Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Recent Reads

Four new good books in a row!

My Life as a Book

I've only read a few of her books, but every Janet Tashjian book I've read has been funny, touching, and authentically voiced. My Life as a Book is no exception. Derek is dreading summer reading assignments; it's not that he absolutely hates reading, but that he'd rather spend his time reading Calvin & Hobbes. Packed off to a "Learning" day camp, Derek expects the summer to be deadly dull. Derek's sudden discovery of a family secret involving a drowned babysitter changes his expectations.

Not only is this a warm and funny story about a quirky boy, it's also an understated plea for independent reading, the value of comic books in engaging a visual learner, and encouraging a child in his/her talents. It's a story about facing the past, moving on, and discovering new truths about assumed facts. Give this to your Wimpy Kid fans.

Fun fact: One of Derek's quirks is illustrating his vocabulary words; his "drawings" are scattered throughout the story, stick-figure style. Derek's habit is inspired by Tashjian's own teenage son, Jake, who provided the illustrations for the story.

Queen of Secrets

Another modern retelling of a classic/ancient story involving cheerleaders and football. Queen of Secrets is a modern retelling (of sorts) of the Book of Esther. Essie knows that she's Jewish, but that's basically her only connection to Judaism; her grandparents, who have raised her since her parents' deaths, are nonobservant. Cheerleading and befriending the popular cheerleaders and football players at her Michigan school are her top priorities, which are thrown into chaos by the arrival of her very religious cousin, Micah, to school.

Essie doesn't let anyone know that they are related, until a shocking anti-Semitic incident against her cousin rocks her family and the community.

Not only is this an engagingly written story that will appeal to a broad range of teen readers, but it's awesome to have Jewish characters that 1) live outside of New York or the tristate area and 2) are in a book that isn't historical fiction. Oh, and 3) show the variety of Jewish life. Kudos to Jenny Meyerhoff on all accounts. Young readers need to meet Jewish/African American/Latino/Asian/Native American characters in books that aren't historical fiction, that take place in cities/geographical areas other than New York or other major cities, and most importantly, that they can relate to/empathize with these characters.

How to Survive Middle School also features a Jewish character, although David doesn't struggle with his Jewish identity. Judaism is more or less matter-of-fact in the story (David's bubbe, or grandmother, sprinkles Yiddish throughout her conversation; there's a glossary at the end of the book). David is not starting off middle school on the right foot; he's alienated from his best friend, who has joined one of the class bullies in verbally mockery of David. He's not allowed to join the media team because he's a 6th grader, although he's a pro at making videos for his Youtube account.

David's Youtube videos, which are a takeoff/homage to The Daily Show (and David Letterman's Top Ten lists) become viral thanks to a new girl friend (not a girlfriend, just a girl friend). This brings a lot of attention; some good, and some not so good, thanks to David's new enemies. He's also having weird feelings toward his (girl) science partner. Oh, the joys of middle school!

This is a *funny*, sweet, and sensitive story. Gephart really understands the ins and outs of middle school and Youtube/online culture; she's not just name-dropping current trends in hopes of winning over teen readers. The fallout with the best friend who quickly turns into the enemy is believable and true (this doesn't just happen with girls!).

One important subplot of the story is David's attempt to deal with his mother abandoning the family to live with a beet farmer; David seems to come to terms with it a bit more neatly than what I think is usually realistic. This is my *only* quibble with the story, and it's a very minor one.


I am very fond of Sellout and look forward to reading more from Ebony Joy Wilkins. NaTasha is the only African-American girl in her school. Increasingly worried about her granddaughter's lack of connection to an African-American community, Tilly demands that NaTasha spend some of her summer vacation with her in Harlem and at Amber's Place, the Bronx girls' shelter where Tilly spends much of her time.

As you can imagine, NaTasha and the girls are polar opposites. Save for a few girls, she immediately clashes with them. And as you can imagine, there are life lessons that NaTasha learns from her summer in Harlem. Fortunately, Wilkins isn't preachy in the least; this is a well-crafted story that will appeal to a wide variety of girls. This is an excellent debut novel. NaTasha is an honestly written character. Teens need stories like this; stories that reflect a broad perspective of African-American teenage life. Cannot wait to see what Wilkins has in store for us next.

I'm currently reading Blindsided; I just started it, and I'm already hooked. In preparation for writing her novel, Priscilla Cummings spent a year observing students at a school for the blind. Her experience informs the details of the story and makes it a much richer read. This is a fabulous read. And set in Maryland, for those that like books set in specific areas. Am I alone in this?

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