Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Secret Language of Sisters, by Luanne Rice

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The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice is about two teenage sisters, Roo and Tilly. Roo is driving to pick Tilly up from a museum and trying to answer Tilly's texts at the same time, and that only can lead to trouble. Roo looks up from her phone just in time to avoid hitting an old lady, and her car flips over, and is completely destroyed. Roo's body is paralyzed.

Later, while at the hospital, Tilly and her mother visit Roo, and Roo has a stroke right in front of them. The stroke results in locked-in syndrome; Roo can see, hear, and feel everything around her, but she can't move or speak at all. Everyone believes the stroke has caused Roo to be in a coma, and that she is not aware of anything that is going on around her. But this is not the case.

Deep down, Roo believes that she will live through this and someday be able to walk again.

Tilly had always been jealous of Roo. Roo was always the "special" one. She was talented, in all honors classes, and took incredible photographs that got her recognized. Saying that she is "smart" is an understatement. She's a genius. Before the accident, she had planned to apply to Yale University early decision, and was told she'd definitely get in. And she was beautiful. Is beautiful:
 “I don’t want to interrupt,” Newton said. “But can I try something out on you?”
 “Like what?” I asked.
“Well, you and Roo have the same-shaped face, right?”
“Basically. Only hers is gorgeous, with perfect cheekbones, and mine is plain.”
But now, Tilly is only focused on her sister getting better.

However, Tilly battles immense guilt because she feels like she's the one who caused the crash. She doesn't tell anyone (and no one finds Roo’s cell phone at first), so her guilt starts gnawing at her. Not to mention there is an assembly at her school about it and news reporters trying to interview her, making her feel even more guilty. To make things worse, before the crash, Roo had suggested to her boyfriend, Newton, that they put some space between them for a while. But during the time Roo is in the hospital, Tilly starts to develop feelings for Newton. She feels like the worst sister in the world, actually, the “worst person in the world.” 

This book's chapters alternate between Roo and Tilly narrating. I liked this style of narrating. The reader gets multiple sides of the same story, what each sister is thinking. For example, Tilly blames herself for Roo’s accident, but Roo feels differently. But she can’t tell her that… After the crash, there is a long series of surgeries and treatments in hospitals, and it gets so bad at one point that Roo actually believes it would be better if she were dead. But she can’t tell anybody that, either.

This book is probably best for people ages 12 and up, it talks about emotional and scary topics that little kids may find overwhelming, such as a loved one being very, very sick and you not knowing whether or not they will recover or die. The publisher's website says it recommends the book for grades 9 and up (age 13+). But felt like I connected with the characters – I felt like I was right there, on the spot, being one of the characters in the book. When something good happened to them, I felt happy with them. When something tragic happened, I felt sad. I’m only 11 going on 12, so I think any student, middle school and up, could read this.


Daddy's afterthoughts:  I bought this book for Julia at a Scholastic book fair at her elementary school. So apparently somebody thought it was appropriate for a grade 5 or 6 reader. I was actually surprised to see that Scholastic recommends it for only high school level readers.

Julia really connected with this book; that was nice to see. But she came away with the sense that the accident was either Tilly's fault, or that blame was equally shared. In reality - anyone of driving age should know this - the fault lies with the driver. I have read other reviews of this book that criticized the author for doing too little to drive that point home (no pun intended): See for example here, and here. But this is something that is easily ameliorated with a parent conversation after reading.

I am a fan of the switching-narrators technique. This book struck me as kind of an adolescent After-School-Special-Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week-YA version of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, a war-protest novel whose chapters alternate between the locked-in thoughts of a blind, deaf, limbless combat casualty in a hospital and flashbacks to the same character's earlier life, when he was young and whole. Haunting. But not for tween readers. Barbara Kingsolver does something similar in The Poisonwood Bible, one of my favorite books, alternating between 4 or 5 (it's been a while, sorry) different characters' points-of-view; like Sisters, one of the characters is mute. A beautiful and mesmerizing read. Also not for tween readers. What's my point? I have no idea. Just wanted to plug two awesome books for the grown-ups out there.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Tale Dark & Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz

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"Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome." Those are the first words of Adam Gidwitz's A Tale Dark & Grimm, which is the story of Hansel and Gretel mashed up with 8 other fairy tales sprinkled with a little violence. Because Adam means "awesome" in the horrible, bloody way. Warning: This book is not for the faint-hearted.

This book starts before Hansel and Gretel are born. Their father is crowned the King of Grimm, and his servant, "Faithful Johannes," describes to him all the responsibilities of being king and takes him on a tour of the castle. In the last room they visit, the king sees a portrait of a golden princess; he falls in love with her, and faints. When he wakes, he orders his servants to ready a ship. He will go to the island of the golden princess and claim her.

When they arrive at the island where the princess lives, they trick her into boarding the ship, and they sail back with her. Three ravens speak of three dangers the king and princess will encounter when they docked. Johannes overhears the ravens speaking, and heroically saves the couple from the dangers.  But when he explains to the king what he has done and why, he is turned to stone. The king and his new wife put the stone Johannes in their bedroom. Faithful Johannes.

