In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott says, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”


My hope is that this is what books become to you—as important as almost anything else on earth. This blog is about helping you find the miracle in these small, flat, rigid squares of paper while you are in middle school and beyond. Once you read alongside me, you are forever a member of my tribe of readers. No matter how you old you are, when you need to be reminded of the power of a good story, you will find me here, waiting to place one in your hands.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

THE LURE by Lynne Ewing


copyright date: February 2014
primarily marketed for: young adults (high school)

I have been a fan of Lynne Ewing’s Drive By for years.  It is a short, easy to read story about a boy whose older brother is gunned down in a drive by while they are walking home together.  At first, it seems to be a case of an innocent child in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That is, until the younger brother is approached about taking his older brother’s place in a gang.   It is a story filled with action and tough choices. 

So, when I saw that Lynne Ewing’s new book The Lure, I immediately knew it would be one I would want to share. 

Ewing gives us a hard core look at life in the inner city.  The Lure is the story of Blaise, a self-reliant teenage girl, living with her grandmother.  She has a rough history and often eats ketchup packets and sugar packets as meals to leave enough money for her grandmother to eat. 

Blaise sees joining Core 9 as an opportunity to earn money and take care of her grandmother.  Although she is streetwise and tough, there is no way for her to anticipate how each step she makes toward getting involved in the gang will lead to deeper problems.   Before long, Blaise finds herself and those she loves surrounded by danger. 

Blaise has no easy choices, making the book almost too realistic at times.  The dynamic between Blaise, the other girls in the gang, her guy friends, and the guys who run the gang is realistically drawn.  It is the realism that makes this story so tense.  I had a knot in my stomach for her all the way to the last page.  Ewing’s writing is so vivid it has been tough to shake long after having put the book down. 

The Lure is the kind of book I think everyone should experience vicariously to avoid making similar choices in their own lives.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander


copyright date: March 2014
primarily marketed for: middle grades (4th-7th)

I didn’t expect to fall in love with this book. 

I was hoping it would be worthy of recommendation to some of the less enthusiastic readers in my classroom.  I guess I did not expect much beyond an engaging basketball story and a fast-paced poetic rhythm. 

Not only does The Crossover by Kwame Alexander deliver on all aforementioned accounts, but it is also a beautiful story of the bond between a father and son, the power of cultural history to shape a person, and the evolution of brotherly love as young men come of age. 

It is the story of 8th grader Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan, who have inherited their father’s talent for basketball.  On the court, they are a lethal combination, teaming up to lead their team to the championship.  Off the court, Josh struggles with growing distance between his brother and him since a girl has come into the picture. 

Josh’s father’s influence in his life also plays a large role in the story, from the nickname his father gives him, to the music his father exposes him to, and the rules for basketball (and life) his father teaches him.  Josh is both embarrassed by his father, and he yearns to make his father proud.

Josh’s story is that of an average teenage boy.  However, it is anything but average.  There is depth in the verse that tells his story, depth that only poetry this well crafted could offer.

Josh Bell worked his way into my heart, and he is not leaving anytime soon.

Friday, April 11, 2014

GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith



copyright date: February 2014
primarily marketed for: young adults (high school)

Reading Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith felt like being let in on a secret. 

The flap copy had me completely baffled as to why I wanted to read a book about an unstoppable army of hungry, horny, giant praying mantis creatures.  However, after reading Winger, I was sure Smith’s writing would be brilliant, and the buzz amongst my social media connections was that the book kept people thinking long after they finished reading.  There was no way to know for myself other than to jump right in and start reading, to hear the secret firsthand. 

From the very start I was equally shocked, amused, and charmed by Austin Szerba and his friend Robby Brees. They are pretty typical teenage boys living in a small town in Iowa.  Austin is struggling with typical teenage boy things, like confusion over his feelings for his girlfriend and his best friend, who both happen to be in love with him.  He is also dealing with family issues, including a depressed older brother who was recently injured in Afghanistan.  An additional challenge, or perhaps a means of coping with the challenges he faces, is his sense of connection to the men who came before Austin in the Szerba family history. 

