Tag Archives: YA books

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Early Winter Books

Well, it took me a little while to get back to the book roundup. Sorry, folks. We were not reading a ton in the last couple of months, in large part because we’ve been so busy. It’s hard to read before bed when you’re not getting home until past bedtime! But there have been a few books fit in, though you’ll note there are more of my reviews than the kids’ this roundup. They did a lot of rereading old Wimpy Kid and Calvin and Hobbes. Ah well. Probably about right for hectic times.

Read Aloud
The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Straight off enjoying another Chrestomanci books, we dove into this one. It’s typical Diana Wynne Jones, with a twisty plot and lots of complexity. If you don’t know the Chrestomanci books, they take place is a series of connected worlds. In one world, Chrestomanci is the enchanter with nine lives whose job is to make sure everyone uses magic fairly and follows the rules. This book tells the story of how Christopher Chant became Chrestomanci, though not before he gets neglected by his parents and then caught up in a magic organized crime syndicate run by his uncle. Chrestomanci, that is, Christopher in this book, is such a great character. He cares about people and doing the right thing, but is always managing to come off like a jerk. In this book, you can see how he became the mysterious and witty character he is in the other novels. Mushroom and BalletBoy have been enjoying this one so much that I have a feeling we may read Conrad’s Fate, one of the later books where Christopher is also a child, very soon.

Another Read Aloud
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin

This is the second book in the Winston Breen series. We loved the first one over the summer and the kids enjoyed this one just as much. In this story, puzzle lover Winston gets put in a team to win a bunch of money for his school from a snack food company with a quirky owner. Teams must run from puzzle to puzzle, solving them all to win the prize, but one team is cheating, trying to knock the other teams out of the race. As with the previous book, there are usually two puzzles per chapter – one that’s integral to the story and one that’s just a diversion. They’re number, maze, word, and other sorts of puzzles and generally very innovative and fun. Also pleasing is that the story isn’t just a structure for the puzzles. It’s also pretty well-written in its own right. Kids who enjoy “everyday kid” type books should definitely give this series a try.

School Read
Murderous Maths: Secret Life of Codes by Kjartan Poskitt

I really do love the Murderous Maths books, even though they always take us forever to get through. They take us forever because they’re packed with serious, brain-bending information and because we always have to stop over and over in the middle of reading them to figure out the math and try out the various things they suggest. This book was no different. I have the Murderous Maths box set, but realized recently that there are a bunch more of these out there not in the set! Several of them, including this one, are easier than some of the ones in the set (which go up to calculus, for goodness sakes). This one was particularly packed full of good activities and lots of complex ideas about how to make codes. Overall, a fun read.

Audiobook
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

It took a lot of strong arming to get the boys to listen to this one in the car. I’m not sure what was so forbidding about it, but for some reason it did not catch their fancy. And the tropes of high fantasy, which abound in this story, are less familiar to Mushroom and BalletBoy, who have cut their teeth mostly on the low fantasy worlds like Harry Potter and the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones sort of books. However, they slowly sank into it. The narration on the audiobook is really wonderful. And the story is just as great as I recall from my own youth. Taran is a lowly assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest to find his charge, who happens to be an oracular pig (she can tell the future). On his way he meets a heroic prince, a king who wishes he were a bard, a snappy girl who is training to be a sorceress, and a strange but loyal creature who latches on to him. It’s the start of a great series that is based loosely on Welsh mythology and had me obsessed with all things Welsh as a kid.

BalletBoy’s Read
Heads or Tails by Jack Gantos

After we saw Gantos speak earlier this year at the National Book Festival, it became clear that the boys were determined to read more of his works. I happened to have this one on the shelf and BalletBoy decided to read it. It proved to be a pretty quick read for him and he says he liked it very much, in part because it’s very funny. He keeps reading me little snippets that honestly, make no sense, but which send him into peals of giggles. Like many of the author’s other works, he, himself is the main character, though one hopes that many of the wacky events have been exaggerated for literary purposes.

Farrar’s YA Read
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I really enjoyed this YA book about twin artists. It’s told in two perspectives at two different times. Noah tells the story of the events leading up to the time when their mother dies just before and after they turn fourteen. Twin sister Jude steps in with a very different voice two years later. Noah is struggling with figuring out he’s gay, trying to establish a relationship with his father, trying to understand his mother, and falling in love for the first time. While he struggles, Jude seems happy and popular, but two years later, Jude is at an art high school completely distraught over her mother’s death, barely speaking to her twin, and superstitious to the point of mental illness while Noah is the one that seems happy and well-adjusted, though completely different from his younger self. The contrast between the two parts makes the story feel like a mystery, compelling you to understand what happened between the two characters. Great writing certainly doesn’t hurt either. Nelson’s style, especially how she described those teenage feelings of anger and depression, really resonated with me. One of the best YA books I’ve read this year.

Farrar’s Other YA Read
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This is a story about a girl and her super wealthy family and their summers spent on their very own island retreat. Main character Cady loves her cousins and their friend Gat, with whom she has a budding romance, while her mother and aunts bicker all summer. Cady has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can’t remember some of the previous summers, which makes for both a mystery and a lot of really short, vaguely poetic sentences apparently. There’s a big twist ending, though having read that there was a “big twist ending” I admit that I saw the twist coming, at least somewhat. This book has made a bunch of best of lists for YA this year but I’m mystified as to why. The upper class characters are mostly spoiled jerks and I didn’t find reading about them particularly innovative or new. The mystery is sort of interesting, but the writing nearly killed me. It wasn’t beautiful, it was just sparse, disjointed, and sometimes confusing. This definitely wasn’t on my best of lists.

Farrar’s Graphic Novel Read
Neurocomic by Hana Ros and Matteo Farinella

I was intrigued by this graphic novel about the inner workings of the brain, which I saw on a best science books of the year list. The book’s design is lovely – hardcover with shiny silver designs. Plus, the art is really approachable. My reaction to the book itself was a bit mixed. On the one hand, the narrative was sort of weak and I had hoped that the information would be a bit more in depth. As it is, I actually knew most of this information about how the brain and nerves work. On the other hand, for what it is, the narrative isn’t terrible. Writing a vehicle for information story is always tricky, after all. I liked the ending a lot, actually. And with a different eye, such as toward using this as a great introduction for teens or really anyone without any lay knowledge, it’s really good. So I thought I’d include it here in case anyone has any middle or high schoolers ready to learn a bit about neuroscience. Overall, I like that there are a growing body of science comics out there. I was unimpressed by the Max Axiom series, but this book can join the work of graphic novelist Jay Hossler as a useful way to think about its subject matter in comic.

Dystopian Overload

I spent all my brain candy reading in the last few weeks on far too many of the recent fad of dystopian YA novels.  Dystopia in YA is hardly new.  The Giver is nearly twenty years old, for example.  Scott Westerfeld’s imaginative Uglies series has been around for several years.  However, the wild success of The Hunger Games has clearly made publishers green light everything that takes place in some sort of nonsensical, overly controlling fascist society.

I’m not sure what’s so appealing about dystopia right now.  Perhaps something about how pessimistic we all are at the moment, what with the state of affairs in the world economically?  Regardless, bleak futures are all the rage.

The No-Thank-Yous

Matched (Paperback) ~ Ally Condie Cover ArtWither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy) (Hardcover) ~ Lauren DeStefano Cover ArtBirthmarked (Birthmarked Trilogy) (Paperback) ~ Caragh M. O'Brien Cover Art

I think anyone who reads this blog’s book reviews already knows I didn’t think Ally Condie’s Matched series about a society that catalogs and controls your every move was very good.  The second book, while it had some moments, just didn’t make any sense.  Add to that one the book Wither by Lauren deStephano, which has a sequel out later this month.  Wither is about a future where everyone, except for the older “first generation,” dies young from a mysterious virus.  The (unfortunately named) Rhine is kidnapped to become a child bride to a privileged young man whose father is extremely creepy.  The whole thing just didn’t hold together for me at all.  Every continent except North America is completely destroyed?  Beautiful young women are alternately really valuable and really expendable.  And, most unbelievable given the course the plot takes, Rhine’s marriage remains completely chaste, without any real explanation as to why.  The only reason I can think of is that it’s a YA novel, but the novel shows other sexual situations (in fact, it may be the most risque of all of these in that sense), meaning that any parent or reader objecting to that is still going to object to this book.  Finally, I also gave the book Birthmarked a try.  In this book, midwives must bring children to a secret enclave for mysterious purposes.  I couldn’t even finish it, it moved so slowly.

The Maybes

Delirium (Paperback) ~ Lauren Oliver Cover Art

There were two more I thought were so-so.  One was Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  The sequel comes out later this month.  In Delirium, young people are basically lobotomized by the government to remove their ability to experience love, which is seen as a terrible disease.  The future world suffered the same problems as many of the books I didn’t like in that many of the elements didn’t make any sense.  The basic purpose of the cure for love isn’t ever really revealed and some of the things that still exist in this future world (like brand names we have now!) didn’t seem to make sense.  Like Matched, the world has a nonsensical mix of old-fashioned technology and futuristic technology we’re not even close to developing.  However, the opening chapter was so good that it drew me in fully.  The writing and the characters were compelling enough to overcome my doubts.

I also kind of enjoyed both of Beth Revis’s Across the Universe books.  In this series, earth has sent a ship full of frozen people, along with a group of people to watch over them and maintain the ship, to a mysterious planet they hope to colonize.  Taking the action off earth and putting it on a closed ship helped eliminate some of the world-building problems the other books I read had.  The ship, which is practically a character itself, gives everything a closed, clear feel and works as a literary device.  The action of both the first book and the sequel unfold like a mystery novel, revealing clues slowly.  There are still a lot of unanswered questions that the final book will presumably answer.  While I didn’t think the writing was outstanding, the storytelling and the mystery kept me reading.

More Please!

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy) (Hardcover) ~ Veronica Roth Cover Art

There was one book I liked wholeheartedly: Divergent by Veronica Roth.  The cover just screams “read me after The Hunger Games” but I actually think it is the book I’ve read that is most like The Hunger Games without feeling like a rip off.  Divergent is about a future society where every person must chose a faction based on their personality.  Individuals are tested to see what faction would fit them best.  While not every aspect of the dystopian future world made sense, Veronica Roth filled the book with details that made it feel believable to me as a reader, much the way The Hunger Games did.  More importantly, the action takes over very quickly as main character Tris trains to join a new faction, where she must learn how to be a complete daredevil and seasoned fighter.  There was a mystery and a plot about how the factions are beginning to turn against each other.  Oh, and an obligatory romance, of course.  However, the main draw in the book was Tris’s strong character and that quick action.  A sequel comes out in a few months, so there’s something to look forward to.

What’s Wrong With Me?

Not long ago, despite the fact that I had perfectly good books waiting for me, books I even wanted to read, I decided to read Ally Condie’s follow up to her bestseller Matched, the YA novel Crossed.  If you’re an avid reader of this blog, then you may remember I didn’t even like Matched!  Yet, there I found myself reading the sequel.  Nay, actually quickly reading the sequel.  What’s wrong with me?  And why is it that one can read some books, thinking, “this is terrible writing,” yet want to keep reading?  I will ashamedly admit that Twilight did it to me too, yet I’m not even sure why.  Is it like watching a train wreck?  Do we secretly want books that aren’t that good sometimes?

Well, regardless, Crossed picks up where Matched left off.  Cassia is a goody two shoes in love with Ky, an outcast in their tightly controled future society.  Separately, they escape from a nonsensical war zone, make some new friends, and take a harrowing trip through a canyon.  Along the way, they read a bunch of old poetry.  Yes, my summary is a little snarky.

Condie adds Ky’s voice to this book, alternating between his perspective and Cassia’s.  Despite the whiplash I got when the sections jumped so fast that conversations would start in one and finish in the next, I actually think she does a much better job with his voice.  There’s something more believable about him.  At some point partway through, I thought, you know, this book is sort of better than the first one.  But then it left on an even bigger cliffhanger than the first one and I found myself not only annoyed by that, but by some of the other dangling mysteries, like what in the world is up with that war that makes no sense.  Oh, and did I mention a secret cave full of DNA samples?

But, of course, the biggest cliffhanger of all is will I get sucked into reading the next one?  And if so, why?  Just…  why?

Maybonne is the Funk Queen of Adolescence

I’m not sure what made me suddenly remember this book, but I suddenly wanted to read it only to find that while there is still a pile of vintage Lynda Barry sitting in the grown up comics section way up high, this one was missing!  Alas!  So here I am singing its virtues to all of you instead.

I discovered Lynda Barry’s short comics filled with teen angst and hard truths when I was a freshman in high school.  I used to clip every single one and paste them up on my wall week after week.  This collection, in which oldest sister Maybonne has her first love and basically gets used and trashed, always resonated with my adolescent self.  Maybonne’s life is hard.  Her family is poor, her sister is a pain in the neck, her younger brother has some serious issues.  In letters and diary entries, she spills her guts in this graphic novel about everything she sees, even the horrible, embarrassing stuff.  Maybonne sees drinking, creepy guys, and girls who stab you in the back.  There’s something so honest and real about these roughly drawn comics.

These are definitely for older teens, but in the waves of new graphic novels for teens, especially for teen girls, I think it’s time to see a new generation connect with these.  They’re out of print, but I wish they’d be reissued.  My Perfect Life is my favorite place to start.

Matched

If I judged books by their covers, this one would get top marks.  Look at that pretty green dress and girl in a bubble.  Very nice, right?  Matched by Ally Condie takes place in an oppressive future society.  If you choose to marry, then the Society will match you with your most optimal mate, who is usually someone you’ve never met before, living far away.  The story opens with Cassia’s matching ceremony.  Surprisingly, she’s matched to a boy she knows already – her neighbor and best friend.  However, when she goes to look at the data about the match, she sees the face of another boy she knows, a boy who is an outcast.  That starts a chain of events where Cassia risks her safe, secure status to get to know the boy who might have been her match.  As the story unfolds, Cassia begins to see the oppression that she lives under.

The copy I checked out of the library had obviously been well-read as the seams were beginning to come apart even though it’s a new book – still less than a year old.  It’s also had a lot of buzz and I’ve heard it may already be in development as a film.  The ending was left open, and a sequel is already due out in a couple of months.  I think the book may appeal to fans of The Hunger Games.  There are several plot elements which mimic that bestselling series: the romantic triangle, the oppressive future society, a girl who is a pawn in a larger game, and the resistance movement against the oppressors.  I found it to be a quick read.  The plot pulled me along so that I wanted to know what would happen.  However, since the comparison is so clearly there, it’s also easy to see that the book is lacking many of the qualities that made The Hunger Games so good.  The characters and the moral issues presented lacked the nuance of The Hunger Games.  Many of the things the Society does to control people are so blatantly obvious that it strained my credulity that Cassia didn’t know about them.  The ending also felt rushed after a very slow narrative up to that point.  Overall, I think YA readers who find the premise interesting will probably enjoy the book, but it’s definitely one that can be skipped, even if it does become the next worldwide YA girl phenomenon, as marketers are clearly hoping.

Peculiar Book

My last YA read was the unique book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  It uses actual old photographs, collected by various people, as illustrations.  Many of these images show slightly fantastic things.  In the book, the photos belong to Jacob’s grandfather, who tells him wild stories about having grown up as a war refugee in an orphanage of children with magical powers.  As Jacob grew up, he stopped believing in his grandfather’s stories.  When the book opens, Jacob’s grandfather is aging and possibly senile.  He calls Jacob to help him because something, he says, has found him.  I’m hesitant to give much more away because the book takes awhile to reveal its mysteries.  It wasn’t until about halfway through, after Jacob and his father take a trip to try and understand what’s going on with his grandfather’s past, that things became clear (though most readers will begin to guess what’s going on, at least partly, before that).  At the start, it feels like a horror novel as Jacob seems to encounter a monster straight out of a B movie.  But as the novel progresses and reveals more, the tone becomes much more straightforward contemporary fantasy and much less eerie.

I had read a lot of raving reviews about the book so I suspected I would enjoy it.  I’m not sure if it completely lived up to the hype, but I did like it a lot.  It was well-written with a few very nice descriptions and some interesting characters.  The story was well structured, especially at the beginning, when Jacob’s mood and the mystery of what’s happening hang over all the action.  The use of old photographs was clever and Jacob was a realistic character thrown into a very bizarre world, which is the sort of story I tend to like.  There’s a very tame romance in the book, but some curse words and the general horror of the monster element makes the book firmly YA.  The book is odd, but I think readers who like an offbeat fantasy would almost certainly enjoy it.

Two by Madeleine L’Engle You May Not Know

The other day, as a tack on to my post about Anna and the French Kiss, I mentioned L’Engle’s boarding school romance And Both Were Young.  I thought I might add in two other L’Engle YA titles that are similarly good.  Unlike her more famous A Wrinkle in Time, these books are more for young teens, because they deal with romance and growing up.  First, let me just say that Madeleine L’Engle is by far one of my favorite authors ever.  I appreciate nearly everything I’ve ever read by her, and that’s a great deal of her work.  When I was in 7th grade, I had to give a speech about heroes and I chose to talk about why she was my hero.  I lost the speech a long time ago, but I suspect that many of the things I said would still be true.  Her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, shaped a lot of my ideas about religion and morality.

In Camilla, L’Engle wrote a classic coming of age story.  Camilla Dickenson is a wealthy Manhattanite teenager in the 1950’s.  She has led a sheltered life, being babied by her mother.  As the novel begins, she has become aware of how troubled her mother is and how her parents’ marriage is in danger.  Things spiral downward from there.  A conflict with her best friend and a budding romance with her friend’s brother only makes things worse.  As the story goes on, Camilla seems to be falling apart, but in the end, she finds strength.  It’s hard to say now what exactly I loved about this book when I was younger.  In some ways, it comes off pretty melodramatically.  However, Camilla comes to a real understanding of her parents as individuals and herself as in charge of her own life, two things that are so simple yet so groundbreaking in adolescence.

A House Like a Lotus is sort of a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time.  Polly, the protagonist, is the oldest child of Meg and Calvin.  However, this book has no science fiction elements; it’s a straightforward coming of age novel.  Polly begins the story in Athens, where she has traveled on her own, thanks to the generosity of a family friend, a woman named Max.  Slowly, as Polly travels around Greece, then acts as an intern in Cyprus, all while being romanced by a rich young man, she tells the story of how she grew close to Max then broke with her.  This is a complex and layered story.  There are a lot of elements, including a sex scene that, at the time, drew criticism (though now seems tame compared to much of what’s out there in YA books).  The treatment of gay issues (did I mention there’s a LOT going on in this book?) is a little outmoded.  The book is decidedly pro-gay, but the way she writes about the issues feels old-fashioned to today’s much less homophobic world.  Overall, the theme of the story is redemption and forgiveness, something that is echoed in everyone’s actions, from Polly to Max to Polly’s love interests, to the school girls and teachers who torment Polly and down to the war torn Cypriot setting of Polly’s internship.

By the way, A House Like a Lotus seems to have been out of print for awhile, but it’s listed as being re-issued early next year, seemingly as part of the same re-issue that gave us the spiffy new cover to And Both Were Young.  Two of the prequels to Lotus, including the mystery The Arm of the Starfish, have already been recently re-issued.  The first is also worth a read, though the following book, Dragons in the Waters, is one of my least favorites by her, so I recommend skipping that one for all but the most die hard L’Engle fans.

Anna and the Drawn Out Romance

I finally got to the YA novel Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, which has been on my reading list for a little while.  I’m not always a fan of the chick lit romance, but this one had good reviews and a high recommendation from a writing group pal.  Anna is an American high school senior whose father unexpectedly ships her off to an American boarding school in Paris.  She’s a slightly neurotic, film-obsessed girl who is basically the classic fish out of water.  As the year goes on, Anna becomes closer to her new Paris-based friends, and, inevitably, develops a massive crush on a cute English-American-French boy at her school.  The book has some language, some drinking (hey, it’s legal in France!) and some sexual content, but it’s all pretty mild.  Anna and her friends are pretty tame for a bunch of eighteen year olds mostly on their own in Paris.

The book was a quick, light read.  I liked Anna’s voice a lot.  She has a pretty good internal monologue that goes from snappy to reflective without bogging down the pace of the story.  The romance is decidedly the center of the book.  There’s a lot of back and forth as Anna and her crush become friends, fight, become friends again, fight again, and almost get together but not quite more times than I can count.  It’s a bit drawn out from an adult perspective, and some of the friendship stuff is a little melodramatic.  However, looking back to my own teenage days, it’s all pretty realistic, though more neatly tied up in that way books have.  Partway in, as I realized what a straightforward romance this was, I wasn’t sure if I would end up liking it, but the voice was strong and in the end, I thought it was a fun read.

 As an aside, the set up reminded me of a few other, totally different, books.  Most notably, I thought of Madeleine L’Engle’s nearly forgotten boarding school romance And Both Were Young, which appears to have gotten a very recent re-release with a spiffy new cover. It’s a book from another era, so if Anna sounds too grown up, I can promise you Flip, L’Engle’s American heroine in a European boarding school who finds romance with a nearby boy and learns to ski, will seem quite tame.  For an even younger take with the same out of place American dragged to a European boarding school set up, there’s Sharon Creech’s lesser known Bloomability, which deals more with family issues and finding confidence, two themes Creech is well known for.