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!)

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Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick

The indomitably hopeful one!

The girl of unyielding optimism!

The teen of merriment!

The fan favorite!

Your undisputed champion! 

‘Amber-Rock Star of Hope-Apple-TOOOOOOOOOON!'”

“Maybe I am a freak-but I’m one hopeful misfit, and you could be worse things in this world.  True? True.”

Amber Appleton lives on the school bus that her mom drives during the day.  They’ve been there ever since her mom’s latest boyfriend kicked them out of the house.  It gets pretty cold at night, and Amber gets scared when her mom heads out to bars and leaves her alone, but it’s not Amber’s style to get bummed out about her sad life.  She’s not like that.  Instead, she’s too busy singing and doing English lessons with the Korean Divas for Christ, standing up to the school board, kicking quarterback Lex in the shins just to “maintain the balance of power within the student body so that evil doesn’t get out of control”, duking it out in a weekly word-battle for hope with the Nietzsche-quoting Debbie Downer, Joan of Old, at the nursing home, and writing haikus about dogs for a Vietnam War veteran who slammed the door in her face once. She sasses the school principal and soothes herself to sleep with the handful of good memories of happy times with her mother.   That’s the kind of girl she is: sorta like a rock star.

Amber has a seemingly bottomless well of sincere enthusiasm and concern for those around her, spending her life cheering others on.  She forms friendships with the weakest and most vulnerable people in her community:  veterans, old men and women in a nursing home, Korean immigrants, students with special needs.  But it’s not out of a sense of duty, or with any thought for herself.  It’s because, as Amber puts it, “I dig lighting up people’s faces.”  However, when tragedy strikes, the aptly-named Princess of Hope needs the support of everyone in her community-and even that may not be enough to keep her going.

This is my new favorite book and the single best thing I’ve read to date.  That’s a really big statement, but I mean it!  It’s four in the morning now, and I’ve been agonizing over what quote to start out with, because I really hope you all will love this book as much as I do, and I needed to find the perfect starter!  You see, Amber is amazing.  She’s quirky, buoyant, and irrepressible-and she manages to be all of this without the slightest trace of Pollyanna saccharinity.  Because, honestly, all of that goodness could be pretty irritating to read about, but that’s not Amber Appleton at all.  She’s offbeat-smiling at people when she’s biking, doting over her dog (Thrice B), making kick-ass omelets, and her own silver prom dress- all the while freaking out about her alcoholic mother and living in a school bus.

This book champions sincerity and belief in a greater good, which is a pretty incredible take, considering the customary tone of books covering the heavy stuff, like alcoholism, violent crime, and homelessness. While the plot is original, and the characters are all interesting and multi-dimensional, it’s really Amber’s voice that brings the story to life.  I know you’re gonna love her!

Happy Reading!

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

Quick, Matthew. Sorta Like a Rock Star. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2010. 355 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

All right, if you loved this one, you might want to try Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.  It has the same feeling to it!

Oh, I hope you love this book!

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.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard

“Once, when I lived with my dad, some boys asked me to play with them at school.  They were playing war and asked me whose side I wanted to go on: the Americans or the Enemy.  I said I wanted to go on the other side.

‘Whaddya mean?’ they asked. ‘There’s only two sides: the Americans or the Enemy.’

‘My dad says there’s three sides.’

“Who’s on the third side?’

‘All the people who don’t believe in war.  Dad says there’s more on the third side than the other two sides put together, but the ones on the third side don’t have weapons.'”

Skip is an abused 12-year-old, a runaway trying to escape the beatings at his foster home.  He’s an artist, too, creating chalk  drawings that make other people stop and gape in astonishment.   He dreams of having a place to plant a garden, with a lily pond like Monet used to look at.  But his biggest wish is for a family, some stability, something to hold on to.  He’s got Billy, an arthritic homeless man who looks after him.  They share food and stories and try to find a shelter that will let them stay together.  But Skip’s never sure if he will wake up and Billy will be gone, just like his own father disappeared long ago.

When war breaks out, Billy and Skip try to shelter in the public library.  Under a table, clinging to a notebook, they find Max, a terrified six-year-old.  He heard someone talking about “weapons of max destruction” and thought they were coming to get him.  He can’t find his mother, either, and won’t leave the library: she promised she would come back for him.

Eventually, the three make the way out of the worst part of the war-torn region, and take shelter in an abandoned amusement park three hours away.  They try to get by on things they get from stores, but they also don’t want to hoard things, because Billy says it’s important not to be selfish, and to only take what they need.  Soon they’re joined by Tia, a teenage ballerina with a tiny baby.  Together, they try to create an escape plan; Max remembers a house in the country where his grandfather used to live, and if they can make it there, they’ll all be safe.

The best part of this story is Skip’s voice.  He’s sensitive, perceptive, and describes his world with the eye of an artist.  The setting, an abandoned amusement park, and the interesting characters make this book a little treasure.  At once, it’s a story about war, family, and human resilience.

Happy Reading!

This isn’t the author’s website, but it’s her thoughts on writing the book:

http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=626

Millard, Glenda. A Small Free Kiss in the Dark. New York: Holiday House, 2009.  180 pp.  Grades 6-9.