The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

cover image for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAlexie, Sherman. (2007) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Plot Summary:

Junior lives with a loving and close knit family on a reservation in Washington state, where he spends his days attempting to avoid getting picked on, messing around with his best friend, Rowdy, and drawing cartoons.  Born with persistent medical problems and into abject poverty, Junior approaches life with humor but no illusions as to what his chances are or regarding the unfair way in which he and his community have been treated.  After he punches his teacher, prompting from the teacher a confession and the advice to “go where there is hope” Junior tells his parents that he wants to transfer to the all white Reardon High.  His neighbors see the decision as an act of betrayal, but Junior is determined to go out and find hope – and possibly even find some to bring back to his community.

Critical Evaluation:

Told with elegance, humor, and wit, Alexi’s semi-autobiographical tale of one boy’s struggle to follow his dreams without losing his heritage is a must for any young adult collection and deserves all the praise it has gotten.  Alexie does not shy away from saying the truth, however hard it may be to hear.  The institutional poverty and discrimination he describes is neither downplayed nor romanticized and everyone in the book is portrayed with respect and honesty.  The balance between the difficult subject matter and Junior’s jokes and cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney) is a delicate one and expertly done; the comedy acting as a counterpoint to the hopelessness and grief that surrounds Junior and allowing Alexie to delve deeply and often into depressing subject matter without overwhelming or losing readers.

Reader’s Annotation:

Juniors neighbor’s call him a traitor for transferring to Reardon High, where the only other Indian is the team mascot, but Junior is determined to go where he thinks he can find hope – and possibly carry some back home.

Author Information:

http://www.fallsapart.com/

@Sherman_Alexie

Genre:

Multicultural

Booktalking Ideas:

Alexie’s voice is so very distinctive and engaging, I would be tempted to just read the first chapter straight through.  Although I may need to edit for time and add some of the basic premise afterwards.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/13-17

Possible Controversy:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has unfortunately already been banned from many schools and has made the ALA’s top ten challenged book list several times.  While the sex and masturbation discussed in the book are often given as the reason, it’s clear that many people are disturbed by the frank discussion of poverty and racism.

Reasons for Choosing This Book:

When I read Alexie’s response to the New York Post article about young adult books being to dark I knew I had to read his novel.

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Liar

cover image for LiarLarbalestier, Justine. (2009). Liar. NewYork: Bloomsbury.

Plot Summary/Critical Evaluation:

Everybody lies.  We say that we adore gifts that we hate, profess delight in meals that are lacking, and assure our parents that yes, our homework is all done.  For most of us, the lying ends there.  Not for Micah though, she doesn’t just tell the occasional white lie, she’s a compulsive liar.  “But [she’s] going to stop.”  She has to.  So pay attention, because she’s going to tell you the truth and she’s “going to tell it straight.  No lies, no omissions.”

Layer by layer, Larbalestier peels back Micah’s deceptions to expose the truth and banish the lies, but they are rarely what you’d expected.  Micah doesn’t pretend to know bands that she has never heard of, claim to own trophies that she never earned, or fake an illness to get out of class.  Rather, she decides to wear a Venetian mask to school – and forges a doctor’s note to justify it.

There is a peculiar and unexpected honesty in Micah’s fibs.  False as they are, they also let her push against the edges of conformity and let Micah be herself without forcing her to claim to know who she is when she doesn’t yet.   At the same time, they also act as role to play and hide behind – even from herself.

When her friend Zach disappears, however, Micah discovers that her lies might finally cost her more than just the goodwill of her peers.  No longer simply a cathartic confession of past sins, Liar quickly becomes an especially twisted kind of mystery, with Micah’s admissions of falsehood and guilt taking on the urgency of someone both digging for the truth and fighting for survival.

The twists and turns that Micah’s story takes also do more than keep readers on their toes. Because of the way that the story is structured, the lies rely as much on our assumptions of what constitutes normalcy as they do on Micah’s audacity. It’s beyond brilliant, exceptionally appropriate in a novel for young adults, and Larbalestier deserves nothing but praise for pulling it off.

This is a novel that, like Micah, refuses to be boxed in.  It’s not simply that it flirts with genres the same way that Micah plays with her identity.  Rather, like Micah herself, how you classify it and how much you enjoy it will greatly depend on which parts of her story you choose to believe.

Larbalestier’s clear understanding of the fandom traditions of genre fiction bleed onto the page, demanding that the conversation expand beyond the reading of the book itself.  Liar is a novel that is meant to be talked about, it’s value and interest is fundamentally tied to comparing notes and possibilities afterwards.  The obvious conundrum is that spoilers for a book such as this – even mild ones – would also impose points of view that would limit the discussions afterwards.

So when I tell you that you must read it – and now – know that I say this not because it is lacking flaws, but because I am eager to hear what you thought of it.

