Monday, May 20, 2013

  Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings Part I. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954. Print.

About the Ring and Other Matters Related to YA Reading…

If you have never read or heard of the story about a hobbit and a ring, you probably have been living under a rock, or more likely, you are a rock.  If you have not actually read the volumes of The Lord of the Rings, and have only seen the movies -- you are missing out, as well, but I’ll give you leave on being a rock…for now.  Nevertheless, if you so choose to let movies be your guide to learning and stories, than perhaps this is not the place for you!

As I begin to write more regularly here, I am interested in knowing how parents are getting their tweens and teens to read.  (FYI - Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien first used the term “tweens” to describe young hobbits?)  Yes, some of our own young “hobbits” love to read and continue to read voraciously, but more often than not, we see an abhorrence for reading enter the picture in about middle school.  The rolling of the eyes and huffing and complaining about Language Arts and reads like Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies begin, and to what I might add, are really not very boring…but something happens, and we cannot deny it…study after study says it is happening and the young reader is turning into an LP of whining utterances related to reading.  Remember though, young people are actually “reading” a lot…social media, web, cellphones…you know it…they really can read, can’t they? 
Do you remember sitting in a rocking chair, watching little hands grasp the picture book page and turn it – hungering for what lies beyond?  Drool and chocolate pudding finger stains left their mark on well-worn and well-read books your little ones could not put down…but all of a sudden…poof!  It’s gone like dieting at an Old Country Buffet.  I cannot say I can help you, but I think it is important to turn kids on to stories in books first, rather than turning them on to movies about books.  Young people nowadays are attuned to easy and immediate satisfaction.  So, lingering on books seems a little…well, boring.  We can throw our hands up in the air and give in, saying kids are kids and they don’t have the capacity to learn how to read or enjoy reading, but that’s not true....picture this...mother prying cellphone from hands of 14-year-old who says "they will die" if they can't have their phone back...well, because they ARE reading is striking the balance that is difficult!

There are options to use for reading that can spark the interest and help young people become better readers…and it can be developed if your child is not or has not been a great reader.  Reading sparks the imagination, and we know that society as a whole functions on creativity and imagination.  Without it, life would be a turntable of endless blah…we need to develop the imagination in our young people today and reading “stories” can help.  

Now…back to the story of a hobbit and a ring.  This is a classic story of a battle between good and evil, but is mostly a story of self-sacrifice and perseverance…something we all can learn from.  If you don’t have much back story on The Lord of the Rings, I’ll keep it simple, but will say that after enormous edits and versions and what not, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book is available today in many forms…e-book and hardcover galore. At the ripe ole age of 13, I devoured these volumes one right after another, and recently, I picked up the work again, but I noticed a unique experience.  The story is tedious initially…now, to most writers nowadays, it is a colossal failure that a key or inciting incident does not start off the book with a bang…but here’s the deal – the story is worth it and though it may take a while before Frodo actually begins his journey to Mordor, your young reader will begin to understand that more often than not, good things take time and like good food, it is better when done slowly and savored.  

We cannot possibly believe that tweens and teens are not capable of harnessing their need for immediate gratification and cannot read a book.  Teens are capable of more than we give them credit for…pick up this story and if they have seen the movie, have them take mental notes of the differences and how Tolkien wrote it, and how Jackson interpreted it.  Like anything, teens need responsibility and things to do…so give them something to do and then reward them for completing it, in some way.  It helps. 

In closing, stories are not meant to be similar to a drive through window where instant satisfaction is achieved by tossing hurried morsels made by who-knows-what and handled by who-knows-whom…don’t give up on your teen when it comes to out for your young one quality stories that have been handled with care and written from the heart…and like The Lord of the Rings, took many years in the making. -- J.M.Mills

Monday, November 26, 2012

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2008. Print.

Annotation:  Reality television in a post-apocalyptic world has taken a violent turn.  All under the age of 18, and wielding weapons of every kind, participants forcibly selected from their respective districts must fight to remain the lone survivor.  Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen has been chosen to represent District 12 and is pretty handy with a bow and arrow…but, will it be enough to keep her alive? 
Justification for Nomination:  By now, there may not be a person in the world who has not heard of The Hunger Games.  Written by author Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is a cross between reality television and war, but a war fought by unusual participants.  In a post-apocalyptic country called Panem, the Hunger Games are held each year in an outdoor arena, manipulated by Capitol “Gamemakers.” The Capitol of Panem is the highly advanced governing body, a cross between Alice in Wonderland and New York City, whose oddly dressed and eccentric citizens seem excited to see a slaughter.  To explain, the Hunger Games are a punishment for a past uprising by the twelve Districts against the Capitol.  Since the squelching of the uprising, every year one male and one female, ages 12 to 18, called “Tributes” are selected by drawing from each of the Districts, 24 in all.  In an effort to honor and prevent the rebellion of the past, the Capitol masks the Hunger Games as a fight for honor and glory, broadcasting the event “live,” in all of its bloody splendor.  Tributes are trained for weeks before being let loose in the arena to fend for themselves in a fight to the death.  Whomever is last standing in the end is sure to find fame and glory, but not without a human cost. 
Enter Katniss Everdeen, the one participant the Capitol never expected.  Headstrong and incredibly adapt at hunting with a bow and arrow, Katniss ultimately takes her young sister’s place at the Reaping, when Prim’s name is chosen as a Tribute.  The story of the Hunger Games is Katniss’s journey of survival.  Survival is but second nature to her, but in the Hunger Games arena, hunting is defined not by satisfaction of hunger, but it is to exist.  To live, Katniss must choose between surviving and humankind, but we watch as Katniss not only survives, but twists the plot in her favor, embarrassing the Capitol.  Rousing unity between the Districts, the Capitol must deal with Katniss, but that is another story to be told. 
The Hunger Games is an entertaining read, no doubt about that.  In many ways, this book is a successful means of motivating teens to read.  It is well-written, easy to read; a hard book to put down.  It is a modern story, with themes that relate to the young reader’s need for excitement.  While the subject of death matches between teens can be seen as disturbing, the narrative is at an appropriate psychic distance for young readers.  The emotional detachment to the other contenders is, what I think, keeps the story from being overwhelmingly gruesome.  While it is an entertaining story, it is also a story of a strong, young female heroine, who is quite capable against any foe.  Katniss works through issues of finding herself, believing in her ability to achieve, and complete the quest.  Through her fight, teens will relate to her rebellious and contagious spirit.  They will also relate to the awkward relationship she shares with her mother, her responsibilities as an older sibling, her feelings as a young woman, and love relationships.  Issues of humanity, freedom, political oppression, and democracy are also at play in The Hunger Games.  It is a story that continues with books two and three, a good motivator for teens to keep reading.
Genre Category:  Fiction/Violence/Survival.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Colfer, Eoin. Artemis Fowl. New York: Hyperion Books, 2001. Print.

Annotation:  Artemis Fowl is a 12-year-old criminal mastermind…a ruthless, cold-hearted genius who uses his smarts to break the law…and make lots of money.  After finding proof that fairies do exist, Fowl is on the trail of the biggest treasure in the world; fairy gold.  His evil plan to kidnap a fairy in ransom for the gold seems to be going well -- until he meets an elf who just may be smarter than he is.  

Justification for Nomination:  Artemis Fowl by Irish author, Eoin Colfer, is like “Jimmy Neutron on steroids.”  This child prodigy is a true genius, but unlike good ole Jimmy, Artemis is cold, calculated, and cares nothing about being honorable, but everything about obtaining treasure. And, he’s good at it.  Medical experts all over the world are left dumbfounded and confused by his uncanny abilities.  Oh yes, it may have been better to keep a good eye on Artemis who was too smart for his own britches, but left to his own devices Fowl has created a terrible plan.  Learning that fairies are real, he designs a plan to kidnap a fairy for a ransom of gold, but not just any gold…one ton of 24K fairy gold.  After obtaining The Book of the People, the fairy “Bible,” which describes the history and teachings of their kind, Artemis discovers a ritual that leads him to his captive, Captain Holly Short, who possesses healing powers.  Unexpectedly, Fowl finds he has met his match in this elf, and stunningly, he begins to change his cold, clammy heart, but not before some serious intelligent rule-breaking occurs. 

Eoin Colfer has created a real gem in the Artemis Fowl series, eight books in total.  When we think of overly smart, young technical geniuses, it is easy to think of Jimmy Neutron, the big-haired adolescent on the popular animated television show, who builds spaceships, robots and gadgets.  Like Jimmy, Artemis is just too smart for his own good, but unlike Jimmy, Artemis has no time for kindness.  He is a 12-year-old with a seriously bad attitude, who prides himself in committing “dastardly acts.”  He makes no apologies for it.  Artemis is willing to do just about anything, including kidnapping, to get what he wants.  Initially, there are no feelings of remorse or regret or tweaks of the conscience, but as the story grows, there are changes, growing up themes that present themselves.  It is a story about good and evil, and the consequences of greed.  Artemis begins to soften and learn from others, namely his captive. 

Humor is a big plus in this story.  Colfer’s narration is funny, as well as the dialogue between characters.  Colfer is the “Artemis of humor” as he weaves the story.  The narration is fast moving and easy to read.  Young readers will enjoy this simplistic, humorous style of narration, but also the complexities of character, setting and fantasy world-building.  The story contains successful use of literary necessities in young adult reading  -- we have the ‘quest’ theme, the ‘who am I’ factor, the battle of conscience, good and evil, and consequences of decisions -- all done with a humorous, light edge that make this reading fun and difficult to put down.  With Artemis's change of heart, he just may become the James Bond of YA literature; he certainly has the smarts for it. 

Genre Category:  Nonfiction/Fantasy/Humor/Greed

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Frank, Anne. Translated by B.M. Mooyart. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1967. Print.

Annotation:  Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank gets a diary for her birthday, her very first.  Anne begins her diary with the desire to have a friend who could listen to her heart, for she didn’t have one.  Thus, through Anne’s friend, her diary, we learn of a girl who had dreams of life, love and happiness, but instead witnessed the horrors of a lifetime.  In a secret annex, Anne remains hidden, along with her Jewish family and friends, from what would be certain death if discovered by the Nazis.
Justification for Nomination:  Most young women, like Anne Frank, have dreams of what life will hold; the innocence of believing in a life full of promise, a future of happiness.  For Anne on her 13th birthday, along with things like chocolates, brooches, and books, received a diary.  Questioning her need for such a thing, Anne wondered why she would write in it, and for that matter, who would be interested in the thoughts of a schoolgirl?  Determined, Anne writes this:  “I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary: is that I have no such real friend.”  And so, through her friend, whom she sweetly names “Kitty,” we get a glimpse into a life torn by an evil that no human should suffer.  I wonder if Anne could have imagined that what she thought would be of no interest or consequence to anyone, would be read by millions of people?  Her inmost thoughts and feelings, written on paper, “buried deep within her heart.”  Her heart is bare and as we read it, we suffer in sadness as we see this young life grow up too fast, with no chance of seeing that future she so desired and so deserved.
The Diary of a Young Girl goes beyond what any book can describe or tell us about the Holocaust.  It is an unfettered, emotionally honest look directly from a young lady who experienced its terrors.  It is also a true reflection of the strength of the human spirit to live, to have hope in the dimmest of circumstances.  Anne, along with her family and a few friends, enter a secret hideaway, called an annex, where they hide for two long years from the Nazis and a certain fate, if discovered.  In hiding, Anne continues to write in “Kitty,” sharing her heart, her feelings as a growing young woman.  We get to know her, her parents, and others hiding with her.  We also get to know how young people think, the teen experience, and the conflicts that go along with this time of life.  Anne writes in her diary for two long years within the annex, until her last entry on August 1, 1944. 
Unfortunately, The Diary of Anne Frank is banned in some institutions due to Anne’s honesty about her sexual feelings and normal awkwardness as an adolescent.  Who can imagine what this young girl experienced?  Adolescence in and of itself is a time of discovering oneself and identity, yet Anne did this in the midst of an unimaginable situation.  Teens should be able to understand that their sexual awkwardness and issues of self-discovery are normal.  When we ban a book like this, we are telling the teen it is not natural to have these feelings (which we know IS normal).  This book is an authentic experience, which not only speaks to the teen experience, it relates the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust – something all people, especially the young people of the world need to understand.  It is especially poignant when Anne writes her final entry on August 1, 1944, speaking of her feelings about herself, the “two Anne’s.”  This entry is especially moving, considering we hear nothing from Anne again…she talks about how she looks at herself, the contradictions she feels about her personality; these are all things teens feel, and let’s face it, adults do, too.  Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is an emotionally powerful book that should be read not just once in a lifetime, but often enough to understand the emotional experiences of teens and the specific story of a young girl who should have lived a beautiful, happy life, but was trapped between the walls of an annex and an evil to deep to comprehend.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dickson, Peter. The Ropemaker. New York: Random House Children's Books, 2001. Print.

Annotation:  A spell of protection is fading, and an evil empire waits in the shadows to destroy the peaceful Valley Tilja and her family have lived in for generations.  Tilja and a boy named Tahl, along with their cranky aged grandparents, and an incredibly ornery horse venture into the Forest to find the answers in a magician they have to search for, in a place they have never gone.  It would help if Tilja had magic like her mother, but she doesn’t…at least that’s what everyone thinks. 
Justification for Nomination:  Peter Dickinson is a master at creating other worlds, and The Ropemaker is no exception.  The story of Tilja and her family begins on a cold snowy morning when her mother, “Ma,” does not return from a ritual of singing to the cedars in the Forest – an enchanted place.  For so long, Tilja’s home, the idyllic “Valley” has lived in apparent peace, sheltered from an evil world by a spell given by an enchantress, who unfortunately, is now dead.  Tilja, along with a boy named Tahl, and their two grandparents, Meena and Alnor, a very unlikely foursome, go on a quest to save their home.  Magic is everywhere, except it seems in Tilja, who appears to possess no magical abilities whatsoever, unlike the other women in her family…even her younger sister, Anja, much to her chagrin, has magic.  Magic just seems to, poof !-- vanish with Tilja’s touch.  But, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all? 
Seeking a powerful magician who apparently holds the answer to their dilemma, but for whom they have no name, in land they have never ventured before, is just one of the many twists and turns within this story.  It is a true quest story, with impasses and difficulties facing an unlikely cast of heroes.  True to all successful quest stories, the protagonist, Tilja, seems faced with all kinds of troubles – from caring for their elderly cohorts to an often rebellious horse in a world she has never seen.  But more than that, Tilja needs to find out who she is…and what she is capable of.  Through the story, we watch as Tilja grows and matures in stature and in understanding of her true abilities.  This story is firmly rooted in the essential YA requirement – the” coming of age, who am I quest.”
The Ropemaker is well-written and visually descriptive.  Dickinson’s ability to create visual imagery is amazingly detailed and well-executed.  This work is firmly grounded in setting and world-building, reminiscent of Old Norse tales or the works of Hans Christian Andersen.  For those readers who love to connect to a different world, The Ropemaker will bring them there…but it is a long one.  Like many fantasy novels, this story is lengthy in order to successfully build the world Tilja lives in, but it is not overly done or tiresome to read (and is much shorter than let’s say, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).  
As far as award-winning material, this story tops the fantasy genre  - it contains all the necessary literary qualities that make a fantasy novel successful for a YA reader.  It addresses teen issues of self-exploration and discovery.  Tilja connects to teen issues like being different or unique from peers or family members, attempting to live up to expectations amidst many obstacles and feelings of inadequacy…yet ultimately discovering oneself and others, and finding success in the quest.  There are many fantasy books available to read…the flooding of the bookshelves with this genre has made gems like this one (which is now “older”) a little less prominent.  This is a book, however, that I would encourage a young reader to pick up if they would like to visit a world other than their own. 
Genre:  Fiction/Fantasy/Magic.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. New York: Hachette Book Group USA, 2005. Print.
Annotation:  Seventeen-year-old Bella moves away from Phoenix to the dreariest, sunless place on earth...Forks, Washington.  Alone and often clumsy to a fault, Bella has all but given up on the sunshine in life until she sees Edward Cullen on her first day of school.  If you think Vampires are hideous creatures who drink blood, wear long black capes, terrorize the town, dread the sunlight, and oh yes, have no capacity to love...think again.  Edward Cullen will change your mind -- and you just may fall in love, too. 
Justification for Nomination:  The Twilight series by author Stephanie Meyer is no stranger to the literary world, or the entire world, for that matter.  It seems redundant to write yet another blog on this very successful book series that turned into a blockbuster movie, and solidified the celebrity of some really cute actors, and when I mean “cute,” I mean, wow.  That aside, there are some really worth-mentioning literary qualities in the book.  This is a book that has crossed over from being yet another YA novel to a broadly read story by the young and old alike.  The story of Bella, the somewhat rebellious, but likable young woman who has, by choice, left the comfortable home of her recently married mother in Phoenix, Arizona, to live in Forks, Washington, with her father, Police Chief Charlie Swan, is a classic coming of age love story with some supernatural twists and turns. 
Feeling awkward and alone, Bella starts off her new adventure on the first day of high school – a very small, rural high school, where everybody knows your business.  Entering the lunchroom, she gets a glimpse of Edward Cullen, an unusually handsome young man, who sits with his family, all of whom are incredibly good-looking and out of ordinary in such a place.  Long story short, Bella and Edward are immediately drawn to each other, and share an electric magnetism that puts all reason and wisdom aside.  A true love story, Twilight, appeals to all of us who love to hear about love and all of the complex, painful scenarios that follow it – this plays out especially in this story.  Edward is a vampire, but not a hideously ugly one – a gloriously beautiful one, who falls in love with Bella… and shouldn’t have, because, well, vampires just do not mix with humans who bleed…and Bella is what one might call, a real clumsy sort of gal. 
The story of Twilight forever changed the horizon of the “horror” genre as we know it.  This book has the horror and supernatural elements so intriguing to the young reader, but also romance.  While some literary experts feel Twilight is perhaps not well written, this obviously has not done much to discourage the widespread appeal of the book.  Importantly, the plot is creative and interesting, and the characters are well-rounded.  Emotionally speaking, it is easy to become attached immediately to Bella and then Edward.  Stephanie Meyer catches the reader immediately with Bella’s dilemma of loneliness, isolation, and the unknown.  Further on, her writing is able to connect us to Edward and Bella’s deep love and attraction for each other, and the constant battle they face to secure their relationship.  The emotional attachment in the book is really what makes this story so intriguingly successful, regardless of what critics may say.  While the book is not what I would say is Printz material, the story of Twilight emotionally connects to the reader and possesses the coming of age issues all teens face.  Meyer’s narrative style is simple and easy to read, but entertaining and addictive.  I would recommend Twilight for young readers.  Personally speaking, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the book, seen as how I was a bit befuddled by all the fuss about vampires and werewolves, initially.  Unfortunately, my teenage daughter is now fighting me to get her Twilight books back…J

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print.

Annotation:  To say Arnold Spirit, Jr., has lots of problems would be an understatement.  A punching bag for bulleys, "Junior" is abused and beaten on the reservation, but his home is little refuge for him.  Tragedy strikes over and over, but Junior finds a way to keep going, and believing things can get better.

Justification:  I sat for a long while trying to figure out how I would start this blog about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.  I do not feel that words can really describe how I felt about this poignant and almost unbelievable story (semibiographical) about Arnold Spirit, Jr.  His story caused me to do a few things I rarely do at such a level when I read a book.  It made me laugh and cry; real belly laughs and real tears (and at the same is that possible?) Just an amazing story!

“Junior” is what Arnold is called.  He is 14-years-old and lives on the “rez”, which is the Spokane Indian Reservation.  His circumstances are dire.  Having been born with hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), he suffers terribly with this medical condition, having seizures that cause a domino of other issues, but not just medical issues.  His medical issues translate to his appearance, and the constant ridicule of those who live on the rez.  This right here is not funny stuff.  However, Sherman Alexie can take such tragic circumstances and difficulties, and have you feeling sadness, laughter and compassion, all at the same time.  This happens throughout the book. 
Since there is so much in this book that touched me, I will try to give you the gist of one circumstance that is the foundation of much of Junior’s circumstances -- poverty.  Here is one excerpt by Junior: 
                It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor.  You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly.  And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian.  And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor.  It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance.  No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor. (Alexie, pp. 12-13)
This situation plays itself out when Oscar, Junior’s dog becomes ill, so ill that his alcoholic father decides reluctantly to put the dog out of his misery.  Here is what Junior says about this: 
“So I heard the boom of my father’s rifle when he shot my best friend. A bullet only costs about two cents, and anybody can afford that.”  (Alexie, pp. 14)
In Junior’s story, we see him struggle to find a way out of the reservation by deciding to attend public school.  We feel his deep desire to change his circumstances, to see his dreams come alive as a cartoonist, but there are hurdles, tremendous hurdles and obstacles.  The mountains of tragedy, racism, poverty, and alcoholism, stand in front of Junior the entire way.  But, he climbs them all.   Throughout the story, there are visual references in the form of cartoons, which are done by Junior.  For the reader who loves visuals, this is a great addition.  The drawings add to the story and are also quite funny. 
Finally, if you ever hear a young person (or adult) say, “I can’t,” -- give them this book!  While there are no easy answers here, this is a truly poignant story addressing the “who I am?” question all young adults have.  It is excellently written and authentic in content and narration.  Unfortunately, I was sad to hear that this wonderful book has been banned in some school libraries, but I strongly feel that teens should have the opportunity to read this book.  These subjects are clearly obscured by the overall message in the book.  A young adult will not just remember the controversial subjects like profanity or sexuality.  No, they will remember Junior’s story, and little of this.  It will open hearts to the circumstances of poverty, alcoholism, bullying and tragedy.  This makes the story authentic and real to life.  Junior’s story not only speaks to the teen experience, it speaks to the situations of the poor, specifically, the Native Americans, who sadly, have suffered since the beginning of our nation’s history.  This is something that we should not discourage in understanding. 
Read this book.  I cannot say it enough…it will make you laugh and cry, and appreciate the blessings in life.  And not only that, but encourage what we as human beings can and should do to help each other.  We are all human beings, no matter what our race.

Genre Category:  Semibiographical/Poverty/Multicultural/Alcoholism/Death