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.
Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Schmidt’s latest novel for middle school readers, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has many cards stacked against him. He’s got a mean older brother and a liability for a father. He’s just moved to a new school. He can’t read. He gets in fights. The principal is after him. The coach hates him. He doesn’t have a decent coat or a warm pair of shoes. His mother is sad and long-suffering.
Yet the satisfaction in this story comes not from the bad guys getting their due. Instead, the satisfaction is much deeper and broader—it comes from the reassurance that the inner self is always and truly free. In Doug’s story, this deliverance is aided by the kindness of strangers and by the gift of fine art. In author Gary Schmidt’s capable hands, its light shines right out of the pages of the book, making every day look like a fresh new spring day.
The fine art in this story is a book of John James Audubon’s Birds of America that Doug finds in the local library. Each chapter in Okay for Now is faced with a different plate from this book, and in each chapter, Doug uses that plate to further understand his world—this bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all (the Arctic Tern) and that’s what the picture was about: meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions (The Forked-Tailed Petrel). A librarian—one of the kind strangers in this book—sees Doug’s interest in this book and encourages him to make his own drawings of the plates. The librarian’s critical analysis of these plates and the part they play in Doug’s story make a good reading experience into a sublime one.
I highly recommend this wonderful book for middle school kids of both genders and for adults who like a good story.
The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
A girl comes of age during the Bosnian War and its aftermath. She then becomes a doctor in a desire to help her country recover. On a trip to deliver inoculations to orphanages, she learns of her grandfather’s death. Through her memories of her grandfather and his stories, a story of Bosnian conflict and culture emerge. By the end, the reader will not be able to pass a quiz on the conflict, but the reader will have been there, on the ground and among the people.
Obreht is a storyteller — come sit by me here and I’ll tell you a story. type of a storyteller. The main two stories here are about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. Interspersed are full, rich stories of more characters–Luka the butcher, Darisa the Bear, the apothecary, as well as chair-riveting stories like the narrator’s journey to the “crossroads.” Her writing is lean, vivid, and masterful.
This is a good book for an experienced teen reader for several reasons. The author herself is young–twenty-one when she began the novel–and her voice, though as assured as that of a seasoned writer, is that of a young person. Though her plot is not linear, experience teen readers will fall into her rich storytelling. And finally, she is a very creative and skilled writer–teens will enjoy feeling they have not read anything like this book before while recognizing its exceptional worth.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly
Jennifer Donnelly has written a book in an authentic teen voice in the tradition of Holden Caulfield that is highly educational, both about music and about the French Revolution. The narrator is a teen girl in her last year at a prestigious New York prep school. She has recently suffered a family tragedy and is tormented by what she views as her responsibility for that tragedy. Her often absent father whisks her away to Paris, thinking it would be good for her to get away.
In Paris, Andi discovers an old diary hidden in a secret compartment in a centuries-old guitar case. She has in her hands the guitar and the diary of another teen girl who lived during the French Revolution. Though all Andi can think of is leaving Paris and her father, as she slowly reads this diary she gets drawn further and further into the life of Alexandrine, her eighteenth century counterpart, until she is, in fact, there on the streets of revolutionary Paris. Even for readers new to the story of the French Revolution, Donnelly’s account is thorough and illuminating.
The second major theme of this story is music, specifically, the tradition of music that passes from the earliest classic composers all the way down through modern rap music. Andi is a serious musician; in fact, her music is all that keeps her together for most of the novel. Her musings on styles and compositions throughout this story should be of great interest to any teen interested in music.
Teens of both genders, both young and old, will like this book. It is history, it is music, and it is the pursuit of personal strength in the face of the worst of odds.
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.
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.
Guys Read: Funny Business by Jon Scieszka
I’m the opposite of who this book was intended for…and I loved it. If fifth-grade boy was the center of the target, Forty-year old mom wasn’t even on the dartboard. But these stories are so funny, so poignant, and so well written, it seems a shame to let eleven year-old boys have all the fun. I found myself laughing out loud in a public coffee shop multiple times.
My daughter’s fifth grade class recently participated in National Novel Writers Month. In celebration of reaching their word-count goals, the class read excerpts of their 3,000 word novels to the parents. With child after child, I was amazed by their creativity and humor. While reading Guys Read: Funny Business, I was struck by the similarities. These stories managed to perfectly capture that same voice of a child, while layering on the exceptional writing and story arc that comes with years of practice and more than a smidge of envy-inducing talent.
There is a line in one of the stories that goes something like this, “If you think you are going to be a writer when you grow up, don’t you think you should take notes?’ The young boy replied, “I have a great memory.” Well, whether these authors have great memories or just made up new ones to help boys enjoy reading, the result is laugh-out-loud good. I highly recommend this book for kids who enjoyed Artemis Fowl, The Great Brain, and I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President. You can learn more about this book, and find other great recommendations for boys at http://www.guysread.com.