All of these strands of Austin’s existence intertwine as a plague strain is accidentally released, causing humans who come into contact with it to turn into unstoppable hungry, horny, giant praying mantis creatures.

Although it is at this point that the story sort of becomes about it being up to Austin and Robby to save their town, their world, and themselves, Grasshopper Jungle is so much more than an epic battle between boys and beasts. 

The secret to this book is not in the story it tells, but rather the secret lies in how the story is told.  The secret is in the voice of Austin Szerba, in his history.  The secret is the lambent craft of Andrew Smith.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

WINGER by Andrew Smith


 

copyright date: May 2013
primarily marketed for: Young Adults (high school)

Have you ever read Looking for Alaska by John Green?  I never thought I would ever read another book that I could recommend as being just as good as Looking for Alaska.  Until I read Winger by Andrew Smith. 

I laughed audibly at fictional characters while reading this book.  My heart ached for fictional characters while reading this book.  I had tears streaming down my face over fictional characters while reading this book. 

It is a good book.  Great book.  Incredible book. 

It is about a brilliant fourteen-year-old kid at a boarding school with sixteen-year-olds.  After getting into some cell-phone trouble, this self-proclaimed runt is thrust into living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troubled students.  The kind of troubled students who would love to squash a fourteen-year-old boy.  To make matters worse, he is in love with his best friend, a gorgeous sixteen-year-old girl who is far beyond his reach. 

However, the story of the underdog is not what makes this one of the best books I’ve ever read.  What is so incredibly moving is how this story is told.  And I am not referring to the excess of bad language (that is somehow hilarious and charming, perhaps because the protagonist confesses that he only writes with this language and could never actual speak such words), or the humor surrounding bathrooms and injuries to male body parts (though these may have been moments when I was caught laughing), or even the drawings laced throughout the book (that are as funny and worth stopping to interpret as the language and humor).

I am referring to the way Smith brings to life each and every character who inhabits this story.  Not a single person fades into the background of the text.  And just when you are high on the wild ride of sarcastic, self-deprecating humor and romance, the story comes to a complete halt.  It is like watching a movie when all the sound fades away.  When the image on the screen exists in complete silent stillness.  I am not even sure I took a single breath while reading the final third of the book. 

This is not a story for young readers.  It is a coming of age story filled with mature situations and language. However, amidst the humor, it is a story grounded in moral goodness.  And everyone should read it.    

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson



copyright date: September 2013
primarily marketed for: young adults (7th grade and up)

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is not the kind of book you would typically find in my stack of books to be read.  However, something about it called to me.  And boy am I glad it did!  I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, promised to be released this fall.

The story begins with a gripping prologue that takes place years before the action of the rest of the book.  It is the story of a young boy named David witnessing his father’s death at the hands of Steelheart, a sort of superhuman called an Epic.  Although David is in awe of Steelheart’s power to turn anything that is not living to steel, he is even more amazed to witness Steelheart reveal a weakness.  David is the only human who knows the truth about what happened during that attack and survived.

Years later, when David is eighteen, he has finally caught up with a group of rebels, who fight against Epics.  With the knowledge of what he saw years ago, David hopes to join their team and get revenge on Steelheart. 

The story takes place in the future.  Chicago has been forever altered by Steelheart’s rule and is now referred to as “Newcago.”  I love a good story set in Chicago, but it was far more than the setting that drew me into this action-thriller.  Amidst the action sequences, cool technology, and plot twists, Sanderson plants the seeds for some big ideas.  Through David’s quest for revenge and desire to be part of something bigger than himself, Sanderson forces readers to think about good and evil, right and wrong, war and terrorism.  David’s answers don’t come easy, and nor do answers come easy for the reader. 