Reader’s Annotation:

Everybody lies – sometimes.  Micah lies all the time.  She’s going to tell you the truth though, so listen up.

Author Information:

http://justinelarbalestier.com/

@JustineLavaworm

Genre:

Science Fiction (but that is my opinion.  I assure you that you may have a completely different one)

Booktalking Ideas:

This is actually a very difficult book to talk up, for the reasons already mentioned in the review.  Most shorter book talks can simply focus on the idea of the unreliable narrator.  Longer ones will have to try to bring in mild spoilers from the first few pages – Zach’s disappearance being on of the major ones.

Reading Level/Target Age:

5th grade/14-18

Potential Controversy:

Micah is bisexual, lies to her parents (duh), sneaks around with her boyfriend, and, well, let’s just say there is a decent amount of violence.  I wouldn’t really expect many challenges, however, because I can’t see many people talking about this book with people that have not already read it.    Challenges that do come up can be responded to with the fact that the book is meant to be, in part, an exploration of the rationalizations we make for less than moral choices; Micah’s more dubious actions are not condoned by the text.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I honestly wasn’t terribly intrigued by the idea of a “psychological thriller” about a teen girl who lies.  I have a lot of respect for Larbalestier herself though, based on her posts and tweets, and the book was recommended by a friend.  I am very glad I decided to finally read it.

Death Cloud

cover image for Death CloudLane, Andrew. (2010) Death Cloud. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux



Plot Summary:

Young Sherlock Holmes is looking forward to going home after another semester away at school. Instead, he has been shipped off to his aunt and uncle’s country estate.  Sherlock resigns himself to a long summer spent in the non-bustling village of Farnham, but instead finds himself mixed up in all kinds of mysterious occurrences, from deaths of unknown origins to black clouds that seem to have a mind of their own.  Now it’s up to Sherlock to stop a plague and save the British army.

 
Critical Evaluation:

The flap copy highlights that this is “the first teen series endorsed by the Conan Doyle Estate,” suggesting that this particular story has something special to offer. Sadly, this is not the case.  It’s a perfectly passable story that manages to be odd enough to avoid predictability despite the plot not being terribly well thought out.  While the time spent reading it was not exactly a waste, I think most teens that might enjoy this novel would get more enjoyment out of the original stories, despite it featuring an adult rather than teen protagonist.

Readers’s Annotation:

Sherlock Holmes may be only [age] – but that doesn’t mean he’s not on the case!

Author Information:

Andrew Lane does not have a site, but the series does:

http://www.youngsherlock.com/

Genre:

Mystery

Reading Level/Target Age:

6th grade/12-16

Booktalk:

(Wait…you aren’t supposed to book talk books you didn’t like, right? Does that mean I can skip this part? No?)

It’s tempting to use the popularity of the recent TV series in order to get teens interested in reading this particular novel, but they are very dissimilar in terms of style and I think many fans of the BBC adaptation show would be disappointed in the book if I did that.  Rather, I would focus on the more fantastic parts of the plot.

Possible Controversy:

Unless mediocre prose and absurdly unlikely plots and characters are going to start being a reason to challenge teen books, I think this title is safe.  There is violence, but nothing that stands out in comparison to the rest of young adult literature.

Reason for choosing this title:

I promise I did not read this because of Cumberbatch of Moffet, I hadn’t seen the tv show when I started reading it.  I just thought a story about a teen-aged Sherlock Holmes would be interesting and the cover looked like it was something that might catch teens’ attention.

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You

cover image for I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You

Carter, Ally. (2006) I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children

Plot Summary:

Most everyone in town thinks that the girls that attend the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women are nothing but a bunch of spoiled snobs.  That’s the way they like it though, because when the truth is that your school is training you to become a spy, it’s always good to know your cover story is holding up.  But when an ordinary boy starts to notice Cameron Morgan (nickname, the Chameleon) she’s suddenly not so sure that she wants to keep hiding in plain sight.

Critical Evaluation:

There’s no denying that Ally Carter’s excessively popular Gallagher Girls series is stuffed to bursting with silliness and absurdly improbable scenarios – like schedules printed on evapopaper and field trips that involve “borrowing” delivery trucks.  It also has a lot more depth than it often gets credit for.  Snuck between the slapstick comedy and preciousness are some interesting questions about identity, sacrifice, and who heroism is really for.  When Cammie’s new teacher questions if her father should have gone on the mission that ended up being his last, he isn’t just talking about skills, but rather asking if it was worth it.

The text does not provide neat answers to these questions, but neither does it dwell on them; rather than challenging anything head on or at length, it tends to come at things sideways and then quickly move onto more diverting topics.  Complexity is often dismissed in favor of humor and happy endings.  I think it is this, as much as the trappings of the book, that causes some to dismiss the series.

