Category Archives: Young adult

Newbery Project – Bomb

Bomb tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, the sabotage efforts to keep Germany from creating their own, and the spies on all sides trying to discover information. A Newbery Honor book in 2013, it  also won the Sibert, and was National Book Award Finalist and several other accolades to make it the most decorated book of the year.

I certainly am not going to go against the grain, because I can only agree that the writing here was stellar. The author keeps an almost journalistic viewpoint, as though the action were happening right now, allowing him to build real tension as the story progresses, despite the fact that everyone already knows the basics of how the book will end. (Even the most naive child reader will surely be aware that the US has nuclear weapons.)

I learned a lot from the book. Not only was the science behind nuclear warfare explained extremely well for such a short treatment, but a lot of the history was unknown to me. All of the stuff with the Norwegians I hadn’t heard before, as well as most of the spying stuff.

The author has also been getting a lot of praise for his restrained treatment of the morals in the story. His authorial presence is very light-handed, presenting the story and the people involved as they were, with their motivations and actions told in their own words, then letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions about the moral and ethical implications of those motivations and actions. Only in the epilogue does the author take a small break and start talking about the permanent and international implications of atomic weaponry that effect us even now. An excellent book.

Recommended to fans of nonfiction, fans of history, and people who like spy stories, even if they think they “don’t like nonfiction.”

Young Adult – Pretty Girl-13

The last thing Angie remembers is the Girl Scout camping trip. Then, suddenly, she’s standing in front of her house, her feet sore and wearing clothes she’s never seen before. Her parents freak out when she shows up on the doorstep, and she’s shocked to discover that she’s been missing for three years. She’d think it was a joke if she couldn’t see for herself that her body has aged, and that she has new scars she can’t remember getting. But what happened to those three years worth of memories? Where has she been? And who took her there?

If anyone reads the book flap they will find out the following, but if you really don’t want even the slightest shade of spoilers, be warned and don’t read ahead! Angie can’t remember what happened because “Angie” wasn’t there: she has multiple personalities that took over to protect their Pretty Girl – 13. Some of those personalities are happy to give Angie back to her former life, but others are upset about relinquishing control. Angie has to struggle to reintegrate herself, both back into her former life, where all of her friends have moved on and grown up in ways that she has not, and internally.

Some of Angie’s experiences were very disturbing. While there is nothing explicit, it is also clear that Angie was physically and sexually abused during her captivity. Readers should be warned that these images may be disturbing or upsetting.

This was fast paced and high on the tension, a page turner, but it also didn’t tread any major new ground in the sub-sub-sub genre of multiple personalities. There were some extreme coincidences that stretched believability. The ending, while incredibly dramatic, was also somewhat over the top. Still, I would recommend this book to people, especially girls, who like mysteries, tension, emotional wringers, or thrillers.

Newbery – Enchantress from the Stars

This was a surprisingly philosophical book. Elana wrestles several times with herself over what the best move should be when her gut reaction differs from her ethical code. Yet somehow the moralizing and discussions never seemed didactic or trying to win me over (though they did occasionally go on too long or were repeated once too often. Not a lot, mind you, this was a very well-written book, but it was there.)

In terms of characterization, this book was very finely done. We only ever really know four characters: Georyn, Elana, Jarral (not sure of the spelling, since I listened to the audiobook) and Elana’s father. There is one other major character, Evric, but he is off screen for half the book and the half that he is there we only ever see him through Elana’s eyes. This is true of her father as well, but since he is a large part of Elana’s discussions we can understand him. He was slightly flawed as a character in that he was far too patient and understanding. I was willing to write that off to some extent, though, because that is essentially his job, and he is highly trained at empathizing with others and then using his understanding to further his goals. If he wasn’t on the side of the righteous, I would accuse him of being highly manipulative. Actually, I still accuse him of that, I just understand why he takes the actions he does.

