Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson


Photographs locomotion

There’s two of me and Lili.

We were little them, dressed up at Easter time

Big smiles-me with two front teeth missing

and my head shaved Easter clean.

Here’s Mama and Daddy dancing,

Mama’s blurry foot lifted up in the air.

Look how she’s laughing.

When I look at the picture I can hear it.

Here’s the four of us

Everybody smiling at the camera but

me. I’m looking away from it

frowning

Like I see something coming

that ain’t good.”

Lonnie’s parents died when he was seven, and now he and his sister live in different foster homes. He gets to see his sister, though, and his foster mom turns out to be a really nice lady, even if he was afraid of her at first.  Still, he longs for his life back before the fire that killed his mom and dad.  However, he’s learning a new way to cope.  Now Lonnie is eleven, and he’s learning about poetry in school.  His teacher says it helps people sort out their feelings.  He writes so many poems, the good kind of poems-those natural, thoughtful poems that feel like breathing-that it fills up a book.  Lonnie’s story.  You’ll love it even if you don’t love poetry, I promise.

Teachers will love the book’s natural fit for teaching forms of the poem: students will be introduced to the sonnet, haiku, and free verse as Lonnie learns them.  Students will love the book because it is a concise 100 pages, and of verse, at that: it’s an easy triumph for young readers who are exhausted by marathon reads. I love it because the poems are just right: accessible, full of concentrated emotion, and well-written.  I also love it because of Lonnie’s capacity for rejoicing in a world that hurt him badly.  If you’ve got a bit of time, I invite you to see what the world of an eleven-year-old poet in foster care looks like.

Happy reading!

Author’s website

Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion. New York: Speak, 2003. 100 pp. Ages 11-14.

If you liked this book, you’re in luck! There’s another, called Peace, Locomotion, and it looks great.  Actually, here is Jacqueline Woodson’s whole long list of books, just in case you’d like to see what other things she’s been up to.  If you are really into the poetry novels, try Make Lemonade.  I just reviewed the second one in the trilogy!

 

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.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out

Every new year Mother visits

the I Ching Teller of Fate.

This year he predicts

our lives will twist inside out.

Maybe soldiers will no longer

patrol our neighborhood,

maybe I can jump rope

after dark,

maybe the whistles

that tell Mother

to push us under the bed

will stop screeching…

The war is coming closer to home.

Hà is a ten-year-old who lived in Vietnam with her mother and brothers before the war.  The soldiers took her father, and the bloodshed came closer and closer to their home and they were forced to flee. Saigon has fallen, and Hà and her family escape with thousands of others.  First a dark and smelly boat, then a refugee camp, and finally they have come to settle in Alabama.

Alabama isn’t so easy.  The other children pull her hair, having never seen anyone with such straight dark hair before.  The neighbors don’t want to be friends, either.  Everyone thinks they are too different for the small town.  Hà and her brothers struggle to learn English and fit in.  Their mother says they must not think of anything else, not their father or country or future, until they’ve mastered the language.  She says it’s the only way they will be able to have a happy life in their new home.  Though the adjustment is difficult for them all, they rely on each other, and begin the long process of healing from the wounds of the war.

This double award-winner (Newbery Honor finalist AND the National Book Award recipient) is written in verse, which has the dual benefits of addressing a traumatic subject in a way appropriate for younger audiences, and gives readers a sense of Hà’s struggles to master English.  This is a technique that has been used before in books like this, and works quite well-check out  It seems designed for a classroom read, and could be incorporated into lessons on verse novels, the Vietnam war, or units on cultural sensitivity and bullying.  I love the poem-diary format; it has the advantage of making readers feel like they are super-lightning fast because they can finish this book in a few hours!

This is a haunting introduction to the horrors of war, presented in a manageable format for younger readers-good for the classroom and sure to spark conversations on bullying and diversity.  Perhaps this is not a book that most young people would choose by themselves, for pleasure reading, but it would work well in a school setting.

Happy Reading!

Publisher’s website: http://www.harpercollins.ca/authors/36544/Thanhha_Lai/index.aspx

Lai, Thanhha.  Inside Out and Back Again. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.262 pp.  Ages 10-15.

If you liked this book, try Home of the Braveanother verse novel about refugees in the United States!

Chime by Franny Billingsley

“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story.  I can’t relive those memories-the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

How could you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies.  A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.”

