Wonder by R.J. Palacio

wonder“If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all.  I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and doing that look-away thing.  Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that one one else sees me that way.”

August Pullman has been homeschooled all his life, safe from the stares and questions of others.  See, he was born with a craniofacial anomaly-his face doesn’t look like most other faces.  He and his family are used to it, but most other people aren’t.  Auggie knows they don’t mean to be rude, or hurt his feelings, but it happens anyway.

He’s afraid it might get a lot worse, too:  August Pullman is about to start middle school.  MIDDLE SCHOOL!  It’s notorious for being horrible for even the most normal of kids. Nevertheless, Auggie bravely goes out into the world-and what he finds will surprise him.  The book is told from many different perspectives: Auggie’s, his sister, his friends, even his bully, and it reminds us that there is always more than one side to a story.  This book humanizes everyone, even those who bully.  It’s the most realistic, most compassionate work on the subject that I’ve ever encountered.

Friends, this book will make you cry.  It will make you think about how we relate to others who are different from us (and, after all, isn’t everyone?).  It will fill your heart with joy.  It’s a great one for parents to read with kids-as a read-aloud, it could work for ones as young as fourth grade, all the way up to grown-ups. It’s a sensitive portrayal of differences, bullying, and the underworld of middle school.  Reading this book will make you a better human, I promise.  Read it with someone dear to you, friends.

Happy reading!

If you liked this one, you’ll love Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco, and you’ll definitely need to check out Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going.

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The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

parablesowerpg“The child in each of us
Knows paradise.
Paradise is home.
Home as it was
Or home as it should have been.

Paradise is one’s own place,
One’s own people,
One’s own world,
Knowing and known,
Perhaps even
Loving and loved.

 

Yet every child
Is cast from paradise-
Into growth and new community,
Into vast, ongoing
Change.”

Here’s the story:  the world is falling to bits, wracked with economic and environmental crises. People are starving in the streets.  A new drug creates an underworld of fire-starting addicts; watching things burn is said to feel better than sex, on the drug.  Money is nearly worthless, and communities that cannot afford to erect a razor-wire-covered wall are helpless to protect themselves against theft and fire.  Eighteen-year-old Lauren is one of the lucky ones, even though she suffers from a rare condition called hyperempathy, where she physically feels the pain of others-a side effect of the drugs her mother took before she has born.  While her condition is disabling, dangerous, and painful, Lauren is safer than most.   She has a home, a wall, and an education. While she doesn’t share the faith of her minister father, she is far from faithless.  In fact, she has been developing her own religion, in response to the chaos and uncertainty of the world she lives in.  She calls it Earthseed.

When Lauren loses her home and family, she must set out on the treacherous journey north, in search of food and shelter.  The trip is immensely difficult: she and her companions must fight off fire-crazed addicts and potential thieves, carefully preserve what little food and water they have, and be constantly vigilant.  It’s not easy, but they don’t have a choice.

Now, this might sound like the plot of a lot of dystopias out there, right?  Disaster + Must Flee Home = Dystopic Adventure.  The special thing, though, is the way this is written.  It is a compelling, breathtaking adventure story, yes.  However, it’s also a treatise on race and economy, community and compassion.  Butler points an incriminating finger at exploitative corporations and indifferent governments; at the same time, she explores the intersections of gender, race, and social status. It’s a phenomenal story with a built-in social commentary, and it is definitely going on my favorites list.

Author’s website: http://octaviabutler.org/

If you liked this book, you might want to read on! Octavia Butler’s second Earthseed book is called Parable of the Talents.

Happy Reading!

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

“I tried to look on the bright side, to remind myself that, orphaned or not, I was still better off than most of the kids in Africa. And Asia. And North America, too.  I’d always had a roof over my head and more than enough food to eat.  And I had the OASIS.  My life wasn’t so bad.  At least that’s what I kept telling myself, in a vain attempt to stave off the epic loneliness I now felt.

Then the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began.  That was what saved me, I think.  Suddenly, I’d found something worth doing.  A dream worth chasing.  For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and a purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning.  Something to look forward to.

The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.”

It’s 2044, and the world is out of oil, food, space, and ideas.  Reality is bleak and the future is bleaker; the only place Wade can forget about his miserable existence (an overcrowded trailer park outside Oklahoma City) is OASIS, a virtual utopia where he spends most of his time.  However, his time in OASIS isn’t aimless; he’s on a mission.  OASIS’s creator, James Halliday, was a computer genius obsessed with 80’s pop culture.  Of course, the wild success of OASIS made Halliday a multibillionaire, and when he died, it was discovered he had no will.  No will, and no heir.

Instead of a will, Halliday left details about The Hunt.  Hidden deep inside OASIS was an Easter egg, and the gamer who finds it first wins Halliday’s entire massive fortune.  Of course, news of the contest inspires mass chaos and renewed interest in the trends of the 80’s.  Wade has dedicated himself to the hunt, pitting himself against a massive corporation in the race to find the egg.  There is a lot to lose: Wade has no other hope for his future.  Furthermore, should the egg fall into the hands of the professional, corporate hunters, OASIS would undoubtedly be further commercialized and exploited.  By collaborating with his friends and sharing resources, Wade sets in this pop-tastic, classic David vs. Goliath narrative.

I’ll admit, I resented any intrusion when I was wrapped up in this book.  The USA Today described it as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix”, and I whole-heartedly agree.  Wade’s search takes him inside video games in a way that’s hard to imagine and completely fun to read about it.  Even if you miss some of the pop culture references, the book is still engaging; the pressure for Wade to get to the egg before the professional hunters do is believable and keeps you turning pages.  Fun?  Absolutely?

Ready Player One was well-received: a New York Times bestseller, and the recipient of my favorite award-the Alex Award.  My roommate read it and when I saw how much he liked it, I couldn’t wait for him to finish it.  However, when I was reading, I came across some issues of race and gender that I felt were somewhat problematic, and that affected my feelings about the book as a whole.  See, Wade’s closest friend is Aech, a person he thinks is another white male (In OASIS, one can choose an avatar of any race, gender or appearance).  Squeezed into a rushed-feeling chapter near the end of the novel, readers discover that Aech is, in fact, a queer African American woman who had been counseled by her mother to adopt the identity of a straight white man.  When she reveals this to Wade, rather than discuss the underlying sociocultural structures that led her to conceal her sexual orientation, race, and gender, Wade accepts it without much contemplation, and expresses relief that at least they’d been truthful when, in the past, they’d discussed attractive women.

I felt that Aech’s character was a clumsy attempt at creating a more diverse cast of characters in the novel, but the presentation left me feeling uncomfortable, and wishing the author could have 1. included authentically-presented minority characters, or 2. used Aech’s reluctance to self-identify in a world dominated by Caucasian males as an entry into a discussion of prejudice and inequality.  Furthermore, Wade’s reaction to Aech’s queerness, in that he immediately assumed they could bond over discussing beautiful women, felt exploitative.  At any rate, it was unsettling.

Ready Player One delighted the video-game-loving part of me, and I was further thrilled by the focus on collaboration over competition, but its treatment of race and sexual orientation left me with mixed feelings about the book.  Read it, love the adventure and the imaginative virtual reality interfaces, but I’d advise some thought on what messages the text is sending us about power and those who lack access to it.

Happy Reading!

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

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Broadway: New York, 2011. 372 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, try another Alex award winner for this year: RobopocalypseLegend also looks really interesting!  However, if you’re looking for dystopias or speculative fiction featuring minority characters in other-than-token-status, it’s still more of a rarity.  Here’s hoping for some fantastic, diverse offerings soon!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

“The air was thick and tasted of metal.  I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines.  Dark heads were bent over each one.  No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread.  Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat.  They wore air filters over their mouths.  There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.”

Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when Kim is only eleven.  Her mother takes a position at a sweatshop, working for relatives who helped with her immigration papers.  In order to make payments on the debt they owe for the immigration assistance and still have enough money for food, even Kimberly must work in the factory after school.

For years, they live in squalor, squatting illegally in an unheated, roach-infested building.   Because of the nature of their work (they are paid-illegally-for each skirt they finish, rather than an hourly wage), Kimberly and her mother calculate the prices of all their purchases in skirts.  A dress for graduation is 1,500 skirts. A gift for a friend is 133.  Determined to improve their living conditions, Kimberly works hard at school, gradually learning English and soaring to the top of her class.  Her scholastic abilities earns her an unprecedented full scholarship to a prestigious private school, where she struggles to keep up with the classwork while concealing her poverty from her classmates.

This story is an Alex award winner! Alex awards are given to books that aren’t necessarily written for young adults, but may be especially appealing to them.  I’ve always been partial to Alex winners, and I was hoping this one had been nominated, too.  I’m glad to see it won!  The story is compelling; expect chilling descriptions of a workplace injury and page after page of a poverty so extreme that it is hard to imagine. I was genuinely sickened when I read about Kimberly’s apartment, and how she would sleep on the side of the bed nearest the wall, because she was less afraid of mice than her mother was, and wanted to give her the small gift of a more restful sleep by taking the spot nearer the mice .    There were many tender moments between Kimberly and her mother; I loved the portrayal of their relationship.  They were genuinely protective of each other and clung together in a threatening and confusing world.

Not only does this book explore issues that are often misunderstood or not discussed, like sweatshop labor, illegal immigration, and extreme poverty, but it is also very well-written.  The characters are realistically portrayed, and Kimberly’s storytelling changes and matures as she ages.  I picked it up and was reading it even while I followed my sister around at the grocery store; I just didn’t want to stop.  Even better: the author, Jean Kwok, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn, and worked with her family in a sweatshop as a child.  While this book is fiction, it was inspired by her real-life experiences.  If you’d like to know which parts of the story really happened, you can check out the FAQs on her website.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://jeankwok.net/index.shtml

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books: New York, 2010. 303 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the description of Kimberly’s experiences living in a new country, and you are an older reader, you might like Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  Younger readers who are interested in the experiences of Chinese-Americans could try the amazing graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese.  For another portrayal of the grueling work immigrants often do, younger readers might like Esperanza RisingThis is one of my favorite genres to read, and if you’d like more recommendations (or if you have some yourself), please let me know!

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Image“He wished that he was with his mom in her library, where everything was safe and numbered and organized by the Dewey decimal system.  Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system.  That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.”

Ben’s mother worked as the librarian in their small town, until she died in an accident, leaving Ben alone and lost.  He never knew his dad.  Now he lives with his aunt and uncle, who are kind, but after losing his mom, he can’t help but wonder about his father: where is he?  Who is he? During a thunderstorm, he discovers a mysterious message that he thinks could be from his father, and he is determined to get to the bottom of things, even if it means getting to New York City on his own.

Half a century earlier, Rose is being pushed to learn to lipread.  She rebels, cutting up her lipreading primer and turning it into a diorama of New York.  She keeps a scrapbook of her favorite movie star, and goes to all her movies.  Even though she can’t hear, Rose can still go to silent movies, and read the dialogue, like everyone else.  When she sees a newspaper headline that says Lillian Mayhew, her heroine, will be in New York soon, Rose sets out for the big city.

Rose’s part of the book is told entirely with Selznick’s intricate, enchanting pencil sketches, while Ben’s storyImage is told with words.  The effect, much like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is rich; this, like its predecessor, is a book to be treasured.  Indeed, Wonderstruck shares several similarities with Selznick’s previous book:  orphan protagonists, museums, secret messages, and adventures that take place in very important cities. I especially loved that the two books were so similar, because I felt bereft after I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret, as though there was unlikely to ever be another book that made me feel the same way.  I shouldn’t have worried, though: with the release of Scorsese’s magical film rendition of Hugo, followed by Wonderstruck, the stories aren’t over.

ImageMy advice?  This is a book for sharing. Read it to your classroom after recess: the mystery will keep the students engaged, while the ethereal illustrations will inspire even the most timid budding artist.  Read it to your children, to anyone you love who cares about Deaf culture, dioramas, paper art, the American Museum of Natural History, libraries, adventures, thunderstorms, or New York. Read it with hot chocolate and a mind ready to marvel.  Selznick’s world is meaning-rich and stocked with secrets.  He is clearly an author that has not forgotten what it like to dream.  Let’s all hope he has another book dreamed up for us, and soon.

Happy Reading!

Wonderstruck website: http://www.wonderstruckthebook.com

Selznick, Brian. Wonderstruck. Scholastic Press: New York, 2011. 635 pp. (I promise, it doesn’t feel like it at all; you are going to wish it would last forever.)  Ages 10 and up.

If you liked this book, try The Invention of Hugo Cabret or the shorter graphic novel, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

“1. Why would you kill a dog?

a) Because you hated the dog.

b) Because you were mad.

c) Because you wanted to make Mrs. Shears upset.

2. I didn’t know anyone who hated Wellington, so if it was (a) it was probably a stranger.

3. I didn’t know any mad people, so if it was (b) it was also probably a stranger.

4.  Most murders are committed by someone who is known to the victim…This is a fact.  Wellington was therefore most likely to have been killed by someone known to him.

5. If it was (c) I only knew one person who didn’t like Mrs. Shears, and that was Mr. Shears, who knew Wellington very well indeed.”

This is a fabulously popular murder mystery, written by Mark Haddon, in the voice of Christopher, a fifteen  (and three months and two days) year old.  The dog next door has been killed during the night, and he sets out to do some detective work, like his idol, Sherlock Holmes.  He talks to the neighbors (even though his father forbids it) and gathers evidence, and eventually uncovers something that takes his life in a surprising new turn.

Christopher has special needs: he doesn’t like to be touched, the color yellow, or foods that touch each other.  He likes prime numbers, the color red, and similes (but not metaphors).  Sometimes navigating the world is difficult for him, and to be honest, it’s not the mystery part of this book that’s amazing: it’s Christopher’s voice.  He’s unfailingly honest (lies make him nervous), and his perspective is disarming and endearing, occasionally pitiable.

I’m a little behind the game with this book: I picked it up a few years ago, and was horrified by the murdered dog on page 5, and then dropped it.  But this time, I’m on vacation, and read through my six day book supply in the first two days, so I had to start in on my mom’s books.  I held my breath, and once I got past poor Wellington’s death, I fell in love with Christopher and his view of the world.

This book has won over seventeen awards, but I’ve been having trouble finding a complete list.  I do know it’s an Alex award recipient, which is the prize for books written for adults that have a special appeal for young adults.   It’s short and really engaging: a great way to spend an afternoon, especially if you are a fan of prime numbers, awesome diagrams, dogs, Sherlock Holmes, and unconventional narrators.

Happy Reading!

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

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Vintage Books: New York, 2003. 224 pp. Grades 10-up.

 

Nothing by Janne Teller

” Pierre Anthon left school the day he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant nothing anyway.

The rest of us stayed on.

And although the teachers had a job on their hands tidying up after Pierre Anthon in the classroom as well as in our heads, part of Pierre Anthon remained stuck inside of us.  Maybe that was why it all turned out the way it did.”

Pierre Anthon has it figured out: we go to school to get a job, get a job to get time off, and all the while, we are trying to convince ourselves and others that it is all worth it.  But Pierre’s not buying it, which is why he walks out of school.  He ensconces himself in a plum tree, and occupies his time hurling plums and incisively nihilistic statements at his school mates.  He tells them it’s all meaningless, that we all become nothing, so we might as well stop our frantic attempts to prove otherwise.

In some tiny corner of their minds, they begin to be afraid that he’s right, and so, they set out to prove that he isn’t.

That’s when the pile begins:  the children gather and, one by one, demand the sacrifice.  Every child must give up what is most meaningful and important to them, piling them up in the abandon building they choose as a clubhouse.  It starts fairly innocuously, with a pair of green sandals and other treasures, but quickly escalates, creating a Lord of the Flies-esque spiral of violence and desperation.

While in high school, I hated Lord of the Flies, but deep inside, appreciated the meaning.  Even though it turned my stomach, I felt it was one of those books that everyone should read just once-not so much as a cautionary tale, but just to wake up those seeds of ideas, to unsettle the mind.  That’s what I like the most about this books: it’s not about the violence, it’s about the reaction of the students to Pierre’s statements.  His assertions make them uncomfortable because they are afraid they’re true.

Please read this book.  It will only take a few hours, and I don’t think you will regret it. It won several prestigious awards: The Best Children’s Book Prize and Le Prix Libbylit.

Author’s website: http://www.janneteller.dk/?English

 

 

Teller, Janne. Trans. Martin Aitken.  Nothing. Atheneum Books: New York, 2010. 227 pp.  Grades 6-Everyone else.

If you liked this one, I think you’ll also like The Alchemist, and of course, The Lord of the Flies.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

” The sauce was good, and simple, and thick.

Sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums.  Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold.

I pressed the napkin to my eyes.

It’ll be ok, said Dad, patting my hand. ”

I stayed up half the night reading this book, listening to the even breath of the dog and the sirens outside, the random neighbors coming home from late nights.  Nighttime reading seemed appropriate for the story.  It’s a little magical, in the unusual-things-happen sense, not the intoxicating-fairy-tale-esque sense, and a lot melancholy.  I was surprised and pleased to see it’s an Alex Award winner for 2010. Remember The Book of Lost Things, my favorite book ever?  That won the Alex, too.  The award is for adult books that are especially appealing to young adults.

Rose can taste emotions in food: a great idea, in theory, but one that relegates her to a diet of Pringles, Doritos, and other factory foods, untouched (and therefore, untainted) by emotional humans.  Her 9th birthday cake comes replete with a dose of her mother’s powerful grief and loneliness.  Rose is already somewhat of an outsider, with an emotionally distant family: a genius mother, detached lawyer father, and flighty, desperately unhappy mother.  Her synesthesia isolates her further; the school nurse hints darkly about eating disorders, and a friend force-feeds her, using her as a sort of foodie-fortune teller hybrid, thrusting foods on her and demanding to know how she really feels.

Woven in the sober tale is a mystery, or rather, several mysteries.  Where is her brother disappearing to?  Why does her father refuse to set foot inside a hospital, preferring to sit on a crate on the sidewalk, reading a novel and waiting for the birth of his children?  Where does the deep grief of her mother spring from?

I was actually a little shocked when the mystery was revealed.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s nothing earth-shattering when you consider the magical feel to the novel.  Even though I understood the magical feelings-taste connection, I wasn’t familiar with the author, and her reputation as a “fabulist”, or her genre, what Publisher’s Weekly refers to as “pessimistic magical realism”, but I do think they are perfectly descriptive of the novel.  This is a sad, layered, complex story, and I’m interested to see what Aimee Bender writes next.

My only issue?  I wanted much more description of the eating of the emotions.  After all, food and love and culture is so connected already:  we eat the love and effort of those who cook for us.  It’s only a small chimerical extrapolation to taste their feelings, as well.  And Bender has a lovely, pensive style; I think this good story could have been even better.  I also loved the strange and eerie disappearances of the brother, as well, but again, I wish there were more of it.

I think I’ll check out another book of hers, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.

Happy Reading!

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

Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. New York: Doubleday, 2010.  292 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, try A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass, or The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson.