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.
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.
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.
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.
The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent
In Kent’s earlier book, Heretic’s Daughter a young girl loses her mother to the notorious witch trials. Her father has a mysterious past–in this book we learn what that was.
The Wolves of Andover is about two different kinds of wolves–the wild ones and the human ones. Settlers in New England in the seventeenth century contended with many natural hazards–wild animals, smallpox, weather, crop failure, to name a few. But author Kathleen Kent uses her gift of vivid detail to make clear that the hazards from fellow humans were much more dangerous in the struggle to survive.
This story ties English history with Colonial history. The two of course were closely entwined during this period, a fact that does not come through in much of the American history taught in classrooms. Thomas Morgan, the man with the mysterious past in The Heretic’s Daughter, was involved in the English Civil War in which the king of England, Charles I, lost his head. The reader and the young woman who becomes his wife (and the accused witch in The Heretic’s Daughter), slowly uncover the part he played…the description that Martha eventually writes down is stunning and totally believable, even as a fictionalized account.
There is much violence, vividly depicted, in this book. It is definitely for mature readers. The history may be harder to follow for teen readers than Kent’s earlier book, simply because it is much more unfamiliar territory than the Salem witch trials. But if a teen reader liked The Heretic’s Daughter, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. By the end, the history becomes very clear and the reader gains a vivid perspective of the interconnectedness of England and its American colonies.
I loved both these books. But I love this period and place in history–I have a deep question in my psyche about why we left England and came here–so reading historical fiction as good as this is a treat I only yearn for more of.
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.
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.