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.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Johnson, Louanne. Muchacho. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 197 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-375-86117-8. This book is appropriate for grades 8 and up, or ages 13 and up, depending on reading level. This novel contains potentially offensive language, but it is a good high-low selection for high school
(3 1/2 stars out of 4).

I am always looking for good books with Hispanic protagonists and voices, because they not only serve our Hispanic population in Pennsauken (over 35%), they also inform the rest of us about the challenges and issues of other folks. When I began Muchacho by Louanne Johnson, I could not help thinking about her previous book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, adapted into the popular Michelle Pfeiffer film Dangerous Minds. I had some problems with stereotypes and portrayals in the movie, and I did not take it that seriously. I know that should not impact my reading of Ms. Johnson’s new novel, but I am not always as objective as I think I am. Therefore, I was greatly relieved that the students of Bright Horizons alternative school had the young, idealistic, wispy, white teacher fired by the end of October. This was not going to be another amazingly improbable saga of a smart and progressive white educator who enters the ghetto and changes the world. Instead, Muchacho is a sensitive and powerful portrait of one Hispanic-American teen and his efforts to discover his creative potential himself, not through a teacher’s lens.

Eddie Corazon feels trapped in his small life. Eddie is a secret reader, because high schoolers in his New Mexico, especially those at Rosablanca’s Bright Horizons alternative school, get attacked for being too smart, too tough, too weak, too much of anything T. J. Ritchie or the bullies think is outside of normal. Eddie is tough enough to survive, and he has his family to protect him and not leave him alone so the drug dealers can enlist him. However, Eddie knows that he is not achieving his potential in the alt school, and total failure is not an option; one year when Eddie forgets Mamí’s birthday he makes her a certificate that guarantees he will graduate from high school. Eddie is an honorable teen who understands what a man’s word means: “I thought about hiding it or tearing it up, but it wouldn’t get me out of the deal . . . It’s probably a good thing I wrote it down, though, because otherwise I might have dropped out of school one of those days when I felt like breaking all the windows just to make something interesting happen instead of all those dumb assignments and tests” (43). With an occasionally abusive father, cousins and friends always tempting Eddie with “easy money,” and low expectations at alt school, Eddie feels he is going nowhere fast until he takes a ballroom dancing class and meets Lupe. Lupe is not only beautiful, smart, and strong-willed, she is able to awaken Eddie’s secret desire: to be Eduardo, an intellectual who is able to unlock and unfetter his neighborhood’s shackles. However, stumbling blocks are numerous on Eddie’s road to becoming Eduardo, and he may not even get the opportunity to make the changes he so desperately seeks.

Eddie Corazon is an Everyman who I like from page one. He speaks in slang and colloquialism at the beginning of the novel, but by the end, his grammar and usage improves, a nice subtle touch by the author. Eddie is acutely aware of his circumstances and he is impossible to stereotype. Lupe sees Eddie for who he actually is, not the front he shows to the rest of the world, and as Eddie’s heart opens, mine does as well. Eddie’s journey to self-improvement is not all that different from most people’s journey. He wants what is best and he is willing to work for it. The moment Eddie is understood on his level, and not on some Anglo’s assessment of what his level looks like, he responds like any intelligent, eloquent young person should, with respect and curiosity. The reader is left with the definite impression that when the Anglos in Eddie’s world finally view him as a peer and not as an outsider looking in, he will be every bit as successful as them, if not more so because of his experience. Muchacho by Louanne Johnson is excellent realistic fiction and a fine example of a modern character study. Readers will like and relate to Eddie (and Lupe), regardless of their station in life.

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Zielin, Lara. Donut Days. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009. 243 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-399-25066-8. This book is appropriate for grades 5 and up, or ages 11 and up, depending on reading level. This is also a good high-low selection for upper grades (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

