Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

wondershow“Something began to move in Portia’s memory, reluctant as a rusted wheel-the old story she had made for herself, in which Max had run off with the circus.  How many circuses were there?  Fewer, Portia knew, than there had been before. Movie theaters and dancehalls cropped up like pretty weeds, common and alluring, and without the strange elements that came with traveling shows.  Mister had frequently lectured her on the topic of such distasteful forms of entertainment.

But Max loved a good time.  And a circus was certainly that.  Even if he wasn’t still with this circus, someone might have seen him, known him, heard about his beloved daughter.

Only a few miles away, Portia thought.”

All Portia has left of her family are the stories her father used to tell her, and even the stories have grown worn and thin from constant repetition.  Her dad left, long ago; now Portia is the reluctant resident of McGreavey’s Home for Wayward Girls, her days filled with drudgery and brightened only by plans of escape.  When she learns of a traveling circus passing nearby, Portia takes her chance and makes her home as a Normal among the performers in the sideshow.  Here, she puts her storytelling skills to work, running the bally at the freak show.  All the while, she watches the faces in the audience, searching for one she recognizes.

What can I say?  I’m a sucker for stories about carnivals and the circus; there’s no way I could pass this up.  I think you’ll really like this eerie, clever debut novel from Hannah Barnaby.  It’s set during the Great Depression, and is a quirky take on the orphan story, featuring repurposed fairy tale elements and a host of fantastic sideshow performers.  Not only is their a sinister mystery (what happened to all those girls whose tombstones populate McGreavey’s cemetary?), it’s a story about nontraditional families and the importance of promises.  Added bonus:  many of the sideshow characters are based on real-life historical figures!   You can read about them in the Author’s Note at the end.  Let’s hope for more of these stories from this stellar new author.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://hannahbarnaby.com/

Barnaby, Hannah. Wonder Show.  Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2012. 266 pp.  Ages 11-14.

These books have a lot in common with Wonder Show!  I think you’ll love them!

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

Beholding Bee

The Magician’s Elephant

 

 

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper-Jones“‘It’s through here,’ he says.

‘What? What is?’

‘You’ll see it, Charlie.  Shit.  You’ll’ve wished you dint, but you’ll see it.  it’s not too late but.  Are you sure you’re gonna help me?’

‘Can’t you just tell me? What is it? What’s through there?’

‘I can’t.  I can’t, mate. But I can trust you, Charlie.  I reckon I can trust you.’

It isn’t a question, but it seems like one.

And I believe if I were anyone else, I would choose to step back and turn away right now…I would never look past Jasper Jones to reveal  his secret.”

Jasper Jones is Corrigan’s Troubled Boy: alternately beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father, notorious for petty theft and truancy.  Charlie is bright, uncoordinated, and not-so-popular; he and Jasper occupy opposite ends of the social universe. So when Jasper shows up at Charlie’s window in the middle of the night, Charlie is stunned enough to follow him into the woods without question.  Jasper needs Charlie’s help, and what he shows him  in the forest will change everything. In that hot summer, right in the middle of the Vietnam War, Jasper’s secret becomes Charlie’s secret.Jasper Jones

 As the summer progresses, the two try to conceal what they know as the town reels in shock.  The tragedy exposes Corrigan’s ugly underbelly; racial tension reaches a fever pitch and paranoia reigns.  Charlie tries to quell his rising panic, avoid angering his volatile mother, and awkwardly manage his first love.  It’s a summer of change, of lies exposed, and painful truths realized.

This Australian novel is a riveting combination of mystery, excellent writing, and Big Questions; it’s no wonder it was a 2012 Printz honor book.  The Vietnam War setting offers the perfect backdrop to explore matters of race and prejudice, and the tragedy exposes a multitude of ugly secrets in a town where everything looks nice on the surface.  Jasper’s philosophizing on human nature, evil, and fear is well-crafted and sticks with you long after you finish the story.  This is one of those rare books that pulls you in with a thriller and leaves you thinking about life and death.  Also, enjoy the literary references and sentence-crafting; Silvey’s masterful writing makes this so much more than just a plot-driven mystery novel.

Happy Reading!

Silvey, Craig. Jasper Jones. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2009. 312 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might like these:

Everybody Sees the Ants

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4

Nothing (this is one of my favorites!)

Paper Covers Rock

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me“M,

This is hard.  Harder than I expected, even with your help.  But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well.  I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.

