Book #9 of this year was The List, by Siobhan Vivian. This book came out at the beginning of April and by the time I heard the author speak at the IRA conference at the end of the month, it was in its third printing. The book has hit a nerve, with its portrayal of life and judgement in an American high school. The story takes place in a school where, for years, a list has come out annually, the week before Homecoming. There are eight names on the list: the prettiest, and the ugliest, girl in each class. This book is about how we let others define us, and how we define ourselves, based on physical appearance. While this book contains themes that are too mature for many of my middle schoolers, it would be fascinating to discuss with older teenagers.
Book #10 was The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler.
I heard Jay Asher speak at the IRA conference, too. Emma and Josh use an AOL CD/ROM to get on the internet, and suddenly they can see their future Facebook pages, even though of course Facebook won't be invented for years. This was a lot of fun, although I would imagine that much of the AOL humor would be lost on people who don't remember 1996 as clearly as I do. It also includes some interesting ideas about how what we do right now affects our future.
Book #11, Thirteen Reasons Why, is also by Jay Asher, and also makes use of outmoded technology.
A few days after a girl from school, Hannah Baker, commits suicide, Clay Jensen receives a box of cassette tapes in the mail. Each one was recorded by Hannah and explains her reasons for choosing to take her own life. Asher read us emails from readers of this book, many of whom found it helped them to feel empathy for others and to realize that their actions, and they way they treated people, had consequences.
Book #12 was Heidegger's Glasses, by Thaisa Frank. This was a strange and somewhat confusing book about Nazi Germany. It's not entirely clear to me how much of the premise is invented and how much is historical, but the story is about a group of people spared from concentration camps because of their linguistic abilities. They are required to answer letters from dead people. Apparently, before being murdered, many inmates of concentration camps were forced to write letters to people back home. The Heidegger's Glasses of the title refers to a pair of glasses made for the philosopher. Heidegger's letter about his glasses comes into the compound, with serious consequences. I loved the end of this book but I found many stretches of it hard to follow.
Book #13 was Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of his Trip to Heaven and Back. It seems clear that Colton Burpo had some kind of experience when he was clinically dead for a few minutes. He went somewhere and saw something. However, I'd be hesitant to draw many conclusions from his story about what Heaven is like. Time changes and distorts our memories, and many of the "revelations" Colton shared were years after he had experienced them. I also thought this book was rather stretched out, as though it would have made a nice article, but was turned into a book. It's a quick, easy read, and the Burpos seem like a very sincere, sweet family.
Book #14 was Three Black Swans, by Caroline Cooney. I used this as a read-aloud with my eighth graders, and it didn't hold their attention the way other books by Cooney have. That could just be because it was the end of the school year! Many of the students did say that they found the premise interesting. Missy and Claire are cousins and they look a lot alike. Missy decides to perpetrate a hoax, pretending that she and Claire are actually twins. A fellow student posts a video of the two girls on YouTube and suddenly they begin to find out that their lives are full of secrets.
Book #15 was Carl Hiaasen's latest, Chomp.
Hiaasen's books are sure-fire winners with my seventh graders, who have enjoyed Flush and Scat. This one didn't disappoint, with its crazy characters, its focus on ecology, and its Florida setting.
Book #16 was Saving Fish from Drowning, by Amy Tan. I always enjoy Tan's books, and this one was very entertaining. It's about a group of tourists who travel to Myanmar/Burma and have a bit more of a cross-cultural experience than they had bargained for, and it's narrated by a woman who is recently dead, but whose spirit is still hanging around.
Book #17 was Not That Kind of Girl, another one by Siobhan Vivian. This has some of the same themes as The List. Male/female interaction, stereotyping, power and control. I didn't enjoy this one as much, though. It isn't easy to be a teenager today, that's for sure, and while adolescence wasn't ever easy, I think the choices and expectations facing teenage girls today, particularly with regard to their sexuality, are daunting. Again, this one is too mature for my middle schoolers.
Book #18 was yet another Siobhan Vivian title. This one, Same Difference, is about a girl who loves art and is just learning that she has a talent. Emily goes to a summer art program and finds a world very different from her suburban origins. She's trying to figure out who she is, and whether she can create a new identity that includes both her past and the art that is opening her mind. Her old best friend, Meg, and her new best friend, Fiona, pull her in different directions. Frankly, both worlds seemed a little stifling to me, and like many of the books in this post, this one made me so thankful that I'm no longer a teenager.
Book #19 was Look Again, by Lisa Scottoline. Ellen Gleeson has adopted her son, but when she gets a "Have You Seen this Child?" mailing, she sees the photo of a child who looks just like hers. Was her adoption legal? Why are people around her dying? Why does she run off to Florida to collect DNA samples? I didn't find this book believable or compelling at all.
Book #20, Love and Other Perishable Items, by Laura Buzo, is set in Australia. The American edition won't be out until December (the Australian title is Good Oil), but I got an ARC at the IRA conference. Amelia is fifteen and works in a grocery store, where she has developed a crush on Chris, her trainer. This book is an example of how reading can pull you into a completely different word from your own. I won't be sharing this one with my middle schoolers either, largely because of all the drinking, drug use, liberal use of the f-word, and other assorted bad behavior, but Buzo has created a world that I could see, hear, and smell. The book is saturated with sheer longing. I thought about the Roddy Doyle books as I read this; how did an author fill me with so much sympathy for characters who spend large amounts of their time drunk? I have no idea, but Buzo, like Doyle, knows how.
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