Wednesday, December 28, 2011

REVIEW: Sweet Venom

Childs, T.L.  (2011).  Sweet Venom.  New York:  Katherine Tegan Books.

345 pages.

Appetizer:  It's her first day at a new elite school in San Francisco and Grace wants nothing more than to be a better version of herself; someone who stands up to bullies.  With her first encounter with a girl named Miranda, it's clear it's going to take some supernatural power to make her tougher.

Gretchen, in contrast, cares nothing for her classmates and just slips by in school to avoid notice.  Oh, and she spends her nights hunting monsters from Greek mythology who have escaped into the human realm.  As a descendant of Medusa with an important destiny, she has been battling and biting the monsters since she was twelve.  But she can't seem to handle the boy in her biology class who seems to have a crush on her.  Plus, over the past few weeks, things have been a little strange.  More monsters are slipping into the human realm.  On top of that, her mentor, Ursula, is missing.  On top of that other on top of that, when Gretchen sees Grace for the first time, she realizes that she may not be alone.  She may have a sister to go with that destiny.

So, I really enjoyed one Tera Lynn Childs's other books, Oh.My.Gods, and I was very excited when I'd heard she was doing a series based on the descendants of Medusa.  There's so much fun gender issues to work with.  And Childs does a good job of including a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe (There's also a Charmed vibe and a Sisters Red feel).  She also does a good job of creating different experiences for her characters (providing a fun argument and discussion on the influence of nurture over nature in terms of personality development).  But, overall, I wasn't that crazy about Sweet Venom.

The way that Childs switched point of view among the protagonists really unnerved me.  I'd be fine if it were consistent, but sometimes she switched between Grace and Gretchen every other chapter, then suddenly Grace would narrate for two chapters in a row.  *Potential spoiler--although the information in the next sentence is mentioned in the book blurb*  Don't even get me started that a third sister's point-of-view that was added over 200-pages into the story.  If this were an epic fantasy, it'd be okay.  But given my vaguely OCD-nature, I needed more consistency in the narration throughout the story.

I also feel like Childs went a little overboard with trying to make Grace unhappy about who she was:  I can't stand up to bullies, I can't do exercise, I can't take classes with the mean girl (who, by the way, had no discernible motive for being so mean), I can't talk to boys, I'm a coward.  Obviously the character was going to change and get over these things throughout the novel.  And it would be fine if Grace was nervous or struggled with some of these issues, but it was a little over the top and Grace wound up seeming whiney and annoying.

On top of these issues, Sweet Venom had very little resolution in the end.  It's pretty much a "To be continued" moment.  So, be prepared for that if you pick up this book.

Dinner Conversation:

"Hydras have a distinctive odor.  It's somewhere between the acid tang of burning hair and a boat full of rotting fish.  You can smell them from miles away.
Well, you can't.  But I can." (p. 1)

"I take a deep breath.  Am I ready?  New home, new city, new school, new friends.  Hopefully.  New life.  New me.
I feel equal parts fear and anticipation.  But one look in Ms. West's sharp eyes and I feel a jolt of confidence.  I feel strong and invincible.  How can I let myself be afraid of change, when it's what I want?  The chance to become the strong, confident young woman I've always dreamed of being.
This is the first step." (p. 14)

"I suck down an entire pudding, trying to pretend I'm not disappointed that he's giving up.  It's not like I want him to pursue me.  I can't want him to pursue me.  My own ego liked the attention, I suppose, the interest in me as nothing more than an average girl.
Don't be dumb, I tell myself.  You're not average.  You don't get the normal life with the BFF and the boy.  You're destined for more than that.  and your destiny is a solo adventure.
Still, I allow myself a brief moment of sadness when I stand to take my empty tray to the dish line and Nick doesn't move.  Doesn't even react.  And like that, poof, I'm forgotten."  (p. 54-55).

"Standing there, in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by dozens of ordinary teens, is a girl who looks exactly like me.  I mean exactly like me.  And, I realize as we blink at each other, she saw the lizard's tail." (pp. 90-91)

"If we're twins, like I have to believe we are, then her heritage is also mine.  Her duty to hunt monsters is also mine.  Is it fair to let her continue to carry that responsibility all on her own?" (p. 109)

Tasty Rating:  !!

Monday, December 26, 2011

REVIEW: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Riggs, R.  (2011).  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  Philadelphia:  Quirk Books.

348 pages.

Appetizer:  When Jacob is 15 years old, something happens to divide his life into "before" and "after."  As a child, Jacob had grown up his grandfather's stories; tales of monsters and extraordinary people (and he had the old pictures to prove it!).  As many kids would, Jacob grew older and began to see his grandfather's tales as exaggerations.  But, on a fateful day, Jacob gets a call from his grandfather and learns that there may be some truth to what his grandfather said.  This realization will lead Jacob to counseling, and eventually to a Welsh island and an abandoned orphanage where he searches for the truth in his grandfather's words and the truth behind the strange old photos of peculiar children doing extraordinary things.

What a great read!  The old photos scattered throughout the novel were wonderful and would make this story a great model for writing in response to pictures.  I loved the humor early in the story, the peculiarities of the children (some of them give the story a bit of an X-Men feel) and the descriptions of setting that Ransom Riggs used throughout.

I think I'm going to use this one as an in-class writing prompt!

The before and after structure reminded me heavily of John Green's Looking for Alaska.  (Plus there was a mention of multiethnic Santas, characters rapping, etc.)

My one big critique would be of the mystery; if you want to call it that.  There wasn't enough of one.  I found it also easy to figure out who the villain was.  Also, *spoiler for page 130-ish*  I wished there had been a little more set-up of the time loop.  It being introduced really threw me for a loop (haha).

Nonetheless, Riggs's writing is wonderful and I plan to recommend this book often.  In fact, I'd say this book was probably one of my favorites of 2011.  It's fitting that I ended the year with it

Dinner Conversation:

"I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.  The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves:  Before and After.  Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman" (p. 8).

"More fantastic still, were [Grandpa Portman's] stories about life in the Welsh children's home.  It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died.  Everyone lived together in a big house that was protected by a wise old bird--or so the story went.  As I got older, though, I began to have doubts" (p. 9).

"It wasn't until a few years later that my dad explained it to me:  Grandpa had told him some of the same stories when he was a kid, and they weren't lies, exactly, but exaggerated versions of the truth--because the story of Grandpa Portman's childhood wasn't a fairy tale at all.  It was a horror story" (p. 17).

"As you can imagine, convincing my parents to let me spend part of my summer on a tiny island off the coast of Wales was no easy task.  They--particularly my mother--had many compelling reasons why this was a wretched idea, including the cost, the fact that I was supposed to spend the summer with Uncle Bobby learning how to run a drug empire, and that I had no one to accompany me, since neither of my parents had any interest in going and I certainly couldn't go alone.  I had no effective rebuttals, and my reason for wanting to make the trip--I think I'm supposed to--wasn't something I could explain without sounding even crazier than they already feared I was." (p. 61)

"If Cairnholm's only phone connected to some den of iniquity called the "piss hole," how did that bode for the rest of the island?  Would my first trip to Europe be spent evading drunken maniacs and watching birds evacuate their bowels on rocky beaches?  Maybe so.  But if it meant that I'd finally be able to put my grandfather's mystery to rest and get on with my unextraordinary life, anything I had to endure would be worth it." (p. 64)

"And that is how someone who is unusually susceptible to nightmares, night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and Seeing Things That Aren't Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end." (p. 99)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!


Cashore, K.  (2009).  Fire.  New York:  Firebird.

461 pages.

Appetizer:  After her father's death, Fire is the only human monster left in the Dells.  She hates to look at herself in a mirror, for fear of being shocked by her own striking appearance.  Wherever she goes, everyone looks upon her with some combination of lust or jealousy.  Guards must follow her everywhere to protect her from people who would attack her out of lust or out of anger.