Briony conceals her second sight and forces herself to use her right hand because in Swampsea, witches are hanged, and Briony absolutely, positively, must not die.  Dying, you see, would break her promise: she must always live so she may take care of Rose.  Briony’s life is consumed with care for her identical twin, Rose, in an attempt at penance for a childhood accident that irreparably changed her. However,what is she to do when saving her sister’s life means that Briony must sacrifice her own?

Briony’s scrupulously honest, don’t-pity-me, prickly demeanor does nothing to conceal her vulnerability; she is a multi-dimensional artwork of a narrative persona, relating a chilling tale of secrets, bargains with spirits, and subterfuge. Furthermore, she’s unreliable: readers are unsure exactly what the truth is. Briony hates everything, including herself, and Billingsley’s masterful characterization prevents her from reading as selfish or irritating. You’ll love the distilled gems of bleaks humor like this:  “Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: It gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself”.

The language itself is another reason to love this story.  In an interview, Franny Billingsley said that she drew inspiration from the wordplay in folk songs and ballads, and definitely adds another layer of appeal to the novel.  Words invert and rhyme, creating an interesting textual parallel for the reader’s changing perceptions of the characters and the story as layer after layer of deception is excoriated.  Adding to the literary complexity of the work is the story’s structure! It’s not difficult to follow, but hearing the tale backwards, from the moment we know Briony is to die, brings a sense of urgency to the story. Finally, even though we begin the story knowing the ending already, Billingsley manages to keep us wondering and worrying about it.

This creepy and enthralling novel was a finalist for the National Book Award last year, amid some controversy.  I found it a combination of delightful elements that are so often honored by the award, including high literary merit.  Furthermore, the romance (yes, there’s romance, but I promise it isn’t offensively saccharine!) is based on equality and mutual respect and tenderness, which is delightful to see in these paranormal books, as they often rely on tired stereotypes of straight relationships.  The one concern I have is one the author herself has also acknowledged, that of the “beauty barrier”.  Books about non-beautiful young women are disappointingly scarce, and this is no different.  Billingsley missed a perfect opportunity to give us a complex and appealing heroine while also affirming the importance of other values besides traditional beauty.

That said, if you love witches and swamps and the feeling you get when you read Jane Eyre, this one’s for you.

Happy Reading!

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

Billingsley, Franny. Chime. New York, Speak, 2011. 361 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this one, you can rejoice: the author claims she has two related novels she is working on!  While you are waiting, you can check out books like Beauty and Ash and  Castle Waiting (for the feminist graphic-novel antidote to the stereotypical beautiful heroine) and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyrefor the classic take on creepiness.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch

“Sometimes you get caught.  Caught up in moments, in the whirlwind of events.  Caught unawares.  It’s just not you but wrong place, wrong time, wrong company can really easily add up to giving people the wrong idea about yourself.  And yet again the way things look drift away from the way things really are.”

Kier is a high school senior, a football player, and what he liked to consider as a “good boy”.  But he’s done something terribly, awfully wrong-something that can’t be undone.  He raped a friend.  He committed date rape on the night of his graduation.

In this short, tense book, Kier sets out to reconcile what he thought of himself-just a good kid, a polite guy, maybe sometimes drinks a little too much, but nothing serious-with what has actually happened.  He might have mixed drugs and alcohol.  He might have followed the example of his father, who’s been drinking since Kier’s mom died.  He might even be spoiled, as one of his sisters says.  However, blaming his actions on drinking and friends is too simplistic, and that’s just what this book explores.  There are even other contributing factors: Kier has rarely heard the word “no” before.  He was emotionally distressed at the time.  He had been able to rationalize previous misbehaviors as “just playing around”. But the title says it all-it’s inexcusable.

Kier’s reasoning is unnerving; the intimate view of his thoughts reveals just how easy it is to believe a story you tell yourself, especially when the truth has the potential to ruin your life.  For almost the entirety of the book, he insists he hasn’t done anything wrong.  While he’s denying everything, he tells us the story. The effect of his self-deception is chilling.

A review on the inside cover of the text suggests reading this book as a companion piece to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a story of rape from a young woman’s perspective.  I think it would be a very good pairing for a high school classroom.  Definitely not fun, but an important topic to address.  Both books force readers to think, rather than automatically categorize actions as either good or bad.  Lynch demonstrates that someone with only the best of motives can still do irreparable harm.  “Furthermore, both books are highly-regarded award-winners; Inexcusable was a National Book Award finalist, as well as an ALA “Best Book”.

Happy Reading!

Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2005. 165 pp.

If you’d like to read another book like this, try Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.  For books about teens who’ve committed grave errors and are now ruminating about them, try Monster by Walter Dean Myers, or After by Amy Efaw.

Shine by Lauren Myracle

“I closed the crawl space door.  I got to my feet and brushed myself off.  My chest was tight, but I looked at the blue sky, clear and pale above the tree line, and said out loud, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ I would speak for Patrick.  I’d look straight into the ugliness and find out who hurt him, and when I did, I’d yell it from the mountaintop.”

Patrick Truman was brutalized: beaten with a baseball bat, tied up, and abandoned with the nozzle of a gas pump in his mouth.  He lies unconscious in a North Carolina hospital, and police are treating his case as a hate crime, due in part to the slurs left scrawled on his chest in blood.  When it looks like the blame is going to be pinned on a drunken truckload of out-of-towners, Cat takes matters into her own hands.  She, for one, isn’t so sure; she suspects one of the local “redneck posse” is behind the crime.    Either way, she is determined to bring justice to her friend, and begins probing the town of Black Creek for its secrets.

It isn’t very often that I find a book that makes me cry on the subway, but this one certainly did it.  Lauren Myracle gives us a southern small town simmering with tension, secrets, and fierce family loyalties.  There is poverty; meth and alcoholism contribute to the futureless drifting of the town’s youth, but there are also deep wells of grace and redemption.  Furthermore, it’s a darn good mystery, something that I think is all too rare in the young adult literary world.  Better still, Myracle does not (this is not really a spoiler, I promise) just end the book with “oh, it was the drunk rednecks who did it”.  She could have, of course, but it would be doing something similar to anyone who has ever attributed the actions of an individual to that of a broader group.  In short, she doesn’t bend to prejudice.

So we have sixteen-year-old Cat, a broken, bleeding Patrick, and a mess of lies and a whole town of people who are short on hope, in the hands of a very gifted storyteller.  This is my final conference book, and I chose it because 1) It is a mystery and 2) Patrick has been out for ages, and there are those who accept and love him, and those who do not.  That’s pretty much how it goes down when a person comes out.  I have to say, this book was one of the hardest I’ve ever read, but also one of the ones that I feel needs to be read, not just by queer teens, but by everyone.

Happy Reading!  (All right, so there are parts in it that will probably make you happy, but also some parts that might make you want to throw up, but I promise, it’s worth it.)

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

Myracle, Lauren.  Shine. New York: Abrams, 2011. 359 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  (If you’re using this for a classroom, be prepared to defend this book; the language is pretty rough and there’s drug abuse, violence, and a brief instance of sexual abuse.  That said, I think it is absolutely worth the attempt.)

If you liked this book, you might want to try Sprout by Dale Peck, or The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson.

Also, you might have noticed I listed this book as a National Book Award finalist; and it was, for two days.  The awards committee messed up royally, offered Myracle the award, and then said they made a mistake.  She handled the fiasco with grace, and I’m including the tag as a sign of respect.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“Miss O’Brien looked at me-I didn’t see her looking at me but I knew she was.  She wanted to know who I was.  Who was Steve Harmon?  I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was, who the real Steve Harmon was.

That was what I was thinking, about what was in my heart and what that made me.  I’m just not a bad person.  I know that in my heart I am not a bad person.”

Hi from library school in Montreal, friends! Look what I have for you: a fast read, an incredible story, written by an author you should definitely get to know, if you don’t already. You are going to go crazy about this one!

Steve Harmon got mixed up in some bad business.  Felony business.  He’s a 16-year-old who grew up in Harlem, and he agreed to be the lookout for a friend who was planning to rob a drugstore.  The robbery went south, the owner was shot and killed, and Steve finds himself looking at 25 years to life in prison if he is convicted.   The story follows his trial, from his own perspective.  He talks about prison, and his deepest fear: everyone looks at his brown face and hears about the crime, and thinks he is a monster.  Deep inside, he’s afraid that everyone might be right.

See all those shiny medals on the cover?  Those are the biggies: Printz, National Book Award Finalist,  and Coretta Scott King award.  Plus, Walter Dean Myers has been awarded the Margaret Edwards Award, the one given to honor lifetime achievement.  That’s only handed out to one author, once a year.  Big stuff, guys!  Of course, there are amazing books and authors that go unrewarded out there, too, but the awards are a great guide if you’re not sure what you want to read.

