Saturday, September 27, 2008

BLAZE by Richard Bachman

Yes, that's right, I just finished reading a "grown-up" book. One of my students brought it to school and asked if I would read it. He said he started it but had found it confusing.

It is the story of Clayton Blaisdell Jr. aka Blaze. He stands 6' 5" and just under 300 pounds. Early on in life he was blessed with considerable intelligence, but that changed after his drunken father pushed/threw him down a staircase, not once, but three times. A severe head injury put him in a coma for several weeks and upon recovery in a state orphanage called Hetton House. Life there was barely tolerable, and left Blaze with even bigger problems and some horrible memories.

Once free of the orphanage, Blaze ends up the sidekick partner in crime of a man named George. George enjoys Blaze's innocent and big-hearted approach to life and teaches him the value of a good con. Tired of small time con games, George cooks up a scheme to kidnap the baby of a wealthy couple. The plan appears to be derailed when George is fatally stabbed during a poker game. But after George's untimely death, Blaze is determined to pull off the kidnapping on his own.

With George's ghostly voice haunting him, Blaze carefully follows the plan. At least he tries to carefully follow the plan. His limited cognitive abilities make for some interesting and often humorous variations on George's original scheme. The baby is successfully snatched, but there are multiple clues left behind as well as the dead body of the baby's grandmother. Blaze now finds himself with little Joe and the challenge of figuring out how to keep him comfortable and make his demands known. Besides that, he didn't count on becoming attached to the little fellow.

Richard Bachman aka Stephen King creates a fast-paced, quirky story about a likeable criminal character. Blaze is huge and deadly, but he will touch your heart as you read about his tragic childhood and his bumbling attempts to follow his friend's dangerous plan. I'm glad this book was passed my way.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

WAR IS... : SOLDIER, SURVIVORS, AND STORYTELLERS TALK ABOUT WAR edited by Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell

I just realized that today is PEACE DAY, and I spent most of it reading a book about war. It left me anything but peaceful. I'm angry about a number of things shared in the stories included in this book.

First of all, I'll mention the introductions written by the book's editors Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell. They are worth reading even if you don't read the rest of the book. Their ideas about war differ, but those ideas led both to create this collection of war stories - and a powerful collection it is.

The book includes accounts from soldiers, reporters, and civilian survivors. There are stories from past wars and current wars and all the horrific wars in between. Some stories tell gruesome tales; others find some shred of hope. Whatever the storyteller chooses to share, it reveals the truth and will touch the emotions of all who read it.

My anger flared most when I read of the current war, and how we don't seem to have learned anything from the past. As an educator, I was shocked to learn that the military and the signing of young volunteers is actually a part of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Bill. The law states that the military must have the same access to secondary students as post-secondary educational institutions or prospective employers. "The law also requires high schools to provide the military access to students' names, addresses, and telephone numbers -- unless a parent or student contacts the school to deny permission to release this information." Included in this article is the suggestion that all high school seniors should be given access and help in reading the military recruitment contract. Basically, the military makes hollow, meaningless promises within that contract. Our young people sign up thinking they are agreeing to 4 to 8 years of service with a variety of monetary benefits, and the whole thing has been proven to be completely meaningless.

Other things that raised my hackles were the accounts of how unappreciated our veterans feel, the harassment suffered by women in the military, and the horrific expectations we place on innocent young people only just out of high school. The emotional and physical scars are something no human should have to endure.

Aronson and Campbell have compiled this collection to speak to a YA audience, but this is a book everyone should read. It needs to be in every public library, high school library, college library, and perhaps in every waiting room and lobby around the country. Just picking up this book and randomly choosing and reading a selection will have an impact on any American.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

TEST by William Sleator

What if all learning was directed toward one test? What if your future was determined by that one test? Hmmmm.... With the current system believing in the theory of NCLB (No Child Left Behind), isn't that the direction being pushed on education today? When that ludicrous theory begins appearing in current YA fiction, it seems that perhaps the "experts" should take some notice.

William Sleator, popular YA fiction author, uses NCLB and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) as the central theme of his new novel TEST. Thought by some critics to be simplistic and wrapped up with a too tidy conclusion, I found still found it close enough to the reality of classrooms today to raise my blood pressure a notch or two. It also gave a sense of real purpose to that Publisher's Note: " This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental." Any teacher in an Amercian classroom today will recognize a frightening numbers of parallels between this story and what they are actually living in their own classroom.

According to TEST, the country is made up of two worlds. There is a world of the powerful people. They have money and the ability to live an easy life with beautiful homes and unlimited material goods, including helicopters for transportation which allow them to avoid endless traffic problems and prolonged exposure to toxic pollution. While the other world must face limited money and supplies, long and unpleasant commutes to work and school, and dangerous living conditions. Success in the world of the "haves" is guaranteed, while success in the world of the "have nots" depends on the ability to pass the XCAS test which is the only path to college and a future with any sort of promise. Failure to pass the test results in expulsion from school and a direct path to whatever meaningless, low paying job that will hopefully be available.

