate Ry’s parents, who are on a “rekindle the marriage” cruise on a sailboat, island hopping.  The adventures of Del and Ry, perhaps a modern-day Don Quixote and Pancho (or Homer’s Odysseus?), are an extreme coming of age story with many comical twists.  As the book jacket teases: “Train. Car.  Plane.  Boat.  Feet.  He’ll get there.  Won’t he?”

This book is a must-read.  Perkins’ sense of humor takes the edge off dangerous situations this teen finds himself trying to survive.  I kept trying to categorize it; is it like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?  Or maybe a more down-to-earth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  In the end, I felt it was a genre unto itself, but with a teen twist on Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey; or even an American traveling a Quixotic  path.  At its core, this is an epic coming of age story.

I kept thinking that I’d recommend this as a read-alike for Shift (Jennifer Bradbury) and Peak (Roland Smith).  Perkins has won the Newbery Medal (for Criss Cross) and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s up for the Michael Printz Award for this one.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 7-11

Cover art: Train tracks, Caribbean blue water, a line art plane and a teen boy caught mid-air in his jump; might not mean much until you close the cover, but it should be just interesting enough to lure readers who haven’t heard of this book.

From Reading List: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) nominee 2011

Finnikin of the Rock is character-driven fantasy

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2010; 399 pages.

The idyllic life of a child in a wondrous kingdom seems like magic.  In the case of Finnikin and his royal playmates, it was magic.  Magic was all around them in the form of goddesses, healers, priest-kings, silver wolves and unicorns.  In an act of innocence, three boys swore a blood oath to protect their kingdom of Lumatere.  Then life as they knew it was shattered by a coup de tat by a neighboring kingdom.  It was a holocaust. In its aftermath, a curse entombed the kingdom; no one could leave and no one could enter.  Fast-forward 10 years, and Finnikin is keeping his part of the oath–to act as guide to bring those in exile together again.  On his journey, he is led by a novice of one of the kingdom’s goddesses.  What she has to offer, and what she hides, is enough to complete Finnikin and his quest and maybe heal the kingdom.

What happens on their journey will keep you on the edge of your seat.  I knew I was in for an epic fantasy when I opened the cover to find a map of Lumatere on the end pages.  As I continued into the book, I was met by the poem “If This Is a Man” by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.  Then more detailed maps of the Land of Skuldenore and Lumatere followed.  Hmm, a map of a new world juxtaposed with a reference to real history.  This is going to be an interesting book.

If that’s enough to scare you off, if you think you don’t like fantasy, you’re missing out on one of the best books I’ve read in this genre.  Marchetta excels at developing well-rounded characters.  While I think of fantasy as relying on new worlds and mind-blowing magic, Marchetta has created a fantasy based on characters, not worlds.  Their vendettas, and loves, are believable and carried me through the beginning of the book where I struggled to keep friends and enemies straight.  By the time I closed the back cover, I looked upon the map of Lumatere on the end pages and pieces of the story flashed through my mind just as I would remember the history of Europe or the United States.

This is a book that crosses genders (the real hero protagonist just might be the novice).  Girls need to be coerced to pick this up.  This is a book that crosses the generation gap.  Adults will be clamoring to read it as well.  I’ve read some buzz urging Marchetta to continue the story, but I think this book needs to stand on its own; I think its strength would be diluted by a sequel.

To sum up my review of the book in less than five words: I. Was. Blown. Away.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 9+

Cover art: The cover looks like its the story of the Sword in the Stone.  Don’t let the sword or the font fool you.  This is a phenomenal fantasy that’s built around fully developed characters–especially a remarkable female protagonist.

From Reading Lists: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) nominee 2011, The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

Heavens to Murgatroyd, Countdown is hard to classify

Countdown: The Sixties Trilogy, Book One by Deborah Wiles; published by Scholastic, New York, 2010; 377 pages.

Fall of 1962.  Khrushchev and Kennedy are in a Bay of Pigs stand-off.  Tension is mounting.  At school, Bert the Turtle is reminding children to “Duck and Cover” in case the Soviets bomb the neighborhood.  Franny Chapman, a fifth grader, is struggling with her own fears.  Her family is new to the Washington, D.C. suburb so friendships are a fragile commodity.  Her father is a fighter pilot in charge of protecting Airforce One and the President of the United States; her mother is overly concerned with appearances and polite society; sister Jo Ellen is a college student that disappears; and brother Drew is  a third grader aspiring to be an astronaut.  Uncle Otts, her pseudo-grandfather, is struggling with issues that seem like a cross between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alzheimer’s.  Heavens to Murgatroyd, it’s enough to send a girl into a bunker for a lifetime.  So much is going on in Franny’s life!

OK, so enough about the storyline.  There is deep, rich history interspersed, real primary sources (like transcripts of actual broadcasts and photographs) and tastes of the time (like song lyrics and biographies of important politicians and musicians).  How do you categorize a book like this?  Wiles describes it as a documentary novel and I like that; I’d go so far as to add “edutaining” documentary novel to the descriptor.

For me, Countdown reads like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Green Glass Sea. The end pages are rippled, like the grooves in an old lp or 45 recording.  Often the concentric circles, like on an old record or even like sound waves, are used in the graphics behind the non-fiction portions of the book.  Portrait photographs, images of the ships surrounding Cuba,  song lyrics, biographies, transcripts, all work together to set the historical backdrop of Franny’s story.  I had to read the book twice to squeeze out all the information and entertainment I could get.  If it were up to me, I’d quickly add this book to the short list for the Newbery Medal.

Although Countdown is nominated for YALSA’s 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults, I’m not sure how I’d categorize this book.  It’s like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret; written, perhaps, for an upper-elementary to early middle school crowd, but certainly appealing to young adults.  With its “documentary novel” style, this book works for a very wide-range of readers.  So, sorry for cross-posting from the children’s book review blog, but I have to agree with YALSA, this book is phenomenal fiction for young adults.

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 4-12+

Cover Art: With an old 45 on the cover, will today’s youth get the cover?  And what in the world does “countdown” refer to?  Billboard’s Top 40?  Moments until World War III?  Between the bright yellow background, cryptic title and archaic record, I think the cover generates enough interest for young adults unfamiliar with the book to pick it up and give it a try.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction) and Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) nominee for 2011.

Treat yourself to Hamburger Halpin

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk; published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010; 248 pages.

High school is hard.  It’s hard to fit in and harder to stay “in” once you are in.  Take the tale of Will “Hamburger” Halpin.  He’s been an outsider ever since his hearing quietly faded into nothingness.  He learned how to lip-read and that would seem to be a superpower in the world of the school bus.  After a little battle about “normal” at his school for the hearing impaired, Will chooses to go mainstream at the local high school–local as in coal country Pennsylvania.  While riding the bus, he gets the back stories of many of his peers; who’s in the “in” crowd and who’s on the outs, the freaks, and geeks, and outsiders like himself.  After a disaster on a class field trip to the local mine, Hamburger Halpin and his new buddy “Smileyman” use their individual super-sleuthing powers to solve the crime.  They even find a way to solve a century-old family mystery and figure out a little bit about high school dynamics while they’re at it.

Nothing I can say can prepare you for this laugh-out-loud-but-sometimes-darkly-deep book.  If you’ve read Fat Kid Rules the World, you have a nodding acquaintance with Will Halpin as he has so much in common with Troy “Big T” Billings.  But where Troy’s world is edgy New York City, Will’s world is rural PA.  My overall impression is that these two books are read-alikes, with Berk’s story a little less urban than Going’s tale.

For a debut YA novel, Berk has hit a home run.  He has captured the humor and angst that teens face daily as they posture for position in an ever-changing social environment.  A little mystery, a lot of self-discovery, and a pinch of voyeurism make this an easy read, and a tale that just might stay with you for awhile.

On a personal note: YAY!  Josh Berk is the son of two librarians and is a librarian himself (according to information on his website and on the jacket flap).  Go, Librarians!  Keep using your superpowers!

4P     5Q     Grade Level 9-12+

Cover Art: Ah, to my big complaint.  One review I read before picking up this book led me to believe that this might be a good read for reluctant readers and middle schoolers.  After looking at the cover, I thought this book was more on the middle school reading level.  Then I read the book.  This is definitely a book for high schoolers who will best relate to the characters, situations and political innuendo (OK, I’m referring to the casino issue and the Chambers family).  So who approved the cover of this book?  It may turn off the right readers and appeal to the wrong ones.  As Ranganathan said, “Every book its reader;” this cover may prohibit that from happening.

From Reading List: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA), nominee 2010

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