I ask two favors.

First, you must write me a letter.

Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key.

The trip is a difficult one.  I will not be myself when I reach you.”

Miranda isn’t supposed to tell anyone about the mysterious notes.  She’s not sure who she would tell, anyway: her mom would freak out, and her best friend Sal is avoiding her ever  since he got punched on the way home from school.   Miranda keeps quiet, and the notes keep coming.  Each is filled with details no one should know, and the message is clear:  she’s the only one who can prevent a tragedy, and she’s got to move quickly.

The list of awards this book has gotten literally fills the inside cover, including the Newbery Medal, and for good reason! This smart book is a perfect combination of realistic characters, a just-creepy-enough mystery with a great setting, and  accessible science fiction (which I can’t explain to you, because it will ruin the mystery). I really loved the setting: late-70s New York.  The period-specific details were just enough to make it feel interesting and different, but not overly nostalgic.  Finally, Miranda’s first-person-narrative voice draws readers in, making them feel like a close friend of hers, and a partner in the mystery-solving.  It was also quite refreshing to explore Rebecca Stead’s portrayals  nontraditional families, and the treatment of race and class issues in the text.  All in all, a great book for sharing. I’d like to read it with some middle schoolers and see who can figure out the letter-sender first.  Happy Reading!

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me.  Yearling: New York, 197 pp.  Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book, I think you’ll love Blue Balliet’s stories, especially her Chasing Vermeer series and The Danger Box.  If you liked the mystery element and stories about families, you will definitely love Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck.   Finally, see what the fuss is all about: check out Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  You’ll get why Miranda loves it so much!

Best Bits:  letters that keep you guessing + science fiction that isn’t confusing + being a mystery that is not full of vampires, blood, or magic, because let’s face it, that gets old sometimes.

Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson

catalyst“At my lab table, I review the experiment:

Step 1. Hypothesis-I am brilliant. I am special.  I am going to MIT, just like my mom did.  I am going to change the world.

Step 2. Procedure-Acquire primary and secondary school education.  Follow all rules.  Excel at chemistry and math, ace standardized tests.  Acquire social skills and athletic prowess; maintain a crushing extracurricular load.  Earn national science fair honors.  Apply to MIT. Wait for acceptance letter. ”

 

Kate Malone is a Dream Daughter: a straight-A student, a minister’s daughter, a long-distance runner.  She makes sure her brother takes his asthma medication, and that everyone has healthy meals.  She seems like the perfect student, too.  She has her heart set on MIT, and is doing everything she can to make it happen.   But it’s not easy; in fact, her life is grueling.  The only way to manage everything is with strict organization, by following The Plan.  However, when Kate’s neighbors’ home catches fire, Kate finds herself the unwilling host to a surly schoolmate and a little boy, making it difficult to keep up her routine.   And then everything starts spinning out of control,

This book is set in the same community as Speak, and it is exactly as compelling.  Laurie Halse Anderson is spectacular: she’s great at creating these nuanced, realistic characters, setting them down in gripping situations, and then telling us what happens.  This story is tragic and Kate’s voice is so natural and tense that it is a difficult book to put down.    Also, Laurie Halse Anderson  is really wonderful at producing accessible, interesting stories with excellent literary elements.   Do you remember how the main character, Melinda, had trouble with her voice and speaking, a symbol that was woven throughout the story?  In this story, Kate struggles with her vision, and readers can start to explore symbolism with the changes that happen to Kate when she switches between  her glasses and contacts.  Quality literature for the win!

Happy Reading!

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Catalyst. Speak: New York, 2002.  231 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you will probably like other books by the same author.  Try Speakor Wintergirlsbut know they (like Catalyst) are about some rough stuff, and be prepared!

 

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

where things come back“When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me that life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life.  I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent, doesn’t know the meaning of his either.  But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.  To warn you of psychics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother.  To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums.  To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.”

The woodpecker showed up  just about the time that Cullen Witter’s little brother disappeared.  The small Arkansas town sees the return of the long-thought-extinct woodpecker as the gift of salvation, hoping the excitement of the bird’s sighting will draw people in and revitalize the local economy.  Cullen is sick of the bird already, and wishes everyone would stop being so awkward around him since his brother’s disappearance.  He also wishes his mom would stop crying and listening to his brother’s old music and reading his books.  This summer, Cullen negotiates relationships with others, tries his best to take care of his grieving family, and searches for meaning in it all.

First of all, I love books that take teenagers seriously: the ones that validate young people by including them in the  exploration of beliefs and the full spectrum of emotions and experiences.  Grief?  Of course. Love?  Absolutely.  Fear of the unknown?  Everyone is afraid, I promise.  It is just that nobody talks about it openly, except in books like these, which is why they are so great! To me, not only do these books say that young people are fully able to participate in the human search for meaning, but they actually offer the vocabulary for expressing such ideas-tools to be used in real life.   Where Things Come Back is one of those books.

You’ll love it because Cullen is a great narrator: his elaborate daydreams include zombies, soundtracks, and miracles.  You’ll love being able to read all his thoughts, especially because he is such a complex character-portrayals of characters like this do a lot for breaking down stereotypes about young men and women.  And I think you’ll also love it because it makes you think about important things.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. Athenum: New York, 2011. 228 p.  Age 15 and up.

If you liked this book, I think you’d really like Looking for Alaska, which has the same setting, tone, and some similar plot elements.  If you liked the summer setting and the elements of religion, Pete Hautman’s Godless might be perfect for you!  If the mystery and small town setting was what grabbed you, try Shine by Lauren Myracle. If you want a book about missing loved ones, check out Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  

And one more! Remember when I talked about using book covers to help you pick books that were alike?  Check out John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  It’s another meaning-book, with a lot of the same Big Questions.  But careful with that one-it’s heart-wrenching!

True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer“Well, my plan from before

looks so scrimpy now.

It looked so big when I was a littler girl.

It was I was going to go to college

and get a job, get out of here

and not live with garbage and stink on my street

and nasty criminals in the neighborhood,

shooting.”

LaVaughn is fifteen years old and lives with her mother in a dangerous, dilapidated apartment complex.  Sometimes gunshots wake them in the night, and shootings happen at her school, too.  LaVaughn’s got a plan, though: she knows the only way to a safer, happier life is her education.  However, her plan is really the only non-confusing thing in her life.  Her  best friends have changed, putting all their belief into a life that LaVaughn doesn’t want for herself. Her mother is dating a new man, all these years after her father died.  Also,  LaVaughn’s handsome neighbor Jody is back again, and she needs to sort out just how she feels about it all.

This novel is written in free verse, and you won’t believe it’s written by a grown-up.  Virginia Euwer Wolff portrays the uncertainty and anxiety of being a teenager with stream-of-consciousness poetry, which reads just like you are listening to LaVaughn’s thoughts.  Even though this is the second novel of a trilogy, the story is complete on its own and you won’t have any trouble following what is going on.  Now, there are several special things about this book.  First, I am often suspicious of stories like this, about inner-city teenagers trying to succeed against seemingly-insurmountable odds.  I find that stories like this often seem to gloss over the obstacles in place, and suggest that anything can be achieved through sheer willpower.  That seems unrealistic to me, and also didactic, as though it is telling us the magical formula for success, and implying that everyone who doesn’t succeed has simply not tried hard enough.  But LaVaughn’s story isn’t like this at all; it doesn’t talk down to you or minimize the oppressive situation.  Furthermore, Wolff’s portrayal of LaVaughn’s friends is compassionate, no matter what their situation.  Also great:  Jody.  I can’t spoil anything, but Jody’s situation and the way it is treated is really outstanding, and definitely National Book Award-worthy. You’ll love this one!

Happy Reading!

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True Believer. Simon Pulse: New York, 2001.264 pp. Ages 14-18.

Author’s website: http://www.virginiaeuwerwolff.com

This book is the second in the Make Lemonade trilogy, though it is perfectly okay to read it on its own.  If you want to read the first one, it’s called Make LemonadeThe third one is This Full House.  If you’d like to read other stories about young people struggling to finish school against the odds, you will probably like Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  Home of the Brave is another verse novel, and is about a young refugee going to school in Minnesota, so while the plot is slightly different, the format is similar.

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

“‘There it waits.  Beyond my strength.  Promise me,’ pleaded the dragon.  ‘Daughter of men, cast my child upon the winds and into the furnace of the earth.  Call the wind to break open the earth and let out the hidden fire.  You must call the wind, and the wind must become fire.  Do you understand?  Swear it to me!'”