It would have been easy to turn this into a flat story of good guys versus bad, but Sanderson has dug much deeper than that to give readers a smart thriller that is as satisfying as it is unsettling.


Monday, January 20, 2014

THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson


copyright date: January 2014
primarily marketed for:  young adults
“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding.  My feet felt rooted in the dirt.  There were more than two bodies buried here.  Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground.  Pieces of Dad, too.”
-from The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson is undoubtedly her most powerful work so far.  And that is saying a lot.  Somehow this story managed to charm me, break my heart, coax me to giggle, steal my breath away, and fill me with hope.  From the moment I began reading, I allowed little else to interfere with my path to the last page. 

Hayley has traveled the country with her war veteran truck driver father for years before finally settling down to attend high school and lead a ‘normal’ life.  Fragmented memories of the past haunt both Hayley and her father, constantly threatening to interfere with their abilities to move on.

Although she is continuously in trouble for her attitude at school, being settled means Hayley is finally able to keep friends, and even become involved in a romantic relationship with the quirky head of the nonexistent newspaper club.  However, when people from the past suddenly show up in their lives, Hayley is torn between reaching out for support and pushing people away. 

Like in her other books, Anderson flawlessly builds tension, draws realistic characters who settle into our hearts, and crafts a story with meaning that reaches far beyond the pages filled with ink.  Although the characters are fictional, they are also achingly real.  While I read Hayley’s story, I couldn’t help but think of when a student, whose father had been repeatedly deployed, once said to me, “The war stole my father.  The war stole my family.  We will never be the same.”  This is the power of war.  This is the power of story.  After reading The Impossible Knife of Memory, I will never be the same.  It is the kind of story I am in no hurry to layer another on top of.  This is a book I want to linger in my mind for days before attempting to select one to follow it.  I want to remember this story, this feeling.  No matter how painful, we can never forget The Impossible Knife of Memory.

Monday, January 6, 2014

THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB by Robert Sharenow


copyright date: 2011
primarily marketed for: young adults (teens)

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow opens with this quote:
“There is one kind of sport which should be especially encouraged, although many people . . . consider it brutal and vulgar, and that is boxing . . . There is no other sport which equals this in developing the militant spirit, none that demands such a power of rapid decision or which gives the bod the flexibility of good steel . . . But, above all, a healthy youth has to learn to endure hard knocks.”
-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
As an opening, it is a perfect representation of Sharenow’s ability to craft a story that is at once rooted in history and grounded in contemporary relevance. 

Karl Stern is a young boy growing up in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power.  He is Jewish by descent, though his family does not identify with or practice Jewish religion or culture.  His Jewish identity serves as the major conflict in the story, but this is a story with many layers. 

Having read a lot of young adult books set during this time period, I am immediately drawn into a story that takes a fresh approach and reveals a piece of history that is new to me.  Sharenow’s story does just that.  However, even more appealing than the history embedded in this story is the fact that Karl is a character who is relevant to today’s teens.  Although his story is set against a historical backdrop, his struggles are universally human.  Ultimately The Berlin Boxing Club is the story of Karl’s search for his own identity—his role within his family, within his country, within an increasingly confusing world.

When his father, who owns an art gallery, makes a deal with his old friend, the famous boxer Max Schmeling, Karl suddenly finds himself training to become a future boxing champion.  It is through boxing that Karl finds confidence, discovers his first love, and escapes the growing restrictions being placed on German Jews.  Boxing is the vehicle by which Karl grows up.

In addition to his dedication to boxing, Karl (and Robert Sharenow) has talent and passion for drawing cartoons, which are peppered throughout the book.  Although they lend a welcome lighthearted quality to the story, there is also a bit of chilling sarcasm created by the juxtaposition of the youthful innocence of the drawings and the harsh reality of the comics’ contents.

Set during a volatile time in human history, this is a powerful story of bullying, friendship, family, romance, art, boxing, discrimination, and hope.