Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

holeinmylife

“The prisoner in the photograph is me.  The ID number is mine.  The photo was taken in 1972 at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky.  I was twenty-one years old and had been locked up for a year already-and I had more time ahead of me.”

Growing up, Jack Gantos wanted to be a writer, not a drug smuggler and a prisoner. His dad could always point out those who had done time before, and warned him repeatedly not to get into trouble.  However, when young Jack finds himself in a terrible job and needing money for college tuition, he decides to take a risk.  He agrees to smuggle a boatload of drugs out of the Virgin Islands with someone he just met.  Not only was the trip itself a disaster, as neither seemed to know much about sailing or smuggling, it was only a matter of time before the two were caught and convicted.

Jack describes his time behind bars as terrifying, stressful, and ultimately transformative.  It was behind bars that he began writing, the first step toward his life as an author.  He crammed his daily entries between the lines of a novel, as prisoners were not allowed to keep diaries.  Upon his release, he vowed never to return, and became the celebrated author of the Rotten Ralph picture books (do you know them??  Give them a try-they’re hilarious) and the Joey Pigza series.  He’s been awarded the Printz honor award and the Robert F. Sibert honor for his memoir, and I can see why.  His short account of the worst year of his life is presented without self-pity or glorification, which is a tricky balance for memoir writers.  This great, quick read should appeal to reluctant readers, aspiring writers, and anyone looking for a harrowing adventure, with a side of “Don’t do this, guys-it was horrible.”

Happy Reading!

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

Gantos, Jack. Hole in My Life.  Squarefish: New York, 2002. 200 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might check out these memoirs:

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher

Good Behavior by Nathan L. Henry

Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard by Mawi Asgedom

The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner

 

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

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.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

You never know, I tell myself.  One day there might be a few select people who’ll say, ‘Yes, Dylan was on the brink of stardom when he was nineteen.  Dali was well on his way to being a genius, and Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for being the most important woman in history.  And at nineteen, Ed Kennedy found that first card in the mail.”

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver, sharing a shack with his ancient, reeking dog, The Doorman.  His life isn’t going much of anywhere at the moment:  he drives around business men and tries not to drive around people who look like they might throw up in his cab, suffers from unrequited love for his best friend, and meets his similarly unmotivated buddies to play cards every week. He’s pretty pitiful, by his own admission.  He doesn’t really do much with his life: that is, until the messages start coming to him.

After accidentally stumbling into a bank robbery, Ed starts receiving playing cards.  They’re messages, and following the clues in them leads him to people who need help: a lonely old woman.  A wife whose husband hurts her at night.  A priest who lives among those who need him most.  It’s up to Ed to figure out what he needs to do to reach out and solve their problems.  He’s no hero, but someone out there has chosen him to be the messenger.

Friends, this is my new favorite book.  I love it even more than The Book of Lost Thingsand here’s why: Ed is a self-professed loser, a nobody.  The best part of his day is sharing coffee with his enormous dog, or daydreaming about his best friend, who is dating someone else, and probably never going to fall for him.  His mother hates him because he reminds her of his dad.  He’s got no money, has terrible taste in jackets,  he’s bad in bed, and his life really isn’t going anywhere.  But do you know what is the best about Ed?  He is a kind, sincere guy.  He could have ignored the messages, or decided the people out there weren’t worth helping (especially after he gets beaten to a pulp by the brothers he was trying to help), but instead, he doesn’t.  So he goes quietly about, doing things like reading Wuthering Heights to an old lady and using all his money to throw a block party for a priest, all with no clue who is behind the mysterious messages.

I Am the Messenger champions the humble and honest among us, and without preaching, reminds us of the importance of reaching out to each other, even if our gestures may be small. Now, that may sound saccharine, but with Ed’s voice, it’s hilarious, and you won’t feel talked-down-to in the least. This is book whose message is that we are all in this together, so it’s best if we were gentle with one another.  And that, friends, is why it is my new favorite.

Happy Reading!

Zusak, Markus. I Am the Messenger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. 357 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Author’s website.

If you liked this book, you should check out my other SUPER FAVORITE, Sorta Like a Rock Star.  It’s lighter than I Am the Messenger, but has the same belief in sincerity and hope, and I bet you’ll like it, too.  Other books with the same tone are Gone, Gone, Gone   and Everybody Sees the Ants.  I’d love to hear what you think!

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed.  Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”

Vera’s former best friend Charlie is dead.  It’s hard enough when your best friend dies, she thinks, but when he stabs you in the back and then dies, it makes things infinitely worse.  Worse still, when he comes back to haunt you, with his ghostly form showing up in the car when you’re kissing another guy, or in the bathroom at school, it is the absolute pits.

