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.
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.
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.
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.
Dirt Road Home by Watt Key
When my students finished Alabama Moon, Watt Key’s popular first novel, they all said they hoped Key would write another book so they could find out what happend with Hal. Well he did. As Moon was headed off to a regular life with long-lost relatives, Hal, the buddy he escaped from the “home” for boys with, is looking at the possibility of spending time in a tougher boys’ home that turns out to be more like a real prison.
Hal finds himself in this boys’ prison in Key’s second book and it is run by mean and corrupt adults who allow a viscious gang environment to thrive. Hal, who usually has no difficulty taking on trouble, will only get out if he stays out of trouble. Since that is virtually impossible, his only hope is to rely on friendship and to find a way to outwit those who want to keep him down.
Like Alabama Moon, this book is a compelling read driven by the reader’s empathy for a strong main character, constant action, and by lines clearly drawn between the light and the dark. While Alabama felt like an entirely new hero to literature, Hal is a more familiar one–a smart, brave kid with a good heart and a childhood that worked against him but that he is driven to get beyond. Key’s books are about boys and are written for boys in middle school or higher. Yet I enjoy them (I’m well past my school years and female) and look forward to the next one.
The Great Wide Sea by M. H. Herlong
A grieving father who has just lost his wife sells everything, buys a sailboat, and leaves with his three sons to sail the Caribbean for a year. Readers would expect that this might be a journey that gives them back their life as a family unit. And it is, but it is much more than that. The oldest son, Ben, is fifteen–old enough to feel some responsibility for his younger brothers, old enough to be thinking of his life as separate from that with his family, and of the age to question the character of his own father. So the journey does become a test for each family member’s strength as well as the bonds with each other. But the other journey, the journey of Ben’s perception of his father from failure to fallible is an equally perilous journey.
There are similarities between this book and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen captures the fear and desparation of a young boy alone in the wilderness with nothing to help him survive but a good knife. Herlong’s story doesn’t deliver as much of the urgency of surviving the ferocity of nature, but it delivers much more in the interior workings of a teen-age boy and the ferocity of coming of age.
Kids who like to sail from age nine on up should enjoy this book. While there is plenty of suspense, this is not an action packed story. It is more of a tale that rings true. I am no sailor and well past nine-years-old and I loved it.
The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan is the author of the immensely popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The Red Pyramid is the first book in his new series, The Kane Chronicles. Whereas Percy Jackson had the Greek gods to contend with, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane have dealings with the ancient Egyptian gods. Both series are action and imagery packed. Both have protagonists who are super-cool mid-aged kids with parents who are absent and need their help. Riordan’s second series should be every bit as popular as his first, although kids who began with the first book in the Percy Jackson series may have gotten too old by now for the new series.
While there are plenty of scary monsters, tragic deaths (with options for reconstitution), and ongoing life-threatening near-misses, the self-confidence and cheery wit of the two siblings who tear through this novel make it more fun than frightening. Since Riordan strikes such a chord with middle-school readers, and since there is so much Egyptian history and lore in this book, it would make a great whole-class read for sixth graders, who, in California at least, study Egyptian history. It would also be a good book to give to a reluctant reader of either gender from ages of about nine up through thirteen.