The Fault in Our Stars complex, tragic, hopeful love story

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; published by Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, 2012; 313.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a typical 16 year old: obsessed with reality TV and obsessed with finding out what happens to secondary characters in her favorite novel.  One major difference between her and her friends is that she’s post-Miracle, having earned a few extra years from her terminal cancer diagnosis by an unexpected trial medication.  Her mom keeps her social life “active” by taking her to a cancer kid support group at a local church.  It is during a group session that she meets Augustus Waters, former high school basketball star with a prosthetic leg thanks to osteosarcoma.  Their love story packs in a lifetime of memories in the time they have left together.

A love story where the boy and girl meet at Cancer Kid Support Group can’t be good, right?  Oh, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters live more in between the covers of this book than most people live in a life that runs decades.  John Green’s genius is that he misdirects us from the cancer with a touching, fully realized love story between a boy and a girl as well as their quest for the answers left unwritten in their favorite novel.  I rarely cry while reading novels.  This is only the second story that has brought me to tears in the last four years.  Beware, you may need a box of tissues for this one, even though the story is never maudlin.

Once again, I find myself struggling to do justice to a book in a review.  Like Amy Goldman Koss’ Side Effects, I was not anxious to read a book about a teenager with cancer.  But just like the first book, Green’s story transcends the tragic and brings the essence of a life well-lived into focus.  Do. Not. Miss. This. Book.

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 10+

ImageCover Art: Blue, black and white with a splash of yellow; not much graphic to recommend the book.  But don’t let the cover fool you.  Pick this one up!

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction), Survival in Love, War or Sports

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SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: I’ll Be There

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 393 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: May 17, 2011.

Synchronicity: noun /ˌsiNGkrəˈnisitē/  1. The simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. (Google dictionary definition)

Emily Bell has a terrible singing voice; why does her father insist she sing the Jackson 5’s hit single “I’ll Be There” as a solo at church?  Sam Border has spent his life as a vagrant at the mercy of his father’s mental illness, so why does he go to church on Sundays?  As she sings her terrifying solo, Emily finds an emotional connection to the strange young man in the last row.  Their paths are destined to cross again, and in a big way.  As Sam and Emily grow close, his secret life is harder to hide.  First, he introduces his little brother, Riddle, to the Bell family.  Then Bobby Ellis, a rival for Emily’s affections, discovers where the Borders live.  Sam’s father’s voice-inside-his-head warns him to pack up and leave with the boys.  With the help of a cast of strangers who embody synchronicity, Sam and Riddle’s lives are about to change forever.

I’m afraid my description of the story does not do it justice.  Some books stay with me long after I’ve closed the back cover; this is one of them.  Sloan’s sense of humor and light touch belie a very stirring story of loss and belonging.  With a gentle touch, she introduces secondary characters who change the course of Sam and Riddle’s lives by choosing to do the right thing.  Even Sam’s extraordinary musical gift is tied to his survival.  The author’s screen-writing background is evident in her character and plot development, but it’s her skill at using a light touch to portray heavy themes that wins my admiration.

Think you know what “family” is?  I’ll Be There may just challenge your preconceptions.  Fans of realistic fiction, and anyone that enjoys a well-crafted story, will devour this book.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover Art: I reviewed a special advance reading copy that arrived in a plain brown wrapper.  The art from the publisher’s website is unimpressive.  The colors are attractive but the image does nothing to pique interest or depict the story.  Maybe I’m thinking in terms of movie posters (given the author’s credentials) because I expected so much more from the cover art.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction), ARC (advance reading copy)

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

Peace, Love and Baby Ducks

Peace, Love and Baby Ducks by Lauren Myracle; published by Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Group, New York, 2009; 289 pages.

Carly is a child of privilege and wealth.  She abhors it.  Instead of a summer job at the local country club, Carly works hard in Tennessee; seriously physical labor.  When she returns to her affluent Atlanta home, with her dashiki and Jesus sandals, she is shocked to see her little sister (Anna) has developed, as in turned “hot.”  All the boys are now drawn to Anna, and even Carly’s friends seem to be drawn to Anna.  Enter a new boy, old friends, and a fairly dysfunctional family, and Carly’s sophomore year at the private Christian school promises to be memorable.

This coming of age story finds Carly struggling with her identity, a kind of cognitive dissonance between what she has, what she wants and what’s “real” for her.  Lauren Myracle has created a character that could be the girl next door: income aside, most girls struggle with defining themselves, like Carly.  Her unique tastes in clothes and music help us to know her.  Not everyone will make the same choices as Carly, but knowing that they can make choices and that it’s okay to stick up for who you are, make this book a valuable addition to the realistic fiction must-read lists.

Taking a cue from the title, Myracle has divided the book into sections: Peace; Love; and Baby Ducks.  Themes of what it means to be an individual, sibling rivalry, and where to draw the line in friendship are explored in each.  Screened images head each chapter: either a peace sign, heart or rubber duckies, depending on the section.  Cute touch, but not the reason I like this book.  Lauren Myracle is gifted with a teen tongue as she writes like teens talk (well, the teens in my book club; or sitting at Starbucks, like, talking; or hanging at my house with my own adolescents).  This gift makes her books accessible to teens as an easy read; her ability to realistically address coming of age issues is icing on the cake.  I don’t think boys will be flocking to read this one; but girls with a wide variety of reading preferences should enjoy the book.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 7-10

Cover Art: The cute images of a peace sign, heart and trio of rubber duckies replace the words on the cover.  The graphic designs, on a white background, will most definitely appeal to the intended audience.  Blocks of color (red and white) with reverse type and the trio of ducks adorn the spine, helping the book stand out in the stacks.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

Unexpected Side Effects

Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss; published by Roaring Brook Press (A Deborah Brodie Book), New York, 2006; 143 pages.

Izz. Izzy-pie. Izz-a-Smell. Lizard. Moon Child. Lymphomaniac.  All nicknames for 15 year old Izzy Miller, kid with cancer.  Side Effects is a six month glimpse of life for a teen who goes from normal teenager with swollen glands to oncology patient on chemotherapy.  But it’s also a snapshot of how family, friends, and classmates cope with her illness.  Izzy often feels that she is keeping them all from falling apart.  Well, everyone but Andy Siegel (why hadn’t she ever noticed him at school before?).  Do all stories about kids with cancer end with their deaths?  Of course not.

I took my time picking up this book.  I wondered why it was selected for the Reading and Writing Festival, a day-long event at Kent State University for seventh and eighth graders.  Shouldn’t middle schoolers still be reading Newbery winners, books with happy endings and stories with strong parental figures?  But my daughter convinced me to read Side Effects before she has to return it.  I am so glad I did!  Koss’ characterization feels real, but is never maudlin; an amazing feat.  Her extensive research is obvious in the agonizing details of Izzy’s chemo experiences.  But Izzy’s determination to be a survivor keeps the story almost light-hearted.  My words just can’t do justice to this story.

Koss is the guest author at the 2010 Reading & Writing Festival.  As a youth services librarian, albeit unemployed, I wonder if I can participate?  Hmm, I think I’m going to read the rest of the books on the list and make a few phone calls to see if I can make it happen!

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 7-9 (and older with special interest or for “hi-lo” readers)

Cover Art: The stark white cover with orange and gray text are interesting, but the image of the back of a bald young lady in baggy pants in a victory stance makes the cover intriguing.  Definitely a cover that would make young adults pick up the book and read the back (which is orange with reverse type, also right on the mark for the teen audience).

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

Long shadows cast in Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska; published by Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 1964; 141 pages.

Manolo Olivar has lived in the shadow of one of Arcangel’s bravest matadors his whole life, only he didn’t know it until he turned 10 years old.  As the son of Juan Olivar, who was tragically killed by a bull at age 22, he is shadowed by six men who will train him for his matador’s test at age 12.  The dark shadow of cowardice darkens his days as he frets about his first encounter with a bull.  Expectations of his community and of the powerful Count de la Casa put enormous pressure on the boy.  In vivid contrast to Manolo is 14 year old Juan Garcia,  who dreams of being a matador; in fact, he is so sure of his future that he sneaks into fields at night and fights stud bulls in the dark.  His brave self-assuredness sends Manolo deeper into his personal shadows.  In the end, the boy finds sources of light in the local doctor who mentors him and in Castillo, the renowned bullfighting critic.  Both men teach Manolo that living in his father’s shadow is not his only option and that it takes a great deal of bravery to step into the light.

This coming of age story is still relevant more than 45 years after its publication.  What middle-schooler can’t relate to a boy that struggles against the expectations thrust upon him by his family and his community?  What child doesn’t struggle with creating his or her own identity?  Wojciechowska’s writing is elegant yet accessible as she casts Manolo in and out of the shadows.  For this reason, it is easy to understand why this book won the Newbery Medal in 1965.  However, understanding this generation of young adults leads me to believe that this book is not one they would choose to read on their own.  Perhaps an assigned read with accompanying discussions will help them appreciate the book.

I can imagine using this book in a social studies class when studying Spain or in conjunction with a Spanish course to put the language into a real-life situation.  The fact that the book includes a glossary of Spanish words, their pronunciation and definitions was enormously helpful and could spark a discussion about using language in real-world circumstances to make learning easier.  Also, the concept of understanding a culture by its pastimes should be discussed, as this could shed light on the perception of the sport as “cruel.”  The author did a remarkable job of explaining the sport’s place in history while also examining the cruelty to both bull and matador.

2P     5Q     Grade Level: 5-9

Cover Art: A bullfight on a red cover is destined to garner attention.

Suggested Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

This Willow won’t weep…yet

Willow by Julia Hoban; published by Dial Books, a member of the Penguin Group, New York, 2009; 329 pages.

Willow killed her parents, plain and simple; at least to her, it’s clear cut.  They were out to dinner, her parents wanted a second bottle of wine, and had her drive home in the pouring rain, and she only had her learner’s permit.  She survived the fatal crash, or did she?  Now she lives with her brother David, his wife, Cathy, and their baby, Isabelle.  In addition to her school obligations, high school junior Willow also works part-time at the university library.  One fateful afternoon, she meets Guy.  That is the turning point in her life.  They have so much in common…and an unusual bond.  Willow has learned to cope with her survivor’s guilt by cutting, and Guy finds out early in their friendship.  Although he feels responsible for her safety (he thinks she has been trying to commit suicide), Willow learns to trust him, care for him, and even allow him to bear some of the burden she feels.  As the book ends, she is able to cry (something that the cutting was meant to stifle) and to love again.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and the insight into a cutter’s mind, I thought the character of Guy was too good to be true.  However, in order to move the story along, I can understand that the author chose a single character to fulfill most of her protagonist’s needs; but will teen girls understand that this is not a typical situation?  In some regards, this book reminds me of the Twilight series in its unrealistic and unhealthy portrayal of relationships.  But Willow offers so much more, including a believable teen heroine.  Even if Guy is a bit too knight-in-shining-armor, the story of the lifestyle of a cutter is very interesting.  Another issue I had with the book was, I believe, my own problem.  I’ve read so many YA books lately that are written journal-style, from the protagonists’ point of view, that this third-person limited narrative was hard to adjust to.  I felt that sometimes the narrative was forced.  Perhaps writing the novel from Willow’s point of view would have overcome that issue; as it was, Willow was the focal character.

The theme of cutting worked its way into the cover art and the chapter headings.  The cover is a picture of a girl, partly hidden behind her hair, and the picture has been slashed and haphazardly reassembled.  The slashing marks are carried over at the beginning of each chapter as well.  After reading Wintergirls, I couldn’t help but compare the two stories of self-destructive behavior.  Willow‘s story flowed much easier for me; I did not stumble over piles of metaphors and similes.  However, I think Wintergirls‘ characters were more developed.  I enjoyed both books, but I think that teens, especially girls, will prefer the style and romance of Willow more.

4P     3Q     Grade Level: 8-12

willowCover Art: As stated earlier, the slashed image of the girl on the cover will definitely appeal to teens and generate interest.  In addition, the slashed type of the title on the spine was easy to read and discover from the books on the shelves.

Suggested Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

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