YA authors share all sides of issue in Dear Bully

Dear Bully edited by Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall; published by Harper Teen, 2011; 384 pages.

In this anthology, 70 authors share their stories of bullying, whether from the perspective of the perpetrator, victim, or silent bystander.  Authors range from R. L. Stine, Jon Scieszka and Mo Willems to Michelle Zink, Lauren Oliver, Ellen Hopkins and Cynthia Leitich Smith.  All tales are brief (about two pages) and heartfelt; some lay painfully naked on the page.  In the end, all angles of the subject have been explored.

So many of the tales made me want to cry.  Even the remorse expressed by authors who did the bullying was moving.  Sometimes an author offers concrete advice (like R. L. Stine’s use of humor) and sometimes the author just lets victims know that it does get better.  Sometimes an author who thought they were never bullied reflected on a pattern of verbal abuse (read about the ramifications of sexting) and now realize they’d been victimized.  Some authors were bullies and regret is desperately, as do many who were silent witnesses to bullying.

The main lesson I took from reading the book is that bullying affects everyone and it’s often overlooked or excused.  With so many schools addressing bullying head on, with zero tolerance policies, this is a must-have book for libraries (public and school).  Guidance counselors would be well advised to keep a copy in their offices.  Teens will surely flip to the accounts of their favorite authors and will hopefully read on.

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 8+

Cover Art: We all know teens are attracted to covers with faces.  This one is compelling because of the face with the overlay of contributors names: intimating that we all have to take responsibility for this pandemic.

From Reading List: Too Good to Be True Nonfiction


My Thirteenth Winter throws open all the windows for a look into LD

My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel; published by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., New York, 2003; 203 pages.

Readers may know Samantha Abeel from her book of poetry, Reach for the Moon, published when she was just 15 years old. Following reviews of that collection, Abeel discovered that her story of overcoming a learning disability, dyscalculia, was a struggle, journey and triumph she could share with a diverse audience. Dealing with the social, educational, and personal ramifications of identifying and dealing with a disability is a story that will obviously touch a sympathetic nerve in others dealing with learning differences.  But, educators, parents and peers can also gain insight into a world they can only imagine. Abeel’s gift with words pulls readers along her torturous path from a world of nightly terror worrying about not being able to cope the next day to color-coded planner to get through every day. With the support of family and professionals, especially a counselor with tips for coping with disability and depression, Abeel ends her memoir as a 25 year old who is “for the most part, just like everyone else.”

As the parent of two kids with various degrees of learning differences, I relished Abeel’s account of her struggles and triumphs. A mom can only get so much “truth” from her own children.  Thanks to this young woman’s courage to tell the whole truth, I think I have a better understanding of the daily hurdles my kids may face.  I think other parents would feel the same way.  I think educators should be assigned this book for an in-service day discussion, to help identify students that may have fallen through the cracks, those with disabilities who have found coping mechanisms.  I also think this book should be required reading for high school students, perhaps summer reading with a paper due on the first day of school in which each student writes about his/her learning struggles or about the struggles of someone they know.

Abeel and her mother travel to schools to talk about their journey, seeking help and overcoming obstacles.  After reading the book, I’d be interested in hearing them talk.  You can read more about them at Samantha Abeel’s official Web page: http://www.samanthaabeel.com/.

By the way, the book was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award for teens in January, 2005.  The Schneider Family Book Awards “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”  You can read more about the award, and view lists of award winners, here: http://www.ala.org/ala/awardsgrants/awardsrecords/schneideraward/schneiderfamily.cfm

2P     4Q     Grade Level: 8 and up (for adults also)

Cover Art: The image of a face (the author’s?) appears to be on the other side of a rain-beaten window pane.  That’s the first clue that this is the story of someone that exists “on the other side.”  Perhaps that image, along with the fact that this is a memoir, will generate interest in the title.  Frankly, I think this book will have to be pointed out to a young adult for them to read it.  I found it in the adult biographies at my local library.

From Reading List: Too Good to Be True Nonfiction

Where to put Inside Out?

Inside Out: Portrait of An Eating Disorder written and illustrated by Nadia Shivack; published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, New York, 2007.

