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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Anderson, M. T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (4 stars out of 4)--
I normally do not review sequels in this column; if you liked the first one, you will probably buy the others yourself without any reminders from me (unless the series gets too inappropriate for your level, like, in the opinion of some, the later Twilight books or some manga series). However, I must make an exception for M. T. Anderson’s brilliant, innovative, and groundbreaking sequel The Kingdom on the Waves. I was already a fan, but Mr. Anderson’s lyrical yet searing portrait of Colonial Revolutionary America through the eyes of a classically-trained slave may be the most original adventure yarn of our generation. No other character I have ever read lives and breathes both the promise and potential of 1775, and the humiliation and hypocrisy of American slavery, more eloquently than loyalist Private Octavian Nothing.
At the end of Volume I, Octavian Nothing had poisoned his owners with the help of his mentor, Dr. John Trefusis, and ran away from his childhood home, Boston’s Novanglian College of Lucidity, a self-described school of 18th century natural philosophy. Octavian swapped a certain life of misery and enslavement for an uncertain but brave new world. Due to horrid mistreatment, Octavian had nothing to lose by drugging and escaping his masters: “But that morning, I had been a prisoner, a metal mask upon my face, and my jowls larded with my own vomit, in a condition which could hardly have been more debased” (4). Sensing his evolution into a new person, he briefly changes his name to Augustus per the Caesarian precedent, and Augustus finds work playing violin. But every situation is short-lived in 1775, and Nothing must decide which side to support in the growing conflict. The decision is easy: the loyalists offer manumission, the patriots do not. Donning his uniform, emblazoned with the words Liberty to Slaves, free at last, Private Nothing, having reverted to his original Octavian, cannot stop smiling: “As a free man, I am dressed far more meanly than I was as a slave, when I wore silks and lawn; and yet, there could be no finer raiment than such a shirt as this, though the smock be as course as hum-hum” (134). Private Nothing’s Ethiopian Regiment is assigned to Lord Dunmore’s fleet in Norfolk, where he is reunited with his only friend from his former life, Pro Bono, now Private William Williams. When Octavian seems puzzled by his choice of moniker, the openly cynical Williams explains: “‘They seem to favor the English names, the white folk. It’s my interest to please their affable selves at every o’clock of the day. So I reckoned the pale, forgettable names was the best . . . Richard Richards set a barn afire and he slain a sheep, so now I’m William Williams’” (169). Privates Nothing and Williams, along with their fellow black soldiers, commit to defending Norfolk from the traitorous rebels while accepting a new type of enslavement: uninspired and short-sighted leadership. Their loyalties and allegiances are strained and torn by all of the forces surrounding and engulfing them.
The two Octavian Nothing books are not easy reads; think of them as Mr. Anderson’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or A Brief History of Time; not impossible to read, but not something one flies through. The language is archaic and feels at times like the S.A.T., and the story is occasionally forwarded in a herky-jerky style by journal entries, letters, memos, illustrations, and proclamations. This unpredictable streak should not deter readers, it should invite them. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the best things in life both require effort and earn rich rewards. Mr. Anderson’s brilliant use of Colonial slang and language style injects a strong dose of realism and immediacy into the narrative, elevating Octavian above his surroundings, forming in him a voice for all of history’s mistreated, noble souls. Mr. Anderson’s use of genuine primary sources not only demonstrates that he did his research, it exemplifies his ability to weave fiction and non-fiction together seamlessly, rendering those terms temporarily meaningless. The Kingdom on the Waves feels true and valid at the most fundamental level, because the injustice and hypocrisy that crawl out when he lifts the boulder of “liberty” is our collective heritage, and understanding Octavian’s conflicts illumines our own.

Mancusi, Mari. Gamer Girl (2 stars out of 4)--
The best teachers I have had were seldom negative; they could find the good in everyone, they could say something positive about every one of their students, and they never raised up some by insulting or demeaning others. There are several examples of bashing in Gamer Girl by Mari Mancusi—nothing too vicious, but in my opinion, unnecessary. Great writers find a way to show embarrassment without saying, “They all probably thought I was special needs” (12), and potentially alienating one of her largest audiences. Great writers find a way to challenge and question authority without concluding, “She was really young for a teacher and I guessed still under the naïve impression that she could actually make a difference in her students’ lives” (36). Pardon me, but I’m not so young anymore, and I may be fooling myself, but I still believe that I can and do make a difference in my students’ lives, or else I would choose a different career. Smart kids see through that type of observation for the hollow cliché that it is, which is why I can still feel comfortable putting Gamer Girl on the shelf, even if I find parts of the narrative personally distasteful. Many students will be intrigued by the slang and gaming/fantasy references, and girls may get hooked by the love interest; like Bella’s Edward Cullen, Gamer Girl’s dream man is a mystery, just an avatar like her.
Maddy Starr is unhappy about her parents’ divorce, but she is infuriated by the effect it has had on her life: she has to live with her Grandma, Mom, and little sister in New Hampshire, away from her Boston prep school friends and lifestyle. Her first day at Hannah Dustin High School is pure culture shock for a goth-lite girl like Maddy: “It was as if I’d wandered into a living, breathing American Eagle commercial. Shudder. I looked around, desperately trying to pinpoint at least one person who would prefer Hot Topic to H&M, but came up empty” (12). When Maddy inadvertently angers the most popular and powerful boy at school, Billy Henderson, she is nastily introduced to the popular group who she nicknames the Haters; they are all jerks, except for Billy’s best friend Chad. He seems different to Maddy, and when Billy vows revenge on Maddy after her grandmother accidentally embarrasses him in front of his friends, Chad silently mouths a puzzling apology: “I stared after them, shocked by Chad’s apology. I had so not expected that. Maybe he was different from his friends. Not that it mattered . . . Still, he was so cute” (18). Maddy’s life takes a more pleasant turn when her father, named RockStarBob in the gaming world, buys her a hot new online game, Fields of Fantasy. With the help of Ms. Reilly, the only cool teacher around, she also starts a manga club at school to get more involved and deter the Haters from bullying her. While online, she meets SirLeo, a knight avatar who appears to be a boy her age; SirLeo saves Maddy’s avatar, the elf-goddess-mage Allora, from wolves so she can meet her dad at an online café. Allora instantly falls for SirLeo, and he seems to feel the same way. However, Maddy knows that both Allora and SirLeo are not real: “I wanted him to like me for the real me, not some fake-o virtual character. But that was stupid and unrealistic. I had to take this for what it was and not get too attached” (74). But Maddy does get attached, and she must decide whether or not to pursue her knight in real life, where he might be an ogre or worse. Then again, he could be Maddy’s dream boy, like Chad, except more accessible.
When I first saw Gamer Girl by Mari Mancusi on the bookstore shelf, I wanted to like it. It features an often-neglected audience, middler girls into gaming, role-playing, fantasy, and manga/anime/comics/graphic novels. It has a cool cover that shows the protagonist Maddy IRL (in the real world) and as her bolder, more playful, and more attractive alter ego, Allora. Each chapter begins with an adorable manga girl picture that describes Maddy’s moods, from happy to sad to lovestruck and back again. However, as I read, I realized that Gamer Girl is a good idea for a novel that is not fully realized by Ms. Mancusi. I was not surprised to read in the back flap bio that the author is a television writer; Gamer Girl’s plot feels a lot like a happy-ending TV movie, in which the kid wins the game, saves her dog from the pound, and becomes a woman, all in 90 minutes and with surprising grace and tenacity. The ending is ultimately unsatisfying due to the predictable plot, leaving the reader with a winner but no winning feeling to parallel the hero’s success. The best use of this book may be to appeal to gamers and manga fans who are not reading many chapter books, since the text-message language and slang used frequently by the characters will be fun for them. However, do not keep this book on the shelf too long, because using current language and pop culture is a two-edged sword; it may be cool now, but in a couple of years, it’s corny and instantly anathema. BTW, I like The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance, Maddy’s favorite album, so it must be out by now. Maybe Ms. Mancusi should have chosen Vampire Weekend’s debut instead. I do not like them nearly as much, so they must be cool :-)

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, January 12, 2009

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Chains. (4 stars out of 4)--

These are heady times. A paradigm shift in the nature of how we conduct business, pleasure, entertainment, and education is occurring before our eyes. We have elected an African-American for president, an event of no small magnitude, but we may be throwing him to the wolves: social security and Medicare are in jeopardy of collapse, companies are folding left and right, we may not have American cars next year, and governors are selling senate seats to the highest bidder. To add insult to injury, the Internet ensures that we all have the bad news instantly, by twitter, blog, and IM. Laurie Halse Anderson, author of modern classic Speak, understands the weight of these times, so like her namesake, M.T. Anderson (Octavian Nothing books), she has written a powerful new novel, Chains, that uses 1776 Colonial America as the crucible in which she burns away our leaders’ rhetoric to reveal the rotten core of morality that is our unfortunate, but unavoidable, legacy. Just as President-elect Obama’s election illustrates not only the progress we have made as a people but also the healing, sensitivity, and empathy for which all Americans still should strive, so Ms. Anderson’s brutally honest and direct approach serves to show that, although the colonial fight for liberty was noble, the human cost to African-Americans was astronomical, not only in lost and broken lives, but in whites’ betrayal of every human right they were fighting the British to secure.
When Miss Mary Finch of Tew, Rhode Island passes, her slave Isabel believes she and her epileptic sister Ruth have been set free by Miss Finch’s will: “I spoke slowly, saying the words I had practiced in my head . . . ‘Ruth and me are free, Pastor. Miss Finch freed us in her will. Momma, too, if she had lived’” (9). However, even the local pastor refuses to confirm and support their story, and the girls are sold to the Locktons, a loyalist family from New York, where they are transported. Once there, Isabel, whose name is changed to Sal Lockton by her harsh mistress, is thrust into the center of the battle for independence. She meets another slave named Curzon who asks her to spy for the Patriots. At first, Isabel refuses, claiming that even if she would risk her life and be a spy, no one will ever reveal anything to her anyway. Curzon is a little more worldly and knows better: “‘You are a slave, not a person. They’ll say things in front of you they won’t say in front of the white servants. ‘Cause you don’t count to them’” (41). As the war progresses, Isabel begins to appreciate Curzon’s passion for the Patriots, even without the promise of freedom. When she finds herself in her master’s library with plotting Loyalists exchanging money, maps, and plans, she realizes Curzon was right: “I walked in. The other men did not look my way. I was invisible to them until they needed something” (61). As Isabel gradually commits to a side and a course of action, she must walk a delicate tightrope between staying true to herself, believing in something larger than herself, protecting her sister, and avoiding her mistress’s cruelty, while always trying to prove her freedom.
I can imagine a meeting between Laurie Halse Anderson and M.T. Anderson, two of the most talented writers in YA literature, a few years ago at a fashionable, literary café: chatting about their upcoming projects over lattés, how shocking (or crafty!) it must have been when they discovered that they were both working on novels with sequels that feature African-American slave protagonists in the American Colonies of 1776 (M.T. Anderson’s outstanding Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, The Pox Party, was reviewed in this column, and its solid sequel, Kingdom on the Waves, was released in November 2008). Thank goodness that the authors in question are both lyrical innovators who have written two completely different (and similar) novels that highlight the dark underbelly of American hypocrisy: our celebrated release from England freed less than half of all Americans, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness applied originally and exclusively to white males. Also, the primary sources cited at the beginning of each fast-paced chapter complement the narrative well, and shed additional insight onto both the author’s tone and the overall themes of Chains. This may be the most exciting, politically-charged era in our lives; it is an excellent time to reflect on where we have been and how much work is still left to make the founders’ words as true as they envisioned them, not as they practiced them.