I loved this book, and I wish I had read it as a child because I think I would have loved it even more. As an adult, I loved that the huge romance was a tragic one. It’s so frustrating to read so many contemporary books where the “forbidden love” is always overcome and the teenagers involved always throw caution to the wind. Not here. Georyn and Elana both acknowledge that it would be impossible to join each other’s worlds. Rather than make the other person miserable for the rest of their lives, they choose to separate. (Well, maybe “choose” is too strong a word.) I was blown away that.

Newbery Project – My Brother Sam is Dead

I did not think I would enjoy this book. The cover blurbs generally focus on something like “Tim’s brother is a Patriot and his father is a Loyalist! Poor Tim doesn’t know which side to be on!” which made it sound like it would be a wishy-washy narrator who has a coming-of-age moment when he realizes that he doesn’t have to follow in his father’s footsteps and inevitably joins on the side of the rebels. I should have realized that such a predictable plot-line and character arc are not what wins a Newbery Honor. Instead of what I thought I was going to read, I encountered what has to be the best anti-war book aimed at middle school students that I have ever read.

Far from being about whether Tim chooses to be a Tory or a Rebel, Tim’s coming-of-age moments generally happen when he is forced to the conclusion that war is hell and that everyone involved in the war, on both sides, is irrevocably changed by the experience, and not for the good. Both sides do heinous things, and both sides make excellent points about why they should win. I’m so used to reading books set during the Revolution that just assume that obviously the Patriots were the good guys and fighting the cause of the just, that it was twice as shocking to see the gritty reality portrayed here. Tim’s epilogue written as an adult even says that while he thinks, in the end, that becoming their own country was a good thing, he wishes it could have been done without having to go to war.

One of the things I appreciated about the book is that we were not witness to any battles. Historical fiction centered around a major event (like a war) generally bends over backward to put the main character at a turning point in the event. Not so here. We see the war from the point of view of a backwater village. Battles are fought far away and the effects of the war are felt in the lack of food, lack of security, and the many friends and neighbors who are killed in distant parts. When the British pass through very briefly there is a fatal skirmish and when the Patriots camp out in town there are dramatic repercussions, but neither of these highly traumatic scenes are parts of a battle or very important in the big picture. Part of the power of the anti-war message in the book is how many characters are killed as a direct result of the war for stupid reasons that have no real impact on the “glory of war”.

Newbery Project – Witch of Blackbird Pond

This has been one of my favorite Newbery winners since I was first forced to read it in the sixth grade. I still love it, though looking at it with a more critical eye I see small flaws here and there.

The characters are mostly very well drawn. Kit as the impetuous girl, Matthew her stern and fierce uncle made harder by a hard life, her once-beautiful aunt greyed by the loss of her sons and a lifetime of hard work. The one exception is Mercy. As a child I loved the kind and patient Mercy, but as an adult I find her too one-dimensional. Whereas all of the other characters are complex, complicated people, Mercy is only ever kind and patient to a fault. She fits very clearly into the trope of the handicapped child as an inspiration of patience and gentleness.

The plot is excellently handled. Having recently read a (non-Newbery) book that suffered from too little to keep the characters truly busy, I was all the more primed to appreciate the interweaving of the threads of narrative here. There is the section dealing with politics and charter, the romances of the three girls, and Kit’s friendship with Hannah, all fitting within the larger story of Kit looking for a place to belong. Each of these plot threads interweave with one another, so that the young men courting the girls are involved in the politics, for example. There were a few brief moments where the plot hinged on coincidence (the arrival of the Dolphin towards the end of the story, for instance) but I am willing to forgive these, and apparently so was the 1959 Newbery committee.

Newbery Project – Dead End in Norvelt

In talking about this book, winner of the 2012 Newbery Award, one of the blogs that I read said something like “the downside of winning the Newbery is that forever after that when people read the book, they’ll be mentally weighing its value to figure out if it ‘should’ have won.” I couldn’t help but think about that as I was reading the book myself. I liked it. It was good. But I don’t think I would have picked it over A Monster Calls or some of the other choices available this year.

