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.

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Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn

“I wanted to talk, wanted to tell Tom everything, things I’d never told him or anyone.  Not only about my father, but about me and Cat, that sometimes I felt so out of control with her.  But about my father too, how afraid I was of becoming like him.”

Nick is a wealthy teenager, with the cars and clothes to match, and a life that seems pretty perfect on the outside.  But now, he’s in court, slapped with a restraining order and mandatory anger management classes.  He’s there because he beat his girlfriend.  He blackened her eye and bloodied her nose.  Before that, he hurled insults, manipulated her emotions and demanded her compliance.  He made her afraid.  Now, he’s telling the story in a series of journal entries required by his anger management counselor.

It’s an all-too-common refrain: Nick learned violence at the feet of his father, who, in turn, learned it from his.  To his own grief, Nick cannot seem to control his anger, and takes it out on his lovely girlfriend, Caitlin.   The book explores his complicated emotions: he is terrified of losing her, wracked with inadequacies, hates himself for hurting her, and feels compelled to keep her close by attempting to control who she sees, what she wears, and where she goes.  On top of all that, he is trying to hide his own father’s abuse from his friends and teachers.

Oh, friends! This was a tremendously wrenching read for me! Nick’s honesty is raw, and his recounting of the abuse is brutal.  I was up at midnight last night, crying over some of the horrible things he said to poor Caitlin, and then crying even more because you can’t just write him off as a horrible person and hate him.  That’s the genius of this book:  Alex Flinn reveals Nick’s inner thoughts and motivations for his behavior. He’s multi-dimensional, rather than just abusing his girlfriend because he gets pleasure from her pain.  He’s not a straight-up monster.  That’s not how it works.  He is an abused teenager who does not know how to stop the cycle.  It’s heart-breaking.  It’s realistic.  And it is so, so painful.

This is not a long book, but the intensity of the voice was so hard for me to take that I spent a few days reading it.  This book falls into one of those categories like Laurie Halse Anderson’s books Wintergirls or Speak: they are hard to read because of the trauma and the grief they call up in the reader.  That’s powerful writing!  And because of that, Breathing Underwater won the ALA Best Books and Quick Pick awards, and about a huge list of other honors, too.  It’s not easy (emotionally) to read, but it’s worth it, and we should all be grateful there are authors willing to tackle difficult subjects from every perspective.

Alex Flinn has written a sequel, Diva, from Caitlin’s perspective.  It (and every other book she has written!) is on my to-read list.   I’ll let you know!  And if you have copies of any of them, please send them my way!

Happy Reading!

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

Flinn, Alex. Breathing Underwater. New York: HarperTeens, 2001. 279 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

After by Amy Efaw

‘”Sit up straight, ok?  Look the judge right in the eyes when he speaks to you.  You’re going to be nervous, don’t think that you’re not.'”

Devon is just a few months shy of her sixteenth birthday.  She’s an honor student, a soccer star, and has always sworn that she would grow up and be nothing like her mother.

Then it all falls apart.

She didn’t even know she was pregnant.  All of a sudden, it seemed to her, she was lying in the bathroom, with blood everywhere and more pain than she had ever felt before.  And IT was there, a screaming, crying, living representation of her failure.  Who wouldn’t panic?

When a neighbor finds the baby in a trash can, Devon’s perfect world is shattered.  Her advanced classes are replaced with with institutional meals in juvenile detention, state soccer matches with court dates.  Meetings with lawyers, psychiatrists, and other authorities fill her spare time.  Devon transforms, too: from a young woman shrouded in fear and denial, to a person capable of facing her actions.

Efaw uses lots of details; her close observations permeate the book and make the reader feel intimately involved in the story.  The story, because it is told from Devon’s perspective (not in first person, but it’s an omniscient narrator) begins in a very vague, confused way.  It’s a direct reflection of Devon’s state of mind:  she has suffered a severe blood loss, and is in shock.  As the story progresses, she takes more and more responsibility for what happened.  As she does so, the descriptions and details become clearer and clearer.  It’s a great technique and it elevates this novel from what could be a sensational story about a pregnant teen, into something more literary.  I finished this book in a day; I just didn’t want to put it down.

Happy Reading!

Efaw, Amy. After. Viking: New York, 2009. 350 pp.  Grades 9-12.

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