The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stefvater
Established author of teen fiction Maggie Stiefvater has written a book that departs from her formulaic paranormal romance novels. She has taken an obscure Celtic myth about carnivorous horses from the sea, spun it into a story about both humankind’s love/fear conflict with nature and its endless struggle for and against power, and made it contemporary by smoothly pairing these timeless themes with a more modern one—girl empowerment.
The two main characters have both lost their parents—not unusual on an island that is besieged by wild carnivorous water horses—and both must win the Scorpio races in order to get what they feel they cannot live without. Sean has won the races before and must win this time to gain both his freedom from a heartless employer and ownership of the water horse he loves. Puck has never run a race, no girl has, and she has only a regular horse to race against the much faster water horses, but winning is her only chance to keep her house and her dignity. They admire each other; they become true friends, and romance blossoms.
The resolution of this conflict is masterful and every reader must take a solemn vow to never divulge the ending to anyone who has not read it, or skip ahead to read the ending. It is a book for teen readers of both genders, appropriate for younger readers, and fun for adults.
This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Kenneth Oppel takes Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and looks into his adolescence for clues to the man he became. In Oppel’s telling, young Victor lives in a centuries-old fortress in Geneva with his parents, his identical twin brother, Konrad, and his beautiful cousin Elizabeth. Konrad is easy for everyone to love; Victor has a more complicated personality—competitive, brooding and rebellious. Konrad falls ill and a series of nineteenth century doctors try to cure him. In this time period, medicine and science are on a cusp, turning from alchemy and magic into sound logic and method. It is not at all clear that even the most modern doctor will cure Konrad and Victor wants to turn to the older ways and be the one to bring his brother back to health.
To do this he lies to his parents, seeks out forbidden contacts, and put himself Konrad, and Elizabeth in serious danger. Herein lies the action of the story—the perilous ventures, the near escapes, the blood and gore. But Victor is not completely in this for his love for his brother. He wants glory; he wants to be more powerful than his parents and the doctors. And most of all, he wants Elizabeth to love him and not his brother. Action does abound in this story, but the torque of psychological angst never lags behind.
Kenneth Oppel is a master craftsman of the young teen novel. He knows how to give the young reader’s mind exactly what it wants and then dole out a whole lot more: to be swept up in the thrill of adventure, to recognize oneself often, and then to be challenged to do something particularly delicious—to think deeply…
While much of Oppel’s earlier books appeal to upper elementary and middle school readers of both genders, this novel will appeal to readers of both genders from middle school on into high school. Like all of his work, this book will also be loved just as much by adults as by their kids.
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
Yes, this is a page-turning thriller centered on a fourteen-year-old boy and a really, really bad guy who threatens him and his sister and has quite likely taken the life of both his parents. And on a Colt Single Action Army, 1873 model revolver. The setting: a lone cabin across a frozen lake from a hard scrabble mining town in the bitter cold of the artic north.
But it is also a story about the gifts parents give their children to help them survive when they are on their own. In this case, Sig’s parents gave him very different gifts: his father gave him knowledge of the real world so that Sig could be able to survive whatever harshness he might encounter; his mother gave him a concern for the health of his own inner spirit so that his soul could survive the same. As it turns out, Sig will draw on both of his parents’ gifts to create a third option when his choice becomes to take a life or lose his own.
As such, this novel reads ninety percent thriller and ten percent fable. In fact, by the end, I was somewhat reminded of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Written, of course, for young adults of today. Though this story features a male protagonist and a revolver, I think both genders would enjoy it from middle school on up. However, the bad guy is convincingly bad–his violence explicit and his sexual predation implied–which makes it more appropriate for the older, better-read teens.
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” begins this memoir. Having just turned eighteen (the age when your identity is still up for grabs, in the author’s words), Strauss accidentally hit a girl riding a bike and killed her. He was forever changed.
With incisive honesty, Strauss lays bare in this memoir what he spent half a lifetime being unable to dredge up into the light. He takes readers along on this journey into the inner-most workings of his own experience, to the lonely place where the person in the throes of trauma exists. Without sentimentality, he simply nails the precise truth of the effect an unfortunate few seconds had on him.
Though not written for teens, Half a Life is a book that will interest them for it is ultimately about them and who they will become. In fact, I wish there were more books like it because it offers so much for the teen reader: life-enhancing information and superb writing that is at once demanding and entertaining. Though it reads more like a long essay than a novel, this short book is nevertheless a page-turner, albeit one that benefits from frequent reflective pauses. Teens of both genders who like getting deep into the lives of others and who like a mental challenge should really enjoy this book.
Freefall by Mindi Scott
This is a story about a sixteen-year old boy who makes the choice to step back from the slippery edge of heavy drinking and shallow romance that took the life of his best friend. He does this largely with the strength of his own inner voice and aided by what he learns in a class in communication and by the good fortune to encounter true love.
Seth is a protagonist who is easy to like. Even at his darkest moments, he maintains an open mind, he is kind to his friends, and he directs his thoughts toward the light. The reader feels comfortable following him through the turbulence of his high school life because he is such a good guy. Even though the reader feels confident that Seth will continue to move in a better direction, author Mindi Scott manages to maintain a delicate but steady tension that keeps the pages turning.
Content and themes in this book are appropriate for high school readers and I think boys and girls alike will enjoy this book. They will recognize the high school life it depicts and they will gain from its positive message. Mature middle school readers will also enjoy this book–drinking and sex are gracefully handled.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
After his family barely survived the Malawi famine of 2000, William Kamkwamba’s father could no longer send his only son and oldest child to school. Previously, William had learned how to read in his native language and had learned a little English. Not content to accept a future of subsistence farming and with a curiosity about how things worked, William began frequenting the village library which was stocked with old textbooks donated by the United States. He checked out books on science and physics, learning more English as he uncovered the information he sought.
Frequenting junk yards and raising suspicions of his sanity, William put together the knowledge he gleaned from books with bits of this and bits of that and lo!!! He ended up with a windmill that generated enough electricity to light up his family’s extremely modest home.
Hard to believe, perhaps, that such a story would make me weep, not out of sadness, but simply out of joy to be alive, but this one did. It is not because William’s striving and his success is so heartwarming, but because of the way he and his co-writer tell his story. The young boy of this story leads the reader through the hard, hard work of the farm, heart-breaking tragedy, youthful antics, and iron-hard yearning to a bright place that extends way beyond this boy and this place with a voice that is consistently modest and tender.
Besides being a compelling read, a page-turner almost, this story would be of great interest for any boy or girl who likes to tinker, to invent, to make things that work. I am not the least bit mechanically oriented, so much of Kamkwamba’s descriptions of his constructions were way beyond my understanding–but kids who are fascinated by mechanics will understand it and be inspired. I am recommending this book for experienced readers from middle school on up.
Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Peña
A kid sits at a bus stop with his hood pulled up and headphones on. No one is looking at him. This moment inspired de la Peña to write his first book; this moment is the turning point in the highly successful book he wrote. He makes his reader look at this kid for three hundred pages that are more like a series of waves approaching a beach than a linear or even a woven plot. The kid on the bench is about to make a move that will break open his cornered life.
Matt de la Peña writes from what he knows: basketball as a kind of tether leading out of the mean streets. He creates a kid who goes by the name of “Sticky,” a name his mother gave him because of all the past-due-date Hostess Twinkies he ate as a little kid. When his mother overdoses, he spends the rest of his childhood in and out of foster homes. He has nothing, but is very good at basketball. The book is a buidup of all that has gone wrong, of all the miscues he has gotten in his life, of all the treacherous pitfalls looming around him, all rushing toward an opening that may or may not shut before he gets to it–the basketball scholarship and a real life.
When the author first presented this book to agents, they suggested he cut some of the cussing and sex and release it as a young adult novel. This excellent book will appeal to teens, certainly boys and basketball enthusiasts, but the complexity of the plot and the subtlety of the character development will be a challenge to all but experienced readers.