True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer“Well, my plan from before

looks so scrimpy now.

It looked so big when I was a littler girl.

It was I was going to go to college

and get a job, get out of here

and not live with garbage and stink on my street

and nasty criminals in the neighborhood,

shooting.”

LaVaughn is fifteen years old and lives with her mother in a dangerous, dilapidated apartment complex.  Sometimes gunshots wake them in the night, and shootings happen at her school, too.  LaVaughn’s got a plan, though: she knows the only way to a safer, happier life is her education.  However, her plan is really the only non-confusing thing in her life.  Her  best friends have changed, putting all their belief into a life that LaVaughn doesn’t want for herself. Her mother is dating a new man, all these years after her father died.  Also,  LaVaughn’s handsome neighbor Jody is back again, and she needs to sort out just how she feels about it all.

This novel is written in free verse, and you won’t believe it’s written by a grown-up.  Virginia Euwer Wolff portrays the uncertainty and anxiety of being a teenager with stream-of-consciousness poetry, which reads just like you are listening to LaVaughn’s thoughts.  Even though this is the second novel of a trilogy, the story is complete on its own and you won’t have any trouble following what is going on.  Now, there are several special things about this book.  First, I am often suspicious of stories like this, about inner-city teenagers trying to succeed against seemingly-insurmountable odds.  I find that stories like this often seem to gloss over the obstacles in place, and suggest that anything can be achieved through sheer willpower.  That seems unrealistic to me, and also didactic, as though it is telling us the magical formula for success, and implying that everyone who doesn’t succeed has simply not tried hard enough.  But LaVaughn’s story isn’t like this at all; it doesn’t talk down to you or minimize the oppressive situation.  Furthermore, Wolff’s portrayal of LaVaughn’s friends is compassionate, no matter what their situation.  Also great:  Jody.  I can’t spoil anything, but Jody’s situation and the way it is treated is really outstanding, and definitely National Book Award-worthy. You’ll love this one!

Happy Reading!

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True Believer. Simon Pulse: New York, 2001.264 pp. Ages 14-18.

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

This book is the second in the Make Lemonade trilogy, though it is perfectly okay to read it on its own.  If you want to read the first one, it’s called Make LemonadeThe third one is This Full House.  If you’d like to read other stories about young people struggling to finish school against the odds, you will probably like Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  Home of the Brave is another verse novel, and is about a young refugee going to school in Minnesota, so while the plot is slightly different, the format is similar.

Advertisements

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!

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

“‘I love watching you play ball, Finley.  Best part of my days lately-makes me feel like I still have legs, even-but life’s more than games.  This Russ, he’s special.  Anyone can see that.  And it’s hard to be special, Finley. You understand what I’m saying?’

I don’t understand what Pop is saying, but I nod anyway.

‘You’re special too, Finley.  You don’t get to pick the role you’re going to play in life, but it’s good to play whatever role you got the best way you can,’ Pop says. ‘And I know I’m a damn hypocrite for saying that tonight, but that don’t make what I said a lie.  We’ve both had hard lives so far.  No favors done for either of us.'”

This book has been waiting on my shelf for months, so that I could review it on its birthday: today (well, yesterday-I caught a cold and couldn’t get it written in time!)  is the day Boy21 comes into the world! Here it is, friends!  I’m so happy to get to stop waiting and tell you all about it! Hold on to your hats-here’s the story:

Finley lives for basketball.  The repetition and movement calm him and keep him from thinking about all of the darkness he keeps pushed to the borders of his mind.  He is so focused that he even breaks up with his girlfriend at the beginning of each basketball season; the game becomes his temporary new sweetheart. You can’t blame him for it, really: he doesn’t have much else to give him hope.  He lives in Bellmont, a city in the shadow of the powerful Irish mob.  In Bellmont, if the drugs don’t get you first, the mafia probably will.  Finley’s world consists of basketball, caring for his disabled grandfather, and hoping that he and his sweetheart can somehow find a way out, to a better life.

Enter Russ: a supremely talented basketball player with some exceptionally bizarre personal habits.  He lost his parents in a tragedy that he doesn’t speak about, and has moved to Bellmont to try and patch back together his life.  He doesn’t fit in-he’s far wealthier than any of the other students, and it is hard to conceal his prep-school education.  Furthermore, he refers to himself as Boy21, an extraterrestrial being sent to earth to learn about human emotions.  However strange he may appear to be, he seems to be just what Finley needs, and the two bond as they weather life-altering tragedies during the course of the story.

I hadn’t even finished the review before two different friends of mine tried to snatch this book off the desk and carry it away.  I can’t blame them, though.  You might remember Sorta Like a Rock Star, a book I read last summer. It instantly became a favorite of mine, and I do like to think that I’m pretty careful about what ends up on the favorites list.  Well, here is another book by the same author, friends.  Now, I’m convinced he is a stealth champion for the good in humanity, from the books he’s given us.  Boy21 doesn’t disappoint, that’s for sure.  It contains basketball, but it’s not really about it.  Instead, it’s about hope, and wrestling with those dark parts within-you know, the ones that want us only to look out for ourselves, even when it means hurting another human in the process.  Add in stargazing, references to The Little Prince, and the belief that we are all capable of changing, and you’ve got a unique, compelling story that you can finish in a day.

