Monday, February 27, 2017

Books Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies & The Radius of Us

I don't want to short-change either of these beautiful pieces, but as I read them side by side, I think it may have been in the fates to not just read together, but review together. Both are new YA romances released in January - The Radius of Us (Jan 17) and Under Rose Tainted Skies (Jan 3) - and they both feature young female protagonists struggling with their own issues when in comes a love interest that turns it all around (give or take a few side plots). Now, part of me is withdrawn from falling deeply in love with either because of the semi-archetypal guy-meets-girl, nothing-else-matters, guy-fixes-girl plot line - but I think what makes these two pieces beautiful and worthwhile are the fresh characters and other themes and inclusive messages in these novels that keep these characters relatable, new, interesting and not just typical YA romance 'fixers.'

Let's start with The Radius Of Us. Written by Marie Marquardt, a self-described "author, college professor, and immigration advocate," this novel's characters are overflowing with voice, passion, and emotion. Her work as an immigration advocate, her purpose to connect using stories as a "powerful tool against the hate, fear, and misunderstanding that plague our society," emanates out of this novel.

Gretchen, who is still working to recover from being attacked late one night after work, suffers panic attacks and immense anxiety. This is why when she first sees Phoenix, an immigrant from El Salvador she bolts with her niece and nephew because from a distance he reminds her of her attacker. When she goes to find him to apologize, they end up hitting it off, and the rest of their romance will keep you winding through the pages of this novel. It alternates first-person point-of-view between Gretchen and Phoenix throughout the novel, which lets you in so close to the heart of these two. You soon learn Phoenix's radius becomes their shared radius that Gretchen keeps trying to help him expand. This as she learns (and the reader will as well) of the pitfalls of the United States immigration system and the risks former gang members face for trying to leave gangs and seek asylum. Phoenix also works to save his brother Ari, who he forced to flee with him into the US from El Salvador through Mexico and treacherous, scarring experiences along the way. Through many difficult experiences, memories, and conversations, the radius between Gretchen and Phoenix grows smaller as they fight their demons together, working to overcome every obstacle life has to throw their way. As Karin Greenberg wrote for School Library Journal, "VERDICT A must-have for all YA collections." :)

This brings us to the second selection, a debut novel from Louise Gornall, Under Rose-Tainted Skies. Norah, for the past several years has been struggling with agoraphobia, anxiety, and OCD. She dreams of going to study in Paris but can't make it out of her house on most days. Her life revolves around her mom and her therapist, and avoiding pretty much everything else. At times, even that bare minimum is too much. Then Luke, a new neighbor her age moves in next door. Intrigued, feeling things she has never felt before, she struggles to both navigate her feelings about him as well as pretending to be 'normal' around him. From the pits of the worst moments, "I can't help thinking it would be so much easier if we just didn't bother" (7), "This is not about dying. This is about trying to get back some control" (143), to the sweet young romance, "Then he smiles at me and I forget why I am frustrated" (51) - the friendship they form is sweet and heartfelt, and the lessons they learn from each other are as well as they both work to heal from their own pain. Gornall's writing is raw and you can almost hear and sense the humor she was gifting to Norah's character as she wrote. The glimpses into Norah we get really develop her character so deeply, but it still left me wanting more as far as the plot was concerned. I worry the message coming out of this book is more of the "a boy can help fix you" than "therapy and/or professional, certified counselors can." I think it's AWESOME to have more books even broaching the subject of mental illness to even be able to have the privilege to lodge that request! It's a great read, but just concerns me the depth of her struggles and what seems to be not really the amount of care she needs. Definitely a fresh voice in YA, and one I look forward to reading more from!

Cupid has really struck so far with these 2017 YA New Releases! Happy reading!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: City of Saints & Thieves

Just when you think you know what's happening... another clue has you at the edge of your seat. The brilliant writing of Natalie Anderson will keep you turning the pages until you learn along with the incredible protagonist of this novel, Tina, exactly what happened to her mother.

Here's the gist - Tina is part of the Goondas, the local gang that she's worked with as a skilled thief since her mother was murdered. Kiki, Tina's little sister, is safe in a boarding school, mostly insulated from the life Tina leads on the streets. Tina and her mother originally came to Kenya as refugees from Congo. Tina's mother worked as a maid for Mr. Greyhill in the Ring, the rich, security-guarded part of Sangui City until her tragic murder. Since then, Tina has scraped by and focused on one goal - survival and justice for her mother. When the opportunity arises to rob Mr. Greyhill's estate is where the adventure truly begins. Everything she thought she knew comes into question about Mr. Greyhill, her mother, her family and her past - and you'll be hooked through the twists and turns of Tina's journey. Her determination, strength and pure grit makes her unlike any other YA protagonist I've seen.

She takes you through her story narrating through her 'rules' of theiving:
Rule 2: Trust no one. Or if you must, trust them like you'd trust a street dog around fresh meat. (7)

And the glimpses Anderson's narration gives into Tina's deeper levels are just effortless - it feels so natural:
I got better and better at thievery, moving on to actually stealing cash, jewelry, electronics. And soon, when I was creeping into a dark shop or a merchant's plush home, or bumping with choreographed precision through a crowd toward a mark, I found that I was more myself than at any other time. I was a new person. A thief. Solid, strong. Unbroken. (121) 

Themes emerge far beyond the bonds of family strength - this novel deals with the horrors of war crimes, assault, abuse, extortion, ethics and rules of conflict, refugees, revenge, socio-economic disparity, racism, and beyond. Much of this is brought by gentle comparisons and contrasts that leave all the What if's and If I knew then what I know now moments of wisdom for such a young character:

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: Watched

I'm watched.
There's a streetlight near my parent's store, and I hear the click, a shutter snapping as I round the corner. My gaze swivels up, but there's nothing. Just a white-eyed orb, a lamp, ticking. The dim sky floating behind. I shiver, tell myself it's all in my head. Nothing.
Click. Click. (5)

So begins Marina Budhos' brilliant novel Watched. This piece, published in September 2016, came on my radar after recently being selected as an Honoree Book for The Walter, or Walter Dean Myers Award. It could not be more relevant for our current climate.

Watched tells the story of Naeem, his father Abba, step-mother Amma, and step-brother Zahir - along with friends and extended family along the way making their path as immigrants to the United States. Naeem's father immigrated from Bangladesh and operates a store in Jackson Heights, New York City. Naeem joined him when he was ten after living with family back home for most of his childhood. Now a teen and navigating his way through the world - he faces the reality of surveillance and profiling in the post 9/11 world. Trying on different identities, he molds into various aspects of his surroundings, "no one thought I was Bangladeshi anyway. Some of the guys on the street called me Nino instead of Naeem..." (24). He runs the streets and thrives on the energy of the city, constantly moving as a way of survival, "We're both the same that way. We like to move. We don't stay long enough to say what hurts" (31).

All of his conflicting future visions stop short after getting caught with weed in his bag and his friend's stolen merchandise. He's presented with a few options by the cops, basically - do the time, or become a 'watcher.' What cops market to him as a career in intelligence, he soon realizes may not be optional: 

At that moment, I realize this isn't a choice. not really. If I say no, I'm back to the station house, where I'm just another Queens kid with goofy ears and a lousy high school transcript, pressing thumbs on ink... I'm the failure son, calling Abba, his face worse than before, lines of grief running down his cheeks. Amma in the back of the store, silently crying. (81)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Book Review: Allegedly

Wow. Tiffany Jackson truly came out all cylinders firing on this debut novel of hers, Allegedly.

He passes her file off, then pats her on the back as if to say "good luck." New Girl is crying. Real sobbing, snot-nosed tears. I'm jealous; I haven't cried in six years. The tears are frozen inside with the rest of my emotions. She probably doesn't think she did anything wrong. I was that girl too once. (13)

Be prepared for the ride of a lifetime! So here's the details - Mary, convicted at nine years old of allegedly killing a baby in her mother's care, has gone from baby jail to a group home. Now nearing adulthood,
she soon finds herself falling madly in love with a fellow volunteer at a nursing home, Ted. As she finds out that she is pregnant and the state may take her baby away due to her prior alleged crime, Mary begins to wrestle the memories and weight of what allegedly happened. Did Mary really kill the baby? Did Mary’s mother kill the baby and have Mary take the fall? Was it another person all together that the cops missed? Does anyone know what truly happened? Can anyone's memory be trusted? Readers will be hooked until the very final pages discovering the truth to this story, and even still, you won't be sure you truly have it.

All of this in addition to a multitude of expansive threads woven into the fabric of the novel will leave you turning page after page. Full of questions and conversations about criminal justice, community, racism, social support systems, the nature of guilt and innocence, social justice, survival and equity - a thought provoking read on all accounts. There are several sexual, violent, and disturbing scenes, so for classroom use would recommend primarily for upper high school readers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Book Review: History is All You Left Me

Perhaps it was the high expectations I had in my mind for this one that left me wanting more out of this novel. It's a great piece, don't get me wrong, but would not be my first pick. If you are a YA romance fan however, this is absolutely the book for you!  

What I adore most about this piece is that it's a YA Romance fraught with a million dramatic pieces, but somehow the least of which is that it's an LGBTQ romance. As Jane Yolen has said, it's when those elements are truly 'wallpaper' in a novel (and not the main feature), that we truly have hit a turning point of diversity in literature. For that reason alone this book is important and notably significant.

In this novel, Griffin grieves the loss of his ex-boyfriend Theo, wandering back and forth from present-day to years earlier, at the start of their relationship. In the present-day, Griffin navigates grudgingly through his day to day, as he surprisingly joins forces with Theo's new boyfriend, Jackson, to heal from their loss together. We learn their histories, the origins of their love stories, and the intimacies of their relationships, as well as personal fears and demons (which for Griffin, also includes his OCD). 

I will say - a pretty incredible opening paragraph:
"You're still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you're having an open-casket funeral. I know you're out there, listening. And you should know I'm really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn't the first promise you've broken." (1) 

(Spoilers Coming) 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Book Review: A List of Cages

Adam and Julian. My goodness will this book be heavy on my heart for a long time. A story of the power of friendship to overcome all odds - and that's just the beginning! Adam, a senior in high school and Mr. Congeniality, is an aide to the school psychologist for one of his classes. In that role, he ends up escorting Julian, a lonely, out-of-place freshman and his prior foster brother from five years ago, to his appointments. Julian and Adam begin hanging out again, and as their worlds intersect regain the bond only friends as close as family can have.

Being a first time novel for Robin Roe, I can assuredly say I will be among the first to buy whatever she writes next! Incredibly gripping characters, a tragic story - but one that will leave you cheering for Adam, Julian, and their host of friends as they navigate the waters of friendship, family, and young adulthood in the midst of such heavy tragedy.

(Semi-spoilers coming, so beware and proceed with caution)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book People: SCCTE 2017 Recap - Writing and Reading Beyond the Classroom

This past weekend, I had a delightful reunion with my book people. It was a wonderful weekend where I alternated between tweeting my notes and scribbling on paper - and I thought what a better way to bring it all together than a blog wrap-up! Sometimes it can be overwhelming to learn so much and not quite know how to process - but here's my attempt to share some favorite take-aways from this favorite professional and personal retreat for me - (shout out to one of my fabulous professors at Coker College, who during our grad school program recommended this for us M.Ed. candidates in literacy! It's been a love affair ever since)!

Day 1

Session A: Create and Animate: Setting Original Poems to Animation 

by Allison Blizzard, Lakeside Middle School

Super cool poetry animation project to get often poetry-reluctant students eager to not just make a sweet animation using Powtoon, but truly understand poetry's deeper levels (tone, mood, sounds, rhythms, cadences, symbolism, themes). Absolutely great project! She even was able to host an award-style show where finalists were all screened at a school event with guest judges, parents, and peers! Fabulous audience expansion and real-world authenticity opportunity to create and publish.

Teacher love:

  • "Kids that I didn't have working before. They're working."
  • So much love for negating the narrative of "But... this won't work with my kids." Haha, yes, thank you Mrs. Blizzard for addressing this. It certainly will work, will any students given the right expectations! Kudos to you for calling that out.
  • And also lots of love for reminding people we all need to learn first too, to truly help facilitate with our students, "Don't have your kids do something that you haven't done yourself."
  • Side Note: She had lots of other wonderful wisdom, but those I was able to scribe somehow :) 

Student love:

  • "It's not hard, but it does take time." 
  • "Yes, I think I'm a poet now, but no, I didn't like poetry before." 
To do: Check out her Youtube channel, hosting Student Reflections and her model animated poems. Google Slides of Presentation Here as well!

Pro tips for Using Powtoons: 
  • have students sync with Google Accounts (if GAFE school)
  • have students sign up 2 days in advance of project work: this will enable you to skip the two day "free test period" of added features, that then will lock up & keep bugging you to subscribe and pay for advanced features

Keynote 1: "Diving Deep Into Fiction and Nonfiction: Texts with Readers Rules of Notice" 

by Jeff Wilhelm, Author, Educator, Professor