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 28, 2010

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay: The Final Book of The Hunger Games. Scholastic, 2010 (4 stars out 4!)

Sometimes an artist achieves recognition by being in the right place at the right time, usually due to superior skill and ingenuity. But we know it takes more than just skill to create excellence; for every Beatles, there are thousands of other talented bands never heard by anyone outside of their respective Liverpools. Musicians like The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson articulated the narrative of their respective generations; artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg reinvigorated the way we see everyday objects; and writers such as Laurie Halse Anderson and Kevin Brooks have redefined the boundaries of young adult literature. All of the artists listed above produced major works at the “right time,” a moment in history peculiarly suited to their craft. Upon the publication of Mockingjay, the impressive end to the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins has struck gold in 1848 California, writing the perfect book for this generation recognized for its wars, recessions, paranoia, xenophobia, intolerance, and dying decadence.

Katniss Everdeen just cannot catch a break. After being miraculously rescued from her latest foray into the Hunger Games arena only to find out her rescue was a carefully orchestrated plan by rebel leaders to begin a coup d’etat, she has been asked to be the face of the revolution, a role with which she is very uncomfortable. But Peeta, her public (and perhaps private as well) boyfriend has been captured by the Capitol, and Katniss is at the mercy of the leaders of the mysterious District 13, her new but untrustworthy compatriots. Katniss agrees to be the Mockingjay, the orchestrated and embellished voice and face of the revolution, but only so she can save Peeta and stay in the fight to kill President Snow. When former Head Gameskeeper Plutarch Heavensbee describes rebel President Coin’s plan to establish a republic just like our Roman ancestors (names and historical circumstances are freely borrowed from the best and worst of our Roman ancestry for this series), Katniss expresses skepticism: “Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them” (84). Katniss knows she is a pawn in a bigger game, one she does not fully comprehend. However, in order to save herself, her loved ones, and her world, she must face challenges and decisions even more deadly and wrenching than her experiences in the ring during the Hunger Games.

I have never been more concerned about spoiling the plot than I was when writing the previous paragraph. I did not even read the feature article in the August 2010 School Library Journal until today (mid-September 2010) for fear of ruining even a small part of the story. I savored every delicious morsel of this novel, with its end-of-chapter cliffhangers and moral dilemmas around every terrifying corner. Suzanne Collins has written the morality play for her generation, the novel that, for today’s youth, defines the best and worst that humanity offers. Katniss bears the guilt and shame for the sins of her species nobly, alternating between unbridled fury directed at her puppetmasters and crippling remorse over the lives lost due to her actions and inactions. When brutalities like Michael Vick’s dogfights, Ultimate Fighting bouts, and the Jerry Springer Show clog the airwaves, how far off are the Hunger Games? Are we not entertained? Mockingjay confirms and solidifies Suzanne Collins’ place as one of the most influential writers of her time. Lionsgate purchased the film rights to The Hunger Games in 2009, so not only am I looking forward to Ms. Collins’ next book, I am also eager to see news about the film. I hope Ms. Collins is prepared to be very successful over the next few years.

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Myers, Walter Dean. The Cruisers. Scholastic, 2010 (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

My students love the Bluford High series as much as they enjoy A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer; the aforementioned selections are always the most requested at the beginning of the year by my middle schoolers. Although I admire his ability to survive deplorable circumstances, I cannot say that I enjoy Mr. Pelzer’s bizarre and disturbing tale; however, I love the Bluford books and I am always looking for comparable series. I originally bought Orca Currents and Soundings and reviewed several selections in this column a year or two ago. My students like the Orca books, but I seldom see in their eyes the excitement generated by the Bluford High (and occasionally Sharon Draper’s Hazelwood High) series. Therefore, I am thrilled that local legend Walter Dean Myers has decided to write The Cruisers, the first in a series of short, very readable novels about a group of smart slackers at a Harlem magnet school. I am gratified to see prominent authors step up and fill this important void in YA literature; it’s about time.

