Month: April 2015

The Swap by Megan Shull

Many of us have heard about Freaky Friday, the classic Young Adult novel where a teenager switches bodies with her business-oriented mother.  Movies like Big and 13 Going on 30 have covered this concept  too–a younger protagonist switches places with an older person of the same gender and lessons are learned by both.  Megan Shull takes this formula and mixes it up in her new book, The Swap.

Jack and Ellie both will be starting 7th grade in the same grade when the novel begins.  Although they are somewhat aware of the other person’s presence, they really don’t know each other well at all.  This changes, of course, during a chance encounter in the school’s clinic when a mysterious nurse somehow puts a spell on them for the weekend.  Jack and Ellie end up switching spots with the hope that they will be able to switch back on Monday when they can get in touch with the school nurse.

Both kids must live as the opposite gender, and it’s a pretty bumpy road for each of them.  Neither had realized the challenges that the other person faces in life, including dealing with bullying, cliques, hockey practice, bra shopping, and a collection of other awkward—and sometimes funny–experiences.

Told in alternating perspectives, The Swap offers readers the chance to see what it’s literally like to walk around in someone else’s shoes.  A Henry David Thoreau quote is cited at the beginning of the novel, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”  Jack and Ellie have the chance to learn from each other’s eyes, and this developed empathy for each other (and others) is compounded additional lessons about family, loss, and friendship.  Although the ending wrapped things up a bit too neatly for me, I enjoyed the light-hearted, fun read that made up The Swap.

For information on Megan, check out the following link:

Biggie by Derek E. Sullivan

When you grow up in a small town, people don’t always let you change.  Your image is static and fixed in everyone’s minds.  Henry, the protagonist in Derek E. Sullivan’s novel Biggie, is dealing with this problem and more.  He is stuck—stuck being perfectionist (he hasn’t missed a day of school in 10 years), stuck forging friendships from a distance (most of his friends are females having relationship issues with the men in their lives), and also stuck in his weight (he weighs over 300 lbs.).  Henry’s moniker Biggie is given to him in the second grade.  Unfortunately, the name also stuck, as did his struggles with weight.

Even though he has a large physical presence, Biggie prefers to be invisible.  Amazingly, his weight has helped him accomplish this goal:  “A funny thing happened a year ago when my weight neared three-hundred pounds.  People stopped looking at me, staring in disgust or delicately shaking their heads at the sight of me.  In the past year, I have learned that being slightly overweight is a lot more annoying than being obese.”  Being invisible has helped to keep the attention off of him: “I hate being made fun of for my weight and will do anything—I mean anything—to avoid it, even if that means adding weight.”  Biggie lacks control to maintain a healthy lifestyle, even though his mom struggles to help him along the way.

A few notable things help disrupt Biggie’s plan for invisibility:  A checkup at the doctor, a perfect game in wiffle ball during PE, and his crush telling him he should play baseball.  Baseball is king in the town of Finch, Iowa, and Biggie’s family happens to be part of the dynasty.  His father was one of the town’s most well-known athletes, his stepfather helped the Yellow Jackets team win state title as a senior, and his younger half-brother Maddux is being prepped for stardom.  Biggie decides to go for glory by attaining the perfect, unhittable pitch called the wiffle.  He begins eating healthier and also starts training with stepfather. All of these things are done in order to bring him out of the shadows and into the spotlight.  The road to success isn’t easy, however, and Biggie must deal with his inner turmoil in order to be in control and possess the perfect pitch.

Sullivan’s debut novel packs in a lot, and the attainment of perfection is a key theme.  Ultimately, this is about Biggie daring to reconnect with others in his life instead of choosing to be invisible.  A character like Biggie isn’t always a likable and he doesn’t always make the right choices, which I appreciated.  Sullivan does an amazing job of tapping into what it feels like to be the obese kid that is forgotten, and it’s easy to feel how difficult it would be for him to change–inside and out.  Even people who aren’t into baseball or from a small town can appreciate that.

The Fall by Bethany Griffin

Every once in awhile, I read a book that inspires me to read other novels.  The Fall is one of those books, and a revisiting of The Fall of the House of Usher is now on tap. Edgar Allan Poe’s dark tale is transformed in this new Young Adult Literature book, and the first chapter begins with a jarring note:  Madeline Usher is trapped in a coffin in the vault of her home.

The introductory chapter is also striking because it connects to one of the few scenes in Poe’s work where we actually hear Madeline, who is otherwise largely silent in Poe’s novel.  The rest of the book shifts back and forth in time, which gives the reader the opportunity to figure out what other connections will be made to Poe’s famous work.

The storyline focuses on Madeline, who tries to fight against the family’s curse—a supposed fate of insanity caused by the house—while twin brother Roderick is allowed to escape to boarding school.  Madeline’s parents have been inflicted, and this—along with Roderick’s absence–causes Madeline to realize she must be the one to fight against both the house and the looming doctors (hired to diagnose and treat the family curse).

As a horror novel, this novel offers both psychological and physical terrors.  The most intriguing aspect isn’t Madeline but is instead the house itself.  It truly becomes a character of the novel, leaving the reader to wonder if all of this is because of the house and its curse or if it is all is due to Madeline and her state of mind.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Many of us have heard this famous quote by Albert Einstein:  “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Contemplating a fish in trees doesn’t necessarily make sense when discussing Young Adult Literature until you consider (and perhaps realize) how many teenagers feel out of water in their lives.

Ally is one of those kids.  She frequently gets in trouble in school and constantly is trying to hide the fact that she can’t read or write well.  Each reading and writing assignment provides Ally with a challenge:  How can she get past it without letting the teacher or other kids know that letters constantly spin around when she sees them?  Even the most basic assignment proves to be incredibly difficult: “I can’t think of anything worse than having to describe myself.  I’d rather write about something more positive.  Like throwing up at your own birthday party.”

Readers will hang onto Ally’s every thought and emotion as she tried to get through her 6th grade school year.  Things start looking a bit brighter when her regular teacher goes on maternity leave and substitute Mr. Daniels starts to see through Ally’s efforts to hide her challenges in reading and writing.  He focuses on how creative she is (a skill she honed when trying to disguise her disability).  Daniels offers support to Ally and helps her to see that there are more to kids than labels.  Along with friends Keisha and Albert (who are themselves marginalized in this school setting).  As Albert notes, “I guess we’re all pachyderms, then.   Or we pretend to be…Elephants feel a wide range of emotions, but their behavior remains constant.  On the outside, happy and sad often look the same.”

Lynda Mullaly Hunt gives a complete picture of a typical classroom, albeit some characters follow the traditional stereotypes of students (bully, clown, etc.).  As an adult reader, I was fascinated by the substitute teacher and how he made such a difference simply by paying individual attention to the students.  He became aware of not only the classroom dynamics but the students as individuals as well.  Because of this, he transformed that classroom.  It is clear in my mind that all students deserve teachers like Mr. Daniels.  Ultimately, however, this isn’t his story—it’s Ally’s narrative to tell, and itt remains within Ally’s power to make things better for herself.  You can’t ask for a better message than that.

Readers who loved R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder will want to check out this book.  It’s a fantastic reminder that “Great minds don’t think alike.”

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

Everyone loves a good thriller—a book that you can escape into and tag along for the ride.  This is exactly what Lauren Oliver delivers with her latest novel, Vanishing Girls.  The novel focuses on a set of sisters who, even though they were once close, have drifted apart in their teenage years.  Initially,

Dara and Nick’s love for each other begins to break apart when they both seemingly fall for their neighbor, Parker.   As their love turns to jealousy at times, the girls start to lose their connection to each other, and a car accident later cements the distance between them.

As the girls’ relationship drifts apart, a parallel storyline begins and focuses on that of a missing girl in their town, 9-year-old Madeline Snow.  The town is abuzz with finding this girl while Nick is trying to find her lost sister.  Nick believes that the girls’ disappearances might be linked, and she can’t move on until she reconnects with Dara: “That’s what life is, pretty much:  full of holes and tangles and ways to get stuck.”  It is the searches for both Dara and Madeline that propel the reader through the book as they search for clues about both girls’ disappearances.

The clues to the mysteries aren’t always easy to spot, however, for the book is written in dual perspective between Dara and Nick.  There are also some other styles included (blog entries from various web sites about Madeline’s disappearance and Dara’s diary entries).  The novel also goes back and forth in time.  At times, I had difficulty keeping track of the character perspectives, for sisters who were (at one time) so close with one another proved to be fused together in my mind; therefore, it challenging for me to keep track of the different perspectives.

What makes the read worth it, though, was the excitement of it all.  So many thrillers have darkness present throughout them, and I greatly appreciated that love seemed to be at the center of this book.  Lauren’s writing was wonderful (as usual).  I found myself frequently examining her sentence constructions—the word choice, cadence, and tone—and realized that I enjoyed putting together the mystery’s puzzle pieces together just as much as I liked and studied the fluidity of her prose.

Epic Author Facts:

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Teenagers often envision themselves as invincible.  This feeling of vibrancy impacts their decisions and actions on a daily basis.  In the novel We All Looked Up, however, the teens don’t have this same feeling about them or their future, for a comet named Ardor is headed to earth, and most experts agree that 2/3 of the world’s population will perish in 7-8 weeks.

So even though President Obama urges the country to “continue on with our lives, hold our loved ones close…”, the four teenage protagonists all contemplate how to proceed.  After all, school is closed, stores are deserted, and law enforcement is growing thinner by the day.  Should they seize the day by living out their wildest dreams?  Should they escape to the mountains with friends or family?  Or, should they continue to live their lives just as they have been?  Whatever approach is taken, it is clear that each of them are taking one day at a time.  The looming Ardor, though, is always close at hand, as one character noted: “We spend all our lives standing up on a ledge like this, but we pretend not to notice…”  It is statements like this that take this basic novel and add great depth and insight.  Perhaps Wallach puts it best:  “The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before.  They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about.  You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world.”

And being less alone in the world is definitely what these teenagers desire, one of them even connects this idea to the concept of karass by Vonnegut (a group of people connected together in a “cosmically significant manner”).  They just don’t realize yet what these connections might be.

This pre-apocalyptic tale catches your attention it really focuses on humanity—our morals, how we treat one another, and what really matters.  And perhaps the greatest lesson learned is that how we live each day is actually what matters the most.

Interested in the music mentioned in the book?  Check out Tommy Wallach’s web site:

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