Vera is eighteen, living with her father (you will love him, I think.  He’s pretty much the Best. Dad. Ever!), an accountant and recovering alcoholic who invests his whole heart in making sure she has the best future possible.  She works full time at a pizza place, and spends the rest of her time drinking to forget Charlie and the secret she is determined not to tell.  Of course, it’s not as easy as all that-Charlie’s ghost keeps showing up at inopportune times, a silent, shaming reminder urging Vera to tell what she knows and clear his name.

The best part of this book?  The format!  See, the story is told in a creative way-all first person, addressed right to you, and by different speakers.  I think readers will love Ken Dietz, Vera’s dad.  He chimes in during the story, in chapters titled things like “A Brief Word from Ken Dietz (Vera’s Frustrated Dad)” and with flow charts, like “Ken Dietz’s Face Your Shit Flow Chart”.  I kid you not, I actually made a copy of that flowchart and pasted it up on my bulletin board.  And besides Ken and Vera (and even Charlie, who pipes up every few chapters), there is the Pagoda.  That’s right, a building.  The Pagoda is a park building with special significance to Ken and his ex-wife (she left them when Vera was 12), and it gets a few chapters of its own. Trust me, the Pagoda is hilarious-I think it’s the best and funniest part of the novel.

This book combines creative elements (a haunting, a mystery, a talking Pagoda) with a great format (many voices, FLOW CHARTS!), and very common social problems of young people.  I think you’re going to love it! (And others did, too-this is a Printz Honor book, and a nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe mystery award!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.as-king.com/ (The website is really funny-the giant header describes her as “a corn lover” and “wearer of magical writing pants”. Awesome!)

All right, folks, since I’m in library school now, I think I’ll change the way I give the book information.  If you hate it, please let me know, and I’ll change it back!

ISBN 9780375865862
0375865861
Personal Author King, A. S.1970-
Title Please ignore Vera Dietz /A.S. King.
Edition 1st ed.
Publication info New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2010.
Physical descrip 326 p. ; 22 cm.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

“When the day came, Eduardo received the newborn into his hands as though it were his own child.  His eyes blurred as he laid it in a crib and reached for the needle that would blunt its intelligence.

‘Don’t fix that one,’ said Lisa, hastily catching his arm. ‘It’s a Matteo Alacran.  They’re always left intact.'”

Matteo is a clone, formed from human DNA and raised in the womb of a cow.  Unlike other clones, though, his intelligence is not surgically limited: for a clone, he’s very fortunate, enjoying all the privileges of a real human, such as an education.  This is because he’s the special clone of El Patron, the ancient lord of the country Opium.  Opium lies between the United States and the former country of Mexico: a vast tract of poppies, eejits (computer-chipped slaves who work the fields), a set of terrifying bodyguards, and the powerful family of El Patron.

Clones, as Matteo slowly learns, are considered sub-human, monstrous, and only good for one thing: growing transplantable organs.  As El Patron’s body ages and begins to deteriorate, Matteo’s organs will be harvested, and given to El Patron.  This process has been repeated many times in the past, allowing El Patron to reach the age of 148.  If Matt wants to live past his preteen years, he’s got to escape.  Furthermore, if there is any hope for justice for the thousand of enslaved eejit workers, who are all captured illegal immigrants, Matt must face the sinister system that brought him into existence.

This near-future science fiction deals with issues of illegal immigration, drug empires, cloning, and what constitutes being a human.  The action builds steadily, and spans various settings and many years, but never feels drawn-out or stretched.  Nancy Farmer is also a genius at creating seemingly-impossible-to-escape situations, and then magically unraveling them with a plausible, but unexpected solution.  Especially appealing for me is Matt’s gradual realization of the implications of being a clone: readers watch him develop a full consciousness of his identity throughout the book.  This is great writing, friends!

I should mention that Farmer has already written two other Newbery Honor books, and they are also incredible.  When I was ten, my best friend handed me her copy of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, also written by Farmer.  It’s one of those books I remember with startling clarity, because it shocked my childish brain, which until that point was only accustomed to the Bobbsey Twins  and The Baby-sitters Club series, or perhaps the occasional abridged classic.  (Does anyone remember the illustrated and abridged Hound of the Baskervilles?)  Anyway, that was an amazing book, and this one is too!  It won the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, and the Printz Honor, and it is an ALA Best Book, too!  The front cover sparkles with all the medals, and the text inside will blow your mind.

Happy Reading!

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

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse, 2002.  380 pp.  Ages 11 and up.

 

 

 

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp

“Man my stomach feels twisted in knots.  I just hope I get to Memphis ok so I can see you P. My hand is mad killing me too so I’m going to end this letter.

I just heard an announcement that we’re getting close to some place in Idaho where we’ll get like a half hour to walk around and get something to eat.