Most of the students attending Harlem’s DaVinci Academy for the Gifted and Talented compete and jockey for academic standing. However, Zander Scott and his friends LaShonda, Bobbi, and Kambui form the core the Cruisers, a group of unabashed underachievers who always seem on the verge of both success and failure simultaneously. The group prints and distributes an alternative newspaper that presents uncensored op-ed material without the harsh filter of the stereotypically mean and vindictive Assistant Principal Culpepper. The Cruisers’ patience, wisdom, and raison d’etre are challenged most strenuously when DaVinci Academy holds a mock Civil War and the Cruisers are charged with the monumental task of keeping the peace between the North and South. Mr. Culpepper is almost happy to see the group get such an improbable task: “‘She [Principal Maxwell] sees it as a final opportunity to prove you belong here. I see it as enough rope. If you get my drift’” (3). The project begins innocuously enough, but after bully Alvin McCraney forms the Sons of the Conspiracy and starts acting and speaking like a slaveowner (with the tacit approval of Mr. Culpepper), the Cruisers learn a powerful lesson from history: that slaveowners hid behind issues of property and free speech instead of openly addressing the immorality of slavery. By failing to include a moral element, Alvin and the Sons of the Confederacy could win the battle but lose their souls, almost like a drug addict selfishly satisfies the moment but does not want to be identified with his actions: “Maybe race was more like drugs than people thought. When they could use race it was good, but nobody wanted to own it when they got caught using it” (64). The Cruisers will have to learn history’s lessons well to successfully combat DaVinci’s widening racial divide without starting a huge fight and threatening their ability to attend the academy.

Young adult literature needs more 120-page, high-low books with urban backdrops, and Mr. Myers has the experience and skill to create effective stories regardless of length. The Cruisers is short but effective, and a series is promised and eagerly anticipated; the first few pages of the next installment appear at the end of this work. I enjoyed the chapter breaks, during which warring newspaper articles, journal entries, and poems cleverly highlight or illuminate the characters’ struggles and conflicts. The language feels real, and social networking is frequently employed for positive change, negative gossip, and both; it doesn’t get any more real than that. Each of the four main characters has an engaging backstory, and I believe my students will follow them with the same fervor they apply to authors like Paul Langan, Anne Schraaf, and Sharon Draper. Kudos to New Jersey native Walter Dean Myers for The Cruisers. Townsend Press, as supportive and generous as it is, had better watch its back.

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Haddon, Mark. Boom! (or 70,000 light years). David Fickling Books/ Random House Children’s Books, 2010 (first U.S. edition) (3 stars out of 4).

I cannot remember how many times I have rewritten my old poetry. Every couple of years, I cure my latest round of writer’s block by remembering that I wrote something like it (whatever poem I am writing at the time) in a notebook many years ago. I always find a way to make the piece better, not only because I get new and exciting ideas, but because I am a better writer now than I was when I originally wrote the poem. As long as our interest in writing remains high, we become better writers as we gain more experience. As related in the Foreword of his new novel Boom!, Mark Haddon, British author of the immensely charming The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, has rewritten a YA novel he published in 1992 called Gridzbi Spudvetch! I did not even know Mr. Haddon was writing novels in 1992; since his prose in The Curious Incident . . . is so fresh, I assumed he was a new novelist. I do not know the original novel’s plot, intention, or concept, but Mr. Haddon has created, from the ashes of a long-forgotten novel, a likable story that pushes many of YA’s most important buttons: it has adventure, it has unlikely but fantastic action, it makes ordinary kids into heroes, and it is chock full of conspiracy theories.

When James’s (everybody calls him Jimbo) sister Becky tells him that his teachers are conspiring against him and that they are planning to send him to a reform school for his poor performance at school (minor to the objective observer but not to Jimbo), he and his best friend Charlie decide to place a walkie-talkie in the teachers’ lounge and listen to their conversations about Jimbo. When the teachers simply chat, Jim realizes he has been played by his sister until he and Charlie hear two of their teachers, Mrs. Pearce and Mr. Kidd, speaking in a strange language. After hearing their teachers say things like “Tractor bonting dross” and “Spudvetch!” to each other, they stumble upon a dangerous conspiracy of massive scope: “Forget Fenham [the reform school]. There was an adventure on its way, a nuclear-powered, one-hundred-ton adventure with reclining seats and a snack trolley. And it was pulling into the station right now” (29). When Charlie calls Jimbo in a panic and disappears the next day, Jimbo and Becky start the adventure of their lives, going first on a frantic motorcycle ride to Scotland, then to parts unknown. The siblings realize that what once seemed like a crazy intergalactic yarn is actually happening, and if they make the wrong move, not only may they inadvertently get Charlie killed, they may also get themselves killed by the burning blue light and the powerful brass bracelets the aliens (if they are aliens) wield so easily.

