Looking for Alaska

cover image for Looking for AlaskaGreen, John. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: speak.

Plot Summary:

Miles Halter is in search of “a Great Perhaps” – his phrase, taken from the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais, for the that indefinable, pregnant possibility that adolescence so often thrives on.  He isn’t going to find it in an ordinary public school in Florida, so he convinces his parents to let him go to Culver Creek Boarding school in Alabama.  There he meets Chip, Lara, and Takumi…but most of all Alaska Young.  In which he finds his “Great Perhaps” but not in quite the way that he expected to.

Looking for Alaska is very much a deconstruction of romantic myths, but it is one that is not disdainful of hope and love.  Miles, having fallen for Alaska, keeps looking for hints that he has become as central to Alaska’s world as she has become to his.  In doing so, he overlooks much of what makes the real Alaska tick, a contradiction that Alaska herself is quick to point out.  When tragedy strikes, Miles’ grief pushes him to refocus his efforts rather than step back and examine them critically, a mistake that threatens to tear apart the friendships he has come to value.

Critical Evaluation:

Green’s (and Miles’) clever, snarky, and yet somehow mellow voice is an essential part of this book’s charm.  It is also how Green is able to make readers sympathetic to Miles’ antics while still shaking our heads at his obsession; a more reverent or less erudite approach would have made the tale overly sappy or shallow by turns, rather than acting as a counterpoint to Miles puppy dog love.  Instead, Green is able to invite us to dwell on Alaska’s many charms along with Miles, while still allowing a multi-faceted character to filter in around Miles’ rose colored viewpoint.  All of which becomes incredibly essential when Miles is finally forced to find a truthful and moral balance between his feelings and the needs of those he cares about.

Reader’s Annotation:

Love,  rivalries, and boarding school pranks -what could possibly go wrong?

Author Information:

I’m not sure it’s possible for an author to have a larger web presence than John Green and still be only a minor celebrity.  In addition the usual Twitter and Facebook accounts, Green – along with his brother Hank Green – not only have a regular vlog on YouTube, but have created an entire website/forum/movement they affectionately call Nerdfighters (nerds who fight world suck using their nerd powers, not people who fight nerds).

http://johngreenbooks.com/

http://fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com

http://www.twitter.com/realjohngreen

http://www.facebook.com/johngreenfans

http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers

http://nerdfighters.ning.com/

Genre:

Award Winners

Booktalking Ideas:

“Welcome to Culver Creek, Mr. Halter.  You’re given a large measure of freedom here.  If you abuse it, you’ll regret it.  I’d hate to have to bid you farewell.”  Miles Halter is pretty that pranks and sneaking out for smokes are not on the dean of students list of approved activities, but he didn’t beg his parents to let him go away to boarding school so that he could spend all his time sitting in his room!

Reading Level/Target Age:

7th grade/ages 15-19

Potential Controversy:

The teens in this book swear get into all kinds of stuff – including drinking – and not all of not all of it comes with negative consequences and none of it comes off as an After School Special kind of lesson.  While this is essential to the book’s strength and appeal, it might also make some adults nervous.  Focusing on this title’s award status as well as it’s nuanced and hardly immoral look at teenage pranks, relationships, and rule breaking should help alleviate most concerns.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

Having enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines, I was curious to see what made Looking for Alaska even more widely praised.  Green is also one of those authors with a large and devoted enough fan base that I feel I should be familiar with all or most of his works, not simply a single one or two titles.

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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.

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.

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.

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.)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

cover image for The Sisterhood of the Traveling PantsBrasheres, Ann. (2001) The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. New York, NY: 17th Street Productions

Plot Summary: 


Bridget, Tibby, Carmen, and Lena have been together since their mothers were in the same Lamaze class (check).  This summer, the one before their (?) year, will be the first one they’ve spent apart.  Bridget is attending soccer camp in Mexico, Carmen will be visiting her dad in South Carolina, Lena is being shipped off to stay with her grandparents in Greece, and Tibby is stuck at home at a minimum wage job.  As excited as everyone is (well, everyone except for Tibby), they aren’t looking forward to the time apart and promises to keep in touch just don’t seem to be enough to make up for it.  So when a pair of thrift store jeans magically fits all four girls to perfection, they decide to share the jeans and pass them around on their adventures that summer.  They may not be able to travel together – but the pants can travel between them!

Critical Evaluation:

The Traveling Pants series is the perfect example of a typical girls series, and I mean that in the best of ways.  Friendship and the trials of coming of age are the focus and the bittersweet of loss and change are matched with humor and hope.  While the girls are almost uniformly white and suburban in their upbringing, their different personalities and how they interact with each other is anything but shallow or unrealistic.

Readers’s Annotation:

Rule #1: You must never wash the Pants.  Rule # 8: You must pass the pants along to your Sisters in the order set by the Sisterhood.  Rule #10: Pants = love.  Love your pals.  Love yourself.

Author Information:

http://annbrashares.com/

http://annbrashares.wordpress.com/

http://www.facebook.com/AnnBrasharesAuthor

http://annbrashares.tumblr.com/

@AnnBrashares

Reading Level/Target Age:

5th grade/14-35

Yes, I know, that’s a rather large age range.  But as of now, the series ends with the “girls” in their 30th summer and, while I think the first few novels will appeal most to teens, this series clearly has crossover appeal.

Booktalking Ideas:

The rules for the pants are rather hilarious, but would only work for potential readers that are not turned off by the gimmick.  Another option would be to talk up the different experiences and personalities of the girls in the series.

Possible Controversy:

I once had a parent ask me if there was any sex in this book.  I was about to say no, but then remembered that there was – even though it happened practically off screen.  When she put the book down after I explained that, I was tempted to snark “but it totally screws her for, like, a whole year and she completely regrets it!”  The sisterhood is not innocent or straight and narrow enough to satisfy many overprotective parents, but neither do they stand out in a way that is likely to get the books challenged.  Unfortunately, this is in part because they no not challenge some of the more insidious narratives about teens and responsibility.  Bridget’s story, choices, and regrets are very real, but that doesn’t stop how they are portrayed in the story from contributing to the idea that teens who have sex are damaged in some way.

Reason for Choosing This Title:

I initially read this because I was curious what all the fuss was about.  I reread it for class because it had been a while and I remember enjoying it.

The Bermudez Triangle

cover image for The Bermudez TriangleJohnson, Maureen. (2004). The Bermudez Triangle. New York, NY: Razorbill.

Plot Summary:

While Nina is off at pre-college for the summer – taking leadership classes, falling in love, and dealing with an off-kilter roommate –  her two best friends, Mel and Avery, serve up meals in their town’s kitschy Irish-themed restaurant and fall in love themselves – with each other.  As the start of their senior year inches ever closer, the friends look forward to being reunited.  Only, how will they ever tell Nina what’s happened?

Critical Evaluation:

The drama and complexity of Johnson’s tale comes not just from the interlocking triangles of friendship and love, but from the girls’ varying degrees of certainty and doubt about not only their feelings but their sexuality as well.  Taking the story beyond simply one of grudging or newly found tolerance, Nina worries that “people would assume she was gay as well.  Not that there was anything wrong with it – but she wasn’t,”  Avery resists being labeled, and Mel’s experiences with intolerance manage to be memorable while staying safely away from after school special territory.  The girls’ reactions ring clear and true, however muddled they may feel at the time, and will be instantly recognizable to a great many readers.

This is not Johnson’s best work and it drags a bit at times, but it is a quick read that offers a more nuanced exploration of sexual identity than is usually presented to teens.

Reader’s Annotation:

Falling in love with your best friend is what everyone wants, right?

Author Information:

http://www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com/blog/

@maureenjohnson

Genre:

Sexuality and Gender

Booktalking Ideas:

Reading Level/Target Age:

5ht grade/13-19

Potential Controversy:

Girls kissing.  And fooling around.  As if it was perfectly ok for them to do so!  Yes, this is one of Johnson’s most frequently challenged books.  It will be difficult, but not impossible, to convince adults that believe homosexuality is a sin that (other parent’s kids) have a right to read such stories if they wish to.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I chose this because I was deliberately looking for a book about homosexuality and girls, not boys, and – despite Annie on My Mind being a classic, there are not as many out there.

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