Monster

cover image for MonsterMyers, Walter Dean. (1999) Monster. New York, NY: HarperCollin’s Children’s Books

Plot Summary:

Sixteen year old Steve Harmon is in jail, waiting to be tried for murder, and not even his attorney is convinced he’s innocent. If he’s convicted, it will be decades before he can get out.  Overwhelmed and afraid, Steve retreats to his journal, telling his story in screenplay form, just like he learned to do in film club at school.

Critical Evaluation:

The cover of Monster is covered with so many prestigious awards it’s a wonder there is room for anything else – and it deserves every one of them.  The idea of a novel as a screenplay does not sound like a brilliant idea, aside from the novelty factor, but Myers work here is brilliant.  Not only is the screenplay itself well done but the detachment and insightful commentary found in it is in stark contrast to Steve’s more personal and panicked journal entries.  Together they offer thought-provoking and empathetic commentary on not only Steve’s plight but on the dangers, discrimination, and stereotypes that black boys like Steve must navigate.

Reader’s Annotation:

“The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is getting beaten up. That way they won’t hear you.”

Author Information:

http://www.walterdeanmyers.net/

Genre:

Award Winner

Booktalking Ideas:

One of the more clever parts of the book is the fact that it’s never quite clear if Steve is guilty or not; this allows Myers to both suggest innocence while also making the case that Steve deserves compassion regardless. I think it would be interesting try a booktalk that casts the listeners as the jury and the presenter as an attorney.  That way in can present it as a kind of whodunit (which is a driving plot point) but also keep the focus on letting the readers make up their own minds, as the book does.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/14-19

Possible Controversy:

There is frank talk of rape and other violence perpetrated by inmates and the view of the justice system is honest but not terribly flattering.  Like many things that make books controversial, this is also a big part of what makes it such an essential story.  The multiple awards as well as the importance of the topic should help when making a defense.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I’ve been remiss in not reading anything by Myers before and this is one of the titles I hear about most often.

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Son of the Mob

cover image for Son of the MobGordon, Korman, (2002) Son of the Mob.  New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children

Plot Summary:

It’s not unusual to have siblings that sabotage your dates, that’s what siblings do.  Vince Luca is pretty sure most of them don’t do it by stashing dead bodies in the trunk of your car, however.  But, as the son of a local mob boss, that’s just the kind of unexpected gift he’s always had to deal with.  Things get even more complicated than normal, though, when Vince falls for a new girl.., whose father just happens to be an FBI agent.  And not just any agent, but the one that’s been trying to bring his dad down for years.  The one that’s bugged his house and listens to all his families’ conversations.

Critical Evaluation:

Son of the Mob is not a serious or realistic book, far from it.  What it is is irreverent and downright hilarious. Despite being so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh, there’s also some interesting hearts to hearts between Vince and his dad about the ways that Vince has benefited from his dad’s business sense, so to speak, and whether that makes him a hypocrite for wanting no part in the family practice.  While most teens don’t have mob bosses for parents, many have ideals that their parents realities do not live up to and in between the laughter, Korman does provide some food for thought.

Reader’s Annotation:

It’s not unusual to have siblings that sabotage your dates, that’s what siblings do.  Vince Luca is pretty sure most of them don’t do it by stashing dead bodies in the trunk of your car, however.

Genre:

Humor

Booktalking Ideas:

I think it would be funny to comapre Vince and Kendra to other famous star crossed lovers.  The trip would be to try to be funny, like the book, which is often the most difficult thing to do.

Reading Level/Target Age:

5th grade/13-16

Potential Controversy:

While there is violence, is all of screen and very tongue in cheek.

Reasons for Choosing this Title:

Recommended in on of the class textbooks.

The Great Wide Sea

cover image for The Great Wide SeaHerlong, M.H. (2008) The Great Wide Sea. New York, NY: Viking Juvenile

Plot Summary:

While Ben and his younger brothers are still recovering from their mother’s death, their father sells their home, buys a boat, and takes them sailing in the tropics.  The normal tension between a teenage boy and his father is intensified to the breaking point by grief, the father’s increasingly erratic behavior, and the lack of places to escape to for solitude or peer companionship.  Just when Ben is convinced nothing could get worse, his father disappears overnight, leaving Ben alone in the middle of the ocean, uncertain of where he is, and with his brother’s lives depending on him.

Critical Evaluation:

Herlong writes a compelling story of grief, conflict with parents, and caring for younger siblings – and it does so in a way that feels both honest to boys’ experiences (at least, as far as I can tell) and with a respectable about of depth.  The survival story and the main character’s growing conflict with his father were each enough to keep me turning the pages.  Together, they were simply excellent.  Unfortunately, the ending felt out of place with the rest of story, leaving a bit of a sour aftertaste

Reader’s Annotation:

Whe his mother died, Ben didn’t think it was possible for live to ever get any worse – until his grieving father disappears overnight while on a sailing trip, leaving Ben stranded in the middle of the ocean with his two young brothers.

Genre:

Adventure

Author Information:

http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/h/m-h-herlong/

Booktalking Ideas:

Survival stories are always good for asking “what if?” and “what would you do” and this is no exception.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/12-16

Potential Controversy:

Parents acting in a way that means their children can’t depend on them tends to bother many people, but since this is an adventure story for boys, likely less so than with other books.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I thought the premise sounded fascinating and wondered if the book would live up to it.  I also thought the cover would catch the eye of a lot of teens, especially boys.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation – Vol. 1: The Pox Party

cover image for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox PartyAnderson, M.T. (2006) The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation – Vol. 1: The Pox Party. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press

Plot Summary:

Octavian Nothing lives with his mother in Boston in a house full of philosophers and scientists.  As part of his experiments in Natural Philosophy, the head of the household, Mr. Gitney, is attempting to see if the Africans are indeed an inferior race – and Octavian is his main subject of study.  It’s a strange and uncertain life, but unlike most other black children his age he is encouraged to focus on learning his letters and music and art – all the things young gentleman are taught.  Until Mr. Gitney’s English benefactor dies and the relative who inherits his wealth turns out to have ties to influential slave owners in the colonies.  Soon, what little dignity and warmth was offered to Octavian is stripped away and he is left with nothing but the knowledge he has gained.

Critical Evaluation:

This first volume of Octavian’s story is a dense and complicated read; Anderson went to great lengths to research and recreate the language of the time and it shows, the insights into colonial life and politics are fascinating and memorable.  While many have argued that this – and the complicated plot – makes it  inaccessible to teens I disagree.  It’s no less accessible than Huckleberry Finn and easily presents a more complex view of our nation’s history of racism – and black teen’s experiences in the US – than that particular classic, as deservedly beloved and praised as it is.  Anderson refuses to pull any punches and goes to great lengths to show how ego and arrogance consistently corrupt otherwise good intentions.  It’s a thought provoking read that greatly deserves the awards and praise it has been given.

Reader’s Annotation:

At a time when most of the other black children his age are treated like livestock, Octavian Nothing has been raised as the son of a gentleman would – but when he learns the truth as to why, it tears his world apart.

Author Information:

http://www.mt-anderson.com/

@Manderson_Rules

Genre:

Historical Fiction

Booktalking Ideas:

The hardest part about convincing kids to read this is to convince them that the effort is worth it.  I would focus on painting a dramatic overall picture of his life before all the changes start happening to help get them invested in him as a character as well as ease them into the language throughout the talk.

Reading Level/Target Age:

9th grade/ 14-19

Potential Controversy:

Like real life – and history – this is a very messy book at times, so to speak, and could definitely offend anyone who was expecting a more sanitized look at that period in time.  Worse yet, it suggests that the US and it’s citizens have not always been on the correct side of history.  It will get challenged, although it remains relatively obscure enough for challenging it to not be overly popular.

Reasons for Choosing This Book:

I thought it sounded like it would be very different from the normal fare – and I was not disappointed.

Whatever Happened to Goodbye

cover image for Whatever Happened to GoodbyeDessen, Sarah. (2011) Whatever Happened to Goodbye. New York, NY: Viking

Plot Summary:

McLean doesn’t mind moving yet again, she’s used to it by now.  She looks forward to reinventing herself yet again, creating a persona to match her mood, knowing that she can be someone else in another few months or a year.  But when MacLean starts putting down roots – and falling in love – she suddenly realizes that she’s not sure who she is anymore.

Critical Evaluation:

An utterly enjoyable read full of small moments rather than big events, Whatever Happened to Goodbye demonstrates all the characteristics that have made Dessen’s work a staple of any young adult collection.  The focus on handling change, human frailty, forgiving adults for being human, and being ready to take risks should appeal and speak to many teens. The ending was perhaps a bit too neat, not in that everything worked out in the end but that everything was resolved in a timely manner, leaving the story at merely good and not great.

Reader’s Annotation:

McLean doesn’t mind moving yet again, she’s used to it by now.  What she isn’t so sure about it staying in one place and putting down roots.