Librarians and Language Arts teachers who keep current with Young Adult literature like to think they can always make a recommendation from their library or classroom library shelves, regardless of the request. If a student wants a mystery like Nancy Drew but scarier, no problem. If a student wants a book about people who explore alternative lifestyles, no problem. If a student wants urban fiction or manga, no problem. If a student wants an African-American theme, a Hispanic-American theme, or an Asian-American theme, no problem. But debut author Lara Zielin’s new novel Donut Days raises an important question that I was not, before I read this book, prepared to answer: What if a student wants Christian fiction? Frankly, most of my students are Christian, and some of them are evangelical like many of the characters in Ms. Zielin’s novel. Their needs should be met, and if that means bringing in more novels like Ms. Zielin’s delightful offering, I am ready to buy.
Emma Goiner is a sixteen-year-old embroiled in the middle of a turmoil or two. Her parents, the pastors of Living Word Redeemer, a 300-member evangelical Christian congregation, have just split the worshippers over a controversial sermon delivered by Emma’s mom in which she argues that Adam (yes, that Adam) was a hermaphrodite. However, larger problems loom, because the church is in crisis over fundamental differences between the pastors and the church’s wealthiest and most influential patron. Meanwhile, Emma is having her own set of crises. First of all, the problem patron also happens to be the father of Jake, Emma’s best friend (or maybe more . . .). Secondly, Jake’s sister is stealing Emma’s BFF Natalie and Emma feels powerless to stop it. Finally, Emma is experiencing a crisis of faith prompted by a hollow baptism that was supposed to be inspirational: “I couldn’t feel anything. I wanted to reach out to him [her father, Pastor Goiner], to have him dunk me under again, because not one thing had happened when I was baptized. Not [speaking in] tongues, a vision, or even a warm-fuzzy close-to-God feeling” (15). The more she tries to feel the spirit of God, the more she is disappointed, and worst of all, she feels her lack of attachment to the tenets of the church is on display to her entire world. But whether she is ready for it or not, Emma must confront the contentious factions in her life and achieve some sort of order that works for her, even if that peace has a stiff price, like the loss of a friendship or even the loss of a home.
I like Donut Days by debut author Lara Zielin for several reasons. The plot moves reasonably well, in spurts rather than leading up to one overpowering climax, which is appropriate when the climax is not expected to have the impact of a courtroom drama decision. The novel is visually effective, so I feel that I can see the action at all times. Little pieces of imagery like the dark prints on Jake’s khaki pants that mean he has been rubbing them due to nerves are welcome characterizations. Also, the minor characters, most specifically Bear and the biker gang, are fun and unusual enough to add even more color to an already vivid landscape. Finally, I enjoyed this novel because it managed to do something completely new for me: it normalized an entire demographic, evangelical Christians. Ironically, through their foibles, they are revealed as just like everybody else, with the same hopes, desires, dreams, and limitations. I will look for more Christian fiction for my shelves, and I will add the fiction of other religions as I find it or as students request it. Not carrying those types of literature is as absurd in theory as not carrying The Chosen by Chaim Potok or Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth, both excellent novels about important American cultures, values, and mores. Donut Days by Lara Zielin is not a perfect novel, especially in the convenient manner in which Emma achieves some very powerful wisdom very quickly and handily, but in the compressed world of fiction, a first-time author can be forgiven a little lapse. Overall, this is a fine novel and a fascinating, if simplified, portrait of the evangelical community.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brooks, Kevin. Dawn. Chicken House, 2009. 256 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-06090-5. This book is intended for grades 8 and up, or ages 14 and up, depending on reading level. This book contains several examples of graphic language and situations. (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

I will admit that up until now, I had not read any Kevin Brooks. He leans toward the older side of what I teach (5-8), and his content is known to be mature. But his latest novel, Dawn, looked intriguing because when I searched it on the internet, I learned that in the UK (Brooks’ home), the novel is titled Killing God. I got hooked by the alternate title, and in fact, the protagonist does contemplate killing God. Fortunately for the reader, Dawn Bundy contemplates much more than that, and the richly woven narrative strikes to the heart of every teenager who has ever thought too much about stuff. Unfortunately, Dawn cannot focus on healing thoughts, only on darkness, symbolized in her tortured mind by a cave. This lyrical, moving, fresh novel is at times a psychological thriller, but it mostly serves as a portrait of the products of drug, alcohol, and sexual abuse, and the strength necessary to rise above those debilitating realities. Kevin Brooks lives up to his reputation both as a YA author who tackles tough issues and as a gifted writer and storyteller.

