Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games (3 1/2 stars out of 4)
When I think of the television I watched and the books I read growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I am still amazed by how much our futurists and science fiction writers got right, and amused by the things they got wrong. Robert Heinlein’s vision of showers and other household machines that communicate with their patrons and even get insulted when they are underutilized never materialized, and The Jetsons’ flying cars still seem absurd. However, the too-short-lived original Star Trek got many things right; i.e. automatic doors (except they don’t whoosh), communicators (cell phones), medical scanners (MRIs), and tricorders (PDAs). Star Trek’s plots are known for their cutting-edge coverage of political, social, and cultural terrain, and one 1968 episode, “Bread and Circuses,” predicts the type of brutal reality show featured in Suzanne Collins’ exciting new novel The Hunger Games. Ms. Collins has smartly connected the dots from gladiators Kirk, Spock, and McCoy competing on national “Empire TV” against men with names like Flavius and Claudius Marcus, to American Gladiator, Survivor, and the sometimes-violent YouTube. She has molded this media maelstrom into a new trilogy.
Katniss Everdeen is sixteen and has already survived several reapings, but today brings another grim opportunity to participate in the annual terror of Panem (post-apocalyptic North America). Each year, one female and one male child aged 12 to 18 from each of Panem’s 12 districts are randomly chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally-televised reality show in which the children must kill each other to survive; only one wins at the end. It is supposed to be a time for celebration, but during the festivities, “. . . at least two families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come” (11). When Katniss’s younger, frail sister Prim is chosen, she invokes a custom that allows her to volunteer for her, a practice seldom seen in District 12: “In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor [and] people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated. But in District 12, where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse, volunteers are but extinct” (24-25). To make matters worse, while her male companion in the games, Peeta Mellark, seems attracted to her, they have a history that makes Katniss uncomfortable: “Why him? I think. Then I try to convince myself it doesn’t matter . . . Our only interaction happened years ago. He’s probably forgotten it. But I haven’s and I know I never will” (29). When they arrive at the Capitol in the Rocky Mountains, Katniss and Peeta face two impossibly-daunting challenges: defeat 22 well-trained and highly-prepared foreigners, then, in the unlikely event that only the two of them remain, fight each other to the death.
One main reason I enjoyed this book is that I got the impression while reading it that Suzanne Collins enjoyed building this universe. Many cultural and historical allusions poke fun at both the novel’s authoritarian government and ourselves: hosts, stylists, and handlers with names like Cinna, Flavius, and Claudius, and Caesar; a mad rush and fierce battle for contestant sponsors, with handicappers and odds dictating citizen wagering; and most importantly, the look of the arena and competition always being more important than the lives of the contestants. Needless to say, since it is a planned trilogy, there is plenty of room at the end for more, and I am looking forward to it. Like its primary predecessor, the Shadow Children series, The Hunger Games promises action and suspense for quite a while.

Nicholls, Sally. Ways to Live Forever (3 stars out of 4).
As much as we hate to talk about it or think about it sometimes, death is a part of our school lives as well as our personal lives. Many of us have witnessed counselors flooding into a building after a student death, and we have consoled our students when they were overwhelmed by either the death of a friend or of a relative. A mature understanding of death is often born in the middler years, and difficult as it is, this issue must be discussed. Ironically, since death is a universal experience, its dark tendrils touch all of us, and it has the capacity to bring us closer together. In this spirit, Ways to Live Forever by new British author Sally Nicholls delves into the life of one dying young person to gain insight into how the rest of us should live.
Sam McQueen is eleven and he is dying of leukemia with little or no chance of survival. Sam and his fellow terminally-ill friend Felix spend most days at home, visited by a tutor and closely monitored by Sam’s overprotective mum (remember, it’s a British novel). Dad works frequently to support the family’s medical bills, and he is mostly in denial that his son will die. Sam does not like uncertainty in his life; he wants to know things, and he feels science can provide some answers: “If I grow up, I’m going to be a scientist . . . I’m going to find out the answers to all the questions that nobody answers” (9-10). To explain the universe available to him and to come to terms with his impossibly difficult situation, Sam begins a book to explore the unknown, but cynical Felix insists on the inclusion of the dark side of their lives. While asking why God makes kids ill, Felix insists that either God does not exist or that God is evil. Sam suggests instead that cancer is a lesson that God imparts to teach us how to live and that there are nice reasons why God would make kids sick, but Felix resists this idea: “‘There aren’t any nice ones,’ said Felix. ‘How can there be? Someone gives kids cancer, they don’t do it to be nice’” (42). Instead of getting more depressed over their plights, Sam and Felix decide to make a “bucket list” of things to do before they die. One of the items on the list is to watch an adult horror movie, and they “borrow” a copy of The Exorcist from Felix’s brother. However, to Sam, the movie became a metaphor of his plight: “There was something about the idea of something living in your body and making you do creepy stuff that I didn’t like” (51). As time marches on and Sam approaches the end of his journey, he, his little sister Ella, and his family must come to terms with the ending of this chapter of their lives.
