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.

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.

They Called Themselves the KKK

cover image for They Called Themselves the KKK

Bartoletti, Susan (2010) They Called Themselves the K.K.K. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Plot Synopsis:

Beginning with the end of the Civil War and ending with the start of the Jim Crow laws (with a short epilogue on desegregation and the Civil Rights Acts of the 20th century) They Called Themselves the KKK chronicles the formation and growth of arguably the most notorious group in American history.  Before the book even starts we know that Bartoletti is not going to pull any punches, the subtitle on the cover proclaims the KKK to be a terrorist group.  The pages inside make it quite clear this is not an exaggeration.

Critical Evaluation:

We have a habit, here in the US, of portraying history as inevitable – especially when we talk about it with youth.  The idea that the Civil War might not have turned out the way that it did becomes a sub-genre of science fiction rather than a philosophical discussion or an examination of the choices people made.  One of the main strengths of Bartoletti’s work is that she consistently refuses to buy into this narrative.  Her method of digging deep into the individual lives of ordinary people and of often switching from the simple past tense to the subjunctive helps to ground readers in the idea of history as something that was lived and decided upon, rather than a predetermined road that everyone walked down to lead us to where we are today.  They Called Themselves the KKK could easily have taken on the bewildered and helpless tone of an article on school shootings or psychopaths; instead Bartoletti invites us into the homes and minds of the people who lived in the South during Reconstruction and shows us how so much of what happened was an interplay of individuals choices.  The prejudice and willful ignorance of the politically powerful white Northeners; the arrogance and narcissism of the white Southern landowners who convinced themselves that their former slaves really believed that their sheet draped selves were ghosts from the spirit world (and not simply playing along because it was safer); and the pride and fear that left newly enfranchised black Americans walking a constant tightrope of outward submission and often private defiance.  Bartoletti does not present an exhaustive history of the formation of the KKK, but she selectively provides the kinds of details that make it clear that the their reign of terror was a choice and not a force of nature.

Changes in layout help to fix some of the drawbacks of her earlier works; while the text is still dense in terms of content, it’s appearance is less daunting to younger readers by virtue of being broken up by images and quotes on nearly every page.  As always, Bartoletti’s work here is both appealing and appropriate; she does not shy away from grisly truths, but her descriptions of murder and torture are always grounded in respect for the victims and an unwillingness to dismiss the perpetrators something other than human.  Especially well done is her habit of often starting a chapter with a quote from a former slave accompanied by a twentieth century photograph of the person in question.  Much of the visual documentation from this era is in the form of cartoons and other drawings, making it tempting for younger readers to treat the subject as slightly fantastical.  While still in black and white rather than color, the photographs of former slaves standing in front of ordinary suburban homes near the turn of the last century does much to emphasize the reality of historical events to modern readers.  Linking the photographs with quotes from the person in them, and using those words as a thematic statement for the chapter, also provides the victims of the KKK with the dignity and respect that has been so often denied to them.  The idea that their words are worthy of not only being heard but of, in fact, leading the discussion is a powerful refutation of the dehumanized stereotypes of black Americans – both then and now.

Reader’s Annotation:

“Resolved, That in all cases of incendiariam, ten of the leading colored people and two white sympathizers shall be executed…by order of KKK” January 22nd, 1871

Author Information:

http://www.scbartoletti.com/

Genre:

Non-fiction

Booktalking Ideas:

I think this is one that I would want to bring props for – most likely copies of the pictures inside – and read off quotes from history that can be found in the book; anything to emphasize that it is a book about people not dates and facts.

Reading Level/Target Age:

9th grade/14-17

Potential Controversy:

History should not be controversial, but it often is.  The Civil War may have ended a century and a half ago, but it’s scars still run deep.  This might be challenged for the violence in particular, but also because frank discussions about this period in history make people uncomfortable.  As a non-fiction title by an award winning author, it should be easier to defend than many others.

Reasons for Choosing this Title:

I was impressed with the other works by Bartoletti that I have read and thought the cover and title were especially intriguing.

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.