Friday, July 25, 2014

NEW BOY by Julian Houston

New BoyNEW BOY, set in the 1950's, is the story of a Southern high school student whose chance to attend a boarding school in Connecticut is an eye-opening experience.  Rob Garrett understands that the opportunity to enroll as the only black student at Draper has the potential to open doors for him that continuing to attend his local high school in Virginia will not.  He knows he should be grateful, but he is also incredibly nervous.

The administration at Draper makes Rob feel welcome, and classes are interesting and challenging.  Living in a dorm with all white students is a bit unsettling.  Rob treads lightly during the early days at the new school especially when he witnesses the blatant discrimination aimed at a fellow student unlucky enough to be an Italian with chronic acne.  Rob befriends the outcast, but as the challenge of his studies and maintaining a spot on the honor roll consumes his time, he finds it is difficult to be the attentive friend he knows he should be.

As Rob keeps in touch with friends in Virginia and visits home during holidays, he learns of the increasing fight to end segregation in the South.  Becoming used to the more free way of life for blacks in the North, he vows to help his Southern friends fight despite the risks and his parents' fears for his safety. 

Torn between life in two very different worlds, Rob's story gives a personal touch to the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950's.  NEW BOY by Julian Houston is an excellent novel for readers interests in seeing a different view of the fight to end segregation in America.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY by Karen Harrington

Sure Signs of CrazyWhen people learn who Sarah Nelson's mother is, Sarah and her father have to move.  That means Sarah is used to being the new kid at school, making new friends, and living in rental houses.  Sarah understands the reason for the many moves, but it doesn't mean she has to like it.

She doesn't know the details of what happened very well because she was only two at the time.  What she does know is that her mother went crazy and tried to drown Sarah and her twin brother Simon.  Sarah survived, but Simon did not.  There was a trial, actually two trials Sarah will remind you.  One trial ended with a guilty verdict for her mother who was sent to a mental facility.  The other trial was for Sarah's father who was found not guilty on charges of endangering his children.  When news gets out about the family's identity, it is just easier to move than deal with the consequences.

There are only a few weeks left of Sarah's sixth grade year.  She has two worries about the approaching summer.  1) Like every other summer, she will be sent to stay with her grandparents because her father has to work and doesn't like to leave her home alone.  2) If she survives the summer with her grandparents, Sarah dreads the fact that she will be in seventh grade because she knows she will be required to complete the Family Tree Project assigned to all seventh graders in Garland, Texas.  How will she be able to hide the truth about her mother then?

One thing that gives Sarah some comfort is the challenge her teacher gives the class on the last day.  In an effort to keep the students writing over the summer, Mr. Wistler suggests that everyone write something, either a story, a book of poetry, or something.  Sarah begins writing letters to her favorite character in her favorite book - Atticus Finch.  She has read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD multiple times and even highlighted the passages she loves.  She believes Atticus is the perfect father, and since her father drinks too much and doesn't even remember her birthday, she turns to Atticus when she needs to confide in someone.

As readers follow Sarah's summer adventures, they will enjoy her spunk, appreciate her dedication, and learn her family's secrets.  Author Karen Harrington words and images are sure to leave a lasting impression.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Love Letters to the DeadWhen Laurel's English teacher requires everyone to write a letter to a dead person, Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain.  He was her choice because her sister May was one of his biggest fans.  Both Kurt and May died young so Laurel is hoping to find some answers or at least comfort as she writes the letter.

What is interesting is that Laurel doesn't stop with her assigned letter to Kurt.  She continues writing her thoughts and feelings and addressing them to other dead people.  Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, Janis Joplin, River Phoenix, and even Allen Lane, the voice of the famous talking horse Mr. Ed, are just a few of the dead people to whom Laurel pours out her feelings.

Laurel splits her time between living with her father and her aunt.  Her parents divorced shortly before her sister's death and her mother left soon after.  Laurel hoped that changing schools would soften the impact of missing her sister, but making friends proves to be challenging until she meets Natalie and Hannah and then the mysterious Sky.  Not the best influences, they may be leading her astray, but Laurel welcomes the distractions they offer since she doesn't seem able to face the truth about the painful secret she carries with her.  Sky has his own secrets and attempts to get Laurel to open up to him, but she isn't sure she is ready to trust anyone just yet.

LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD is the debut novel of author Ava Dellaira.  The use of letters provides a unique approach in the telling of Laurel's story.  Dellaira captures the essence of both past and present through Laurel's heartfelt words to people no longer of the earth.

Friday, July 18, 2014

FAT CHANCE by Leslea Newman

Fat ChanceAlthough published in 1994, FAT CHANCE by Leslea Newman still rings true today, in fact, with the increased prevalence of eating disorders, its message may be even more important today.

As an eighth grader, Judi dreams of having a boyfriend and going on exciting dates, but she is convinced that can only happen if she loses weight.  Her mother insists she is a "growing girl" who needs to eat three nutritious meals a day.  Judi is sure that isn't the path to happiness.  It doesn't help that Judi's classmates are typical kids who tease and taunt about any perceived physical flaws with little regard for the feelings they hurt or the self-esteem they damage.

When Ms. Roth, the new English teacher, requires each student to keep a diary, Judi uses the assignment to pour out her feelings as she records her attempts at weight loss and relationship difficulties.  She learns tricks to avoid eating breakfast, consumes only diet Coke for lunch, and tries to get away with eating as little as possible of her mother's home-cooked dinners.  She is able to shed a few pounds, but is frustrated by the need to binge when she is feeling stressed.

The answer to all her problems seems to appear the day she stumbles across popular girl and future model, Nancy Pratt, vomiting in the restroom.  When Nancy explains that vomiting is her secret to weight control success, Judi is disgusted at first, but as she becomes more desperate to be thin, she gives it a try.  It is easier than she ever imagined.  Now she can eat enough to keep her mother from nagging and lose weight at the same time.

Keeping her secret is difficult, and when Nancy ends up in the hospital as a result of her bulimia, Judi begins to have second thoughts.  Losing weight has some positives, but the strain it has created in the relationships with her best friend and her mother involve more negatives than she may be willing to endure.

In FAT CHANCE author Leslea Newman captures the emotional turmoil created in those suffering from eating disorders.  Through Judi's obsession to lose what to some may seem an insignificant amount of weight, it becomes clear that the mind of a person with bulimia is far from normal and their body image issues produce increasingly irrational arguments most of us would never understand.  Newman's message that eating disorders require outside intervention and commitment on the part of the struggling individual makes this novel instructional as well as entertaining.  Unlike more recent books written about the same subject, FAT CHANCE does not dwell on the horror and debilitation of the eating disorders, however, it still provides an important view worth reading.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

GOLDEN BOY by Tara Sullivan

Golden BoyHabo is thirteen and he lives in Mwanza, Tanzania.  His father left the family years ago, leaving his mother and siblings alone to scratch out a meager existence on their little farm.  Habo's job is to tend the goats.  He would like to help out more, but Habo can't stand even short amounts of time in the sun.  You see, Habo is albino.

Being an albino in Tanzania is not only difficult but also dangerous.  The constant hot sun is definitely a problem, but the attitude of the people is an even greater challenge.  Because no one understands why Habo is the way he is, his mother has been blamed for his oddities.  People speculate that his father was a white man or that his mother committed some other sin that caused his condition and brought the family bad luck.  Although his mother loves him, their relationship is distant as she tries to find ways to care for her children and keep the home together.

Unable to pay the landlord, Habo's mother announces that they will be moving to the city to live with an aunt.  His older brother will stay behind to finish the coffee harvest and join them later.  The move will be taking them to a much larger place where jobs will be more plentiful, however, Habo knows the move will also increase the likelihood of danger.

Habo must be kept in hiding at his aunt's house.  Unfortunately, a casual comment from his sister reveals his strange condition and an evil poacher attempts to kill Habo and sell his body parts as good luck medicine.  Habo knows the only recourse is to leave his family and head to the larger city of Dar es Salaam where life is not so dangerous for albinos.

In her final author's note Tara Sullivan writes of her fascination with the plight of albinos in Tanzania and surrounding countries.  After researching the horrible stories of dismemberment and other ways African medicine men used albinos, she was inspired to write this fictional account.  Habo's tale is at once horrific and inspiring as readers will follow the young teen on his journey to find a place that will accept him for who he is and appreciate the talents he has to offer.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

WICKEDPEDIA by Chris Van Etten

WickedpediaWICKEDPEDIA by Chris Van Etten is the perfect murder mystery for summer beach reading.  Complete with high school gossip, a touch of humor, and some gruesome killing, it will grab readers and keep them in a choke hold until the end.

Cole is battling Winnie for valedictorian, and to make matters worse, Winnie is his ex-girlfriend.  He hasn't truly gotten over their breakup, and he certainly isn't a fan of her new boyfriend and soccer star, Josh. 

When Cole's friend Gavin suggests a way to embarrass and maybe even sideline Josh, Cole is all in.  Using Wikipedia is a shortcut their teachers frown upon, and when they discover Josh uses it regularly, they decide to do a bit of editing to "help" Josh with his research for an upcoming speech. 

Everything works just as they plan and Josh suffers publicly.  But, when Cole and Gavin get a bit more creative on Wikipedia, events begin to spiral out of control.  What started out as a joke is now ending in death and disfigurement caused by someone who is obviously watching their every move.

Author Chris Van Etten provides plenty of intense action and intrigue in WICKEDPEDIA.  Get your hands on a copy today.

Friday, July 11, 2014

SAY WHAT YOU WILL by Cammie McGovern

Say What You WillI have a number of reactions to report with this review of SAY WHAT YOU WILL by Cammie McGovern.

1) I discovered it while browsing the new releases at the bookstore.  Really glad I selected it!
2) As I read it, I was pleasantly surprised to identify it as a romance that might appeal to some guy readers.
3) Although I was usually one jump ahead in the plot, there were still enough twists to keep me up all night turning pages.

Amy, a victim of cerebral palsy (CP), is headed into her senior year of high school.  She walks with the aid of a walker and speaks with the help of a computerized device called a Pathway.  Through the years she has had adult aides to help her get to classes and deal with the physical requirements of her condition.  She was used to eating her "special" lunch in a staff lunchroom and having the ever present adult act as a go-between to communicate with students and staff.  Amy may have needed individualized assistance for some things but not with her classwork.  Amy found schoolwork a breeze, and as a result, her mother was busy planning her final year of high school and the application process for all the colleges she hoped her daughter could attend.

For her final year in high school, Amy had one request.  She was tired of spending the majority of her time with adults.  It was clear to her that her fellow students were not inspired toward friendship due to the constant presence of her "teacherlike" helpers.  Amy worked long and hard to convince her parents that she wanted to have peer helpers for her senior year.  She made her case successfully, and through an application and interview process, her mother selected four of Amy's fellow classmates to act as her helpers and hopefully her new friends.

Chloe, Sarah, Sanjay, and Matthew were the chosen four.  Helping Amy would be a paid position and also count toward community service credit for the year.  As the experiment started, Amy found Matthew to be the strangest fit.  The other three went about their tasks willingly, but sometimes left Amy behind making it seem like they viewed the companionship as merely a job.  Matthew was attentive, and Amy quickly decided he had the potential to be a real friend and maybe more, but his own odd tics and behavior had her convinced that he had serious problems of his own.

Readers of SAY WHAT YOU WILL receive story insight from both Amy and Matthew as the POV's of both characters are strongly present.  Amy is dealing with her physical disabilities and her domineering mother, while Matthew quietly suffers with OCD tendencies that have increased in recent years since his parents' divorce and his mother's decline into depression.  Having the balance of Matthew's voice alongside Amy's is what may make this a successful read for both male and female teens.  I will definitely be book talking it with that in mind.

This is the first YA effort for author Cammie McGovern.  A must read as far as I'm concerned, and I am eager to see what she has to offer next.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


The Catcher in the RyeI've revisited THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Since I'll most likely be teaching the book to 12th graders in the coming year, I decided to reread it.  Having read it in high school waaaaayyyy too many years ago, I actually felt like I was reading it for the first time.  The main thing that struck me was how "YA" it is.  Having read many YA novels over the past 8 years as both a teacher and blogger, CATCHER seems to have remained rather relevant.