Nadia Shivack documented her relationship with ED (her nickname for her eating disorder) by sketching on napkins and other scraps of paper.  In therapy, she discovered that distracting her disturbing thoughts could quiet ED enough to slowly develop a healthier relationship with food; so a friend gave her colored pencils and the sketching began.  Still recovering and struggling today, she chose to share her tumultuous journey with others.

The result is a simple book that is misleadingly complex and emotional.  Her straight-from-the-hip text reveals her struggles, flaws and strengths in a few well-chosen words.  Jarring facts about eating disorders are included.  But the most impact comes from the sketches, cartoons with inner dialog that chilled me to the bone.  The genius of this book lies in the unflinching way Shivack shares her demon.

This book is totally well-designed.  Shivack’s narration is reverse printed, white on black, a hint that this book is coming from the dark depths of her existence.  All-caps are used for the facts, in goldenrod boxes; no mistaking this is intended to get attention.  Caribbean blue end papers and sunshiny yellow pages mislead the readers into thinking this is a bright, happy story of youth.  Then the images are examined closely, and the horrors that eat away from the inside are revealed.  When combined, this is a truly powerful way of depicting something that cannot be comprehended by outsiders.

The book is designed like a graphic novel.  In fact, I stumbled across the book by accident in a display of graphic novels (and it is in fact cataloged as a graphic novel at the library where I picked it up).  I think that is a terrible injustice to the young adults (and adults) that need to hear this story.  This book belongs in non-fiction, next to other books about eating disorders.  With a couple of quick searches, I discovered that another local library shelved it in adult nonfiction; a third library did put it in young adult nonfiction alongside other books on anorexia, bulemia and other eating disorders.

This book needs to be paired with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls to flesh out (sorry) Lia’s agonies.  (Read my review.)  Use pathfinders, read-alike lists, displays, whatever is needed to get this book into the hands of teens.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 6-12+

Cover Art: The author’s colorful sketches are portrayed on paper that has been creased, crumpled, and ripped.  Big time ripped.  A big clue that this is a story of dysfunction.  The graphic novel appearance and Shivack’s art will certainly catch young adult eyes.

From Reading List: Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers (YALSA) 2008, Too Good to Be True Nonfiction

Charles and Emma: evolution of a love story

Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman; published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009; 268 pages.

Charles Darwin is known for rocking the scientific community (and the religious community as well) with his theories on evolution.  But what is known of the man?  Heiligman’s biography approaches the question “Who was Charles Darwin?” by exploring his marriage.  Rather late in life, by Victorian standards, Charles married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood (yes, of pottery fame).  Theirs was a marriage of absolute love and adoration.  But they had divergent opinions on science and religion.  For Darwin, his wife’s intelligence was the foil he needed to focus his attention to the details that support his theory, that answer most questions critics posed.  Theirs was a long, happy and fruitful union.

Heiligman does an outstanding job of making the scientific giant into a man.  Her respect for both Charles and Emma are not masked, but then their respect for each other overarched their philosophical differences.  In addition, intimate details of Darwin’s work are included and made me feel as though I was standing in the Darwin home, Down House.  Of course the photos included in the book help with the illusion.  But descriptions of everyday items create more vivid images.  For example, whenever Heiligman describes entries in Darwin’s alphabetically categorized journals, she mentions what was in the margins, what color the lines and ink are, and what the journal covers look like.  These details not only put the reader into Darwin’s study, they also confirm the author’s extensive research and authority on the subject.

Other details help to send me back to Darwin’s time.  Each chapter is decorated with Victorian embellishment: a decorative arch featuring a cross and a beetle in the rosettes.  How clever to incorporate the crux of the “leap of faith” that Charles and Emma took when they married.  In addition, the choice of titular fonts is old fashioned and the body text is also reminiscent of an old text.  Starting each chapter with a brief quote by either Charles or Emma (from books and correspondence) also helps secure our trust in the authority of the author.

My only criticism of the book is that it is randomly patronizing.  For text that uses the word “dilettante” without a definition (other than context clues), I found seemingly random passages that were patronizing and simple.  Perhaps the clearest example is:

“Soon Horace, the youngest boy, would go to school, too, and then it would be just the two girls at home.  The girls did not go to school, but learned at home and, according to Etty, had a spotty education.  But that was how it was done in many upper class Victorian families: the boys went to school, and the girls stayed home.” (p. 203)

Seriously, we get it.  The girls stayed home.  Did we have to have it spelled out twice, even after we assumed they didn’t go to school, as is inferred in the first sentence?  I guess this is a minor complaint, but I can just hear a few of my book club kids pointing this out.

This aside, I think that those same young adults will find this an enjoyable non-fiction account of Victorian life and the pre-modern scientific community.  Heiligman’s explanation of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species is brilliantly developed and subtly dispels many misconceptions about Darwin’s theory of evolution.  As such, it is a must-have book for all libraries, school libraries especially.

Is it any wonder that the book has been honored repeatedly?  School Library Journal gave the book a starred review and included it in their  list of “Best Books 2009;” YALSA awarded it honors for Excellence in Nonfiction, 2010;  and the book was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for 2010.

2P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover Art: The silhouettes of Charles and Emma on aged parchment are old-fashioned and wouldn’t be eye-catching except for the ape walking on two legs behind Charles and Emma’s cross dangling from her hands.  Is that enough to interest teens?  Yeah, it’s kinda funny, but I don’t think most will “get” it nor will it generate interest.  This is going to have to be assigned or recommended.

From Reading List: Too Good to Be True Nonfiction

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind…creating currents of electricity and hope

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2009; 270 pages.

Kamkwamba’s autobiography (written with Bryan Mealer) is more than the story of a boy who brought electricity to his rural African village.  His struggles against poverty, famine, and politics give insight into the bigger struggles in Malawi.  His vignettes of daily life, interwoven with tales of magic and history told by his father, illuminate the remarkable differences in life in Africa compared to our lives of relative ease in the West.  Overall, his perseverance to find solutions to problems big and small underline the importance of hope, education and problem-solving.

I had a hard time getting into the rhythm of this book.  I enjoyed learning about life on a continent I will probably never visit.  I cheered for William to overcome overwhelming odds.  I was especially moved that he cherished books and parlayed his book-learning into real-world solutions.  But I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was listening to a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing.  It was like William dictated a bunch of stories to Mealer and then Mealer organized the vignettes into a timeline.

For teens that like to read in short bursts, this book would be right up their alley since it’s easy to set down after a story or two.  I also think this is invaluable to teach life in another world, almost like another time.  Perhaps this is the reason the book won an Alex Award for 2010.

2P     2Q     Grade Level: 10-12+

Cover Art: The yellow background is eye-catching.  Adding the sketched windmill with a photo of Kamkwamba is intriguing.  Perhaps the combination of the art and the title will appeal to teens.  I personally loved the subtitle: “Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope.”

From Reading List: Alex Award winner (adult books that appeal to young adults), Too Good to Be True Nonfiction

Plague! (or, not “mellow yellow”)

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793; by Jim Murphy; published by Clarion Books, New York, 2003; 139 pages.

If you’ve ever wondered why communities spray for mosquitoes, this story will explain it in historically gripping detail.  Murphy employs primary documents, such as diaries, letters and newspaper articles, as well as extensive research in other print sources, to paint a portrait of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793.  Aside from the catastrophic number of deaths and debilitating illness, the “plague” shut down the fledgling United States federal government.  Philadelphia was the nation’s capital at the time, and with death creeping toward the President and Congress from the dockside streets, almost all government officials fled the city.  According to the Constitution, Congress could not be convened outside of the capital, which essentially crippled the federal government.  Human nature was put under a microscope as well, with  greed and selfishness juxtaposed with selfless service to other.  Indeed, even the medical profession struggled with limited knowledge and out-dated science.  But the epidemic helped to ignite a medical revolution of sorts, encouraging exploration for explanations outside of generally accepted science.  Of course the epidemic was a horrific tragedy in U.S. history, but many things we take for granted today, like knowing how to treat bacterial and viral infections, and how to spray to kill off disease-carrying mosquitoes, owe their existence to the tragedy of 1793.

If Jim Murphy wrote the history books used in schools, social studies grades would be outrageously high across the country.  His accessible language presents facts in an entertaining way.  I applaud his seamless inclusion of information from primary sources.  Quoting eyewitnesses to an event 200 years ago makes the story more real.  I can see why Murphy was selected as the 2010 winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award; I can’t wait to read more of this non-fiction accounts!  The book was also a Newbery Honor book (2004), a Sibert Award winner (2004), NCTE Orbis Pictus Award winner, a YALSA “Best Books for Young Adults” title, among other honors.

I can think of several ways to use this book.  First, I think it’s a no-brainer to pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, 1793. Also, I’d use it to support journaling.  Why keep a diary?  Well, because 200 years from now, an author may use it to describe life in the early 21st Century!  Hmmm, I wonder if I need to print and bind my blogs, or will someone finally figure out how to archive/preserve the ‘net?

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 7-12+ (I found this in adult nonfiction at my local library; not sure I agree with that!)

Cover Art: The cover simulates the broadsides of the 18th century.  In my mind, there’s no question that this is a nonfiction book.  The cover alone will not encourage young adults to pick up the book; it’ll have to be recommended reading.

From Reading List: Margaret A. Edwards Award (2010)

Ana’s Story offers hope against all odds

Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope by Jenna Bush; published by HarperCollins, New York, 2007; 290 pages.

While documenting the lives of children in Central America, Jenna Bush met Ana.  So taken by her courageous resilience, Jenna spent months interviewing the teenager.  The result is this work of narrative non-fiction.  Ana’s story could be set in any country, with children of every race, and that is why Ms. Bush chose to publish the story.  Ana’s early childhood was marked by profound loss: first, a baby sister, then her mother and then her father all died from HIV/AIDS.  As if that wasn’t enough tragedy for one child, Ana soon learned that she was also infected.  While living with her grandmother, she and her younger sister were raped by their grandmother’s live-in boyfriend.  Physical abuse followed Ana from her grandmother’s house to the home of her aunt.  She finally tried to escape the abuse but ended up in a reformatory.  There she met Berto, a young man living with HIV/AIDS; when he transferred to a home for AIDS patients, he arranges for Ana to join him there.  Ana relishes the family-like atmosphere but she cannot stay after she gets pregnant.  Remarkably, motherhood brings Ana the strength to stand up for herself and find a better life for herself and her baby.  The book ends with the disclaimer that Ana’s life is a work in progress so the story cannot have a pat ending.

I found the book on the brink of being patronizingly simplified.  The brief chapters, sometimes no longer than a paragraph, were off-putting.  Some of the vocabulary was ill-chosen, maybe making a horrific situation palatable.  However, when I consider that the audience for this book should be the children and young adults that are in similar situations of sexual and physical abuse, I think the book is intended as a high interest-low vocabulary offering.

Two aspects of this book pleasantly surprised me.  First, the exhaustive resources that round out the volume are impressive.  Opportunities to find help are offered to those in abusive situations.  But what impressed me were the resources for readers who know of someone in a similar situation, or for those who are moved by Ana’s story.  I strongly urge all librarians to include this book in resources about abuse, incest, rape, bullying and similar acts of violence against teens.

Secondly, the photographs by Mia Baxter added impact to Bush’s sometimes simple text.  Much of the despair of Ana’s early situation is depicted in the images, but Baxter’s photos also hinted at hope through color and the capture of celebrations.  A deeper understanding of life in impoverished Central America can be garnered in each image.  These photos could stand alone, but in this case they enhance the story, telling part of Ana’s story that Bush’s words can’t convey.

3P     4Q (for a specific audience)     Grade Level: 7-12

AnasStoryCover Art: The partial profile of “Ana” and the bright red, sweeping font on the white cover will generate interest for males and females alike.  The same font, in red, on the white spine also stood out on the shelves; I was browsing and spotted it right away and decided to read it.

From Reading List: Too Good to Be True Nonfiction

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