That’s alright though, because, like the Gallagher Academy itself, that’s how it’s supposed to work.  While others may roll their eyes at the silliness of it all and dismiss their fannishness as rooted in finding shiny! happy! preppiness appealing, the fans themselves know what their plaid skirts really represent.

This isn’t a series specifically for older teens, although many may like it and it’s a respectable inclusion in any young adult collection.  The audience it will most appeal to are younger teen girls, who are just beginning to be pressured to hide their passions and intelligence; the girls who are in the process of losing the fearlessness of girlhood for the insecurities and self-consciousness of adolescence.  [Unfortunately, I also need to add the qualifiers of “white, straight, middle class” younger teen girls, for while it could be worse in terms of inclusiveness, it could also do much better.]

For the girls that come to signings decked out in Gallagher Girls plaid, the series clearly offers them a way to hide in plain sight, just like Cammie does.  Readers are not necessarily challenged by the series, but it does offer much more than comfort or amusement– it offers a path for subversion that may perhaps be too safe to be effective in changing things now, but yet still gives girls the strength to stay true to themselves until they feel more confident in speaking their minds publicly.  The high expectations that Cammie and her classmates have for themselves, and the knowledge that failure means more than just some red marks on a page, also give voice to the pressures of perfection that many girls feel without requiring that they directly question the institutions they take part in. In short, it gives them a way to make a show of embracing compulsory femininity while not feeling ashamed of their complicated and less than perfect inner selves.   It is this, I think, that is the secret to the series success – and the reason why it is only occasionally brilliant and yet also cleverer than it often gets credit for.

Reader’s Annotation:

Cameron “Chameleon” Morgan gets top marks in her covert ops classes, so why is it that an ordinary boy with no spy training at all notices her?  And what will happen if Cammie decides that she no longer wants to stay hidden?

Author Information:

http://allycarter.com/blog/

@officiallyally

Genre:

Girl’s Series

Booktalking Ideas:

Most everyone in town thinks that the girls that attend the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women are nothing but a bunch of spoiled snobs.  That’s the way they like it though, because when the truth is that your school is training you to become a spy, it’s always good to know your cover story is holding up.

Reading Level/Target Age:

6th grade / 10-16

Potential Controversy:

I honestly cannot think of any.  Not so much because there is nothing for anyone to object to – because there is always something someone will find objectionable – but because the series does such a good job of hiding from the people who would object to it.

Reasons for choosing this title:

I was curious by the age levels suggested in Teen Genreflecting 3 because the girls I saw lining up at a signing two years ago were all very young.  I also wanted to see for myself what makes the series so appealing.

Outsiders

suggested cover for The Outsiders

Hinton, S. E. (1967). The Outsiders. New York, NY: Speak
Plot Summary:

Ponyboy’s life isn’t the stuff of dreams- but it’s not all bad either.  He’s got his brothers still, if not his parents, and while he may have the occasional run in with the preppy socs, he also has the rest of the greasers to back him up.  For the times when even all that is not enough, Ponyboy can always escape into movies and books.   But when the unthinkable happens, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny find themselves on the run from both the socs and the law, and in more danger than they ever thought possible.
Critical Evaluation:
Nearly half a century after it was first published The Outsiders has lost some of the freshness that made it so unique and trailblazing back in the day.  That is the price of being the kind of story that other authors aspire to write.  What it has not lost is its appeal and ability to speak to teens about their experiences.  While the specific language, weapons, and consequences have changed, the underlying themes of class conflict, friendship, loyalty, and hope (or lack thereof) still rings true for modern teen readers.
Reader’s Annotation:

When trip to the movies with his best friend ends in disaster, Ponyboy finds himself on the run and running out of luck.
Author Information:

Like a lot of young adult authors who began to make their mark decades ago, S. E. Hinton doesn’t have much of an online presence.  She can be found/contacted at:
http://www.sehinton.com/

sehinton@sehinton.com

Genre:

Classics

Booktalking Ideas:

This is such a beloved book that I might be tempted to steal from (better written) amazon and goodreads reviews by teens themselves.  Talking up the fact that Hinton was a teen herself when she wrote the book would be a good angle as well.

Reading Level/Target Age:

5th grade / 12-16
Potential Controversy:
While there might be objections to the language and activities in the book, and the title is in fact still often challenged, it’s longstanding status as a beloved story and a required reading title in schools across the nation makes such challenges easier to refute than they are for many other books.
Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I somehow missed reading The Outsiders as a teen myself and never really had any intention of correcting that until I got to hear Ms. Hinton speak at a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books.  Hearing her talk about writing in general, and specifically this story, made me curious about her work.

Wintergirls

Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2009). Wintergirls. New York: Viking.

cover image for Wintergirls
Plot Summary/Critical Evaluation:

“It’s not nice when girls die.”

It’s even less nice when the girl was your best friend and her “body [was] found in a motel room, alone.”

Lia’s story begins not just with the death of her friend, Cassie, but also with Lia’s steadfast avoidance of the topic.  We quickly learn that this is a standard coping mechanism for Lia; even before this new tragedy, she routinely subsumed her anxieties about her future, and her frustrations with her blended family, into an obsessive need to be be thin.

“I take the cup from her.  My throat wants it my brain wants it my blood wants it my hand does not want this my mouth does not want this.”

Much of the brilliance in this book is found in the narrative style; Anderson is not afraid to play with typography, grammar, and punctuation in order to convey Lia’s fractured thoughts.  What could have been a confusing mess in lesser hands becomes a way to skillfully sink us deeper and deeper into Lia’s psyche.

1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10.11.12.13.14.15.16.17.18.19.
20.21.22.23.24.25.26.27.28.29.30.31.32.33.

As Lia continues to starve herself, her sorrow and fuel deprived brain work together to create haunting hallucinations of her dead friend.  The farther we fall with Lia into her rabbit hole, the clearer it becomes that she is not only full of despair but also anguish over her own actions – or lack thereof.  There is more here than just standard survivor’s guilt, though.  Even Lia’s constant repetition of the the numbers one through thirty-three – the number of times Cassie called her and only got voicemail that fateful night – is designed to distract her from thinking of other secrets.

…When I was a real girl, my mother fed me her glass dreams one spoonful at a time.”

At one point near the end of the book Cassie tells Lia that she has won, that she has been able to accomplish what Cassie could not.  It is this hollow victory that starts Lia on the road to recovery.  As hard as Lia tries to believe in the possibility of perpetually existing in this limbo state of dying by inches, the death of her friend makes it so that she cannot hide from the truth any longer.  By the end of the book, Lia has decided that she would at least like to try not being a wintergirl, however difficult that may be.

“I take the razor blades out of the bag…inscribe three lines, hush hush hush, into my skin.  Ghosts trickle out.”

It would be rather easy to present Lia as a privileged, middle class teenager whose inability to cope with the pressures of her life are easily dismissed as merely a sign of weakness or immaturity.  Instead Anderson accomplishes the much more difficult task of showing us how young and vulnerable Lia was when the process began, and how this disease in particular creates a dangerous feedback loop that is incredibly difficult to break free from.

Wintergirls is one of the most powerful and unique young adult books I have read, and I strongly recommend it.

Reader’s Annotation:

“It’s not nice when girls die.”  It’s even less nice when the girl was your best friend…and you are in danger of joining her.

About the Author:

Laurie Halse Anderson has an official website, keeps a blog and tumblr, and tweets.  She regularly engages with readers online and frequently travels to signings and conventions that are accessible to teens.  (Although health concerns have curtailed these activities recently.)  While her livejournal and tumblr are meant for friends, fellow writers, and adult fans as well as teen readers, she doesn’t use language or discuss topics that would not also be appropriate for older teens.

http://madwomanintheforest.com/

http://halseanderson.livejournal.com/

http://lauriehalseanderson.tumblr.com/

@halseanderson

Booktalking Ideas:

It’s tempting to talk up the main theme of the book, but that might also come across as making the book sound preachy, which it isn’t.  Unless I know my audience well, I would likely use Cassie’s death and Lia’s guilt as the hook.
Genre:  Realistic Fiction

but with fantasy/science fiction and mystery/suspense elements thrown into the mix.

Reading Level/Target Age:  7th grade/14-19

While Accelerated Reader and Scholastic Reading Counts place this title at fourth grade level, in my opinion this just demonstrates the weakness of such systems.  Wintergirls is most certainly written at a reading level well below the upper limit of its target age and content appropriateness, but it is also a more complex read than the vocabulary alone would suggest.  Understanding and keeping track of the plot, as well as the meaning implied by the shifts in typography, requires analytical skills and foundations in grammar and punctuation that are beyond most fourth graders, but expected for middle school students.

Possible Controversy:

This book includes very frank and detailed discussions about self harm.  Parents and librarians should be aware that Anderson herself strongly suggests caution in recommending this book to teens that are already struggling with anorexia nervosa, as many of the actions that Lia takes in the book can be used as a guide for how to do the same.

However, I would also let anyone who challenged the book’s inclusion in a young adult collection know that the author and editor consulted with doctors and psychologists throughout its creation, and that the overwhelming response was that the horror and danger the story depicts is both realistic and desperately needed in conversations with young people about body image in general and anorexia in particular.

Reason for Reading This Book:

In addition to the fact that I found Speak to be quite brilliant as well, I had a chance to listen to the author talk about Wintergirls shortly after it came out.  Her comments about writing this novel intrigued me enough that I bought a signed copy that day.