I distinctly remember reading Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata because my eyes are still puffy two years later. Although 23-year-old Sally Nicholls is no Kadohata, and this book does not delve into the parallel themes of racism, prejudice, and unfair treatment of ethnic groups, she writes in an authentic voice that touches the reader right where she cries. Young people often do not know where to turn when death enters their lives, and running away does not work; the person is still gone when he or she returns. With Ways to Live Forever, Ms. Nicholls has given young people a valuable tool to use in order to try and understand their universe. Readers may appreciate the irony that the more Sam gets what he wants, the more he wants to be just like everyone else. The author effectively uses date subheadings at the beginning of each chapter so readers can “feel” Sam getting weaker (with occasional bursts of energy) throughout the novel. There are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions, but middlers can only come to terms with these issues if they think, wonder, and dream about them. It is not always comfortable, but comfort was not promised in life’s rich pageant.

Burg, Shana. A Thousand Never Evers (3 1/2 out of 4 stars).
There cannot be too many positive pre-adolescent and adolescent African-American role models in today’s libraries. Those who argue that the worst days of the civil rights struggle are over, that we have finally achieved personal, professional, and social equality, are not seeing the reality I see every day at school. Unfortunately, African-Americans have the additional challenge of having to be blitzed with media images too-frequently showing African-Americans as athletes and rappers, and too-infrequently showing African-Americans as doctors, accountants, chefs, and architects. With her first novel, A Thousand Never Evers, Shana Burg has created a fine civil rights-era historical novel, and in Addie Ann Pickett, Ms. Burg has given life to a new, strong voice young people can hear and relate to.
It is 1963 in segregated Kuckachoo, Mississippi, and as Addie Ann Pickett inches closer to the start of seventh grade at West Thunder Creek Junior High School (called County Colored by the older members of the community), her life is becoming increasingly complicated and uncomfortable. Addie Ann’s situation deteriorates rapidly when she gets picked on by two racist white teens, Buck Fowler and Jimmy Worth, for staring at and then laughing in the presence of Mrs. Worth, a prominent citizen and avowed segregationist: “‘Reckon coloreds don’t learn manners at school,’ Buck says, cackling. ‘Thing we ought to teach this one a lesson?’” (47). Addie Ann’s brother Elias throws a honey jar at Jimmy, who trips and falls. Elias runs away and, after a chase and search, is presumed dead. The next escalation of tensions for Addie Ann occurs when she realizes, in stages throughout the novel, that her friend Delilah has physically blossomed earlier than she has, and that Delilah will most probably catch the eye of the only neighborhood young man entering the seventh grade, Cool Breeze Huddleston: “After all, Delilah’s light brown skin’s always dewy like a petal, while mine’s muddy like the bottom of the bayou. And Delilah’s eyebrows? They arch real graceful, like dancers leaping, while . . . mine scraggle like hawks crashing down for a landing” (98). But the real problem that can potentially rive the town is a community garden that a recently-deceased wealthy man bequeaths to the whole town, black and white alike. The garden is predictably stolen the moment the attorney with the will leaves the room. Addie Ann watches the sheriff take out his gun and bully the room into submission: “I want to yell what I know is true: This land, it’s ours too! But the words are stuck inside me. I’m afraid we’re all going to die. And I wonder if it’s worth it, for the land” (22). When someone close to Addie Ann is falsely accused of sabotaging the garden, she must grow up quickly and find the inner fortitude to fight the mounting injustice in her family, her town, and her world.