Trei is unusual; a refugee and foreign-born inductee into the kajurai, the flying protectors of the Floating Islands. Even some of his classmates are suspicious of him, thinking him a traitor infiltrating the school to learn the secret of dragon magic. His cousin, Araene, is also a bit different, insisting on being educated as a mage, even if it means she must dress as a boy.  However, their unique experiences prove vital when a neighboring country invades, and when the dragons suddenly and mysteriously leave, taking their powerful magic with them. Though they are barely older than children themselves, Araene and Trei must work together to hatch the last fire dragon’s egg and save their country from destruction.

This detailed and captivating fantasy relates the story of two cousins, both new students, who play key parts in saving their home, the  Floating Islands, from both losing the magic that protects it and from being invaded by a powerful neighboring nation.  The chapters alternate, with one being the perspective of Araene, who took refuge in the mage school after her parents were killed in a plague, and the next being from Trei’s perspective, who is studying to be a kajurai.  Though there is much backstory and many plot twists, they are handled masterfully, and it makes this quite an interesting fantasy (after the first three chapters of setup).  This original story had the feel of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and it was a delightful diversion from final projects. Fire dragons? Floating islands?  Girls who dress like boys in order to go to mage school?  What’s not to love? (Also, isn’t that cover art beautiful?)

Happy Reading!

Neumeier, Rachel. The Floating Islands. Bluefire Books: New York, 2011. 387 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book and you haven’t read A Wizard of Earthseathat would be a great place to start! If you loved the dragon element, another great classic is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.  I promise, you’ll love them!

Author’s website: http://www.rachelneumeier.com/

Half World by Hiromi Goto

“WANTED: For having appallingly become with child and risking the Half Lives of all citizens of Half World.  Fumiko and Shinobu Tamaki are considered pregnant and extremely dangerous.  Last seen seeking passage into the Realm of Flesh.  They must be caught and the pregnancy must be terminated.  Under no circumstances must a child be born in the Half World.

All sightings are to be reported to Mr. Glueskin at the Mirages Hotel. Creatures found harbouring the fugitives will be treated with perpetual cruelty, psychological, emotional, and physical.”

The three ancient realms have been thrown out of balance, dooming those in the nightmarish Half World to a life of perpetual suffering under the chilling reign of Mr. Glueskin, with no possibility of moving from the Realm of the Flesh to that of the Spirit.  Also lacking hope of ever moving into the Spirit Realm, those in the earthly Realm of the Flesh become destructive and violent.   It has continued in this way for millennia.

Everyone is waiting for a baby, the baby that will save them all.

When Melanie’s mother disappears, Melanie learns of the prophecy, and understands that she is that baby.  She and her mother were granted passage from the Half World into that of the Flesh, but only for fourteen years.  After that time, her mother had to return, or else risk the torturous death of Melanie’s father, who had to stay behind.  Melanie must venture into the horrors of the Half World, find her family, and restore balance to the Realms.

This innovative fantasy enthralled me; I finished the book in five hours.  While the plot appears formulaic at first glance, I promise you, it’s the good kind of formula: the one that brought us Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey.  Furthermore, the mythic base is embellished with a cast of unforgettably ghoulish horrors that feel as though they’ve been transplanted from a Bosch painting.  Seriously, Mr. Glueskin is a literary monster rivaling the Crooked Man, and the nightmarish tableau of the Half Realm is truly a horrible place.  This ALA Best Book also won the Canadian Sunburst Award for Literature of the Fantastic, and both awards are richly deserved.  This is a great starter book for readers who would like to explore more fantasy books, but are put off by the elaborate backstories that sometimes characterize the genre.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.hiromigoto.com/

Half World website (it’s pretty!): http://www.halfworld.ca

Goto, Hiromi.  Half World. Illus. Jillian Tamaki. Puffin: Toronto, 2009. 230 pp. Ages 14 and up.

Read this one first before you decide to read it out loud, ok?  It’s a perfect story for sharing, but the monsters are quite dreadful, and not for the faint-hearted.

If you liked this book, you might want to explore Neil Gaiman.  His book Neverwhere is a great place to start! Other read-alikes are Malinda Lo’s Huntress and Rick Riordan’s Lightning ThiefIf you loved the beautiful illustrations, you should check out the graphic novel Skim, also the work of artist Jillian Tamaki.

