Posts from the ‘Young Adult Literature’ Category

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Sleeper and the Spindle.jpgTitle: The Sleeper and the Spindle
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
ISBN: 9780062398246
Pages: 69 pages
Publisher/Date: first published in Rag & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, published in 2013 by Little, Brown. c2013, Illustrations c2014. Originally published in the U.K. in 2014 by Bloomsbury. Published in U.S. by HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

The smallest dwarf tipped his head to one side. “So, there’s a sleeping woman in a castle, and perhaps a witch or fairy there with her. Why is there also a plague?”
“Over the last year,” said the fat-faced man. “It started in the north, beyond the capital. I heard about if first from travelers coming from Stede, which is near the Forest of Acaire.”
“People fall asleep in the towns,” said the pot-girl. […]
“They fall asleep whatever they are doing, and they do not wake up,” said the sot. “Look at us. We fled the towns to come here. We have brothers and sisters, wives and children, sleeping now in their houses or cowsheds, at their workbenches. All of us.”
“It is moving faster and faster,” […] “Now it covers a mile, perhaps two miles, each day.” (18)

Three dwarfs tunnel under the mountain range in search of a wedding gift for their queen, returning with news of a horrible sleeping sickness plaguing the neighboring lands and heading closer every day. The queen, having previously faced her own sleep spell, postpones the wedding and attempts to break the spell and save both kingdoms. Although this might sound familiar, Neil Gaiman’s twist ending flips the story, and you question who is really being held captive. The queen’s confidence is obvious in both narration and illustration, and is the most welcome adaptation to the traditional tale. Two illustrations specifically catch my eye, the first has the queen standing with the dwarfs ready to embark, and the second is the full-spread gorgeously rendered drawing of the kiss. It doesn’t seem enough though to warrant publishing a previous short story as its own book, but U.S. fans will enjoy Gaiman’s newest import.

Slade House

Warning: This review contains things that some may consider minor spoilers.

Slade House.jpgTitle: Slade House
Author: David Mitchell
Narrators: Thomas Judd and Tania Rodrigues
ISBN: 9781101923672 (audiobook), 9780812998689 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 6 CDs, 7 hours
Pages: 238 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door. Down the road from a working-class pub, along a narrow brick alley, you just might find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who’s different or lonely; a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside? For those who find out, it’s already too late… (back cover)

I don’t think I could have more efficiently summarized the plot or the tone of this novel which is why I quoted the back cover rather than reveal any of the details that are slowly spooled out. David Mitchell’s story is masterful and I need to add him to authors that I need to read more often. The suspense and intrigue are palatable, as readers slowly gain knowledge of how Slade House works. In the first chapter, we meet Nathan Bishop and his mother, and every subsequent story builds on the first. That I think is the first mistake, as the connections between the events every nine years spiral outward.

Narrators Thomas Judd and Tania Rodrigues invoke an appropriately eerie mood and captures the unique personalities with equal skill. Judd’s younger Nathan Bishop has the naiveté of a young man, possibly with Asperger’s, who doesn’t understand social cues and probably makes him the most humorous character:

“The next three windows have net curtain, but then I see a TV with wrestling […] Eight house later I see Godzilla on BBC2. He knocks down a pylon just by blundering into it and a Japanese fireman with a sweaty face is shouting into a radio. Now Godzilla’s picked up a train, which makes no sense because amphibians don’t have thumbs. Maybe Godzilla’s thumb’s like a panda’s so-called thumb, which is really an evolved claw.” (5)

Detective Inspector Gordon Edmunds is the stereotypical English “copper”, with clipped, no-nonsense, jaded sarcasm who takes his job seriously, even if it’s just to avoid his boss. Chloe Chetwynd’s voice is also appropriately whispery and tentative. Rodrigues’ is tasked to provide not only the majority of the book, but also has her voice slightly modulated to provide voice to electronic recordings. Between Sally’s confusion, Freya’s trepidation, and the cautious professionalism of Marinus, she showcases an impressive range. The shift in narrators for each chapter is understandable but the choice in narrator for the last chapter is jarring and questionable until the chapter progresses, and especially when you get to the last page and fresh goosebumps arise at the ending’s implications.

