Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce
This is Elizabeth Bunce’s second novel and the first in a new series. I loved her first book, A Curse Dark As Gold, an intriguing interpretation of the Rumplestiltskin folktale, and I eagerly looked forward to her next book. A genre, fantasy series, usually less favored by me, Star Crossed nevertheless delivers on many of the same levels: a strong, resourceful, true-hearted heroine; a diverse cast of interesting characters; vivid description; and the entertainment of life’s deeper questions.
Set in a fantasy world that atmospherically parallels eastern Europe in the late middle ages, this tale is narrated by a girl who has had to make her way into a hostile world at a very young age. She is on a singular mission—to stay alive. She becomes a very good thief, forger, and spy. But a near brush with death from a failed caper at the beginning of the story propels her into a mountain castle. Here she will sit out a snowbound winter with a cast of characters at the center of a budding rebellion.
Celyn, as she calls herself, is afraid of nothing. She uses her talents to find out everything there is to know about the castle and its inhabitants, slowly flushing all mysteries into the light. The reader comes along on her journey, flinching at her every daring move, as each of the characters slowly but inevitably reveals the clarity of their position in the central conflict.
Celyn is tough, resilient, and clever; she knows and protects good whenever she sees it. Readers of all ages who have enjoyed the Bloody Jack books will also like this book. The plot is tightly wovern and requires the reader to pay attention and work things out, but there is nothing inappropriate for the youngest of accomplished readers.
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
A family of five escapes from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the dark of night. They throw themselves aboard a truck along with numbers of other desperate people, just minutes ahead of the patrolling Taliban. They are on their way to America. Only something unbearably horrible has happened: the youngest, six-year-old Mariam, did not make it aboard the truck–and there is no going back to get her.
Many stories start with an event that drives the rest of the story with its cry for resolution. This event, in the first pages of Shooting Kabul, grips the rest of the story with a barely containable wail for resolution. Yet Sensai manages to pace the everpresent anguish with the reality of any immigrant family adjusting to life in America in a very realistic and non-maudlin way.
The narrator of this story is Mariam’s 11 year-old brother Fadi. Fadi let go of Mariam’s hand as they were jumping in the truck and thus bears a heightened burden of guilt. His struggle to deal with his guilt as he tries to fit into his new life makes up the bulk of the story. The resolution is satisfying, evolving out of his strengths rather than his vulnerabilities..
This is a perfect book for middle school readers who like to read about people caught up in real, historically significant events, who are driven to understand more about their wider world. The tragedy that Fadi experiences will grab their interest and their empathy.
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
One of my students once told me that she liked the books she had been reading because they explained exactly what it was adults had been warning her about. Concerned adults can present information to young adults about things that might hurt them on their journey to adulthood and those young people may still wonder what exactly it is the adults are talking about. With a book like Crank, Ellen Hopkins’ fictionalized account of her own daughter’s descent into crank addiction, readers feel what addiction is as surely as they feel what something rotten in the stomach feels like. They will be able to recognize the monster whether it is a snake in the grass or it is rearing up its ugly head.
Hopkins’ books are all written in verse, arranged in different shapes on each page–the effect is as much a physical experience as a literary one and adds greatly to the impact. She tackles the most difficult subjects: abuse, suicide, addiction, and prostitution. Many teenage girls say that Ellen Hopkins speaks to and for them. But her books are disturbing, with an end effect of strengthening a commitment to a positive life.
Crank is followed by Glass which chronicles a further slide into addiction as the teenage girl, Bree, moves into adulthood. The third book in this series, the recently published Fallout tells the story of Bree’s children as they grow into adulthood. These are definitely books that adults would be interested in reading: for parents already close to their teenage children, these books will offer material for discussion; for parents drifting away from their maturing children, these books will inspire them to regain contact.