Holden is dealing with many of the same pressures faced by teens today.  Although the teens I deal with daily are not boarding school students, they are often left to their own devices more than most would believe.  Holden has been kicked out of yet another school and dreads facing his parents.  School is not working out well for him, but he knows it is what is expected of him.  That expectation comes without much support.  His parents are busy with their own lives, and Holden isn't the type to cultivate close friendships so his support system is basically nonexistent. 

There are high expectations of today's teens.  School districts and teacher success rely more and more on high test scores.  Acceptance into preferred colleges and universities is tied to the same high scores and exhausting extracurricular expectations of today's teens.  Unfortunately, the increased stress on teens is not backed up by increased parental support.  Many parents today are struggling to keep ahead financially and day-to-day concerns often take precedence over the emotional needs of their teenagers.  Combine peer pressure, the temptations of stress relieving substances, and the increase in bullying, and many teens have more than they can handle.

In my second reading of Holden's story, I didn't see as many outdated references as I expected.  His stream of consciousness approach that often jumped from one random situation to the next was something I didn't remember from my first reading.  As I read, I found myself comparing this to today's fast-paced communication and access to information.  I tend to think the style will be comfortable for modern teen readers. 

Language wasn't an issue for me, although, a Facebook friend my age mentioned that she found it offense.  Being on the frontlines with middle school and high school teens, it isn't much different than what I know they hear every day.  That isn't meant to condone foul language but rather to recognize, that at least in this area, not much has changed.

Observing Holden's struggle to deal with recent disappointments and previous losses, my heart went out to him.  In putting off the inevitable, he attempts to take on the challenges of the adult world when he would rather cling to the comfort it seems only his younger sister may be able to provide. 

Overall, I would say I found THE CATCHER IN THE RYE still relatable, however, I think I would say my favorite reads come from more recently published YA offerings.  I can't help thinking that the presence of J.D. Salinger on a panel of current YA authors might make for a great event.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

CALL ME BY MY NAME by John Ed Bradley

Call Me By My NameFootball in Louisana is almost a religion, and it wasn't any different in the 1970's.  Something was different in the 70's though.  As a southern state, Louisana still wasn't fully on board with desegregation.  Rodney Boulet and his twin sister Angie grew up in a small town where mixing blacks and whites still wasn't an accepted idea.

Rodney met Tater Henry on the baseball field when the two played Little League.  When Tater, a young black player, boldly stepped on the field, not everyone was thrilled.  Tater had solid skills though and earned the reluctant respect of both coaches and players. 

As the years passed, Tater and Rodney became true friends.  When they weren't playing baseball, they were perfecting their skills at other sports, even swimming when Rodney and Angie could sneak Tater into the city pool where blacks were still not allowed to swim.  When it came time to start high school, blacks were beginning to attend the local public high school.  Although, many white families sent their children to private schools to avoid desegregation, Rodney and Angie's parents weren't able to afford the necessary tuition.  But, Rodney was excited to start high school with his now best friend Tater by his side.  He knew their athletic talents would score them sure spots on the football team. 

 As expected, the team's coaches and players didn't give Tater a warm welcome, but once his speed and quick thinking became evident, he became a valuable member on the field.  Rodney didn't really notice Tater's skin color anymore, and the two began a great partnership on the football field.

One thing did change as time passed.  Rodney's sister Angie was falling in love.  It was one thing to have someone black as his best friend, but Rodney wasn't sure how he felt about his sister having a black boyfriend.  He knew for sure that their father wasn't happy about it, and others frequently made their feelings clear as well.