After she is shot by an archer who is motivated by neither of these feelings, Fire and her allies begin to suspect there is some conspiracy at work in the kingdom.

The beginning of Fire reminded me a little too much of the start of Graceling, the companion novel:  Both protagonists are ostracized--granted, Katsa is an outsider due to everyone fearing her, as opposed to being stunningly beautiful--and both have friends who are in love with them who the girls must refuse to marry.

But despite these parallels and Cashore's consistent commitment to writing strong female characters who must spend lengthy amounts of time traveling within the fantasy world she has created, Fire is very different from Graceling in that Fire (the character) spends much more time dealing with the power dynamics of the court.  I really liked her romantic relationship with a certain prince and military commander.

I did find that Fire wasn't a book a book that gripped my attention and refused to let me go.  Rather, there were a lot of points in the book when time just passed and Fire sat around...not...doing much.  Meh.

I also think this book complimented Graceling well in terms of creating two different worlds that are connected and can also be compared.

A third companion novel is coming out within the next few months:  Bitterblue.  Despite it being named for a familiar character from Graceling, I look forward to seeing how it is placed within Cashore's expanding world.

Dinner Conversation:

"It did not surprise Fire that the man in the forest shot her.  What surprised her was that he shot her by accident" (p.19).

"Her nightmares were always worse on days when she'd spent time down among the cages, for that was where her father had died.
Cansrel, her beautiful monster father.  Monsters in the Dells came from monsters.  A monster could breed with a non-monster of its species--her mother had not been a monster--but the progeny was always monstrous." (p. 28)

"This was something Fire knew about herself:  Her mind made mistakes sometimes, but the real traitor was her body" (p. 78).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: The Son of Neptune

Riordan, R.  (2011).  The Son of Neptune.  New York:  Hyperion Books.

513 pages.

Appetizer:  Percy has spent the last two months with almost no memories of who he is.  He has been evading two gorgons who just won't stay in the Underworld.  By arriving at a camp for demigods in San Francisco, he seems to have finally found a place he can rest.  Kinda.

Percy has found the camp of the Roman demigods, the Greek demigods and Percy's natural enemies.  But he'll have to join with them if he ever wants to restore his memory and find the one person whose name he remembers--Annabeth.

Stunned by Percy's arrival, two Roman demigods, who are outsiders among the ranks, find themselves on a quest with Percy. Hazel is a cursed daughter of Pluto. She keeps many secrets, including the fact that she has died before.  Frank has a few secrets of his own as well. But after learning who his true father is, he finds himself leading a quest which he knows will most likely lead to his own death. Uncertain and understandably frightened, the three new friends must travel to Alaska, the land beyond the gods, to try and prevent the next phase in Gaia's awakening and to restore the balance of life and death.

So, if you read the first book in this series, The Lost Hero and any or aaaaaaaaaaall of the Percy Jackson or Kane Chronicles, then you pretty much know what to expect of The Son of Neptune:  A bit of humor, a lot of action and a fun take on the Greek and Roman gods.  It is worth noting, that this particular addition to Riordan's does include several major references to the original Percy Jackson series.  (So, it might be good to have read them...or to at least vaguely remember the events.)

The beginning of The Son of Neptune did feel a little slow.  Since several new characters were introduced, it felt more like a novel beginning a series as opposed to a middle novel.  It also felt like a bit of a slow start since Percy had to befriend Hazel and Frank before the adventure could even begin and play war games at Camp Jupiter.  (But having said that, the last 100 pages are action PACKED.  Like, beyond packed...the action box is overflowing and cannot be properly closed.)

Nonetheless, the way that Riordan has changed up this series to both include and grow beyond Percy is very interesting.  I like that he has continued to expand the states and lands that the characters visit as well as expand the racial and national representation of the demigods.  Plus, the inclusions of the Amazons as the owners of the company Amazon was particularly fun.