Maybe that lady with the shower cap will give me another cigarette if I’m nice to her? Maybe I should tell her my name is Shirley?

Love,

Jamie

P.S. I can’t believe you’re dying.  Please don’t die.”

Jamie, or Punkzilla, as his friends call him, has to get to Memphis.  His older brother, Peter, is dying of cancer.  Peter wrote and sent him enough money for a Greyhound ticket to visit.  So Jamie leaves the streets of Portland, and sets out across the country, trying to make it to Memphis before Peter’s death.  Jamie writes Peter throughout the journey, carefully documenting the entire trip for him, in a series of unmailed letters crammed in a fat notebook.

It’s quite a trip, too: stories of being jumped in the bus station bathroom, being mistaken for a girl repeatedly, losing his virginity, musings on his history of petty crime, God, and the nature of the world, and wrenching descriptions of hunger and loneliness fill the epistles.  The tales are frequently seamy (Peter admonishes Jamie to be honest, and not hold anything back in the letters), and the sheer danger of the situation is apparent.  Jamie has some chilling run-ins with child predators, and puts himself at risk of harm repeatedly.

That said, there is a distinct buoyancy to the letters:  Punkzilla’s disarming tone evokes Charlie’s voice in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two works: the epistolary form, the intimacy that first person narrative creates, the outcasted speakers, the brutal honesty of the letters.  I instantly adored Jamie (just like I felt about Charlie!), and I love the way Rapp uses filler words and little punctuation and creative grammar to craft Jamie’s voice.  It’s really great, and creates this perfect image of a skinny kid, trying to be street smart, gone AWOL from military school and on the way to visit his dying brother.

This book is a Printz honor book!  Please check it out! I read it in two hours, as my mom and I were driving through the blazing white heat of New Mexico, as she moved me back home to wait for my Canadian visa to come through.  I was alternately crying over leaving my friends and panicking over the future, but the experience of reading such a great road trip book while I was actually on a road trip was incredible.  Come on, guys! Get in your cars (or on your bicycles/llamas/covered wagons/flying batboats) and let’s go on a trip-and take this awesome book with you!

Happy Reading!

Rapp, Adam.  Punkzilla. Candlewick Books: Somerville, 2009. 244 pp.  Ages 15 and up.  Drugs, sex (including abuses of power by adults), violence, and general mischief.

Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going

“I’m a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform staring at the tracks…It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m standing just over the yellow line trying to decide whether people would laugh if I jumped.”

Troy is almost three hundred pounds, a sweaty, self-conscious ball of angst and nerves, in a uniform of bland tan pants. He’s standing on the metro platform, working up the nerve to kill himself, when Curt intervenes.  Curt MacCrae, a filthy, emaciated, sometimes-student at Troy’s school, a homeless genius and guitar legend-that Curt.  Curt convinces Troy not to jump, and then decides Troy owes him lunch.

Thus begins the unlikeliest of friendships.  Manic Curt  gulps every pill he can find, steals everything that isn’t tied down, and is constantly starving and filthy.  Troy is huge and unhappy, wallowing in his own self-hatred, convinced that everyone in the world is staring at him in disgust.  He feels like he can’t live up to his perfect younger brother’s image, or his rigid military father’s expectations.  However, the two of them form a relationship based on music.

When Curt appoints Troy as the drummer in his band, Troy has five weeks to learn to play the drums like a madman, and he’s his own worst enemy.  He just has trouble letting go of himself long enough to let the music creep out: he’s too focused on needing to be invisible for the music to work.  But Curt’s belief in his abilities bolsters him, and transforms him from sweaty Troy to punk rocker Big T.

I was astonished when I flipped to the end of this book and discovered that it was written by a woman, especially because Troy’s voice came off as so authentically fat teenaged-boyish.  She does an incredible job getting inside Troy’s head, and crafting these three-dimensional characters.  That was my favorite part of this story:  Curt is so frustratingly unreliable, and Troy so self-sabotaging.  In short, they are so real, acting and behaving just like real people do.

I was a little worried when I got into this novel that it would be one of those sappy Cinderella stories, where the fat kid loses weight, the homeless kids gets a bath and a job, and everyone lives happily ever after because now they’ve been transformed into Nice and Normal People.  I hate when that happens, because the underlying message is: you can only be happy if you’re not yourself.  That is the beauty of Fat Kid Rules the World. Troy doesn’t lose weight.  He doesn’t stop sweating.  And by the end of the book, he’s still in his uniform of bland tan pants.  The only change comes from his own self-acceptance.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, P. L. Going, for not giving in to the conformity principle.  Thanks for not letting your readers down!