The only quibble I have is that the nature of Slade House necessitates huge revelations of information in the guise of investigations, by both amateurs and professionals. It’s like watching a spider weave its web around the prey, and then gloating about how easy it was to catch the fly in the sprung trap. The reason these summaries don’t grow boring is that new information is always provided, leading readers to a nesting dolls affect where each layer is unveiled. Readers are yelling at the victims the entire time to get out, watch out, and just when you think you have it figured out, the next layer is revealed. While I was slightly disappointed by how that last chapter progressed and the new information that explained everything seemed slightly contrived, that previously mentioned last page almost makes up for the easy out. When you get to the end, you realize just how much foreshadowing has been sprinkled like breadcrumbs through the entire novel, and you want to go back and identify the clues. I predict this might end up on Adult Books for Teen Readers lists. There’s definitely appeal for those intrigued by the mysterious, spooky, and unexplained horror found in the plot.

All the Bright Places

All the Bright PlacesTitle: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyer
ISBN: 9780553552195 (audiobook), 978038575587 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours
Pages: 388 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2015. (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.)

”Ladies and gentlemen,” I shout, “I would like to welcome you to my death!” You might expect me to say “life,” having just woken up and all, but it’s only when I’m awake that I think about dying. I am shouting in an old-school-preacher way, all jerking head and words that twitch at ends, and I almost lose my balance. I hold on behind me, happy no one seems to have noticed, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to look fearless when you’re clutching the railing like a chicken.
“I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind, do hereby bequeath all my earthly possessions to Charlie Donahue, Brenda Shank-Kravitz, and my sisters.” […]
Then his head turns away from me and points at the sky. At first I think he’s pointing at me, but it’s at that moment I see her, the girl. (4-5)

It just so happens that Theodore Finch and Violet Markey have chosen the same day in January to climb the bell tower at their school and contemplate suicide. Finch, aka “Freak” to all his classmates, has caused trouble before, has a violent school history, and sees the counselor on a regular basis, coming from a home where his father has left him, his two sisters, and his mother, for a new family. Violet’s family isn’t much better, as she is still trying to recover from the death of her older sister in a car accident less than a year ago. Not minding casting Violet in the hero role, as if she was only up there to save his sorry life, Finch in fact wants to prolong this instant connection he feels, and volunteers himself to be her partner in a geography project. A reluctant Violet slowly starts to open up to Finch as their relationship evolves, but Finch has difficulty expressing his deepest thoughts to even Violet. Does the world ever offer enough to live for?

It was a good choice to alternate narrators between the characters/chapters. Kirby Heyborne has an appropriately anxious and gravelly voice for Finch, and Ariadne Meyers has a youthful sounding voice filled with trepidation. Niven includes a heartbreaking author’s note discussing the inspiration for the story, and it’s after hearing her story that you realize why certain aspects of the end sound so realistic. The highlights of the novel are the scenes where she focuses in on the emotions and the little details, and the dialogue is both relatable but also disconcerting. For example, Finch’s interaction with his counselor has the counselor asking him “Do I need to call your mother?” and his response is “’No. And again no.’ And again: no no no. ‘Look it was a stupid thing to do. I just wanted to see what it felt like to stand there and look down. I would never jump from the bell tower.” (14) Finch’s nickname for Violet, the Facebook messages back and forth, the endearing flowers scene and the Purina Tower expedition all lead credibility to the relationship and make him so endearing to Violet and to readers, encouraging hope for the best.

In the beginning though I wasn’t thrilled with how the relationship with Finch and Violet evolved. He struck me as similar to Edward Cullen in Twilight. He obsessed over Violet, who originally has no interest in hanging out with him, investigating her Facebook page and website. While eventually the changes he forces upon her are good for her growth and recovery from her sister’s death, the way he went about it grated on my nerves. He did have his moments though, especially his patience and protectiveness of Violet. He knows how to project charm and respect, but as we get to see him both when he is and isn’t with Violet, we’re left asking the same questions he asks himself about his own authenticity and that of her feelings toward him. I thought he was too assertive, too sure of himself, too brash and too phony, although this was probably the author’s intent. He reminds me of a modern-day Holden Caufield, with his attempts to remake himself with a complete disinterest about how anyone else feels about him, except Violet. His dependency on her scared me, and those fears were ultimately validated.