Author Information:

http://sarahdessen.com/

http://sarahdessen.com/blog/

http://www.facebook.com/sarahdessenbooks

@sarahdessen

Genre:

Realistic Fiction

Booktalking Ideas:

I’d start by asking listeners to imagine who they would be if they could reinvent themselves and then launch into the setup for the book.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/15-19

Possible Controversy:

Sad as it is that normal teen mistakes can make a book controversial, but MacLean runs away and several of the kids meet because they have to do community service and that might suggest endorsement to some parents.  Generally though, it’s a sweet book and probably won’t be challenged.

Reasons for Choosing this Title:

How in the world did it come to pass that I had not read anything by Dessen before this? I do not know, but that’s fixed now. And I will likely be reading more soon.

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment

cover image for Maximum Ride: The Angel ExperimentPatterson, James. (2005) Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment.  New York, NY; Little, Brown Books.

Plot Summary:

Max isn’t quite human.  The results of a scientific experiment, she and the rest of her flock are are avian-human hybrids with wings.  Family by choice, they live together in as much harmony as you can expect from 6 people under the age of 17, and always keep an eye out for the scientists they escaped from.  When their home is invaded and the youngest, Angel, is abducted it’s up to Max to keep everyone together and get Angel back.

Critical Evaluation:

I suspect there was really a good story hiding in there somewhere, if only Patterson could be bothered to write a halfway decent book. As it was, I was intrigued enough to keep turning the pages, but constantly annoyed by, for example, chapters that were consistently two chapters long.  As if constantly creating a new chapter was a legitimate way to do transitions or build suspense.

Reader’s Annotation:

On the run and separated from her adopted family, most teens in Max position would give up. But Max has one thing going for her: she’s not quite human.

Author Information:

http://www.jamespatterson.com/

Genre:

Action Series

Booktalking Ideas:

Despite the popularity of this title, I expect many kids don’t know what it’s about.  A simple but dramatic plot synopsis should intrigue listeners.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/12-17

Possible Controversy:

Adults are now shown in the most positive light in this series, and there is violence and then some.  Oddly, Patterson’s reputation as an adult writer seems to keep in insulated from most criticism.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I’ve seen and heard about these books for years, and figured I ought to see for myself what they are about.

The Chocolate War

cover image for The Chocolate WarCormier, Robert. (1974) The Chocolate War. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Plot Summary:

Every student at Trinity has a quota: sell 50 boxes a chocolates.  If you don’t you’ll have to answer not just to the teachers, but to the Vigils, the not-so-secret society that lives to terrorize their fellow students.  As Jerry Renault contemplates his mother’s recent death, his father’s emotional absence, and the poster in his locker that queries: “Do I dare disturb the Universe?” he decides that his answer is “yes, I do, I do. I think.”   As Jerry’s refusal to sell the chocolates catches on among his fellow students, Jerry ends up taking on more then even he bargained for.

Critical Evaluation:

Cromier’s most celebrated novel, The Chocolate War is bleak and disturbing, much like high school itself can be.  It’s not only full of unlikable characters and impossible situations, it more notably refuses to offer hope – a choice that is still unique among young adult fiction, which tends to offer a silver lining even after the darkest of storms.  Yet it does provide inspiration and thoughtfulness, for what kind of heroes would our heroes be if they only dared to disturb the universe when they thought they would be rewarded for it?

Reader’s Annotation:

Who knew that refusing to sell candy bars would be so dangerous?

Author Information:

Cormier, sadly, is no longer with us.

Genre:

Classics

Booktalking Ideas:

This would be a good story to pose a series of questions along the lines of “have you ever…?”  While The Chocolate War is still very pertinent and popular, it’s also nearly have a century old and many students could probably use convincing that they will indeed relate to Jerry and his struggles.

Reading Level/Target Age:

7th grade/13-16

Possible Controversy:

The Chocolate War has been frequently challenged since it was first published – and was still in the top five most frequently challenged books of the last two decades. Generally the objections are too the language, violence, mentions of sex, and the incredibly depressing ending.  Thankfully, it is also now considered a classic and there are plenty of sources to use for dealing wit any challenges.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

While I reread it this time around simply because it was assigned, the first time I picked it up as a young teen I did so because I it sounded like such a “boy” story – a serious one, not an adventure story, which I read all the time – and I was curious.  And more than a little shocked at how mean so many of the boys were.  (I don’t think I had quite yet read Lord of the Flies.)

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