The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Something is wrong with Charlie, the sixteen year old boy who narrates this story through letters written to an unspecified “friend.” He is subject to dramatic mood swings, has trouble with the art of truthtelling, and lacks social grace. The suspense that drives the story is the uncertainty over whether Charlie’s fragility will survive the onslaught of over-the-top adolescent hazards. Nothing is spared; there is drinking, violence, drugs, smoking, abuse, homosexuality, fast-driving, and explicit sex. Ironically, it is the realization of his dream of the tenderness of true love that pushes him over the brink, forcing him to finally come to terms with events in his early childhood that damaged him.
This novel has been compared to Catcher in the Rye. It is similar in that it too is a book that belongs to young people, in that it expresses the drive for a generational truth in still forming young minds. But Charlie is not as angry as Holden Caulfield. Charlie has more reason to complain and be vengeful but he is too devoted to the principal of love. And this is why he is able to face his demons and come to the conclusion that he cannot change his past, but he can make a better future for himself.
The explicit content in this book has made this a controversial book. It has been banned by adults, and teenagers have named it as the best book they have read–a book that has changed their lives and made them interested in reading. As an adult who finds books for kids, I found the content almost relentlessy disturbing–did they have to smoke too?–but I realize the content represents the minefield that a broken Charlie must navigate, and thus highlights both his strengths and his undeserved baggage. Teenagers brought this book into my classroom. Most of my students seem to know about this book, and some chose not to read it. That seems appropriate. It is their book, let them choose.
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
The saying Be careful what you wish for would have been good advice for Tyler, who spent the first three years of high school trying to be the kind of guy that would appeal to the most popular girl in school. Who would have thought that getting in trouble for a graffiti prank at the end of his junior year would propel him into the ranks he dreamed of for his senior year. But what does he find when he gets there? Nothing but trouble. What he has to face is how much of himself he is willing to give up and just how he will stand his ground.
Identity and power struggles evolve in this book on a backdrop of teen concerns with drugs, sex, school, and family. The theme is one of inner strength and self-respect overcoming an onslaught of adversity in the pursuit of adolescent happiness. Strong writing, well-liked by many of my middle and high school students.
Neil Gaiman is an excellent author. Each of his words seems to be so perfectly placed that they exactly convey their intended message and nothing more. I recently saw the quote, “Focus on the essence, not the filler” and, it reminded me of how Neil Gaiman writes. It has taken me a while to write a review for his latest book, The Graveyard Book, because while I recognize his exceptional artistic mastery, his dark genre is not generally my cup of tea.
For example, the opening scene of the book is the ruthless murder of a small boy’s entire family. The toddler escapes purely by accident. I know, I know as Lois Lowry so eloquently explains in The Willoughby’s, all of the great stories are about winsome orphans. The problem is that Neil Gaiman is such a good author that somehow it seems more traumatic than say Barbar, Cinderella, or even Lemony Snicket. However, while there are some suspenseful elements after the opening, there is nothing as graphic or scary as the first few pages.
This is yet another example of a story about a deserving orphan, this time he just happens to be raised by ghosts in a graveyard. And, although I am generally not drawn to anything goth or dark, it is hard to resist this exceptionally well told story. I have not given this to my daughter yet, but if I do, I hope she takes away the message that the dark and light parts of life do not always appear as you would expect them. And, in fact, it is sometimes quite the opposite. In this case, the ghosts in the graveyard are kind, nurturing and are raising a boy who will help keep the world safe. On the other hand, the true evil ones are the major donors at important charities. It is important for my daughters to learn that someone who has twelve eyebrow rings and wears only black can be just as good or better than the most clean cut looking person. In fact, I think I need to remember that sometimes too.
Children who consider themselves as outsiders will love this book. It has also just the enough of an edge to give it the power to capture what might be a reluctant reader. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to children younger than 4th grade who have well developed imaginations. When your child is old enough, this book ironically does convey a message of love and hope that this ‘clean cut’ mom is a total sucker for.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
A good part of being a teenager is the uncovering of mysteries about one’s own self. Lucy has more of a task with this than most teenagers since she is the target of an ancient curse, one based on the song Scarborough Fair. In a contemporary teen setting, Lucy must first discover the nature of a curse that threatens to irrevocably determine an unacceptable fate. Then, with the help of foster parents and a loving boyfriend (as well as the modern advantage of technology) she must try to break the curse.
A little of the supernatural really makes this story of strength, courage, and love sparkle. The obstacles are powerful, the drive for resolution is intense, the strength of love is thrilling. Teenage girls in my eighth and ninth grade classes last year were thrilled with this book. While there is some violence and moderately inexplicit sex, including a slightly surreal rape scene, the overriding theme is the power of love and resolve in overcoming adversity.
The best birthday present Georgia received this year was the latest installment of the Ivy & Bean series, Doomed to Dance. I am on a constant quest to find books that are both the right level and interesting enough to hold Georgia’s attention. The pickings are slim, my friends. However, there are a couple of good ones, like the Franny K. Stein series, the Max and Maddy Series, and the Akimbo books. But, by far, for Georgia, the winner is Ivy & Bean. We have been waiting for this new release for six months, and were thrilled it arrived before Georgia’s birthday.
In Doomed to Dance, Ivy and Bean read a book about the ballet, Giselle, and decide they simply must take ballet class. Taking a page from my own playbook, the moms allow them to join, but also insist that they have to stick with it through the entire session. The grim difference between Giselle and a beginning ballet class for 7 year olds quickly becomes obvious and the rest of the book is the story about how they try to get out of their promise. I don’t want to give it away, but let’s just say that it involves running away and very scary giant squids. You’ve gotta love any book for a second grader that manages to include both Giselle and giant squids with grace.
Aside from Georgia’s devotion to them, what I love most about Ivy & Bean is that the characters are believable and charming. While sometimes naughty, there is always a logic and justification for their behavior. In addition, the parents react with appropriate and realistic discipline. By contrast, books like Junie B. Jones and Eloise imply that arbitrary bratty behavior and, even worse, bad grammar, is somehow endearing. It’s a relief to find a book both with fun young girl characters and positive relationships.
Georgia believes that the best book in a series is always the third one. She says that way the characters are really well developed, but the author is still not out of ideas. Ivy and Bean is the exception, we both agree they just keep getting better and better.
– Jessica Wheeler