How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
In this novel, a young woman whose darkness has been a long time coming connects with a once happy family that has recently experienced the sudden and devastating death of the father. The widow has invited the pregnant un-wed 18 year-old into her home with the intent of adopting the baby when it is born. Her daughter, in her last year of high school, thinks her mother has lost it. All three are so busy trying to save themselves from their own grief that almost no communication takes place. Aptly named, this story follows to resolution the dictum, “The life you save may be your own.”
Told in alternating perspectives of the two teen girls—Mandy and Jill—both the main and the supporting characters gradually emerge as complex and appealing individuals. Mandy negotiates with herself as she tries to both ditch her unfortunate childhood and to make better decisions for the new life she will bring into the world. Jill uses hostility as best she can to shut out others in her quest to numb the loss of her father. They are as different as two teens can be; their only common ground is the mother’s generosity and sorrow that holds them in an embrace. The magic of this story is how the author slowly brings them together to resolve the underlying and yet most gripping conflict in the plot, which is the question of the quality of life that awaits the new baby.
Zarr’s books, while clearly targeted to the teen girl audience, also fit well into the category of “If it’s good enough for a teen to read, it’s also good enough for an adult to read.” In fact this is a great book for mother and daughter to share.
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.
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.
Carpe Diem, by Autumn Cornwell
Being a high school girl is about finding your way from your childhood self to your adult self. At close view, that can look like making the right friends, snagging the “right” boyfriend, keeping ahead of the pack, and keeping a grasp of your appearance and dignity, while striving all the time to end up on top. If you’re lucky, as Vassar Spore is in this novel by Autumn Cornwell, you will get a chance to get sidetracked. Off the beaten track and at the mercy of fate, you may get a chance to find out who you really are and to realize that you like what you find.
Autumn Cornwell has written a story about an American high school girl who is just that close to having it all. When this fully Americanized teenager suddenly and unwillingly finds herself travelling through Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, we expect her horror at germs, unfamiliar food, lack of shower facilities, and large bugs. We even expect that she will change and find wisdom in her new surroundings because it seems the plot is directed towards this. But since the author was an avid traveller in her own youth, her descriptions of these countries are weighted with a profound fondness. What could have been a trite plot ends up being convincing and lovely.
Narrated in the voice of sixteen-year-old Vassar Spore, Carpe Diem (seize the day) reads like a teenager talking to other teenagers. I found it quite funny and I found the two main teenage characters very real and in the end, very appealing. Not a difficult read at all, there are still quite a few good vocabulary words thrown in. And, it is an entirely appropriate novel for the youngest of teenagers.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
Girls in my high school classes have liked Mary E. Pearson’s books for years. Scribbler of Dreams has been listed as a favorite book of almost everyone who has read it. Her newest, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, also seems to be striking a chord with them.
In this book, Pearson explores a teenage girl’s struggle to develop a unique identity and an independent will separate from her parent’s expectations of her. But she sets this story within a future when human life itself can be simply bioengineered. Where is identity and independent will when life comes from a lab? What is really essential for making life worth living?
Jenna Fox , the survivor of a fiery crash, has a greater challenge discovering who she is than the average teenage girl. But her journey is a familiar one for teenage girls whose road to self-realization is less than smooth. The adoration of her parents gave her life, but as long as she can think and feel, her path through that life will be what she creates.
This book is entirely appropriate for middle and high school readers. Mostly of interest to girls, its exploration of the bio-engineered humanity that is on the horizon could interest boys as well.
Ivy & Bean by Annie Barrow & Sophie Blackall
Ivy & Bean
A baby’s first step is a turning point into walking. The reading equivalent is not as easy to spot, but for my daughter, Georgia, it happened while reading Ivy & Bean. She went from being a struggling new reader, to a confident reader. I know it took years of work, but, just like a first step turns instantly into walking, it really appears as though my daughter got over the ‘reading hump’ with this book. As a result Ivy & Bean will always have a special place in my heart. I also owe a special thanks to Georgia’s good friend Elsa. Elsa’s love of the series was just the incentive Georgia needed to focus and become the reader she has wanted to be for a long time. A little peer pressure can be a good thing in young children.
There are several books about mischievous young girls that drive me crazy. At best they glamorize bratty behavior, and at worst they are riddled with bad grammar in the guise of ‘child talk.’ Ivy & Bean is neither of these. It is a sweet book about creative and independent girls who discover a great friendship. There is certainly plenty of naughty behavior, but it is funny and, along the lines of the older brother in the Wonder Years, it does really seem like the older sister deserves it. The writing is excellent, with the perfect balance of a quick paced flow and enough details to make children relate. It is rated at a 2nd grade reading level, and is tolerable as a book to read along with your child. I highly recommend this book for 1st grade girls, particularly ones that have strong friendships. You can learn more about the series at this url: http://www.anniebarrows.com/ivyandbean/ivyandbean/about/
Friendship is what brought Georgia this great book about two girls who become unexpected friends. Georgia saw Elsa enjoying this book, and, for her part, Elsa would read Georgia the funniest parts. That was just the enticement Georgia needed. Like Bean with Ivy, I’m sure over the years Elsa will entice Georgia into many things I am not so happy about, but for now I am grateful.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
I am so grateful that there are some truly great writers out there writing books for children. Many are celebrated adult authors such as Alexander McCall Smith and Ursula LeGuin (I love Catwings, sigh). But now my new favorite children’s author is Laurie Halse Anderson. Thank you, thank you, thank you for making great literature for my children to read.
I just finished her Newberry Award winning book Chains. And, while the book is fantastic, it has also left me contemplating what is the right age for my daughters to read it. Having read Ms. Anderson’s Vet Volunteer series, my 3rd grade daughter is eager to read Chains. However, my protective side is hesitant to let her see some of the truly horrific things that happened to slaves during the founding of this country.
The irony of a people simultaneously fighting to be free while enslaving others is the central theme of this story. However, ‘irony’ is really a much too gentle word, as the story graphically portrays the painful injustice and violence that was inflicted on slaves. Isabel, a 13 year-old orphan, is sold off to a cruel couple who not only abuses her, but also separates her from her disabled toddler sister. The book is also quite explicit in illustrating the uglier sides of war, including the painful starvation of many prisoners of war.
Ultimately, I turned to my neighbor for advice who wisely told me that this is exactly the kind of book to read with your child. While the writing is smooth and relatively easy (a 4th grade reading level), the themes are complex and perfect for discussion. While I would say this still is not a book for a sensitive child, it is a great book to read with your children to help them understand how far this country has come.