Ann finds herself struggling with school which consists of endless preparation for the XCAS. She is a senior and her test results this year will determine the rest of her life. She is frustrated with boring classroom material and disgruntled teachers whose only motivation is creating good student test scores to secure their own jobs. Ann knows that her father works for the wealthy man responsible for publishing the hated test, and that that man has direct connections to the president who believes NCLB is the best way to educate the masses.

When Ann meets Lep, an immigrant from Thailand and a fellow student, she learns even more about the testing system and the corruptness of that system. With knowledge comes danger, and Ann soon feels her life is being threatened as a result of the powers behind the XCAS.

Readers of TEST are taken into both worlds - the powerful and the underprivileged. The similarities to today's current educational practices are startling. Hopefully, this is not the direction our educational system wants maintain. NCLB is a system in need of change. Books like TEST might bring that need to the attention of the right people.

Monday, September 15, 2008

IMPOSSIBLE by Nancy Werlin

Nancy Werlin's new book is an interesting combination of mystery, suspense, and the paranormal. She uses a variation of the song "Scarborough Fair" as the backdrop for an evil family curse.

Generations ago an angry elfin knight placed a curse on the young women of the Scarborough clan. Each girl became pregnant as a teen and upon giving birth to a daughter, each girl went insane. The only way to break the curse was to complete three tasks described in the lyrics of the song. Until now it seemed the curse would carry on forever.

Lucy Scarborough now seventeen has always known her birth mother was Miranda Scarborough, but luck brought her into the lives of Leo and Soledad Markowitz. They have raised her since birth and understand the complications of her life story. Through the years they have been plagued by visits from Miranda. Her insanity has been the cause of many embarrassing situations. Now as Lucy is approaching her last year in high school, she hopes that she can avoid anymore encounters with her crazy mother and get on with her life.

Early in the story Lucy is preparing for her prom and her date with Gray Spencer. Her adopted parents are nervous about the date since it is one of her first, and they haven't actually met Gray. As the couple is posing for pictures and is about to leave for the evening, the unthinkable happens. Miranda shows up in her baggy T-shirt and flowing shirt, pushing her rusty shopping cart full of bottles and cans. Everyone is shocked when she begins to attack, throwing glass bottles at everyone in the yard. She is finally hauled away by the police, but not before Gray makes a get-away in his new car leaving Lucy humiliated and dateless.

Just when Lucy is ready to give up on him and attend the prom with a long-time childhood friend, Gray returns, apologizes for running off, and begs her to still be his date. She happily accepts, but it proves to be the beginning of yet another horrible experience. As the two are leaving the prom later that evening, Gray takes Lucy aside and forces himself on her and rapes her. The experience is not only terrible, but also puzzling as Lucy tries to connect the gentle high school boy with the vicious act and the sinister voice she hears during that attack.
Weeks after the prom, Lucy discovers she has followed in the footsteps of the Scarborough women and become a pregnant teen. Will her fate be the same? Will she give birth to a daughter, and will she lose her mind?

Werlin creates an interesting mix of past and present. Lucy seems one moment to be a typical teen, and the next, the victim of an ancient evil. The turning of each page reveals another fact about the family curse. The lyrics of the song provide the clues necessary to break the curse, but those clues are not crystal clear and require creative solutions from Lucy and her helpful family and friends. Encouraged by hope and love, Lucy fights to change the direction of her life at the same time as she learns to accept the hand fate has dealt. Werlin fans will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

HURRICANE by Terry Trueman

La Rupa, Honduras is a small village with a handful of houses. The villagers all know each other like a tightly knit family, so when disaster hits it changes their world forever.

A powerful hurricane hits Central America. Young Jose watches his village disappear under an avalanche of mud. When the storm clears, he and his mother and younger siblings discover that their house is one of the only remaining structures still standing. Nearly half of their fellow villagers have been buried in the mudslide. To complicate matters, Jose's father, older brother, and older sister are missing.

Survival requires those left behind to put aside their grief to work hard finding food and water as they attempt to clear away the mud enough to recover needed possessions and bury the dead. Jose steps up to the challenge when he journeys to find help for his sick little brother. International U.N. volunteers depend on him as a translator and organizer. As he works nonstop and prays endlessly for the return of his missing family members, Jose matures and becomes the man of the family.

Terry Trueman captures the fear and devastation associated with a powerful hurricane. Readers will easily relate to the emotional trauma of losing family and friends while also trying to continue life in horrifying conditions. With recent hurricane threats, this story brings the frightening details to life.

Monday, September 8, 2008

IDENTICAL by Ellen Hopkins

Secrets. IDENTICAL is all about secrets.

Twins Kaeleigh and Raeanne are alike in many ways, but each have their own secrets. In fact they are part of a family that is full of secrets. Their father, a district-court judge, has his own unspeakable secret. Their mother, a soon-to-be elected Congresswoman, has her own hidden secret. Even their grandparents have decade-old secrets they are reluctant to reveal.

Although the twins are identical in appearance, their personalities take them in very different directions. Raeanne, the risk taker, involves herself in questionable sexual relationships and experimentation with illegal drugs. Her goal is to numb herself to the world around her. She feels unloved by her parents and powerless when it comes to protecting her more vulnerable sister. Kaeleigh is the compliant one. Her need to please and satisfy makes her the easy target of a father looking for the wrong kind of love in a very wrong place.

The hidden lives of all the characters are slowly revealed as Kaeleigh and Raeanne alternate as narrators describing their world. Each girl handles life as best she can, since each feels alone and unable to seek help or guidance from even those they come to call friends.

IDENTICAL is Ellen Hopkins at her best. Once again she uses her unique style to communicate the story. The verse is straightforward and honest. Although some say they find her directness too harsh, I appreciate that she doesn't sugar-coat the controversial issues she chooses to tackle. There isn't anything "nice" about what happens in IDENTICAL, and Hopkins doesn't try to cheapen it by softening the facts. Readers should brace themselves for a gritty story, but it's one that will have them appreciating the simple love and trust present in their own lives.

My 8th Graders Say ... Read These Books!

Here's list of books my 8th graders either read over the summer or since school started. They recommend them as "must read" titles.

TWILIGHT and NEW MOON by Stephenie Meyer
FAKE ID and CLUB DREAD by Walter Sorrells
BEANBALL by Gene Fehler
RED IS FOR REMEMBRANCE by Laurie Faria Stolarz
ELDEST by Christopher Paolini
TEEN ANGST? NAAH.... by Ned Vizzini

Saturday, September 6, 2008

LOCK AND KEY by Sarah Dessen

Seventeen year old Ruby has been living on her own for several months since her alcoholic mother suddenly packed up and left. Things haven't been all that great, but she figures she'll be eighteen soon and maybe life will turn around. Then there's a knock on her door. Thanks to the nosy landlords, Ruby finds herself first in the care of social services and then moving in with her sister Cora who she hasn't seen in years.

As far as Ruby knows, Cora left her years ago with their drunken mother and was never heard from again. Suddenly Cora and her husband Jamie are stepping in to rescue Ruby. They are providing a beautiful house in a wealthy gated community, a preppy private school, and the offer of credit card shopping sprees. It's completely overwhelming. Not used to the extravagant lifestyle, it takes a while for Ruby to trust her sister's motives.

Even though her past life was difficult at best, Ruby returns to her old house, her old school, and a few old friends as she tries to adjust to her new and sometimes confusing situation. As she begins to open up to Cora, Jamie, and Nate the boy next door, she learns that real family and friendship can provide support she never even imagined was possible.

Author Sarah Dessen continues her string of excellent YA novels with LOCK AND KEY. It's a story filled with real people dealing with real problems. Her well-developed characters are easy to relate to, pulling readers into the smoothly written plot. As with most of Dessen's books, I felt a part of their lives as I turned each page. LOCK AND KEY is a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Monday, September 1, 2008

DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Amal is Australian-Palestinian-Muslim. She was born in Australia, and it's all she knows. She went to a Catholic grade school and is now in eleventh grade in an Australian preparatory school with plans to attend college. She is surrounded by a mix of cultures and variety so she normally blends in with the crowd. However, things are about to change.

Religion is taken seriously in Amal's household. They observe Muslim traditions as they live their busy lives. Despite being raised by strict and concerned parents, Amal counts herself lucky that they believe in education and the freedom to follow her future dreams, unlike her friend Leila's mother who believes she must be married off to an acceptable man as quickly as possible. Even though religion plays an important role in Amal's life, it still comes as a complete surprise to her parents and friends when she declares that she wants to become what she calls a "full-timer." She has decided to wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women.

Knowing she will likely risk ridicule and hear comments like "terrorist" and "towel-head", Amal is determined to adopt this visible sign of her faith. Her parents are surprised but supportive and attempt to prepare her for the worst. Her mother shops with her for attractive fabrics and gives her instruction in the proper wearing style. Her father insists that she meet with the principal of her school to seek approval for this controversy decision before she attempts to wear the hijab. But Amal doesn't want to wait; she wants wear the hijab on her first day back from school holiday. She believes she must jump right in and not give herself any reason to compromise her decision.

DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? highlights not only Amal's life-changing decision to be different and wear an outspoken statement of her faith, but it also focuses on her friends who experience struggles of their own at school and at home. There is something for everyone in this book. Readers can relate to many of the pains of being a modern teenager. Even though the action is set in Australia, readers from cultures all over the world will relate to Amal and her friends as they live through typical teen experiences.