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than EverTitle: Better Nate Than Ever
Author: Tim Federle
Narrator: Tim Federle
ISBN: 9781442374157
Discs/CDs: 5 CDs, 5 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Inc, c2013.
Awards: Odyssey Award Honor (2014), Stonewall Book Award Honor (2014)
Series: #1 (there is a sequel, titled Five, Six, Seven, Nate)

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has a dream of being on Broadway which is difficult to fulfill when you are one of two Broadway geeks in the entire town of Jankburg, Pennsylvania. His best friend Libby has taught him everything he knows (everything he thinks he needs to know anyways) and Nate is confident in his acting ability, even though he’s never had formal lessons. So confident that when his parents head out of town for the night and leave Nate’s brother in charge, Nate and Libby hatch a plan. Nate’s going to take the bus to New York, audition for the newly scripted E.T. The Musical, wow the producers, the directors, the choreographers, and whoever else he needs to, and prove once and for all that his true place in life is on Broadway. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Things definitely go wrong for Nate, including underestimating his budget and his time frame, not having directions before his arrival in NYC, and believing everything everyone says and that everyone is his friend. I found myself comparing him to Jack from the television show Will and Grace; over the top (he swears using the names of Broadway flops) and unable to take care of himself (he’s miraculously saved from both homelessness and an uncharged phone multiple times). His awkward “monologue” explanation for why he’s out alone is completely unrealistic, and the author forces him to “perform” not just once or twice but multiple times, getting more awkward each time. A lot of the plot seems to be on repeat, as Nate’s experiences are a push and pull of emotions as his hopes and reams are real, then dashed, then restored, then dashed, and readers are left with no resolution to the “Does he or doesn’t he” million dollar question. This roller coaster continues for much too long and I started to loose interest in the plot, which seems to place me in a minority among the multitudes of fans this book has garnered. My sympathies towards Nate were the only thing that grew because I felt his overly-enthusiastic antics were being used as entertainment for the mean-spirited adults who relished his peculiarities rather then  as an opportunity to teach the craft and profession.

This straight read through by author Federle was campy and over the top, just like his character Nate Foster, although it is difficult for me several weeks later to remember anything remarkable about the narration specifically. Nate is a laughably naive person, from his clothes choices to his interactions with children and adults. For someone who so desperately wants to be involved in a Broadway show, it’s unbelievable that he would know so little about how the industry works and how optimistic he is regarding his chances of making it big. In this way I guess one of the values of this book is that it teaches readers how the industry work, but at the expense of poor Nate. While his antics remind me of book characters geared towards younger readers, similar to maybe Ramona or Wimpy Kid, the content is skewed much older, with Nate not “choosing a sexuality” yet, drunkenness (both adult and teen drinking), and several homophobic slurs being repeatedly dropped. I’m usually pretty open-minded regarding book content (I was reading teen fiction alongside my Animorphs books in 5th grade), but if a library has a tween section it would make sense to put it there. The 13-year-old character is too young for most teens in young adult areas but the content limits it’s appropriateness to readers under 13 and I think adults may find more enjoyment from this book than children. Case in point: Our copy has been checked out only 6 times in two years

Rocket Girl

Rocket GirlTitle: Rocket Girl Volume One: Times Squared
Author: Brandon Montclare
Illustrator: Amy Reeder
ISBN: 9781632150554
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Image Comics, Inc., c2014.

In 1986 a bunch of scientists at Quintum Mechanics made history. Their discovery would change everything, forever. But they didn’t know what they were doing. It was never meant to be. So someone had to go back in time to stop it. I volunteered.

Detective Dayoung Johansson is a fifteen-year-old NYPD Detective in 2013, and expects people to respond to her position and experience with the force. Except she’s no longer in 2013 but has been sent back to 1986 to prevent a corporation from seizing control. But as the company responsible for the technology that enables time travel in the first place, Dayoung may just be playing into their plan. Is she really saving the past, or creating the future?

This story almost completely ignores the time travel element, except for a few obligatory references, like “Your past is my future” and a run in between past and future selves for two secondary characters. The detailed illustrations shine, with dirt on Dayoung’s uniform and graffiti on the brick walls, although the broken glass of the police station window should have fallen out the window if it was broken from the inside. It’s the fight sequences that are all flash, bang, whizz, described in the extra materials in the back of the book as “Marvel Style”. I wish there had been more movement in these sequences, instead of poses and posturing more then actual propulsion. NPR agrees with me (since when did NPR review graphic novels?!), stating “The one area where Reeder’s got real problems, oddly enough, is in capturing motion. That’s quite a weakness when your protagonist spends most of her time airborne. Reeder does OK with the effortless aspects of flight — gliding, spinning, tumbling. When DaYoung soars, so does the book. But when she hauls off and hits somebody, we hit the ground.” It’s an interesting premise and I’d be willing to follow it for a little while longer, but the characters and plot need more development before I’ll fully understand exactly how the past/future is impacting the future/present… see why I’m confused!

The Shadow Hero

Shadow HeroTitle: The Shadow Hero
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Sonny Liew
ISBN: 9781596436978
Pages: 170 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2014

“No no no!”
“But you don’t even know what a superhero is!”
“Of course I know what a superhero is! They’re all over the newspapers!”
“Then why don’t you want to be one?”
“First of all, that costume is ridiculous! What kind of superhero symbol is that?!”
“It’s the character for gold, Hank! Gold is a very, very good symbol! It’s shiny! It’s pretty! It’s worth a lot of money!”
“Nobody’s gonna understand that! And second–”
“You never appreciate anything I do for you!”
“And SECOND, I don’t have any superpowers! I can’t fly or lift a car over my head or anything like that! How am I supposed to be a superhero with no superpowers?!” (25-26)

Some mothers want their children to become doctors or lawyers or teachers. Hank’s mother gets saved from a bank robbery suspect by a superhero, and now she wants her son to be a superhero. Hank’s rational explanation that he has neither an inclination or an ability to become a superhero fall on deaf ears. But when a violent crime hits close to home, it convinces both Hank and his mother to change their minds.

I was especially intrigued by the history behind the story, maybe slightly more than the Gene Luen Yang’s actual story. Yang brings to light a little known superhero, created by an unknown cartoonist (Chu Hing), for an unknown publisher (Rural Home) and starring in just five issues. Speculation apparently abounds at the origins of the superhero but also the relationship between cartoonist and publisher. Never seeing the Green Turtle’s face or discovering his origin, was Hing hiding a Chinese superhero in plain sight against his publisher’s wishes? While we’ll probably never know for sure, Yang gives readers not only a history lesson and a copy of the first full issue, but also a convincing origin story for this nearly forgotten superhero.

Yang mentions stereotypes in his afterward, remarking upon “Hing’s use of racial stereotypes in his depictions of the Japanese” (157). I wonder if Yang (as I suspect) consciously invoked these stereotypes when portraying his characters, especially Hank’s mother as a meddling, overly involved immigrant and Hank’s origin story rings unmistakably similar to Spider-man’s and Batman’s. Don’t miss the cheeky nod towards these counterparts where some characters talk about the new superhero who “dresses up like some sort of owl or vulture or–” (30). But Hank’s character is more Peter Parker than Bruce Wayne, as he muddles through the path to superhero, making his own costume and secret identity name and bumbling his way through fights. I won’t say much about his one special ability, but I enjoyed how Yang incorporated Chinese elements throughout the story. The ending is slightly anti-climatic, but it’s understandable as it doesn’t appear that the original material had many costumed cohorts to battle, but instead fought mortal men in a real world war. Maybe this is another reason it lasted such a short time, since everyone was intrigued and entertained by Joker, Penguin, Lex Luther, and other just as imaginary enemies.

The layout is very similar to comics, with chapters beginning with an expository flashback and ending with the Green Turtle logo. Sound effects are written in brightly colored bubble-letters (Wack, Kick, Smash, Whap, etc.) that contrast against the generally more muted backgrounds. Some of the layouts are unique and very eye-catching, like the wheel-shaped montage of fight sequences found on page 105, making me think of a Zodiac or color wheel. This engaging read could appeal to wide audiences as the superhero genre continues to grow.

This One Summer

This One SummerTitle: This One Summer
Author: Mariko Tamaki
Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki
ISBN: 9781626720947
Pages: 318 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2014.
Awards: Caldecott Honor (2015), Michael L. Printz Award Nominee (2015), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Graphic Album-New (2015)

When I first came to Awago I was scared to swim in the lake. Then my mom taught me how to open my eyes under the water.
I thought it was something special. Like a power.
Until I told Windy and realized like, everyone can do it if they try. (111)

Rose and her family have gone to Awago Beach for the summer ever since she can remember. It’s there she meets up with Windy, whose family also annually rents a summer cottage. The entertainment of choice for the two girls is secretly watching scary movies they rent from the small store. It’s there that they also eavesdrop on the small town gossip, which seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. Rose’s family has their own drama and trauma that they are trying to overcome, but it seems like this summer it’s more difficult than ever to avoid their real life.

This book has definitely made waves, especially since the Media Awards were announced in February. I’ve been struggling with accepting the honorees for the Caldecott Award since they were announced, because they broke the mold so thoroughly this year. The Invention of Hugo Cabret did the same thing when it won the award for 2008, but it seems like librarians were more willing to accept it into their fold because it still was an acceptable acquisition for an elementary school and/or the children’s department. It still met our definition of a children’s book. And while the Caldecott Award does specify that books intended for an audience of up to and including age 14 are to be considered, they are traditionally acceptable reading material for most age levels, and the ability to read something of that length was the only barrier. Now we have a piece of work dealing with sensitive, mature themes, such as teenage pregnancy — and all the various related topics like diseases, contraception, and conception — underage drinking and language. Not really something you would unquestionably hand to a second grader, I don’t care how open-minded of a librarian or how stringently you adhere to the mantra that we do not act in loco parentis.

Several librarians have also raised the concern that graphic novels present a unique question of where the natural separation is between pictures and text, especially since graphic novels blur those lines so frequently. Are speech bubbles considered part of the graphics? Are textual panels or narrative text considered part of the graphics? Are sound effects (picture the BAM and WHACK from early comics) part of the graphics, especially when used in place of an alternative pictorial representation, or part of the text?

There’s a very good reason for asking these questions, which I’m sure the Caldecott committee spent some time considering in their deliberations. The choice of the monochromatic blue/purple conveys the moody atmosphere, but the dialogue and expository text emphasizes the unease and awkwardness that the long-time friendship is suffering. Initially I didn’t care for the graphic novel, probably for this very reason, as the introspective nature of the narrative forces readers to be “in the mood” for that type of thing. It’s a very different story than say Roller Girl (previously reviewed) and therefore recommended for an audience that would appreciate that type of story. It’s a moody portrayal of a young girl’s loss of innocence, as Rose grapples with some very heavy themes. I chose the quote at the top because this is literally the summer where she opens her eyes. There is a noticeable gap between Windy and Rose from the very beginning that continues to widen, and readers understand and accept that, possibly before either of the girls, although I think Rose is coming to that same conclusion.

While it has merits, I’m not sure if it, in my opinion, fully deserves the notoriety that the Caldecott committee has now infamously and infinitely granted it as the first graphic novel to be recognized by that award. It’s was also recognized by the Printz Committee, designating excellence in Young Adult Literature, which is an audience that I think is better able to engage and appreciate the graphic novel’s subtleties. I may be late to the initial commentary and debate, but this is one discussion that I’m sure will go on for some time, and rightfully so.

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