 

My Mother the Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow

 

“My mother was a Cheerleader, but not the type of cheerleader you’re probably thinking of.  She didn’t become a Cheerleader until she was thirty-six years old.  Sometimes her cheers came out so full of foul language that the newspapers couldn’t even print the words.  And on the radio and television reports, they always made sure the words of the cheers were obscure, just a mad batch of ladies’ voices all mixed together and blurry.”

In November of 1960 in New Orleans, four little girls began attending elementary school for the first time.  On their way to classes, grown men and women would throw garbage and spew insults at them.  Classmates threatened to poison their lunches. Other families withdrew their students from the school.  Why?

Because of the color of their skin.  These little girls were the first African-American children to be integrated into the previously all-white school system, and they met a formidable wall of resistance.  Louise Collins’ mother is one of the protesters, a member of the Cheerleaders.  The Cheerleaders gather outside the school doors and hurl racist propaganda at the girls as they pass.  Louise can’t understand her mother’s motivation, and she isn’t sure how she feels about integration.  After all, up until now, black and white people have never really mixed together, and she hadn’t stopped to consider whether it was right or wrong.  It just was.

When a visitor from New York comes to stay in the boarding house Louise’s mother runs, Louise finds herself facing the truth about her family and her beliefs about segregation.  In this coming-of-age story, set against a backdrop of hatred, violence, and secrets, Louise learns that sometimes “small steps matter just as much as grand gestures”.

I like books that fill us in on the other side of the story.  It is not always easy to remember that people whose viewpoints differ from ours are, in fact, still human, with the same flaws and anxieties that we have.  This is the case in My Mother the Cheerleader, a book that carefully peels back the layers of hate displayed by Louise’s mother, and exposes her underlying pain.  The readers (and Louise) want to hate her, and there is absolutely no question that her actions are abominable, but of course, the story is far more complex (and realistic) than a simple bad-person-doing-bad-things formula.

You’ll appreciate Louise’s curiosity and pre-teen awkwardness, and fans of Steinbeck will be delighted to see several references to the literary great.  And Ruby Bridges, one of the little girls who began school?  The epilogue tells us that, in 1961, there were no more protesters outside the school doors and she moved up to the second grade.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://robertsharenow.com/

Sharenow, Robert.  My Mother the Cheerleader. New York: HarperTeen, 2007. 288 pp.  Ages 13 and up.

If you liked this story because it was set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, try Ninth Ward!  If you liked the discussion of race and segregation, there are hundreds of wonderful books on the subject, try The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.

 

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

“You are different from your parents. You were born and raised in New China. You are a child of Chairman Mao. You can choose your own destiny: you can make a clean break with your parents and follow Chairman Mao, and have a bright future; or you can follow your parents, and then…you will not come to a good end.”

In 1966, China’s leader, Mao Ze-dong, announced the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  In the previous years, the Chinese Communist Party worked to restore a divided nation, and promote equal resources for all its citizens.  However, there were problems, and these problems grew much worse after the Revolution.

Ji-Li turned twelve the year of the Cultural Revolution.  Before it, she was an excellent student and her family was respected by the community.  However, when Chairman Mao announces the need to get rid of the “Four Olds”, or the values of the past that undermine the communist ideal, things become dangerous for Ji-Li’s family.  Rather than promoting equality, the leaders of the Revolution looked to persecute families that were wealthy in the past.  Because Ji-Li’s grandfather had been a landlord, her family was considered to be traitors.  Students at the school are encouraged to tell on each other, and houses are searched.  Sometimes the leaders are violent.  How can Ji-Li be loyal to her family and her country at the same time?

Red Scarf Girl is a memoir of Ji-Li Jiang’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution in China.  I had never come across anything like this for young adults before, and was intrigued.  There are many fictional and factual books covering both World Wars, the Holocaust, and other upheavals, but this is the first I’ve seen from Communist China.  I was especially interested because it is true; I wanted to learn how the youth of China perceived the government and cultural ideals during this time.

This book would be a valuable addition to a classroom library, especially with the included pronunciation guide, glossary, and epilogue.  I loved reading the author’s explanation of her own feelings about the Revolution, and I think middle school readers would benefit from a solid account of an overlooked event in our history.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.jilijiang.com

Jiang, Ji-Li. Red Scarf Girl. New York: HarperTrophy, 1997. 285 pp.  Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book, you might want to check out Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron.