Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

chopsticks“Two days ago, the famous concert pianist Gloria ‘Glory’ Fleming disappeared from Golden Hands Rest Facility, an institution for musical prodigies here in the Bronx.

Praised by critics as ‘The Brecht of the Piano,’ Ms. Fleming is known for her modern innovations on classical repertoire.  The young pianist received rave reviews until six months ago, when exhaustion caused an infamous performance at Carnegie Hall.  Fellow patients at Golden Hands recall the seventeen-year-old regularly playing the whimsical children’s waltz ‘Chopsticks,’ an obsession which worsened during her tenure at Golden Hands.

The evening she went missing, Gloria Fleming had apparently played the waltz for over seven hours.”

This book probably has less than two thousand words in it, but it tells a complete story through drawings, photos, screenshots, texted conversations, and musical scores.  It’s the story of a young romance-piano prodigy Gloria and her next-door neighbor Francisco.  The book follows the pair through Francisco’s banishment to boarding school, through Gloria’s breakdown and disappearance, and other events in their lives.

I loved the format of this interesting book! Not only is the story captivating, but it’s just so wonderful to look at.  Francisco is an artist, and the book is peppered with his beautiful drawings and paintings, as well as things like the admittance letter to the rest facility Gloria goes to, ticket stubs, and snapshots.  If you like John Green-type stories, about teenage romances, with a little mystery and philosophy mixed in, this one’s for you.

Happy Reading!

Book’s website:  http://chopsticksnovel.tumblr.com/

If you like this one, you might try:

Why We Broke Up “This novel tells the story of Min Green and how she and Ed Slaterton met at a party, saw a movie, followed an old woman, shared a hotel room, and broke each other’s hearts.” (From the website)

The Fault in Our Stars A tragic, tragic, love story-heavy on the philosophy.  Somehow, it has the same feel as Chopsticks to me.

Looking for Alaska  A boarding school romance-mystery-philosophy book.  I promise. You’ll love it!

The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks

The-Girl-in-the-Park-2 “‘Honey. They found her. In the park.’

They found her in the park.  Playground. Swings. Kids. Good.  So they found her in a nice place, not a motel, which was kind of what I was expecting.

Except…they?  Not her mom?

They found her.  I shake my head, because there’s something weird about found. You find sweaters in the park.  Or lost dogs.  Found is like Wendy’s not a person.  Not a living…

My mom is crying.  That tells me what found means. Why Wendy isn’t a person anymore.  That Wendy is dead.”

Rain and Wendy used to be best friends.  To Rain, Wendy was more than a party girl intent on sleeping with everyone’s boyfriend.  She was the one with the huge heart and offbeat sense of humor, the girl who wasn’t above faking a fainting spell in H&M and who didn’t care what others thought of her.  But when Wendy’s body is found in the park after a wild party, no one seems to remember the good things about her.  Instead, there are nasty rumors about drugs and alcohol.  The sensationalized news reports  are written as though what happened was Wendy’s fault.

Rain knows it wasn’t Wendy’s fault.  In fact, she is pretty sure she knows what happened that night to her friend, and who did it.  Will she gather the courage to speak up, even if the results are devastating?

This is a solid mystery for teenagers, especially budding fans of psychological thrillers.  Rain is a believable, sympathetic character, and the plot keeps readers guessing, without feeling contrived. I finished the book in a night! The author sensitively and realistically portrays issues of predatory teachers, underage alcohol and drug use.  A great pick for teens looking to be gripped with a good thriller.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://mariahfredericks.wordpress.com/

Fredericks, Mariah. The Girl in the Park. Schwartz & Wade: New York,  2012. 217 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this, try:

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Mr. Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn

Shine by Lauren Myracle

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

schoolforgoodandevil

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before.  Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each.  The ages were just as fickle; one could be sixteen, the other fourteen, or both just turned twelve.  But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear.  One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own.  The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth.  An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”

Agatha is grim and gray and lives in a graveyard, while Sophie dresses only in pink and spends her days doing Good Works-together, they look the perfect picture of Good vs. Evil.  Thus, it’s no surprise when the pair is kidnapped and sent away to the legendary School for Good and Evil.  There, they will learn the fundamentals of fairy tales and what it takes to be the heroine or the villain in their beloved stories.  The very best students end up as stories, penned by the mysterious Storian, which then are  distributed all over the country.  In Sophie and Agatha’s tale, who will triumph?  Good has won for over two centuries…can Evil ever really win?  Furthermore, can anyone ever be all good or all evil?

All right, I have got to tell it to you straight:  for about half of the time while I was reading, I actively disliked this book.  For the other half of the time, I could see its charm.  This is a creative Harry Potter-esque magical boarding school fantasy, and it’s definitely going to appeal to readers clamoring for more fairy tale magic.  However, I took issue with several things.  First of all, it’s nearly 500 pages, and a bit convoluted-I have to say that several times, I needed to flip back to figure out what was going on.  But that’s all right-a more motivated reader could surely sort through the loose plot elements.

More seriously, I was upset with the book’s underlying theme of Good = Beautiful and Evil = Ugly.  There are repeated comments about obesity and physical deformities that I found both unnecessary and hurtful to readers.  When combined with the heteronormative “All Princesses Need is A Prince” message (during the story, the Good Girls are all waiting for their dream prince to ask them to the ball), I lost patience with the book. Really, this could have been great-there is a lovely twist ending that almost redeems the rest of the story, but it came too little, too late for me.

Happy Reading!

Book website (You can apply to the School for Good and Evil here!)

Chainani, Soman. The School for Good and Evil. Harper: New York, 2013. 488 pp. Ages 11 and up.

If it sounds like something you’d like to read (because there are some awesome parts to it, like the great school descriptions and the interesting fairy tale remixes), I’d recommend it with some other great feminist, body-positive texts, like these:

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (a great graphic novel!)

Ever and Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

and, an oldie but goodie-Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

HOLDFAST“What happened at 4:44 on that grim January day was wrong. Wrong was the perfect sound for what the word meant: It was heavy, achingly slow, clearly impossible to erase. Wrong…

Where was Dash?  How could he have vanished into that icy, freezing moment?

No one could add up the facts; they just didn’t fit.”

The Pearl family doesn’t have much but each other and their dreams of a better future. Dash and Summer do their best-Dash works as a page at the downtown library, and Summer makes sure that everyone has enough to eat, and that their tiny apartment is kept clean.  Together, they read stories and dream of having their own house, with flowers out front and curtains in the window.  Dash keeps saying to hold fast to their dreams, that someday things will be better.

But then he disappears, and with him, their hopes.

Summer and Jubie and Early have to move to a shelter, where it is loud and crowded and Jubie gets sick. Early is afraid something terrible has happened-their dad would never leave them like this!  All she has is his notebook of clues-but she’s determined to get to the bottom of things.

Blue Balliet brings us another gem: a riveting mystery, with clues just tricky enough to be engaging, and enough real-life troubles to keep our hearts soft.  You’ll love the Pearl family, and will be moved by their devotion to each other.  You’ll also love the Langston Hughes poetry peppered throughout, and the fantastically interesting and exciting mystery that Dash Pearl has accidentally been tangled in.   Ms. Balliet has the knack for gently raising our awareness of important social issues, like homelessness, while at the same time teaching us about important historical figures (like Vermeer, Frank Lloyd Wright,   and Langston Hughes).  But how, you might ask, how does she do this without boring our pants off?  Friends, I tell you: because she is awesome.  You’ll love it, I promise.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Now, if you loved this one, you’ve gotta check out her others:

The Danger Box (this one is the most like Hold Fast)

Chasing Vermeer

The Wright 3

The Calder Game

When You Reach Me (Now, this book isn’t by Blue Balliet, but it feels so similar-I think you’ll really like it!)

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.

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!

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.

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!

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

“All these years, it wasn’t really necessary for you to go to Paterson.  You don’t really belong there.  I know you realize this yourself.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  You just move at a different speed than other kids your age.  But in order for you to grow and not get stuck, you need to be in a normal environment.  It is time.  Here is what I propose: If you work at the law firm this summer, then at the end of the summer, you decide whether you want to spend your senior year at Paterson or at Oak Ridge High…

‘There’s just one thing.’ I see him pick up his glass of wine and raise it to his lips.  This time his words come out very slow. ‘You can do what you want in the fall…’ He waits for my eyes to meet his eyes and then he continues. ‘But this summer you must follow all the rules of the…real world.'”

Seventeen-year-old Marcelo goes to a private school for young people with disabilities.  There, he learns academic skills and practical life skills, such as making small talk and interpreting other people’s facial expressions.  At Paterson, he is safe and supported.  He does not get lost or overwhelmed, or worried that he cannot finish tasks fast enough.  However, his father believes that he needs to be challenged.  Instead of tending the therapeutic horses at Paterson, Marcelo is to work at his father’s law firm for the summer.  If he does well, his father will allow him to go back to Paterson for his final year of high school.  If he doesn’t follow the so-called “real-world” rules, he will be placed in a public high school.

Marcelo is often confused and dismayed by the competition, brutality, and insensitivity he encounters in the firm.  When he finds a discarded photo of a young woman scarred by broken glass, he is confronted with an ethical dilemma for which he has had no preparation.  The evidence he uncovers can potentially destroy his father’s firm, and if Marcelo tells anyone, it would be breaking his promise to his father about following the rules.   Marcelo must sort out his feelings about justice and loyalty before he can decide what to do.

Oh, this book! This incredible book!  It is a special one, for many reasons.  First, Marcelo’s disorder is never named, and we learn of his minority status halfway through the novel.  This allows us to meet the real Marcelo, without getting distracted by his ethnicity or disability.  Yes, he has an autism-spectrum disorder, but to the readers, it is clear that he is a human first.  Secondly, his voice is disarming.  He is precise, though not emotionless, and often naive, but never sentimentally so.  Finally, the story deals with the Big Issues: suffering, ethics, and family, without being didactic or reductive.  It is part legal thriller, part the-most-understated-romance-you’ll-ever-read, and part coming-of-age story.

Please, read this.  I know you’ll love Marcelo.  Francisco Stork, in an afterword, describes his experiences working with individuals with disabilities, and he said that this book is a small thank you for all of their gifts.  It’s an award-winner, too! It’s a YALSA Best Book, but was also a recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award, which honors an outstanding depiction of a child’s or adolescent’s experience with disability.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.franciscostork.co

Stork, Francisco X.  Marcelo in the Real World. Arthur A. Levine: New York, 2009. 312 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this, you might like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeabout a young man with Asperger’s and a mystery. It’s one that I love!  I also think you might also like The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd.