Thursday, September 27, 2012

It Came From the Library – TRW Young Adult Horror Picks

Who doesn’t love a good scary story? One that makes you get up and double-check the locks on the doors, spooks you when a tree branch scratches against the window, or fools you into seeing shadows of creatures and ghouls on the walls around you. This year’s Teen Read Week theme is “It Came From the Library - Dare to Read…For the Fun of It!” so I decided to run with it and emphasize books that make your spine tingle and your heart race - even made my own Teen Read Week poster for my school (snatch for yourself if you'd like!). Since the release of Twilight and Hunger Games, the Y.A. horror trend has veered more towards the paranormal or dystopian variety of 'boo!', but traditional horror that centers around more realistic killings and murder mysteries is making a comeback (ie. Ten, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone, I Hunt Killers). For teen fans of horror, what’s out there to recommend beyond long-standing favorite Stephen King and the already popular vampire and werewolf series? Here are a few of the more popular titles amongst the horror fans at my school –  and I would love to hear some suggestions from you!
I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga
This is Not a Test – Courtney Summers
Dead Time (The Murder Notebooks) – Anne Cassidy
The Body Finder series – Kim Derting
Rotters – Daniel Kraus
The Butterfly Clues – Kate Ellison
The Furnace series  - Alexander Gordon Smith
Demonata series – Darren Shan
Anna Dressed in Blood series – Kendare Blake
Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone – Kat Rosenfeld
World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War – Max Brooks
Something Strange and Deadly – Susan Dennard
The Hunt – Andrew Fukuda
Rot & Ruin series – Jonathan Mayberry
Living Dead Girl – Elizabeth Scott
Blood Wounds – Susan Pfeiffer
Ashes – Ilsa Bick
The Loners – Lex Thomas
The Angel of Death – Alane Ferguson
The Body of Christopher Creed – Carol Plum-Ucci
The Truth Seeker – Dee Henderson
The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson
Ripper – Stefan Petrucha
Ripper – Amy Carol Reeves
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Death Cloud – Andrew Lane
Miss Perengrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs


Monday, September 17, 2012

Tilt – Ellen Hopkins
Every school has students who are meant for Ellen Hopkins' books, and interestingly, it’s not necessarily the kind of kids you find on the pages of Ellen Hopkins' books - at least not at my school.  While Hopkins’ teens may use and abuse drugs, have promiscuous sex, self-mutilate, attempt suicide, succeed at suicide, and suffer physical and emotional abuse – and goodness knows there are teens at my school who this certainly applies to! – there’s also that group of teens who will honestly tell you, these issues are not a part of their lives, they’re just attracted to edgy, dark stories...and Hopkins KNOWS her edgy and dark. Her books may be for and about the messed up kids of the world, but as proof of her wide appeal, you don’t have to come from a messed up home to relate to and feel for those kids who do. Take Tilt, for example…

Mikayla believes she’s found her forever and always in Dylan. He makes her feel special and loved, and they have fun partying together with each other and their friends. Things are perfect really, until her parents find out they’re having sex and forbid them to see each other. Like, really? Mikayla and Dylan are seniors in high school and old enough to know what real love is and how to express that love, so how ridiculous of her parents to try and stop them. That’s okay, though. Mik is smart. She knows how to play the role of perfect daughter and go study with a friend for a test, while she hooks up with Dylan on the side. Parents are sooooo stupid to think they can control their kids, but then Mikayla learns about lack of control the hard way when she and Dylan skip using condoms a couple of times and Mikayla ends up pregnant…and her world tilts.
Shane is gay. He knows it. His mom knows it. His dad knows it. It’s the least of his mom’s worries, though, since she is all-consumed with taking care of his 4-year-old sister, Shelby, who is slowly and surely dying of SMA, a disease that causes her spinal muscles to atrophy to the point she’ll never walk, talk or sit up. A son who’s gay is a walk through the park compared to that! Shane may live in a house of sickness and sadness, but he works hard to keep his spirits up, and meeting and falling for his first ever boyfriend, Alex, sends him soaring. Alex is everything Shane could ever want in a boyfriend – smart, funny, cute, compassionate to his family situation – but there’s just one thing. Alex reveals to Shane he’s living with HIV…and Shane’s world tilts.
Harley is your typical 13-going-on-30 teenager. Her middle school years have been spent living in the shadow of her more attractive best friend, Bri. It’s not that Harley begrudges Bri her looks, she just wants boys to notice her too. When her divorced dad starts seeing a woman with an exceptionally hot son named Chad, Harley determines to do whatever it takes to slim down and get a rockin’ bod.  She diets, starts exercising regularly, learns how to apply some heavy make-up, and whaddya know? One of Chad’s friends – well, drug buddies – takes notice. Lucas starts chatting her up, encouraging her to try new things, like weed, and new experiences, like sexting photos of herself. Smart, he never pushes her too far or too fast, and as Lucas readily admits, pursuing the Virgin is half of the fun. It’ll make closing the deal that much sweeter. Harley knows she doesn’t really like Lucas that much, but she just can’t resist the attention from a boy and being made to feel pretty and how good it feels when he touches her …and so her world tilts.
Tilt is based on Hopkins’ adult book, Triangles, which focused on the stories of the parents. Here, the teens of Triangles get their turn, and fans of Hopkins won’t be able to resist. What’s more, it’s easy to overlook the skill it takes to successfully sustain the free verse format over so many stories and books. There were times I’d stop reading Tilt just to take a moment and reread a passage and appreciate the human heart that beats behind her character’s poetic language…
I Hear
                nobody thinks so. But I do.
                Sometimes people whisper.
                Sometimes they yell.
                Sometimes they say mean things.
I see
                more than the TV. It’s my friend.
                I don’t have any others, like the kids
                on Barney do. Why are people afraid
                of me? I don’t want to hurt them.
I taste
                only the sweet air, whooshed
                through the tubes to help me breathe.
                If I’m lucky a bit of flavor comes
                with the wind or skin or clothes
I smell.
                I wish my mouth would let
                me tell Mama I love her.
                Let me tell Daddy I miss him.
                Let me tell Shane how good
I feel
                when I see him happy with Alex
                I like when I swim because when
                I float, I am free. I like when I sleep
                because I dance when
I dream.
-copyright 2012, from Tilt
Okay, so I’m going to give you a moment to clear that lump out of your throat and wipe away that tear…while I do the same.
Hopkins (http://ellenhopkins.com/) will be one of the featured authors at this year’s YallFest in Charleston, SC. She’s also one of the main reasons many of my students have chosen to go on the field trip we’ll be taking to the festival - they are dying to meet one of their all-time favorite authors. Hope she’s got her autographing hand ready!  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Berlin Boxing Club – Robert Sharenow
In a recent Edmodo poll I conducted with students at my school during orientation week, historical fiction came in DEAD LAST for preferred fiction reading genres. In order of favorite to least favorite, the rankings were: adventure/suspense, horror, dystopian, sports, romance, fantasy/sci-fi, paranormal, urban lit, and at the very bottom of the genre totem pole…historical fiction. I’ve found students who love historical fiction really love it – almost to the point of refusing to read other genres – but for the most part, I get blank, disinterested stares when I try to recommend books about past events or people. That said, the one sad era in history that never ceases to peak student interest is the Holocaust. There’s something about World War II and the Holocaust, in particular, that to this day draws in readers who otherwise want nothing to do with historical fiction – maybe it’s that the Holocaust, where one group of people did their best to completely annihilate another group of people, is at root both an adventure/suspense and horror story for the Jews who experienced it and those of us who read accounts of it today.

Part of what makes Robert Sharenow’s The Berlin Boxing Club stand out from other Holocaust titles is that Sharenow jumps in at the early part of Hitler’s rise to power, right as the Hitler Youth movement is taking root. Karl Stern is one of a handful of Jewish students at a Berlin prep school - but if you ask him, he’s a Jew by birth only. His family doesn’t actually practice Judaism as a religion or recognize any orthodox Jewish observances, and Karl himself could pass as part of the elite Aryan race Germany’s new leader Adolf Hitler is promoting – blonde, blue-eyed, light-skinned…the symbol of human perfection -  unlike those dark, vile, rat blood-filled Jews. Unfortunately, Karl falls prey to some school bullies who suspect him of being a Jew. They beat him and then pants him to see if he’s circumcised, and once Karl’s secret is out, he’s got a target on his back. Humiliated, Karl lies to his family and claims to have ‘fallen down some stairs,’ an obvious lie that his family ignores since they’ve got problems of their own. His mom battles depression, while his dad, an art gallery owner, is steadily losing business since Hitler has banned all art by the Expressionist painters Karl’s dad supports, threatening to jail anyone who shows or sells those paintings. Instead, Karl’s father makes what little money he can printing up flyers for some underground (ie. homosexual) clubs in Germany. 
It’s at one of his dad’s last art gallery showings that Karl meets Max Schmeling, a champion boxer and national German hero. Every German boy dreams of having the strength, wealth and fame of Schmeling, who beat famed American boxer, Joe Louis, in their first face-off. A cartoonist in his spare time, Karl's never cared much about physical sports, but when Schmeling calls him out on his busted face, saying he knows Karl was on the losing end of a fight not a flight of steps, Karl is ready to do what it takes to learn to fight and protect himself. Remembering Karl’s dad has a painting that a German expressionist painter did of him, Schmeling bargains with Karl’s dad – the painting in exchange for training Karl for free at his gym, the Berlin Boxing Club. After some begging on Karl’s part, his dad relents and the deal is made.
Karl takes his training seriously, getting up early each morning to do “the 300” – 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 50 pull-ups, and 50 minutes of running. Sure enough, after months of training, he finds himself growing stronger, and when Max returns from a tour of the States, he gives Karl the green light to start his boxer training at the gym. Dedicated and determined, Karl impresses the seasoned boxers at the gym with his speed and quick cuts, and before long he’s winning some amateur matches. But while Karl is getting better in the gym each day, things are only getting worse for the Jews remaining in Germany. Many flee the country after their businesses and homes are vandalized, and some families and Jews in the community start to disappear, including Karl’s outspoken, anti-Fascist Uncle Jakob, who they later learn was taken to a concentration camp specifically for Jewish traitors. When Karl’s family is evicted from their home and forced to live in the cramped quarters of his dad’s gallery basement, the Sterns realize the Germany they once knew is never going to be the same.
This book came highly recommended to me by no less than three students – all girls! – who read and loved it. The boxing storyline is secondary to the struggles of the Jewish Germans living in Nazi Germany, so while male readers might be drawn to it from both a sports as well as historical standpoint, don’t assume girls won’t like this one too. They do. I did.  
To learn more about Robert Sharenow and his book, in addition to the true story of Max Schmeling, you can visit his website at http://robertsharenow.com/ .

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be…”  - Charlie
I associate two wonderful teen pop culture milestones with the year 1999 – the brilliant but brief 18 episode run of TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” and the release of Stephen Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Interestingly, both reflect back on earlier eras (Freaks revisits high school life in 1980 while Perks looks back to 1991), yet both address themes of teen friendship and alienation that are as universal today as they were then. If you’re a kid who feels left-of-center from everyone else on the planet, then you can easily see yourself in Freaks’ Lindsay Weir or Perks’ Charlie. Over the years, I’ve always had that awkward kid or two who I knew would relate to Charlie – the ones who tend to be a bit more introspective, prefer to express themselves through art/music/poetry, seemingly relate better to adults than kids their own age. A book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower tends to be a revelation to them as well, and I always look forward to the inevitable deep conversation I’m going to have with that student when he/she returns it. That’s the thing about Perks  – as with any great book, you NEED to discuss it when you’re done.
Perks follows the freshman year of a boy who calls himself ‘Charlie.’ Charlie has been through a lot in his young life and needs to share it with someone who doesn’t really know him and won’t judge him, so he does that in a series of letters he writes to a ‘Dear Friend’ he doesn’t even know. In his first letter, the reader learns Charlie’s just lost one of his closest friends, a boy named Michael, to suicide the spring of their 8th grade year. He begins his freshman year sad and alone until he meets Sam and her stepbrother, Patrick, seniors who take Charlie under their wing. They hang out at school and on weekends, swap mixtapes, and participate in the weekly showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Sam’s unlike any girl Charlie has ever known, and he falls hard for her, but Sam is involved with a twenty-one-year-old guy and, honestly, Charlie respects Sam too much to even consider making a move on her. Patrick, meanwhile, is hooking up with the quarterback of the football team. Patrick may be out and proud, but Brad is so deep in the closet he can see Narnia. As the school year goes on, things grow tense between the trio as one of Sam’s closest friends falls for Charlie, Patrick’s relationship with Brad intensifies, and some of Charlie’s family secrets come to light.
Since its release, Perks has continually been under threat of being banned, and it’s no wonder! The book pushes just about all the major censorship brouhaha buttons – suicide, homosexuality, drug use, sexual abuse, masturbation, abortion. You’d think real teens experienced these kinds of issues…or something. It’s unfortunate people can’t see the forest of human experience for these controversial trees. Yes, it sucks to live in a world where children suffer harm, but that’s why we need books like Perks to show these kids they’re not alone and there is hope. In fact, one of the most compassionate characters in the novel is Charlie’s teacher, Bill, who shares great works of literature with Charlie and pushes him to write essays about how those books affect his view of the world. Bill is an adult and teacher who makes clear to Charlie that he's cared for as both a student and human being.
Perks may not be for everyone, but I can guarantee you it will be just the perfect book for a few special someones - and with the release of the movie in a couple of weeks, expect that number of special someones to grow. It's already become one of the most circulated books in my library this school year and the 'hold' list is growing. Even better are the discussions the book is generating between me and my students as to how they relate to Charlie, Sam and Patrick. If you haven't yet read Perks, consider moving it to the top of your 'to read' pile.  

Check out the official movie trailer above and the movie site at http://perks-of-being-a-wallflower.com/ .