Dinner Conversation:

"The snake-haired ladies were starting to annoy Percy.
They should have died three days ago when he dropped a crate of bowling balls on them at the Napa Bargain Mart.  They should have died two days ago when he ran over them with a police car in Martinez.  They definitely should have died this morning when he cut off their heads in Tilden Park.
No matter how many times Percy killed them and watched them crumble to powder, they just kept re-forming like large evil dust bunnies.  He couldn't even seem to outrun them.  (p. 3).

"A chill went down Percy's back.  "The Feast of Fortune...The gorgons mentioned that.  So did Juno.  They said the camp was going to be attacked on that day, something about a big bad goddess named Gaea, and an army, and Death being unleashed.  You're telling me that day is this week?"
Reyna's fingers tightened around the hilt of her dagger.  "You will say nothing about that outside this room," she ordered.  "I will not have you spreading more panic in the camp."
"So it's true," Percy said.  "Do you know what's going to happen?  Can we stop it?"
Percy had just met these people.  He wasn't sure he even liked Reyna.  But he wanted to help.  They were demigods, the same as him.  They had the same enemies.  Besides, Percy remembered what Juno had told him:  it wasn't just this camp at risk.  His old life, the gods, and the entire world might be destroyed.  Whatever was coming down, it was huge."  (pp. 41-42)

"Um, what exactly does it mean--you standing for me?"
"I guarantee your good behavior," Hazel explained.  "I teach you the rules, answer you questions, make sure you don't disgrace the legion."
"And...if I do something wrong?"
"Then i get killed along with you," Hazel said.  "Hungry?  Let's eat."  (p. 90)

"'Thanatos has been chained,' Mars announced.  "The Doors of Death have been forced open, and no one is policing them--at least, not impartially.  Gaea allows our enemies to pour forth into the world of mortals.  Her sons the giants are mustering armies against you--armies that you will not be able to kill.  Unless Death is unleashed to return to his duties, you will be overrun.  You must find Thanatos and free him from the giants.  Only he can reverse the tide." (p. 146)

"'There!' Mars finished writing and threw the scroll at Octavian.  "A prophecy.  You can add it to your books, engrave it on your floor, whatever."
Octavian read the scroll.  "This says, 'Go to Alaska.  Find Thanatos and free him.  Come back by sundown on June twenty-fourth or die."
"Yes," Mars said.  "Is that not clear?"
"Well, my lord...usually prophecies are unclear.  They're wrapped in riddles.  They rhyme, and..."
Mars casually popped another grenade off his belt.  "Yes?"
"The prophecy is clear!  Octavian announced.  "A quest!" (p. 149)

"'First things first." Percy tried to sound confident, though he could feel the level of panic rising in the room.  "I don't know who the seven are, or what that old prophecy means, exactly.  But first we have to free Thanatos.  Mars told us we only needed three people for the quest to Alaska.  Let's concentrate on succeeding with that and getting back before the Feast of Fortuna.  Then we can worry about the Doors of Death."
"Yeah, Frank said in a small voice.  "That's probably enough for one week."  (pp. 173-174)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

REVIEW: Live Writing: Breathing life into your words

Fletcher, R.  (1999).  Live Writing:  Breathing life into your words.  New York:  Avon Books, Inc.

131 pages.

Appetizer:  As part of his series on writing, in Live Writing Ralph Fletcher describes tools to help middle grade readers bring their writing to life.

With accessible terms, examples and writing from his own, other published authors as well as the writings of third to seventh graders, Fletcher describes ways to bring stories to life, focusing on character, voice, conflict and setting.  He also discusses having a strong beginning or lead, a satisfying end, vivid details and golden lines.  In culmination, Fletcher unpacks a 7th grader's writing sample for all of these aspects.

This writing guide also include advice from some other authors related to the concepts Fletcher highlighted.  (Alas, since this book was published in 1999, some of the authors, while excellent, are not as commonly referred to as those included in some other writing guides for children (like Rip This Page.)  Along those same lines, Fletcher references some picturebooks and middle grade novels that, while classic, also felt a little dated.

Overall, there is some excellent advice in Live Writing.  This is a great resource to have in a classroom to help middle grade authors improve their creative writing.

Dinner Conversation:

"This book is based on the simple idea that every writer has a toolbox.  Instead of awls and hammers, a writer's toolbox contains words, imagination, a love of books, a sense of story, and ideas for how to make the writing live and breathe" (p. 2).

"By "live writing" I mean the kind of writing that has a current running through it--energy, electricity, juice.  When we read live writing, the words seem to lift off the page and burrow deep inside us.  My goal in writing this book is to help you make your writing come alive" (p. 3).

"Writers don't read like other people.  Writers are interested in what's going to happen, of course, but they are also keenly interested in finding out how the author created the effect." (p. 10)

"Your writing voice is like a handshake; it makes the connection with the reader" (p. 42)

"Setting does matter.  Stories (history) happen in a particular place.  Martin Luther King, Jr., got locked in a jail in Selma, Alabama.  That place will be forever linked with this event.  Wilbur and Charlotte became friends in that dusty old barn.  Describing the setting is more than just a necessary chore--it's a crucial element in making your writing deeper and richer."  (p. 67)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

REVIEW: Stitches

Small, D.  (2009).  Stitches.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company.

329 pages.

So, you're looking for some nice, speedy, light reading over the winter break?

Stitches is a speedy read, that much is true.  But it is by no means light or nice.  Unless "nice" can be interpreted to mean riveting in a horrified and traumatized-by-proxy kind of way.


My reading buddy, Monica, tackled this graphic novel during a readathon a couple of years ago.  Here's her reaction.

Appetizer:  In this memoir, amazing children's illustrator David Small shares about his dysfunctional childhood.  At six, he and his mother visited his maternal grandmother.  The woman would prove to be unstable.  At eleven, David would begin to develop a growth on his neck that would not be operated on until he was 14-years-old.  The series of surgeries would leave David with only a single vocal chord.  Silenced and living in a house with people who barely speak, Stitches is the story of David finding his voice and avoiding the insanity his mother and grandfather could easily drive him towards.

This memoir is both stunning and moving.  I am forever impressed by Small's illustrations and ability to capture perspective.  But seeing the familiar style of his drawings was that much more disturbing, because as I read, I was repeatedly reminded of Imogene's Antlers, a childhood favorite of mine that is also by him.

The graphic novel repeatedly references Lolita and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The allusions to Alice and the white rabbit are particularly wonderful.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Wow, I'm off to find a something with some humor now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

REVIEW: The Future of Us

Asher, J. & Mackler, C.  (2011).  The Future of Us.  New York:  Razorbill.

356 pages.

Appetizer:  It's 1996 and Emma's father just bought her a new computer with Windows 95 to buy her love.  Josh brings her an AOL CD-Rom (100 free online hours!  OMG!!!!).  When Emma logs on for the first time, she discovers a strange website listed in the favorites bar:  Facebook.  The site seems to be devoted to a woman in her thirties with Emma's name and birthday.  The picture of the woman looks eerily like Emma.  But this woman is married, jobless and seems unhappy as she shares WAY too much personal information on the website.

Emma shares the secret of the strange 'Facebook' with her neighbor and former-best friend Josh.  As they become aware of their futures, they slowly realize that their behavior now changes who they will become.  For better or for worse.

I was really excited about The Future of Us.  Not so much because of the premise, but because I loved Asher's 13 Reasons Why and Mackler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things and Vegan Virgin Valentine.  Combine two awesome authors and you can't go wrong, right?  Eeeeeeeeh.  From page one, I was a little disappointed.  The first chapter from Emma's perspective felt rushed and like a long joke about the way the internet used to be.  The premise of the story just didn't feel like it would be sustainable and nothing about Emma or Josh's characterizations really sparked my interest.  They were just blah.

I did love the way the characters struggled with how the small (and big) decisions they made impacted their realities fifteen years in the future.  It's a very powerful look at the idea that there are consequences, even for some seemingly small decisions.  This is best embodied when Emma does a little addition and realizes someone close to her may conceive a child within the next few months.  There's a wonderful analysis on choices and consequences waiting to be written about this book (and there's even a cross-curriculum connection to the concept of the domino effect during the Vietnam War).

