The White Darkness rivals Peak

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean; published by HarperTempest, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York, 2005; 369 pages (including Postscript).

whitedarknessIn some ways, Symone “Sym” Wates is your typical 14 year old—she has low self esteem and daydreams about a different life.  As the story unravels, we discover she is not a typical teen: she is deaf, has an uncle that manipulates her, and has an imaginary friend for solace (oh, by the way, he’s Captian Oates, a brave, romantic figure who was part of Scott’s Antarctic expedition 90 years ago).  Uncle Victor, more family friend than family, has manipulated Sym since her birth—physically and emotionally; he is Sym’s father-figure.  In a major manipulative move, Uncle Victor plans a trip to Paris for Sym and her mother, but her mother’s passport disappears and Sym is off alone with him for a weekend adventure.  Only it’s not a weekend adventure.  Uncle Victor has arranged a trip to Antarctica to try to find the mythical Symme’s Hole (for which she’s been named) that leads into the inner earth where concentric earths exist and aliens live.  She is paired with a Norwegian boy, Sigurd, who is actually an actor and betrays Sym.  In the end, the weak one is the heroine.  In the end, Sym comes of age by saving herself, Sigurd, and even her tragic hero, Captain “Titus” Oates. 

It was serendipitous that I read this immediately after Peak.  Both adventure stories place 14 year old protagonists against the harshest winter weather to find themselves and unmask the lies and truths about their loved ones.  I enjoyed both books equally but in different ways.  Both novels are extraordinarily written, to the point that I had to remember that the authors were not in fact 14 year olds sharing their stories.  However, I found that the adventure in the books differed.  Peak’s adventure was palpable, physical.  Sym’s trials were physical but the story is a psychological study expressed through her emotional catharsis rather than the immediacy of the choices she made.  While I rooted for Peak, I found myself empathizing with Sym.  I think Peak might appeal more to boys but both genders would enjoy The White Darkness.

One point in favor of Peak over The White Darkness is the length of the books.  In some ways, The White Darkness reminds me of Moby Dick—Uncle Victor’s obsession with Symmes’ Hole, for example, as well as the length of the books.  I can remember having to read Moby Dick over Spring Break during my sophomore year of high school and hating it for its length and for ruining my vacation.  The White Darkness is too beautifully written to be assigned over vacation; it needs to be presented as the award-winning treasure that it is.

3P     5Q     Grade Level 9-12*

* Although the protagonist is only 14, and teens typically prefer to read about characters older than themselves, I think the psychological aspect of this book makes it more appropriate for older teens.

Cover Art: The pale face peeking through windblown hair and a furry hooded coat on a snowy white background is haunting and may make a teen curious enough to pick up the book and read the jacket flap.  The sketchy black font on the white spine might also make this title stand out on the shelves.

From Reading List: Michael L. Printz Award, 2008 Winner

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My Most Excellent Year is most excellent

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger; published by Dial Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008; 403 pages.

TC, Ale and Augie have an English assignment during their junior year of high school: write an essay entitled “My Most Excellent Year.”  While the content of their papers open and close this book, it’s their journal entries that tell us their stories which revolve around love, activism and identity.  TC is dealing with buried emotions stemming from his mother’s death when he was only six years old.  Ale is trying to be the dutiful daughter of a Mexican diplomat but struggles with a growing desire to be a performer.  Augie is struggling with his identity; he realizes he’s gay in his freshman year but his first boyfriend wants him to “act more like a guy,” which contradicts the person Augie has been his whole life.  Hucky, an orphaned six year old boy, enters their lives.  By helping Hucky, all three teens look outside themselves and change a little boy’s life in addition to their own lives.  TC’s “three things” he should have known all his life end the book—summing up the story, illustrating his growth, and providing us with a few things to remember in our own lives.

Written from the perspectives of three teens coming of age and struggling with their identities, My Most Excellent Year is a deceptively complex book:  I found it easy to read and thoroughly engaging but introspective and full of life lessons.  I found that I slowed down to savor each page.  In addition, the use of instant messages, email content, and diaries is an inspired method for telling a story about teens, for teens.  The story of self-exploration and personal development will appeal to young adults. 

I have discovered a theme in many of the books I’ve read for this project: the value of keeping diaries or journaling.  I hope that teens are encouraged to keep a journal or diary after reading this book.  Although it reads like a light novel, there is so much more to offer in My Most Excellent Year.

4P     4Q     Grade Level 9-12

mymostexcellentyearCover Art: Mary Poppins’ umbrella with a baseball bat handle protects magical mauve stars on a sky blue background—not exactly gripping graphics for teens.  The overly flowery font for the title isn’t that appealing either.  The skinny, flowery white font is hard to read on the dark background of the spine.  These unfortunate choices may keep teens away from the book—and that’s a shame.

From Reading List: Sexual Identity

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