So, awards aside, the beauty of this book is its gritty story, simpler language, and unconventional format (a pastiche of journal entries and film script).  The format makes it especially appealing to ELLs, or older students who may need a really good hook and a fast-paced read, as well as anyone not looking for a straight-up, novel-style read. ( However, while it may be a quick read, Myers definitely does not sacrifice emotional impact or plot.) I finished it over the course of a week, but that was because I was interrupted by an international move, and after the furniture-assembling, apartment-cleaning, grocery-st0re-finding-missions, and hours-long Skype phone calls, all I could do was read for a few minutes and fall asleep with my cheek smashed into the pages.  Thanks for being patient-I really did want to get this finished and share it with you!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website :http://www.walterdeanmyers.net

Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 281 pp (but it reads quickly!). Ages 13 and up.

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.

 

 

 

Luna by Julie Anne Peters

    “My brother was a black hole in my universe.  He was sucking the life right out of me.  It seemed as if I was being pulled into this crater by a force I couldn’t fight.  Liam was already down there.  We were together at the bottom.”

I don’t often interrupt my reviews with personal stories, but this book made me need to say something to my sister: thank you.  You are, and were, a gift to me.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

This is a story about sisters.  Well, about a younger sister, Regan, and her older sister, Luna.  Only, Luna doesn’t start off being physically a sister.  She says it’s a “birth anomaly”, and that she just got stuck with a boy’s body, instead of a girl’s.  Luna was born Liam: he’s transgender, and the only person who knows is Regen.  Ever since Liam was very young, he felt something was wrong: his outside didn’t match what he felt inside.  So, for all these years, he has been hiding his true self, Luna, smothering her with boy’s clothes and trying to be “normal”.  But it’s destroying him inside.

Regen and Luna’s father is strict and traditional, and their mother is so wrapped up in her wedding planning business that she doesn’t notice what is going on around her.  The only time that Luna feels comfortable being herself is in the middle of the night, when she wakes up Regen, tries on her makeup, and experiments with clothes.  However, during the course of the book, she decides to transition.  Luna starts trying to wear her girl clothes to the mall, or on short outings.  She makes plans for the future, when she can afford hormones and surgery.

It’s not always easy.  There are heartbreaking moments: when Regen feels embarrassed that she can’t just have a normal brother, or when cruel comments crush Luna’s confidence.  That’s what is so great about this book; it’s a realistic whirl of emotions, fears, and hope.   Above all, it is honest.  The raw emotions aren’t concealed, and each character develops in a realistic way.   I read it right after Jumpstart the World, and I have to say that I greatly preferred this one, because it was more in touch with the feelings of transpeople and their family members.  It was very well-received, and the long list of awards includes a Stonewall Honor Book nomination, as well as a Lamda Literary Award finalist designation.  I think you’re going to love it!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website (she designed it herself!) http://www.julieannepeters.com

Peters, Julie Anne. Luna.  New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2004. 248 pp.  Grades 9-12.

If you liked this book, Julie Anne Peters has written several more, including the lesbian classic Keeping You a Secret.  She’s definitely a writer you should get to know! If you are interested in reading more about transgender teens, try Parrotfish byEllen Wittlinger.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

“It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”

This graphic novel is a super-award winner (the heavy hitters- the Printz Award and a National Book Award finalist nomination).  It is composed of three stories: the folk tale Monkey King, an blonde-haired, blue eyed student whose cousin, a very stereotyped Asian caricature, comes to visit, and then Jin’s story.

Jin’s parents are Chinese immigrants, who met in graduate school.  Until third grade, Jin lived in Chinatown in San Francisco, and had a good group of friends and a community.  However, when the family moves and he transfers to a different school, things get complicated.  Jin has to listen to the tired Chinese jokes, racial slurs and hurtful, ignorant comments of his classmates.  He’s not sure how to defend himself when other students ask if he eats dogs, or if he’s related to the other Asian student in the class.

When he develops a crush on a pretty, blonde girl, and one of the other white students confronts him and asks him not to date her, all of Jin’s internalized self-hatred combusts, and he ends up saying some very hurtful things to his only true friend.

Told in sections that juxtapose myths of the Monkey King, Jin’s internal thoughts, and his life at school, this graphic novel is provocative and interesting.  I finished it quickly, but it left me thinking for a long time after I stopped reading.  The honest reflection of prejudice and commentary on the process of assimilation made for some good dinner-table conversation.

Happy Reading!

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Ages 12-15.

If you liked this graphic novel, this author has written several other books.  Check out Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks or The Motherless One.  If you want to explore books by other authors, my favorite graphic novel is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.