Tan, Shaun. Tales from Outer Suburbia (4 stars out of 4)--
About two years ago, my friend Jay gave me the album (Come on Feel the) Illinoise by quirky singer/songwriter/musician Sufjan Stevens. I asked Jay who Stevens sounded like, but he coyly said that no one sounded like this guy. Come now, I exhorted, he must sound like somebody: Jackson Browne, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Bruce Springsteen, Dusty Springfield, Ozzy Osbourne, Nico, Tracy Chapman, Seal, Dan Bern, Peter, Paul, or Mary, somebody! No, he insisted, Stevens is an original. My friend was right: Stevens’ eclectic, infectious, whimsical blend of Indian, Middle Eastern, alt-country, folk, bluegrass, and R & B defies description; it must be listened to in order to be appreciated. The same refreshing originality is abundant in Shaun Tan’s new graphic short story collection Tales from Outer Suburbia: it must be viewed and read to be appreciated. After his brilliant The Arrival, a fully graphic (a la David Wiesner), post-modern novel that belongs in every public and school library in America, Mr. Tan has returned with both words and images, and they blend so seamlessly that after the first sitting, it is hard to imagine that some books have no pictures at all. Mr. Tan has triumphed again, establishing himself as a unique voice in YA literature.
The illustrated stories in Tales from Outer Suburbia are at once engaging and poignant. In “The Water Buffalo,” many years ago a neighborhood water buffalo gave advice to those who asked: “Then he would come up to us slowly, raise his left hoof, and literally point us in the right direction. But he never said what he was pointing at, or how far we had to go, or what we were supposed to do once we got there” (6). I can imagine a fifth-grader in my Intermediate School listening for the first time to my booming voice describing how to navigate the library and seeing that water buffalo pointing towards media literacy without adequate preparation. In “No Other Country,” Mr. Tan demonstrates how a “staycation” can be more fun than a traditional vacation. Tenants in a seemingly bleary neighborhood discover a mysterious door in their homes that leads to a pacific, pastoral paradise they name “the inner courtyard:" “It was actually more like an old palace garden . . . There were ancient walls decorated with frescoes; the more they looked at them, the more the family recognized aspects of their own lives within these strange, faded allegories” (60). The haunting “Stick Figures” chronicles the exploits of suburbia’s many stick figure people, endangered by bullies who can sometimes beat them for hours: “But eventually it stops being amusing. It becomes boring, somehow enraging, the way they just stand there and take it. What are they? Why are they here? What do they want?” (67). Stick people are resilient, however, and the reader is left with the impression that, like cockroaches, stick people were here before us and will still be here even when we are gone. One of the most striking single pictures is at the conclusion of “Alert, but Not Alarmed,” a cleverly conceived anti-war snapshot in which “every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile” (76), but Mr. Tan’s art is at once eclectic, unforgettable, and strikingly original.
On a primal level, Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is an emotionally stirring book. While reading, I found myself alternately laughing and crying without quite knowing why. I heartily recommend Tales as a must for every middler and high school library. However, the best endorsement I can offer came from one of my 6th grade twin sons; after reading aloud “The Water Buffalo,” I asked what he thought of it. “Yeah, hmmm, thought provoking,” he said, with a faraway gleam in his eye, as I could almost hear his brain’s gears whirring and clicking.

Labels: , , ,