Author John Ed Bradley brings the football action alive and at the same time clearly reveals the racial tension in the South in the early 1970's.  Both teen and adult readers will appreciate the struggles of the main characters to form lasting friendships and at the same time deal with the conflicting emotions brought on by the times.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

WHEN MR. DOG BITES by Brian Conaghan

When Mr. Dog BitesLet me explain a couple reasons why I bought this book.  #1 - The title and cover are great!  #2 - When the jacket blurb mentioned that the main character has Tourette's, I was hooked.  I am currently working on writing a book with a teen in our public library writers' group, and our main character has Tourette's.  I figured I had better pick up this book to see if our idea had already been done or if we have a chance to do it even better.  (Wishful thinking, of course.)  Here's a brief review and a little commentary about our idea compared to author Brian Conaghan's.

Dylan Mint is sixteen.  "Mr. Dog" represents the uncontrollable urge to let his Tourette's take over his thoughts and actions.  If Mr. Dog has his way, Dylan's tenuous control over his outbursts is destroyed.  At that point he is not responsible for what comes out of his mouth.  Anyone close enough to hear him yell will witness every curse word imaginable and then some. 

Dylan and his best friend Amir (diagnosed on the autism spectrum) go through their days trying to be as normal as possible.  Their biggest desire is to do normal sixteen year old things in normal sixteen year old ways.  During a routine doctor visit, Dylan hears his mother and his doctor whispering.  He believes they are discussing the fact that he has less than a year to live.  He immediately begins to create a list of the things he wants to do before croaks or as he says, "cacks." 

Knowing he has a limited time, his to do list includes only three items.  First and foremost, he wants to sleep with the only hot girl that goes to his special school.  He hopes to get some help from Amir, but all the time he spends protecting his friend from vicious bullies and trying to get to the bottom of his mother's strange behavior, threatens to prevent him from achieving his goal.

WHEN MR. DOG BITES is nothing like the novel my fellow writer and I are trying to draft.  Although our protagonists may share the same syndrome, the focus is much different.  One thing I gained from reading WMDB is a better understanding of Tourette's.  Dylan's case seems pretty severe which causes his thinking and behavior to veer wildly off course.  This often became distracting.  My writing partner and I have already discussed that our character will have had some success in controlling his impulses through therapy, medication, and diet.  After reading Dylan's story, I believe Tourette's will need to play a secondary role in our novel with the plot driving the action instead.  Now for the hard work - finding time to continue our writing.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by Jennifer Mathieu

The Truth About AliceRumor has it that Alice slept with two guys at the same party on the same night.  Then when one of those guys, the most popular guy in school, ends up dieing in a car accident, Alice gets the blame.  She wasn't behind the wheel or even in the car, but another rumor begins that she was sexting Brandon at the time of the crash. 

Everyone has something to say about what happened.  THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE highlights the events through the eyes of four of Alice's fellow classmates.  There is Josh best friend of Brandon and accident survivor.  Kelsie is Alice's former best friend.  Elaine hosted the infamous party where the rumors started, and Kurt maybe be the least popular kid at school but he's probably the most loyal to Alice.

Although the focus is on Alice and the meltdown of her reputation, each narrator gradually reveals his or her own personal issues.  From the outside it might look like Alice has the most to lose, but looks can be deceiving. 

THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by Jennifer Mathieu follows the students in a small community as the rumors unfold.  The callous attitudes and cruel behavior are reminiscent of Jay Asher's THIRTEEN REASONS WHY and are sure to have readers talking long after they finish the last page.

THE BIG SPLASH by Jack D. Ferraiolo

The Big SplashFranklin Middle School is not your average school.  Franklin has the usual classes, teachers, and homework, but it also has a dark side.  Matt Stevens is out to make his school a better place.

Although he is only in the seventh grade, Matt has his own private eye business.  He has recently been hired by Vincent Biggio who deals in forged hall passes and black market candy.  If you cross Vincent, you become part of the Outs, and that's something no one wants.  Matt has been hired to find out who took out one of Vincent's people, Nikki Fingers.

Matt is sure he knows who the guilty party is, but it only takes a little investigation to determine that the suspect list is much longer than he anticipated.  It is not going to be easy to find out who he can trust and who is out to make Matt part of the Outs along with Nikki.

THE BIG SPLASH by Jack D. Ferraiolo is laugh out loud funny and full of fast-paced action.  It is perfect for middle grade readers, especially boys.