It’s hard to find a book that will appeal to the discerning set of young teenagers, much less a story that has the potential to captivate both male and female readers, without containing so much sex or violence that it will terrify school boards.  So here, dear ones, is quite a find. Equal appeal for both genders, an original plot, and characters that are quirky and endearing, but not merely for the sake of cuteness.  In this book, quirk is a survival mechanism, and the beautiful underlying message is that there are other potential responses to tragedy besides hardening one’s heart.  (When I say messages, don’t take it to mean “didactic”, because it’s certainly not-besides, teens can smell that business a mile away.) Anyway, I think you’re going to love it!  (If you do, watch out for Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook-it is going to be a movie soon!  And while you’re waiting, here are some books that I think you’ll like, if you liked the sound of this one:

Of course: Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick.  It’s an entirely different sort of plot, but it makes you feel the same way as Boy21 does.  If you liked the sports part, you could try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and also Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena.  And come on, why not give The Little Princea try, too? There’s enough to love in there to break your heart forever.

Update:  Matt de la Pena, author of Mexican White Boy, reviewed Boy21 in The New York Times.  Check it out!

Quick, Matthew. Boy21. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012. 256 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Happy Reading!

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

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.

Yummy by G. Neri

“I tried to figure out who the real Yummy was.  The one who stole my lunch money? Or the one who smiled when I shared my candy with him?  I wondered if I grew up like him, would I have turned out the same?”

Yummy is based on a true story, which makes it even more tragic.  Yummy, an eleven year old boy in a rough Chicago neighborhood,starts running with a gang.  While trying to impress older gang members and develop a reputation, he accidentally shoots and kills a fourteen-year-old girl.  This graphic novel, told from the perspective of an acquaintance of Yummy’s, examines the “why?” of the events.  Stark black and white illustrations give the novel a gritty feel.  I thought it was incredible! It won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award-richly deserved.

Author’s website:

http://www.gregneri.com/

Illustrator’s website:

http://www.randyduburke.com/

Neri, G. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. New York: Lee and Low Books, 2010. 94 pp.

Happy Reading!

The Higher Power of Lucky

“It was getting harder and harder to stay couraged.”

“That dog would never have to do a searching and fearless moral inventory of herself.”

“…she made the thought go into a place inside that wasn’t her brain, so she wouldn’t have to think about it.”

So, let’s talk Newbery Medals. One is awarded each year to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.  It’s the epitome of praise for a children’s book.  I wanted to start out the blog discussing awards and reading award-winning books because, well, it’s a good place to start.  Each award and the books collected under it has its own character, and are often linked by certain similarities, perhaps in topic of the emotions the evoke in a reader.  I feel like the Newbery books often have a gritty feel, and leave the reader melancholic and introspective.  To me, they seem like the junior versions of the Nobel Prize books.  They’re not always fun to read, but they are undeniably moving.  Past winners of the Newbery and Newbery honor are Gail Carson Levine for Ella Enchanted and Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (which won the prize) Catherine, Called Birdy (which won the honorable mention).  Another Newbery honor book is Janet Taylor Lisle, for Afternoon of the Elves, a book that both repelled and fascinated me as a child. In the next few weeks, I’ll try and review some of my favorite Newbery books.

Anyway, I started with The Higher Power of Lucky, a book set in the desert town of Hard Pan, population 43.  Lucky is a young girl who wants to grow up and be a scientist. Her dog is named the HMS Beagle, after Darwin’s ship, though, as Lucky notes, is “neither a ship nor a beagle”.  She spends her time catching insects for her future scientific needs, eavesdropping on the Twelve-Step meetings held at the local museum, and playing with Lincoln, a boy her age who is an avid knot-tier.  Oh, and missing her dead mother and worrying constantly about her Guardian Bridgitte returning to France and sending to her to an orphanage.  After discovering, and misunderstanding, several important papers in Bridgitte’s suitcase, she decides she will run away before Bridgitte can leave her.  After waiting for three pivotal signs, she hits the road.

The nice part about children’s literature is that there aren’t a lot of terrible endings.  Don’t worry, this one doesn’t have a slap-you-in-the-face plot twist or anything to dishearten you.  It works out all right in the end.

The gems in this story come straight from Lucky’s mouth and her unique observations about the world.  The book is full of her musing about “meanness glands” and “knot-tying brain secretions” and her thoughts on Brigitte’s use of parsley.  The book is gentle, which is refreshing, considering the subject is an orphan growing up in astonishing poverty in the desert.  Lucky is like a combination between Kate in Trenton Lee Stewart’s  The Mysterious Benedict Society and Ramona from Beverly Cleary’s series.  She’s charming, plucky, and very easy to relate to, a character that will stick with you long after the book is over.

Patron, Susan.  The Higher Power of Lucky. Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2006. Hardcover, 144 pages

ISBN-10: 1416901949