Then Hansel and Gretel are born. This novel is the story of Hansel and Gretel. Actually, eight stories of Hansel and Gretel. They begin like this:

One night the king is in his room with his kids when he collapses at the foot of the statue and starts to cry. When his tears graze the stone, Johannes speaks. He says that to bring him back to life, the king has to cut the heads off his kids and smear the statue with their blood. The king does this…


…and Johannes comes out of the stone and revives Hansel and Gretel. The king tells his queen what has happened, and she is happy.


But Hansel and Gretel hear it all. (Their father cut off their heads, and their mother was glad?) They decide to run away – duh! – and find some decent parents who won’t hurt them.

About a year later, and after a series of sad, bloody, and terrifying events around the kingdom of Grimm – each chapter is a whole new Grimm fairy tale (with Hansel and Gretel stuck in as the main characters) – they learn that a dragon has come to the kingdom. Hansel and Gretel decide to return to, and try to save, their home. Even though, you know, their dad killed them and all…

Have you read the original versions of fairy tales, not the Disney versions? In the Grimms’ “Cinderella,” for example, the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the shoe. And at the wedding, where the Prince finally marries Cinderella, the wicked stepsisters’ eyes are pecked out by pigeons.

This book tells these stories the Grimm way.

It’s gory, but there is humor in it. I didn’t find any of it scary or anything. But here’s a tip: tell your mom that this is a book of fairy tales or she may take the book away from you. Besides, you’ll be telling the truth, not lying! Adam Gidwitz wrote this captivating novel in such a way that young readers will be entranced until the very last word.

And look out for the sequels: In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion!   


Daddy's afterthoughts: I think in an earlier post's Afterthoughts section, I made reference to the glut of authors re-hashing old stories, myths, and fairly tales, and repackaging them as YA novels. I'm not the only one raising a hairy eyebrow at this movement. Elizabeth Bird, writing for School Library Journal, began her review of this same book thus: 
Didn’t want to read this. Nope. Not a jot. Three reasons for that. First off, the title. I’ve said it about twenty times since reading it and every time I can’t quite get it right (derivations have included “Something Dark and Grimm”, “A Grimm Tale”, and “Something Grimm”). Second, the jacket of the hardcover edition of this book isn’t particularly new. Silhouettes against a blue background. Ho hum. Third, I couldn’t believe that I was dealing with yet ANOTHER middle grade novel adapting fairy tales in new ways. After a while the The Sisters Grimm / The Grimm Legacy titles out there begin to meld together. From The Goose Girl to Into the Wild to Sisters Red I sometimes feel as if I am a little tired of fairy tales.
However, to her surprise, she writes, "Gidwitz’s debut is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before."

Hansel and Gretel wend their way through the landscapes and stolen plot-lines of several lesser-known Grimm tales, like "Faithful Johannes." (Children will not know most of them, and most parents won't either.) This book is fun, and dark. The narrator has kind of a Princess Bride thing going. He pokes, cajoles, goofs. The violence is unflinching, but only really offensive if you are a.) used to Disney's sanitized versions of things, and b.) bound and committed to keeping your children sheltered to that degree. As Bird writes, "The kids are fine with it. It's the parents who can't take it." I have no problem recommending this for ages 10+.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

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Delirium by Lauren Oliver is about Lena Haloway and her life in an alternate USA where love has been declared the deadliest disease ever. All people at the age of 18 must undergo a procedure called the Cure. Until then, people are not allowed contact with the opposite gender, for if they do, they may fall in love.

They say, if you get the Cure, you will never feel pain again.

Once cured, people are assigned a college, a major, and a mate. They are not allowed to choose whom they want to marry. They are told how many kids to have, and given a job for life. They believe that love truly is a disease, and being cured, everything will be all right. Once cured, their lives are set on a track and all planned out; they don't have to worry about what will happen to them. They are safe. The people all end up happy.

Except Lena's mother.  

The government scientists tried to administer the Cure three times, but it never worked. But before they could try a fourth time, Lena's mother killed herself. Her last words to Lena: "I love you. Remember. They cannot take it." 

Lena is looking forward to the time when she receives the Cure. She won't feel the pain that she feels when she thinks about her mother; it will disappear. She will be "safe, free from pain." 

Until she meets Alex, a boy about her age. They start spending time together more and more often. What will happen to them if they fall in love? This would be forbidden. The government controls what everyone does. The people don't get to choose their own path; it is chosen for them. It is laid out in a nice neat line, no curves. And they are happy this way, mostly. 

But this is not okay, is it? The government is stripping people of a basic right: the power to choose -- to choose how they want their lives to be, to even choose how they feel. It's perfectly fine for the government to want everybody to feel safe and happy, but by stripping away basic rights and freedoms -- that's not right, is it? Even if most of the citizens do feel more relaxed and happy and safe?

Lena's friend Hana says that in order to be truly happy, maybe you have to be unhappy sometimes. And Alex is a resister, and an "Invalid," someone who lives out in the Wilds, avoiding the law. But Lena is looking forward to her Cure; will they persuade her to change her mind?

This book is kind of like The Hunger Games, with a corrupt government trying to control everything that people do. Both books' heroines are female teenagers of about the same age. There is one big difference, however -- In The Hunger Games, everybody (except the citizens in the Capitol) knows that the Reaping and the Games are terrible, and an injustice. In Delirium, most people agree with the government and are okay with the Cure. Even Lena is excited about getting her Cure soon. At first.

Delirium is about love, but it is also about standing up for what is important to you.

This book is long (over 440 pages) and the characters use a lot of swear words; this book is not for younger readers. It is a little more mature than The Hunger Games; there is less violence in this book, but the plot is harder to grasp. Middle school students and up will enjoy this, especially if they liked The Hunger Games.


Daddy's afterthoughts:  Julia does not know the word "dystopia," so I'll supply it. This book (actually, the first book of a short series) is an excellent entry into the canon of YA dystopian fiction. It bears some resemblances to the aforementioned Hunger Games series, as well as the Divergent trilogy. It bears thematic similarity to Lois Lowry's The Giver, which many students will read in 7th, 8th, or 9th grade, as well as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s short story "Harrison Bergeron," Ayn Rand's Anthem, and the dystopian novel supreme, 1984. (I do NOT recommend 1984 for 11 to 13 year-olds, though The Giver and Anthem are very readable by junior high school readers).

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer

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The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer is about the Bailey twins, Alex and Conner, who, even though they're twins, couldn't be more different. Alex is an exceptionally smart, kind, and caring girl, while Conner constantly falls asleep in class. They live with their mother in a small rental house, their mother struggling with money after the twins' father died in a car crash. They lived a simple life, until the twins' 12th birthday. Their grandmother surprises them with a few presents, and a huge dinner she cooked. Then she pulls out one last thing. A storybook titled The Land of Stories, a book that has been a big part of their childhood - a book that their grandmother read to them whenever they had visited:
"She returned carrying a large, old book with a dark emerald cover titled The Land of Stories in gold writing. Alex and Conner knew what the book was as soon as they saw it. If their childhood could be symbolized by an object, it was this book" (59). 
Later that night, Alex goes to bed like normal, when all of a sudden, the book's pages start to glow. Alex finds out that you can actually drop things into the book. When it would start to glow, Alex would put something on the pages and it would slowly sink into the book and disappear! 

Alex wonders what it would feel like if she put her hand into the book? So, one day, Alex puts her hand on the open book's pages. Like the other objects, it slowly sinks in. Alex keeps on going until her entire arm is in the book. Conner thinks that Alex is actually going to try to go into the The Land of Stories after she tells him that things can go in the book. So, while Alex has her arm in the book, Conner barges in to try to stop her, startling Alex, causing to fall over, headfirst into the book. Conner jumps in after her, and they become trapped in The Land of Stories

The twins start walking around, looking for a way home, and instead find a talking frog-man, who Conner calls "Froggy." He tells them about the Wishing Spell, a magical spell that grants the user one wish. Alex and Conner decide to use this spell to get home. They have to collect a series of items, and grouping them together activates the spell. However, the Wishing Spell can only be used twice; Froggy tells them that it has been used once before (by who, I wonder?). 

If that isn't enough, these items mostly belong to the monarchs of the fairy-tale world and the Evil Queen has escaped from the dungeons of Queen Snow White's palace and are after the same things that Alex and Conner are after. What could go wrong?

Do Alex and Conner manage to avoid the Evil Queen and get home safely? This story is about a pair of intelligent, brave (or completely insane) children weaved in with the lives of classic fairy-tale characters (Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks) as adults. The twins will face the Big Bad Wolf's descendants, escape being eaten alive by a witch and (accidentally) start a fire in Queen Red Riding Hood's castle in this thrilling novel!

And be sure to check out the 5 other books in this series: The Enchantress Returns; A Grimm Warning; Beyond The Kingdoms; An Author's Odyssey; and Worlds Collide!      


Daddy's afterthoughts:  So, a friend of mine messaged me that Julia's blog had made the front page of Reddit. Wow. Thank everyone so much for blowing my daughter's mind! The response has been (mostly) positive! Julia is beaming with pride and happiness! I read the comments, and wanted to address a few things, however...

No, Julia is not an "aspiring mommy blogger" masquerading as an 11-year-old girl. Yes, she and I co-blog, in that I review and give comments on her blog post rough drafts and then she revises them (sometimes more than once, as need be). Earlier blog posts have more of my influence, later blog posts are Julia weaned from my "helicoptering." (This post, for example, was all her, minus a few verb tense issues.) Lastly, I am a teacher, and so my "Daddy's afterthoughts" section is geared towards the parents of young readers. I try to avoid what one redditor called "pretentious intellectualising," but I suppose you can't please everybody.

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