Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

“‘I want to tell the rebels that I am alive.  That I’m right here in District Eight, where the Capitol has just bombed a hospital full of unarmed men, women and children.  There will be no survivors.’ The shock I’ve been feeling begins to give way to fury. ‘I want to tell people that if you think for one second the Capitol will treat us fairly if there’s a cease-fire, you’re deluding yourself.  Because you know who they are and what they do.’  My hands go out automatically, as if to indicate the whole horror around me.  ‘This is what they do! And we must fight back!’

Panem is a chaotic and dangerous world.  After the Quell, District 12 has been razed; nothing but ash and rubble remains.  The few survivors (Gale and Prim included) have taken refuge in the bunkers of District 13.  Peeta, who had been captured by the Capitol and brainwashed into believing Katniss is a deadly enemy of his, is still shaky in his beliefs.  The tracker jacker poison used to implant false memories of Katniss in his mind is hard to reverse; there are times when he cannot discern reality from fiction, and he is overwhelmed with the urge to kill her.

After the Quarter Quell, Katniss discovers that she was part of an elaborate revolutionary plot, without her permission or knowledge.  Though uncertain who to trust, and infuriated by the deception, she agrees to aid the rebels in their attempts to overthrow the government and bring an end to all future Hunger Games.  As the Mockingjay, the figurehead of the rebels, Katniss undergoes combat training and prepares to undertake a mission to assassinate President Snow.  The mission itself is dangerous; if Katniss or her companions are spotted, they will be lucky to be killed instantly.  If they are not so lucky, they will be tortured to death.

In the final volume of the trilogy, Collins explores war, violence, and loyalty.  I think she does an excellent job portraying the overall devastating nature of war: starvation, bombs, and bullets are brutal and ugly ways to die.  Furthermore, it is not always possible to tell which side characters are on, and which is the “right” side, anyway.  I feel like that is an accurate depiction, and something that is not always taught.  The rhetoric of war and the lawmakers pushing for it often paints one side as clearly in the wrong, justifying the gross waste of human life, but Collins gives us a more complicated, realistic picture.  Katniss must wrestle with her desire for vengeance, versus the need to end the cycle of brutality.  It’s a challenging read, full of pain and difficult decisions, but a sensitive and engrossing end to a solid trilogy.  Oh, and something I loved?  The epilogue.  I won’t spoil it, but I’m glad she wrote it.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. 390 pp.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

“If you haven’t been in a war and are wondering how long it takes to get used to losing everything you think you need or love, I can tell you the answer is No time at all.”

Daisy is fifteen, and has been exiled from her Manhattan home by her father and pregnant stepmother.  She won’t eat, and no amount of expensive therapists and treatment can unravel the snarl of her eating disorder.  With that, and the new baby on the way, her family was overwhelmed, and sent her to stay in England with her cousins.

England is lush and beautiful, and the country house where her cousins live is shelter to goats, chickens, and other livestock.  They live rather unconventional lives, direct their own homeschooling, and get by with minimal supervision (though lots of love) from their mother, Daisy’s aunt.

It’s all lovely, until the War.  England is attacked, no one is sure who The Enemy is, and people run out of medicine and food. There are power failures and rationing.  There is mass panic and confusion.  In the middle of it all, Daisy’s paradise becomes a nightmare.  The cousins are separated, and survival is their only focus.

I can’t rave about this book enough.  It’s brutal and shocking at times-I turned my face from the pages during some sections.  However, that brutality is juxtaposed with lyrical descriptions of love and beauty.  Daisy’s voice is spot-on, realistic and absolutely compelling.  Furthermore, it has a timeless quality, which I think distinguishes good books from excellent books.  What I mean is, the book doesn’t seem tied down to a particular era.  The Enemy is unnamed and unknown.  While it is set in modern times, there are few pop culture references to burden this book and make it inaccessible to readers thirty years from now, and it addresses issues that will always be of concern: love, war, family, and fear.  Rosoff’s use of language (no quotation marks, capitalization of important words for emphasis, and Daisy’s unique voice) is incredible, as well: not intrusive, but crafted to direct readers’ minds to the sort of fear-inducing media techniques that are so common today.

This has been made into a radio program, and I will try my hardest to find a link to it.  In the meantime, please find this book and read it. It won the Printz Award, the Guardian Award (which is similar to the U.S. Newbery Medal) and was nominated to win the U.K. Carnegie Medal (for outstanding YA or children’s lit).  And I put it on the All Time Awesome-est list.  Want to hear something else amazing?  Yeah, this is Meg Rosoff’s first novel.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. Wendy Lamb Books: New York, 2004. 194 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you like this, I think you will also like Nothing  by Janne Teller.

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:

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

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

“Safa, no matter how they might treat us, those who would hold us captive are always tyrants.”