I confess that after reading his previous novel, I expected this work to be fresh, innovative, and original. Although I was generally disappointed on all three counts, that does not mean that Boom! is a poor novel, it’s just not new. As I read, I felt the influence of authors like Will Hobbs (Go Big or Go Home) and Adam Rex (The True Meaning of Smekday) sneaking in, making this novel fun, engaging, and somewhat exciting, but not unique for 2010. My students seldom care whether a book is original as long as it is a good read, so I will not levy any criticism against Boom! I enjoyed the story and I liked the pace, and I think my middle school students will appreciate them as well. I just wish Mr. Haddon had not set the bar so high with his first novel; I would have enjoyed this one more if I had never known what the author was truly capable of crafting.

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Feldman, Jody. The Seventh Level. Greenwillow Books, 2010 (3 stars out of 4).

I have long been disturbed by the idea of secret societies. From powerful ones like the neocon-based Federalist Society, to secret ones like the Masons and Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code-inspired Illuminati, to potentially fictional (but real-sounding) ones like Thomas Pynchon’s Tristero from the modern classic The Crying of Lot 49, I am disturbed by people’s need to publicly meet secretly. After all, I meet with my friends for board games every Thursday, but we don’t wear robes and perform time-honored rituals, unless mocking each other’s bald heads and lack of elegant, jet-setting lives can be considered ritualistic and not just corny, middle-aged attempts at humor. When Jody Feldman, author of The Seventh Level, introduced The Legend, a secret society at the protagonist’s middle school, I got nervous. However, Ms. Feldman makes it clear that she intends only good works and feelings to emanate from her quest to belong to the most secret (and cool!) society a middle school would ever want or need.

Travis Raines is used to trouble. He is not a bad kid but problems seem to follow him like a bad penny. After being blamed for a prank he did not do, one of his two best friends Matti explains to him why he always seems to be under suspicion: “’You know why,’ she says. ‘You draw attention to yourself, so you’re a perfect target. And you never get into big trouble, so people don’t feel guilty about aiming at you’” (105). So when this pre-growth-spurt 7th grader at St. Louis’s Lauer Middle School (he’s still 4’6” while the rest of the world seems to be growing faster) gets a note from what looks the super-secret organization The Legend, he is both excited and suspicious. The Legend mysteriously sponsors and organizes the coolest activities ever conducted at a middle school, like cash grabs in glass booths, appearances by rock stars, and most importantly, fun but necessary food drives for those in need. The Legend seems to be sending him math and critical thinking puzzles to solve and offering him a road to membership, but unfortunately, when he makes progress on these challenges, Randall the school bully makes things tough on Travis, and every time Travis tries to follow the Legend’s directions, he seems to land in Mrs. Pinchon the disciplinarian’s office. However, as Travis gets more involved in his application for the Legend, he starts wondering if this “application” is actually the school bullies setting Travis up to get punked and in some real trouble he cannot cleverly talk his way out of, despite Mrs. Pinchon’s warnings that things are not always as they appear.

I like Travis Raines, and I know several shining examples of Travis at both of my schools. He is likable because his heart is pure despite his actions being somewhat less pristine, and he is charming in both his defeats and his victories. The plot’s pace picks up well as the story continues, and I am confident that my middle schoolers will appreciate the way Travis both solves the critical thinking problems (after, I hope, my students solve them on their own) and gradually discerns the truth about his future path. Also, there are enough twists and turns in the storyline to keep interested middle schoolers reasonably occupied as Travis contemplates whether he is capable of and worthy of the honor that seems to be bestowed upon him. However, do not look for creativity and originality in this work: Travis’s story is not unique, and his charm and charisma do not completely lift this pedestrian plot out of its mediocre design and execution. Like The Princess Plot by Kirsten Boie, The Seventh Level by Jody Feldman is fun and occasionally exciting, but seldom original or challenging.

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