Beastly by Alex Flinn
Beastly by Alex Flinn
Several of my middle and high school girls told me this book was “almost as good as Twilight.” That is about as positive an endorsement as they could make seeing as Twilight has been read at least once by ninety percent of my female students. They will never pass up an opportunity to talk about it. What Beastly does do is to come close to Twilight in its ability to satisfy the adolescent female’s hopeful perspective on romance.
Alex Flinn, author of several well-received books for young adults, makes a seamless fit of the story Beauty and the Beast and a twenty-first century high school in New York City in her book Beastly. Every aspect of the original story is preserved: the bookish, pure-hearted girl; the arrogant, privileged, shallow, and handsome young man; the witch and the spell that must be broken by a kiss of true love; the father who pays for trespassing by giving his daughter to the beast; the transformation of the heart of the beast; the rescue and the kiss freely given on the brink of the wounded beast’s death. Yet each one of these elements is easily recognizable as an aspect of the lives of today’s teenagers.
Good stories are retold through the ages because they reflect the timeless and universal qualities of human nature. The fairy tale Beauty and the Beast tells us that romantic love worth having is love based on caring and not on money or looks or power. Its retelling in Beastly appeals to my female students and mostly leaves their male counterparts as uninterested as does the enormously popular Twilight. Though it does have some mature observations made by the adolescent protagonist, the action and writing style is appropriate for readers as young as middle school.
Alabama Moon by Watt Key
Alabama Moon by Watt Key
A ten-year-old boy knows only his father and the most rudimentary elements of survival in the Alabama forest until the day he has to bury his own father. His father’s dying words instruct him to make his way to Alaska. There he will be able to find and live with others who hate the government as his father has and who can also survive in the wilderness. So begins the boy’s discovery of his own mind and his own heart. Though Moon Blake has only known the extremist ideology of his father, he has known love. This knowledge is his north star as he negotiates an entirely new world and begins to shape his own ideas.
This is an extremely well-told tale that reads like a dream. Filled with survival lore, the story unfolds from the first person perspective of Moon, a welcome and richly-drawn new hero to the field of literature. The plot includes a suitably grotesque villain, an impossible task, true friendship, and ultimate redemption.
Entirely appropriate for middle school readers, this book will appeal mostly to boys, but it is such a great story I am recommending it for girls who like tales of survival and adventure, children younger than middle school who are already comfortable with reading, younger high school students, and parents who like the opportunity to enjoy reading a book their children are reading. I for one had not been as moved by the noble and endearing spirit of a young protagonist for more decades than I like to acknowledge.
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
In the time of hunter-gatherers when ancient forest covered the land, a boy loses his father to an evil in the shape of a monstrous bear that threatens their entire world. Possibly the father is partially culpable for this evil, but before he dies he makes his soon-to-be orphaned son promise to destroy the bear. The boy will be helped in this seemingly impossible task by a prophecy, a riddle, three lost artifiacts, an orphaned wolf cub, and a young girl from another clan.
A boy who must make right the errors of his elders by successfully appealing to the Mountain of the World Spirit is a classic tale of renewal. The spirit of life will overcome the powers of destruction through the courage, fortitude, and intelligence of the newest generation. Many perils stand between the boy and his goal; the constant challenge to survival and the pressing need of the mission keep this story moving at a breakneck pace.
A similarly intrepid look on the faces of the many boys in my classes who kept asking for the next book in this series, Chronicle of Ancient Darkness, prompted me to find out what was appealing to them and to read the book. Danger never abates, courage must constantly be renewed, and purpose is unrelenting. This book has appealed equally to well-seasoned readers and to reluctant readers, so far only boys though girls who like animals and wilderness survival stories should enjoy it as well. Ninth graders as well as middle school students have enjoyed this book, but it is not a complex plot and enthusiastic readers as young as fourth grade will probably like it.
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron
I was surprised when I returned to high school to substitute teach nearly forty years after I had been a student that the same books were being given to the students to read: Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Catcher in the Rye. Being required reading, the books weren’t any better appreciated than when I was a high school student. However, in my reading program of free choice reading, a student occasionally chooses to read Catcher in the Rye and proclaims it a favorite book. Students like to read about themselves, and the story of Holden Caulfield captures the discomfort of a young person annoyed with his peers and cynical about an unappealing adult world looming just ahead.
James Sveck, the narrator of author James Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, is a 2007 version of a young man facing the precipice of adulthood with more than an average dose of uneasiness. Not only are there cultural landmarks of today’s world in this book—the Twin Towers, an easing acceptance of homosexuality—but the voice of James Sveck captures a twenty-first century culture more at ease with itself. The inept adults are more bumbling than sinister, the protagonist’s anguish more tender than hostile.
Written for young adults and while not a challenging book to read for teenagers, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You will appeal the most to older teens and the more reflective and well-read of the younger teens. Though the protagonist is an eighteen-year-old young man, this book has so far been the most appreciated by my female students. Adults would enjoy reading this book also; our world seen through the eyes of a wisely observant adolescent serves as a worthy reminder of who we once were and what we once wanted.
by Nick Bruel
Bad Kitty Gets a Bath
Bad Kitty Gets a Bath
My younger daughter is right at what I find is the most difficult phase in learning to read. The easy books that are perfectly at her level are way too boring, and the more interesting books, i.e. the ones her older sister is reading, are way too hard. But, we recently discovered an absolute gem in Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel.
We first met Bad Kitty a few years ago with the original alphabet book about a kitty forced to eat healthy vegetables. It starts, “She wasn’t always a bad kitty. She used to be a good kitty, until one day….” You get the idea. Its good – one of those picture books I’m still happy to pick up because it is perfectly silly with humor that both kids and adults find funny. As opposed to say, Amelia Bedelia.
Now Bad Kitty is back in a chapter book and she needs a bath. The drawings are plentiful and expressive, and the pacing of the book is perfect for a 1st grader bored with Nate the Great but not quite ready for Geronimo Stilton. Some pages are a little more difficult with a lot of text, but then some pages have only a couple of lines or even just one word, such as “LICK”. There are a few difficult words in the book, but it is so engaging that Georgia was encouraged to struggle through them and ask what they mean. There is a glossary at the back of more difficult terms. Of course the glossary is just as silly as the rest of the book and includes a definition of glossary (as it should).
This phase of learning to read is challenging for me as a parent because I get impatient and find so many of the books at this level are mind-numbingly simple. At the same time, I know there is a part of Georgia that is reluctant to leap head first into reading by herself because it means I won’t read to her as much. If I could find a hundred books like Bad Kitty Gets a Bath, I would be happy to stay in this phase for a long time.
– Jessica Wheeler
The White King: A Novel by György Dragomán
The White King: A Novel
György Dragomán was a boy living in Romania under the communist dictator Ceausecu during the 1980’s. In this series of connected short stories that do read seamlessly like a novel, the thirty-four-year-old Dragomán writes from the perspective of an eleven/twelve year old boy whose father, he hopes, has been taken away to work on some kind of important research. The anguish from knowing the darker truth dogs this boy as he races along in his pre-adolescent life as any boy anywhere would—playing made-up games with opposing teams of other kids; getting in trouble in school for seemingly minor infractions, trying to second guess his football coach, noticing a cute girl. Yet this boy’s days are made darker from the culture of the cruel police state he lives under. An unrelenting sense of serious danger and no hope for protection underlies every moment in this fast-paced story.
For these reasons, The White King: A Novel, published in March of 2008, has been an instant hit with several of my high school students, mostly boys but a few girls, who are already enthusiastic readers. These students, still struggling to grasp the subtleties of sentence composition in their own writing, are also fascinated with the unusual and extremely effective writing style of this author. Dragomán runs his sentences together for paragraphs and sometimes pages at a time in order to keep his reader at a pace with his young, tense, heroic, pre-adolescent sufferer. He takes license with word usage too (translated) but never misses his target, keeping his protagonist moving and unstable but never falling.
The White King: A Novel is a remarkable piece of writing and a touching portrayal of a child navigating a terrifyingly cruel and yet very realistic environment. While it may not be the first book to give to a reluctant high school reader, I highly recommend it for established high school readers, jaded from reading too much run-of-the-mill fantasy or horror and looking for a book they do not want to put down. Not just for teenagers, this book is also a great read for adults.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
A re-created Greek myth and territory reminiscent of post-medieval Greece form the background and setting for this tale of political intrigue, adventure and mystery. The protagonist is a young thief of the Hermes variety—mischievous, clever without parallel, and enormously self-confident. A good proportion of the book consists of a long and richly described arduous journey, by foot and by horse, during which the thief, Gen, gets to know the Magus, who has freed him from prison for his own purposes, as well as the other three that accompany them.
Though plenty of heart-stopping action does break out in the last half of the book, the quiet, slow pace of the journey may discourage less experienced readers. For more confident middle school readers, the in-depth character development in the first half of the book will be worth the slower pace as it greatly enriches the impact of what follows. This book would be a good transition story for a reader moving from the lighter plots of children’s stories to the more demanding plots of books for older readers.
Well-liked mostly by middle school boys and a few girls, The Thief, published in 1996, has also appealed to a few high school kids in my classes. A Newbery Honor Book, ALA Notable Book, and ALA Best Book for Young Adults, it has two sequels: The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, both of which continue the theme of political intrigue and adventure, but also move into slightly more mature themes, such as the cruelty of dysfunctional romance. While the first book would be appropriate for advanced elementary school readers, the second two may not be.