Jack’s characterization is great, and so are those of his very different parents and Ms. Volker. But Mr. Spitz didn’t make any sense at all right from the beginning (well, the old busybody part did. But his weird relationship with Ms. Volker, and the fact that such an old man was able to ride around on the tricycle were both odd.)

As a history buff I rather enjoyed all the random historical stories that were thrown into the book, but I don’t think from a literary perspective that they really worked very well. It felt too much like the author was excited about history and wanted to get kids excited too, so he just included them in the hopes that he’s spark some interest. Their connection to the larger book didn’t make much sense. Right at the end Jack talks about how learning about history is important because if you don’t learn from history you’re bound to repeat it, making the same mistakes over and over. And that’s true for Jack, but that doesn’t apply to the historical vignettes we’ve been learning about. None of the historical stories relate to anything going on in the book, so that Jack doesn’t learn anything valuable from the stories, other than that he likes history. Since the author could pick and choose what dates to kill off the old ladies, I think it is a missed opportunity to have connected the stories to things going on, even if only on a thematic level.

I did enjoy the book. It was humorous (though not actually funny. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s still a difference. I was amused for much of the story but never tempted to actually laugh.)

Newbery Project – My Brother Sam is Dead

I did not think I would enjoy this book, which won the Newbery Honor in 1975. The cover blurbs generally focus on something like “Tim’s brother is a Patriot and his father is a Loyalist! Poor Tim doesn’t know which side to be on!” which made it sound like it would be a wishy-washy narrator who has a coming-of-age moment when he realizes that he doesn’t have to follow in his father’s footsteps and inevitably joins on the side of the rebels. I should have realized that such a predictable plot-line and character arc are not what wins a Newbery Honor. Instead of what I thought I was going to read, I encountered what has to be the best anti-war book aimed at middle school students that I have ever read.

Far from being about whether Tim chooses to be a Tory or a Rebel, Tim’s coming-of-age moments generally happen when he is forced to the conclusion that war is hell and that everyone involved in the war, on both sides, is irrevocably changed by the experience, and not for the good. Both sides do heinous things, and both sides make excellent points about why they should win. I’m so used to reading books set during the Revolution that just assume that obviously the Patriots were the good guys and fighting the cause of the just, that it was twice as shocking to see the gritty reality portrayed here. Tim’s epilogue written as an adult even says that while he thinks, in the end, that becoming their own country was a good thing, he wishes it could have been done without having to go to war.

One of the things I appreciated about the book is that we were not witness to any battles. Historical fiction centered around a major event (like a war) generally bends over backward to put the main character at a turning point in the event. Not so here. We see the war from the point of view of a backwater village. Battles are fought far away and the effects of the war are felt in the lack of food, lack of security, and the many friends and neighbors who are killed in distant parts. When the British pass through very briefly there is a fatal skirmish and when the Patriots camp out in town there are dramatic repercussions, but neither of these highly traumatic scenes are parts of a battle or very important in the big picture. Part of the power of the anti-war message in the book is how many characters are killed as a direct result of the war for stupid reasons that have no real impact on the “glory of war”.

Young Adult – Forgotten

Every morning sixteen-year-old London sits down with her notes to find out what happened yesterday: she has absolutely no idea of her past, her memory extending only until 4:00 am, when it resets to a blank, erasing everything from the previous day. What she does possess, though, is a memory of the future. London has no idea what happened yesterday, but she does know what’s going to happen tomorrow.  So why does the gorgeous, kind, funny Luke not show up in any of her future memories, even after she starts dating him?

