Month: October 2015

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Every once in a while, there is a book that challenges my perceptions of what Young Adult Literature is, and The Nest is one of those books.  The middle-level psychological thriller is a fast, frantic read that left its mark on me, much like a wasp does with its flight and sting.

Steve is the protagonist of our story, and he is an anxious kid and has been to therapy to help him deal with his anxiety.  His family is going through an especially trying time–his new baby brother having congenital heart issues:  Nothing’s scarier than having a sick child, and one so newly born, and so vulnerable. It’s the worst thing for a parent.

The dreams start in the midst of all of this family turmoil and are calming to Steve, for the beings in the dreams promise that they can help his brother.  Although Steve first thinks that these supernatural entities are angels, he comes to realize that they are wasps, and they are building a nest that is attached to his home.

When Steve doubts the reality of the dreams to himself, the queen wasp stings him, and it’s a bite that carries over into the real world.  It is at this point that Steve and his family realize that Steve is allergic to wasp stings and must carry an EpiPen in case of future stings.   The queen promises Steve that everything will be OK—the wasps just need Steve’s help.  When he finally says “yes” to helping the wasps in their endeavor, he realizes that the wasps are building a replacement baby for Theo and plan on switching the new baby with his brother.

All of this burden is only on Steve’s shoulders.  His parents are preoccupied with the baby’s health, his younger sister seems to be in a world of her own, and the neighborhood knife salesman seems to be haunting the neighborhood as well.  Steve is the only one who can save his brother from the wasps.

This brisk read relies heavily on action, and it’s the absence of some details that cause the reader’s mind to forecast the impending doom.  It is the striking imagery that readers will hold onto, and this is accomplished through Oppel’s words and Klassen’s stark artwork.  The beginning of the novel was especially amazing, and although I wished the ending had less of a direct message (which came from the queen), the book packs a punch, much like Janne Teller’s Nothing (an intense novel for high school readers).  Simply put, The Nest a book you’ll never forget.  The fact that the thriller is brought down to a middle-level is an added bonus.

When I finished book talking this novel to one of my classes, a student said “That’s horrifying.”  Yes, it is, and you should definitely check it out.

All American Boys: A Novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

When you contemplate important national topics that everyone should all be concerned about right now, police brutality a major one.  Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely take this on in their novel All American Boys:  A Novel.  The timely book offers a back and forth perspective between two teenage boys (one black, one white), Rashad and Quinn.

When Rashad stops at a convenience store one evening to pick up a bag of chips, he is mistaken for a shoplifter by a cop who ends up beating him to a pulp.  Quinn, who knows Rashad from school, sees everything but has trouble believing that the man who helped raise him after his dad’s death—the policeman in the convenience store—could have participated in such a violent act (even though he saw it with his own eyes).

Someone else sees all of this too:  a video camera, which is soon posted online and creates a media firestorm.  Rashad sees all of this in his hospital room and isn’t quite sure he wants all of the publicity.  The school and community become divided as individuals in the town begin to take sides on the issue at hand.

As Len Vlahos, new owner of The Tattered Cover in Denver and Young Adult Literature (YAL) author, notes,

Rashad and Quinn are real characters caught in a very real, but also surreal, situation. Each boy’s journey twists and turns from a place of “this can’t be happening to me” to a place of “I have no choice but to confront this thing head on.” And each does so in a way that is at times uplifting, and at times (intentionally) uncomfortable.

This is an important book in the field of YAL because it takes on a topic that is not always discussed in America today:  race.  Perhaps this meaningful conversation could start with this excellent book.  Be sure to check it out…

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

The power of music unites, inspires, persuades, and reminisces.  This is also the case with M.T. Anderson’s first nonfiction book, Symphony for the City of the Dead:  Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.  The book focuses on Russia/Soviet Union before and during WWII and specially focuses on the decimation of Leningrad (where more than one million citizens died), where composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed and flourished before Stalin’s regime.  The book is broken into three parts:  Shostakovich’s early life in Russia/Soviet Union before the outbreak of WWII (the Great Patriotic War), the German invasion and siege of Leningrad, and post-war and subsequent Cold War occurrences.

As a reader, I learned a great deal about Shostakovich but also about Lenin, Stalin, and the German advances in WWII.  Having studied world history mainly from an American perspective, I was intrigued with the plight of the Soviet people, who were treated harshly by their leader even before war broke out (referred to as a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival in the book).  In fact, Stalin killed nearly 1/3 of his military in an effort to cleanse his army of possible detractors.

Leningrad takes center stage is all of this destruction:  Gradually, like the emigration of an insidious, phantom population, Leningrad belonged more to the dead than to the living. The dead watched over streets and sat in snow-swamped buses. Whole apartment buildings were tenanted by them, where in broken rooms, dead families sat waiting at tables. Their dominion spread room by room, like lights going out in evening.

Shostakovich was privy to all of this, and his experiences and insights are fused into his 7th symphony, which seemed…as if the composer, having been brutalized, now turns and enacts this savagery upon the audience.  When the performance of the symphony was announced, the composer was celebrated in the United States and even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.  The Soviets hopes that this exposure would strengthen American support of an alliance.

The dreariness of the initial performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony was staggering:  fifteen musicians showed up to practice, and many were starving or too weak to play in rehearsals.  But endure they did, and the symphony proved to be Soviet citizens’ answer to the suffering.  This triumph helped inspire the people to recover from the devastation.

M.T. Anderson is an author who continually pushes himself in new directions, just as he did with Feed and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Northing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1:  The Pox Party.  This book is a well-researched, compelling read that shares a great deal about history but also leaves a lasting message about music and its meaning in life.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.

― Katherine ApplegateCrenshaw

Crenshaw is a giant cat who happens to love purple jelly beans and bubble baths.  He is only visible, however, to 5th grader, Jackson.  Crenshaw first appears to Jackson in the first grade when his family was forced to leave their house and live in their mini-van.  Jackson wasn’t sure he wanted this cat to stick around, but he named him anyway: Maybe that’s why I liked the name Crenshaw.  It felt like a blank piece of paper before you draw on it.  It was an anything-is-possible kind of name.

Crenshaw stuck around during this difficult time and later disappeared into the reality of Jackson’s life.  Even though Crenshaw is an imaginative friend, Jackson is rooted in the facts of life:

I’ve never been into make-believe stuff.  When I was a kid, I didn’t dress up like Batman or talk to stuffed animals or worry about the monsters under my bed.

My parents say, when I was in pre-K, I marched around telling everybody I was the mayor of the earth.  But that was just for a couple of days. 

Sure, I had my Crenshaw phase.  But lots of kids have an imaginary friend.

Once my parents took me to see the Easter bunny at the mall.  We stood on fake grass next to a giant fake egg in a giant fake basket.  When it was my turn to pose with the bunny, I took one look at his paw and yanked it right off.

A man’s hand was inside.  It had a gold wedding ring and tufts of blondish hair.

“This man is not a rabbit!”  I shouted.  A little girl starting bawling.

The mall manager made us leave.  I did not get the free basket with candy eggs or a photo with the fake rabbit.

That was the first time I realized people don’t always like to hear the truth.

The truth is murky in Jackson’s family, and it seems that Jackson can’t get a grasp on what is happening.  His parents are trying to manage by working multiple part-time jobs but end up selling the majority of their belongings. Jackson is frustrated that his parents’ lack of income is impacting their family so much.  As he notes, What bothered me most, though, was that I couldn’t fix anything. I couldn’t control anything. It was like driving a bumper car without a steering wheel. I kept getting slammed, and I just had to sit there and hold on tight.  When these concerns surface, Crenshaw reappears.  Jackson is in the 5th grade at this time, and his family is about to be evicted from their apartment.

People respond to books when it touches their heart, and that is certainly the case with Katherine Applegate’s new novelIn this follow-up novel to the Newberry-winning The One and Only Ivan, Applegate has crafted another winner:  her masterful characterization leads seamlessly into the insightful one-liners at the end of brief chapters.  The book would be a magnificent read aloud for upper elementary students, and although it’s not as flawless its predecessor, Crenshaw is a fantastic read.  Ultimately, this is a story about reality, imagination, and resilience, and this is a book that will capture hearts and minds.  It also serves as a great reminder about the power of imagination.  As Jackson’s friend Marisol notes, just enjoy the magic while you can, okay?
Here is a recent interview with Applegate about Crenshaw:

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

There are two things you know.  One:  You were there.  Two:  You couldn’t have been there. 

Holding these two incompatible truths together takes skill at juggling.  Of course juggling requires a third ball to keep the rhythm smooth.  That third ball is time—which bounces much more wildly than any of us would like to believe.

And so Neal Shusterman’s novel begins.  To be honest, I almost didn’t make it through the first 20 pages or so.  You see, I never read book flaps.  They often times give too much information about the story, or they highlight the wrong message entirely.  I like to jump right into books without someone telling me what it all means.

This is what I did with Shusterman’s novel, and I truly felt confused and disoriented.  What the hell was going on?  I relented and turned to the flap, which details different aspects of Caden’s (the protagonist) life—he is on a ship headed for the deepest point on Earth (Challenger Deep), he is a high school student whose friends notice his odd behavior, he is documenting his trip to deep waters through artwork, and he is divided in loyalties on the ship to the captain and mutiny.

The flap ends with the line, “Caden Bosch is torn.”  Is he ever—and it was about page 37 on a family trip to Vegas when Caden sees a replica of Michelangelo’s David when I realized what was going on:
I can’t leave yet, because I’m struck by David’s stone eyes.  His body seems relaxed, like the kingdom is already his, but the expression on his face…it’s full of worry, and concern he’s trying to hide.  I begin to wonder if David was like me.  Seeing the monsters everywhere and realizing there aren’t enough slingshots in the world to get rid of them.

Challenger Deep is Caden’s story battling these monsters caused by his mental illness.  Essentially, it’s a novel that dares to explore the unexplorable:  the reader experiences what it’s like to live in multiple worlds and once and be confused, angered, and defeated by this at different points.  Shusterman’s son, Brendan, provided the artwork for the novel, which was created at times when he was in the depth of his own mental illness.  The artwork and text combine for a powerful punch, and it’s this combination that provides an encompassing experience for the reader.  As Caden notes,

There are the voices, and visual hallucinations when it’s really bad—but “being there” isn’t about voices or seeing things.  It’s about believing things.  Seeing one reality, and believing it’s something else entirely.

Don Quixote—the famous literary madman—fought windmills.  People think he saw giants when he looked at them, but those of us who’ve been there know the truth.  He saw windmills, just like everyone else—but he believed they were giants.  The scariest thing of all is never knowing what you’re suddenly going to believe.

The fusion of reality and imaginary each provide aspects of the mental illness Caden is battling, and it’s amazing to realize that the picture wouldn’t quite be so clear without one or the other.  Depictions of his battle at sea, along with his experiences with being institutionalized, group therapy, and family visits, all illustrate never-ending struggle to survive the dangers of sea.  The anticipated plunge throughout the novel is one that won’t be easily forgotten.

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