I like Addie Ann Pickett. Her internal monologue sounds authentic, and it is fun to watch her grow up, even during the maelstrom of the early modern civil rights movement. Ms. Burg works in names like Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and the Birmingham Four to add appropriate tension to the story and its characters, and she successfully displays both the segregationists’ shame and the beginning of the overthrow of that sorry, racist cycle. One of the small ironies that so poignantly illustrates Addie Ann’s conflict as an African-American in the segregationist South occurs after she saves the choking toddler son of her white employer, Mrs. Tate. When Mrs. Tate asks Addie Ann privately where she learned to help choking children, Addie Ann becomes afraid that she did something wrong, that she embarrassed Mrs. Tate by showing her up in front of her friends. Sadly, in the white world in which Addie lives, saving face and looking good is even more important than saving lives. A Thousand Never Evers is a fine debut novel by Shana Burg that successfully illustrates the challenges we all still face if we want racism-free peace in our time.

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Davidson, Jenny. The Explosionist (3 stars out of 4).
Alternate history, also called allohistory, is uncommon in YA literature. Maybe authors do not perceive the YA/middler audience as learned or sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtlety of tweaking historical events, or maybe publishers do not think the genre is attractive enough for today’s overstimulated, desensitized, technology-saturated kids. However, alternate history, a work in which historical events have been altered and the result is analyzed and deconstructed (i.e. the South won the Civil War, Kennedy was not shot, or one of the most widely-used examples, the Nazis won World War II), is a valid and thought-provoking science fiction sub-genre. For example, works like Philip K. Dick’s 1960’s classic The Man In the High Castle, Philip Roth’s more recent The Plot Against America, and even one of Star Trek’s most famous episodes, the Harlan Ellison story “The City on the Edge of Forever,” are fascinating portraits of what America would look like if World War II had happened differently. Although Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist does not compare with the best works in this field, it is a good retro sci-fi adventure murder mystery with enough action to satisfy most of its target audience.
Sophie Hunter lives in a 1938 that is literally a different world than the one our history books record. Residing in Edinburgh, her Scotland is part of the New Hanseatic League, an alliance of northern countries formed to protect itself against the Federated European States, an alliance of southern European countries. The U.S., not a player in this novel, is separated into the Northern Union of States and the Southern Confederacy. All of this historical topsy-turvy has occurred because in Sophie’s history books, Napoleon defeated Wellington at Waterloo, radically affecting all events after it. Additionally, supernatural power and spiritualist abilities seem to be enhanced in this universe. Living with her Great-aunt Tabitha on the weekends (her parents were killed many years ago in an explosives plant explosion) and attending boarding school during the week, Sophie stumbles upon a conspiracy to start a war with Europe, and she fears that her teachers, her Great-aunt’s acquaintances, and even her Great-aunt herself may be involved. Also, she is having unwelcome encounters with the spirit world that are fraying her nerves. First, a strange woman reminiscent of her dead mother appears in the mirror: “Ghosts were stupid; only foolish people believed in them. If only the woman hadn’t looked so real!” (28). With her friend Mikael, she investigates the murder of a medium who had appeared at Great-aunt Tabitha’s home and made specific references to Sophie in her presentation, then tells a constable about it when Mikael is found in the dead woman’s room: “‘And she said some odd things [during the séance]—I can’t really describe it, but there was something off about the whole business . . . So when Mikael offered to help me find out more about her, it seemed like the perfect solution. Was—was her throat really cut?’” While looking into the murder, Sophie also stumbles upon the secret project Great-aunt Tabitha co-founded, called IRYLNS, a training facility that turns out perfect secretaries and administrative assistants to people of importance, but at a very steep, very secret price: “Sophie felt rather shattered. What if she had to enroll at IRYLNS and become one of those pretty, polished girls? Would it be possible to do that and still be Sophie?” (177). Sophie must find a way, with help from unexpected places, to avoid her inescapable destiny and also try to save her friends, and if necessary, her country, before all of the conspiracies surrounding her come to fruition.
I was not surprised to read on the book jacket that Ms. Davidson is a Professor of Comparative Literature; she manages to creatively reference almost every major discipline in this novel, and names like Joyce, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Adam Smith are tossed around The Explosionist like snowflakes in a blizzard. However, it sometimes seems too much, like Ms. Davidson wants to name-drop everyone she can to show that she has done her homework. Although it is amusing to imagine Einstein as a poet and Sigmund Freud as a self-help radio host, these oddities ultimately detract from a novel that could have been 100 pages shorter. Most middlers do not yet appreciate the lives and accomplishments of many of the ideas referenced here, so the impact of their altered appearance is significantly reduced. Students will probably enjoy the conspiracy elements and action more than the multitude of allusions. Overall, The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson is a good first YA novel that explores some unique historical and societal perspectives, and with a little tightening and a keener focus on the interests of middlers, the sequel (if written) should be a fine read.