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but there were many times when I was thrown out of the story by the basic premise of London’s odd memory. There is a paradox involved in almost everything she does. For instance, she can “remember” her locker combination only because she knows what it will be tomorrow. On the last day of school she can’t open her locker because she does not have the next day’s “memory” to tell her what it is. But if that is true, then on the second-to-last day of school she also wouldn’t know what the number was, and so on in a cascade of dominoes. Even if we take it as read that this is the way the memory works, why not just plan to wake up on the day after the last day of school and read the number off of a piece of paper? The same goes for all of her schoolwork. If she is passing tests based on what she knows tomorrow, how does that work if she never actually learned the information in the first place? It boggles the mind.

Plus, it is shown that there is no predetermined fate. London’s actions can have an effect on what she remembers happening in the future. This comes as something of a surprise to her, but shouldn’t it have been happening all of the time, even if just by accident? Everyone is hurt at some point, London has never once given herself a note to avoid falling or tried not to have a fight with a friend, or any other such thing in the last twelve years? How in the world has she managed to hide her strange ability/disability from absolutely everyone for so long, especially since it started when she was so young?

If you’re wiling to just let the logic go and take the worldbuilding for what it is, however, the story is a decently good romance with a dash of paranormal.

Young Adult – Akata Witch

Twelve year old Sunny has spent her entire life feeling out of place, first as a Nigerian in America and now as an American in Nigeria. It doesn’t help that she is an albino, forced to stay out of the sun and looking physically out of place as well. She is surprised to discover, however, that she really IS different: she is one of the Leopard People, magic workers who live amongst the regular world. But just as Sunny is beginning her initiation into magic, she is thrust into a mystery involving a serial killer that might just have ties to the magical world.

This was an excellent fantasy book.  I enjoyed reading a book set in Africa that was grounded in the realities of rural Nigeria: the buses are unreliable and crowded, but the kids have cell phones. While books that takes place on this continent are admittedly rare, the few that are published seem to depict Africa as existing in a perpetual time-warp where computers or televisions are strange or nonexistant.

But as much as the setting helps the book to stand out from the pack of fantasy novels, the writing and story work just as hard to be distinguished. The magic system was interesting; I particularly loved that learning new things led to an instant shower of magical currency. While the prejudice against free agents – children who come into the magical world without generations of family support – is a little over-the-top, I was willing to overlook it as a means for the author to both convey attitudes and do a little more-or-less subtle info-dumping.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasy. Some of the serial killing implications could be a little upsetting, but the book never becomes gory.

Young Adult – Bumped

Melody is eagerly (mostly…) awaiting the moment that she has been preparing for through the past several years: the day her sperm donor will be announced and she can finally join the ranks of her schoolmates in “pregging for profit.” In a world where The Virus has rendered everyone over the age of 18 infertile, teenage pregnancies are highly encouraged, with the resulting babies given up for adoption immediately – if not presold ahead of time. A well-handled bump can mean a free ride to college, a car, all sorts of perks, and Melody’s parents have been grooming her for years for this opportunity. But Melody didn’t count on an unexpected visit from her long-lost identical twin sister Harmony…

There were times when I doubted the plot, and a few places where the characters didn’t seem to be acting consistently, but I was willing to overlook most of the flaws because I thought the world building was absolutely fabulous.

The slang Melody uses was pitch-perfect in that it was not quite like anything people say today but was close enough that it seemed like a logical progression for twenty years from now, plus was always understandable. “Neggy” for instance, needed no explanation even though it was completely made up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the world in which Melody and Harmony live.  I’d love to see how other people are reacting to this mess of a world. I think it’s a great sign that the world-building was on target when I’m spending so much time thinking about all of the stories that could still be told about this made up universe.

The book was not perfect. There was more than one “Wait, s/he’s doing *what?*” moments. Characters are allowed to be unpredictable, but a complete 180 doesn’t makes sense when we don’t see it coming and there’s no real explanation. There were a few places where I felt the presence of plot holes looming, but I didn’t let them get in my way for the most part.

Recommended for teens who like dystopian fiction, speculative fiction, or quick light romances.