Without being too preachy, The Future of Us could cause some readers to think a little more critically about their online relationships and behaviors, but mostly I think readers will pick it up as a fun read (a fun read without nearly the oomph that Thirteen Reason Why had).

*Spoiler*  *Spoiler*  *Spoiler for the end*  *Spoiler*  *Spoiler*

I did have some trouble with Emma as a character.  From the beginning of the book I "nothing-ed" her, but about midway through the book, I actively started to dislike her.  I really didn't like the way she jumped from guy to guy in the present and kept playing with her future as though it was a game, judging each potential husband as though they were the cause of all her potential unhappiness.  (There's a little consideration of finding the right career or school, but not enough.)  Eventually, Emma did have a grand realization about her nature:

"I stroll through the grounds, thinking about how ever since we discovered Facebook, I've been changing specific things in an attempt to improve my future.  Jordan Jones was probably cheating on me...But every time I got a new future, I still turned out unhappy. 
For the past five days, I've been trying to understand why this happens to me and how I can tweak things so it won't happen again.  But I'm starting to wonder if it actually has nothing to do with the future.  Maybe it has everything to do with what happens now.
...He never did those things for me because I never gave him the chance.  I never told him what I was reading or what movies made me cry.  I kept enough distance so I would never get hurt.
I've always protected myself when it comes to love.  And maybe that's the problem.  By not letting myself get hurt now, it ripples into much bigger pain later on.  In the future, maybe I never let my husbands see the real me either, so, I never give them the chance to learn what makes me happy." (p. 313-314)
Okay, I'll take that.  It's about time.  This girl needed to be single for awhile.  Heal from your mom's repeated divorces.  Love yourself first girlie, then consider adding a worthy boyfriend into the mix.  Sounds good.  Finally, maybe Emma will be redeemed in my mind.  But hey, that's my crazy feminist perspective.

Of course, fewer than 40 pages later, AKA the same night in the story, Emma gets herself a new man.

Mmm, kay.  Yes, relationships do have to go both ways, okay.  And yes, you do have to take a chance on the right person and be willing to be vulnerable.  But I felt like this girl still needed to figure out who she was and what she wanted first.  By this point, I wasn't convinced this character had much of a soul of her own, let alone one she could share with someone she loved.

*End spoiler*

Dinner Conversation:

"I can't break up with Graham today, even though I told my friends I'd do it the next time I saw him.  So instead, I'm hiding in my bedroom, setting up my new computer while he plays Ultimate Frisbee in the park across the street" (p. 2).

"For about twenty second, my monitor freezes.  Then the white box snaps into a tiny blue dot and a new webpage fades in.  It has a blue banner running across the top that says "Facebook."  A column down the center of the screen is labeled "News Feed" and under that are tiny photos of people I don't recognize.  Each photo is followed by a brief statement.
...I circle the mouse around the screen, confused by the jumble of pictures and words.  I have no idea what any of this means, "Status" and "Friend Request" and "Poke." (pp. 9-10)

"One side of my brain whispers that this could be a website from the future.  The other side of my brain screams at the first side for being an idiot.
On the screen, Emma Nelson Jones, with slight creases at the corners of her eyes, is smiling." (p. 15)

"If it was a prank, nothing would've changed between yesterday and today.  But everything I did differently today sent little ripples of change into the future.  Being in a bad mood this morning, because of this, changed the way I interacted with people when I got to school.  And that, fifteen years down the line--"
I laugh.  "Ripples of change?"
"It's something Kellan told me."
"You told Kellan?"
"Of course not," Emma says.  "I just asked her about time travel from a physics perspective."  (p. 76)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

REVIEW: Making Up Megaboy

Walter, V. & Roecoelein K.  (1998).  Making Up Megaboy.  New York:  Delacorte Press.

62 pages.

Appetizer:  Told in many different voices with striking images to match the monologues, Making Up Megaboy tries to understand a thirteen-year-old's motive to kill an elderly shop owner.  Aside from speaking to admit he did kill the old man, Robbie will not speak, except to ask for art supplies so he could draw a comic of his only friend and his creation, Megaboy.

Some of the potential motives surrounding Robbie's actions include his crush on a girl from school, dissatisfaction with his racist father, not having been taught right from wrong, being an outsider, and on and on.

This novella is an interesting experiment.  With no clear answers about what caused Robbie to kill someone, its up to the reader to make connections, make meaning and draw their own conclusions about what was going through the boy's head and what caused him to act the way he did.

Making Up Megaboy would be a good book to have students make arguments about, using support from the text.  Since the book is so short, it would be very easy for students to make connections across the text without getting overwhelmed.  It also would be a good sample project to have students explore voice and different perspectives, all circling around an event or the experience of one character.  I'd also consider pairing the novella with Walter Dean Myers's Monster to show to very different approaches to trying to understand characters who face consequences for the deaths of others.

Due to the sensitive nature of the story, it is probably a book I would want to get parental permission for before sharing with students.

Dinner Conversation:

"It was his birthday, three months ago today.  He just turned thirteen.  He was too old for a birthday party, but we gave him a fancy new mountain bike at breakfast.  I thought he was pleased with it.  He said he liked it.
I didn't think he even knew about my husband's gun.  We never showed it to him.  We never talked about it." (p. 9)

"Robert kept the gun in the dresser, in his sock drawer.  Robbie never had any reason to go in there.
Lord, I will never understand why he did it.  I asked myself every day what went wrong, but I can't find any answers.  He wasn't a bad boy.  He didn't have bad friends, except maybe that Mexican boy who hung around for a while.
Why would Robbie shoot somebody on his birthday?  It should have been a happy day."  (p. 9)

"People in Santa Rosita are in shock about the incident that took place here two days ago, when a thirteen-year-old boy shot and killed Jae Lin Koh, the elderly proprietor of a liquor store on Main Street. The boy who allegedly committed this violent crime has not been identified officially because of his age, but classmates at the Kennedy Middle School know who he is." (p. 19).

"Me and him made up stories all the time about a superhero called Megaboy.  Megaboy is kind of like Popeye in those old comics, you know?  He just looked ordinary until he ate his spinach, and then his muscles popped out all buff?  Megaboy just looks all ordinary until he eats these special chips.  I mean, they look just like regular potato chips or something, but they're really coated with megaspice that made him all strong and everything.  Mostly Megaboy takes care of little kids that are in trouble and finds lost pets and stuff.  We made up stories together.  Then Robbie'd draw the pictures, and I'd write the words" (p. 20).

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Rainfield, C.  (2010).  Scars.  Lodi, NJ:  WestSide Books.

233 pages.

Appetizer:  Kendra knows she is being followed.  She thinks the man who molested her as a child is back and is trying to keep her silent.  The only person she can really trust to talk to is her therapist, Carolyn.  But since her dad was downsized at work, her parents want her to stop seeing Carolyn.  In fact, they're even talking about moving out of the city.  Kendra's mom just doesn't get what she's going through or what matters to Kendra.  The only ways that Kendra can deal with all of the pains and pressures are by cutting herself and by working on her art.

Despite all of these difficulties, a girl named Meghan has caught her eye.  Meghan has her own problems.  When the two girls are enrolled in the same art therapy course, Kendra begins to see the possibility of finding someone who can love her.

While I appreciated that Scars didn't feel like a traditional problem novel due to all of the thriller elements, some of those same thriller elements made Kendra's high school experience seem overly dramatic.  (Arguably, this could be because Kendra survived serious trauma, so little conflicts could seem much more threatening.  But as I read, it felt more like a representation of high school that I would have only bought into in middle know, before I knew what high school was like.  For example, on the first day that the novel depicts, Kendra is bullied, kissed, and checked-out by completely random characters.  Also, sometime the dialogue seemed forced cliche or as though a modern teenager wasn't saying the word.  I just didn't believe it.  Not based on the narration and how Kendra described herself.  I do appreciate what the author was aiming for though.)