Dawn Bundy has just turned fifteen, and she has nothing to celebrate. She has no friends to speak of and claims she wants none. She has no hobbies except to listen to the alternative band The Jesus and Mary Chain, and since her Dad left two years ago, she has no company at home; Mom is a pill-popping alcoholic who lives in a haze: “Whisky and coffee is what she drinks. Whisky in black coffee. The whisky keeps her drunk, the coffee keeps her awake . . . And on top of that there’s the prescribed antidepressants, and the occasional joint, and the unprescribed sleeping pills . . . So it’s not really surprising that her eyes are kind of glazed most of the time” (37). Dawn wants to kill God because she feels He ruined her father. Dad has always been an addict and an alcoholic who lives on the edge, but when he is born again, he transforms into a stranger whom Dawn does not recognize: “It was almost as if he’d become some kind of born-again alcoholic. Like he’d found whatever he was looking for—he’d found his salvation—through drinking again, only now it was all mixed up with God, like some kind of abominable cocktail . . . it just seemed to suck all the Dadness out of him” (54-55). Although two girls have approached Dawn about doing more girlfriend activities and hanging out, Dawn resists. She lives mostly in her head, where she hides a terrible secret from her past that threatens to blow her apart.

This novel is not for the faint of heart middler, and graphic language and content abound. However, there are no graphic scenes of violence or sex; any episode of Law & Order SVU is far more disturbing than the concrete images in this novel. Dawn is a first-rate book by a talented writer. Mr. Brooks effectively weaves rock lyrics into Dawn’s already quirky narrative to produce an effective portrait of a troubled soul. He trots out the old English 101 trick of making lists to paint a picture, and Dawn’s lists are at once funny and tragic. Through keen characterization, due to her low self-image, Dawn only truly sees herself physically through others; this is particularly effective when she is with “friends” Taylor and Mel. Also, Mr. Brooks cleverly captures the existential mood of the characters by frequently having characters repeatedly ask each other, “Are you OK?” Although the song lyrics tend to be a bit pretentious (to me, probably not to a young teen) and the ending is not overly satisfying, neither issue detracts from what is an excellent effort. Dawn by Kevin Brooks is well-executed novel for older middlers who like to be disturbed while they are entertained.

Couloumbis, Audrey & Akila. War Games. Random House Children’s Books, 2009. 229 pages with Author’s Note. ISBN 13: 978-0-375-98302-5. This book is intended for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level. (3 stars out of 4)

The older I get, the more I am convinced that all history is tainted. We all know that history is written by its winners, and I remember many instances in which I was taught clearly questionable history, such as the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans; the unfair treatment of all women, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and other oppressed groups; and the deity of Oprah Winfrey. However, Truth is not at stake here, and Audrey & Akila Couloumbis’s new novel War Games is not a good or bad novel because its truthiness is in question. As a memoir, this work is one historical perspective almost in isolation: the Nazi occupation of Greece and its effects on one Greek village. In the end, history becomes perspective, and its integrity rests with the people recording it. War Games is a poignant presentation of one village’s struggles with impending occupation. It is an effective portrait of the unfair forces that sometimes cause children to become adults before their time.

Petros may only be 12, but he is a responsible young man who speaks both English and Greek because his family once lived in America. Changing everyone’s lives, news comes that the German occupation is near, so to decrease their chances of being singled out by the Nazis, all traces of America must be purged from the family’s lives. When Petros complains to his mother that he wants to keep some unread books, she responds with a steely disposition: “‘I feel the same way about my Life magazines, but I burn them all the more quickly’” (48). When cousin Lambros goes off to fight and legends begin to sprout about his exploits, Petros and his older brother Zola want to join the resistance. It all seems like an intricate and adventurous game to the boys; the danger seems far away as long as the Nazis are not in their town. However, war zones change, and plans change with them; what once seemed like juvenile games can transform almost instantly into harsh and brutal reality with dangerous consequences for patriotic risk-takers.

War Games by Audrey & Akila Couloumbis is a fine memoir, and it will appeal to many fans of novels like The Boy Who Dared and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg who like a little adventure and a little humor in their historical fiction. A little slow in the beginning, it builds into small but satisfying climaxes, like serialized installments of an action hero story or chapters of a Hardy Boys classic. However, I am not sure it is an effective novel. The portraits of home life and the boys’ small adventures are important to the overall theme, that outside forces sometimes end innocence prematurely. But the authors do not always provide enough visual detail of the characters, their village, or their enemies for me to become attached to them. I have trouble distinguishing the characters because I cannot see them; I have trouble following action around the setting because I do not adequately see it in my mind. I do not know what effect more imagery would have on War Games, but I would have liked to know. I will still recommend this book to students interested in war fiction, because they may not miss the sensory language as much as I do.

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