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.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Grisham, John. Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. Dutton Children’s Books, 2010. 263 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-525-42384-3. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I am always happy to see adult authors cross over into YA literature. Although success is not automatic any time an author chooses a new venue or genre, more established authors like Francine Prose, Carl Hiassen, and in this case, John Grisham, risk less than others because their name recognition helps to sell books. I admit that the main reason I picked up Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer is because John Grisham is the author. Mr. Grisham is the king of the American legal thriller, and although I do not read much popular fiction due to time constraints, I confess to being up until 3:45 am on a school night many years ago reading The Firm until my eyes blurred, dying to know how it ends. Not since the Dan Brown phenomenon have I felt that kind of excitement about a bestseller. Although his first foray into YA is not perfect, Mr. Grisham does a capable job of making the intricacies and intimacies of the legal world refreshingly understandable and sensible.

Theo Boone is only 13, but he already feels he is at the top of his game. His only desire in life is to become a trial attorney, and he knows every lawyer, judge, and police officer in town. Theo also dispenses legal advice like Encyclopedia Brown, and he is a good resource to have if your sister or dad get into a little trouble. However, when the biggest murder case in 50 years engulfs the town, Theo inadvertently gets involved when a friend, the relative of an illegal immigrant, reveals that he may have previously unknown information relevant to the case. Theo may be in over his head when he is sworn to secrecy but desperately feels the need to see justice served: “How could it be that he, Theodore Boone, knew the truth about the Duffy murder . . . The town’s biggest crime since something bad happened back in the 1950s, and he, Theo, was suddenly in the middle of it” (119). Theo must seek help from normally unreliable sources, most specifically his estranged and mysteriously disgraced Uncle Ike, and he is desperate to find a way to keep his word and ensure that a guilty man does not walk free. However, the menacing Omar Cheepe, working for the defense, seems to be lurking around every corner, spying on Theo and everyone else.

John Grisham has a way of making the law come alive. In his nimble hands, the legal system is an orderly, logical, time-honored system that usually dispenses justice. I admire and appreciate Mr. Grisham for bringing that gift to YA literature; I am confident that legal hounds of all ages will appreciate the style in which Mr. Grisham personalizes and simplifies the law. I love that element of this novel, almost certainly the first in a series. However, there is a down side to the protagonist. Theo Boone is a great kid. He’s the judge’s favorite, he’s the teacher’s favorite, he’s the secretary’s favorite, and since he is an only child, he is his parents’ favorite. Although it’s great to be a great kid, the bar seems to be set a bit high in Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer (all puns intended!). Perfect heroes who always feel the pressure of their futures bearing down on them place too much pressure on students just learning how to perform well. I regret that Theo Boone has to overachieve so much, has to work so hard at being liked, has to try so hard to be accepted, all so that he does not lose himself. His parents are successful attorneys, so his desire to pursue that profession is unsurprising. But Theo is driven by other desires and motivations, and I would feel better if Mr. Grisham took more time in this first novel to fill in his protagonist a little more. What, I wondered throughout the novel, is the side of Theo he does not show to his family, friends, and mentors? However, despite Theo’s imperfections, I enjoyed Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. It moves quickly enough, the action is satisfying, and the characters are likable. With healthy and clear explanations of basic law and courtroom protocol and concepts, it will bring the legal system to life for many young people, and our students deserve the right to understand the basics of the law; we all need it sooner or later.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Schutz, Samantha. You Are Not Here. Push, 2010. 292 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-16911-0. This book is for grades 8 and up, or ages 13 and up, depending on reading level. This book contains graphic situations and language (2 stars out of 4).

I have featured the chasm between guys and gals in this column before, and few if any discerning readers would argue that some books are targeted to males and some to females, while the remainder are targeted to the largest possible audience with money to spend. In my opinion, You Are Not Here by Samantha Schutz is clearly a “girl book.” The protagonist loves her tragic figure even though he does not satisfy her emotionally or socially, and I do not know why. When I was a teenager, you actually had to be nice to potential mates if you wanted them to like you and hang out with you. I am definitely from Mars, and that may contribute to my ignorance, but I think my lack of understanding says something about what people are willing to tolerate for the illusion of love. Annaleah sacrifices her friends and her life for an occasional rendezvous with an unpredictable (but charming and cute) guy who practically ignores her most of the time. Is that what we are reduced to? Is that social networking’s legacy? Is that the gnarled fruit the Blackberry has yielded. I sure hope not.

Annaleah and Brian would have ended up together—Annaleah is sure of it; well, almost sure. Their relationship, the first fully physical one for Annaleah, had its pros and cons to be sure, but Annaleah was sure she loved Brian, even though he seemed to treat her offhandedly at best; even though he excluded her from his life; even though he had no problem sleeping with her and then standing her up without proper explanation; even though Annaleah’s friends neither knew nor trusted him. Brian was practically a shadow to everyone but Annaleah, who had projected a whole life and future onto him. So Annaleah is devastated when Brian suddenly dies and leaves Annaleah with a thousand “what ifs.” What if they were meant for each other and now Annaleah’s fate and future have been shattered? What if Annaleah was wasting her time with a person who obviously showed no commitment to her? What if she can never love again? What if the grief, not able to be shared with anyone, never ends? What if her father never returns, and she can never resolve her relationships with anyone? What if her friends give up on her and move on without her? Although Annaleah acknowledges that she is a more experienced person due to her grief, she cannot help but define herself through the prism of hopeless love: “I don’t / have the energy to do anything besides watch TV, read, and visit Brian . . . Being alone somehow seems safer . . . My perspective is changed. / I don’t / think I can come back from that” (144). Annaleah must find a way to grieve and move on, or she will forever be mired in the malaise that seems to permeate every crack in her imperfect world.

Although in the past I had been wary of prose-poem novels, I was heartened over the last few years by such fine selections as Burg’s All the Broken Pieces and by Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems, so I am no longer afraid to read them. However, if the author chooses poetry as a medium, I expect the poetry to be tight and effective, and I was disappointed on both counts with Samantha Schutz’s new work You Are Not Here. Her use of concrete imagery to create setting and background was incomplete, so I never felt a true sense of place. I saw no particular reason to tell this story in verse, especially when it is neither pointedly descriptive nor freshly told. The narrator is believable as a depressed teenager distraught over the unexpected death of her occasional lover and even more occasional boyfriend, but I never get to know Annaleah well enough, because of the sparseness of full development that poetry invites, to know why Brian moved her so much; I thought he was a jerk from beginning to end. As a male reader, I was furious that Brian elicited so much grief from Annaleah that he did not deserve. Annaleah seems like an attractive, friendly, desirable young woman; why did she devote so much time to a loser? Is she trying to recreate her father in her life? Does she expect to be abandoned by Brian like her father abandoned her 15 years earlier? Does being cute really matter that much? Am I just being jealous? Like the proverbial question about how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. For the record, the fact that I do not think the book features effective, engaging poetry does not mean my students will not like it; I will recommend it to my Lurlene McDaniel crowd: older middle schoolers who are looking for a romance and don’t mind crying.

Labels: , , , , ,