A huge aspect that I thought was missing from the book was a scene in which Kendra revealed her childhood molestation to her family. The book is set six months after she would have had that discussion with her parents and is only mentioned in peripheral ways. But imagining how difficult such a reveal may be and knowing that some readers may share similar experiences to Kendra, but have yet to speak about it, I really wanted to see a scene with Kendra speaking/writing/drawing about it with or for someone for the first time. I know it's beyond the scope of the story and I know that such a scene would probably make the story a little too reminiscent of Laurie Halse Anderson's masterpiece Speak, (both would feature artistic girls who struggle to find a way to tell someone about the traumas they have experienced--although the individual characterizations are completely different). But still, I wanted that scene. Flashback anyone?

I also wanted it to be clearer from the beginning whether or not Kendra had told her family and classmates that she was a lesbian.  From her narration, it's a clear aspect of her internal characterization, but I couldn't tell for over half the book whether she was firmly "in the closet" or open with her parents and classmates.  (I wanted to know because, again, coming out and revealing this is an important experience and instead it was treated as a part of the mystery that is revealed late in the novel about Kendra's background.

It is also worth noting that the person who molested Kendra as a child and who continues to harass her to try to keep her silent as a teen is pretty much...pure evil.  Like, maybe more evil than Lord Voldemort.  It's not as though I want a fair and balanced account.  But he was evil to the point that I struggled to believe his level of vileness was possible.  The ways he abused and the extent to which he manipulated Kendra as a child was overwhelming.

One of the greatest strengths of Scars was the author's note. In it, Cheryl Rainfield reveals that she has felt similar pains to her character Kendra. She provides one of the most etensive list of resources for help and support that I have seen at the end of a YA novel. And she advises the reader to "be gentle with yourself," a similar idea that some of the helpful adult characters express to Kendra. I found that to be a beautifully said and a wonderful sentiment.

Dinner Conversation:

"'Someone is following me.'  I gulp air, trying to breathe.
Carolyn leans forward, her face worried.  "What makes you say that?"  There's a hesitation in her voice that stings me.
"You don't believe me!"  I spit the words out at her, then look away, twisting my hands together to keep them from trembling.
"I didn't say that.  I don't know enough about this yet to know what to believe.  Why don't you tell me about it?"
So you can go tell my parents?  (p. 7).

"Do you have any idea of who it might be?" Carolyn's voice is soft, like she knows I want to run.
A door snapping shut.  His hand on my wrist.
"The man who molested you?"
"Yes." I wince and clench my trembling hands in my lap, digging my nails into my palms.  But the trifling pain isn't enough to distract me.
"It must be terrifying for you to think he's out there somewhere."
"It is," I whisper.
"But Kendra, pedophiles don't usually come after their victims, especially not years later.  They like easy access and frightened, compliant children who they can manipulate--not active teen girls who might fight back." (p. 9)

"The constant noise makes me want to scream--people slamming their lockers shut, girls giggling with each other, sneakers squeaking down the hall, boys burping as loud as they can--but I know I'm only feeling like this because of the note.
And I can't let myself think about that.
My arm is hot and stiff, every jostle sending pain through me.  But it's not the bright, hard pain that makes everything go away.  It's an annoying, irritating pain that makes me grit my teeth.  I wish I could tear my nails through my flesh like blades.  I don't know if I can go through the whole day without finding a way to cut."  (p. 19)

"Mom's paintings are picturesque views of the world, little postcards of happiness, while mine are all emotion and color.  Mine tap into my pain and grief and sometimes into my happiness, but always into something that comes from deep inside.  No boats in the harbor or sunlit meadows for me.  I do my art because I have to.  Paint or cut--they both help me survive.  But Mom paints for the money--and her art sells.  People want those perfect postcards of the world.  I don't think they want messy emotion.  But I have to try."  (p. 44)

Tasty Rating:  !!!


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