In 2003, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad zoo, freed by the bombs pummeling the city.  Starving, they roam the city, trying to find prey, fresh water, and a place to hide from the tanks and soldiers.  They argue over whether it is ethical to eat the corpse of a fallen inhabitant of the city.  They cower in terror when the tanks rumble by, chewing up the land.  They stumble into Saddam’s palatial ruins, and find other miserable wild animals chained there.  It’s a harsh and confusing world, especially for lions that have been captives for the majority of their lives.

This is an interesting perspective on the devastation of war.  The drawings are crisp, bright, and gruesome at times.  The lions are rough, with a distinctively wild tone to their conversations.  Don’t let the illustrations and the characters fool you:  this isn’t for young people.  There’s an odd moment of lion sex, a headless giraffe, and bloody corpses scattered throughout.  The first time I read it, I didn’t like it at all: I was put off by the characterization of the lions and confused by the random sex.  However, my partner loved it.  She pointed out that it could be allegorical for the short freedom of the Iraqi people after they were freed from Saddam’s reign.  I can totally see that now, after reflecting on it for a day.

I have to say, this is a very unique take on the story, and it is based on true events: American soldiers did actually shoot and kill starving lions, escaped from the zoo, in Baghdad.  It’s not a light or cuddly read, though.  However, it’s definitely worth a look.

Happy Reading!

Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon.  Pride of Baghdad. New York: Vertigo, 2006. 138 pp. 16 and up.

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

“Gen, quick, take your mother! Hurry! You’ve got to take care of your mother! Your baby brother is still in your mama’s belly…you can’t die! You’ve got to survive!”

This graphic novel is the first in a ten-volume series, and it is an autobiographical account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Yes, autobiographical.  This really happened to the author, when he was six years old.  At 8:15, the atomic bomb detonated above Hiroshima, and the only way he survived was because he was protected by a concrete retaining wall at school.  He lost his brother, sister, and father: the house crushed his brother, and his father and sister were trapped and burned to death.  At the time, his mother was eight months pregnant, and the shock sent her into labor.  Adding tragedy upon tragedy, his little sister never reached her first birthday: she died of malnutrition.

But I started with the end of the book first.  Before the bomb drops, we learn about Gen and his family: the brother who is sent away to the country to protect him from bombs, the other brother who enlisted in the army, Gen’s father, who believes the war is a senseless, needless tragedy, perpetuated at the hands of rich leaders who are willing to sacrifice everything, including the lives of their citizens.  Everyone is hungry; everyone is frightened.  Even amidst the fear, there are acts of generosity and kindness, though, and it contrasts with the horrors of war, portrayed through a child’s eyes.

I know that for American readers, it is sometimes easy to equate graphic novels with comic books, and therefore associate them with frivolous topics: superheroes and the like.  However, that’s not the case.  Keiji Nakazawa began cartooning his experiences during World War II as a way to heal, and recover from the years of terror, starvation, and death.  Upon seeing his creations, This series was translated into many languages by Project Gen, and the author has this to say about the project:

“Human beings are foolish.  Thanks to bigotry, religious fanaticism, and the greed of those who traffic in war, the Earth is never at peace, and the specter of nuclear war is never far away.  I hope that Gen’s story conveys to its readers the preciousness of peace and the courage we need to live strongly, yet peacefully.”

This is one book that I won’t be forgetting quickly.

Happy Reading!

Nakazawa, Keiji.  Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. Vol I.  San Francisco: Last Gap Books, 2004.  284 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

“The war-if there ever was one-was over, but the curfew was still in effect.  Every evening at the stroke of six, the lights in every house and every street were extinguished.  And when night fell, the seven hills of Kampala were trapped under what seemed to Sabine like a big black burkha that wrapped them all in the dark while the countdown snared its prey.”

In 1972, the president of Uganda announced a countdown:  the British Indians within the country have ninety days to get out.  Sabine is Indian by heritage, but she and her mother, father, and brother are Ugandan citizens, so they are hoping that they’re safe.  However, things get complicated when Sabine’s uncle disappears and she suspects it’s because he’s been imprisoned, or worse.  To make things more confusing, Sabine and her best friend, who is a Ugandan, fight about their loyalties.

Through it all, Sabine tries to be brave for her family, take care of her little brother, and understand the racism and socio-economic divide between the Indians and Ugandans in Uganda.  In the end, she finds herself growing and being stronger and braver than she ever thought was possible.

There’s a lot going on in this book: political strife, a government kidnapping, racism, class tensions, issues with gender identity and special needs, and fights between friends.  I actually think that each separate thread in the novel could be a story in itself, but the setting is interesting and not very well-known.  That alone makes the story worth reading.

Author’s website:

Nanji, Shenaaz. Child of Dandelions. Front Street Books: Honesdale, PA, 2008. 214 pages. Ages 12-16.  ISBN 978-1932425932.

If you like this book, try Chain of Fire by Beverly Naidoo, or Frances Temple’s Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti.