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: Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, art by Maira Kalman; published by Little, Brown and Co., New York, 2011; 354 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 publication date is December 27, 2011.

Dear Ed Slaterton,

We are breaking up.  In this box are all the stupid mementos I saved during our time together.  They all represent how happy, silly, and heartbreaking our time was.  They all tell how I found myself, lost you, and rediscovered my best friend.  They all tell you the reasons why we broke up.

Love Min Green.

Daniel Handler has crafted a soaring and sweet, crashing and burning then resurrecting story in the form of a long, rambling letter from the heartbroken to the heartbreaker.  Using the letter format is genius in this case.  The intimacy of reading a break-up letter, especially from the perspective of the heart-broken, makes the emotion palpable and most people will relate.  Add Maira Kalman’s illustrations of the items in the box, and it’s like sitting with a friend at the end of a doomed relationship (one you predicted would end horribly).

The ARC I received included color postcards featuring illustrations expected in the finished book.  Also included was a postcard to add a break up story to the Why We Broke Up Project.  Adding a story is much easier now that the dedicated website is up and running.  Anyone can add a personal story or eavesdrop on the stories of others, including celebrities like Neil Gaiman, Sara Zarr and Brian Selznick.   Check it out here: http://whywebrokeupproject.tumblr.com/.

The ARC was printed on glossy, heavy stock.  I loved the feel of the pages and hope the final product is similar.  The art, paper and font all work together, creating the illusion of reading a real letter.  The blood red cover, hand written title and author/illustrator attributions also feed the illusion.  Again, I hope it will be the final cover as it not only hints at the contents but also will be attractive to teens.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 10-12

Cover Art: As stated above, the color and font choices make this ARC cover ideal for the book and for reaching teens.  Let’s hope it’s the final art for the book.

From Reading List: Survival in Love War or Sports


20 Boy Summer review in honor of Banned Books Week

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler; published by Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2009; 290 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on a copy of the book provided for free by the publisher.

Anna, Frankie and Matt: Neighbors and best friends.  When Matt lets Anna know that she’s more than a friend to him, they swear to keep it a secret until Matt can figure a way to tell Frankie, his younger sister.  This little change could change their friendship forever.  Unfortunately, tragedy strikes as Matt dies in a car accident which leaves Frankie and Anna injured; Anna’s scars run deeper than anyone knows, however.  Matt’s family decides to return to their traditional family summer vacation spot, Zanzibar Bay, and they include Anna in their plans.  Frankie coaxes Anna into a 20 boy challenge (a boy for every day they spend on vacation) to rid Anna of her “albatross” and distract them from missing Matt.  While they may fall short of their goal, they will not come home without a shift in their friendship or in their plans for the future.

I was lucky to get a promotional copy from the publisher to review in the wake of the outrage over a Missouri school district banning the book (read about it here).  Twenty Boy Summer arrived the day before I left for my own family beach vacation so I packed it.  Then I devoured it in a day.  I admittedly hesitated opening the cover because I expected this to be a solicitous summer romp.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Ockler’s debut novel features fully developed characters and an emotionally charged plot that will appeal to older teens and adults alike.  By the way, I thought it was the perfect beach read.

There is sexual content.  There is alcohol use by teens.  There is profound grief, too.  Apparently, even in the context of the book, these were enough to get the book banned from a school library in Missouri.  Sarah Ockler responded on her website (read her comments here).  Thanks to efforts last year to save Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak among bloggers and Twitter devotees, and thanks to the efforts of ALA to bring attention to banning books during Banned Books Week, support for Twenty Boy Summer was overwhelming.  Whatever their reasons, the school district reversed the ban, sort of; students will need parental permission to check out this book as well as some others, including Slaughterhouse Five (read about it here).

Check out this book trailer created by a young adult for Twenty Boy Summer.

Like the sea glass that plays a significant symbolic role in the book, our hearts are fragile but more resilient than we expect.  So are teens.  If you’re concerned about this or any book, read it and discuss it.  I bet you’ll be surprised at what you find out.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 10+

Cover art: The heart shape made of sea glass on a weathered floorboard is beautiful and hints at the content.  I think the buzz about banning the book will get more attention than the cover, however.

From Reading List: Survival in Love, War or Sports

Adam tells us Where She Went in sequel

Where She Went by Gayle Forman; published by Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Group, New York, 2011; 260 pages.

SPOILER ALERT! This book is the sequel to If I Stay. If you have not read the first book, be aware that I refer to how that book ends as I summarize Where She Went.

Adam “Wilde Man” Wilde is the front man for the insanely popular Shooting Star.  He’s a rock star, living the rock star life with Bryn, a gorgeous actress.  He’s on top of the world, or at least, he should be.  The public can’t get enough of him and the press won’t stop digging until they get the dirt behind the raw, emotional debut album, Collateral Damage.  Why did Adam write such intensely emotional music?  And why is Adam alienated from his band mates?  Mia.  It’s all because of Mia Hall.  She survived a horrific car accident that took her family away.  He promised her he’d leave her alone if she would just choose to stay.  She did.  And then she put the entire United States between her and Adam, choosing to study at Julliard and leaving Adam behind in Oregon.  She chose her cello over him.  Before heading out of New York for the European leg of Shooting Star’s tour, Adam sees Mia in concert.  She knows he’s there and calls for him to meet her.  How do you act around the love of your life who left you three years earlier?  Adam doesn’t know, but he’s about to find out.

I was literally moved to tears by If I Stay.  Forman’s spare, emotional style hit the core of loss, survival and grief.  How could she possibly think a sequel was a good idea?  Well, it was a brilliant idea.

Written from Adam’s perspective this time, Forman’s exquisite choice of words exposes the raw emotion of surviving tragedy and having no support system to get through the grief.  The depth of his pain is so raw it’s almost hard to read.  Walking with Adam through his coping strategies, including cigarettes and prescription drugs, is tough; he’s supposed to be the rock, the strong one, as we grew to know him from Mia’s perspective.  Mia is no longer an object of pity; for most of the book, she walks the edge of the villain blade.  How could she leave him?  And the way she left him seems inexcusable.

By the time I closed the cover, I couldn’t decide which book I preferred.  It’s interesting that both books work well together but could also stand alone ; that’s an unusual feat.  However, I also wondered how fair it is to compare the two since I listened to the audio version of If I Stay.  In that version, bits of cello music helped carry Mia’s story and I believe the music was responsible for my emotional response.  I wonder if Adam’s anguish is expressed in rock licks in the audio version of Where She Went?  I may have to give this book a listen too.

Because this book takes place three years after the original story, Mia and Adam are both well out of high school.  High school aged readers will still be interested in Where She Went, but I think the story will also appeal to the college crowd, especially those who’ve left a high school sweetheart behind.  I also think it will be on some of YALSA’s lists for 2011, including the Teens’ Top Ten; watch for this one!

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 9-12+

Cover Art: The wind blown image of Mia on the cover is explained near the end of the book, representing a bit of a turning point for Adam.  The cloudy sky behind her helps set the emotional turmoil of the story.  I think the image of Mia will generate interest in the book, as well as the reputation of the first book.

From Reading List: Survival in Love, War or Sports

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: Spoiled

Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan; published by Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 360 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: June 1, 2011.

Brooke Berlin has it all.  Her father is the much-adored actor/writer/producer Brick Berlin so she pretty much has everything she wants or she knows how to get it.  “Having it all” includes good friends like Arugula and enemies like Shelby Kendall (heir to Trip Kendall’s gossip rag, Hey!).  “Having it all” did not mean her father’s full attention, a mother that stuck around, or siblings.  Molly Dix, on the other hand, had good friends too, and a mother that cared, although she had no idea who her father was.  That is, until her mother died.  At that point, Molly and Brooke discover that they have something in common: their father Brick Berlin.  Brick foists his 16 year old daughters upon each other and somehow expects them to bond immediately.  Brooke has other plans.  Brooke has no intention of letting an intruder spoil her life.  This is war!

As I read the first chapter, I was so disgusted by Brooke that I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the book.  But then I “met” Molly, Brooke’s antithesis.  Hmm, this could be interesting–and it certainly was.  And it was entertaining….  And the character development was good….  And the glimpse into lifestyles of the rich and famous was fun….  And as I closed the back cover, I wanted the sequel.  This is the perfect beach read!  The June release is perfect since this is a great summer vacation book to pair with Joanna Philbin’s The Daughters series, for example.

Often books that are team-written suffer from disparate styles.  I can tell what parts were written by each author and sometimes those differences are even noticeable within single sentences.  In the case of this writing team, they seem to have mastered the art of tag-team creation writing the fabulously funny Go Fug Yourself blog.  Their razor sharp wit and eye for the richly and fabulously ridiculous translates beautifully into the creatures in this book.  For young adult wannabes, and those who are just voyeurs, this is a must-read this summer.  And seriously, when is the sequel due out?

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-11

Cover Art: The ARC I received has the title spelled out in makeup.  Priceless.  It totally defines the superficiality that the characters own or reject.  Undoubtedly, the cover will help sell this book.

From Reading List: Survival in Love War or Sports; ARC (advance reading copy)

Power, relevance of historical fiction resounds in Shooting the Moon

Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell; published by Scholastic, New York, 2008; 163 pages.

Jamie Dexter envies her brother, TJ.  Immediately after high school graduation, TJ enlists and deploys to Viet Nam.  TJ and Jamie, brother and sister separated by five years, grew up planning military maneuvers under the trees of Army bases from North Carolina to Texas.  They adore–no, they revere–their father, the Colonel; after all, is there anything better than Army life and war?  So when TJ announces his plan to join a medical unit rather than attend college and medical school, why does the Colonel react with such angry disapproval?  Mom must  be behind it, right?  In order to stay out of trouble after TJ leaves, Jamie volunteers at the PX, helping Private Hollister during the mornings of summer vacation.  Their friendship blooms over a game of gin (and subsequent on-going, point-gathering contest).  Hollister helps Jamie discover a little bit about herself when he encourages her to learn to develop film after her first letter from TJ arrives.  TJ’s letters to Mom and the Colonel are brief and generalized, with no details of the war that Jamie craves.  Jamie’s letters, on the other hand, offer more detail than Jamie could have hoped for, but in a unique format.  TJ sends Jamie rolls of undeveloped film.  The images provide graphic details about the boredom, horror and loss of war.  Slowly, Jamie’s idealized image of war melts away.  When Private Hollister is up for deployment, Jamie begs the Colonel to save her friend, begs him not to sign his transfer orders.  What Jamie discovers about her father changes her opinion of him forever.

Do not wait to read this book.  Don’t finish reading this review.  Go…now.  When you’re done reading the book, come back and finish reading this.

Okay, this book is an ideal example of using historical fiction to teach social studies.  Class, let’s see what life was like during the Viet Nam Era.  Wait, you know, they say that if we don’t study history we are doomed to repeat it.  Is that what’s happening now, with the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  What a discussion this book could spark between generations.  What a resource for tweens and teens with siblings off to the Middle East!

What makes this book extraordinary, to me, is the character development.  Of course Jamie’s cartharsis is obvious, almost expected.  But what we learn about the Colonel is beautiful and poignant in its subtle exposition.  Although the book is short, it is jam packed with characters and plot.  Because of its length, and because it is written simply and directly, it is a high interest book even for readers with low-vocabulary or reading skills.  I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and reaching the back cover without giving the overarching consequences of war a second thought.  I imagine this is the reason the book won the Christopher Award for 2009 in the Books for Young People ages 10-12 category.  (The Christopher Awards “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”)

Hello, all you social studies and language arts teachers!  Here’s a perfect book to work on cross-curricular projects!

By the way, the reference to “shooting the moon” is a recurring theme in TJ’s photos.  Along with images of the war, TJ includes shots of the moon.  In his honor, Jamie continues the practice to give him a daily view of the moon when he returns from the war.  That has to spark ideas for activities to accompany this book!

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 5-8 (+ older hi-lo readers)

Cover art: I read a paperback edition with the girl and the little green Army man.  Paired with the title, I think it creates an intriguing image.  I’m not sure the hard cover edition, with an image of what I assume is a tween girl holding a photo of the moon, is as compelling.  Given the situation many of our young people face today with the conflicts overseas, I think the Army-man cover is more intriguing.

Suggested Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction) OR Survival in Love, War or Sports

This book was this month’s selection for the middle school book club.  For the first time since I’ve participated with this club (about 15 months), all the students gave Shooting the Moon a thumbs-up!  The discussion was as I’d hoped–we had the opportunity to talk about the genre; to compare and contrast the Viet Nam War (as depicted in the book) to the current conflicts overseas; and to talk about the different connotation “shooting the moon” can have, including in card games.  Some kids even commented that they were disappointed that the book was so short; they wanted more details about how Jamie and her family coped with TJ’s circumstances as well as how her photography turned out.

Blind blessings in The Cay

The Cay by Theodore Taylor; a Dell Yearling Book, New York, 1969; 137 pages.

Phillip Enright is nearly 12 years old as the story begins.  His father is working for a petroleum refinery in Curacao in 1942, which is how Phillip and his mother came to live on the island.  As World War II impinges on their island paradise, Phillip and his friends are anxious for a chance to stop playing war and get to see the war.  His mother panics with German submarines offshore and insists that Phillip’s father make preparations to get her and their son back to Virginia.  What a fateful decision for Phillip!  Their escape ship is sunk by the Germans and Phillip is rescued by Timothy, an old sailor from the West Indies.  A blow on the head has blinded Phillip (physically and metaphorically) and Timothy cares for him from raft to desserted island, even teaching the boy to care for himself in case he is left alone.  Blindness is a blessing for Phillip as he overcomes prejudice and pride.  After the gentle, loving Timothy dies, Phillip is rescued but sees the world through new eyes.

I was touched by the bond that develops between the old man and the boy.  Taylor is straightforward and matter-of-fact in the development of Phillip’s new perspective on the world.  Although it is not a melodramatic story, there is drama and heart in the tale.  No wonder it won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.

It was my daughter who insisted that I read this book because she had been so moved by it during her sixth grade language arts class.  I am grateful for her persistance and insistence!  How did I miss this one?!  The story of overcoming self-limitations and stereotypes should be required reading in all middle schools.  The phonetically spelled vernacular of Timothy’s speech may be difficult for some teens to get used to, so discussion about the dialect is important to understand and fully appreciate the story.  In addition, although the protagonist is a 12 year old boy, I think the survival story as well as the coming of age aspect is appropriate for a wider range of teens.

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 6-9

cayCover Art: Timothy and Phillip are lashed to a tree as a wave barrels toward them; pretty exciting stuff!  The font of the title reflects the Caribbean setting of the story.  Unfortunately, the clothing is somewhat dated and may detract from the interest of the depicted scene.  I think this book would have to be required reading to generate any interest or word-of-mouth promotion.  The white title on a black spine was easy to locate on the shelves.

Suggested Reading List: Survival in Love, War or Sports

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