Speaking of the author, this is what she has to say about how she was able to portray Troy so realistically: “I am the Queen of Self Consciousness and Troy’s fat is really just the physical embodiment of this. I’m also more than capable of coming up with really off the wall reasons why people will hate me and everything will suck. So, it’s not so hard to be the sweating Fat Kid…”

This is an amazing book.  It totally inspired me to put on some Iggy Pop and stop believing that everyone is always staring at me.

Happy Reading!

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

Going, K. L. Fat Kid Rules the World. Speak Books: New York, 2003. 185 pp.

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

“Of course I knew.  It was the reason I was no longer comatose after an entire life of sleepwalking.  It seemed that, all of a sudden, Marisol was necessary to my existence, but of course, I didn’t mention that to her”

John’s parent’s divorced six years ago; his father left them for the high-flying bachelor life in the city.  John’s mother never touches him-not a hug, pat, or even accidentally, while passing the butter.  It has left John cold, sarcastic, and (even though he might not want to admit it) profoundly unhappy inside.

That is, until Marisol swoops into his life: a skinny, Puerto Rican lesbian, adopted by do-gooding WASPy parents.  They bond over their respective zines, which, for the uninitiated, are short, self-produced magazine publications.  They meet for coffee (which John learns to first tolerate, and then even like), and go to a concert.  The two talk for hours about feelings, parents, being different, and everything friends talk about.

However, things get complicated when John develops feelings for Marisol-those kind of feelings.  Even though Marisol is a lesbian, John falls for her, and can’t help but wishing there was more to their relationship.  The two have to navigate around their attachment, while at the same time, John is trying to renegotiate his relationship with his parents, and find who he really is.

This is a lovely, honest depiction of a growing friendship, especially when Wittlinger delves into John’s romantic attachment to Marisol.  It feels like this sort of situation happened to me at least five times when I was growing up, but it isn’t often that you see an author exploring those mixed-up love feelings.  These sections of the book really shine, and make it an award winner, I think.  She takes these miniatures of life, and examines them and works with them, and fills an entire book.  Fantastic, and not easy to do, I’d imagine.

Another great thing about the book is the references:  poetry, Ani DiFranco songs, inserts of various zines (art included), and the entire lyrics of the song that the book took its title from. It’s called Hard Love, by Bob Franke.  Here’s the Youtube link; I think you’ll like it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ejMPz5yOb0

All in all, this was a delightful book.  It reminisced on the awkwardness of the high school years, without dwelling on them.  And the relationships and characterization of John and Marisol are realistic and relatable.  I can see why it won some of the big awards: a YALSA Best Book, Lamda Literary Award, plus the prestigious Printz Honor nomination.  You don’t want to miss this one.  Even the dedication rocks:  “for everyone whose first love was a hard love.”  I can relate.

Happy Reading!

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

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1999. 224 pp.  Grades 9-11.

I know I usually recommend other books, but right now, I am still formulating my choices for this one: John reminds me so much of another character I’ve read, I just need to search my brain archives so I can tell you!

Stolen by Lucy Christopher

“‘I promise I won’t hurt you,’ you said.

‘How do I know you’re not lying?’

‘You’ll have to trust me, I guess. You’re with me now, so you kind of have to. ”

16-year old Gemma is on a trip with her parents, when she is drugged and kidnapped from the Bangkok airport.  She awakes later, in a cabin in the middle of the Australian wilderness. She and Ty, her twenty-something captor, are the only people for hundreds of miles.

He doesn’t harm her; that’s not what this book is about.  Instead, he slowly works to erode her defenses, hoping that she will come around and accept her situation with time.  During the course of the novel, it unfolds that he had actually been watching her for years, and made elaborate preparations to abduct her.  Of course, this is deeply disturbing, but, with time and Ty’s bizarrely kind and sympathetic character, Gemma  develops some very complicated feelings for Ty.

I can’t give away the ending, but I will say that I was certainly very engaged in the book.  I finished it in a single night, almost rushing to find out what happens in the end.  There are parts of the story that are terribly sad, as well as disturbing, and I think that’s the effect the author intended.  In the end, the reader feels just as conflicted about Gemma’s situation as Gemma does herself.  The mix of emotions she describes when she talks about the savage beauty of the desert, or how she feels about  Ty, is really a testament to the mutability of human relationships and the effects of trauma.

This book received several awards; the most notable is that it was recently chosen as a Printz Honor book selection.  The author, Lucy Christopher, wrote the story as part of her graduate program.  According to the book jacket, she was born in Wales (Gemma is from London), and grew up in Australia.  The connections that Ms. Christopher has to Australia are apparent in the novel, and I liked that a lot.  All in all, it’s a very original concept and setting; certainly worth a look.

Happy Reading!

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

Christopher, Lucy. Stolen. Scholastic, New York: 2010. 299 pages. Ages 16 and up.