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!

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The Candymakers by Wendy Mass

“Congratulations, Future Candymakers! You have been accepted to compete in the Annual New Candy Contest sponsored by the Confectionary Association.  The following participants from Region III will report to the Life Is Sweet candy factory two days prior to the contest: Logan Sweet, Miles O’Leary, Daisy Carpenter, and Philip Ransford III.”

Logan Sweet is the son of the Candymaker.  His father owns the Life Is Sweet candy factory, where they grow their own cocoa beans, keep hives of bees, and can identify the cow who gave the milk by the way the milk tastes.  There is a library, a taffy room, a tropical room, and…a mystery.

Logan has a lot to live up to: both his father and grandfather won the Annual New Candy Contest in years past.  However, he just feels clumsy around recipes; it seems that when he’s trying to create candy, nothing goes right.  How will he manage to invent a candy good enough to win, if he can’t even keep his sugar from boiling over?

The other contestants are just as diverse and interesting as the candies that Life is Sweet produces.  Miles is obsessed with the afterlife, carries around a life vest, and is allegedly allergic to pink and pancakes.  Daisy can never match her socks and is best friends with Magpie, her horse.  Philip keeps a hidden notebook and wears suits that are just as stiff and starchy as his personality.  However, things aren’t as they seem in this sweet mystery.  Each of the characters has a secret, and someone is trying to steal the secret ingredient at Life is Sweet and sabotage the contest! Worse still, if the secret ingredient is discovered, it could mean financial ruin for the factory, and Life is Sweet could lose all of their business.  Logan has to get to the bottom of things before his family loses everything!

Ok. Here’s the thing: my love for candy is second only to my love for reading.  I even made up a weekly holiday, called Candysunday.  You know how most Sundays are full of getting ready for the week, which means grocery shopping and homework and laundry?  Well, that’s a gloomy way to start the week, I’ve always thought.  Candysunday is my antidote for it: basically, I don’t eat any candy during the week, but on Sundays, I can have as much as I want! So, in honor of Candysunday this week, I wanted to tell you about this darling book.

At first glance, the splendid candy factory setting makes you think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but even though the factory is delightful and similar in some ways to Dahl’s, this book is more of a clever mystery than a quirky adventure.  The format is interesting: each of the four contestants tells his or her side of the story.  We not only learn their secret hopes and insecurities, but also what they know about the mystery.  Who has been trying to steal the secret ingredients?  Is there a scandal brewing at the New Candy Contest?

Readers will be drawn to these quirky characters, and appreciate the very real anxieties woven into a fanciful plot.  Without being didactic, the four separate storytellers subtly illustrates how easy it is to make assumptions about others’ actions, and the underlying message of the story is one championing collaboration, rather than competition.  It is a gentle read, sweet without being saccharine, and offbeat without being wacky.  It would be a good read-aloud for families with older elementary-school children, and a read-alone for sixth and seventh graders.

Happy Reading!

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

Mass, Wendy. The Candymakers. Little, Brown: New York, 2010. 453 pp.  Ages 10-14.

If you liked this one, be sure to check out the original candy wonderland of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.  If you liked the mystery part, try Blue Balliet’s The Danger Box or Chasing Vermeer, or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

Oh, and one more thing:  the Pepsicles and Oozing Crunchoramas sound amazing!

 

 

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.

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.

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.