Monday, July 30, 2012

THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls

Walls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Scribner, 2005. 288 pages. Tr. $25.55, ISBN: 978-1-43915-696-4

Plot: Jeanette Walls begins her memoir with her travelling to a party in Manhattan, only to spot her mother rifling through the garbage on the side of the road. She flashes back to her childhood, with the kids in the family shepherded by two completely unconventional parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Rex, who studied physics, astronomy, and geology, appears to have all of the makings of an excellent engineer. He loves his children but is an alcoholic who cannot hold down a steady job. Rose Mary writes and paints and avoids cooking and cleaning. Together, they have five children, but one, a girl, dies in infancy, which throws Rex into a grief from which he never recovers.
            Living like nomads, the family is constantly on the move, going from one desert town to another, hatching schemes, and trying to scrape together enough money to get by. Something always goes wrong and they have to move again. In spite of all his faults, Rex loves his children, and he charms them with stories about how he’s going to discover gold and build them a Glass Castle. Jeanette is swept up in this dream and helps with the planning. Brian, Jeanette’s brother, forms a strong bond with her as they fight to survive. Lori, the eldest, seems less enchanted by her father’s dreams. And Maureen, the baby, is looking for a way to escape.
            After hitting rock bottom, the family moves back to Rex’s hometown in Welch, West Virginia, where his mother’s home is a house of horrors. Even when the family finds its own house in Welch, it is a dark, dismal place, a town where dreams die and people merely survive. Rex falls apart, losing his charm even for Jeanette.
            Lori flees by going to school in New York, bringing Jeanette and eventually Brian with her. The rest of the family soon follows, and Rex and Rose Mary end up squatting in an abandoned building.

Critical Evaluation: The most striking aspect of this book is that Jeanette tells the story, even the toughest parts, with love for her unusual parents. Even though they were completely incapable of taking care of their children, they are portrayed with affection and understanding. Rex seems brilliant and full of promise, but he cannot escape the horrors of his childhood (he was almost certainly sexually abused by his terrifying mother). Rose Mary is a free spirit, completely devoid of maternal feelings, but she is a good friend, full of life and passion. She could have had a calm, conventional life – she had money and was raised upper middle class – but she preferred living without the comforts of a middle class home. The situations, especially when Rex destroys his loving daughter’s distrust by using her as a sexual pawn in a scheme to get money, could have created a bitter, angry person who castigates her parents for their selfishness and inability to provide their children with the basics, like food and heat. The fact that Jeanette Walls can look at them with love and caring, even admiration, is evidence that hers is not a story of escape from a horrible past but a tale about pulling the good things out of a bad situation. She views her parents as complex, unusual characters. Even when the reader is appalled by Rex’s behavior, we can be sympathetic for this intelligent, loving, but deeply wounded character. Jeanette Walls seems incapable of self-pity; it’s what got her out of her situation. Because of that, it’s plain to see that her parents, despite their foibles, did something right.

Reader’s Annotation: When Jeanette Walls travels to a fancy soiree in Manhattan, she spies her mother sifting through the garbage by the side of the road, which makes her remember her bizarre, dysfunctional childhood and how she escaped her strange parents.

Author bio: Jeanette Walls lived a peripatetic life, wandering from Arizona to Nevada, West Virginia to New York. She chronicles her unusual, often harrowing, childhood in The Glass Castle. In New York, she became a journalist, writing for a now-defunct newspaper called The Phoenix. Her father died in 1994 and she wrote for Esquire, New York Magazine, and others. She dished out gossip for MSNBC before leaving in 2007.
            In 2009, she published a novel called Half Broke Horses. She lives in Virginia with her second husband. Her mother lives in an outbuilding and takes care of her horses.
Genre: Memoir.

Curriculum Ties: English

Booktalking Ideas:
Retell a scenario that occurs early in the book – let the author’s unusual perspective come through.
Focus on describing the dysfunctional family scenes, such as her mother’s hoarding chocolate while her children are starving, her father’s wildness as he breaks one of the kids out of the hospital against doctor recommendations.
Focus on the nomadic quality of the family, their moving from one place to another, the questions that arise about her father and her mother. Questions about how the kids survived to thrive.

Reading Level: 5th grade
Interest Age: 17+

Challenge Issues: Alcoholism, family dysfunction, neglect, child abuse.
Challenge Response:
The book won ALA’s Alex Award and has racked up many rave reviews, even by Francine Prose in The New York Times. Keep passages of the book handy and know the content. This way the story is told is central to understanding the work. There is nothing sensational about it. Focus on the fact that this is a true story and it’s a survival story, one about strong children surviving. It is ultimately uplifting. Really focus on the literary merit of the book.

Why Included: A teen celebrity recommended it in Teen Vogue and it’s a great read with a surprising perspective.



Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. MTV Books/Pocket Books, 1999. 213 pages. Tr. $18.81, ISBN: 978-0-7587-9600-4

Plot: Charlie is writing a letter to an anonymous person. A shy, unusual boy, Charlie is now left with the daunting task of finding a way for himself in high school after his best friend’s suicide last year. As the year moves forward, he meets several students and one important teacher. At the beginning of the school year, Charlie meets Sam, a pretty and free-spirited senior, and her stepbrother, Patrick. They bring him into their fold, and he connects with their iconoclastic friends. A sensitive teacher recommends books for Charlie to read, and he begins his own independent study, reading classic bohemian touchstones like On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Stranger by Albert Camus alongside classics like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout the course of the story, Charlie writes down his unusual thoughts about these books in a way that helps elucidate the action in the story.  Sam and Patrick take Charlie to a party, where Charlie sees that Patrick is in a heated fight with the school’s football hero, Brad. Patrick is openly gay and Brad and Patrick had a secret romance that ended when Brad’s father discovered the two together. Charlie eventually gets in the middle of one of these fights and he defends Patrick. Sam, Patrick, and their friends introduce Charlie to drugs but also to a romantic way of thinking about life. As closed up as Charlie is, they are there to open him up. Though he is in love with Sam, he develops a relationship with another girl that eventually falls apart. He and Sam have a night together, but Charlie has a breakdown, which eventually ends up with him coming to grips with a terrible memory from his childhood.

Critical Evaluation: Because the story is told in the form of a letter, Chbosky is able to create a hypnotic, suspenseful tone that is hard to shake. Charlie’s voice is the central most important element; it’s innocent and wise, detached and somehow involved, at the same time. Although some have gotten upset over Sam and Patrick introducing Charlie to drugs, there is a realistic quality to the way Sam and Patrick try to pull Charlie out of his bubble and get him connected to people and a more typical teenage world. It is a common high school situation for a more innocent, younger teen to be exposed to alcohol or drugs. The fact that they could have a positive impact on Charlie makes the book seem more realistic. Charlie is tasting the world with literature,  with his philosophizing, and in his grown-up imbibing. The other standout factor in the book is Patrick’s homosexuality, which is presented in a way that is fully believable. That Patrick is at ease with his sexuality means that he can deflect the bullying directed at him, but Brad’s response is equally realistic. He is angry at being exposed and blames Patrick for putting him that situation. Having Charlie, whose dual traits of detachment and intense sensitivity, describe their situation in his matter-of-fact way makes it refreshingly devoid of any emotion. It is what it is. Brad’s confusion and anger seems strange; Patrick’s acceptance of who he is seems like a more appropriate response in Charlie’s generally Zen-like take on things.  This book is not for every teen, but, like The Catcher in the Rye, it can inspire obsession. Devotees will read the book again and again, and they will want to read every book and listen to every record mentioned in it. This is a piercing, unforgettable work.

Reader’s Annotation: Charlie has weathered a lot, including the suicide of his best friend last year. When an older group of fringe bohemian kids take Charlie in as he begins high school, his life will never be the same.

Author bio: Pennsylvania native Stephen Chbosky is a novelist, screenwriter and director now living in Los Angeles. He is a fan of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and many who read Perks see hints of that classic. He discovered “Charlie” when he was working on a different novel and the final result of that epiphany took many years of gestation before it was actually written.
            Chbosky co-wrote the screenplay to the film version of Rent and he was the co-creator, writer and executive producer of the television show Jericho. Chbosky wrote and directed the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is slated for release in September 2012.

Genre: Realistic fiction.

Curriculum Ties: English

Booktalking Ideas:
Focus on Charlie’s trauma and the mystery surrounding his story.
Focus on how Charlie gets swept up with the cool kids – why would they embrace such a strange, shy kid?

Reading Level: 4th grade
Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues: Homosexuality, sexual references, intense situations.
Challenge Response: This is a controversial book that has been challenged quite a lot. In defenses, it would probably be a good idea to pull quotes on its comparisons to the now-classic Catcher in the Rye, and to talk about how that book, was once challenged but is now a part of the high school cannon. I would keep files of the rave reviews that it has received, such as the School Library Journal starred review and its appearance on the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age 2001 list. The neutral tone in which Charlie describes events may also temper shock over the content, so I would pull quotes from the book to show Charlie’s tone, which is so important to the book.

Why Included: I had heard that this book was being compared to The Catcher in the Rye and teachers were raving about it right after it was published.

WHALE TALK by Chris Crutcher

Plot: TJ Jones goes to Cutter High School, where sports rule so much that coaches and administrators look the other way when the top jock of the school bullies a developmentally disabled boy. T.J. “The Tao” Jones has a problem with this. Criminally neglected by a drug-addicted mom for two years, TJ finally found a home with his foster mother and father. But he lives in a place where being mixed-race (African-American, Japanese, and white) might pit you against the town's brutal jocks--who have a stranglehold on the school, the teachers, and the town itself.
To make things worse for him, natural-born athlete TJ has always refused to take part in any of school sports teams until his favorite teacher begs him to start a swim team. TJ agrees if he can assemble the team himself. He chooses a ragtag group of outcasts: Chris Coughlin, a natural swimmer who is developmentally disabled; and then there’s Dan, Tay-Roy, Andy, Jackie and Simon. All have challenges that slowly unfold over the course of the story. In a subplot that becomes pivotal to the story, TJ helps his therapist Georgia Brown with troubled children, and he meets Heidi, the victim of an abusive stepfather who is a central force in the town’s angry, macho, and racist world.

Critical Evaluation: Crutcher takes on a lot here, with a plot that includes complicated background stories, character histories, multiple (connected) plots, and two major conflicts. At times, it can dilute the power of the story, but it is generally saved by the main central force in the story, the voice of TJ. Angry, bitter, funny, and full of heart, TJ is a fantastic character who resonates long after the reading of his tale. Since Crutcher is a therapist, he knows how to capture a young man with baggage and serious anger problems. But he also knows how to capture the spirit of a caring young man with a lot of potential. He is one of the most memorable characters in young adult literature.
            The multiple strands of the story and the multiple interesting characters make for deep, if at times confusing, reading. Chris Crutcher is extremely good at creating a novel that pivots on sports yet captures teens with serious problems. All of the young men in this book are complicated and worth knowing, the hostile environment feels real, and their battle is dramatic. Their cause is one worth rooting for and this book will appeal to kids longing for a problem novel with rich, realistic characters.

Reader’s Annotation: TJ is intelligent and athletic, but he has a lot against him. Multiracial in a mostly white town and full of anger, TJ gets his revenge on the powers that be by enlisting a group of misfits for the swim team.

Author bio: Born in the Midwest, Chris Crutcher majored in English and psychology, later becoming a teacher and the director of an Oakland alternative school. After leaving that position, he started working as a child and family psychologist focusing on abuse and neglect, but he had already penned his first book, Running Loose.
            Crutcher specializes in writing about athletic boys dealing with tough situations. His books have won him many awards and places on notable best books lists. His most famous novels are Whale Talk and Staying Fat for Sarah Burns. Because his books are frequently challenged, he has become an outspoken advocate for free speech and he works to empower teens to fight back against censorship.

Genre: Realistic fiction.

Curriculum Ties: English

Booktalking Ideas:
Focus on the racial aspect of the story.
Describe the humor of the “Bad News Bears”-style swim team.

Reading Level: 6th grade
Interest Age: 12+

Challenge Issues: Intense scenes involving abuse and racism.
Challenge Response: It is very important to know the content of this book, the way the characters are developed and the purpose of the intense situations. Crutcher’s main goal is to show that hurt people don’t have to hurt people, they can help people. The fact that Crutcher is a professional therapist should be included. The book received rave reviews, including a starred Horn Book review. ALA Notable Children’s Book 2002.

Why Included: I heard about this one in a bookstore book talk and was interested in its combination of sports and social issues.

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block

Block, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. HarperCollins, 1989. 109 pages. Tr. $14.21, ISBN: 978-1-41554-548-5

Plot: Weetzie Bat is an L.A. girl living with her mother, a gorgeous but brassy former B-movie starlet. A girl with a strong sense of fashion (including Native American headdresses), she meets a boy named Dirk at school. The two hit it off, going to punk clubs and inhaling Hollywood, only Dirk likes boys. The two spend time with Dirk’s grandmother, Fifi, who gives Weetzie a lamp. When a genie pops out, he grants her some wishes, which results in the creation of both her and Dirk’s fantasy partners, My Secret Agent Lover Man (for Weetzie) and Duck (for Dirk).  Fifi dies, and the four move into her house, creating a happy alternative family.
            Secret Agent Man, like Weetzie’s father, makes movies. They shoot films and have fun until Weetzie wants a baby. When My Secret Agent Lover Man balks, Weetzie finds a way to get pregnant without him. Furious, he leaves. Dirk and Duck take care of Weetzie until he returns, after having a dangerous dalliance with a witch. Creating an unusual alternate-reality family in Hollywood, the four confront more dark forces – Weetzie’s dad’s drug abuse, AIDS, and the witch’s return – that threaten to destroy the happiness of the little family, which grows as time goes on.

Critical Evaluation: This is a genre-defying book, part dream, part Hollywood fantasy, part heightened love letter to Los Angeles. The main character, Weetzie, is a beautiful sprite, a child’s dream of what being a 19 year old in Hollywood might be like. Dirk is a teen dream – he’s like an airbrushed Elvis or James Dean. Their companions are, in the world of the book, literally dreams, perfect partners conjured out of their own hearts and minds.
            The two find perfection until Weetzie’s desires, her father’s disillusionment, and the real-world plague of the time rear their heads.
            The way that the author uses fantasy in the book to capture a picture-perfect, if unconventional family, is a real departure. It is original to the core, from the way Weetzie follows her heart to the way the four of them experience their city. Light and dark, cotton candy and punk rock alleys, the book captures the sunshine and noir of the city – dipping into the noir and choosing to bask in the sun instead. It is a YA book that only a young writer could have conjured.

Reader’s Annotation: When Weetzie Bat, a feathered-headdress wearing punk sprite, meets Dirk, she has a sense that anything is possible, and she might be right.

Author bio: A devoted denizen of Los Angeles, which has factored hugely in her novels, Francesca Lia Block wrote Weetzie Bat while a student a UC Berkeley during the only time she has left the city. The book became a phenomenon, and Block continued, writing screenplays, plays, and more YA novels.
            She has seen her share of controversy; Weetzie Bat, with its alternative lifestyles and embrace of Hollywood’s seedier corners, and Baby Be Bop in particular was met with the threat of a public book burning. The city and her artistic parents have helped create Block’s boundary-breaking style.

Genre: Fantasy mixed with reality.

Curriculum Ties: English

Booktalking Ideas:
Describe the characters and their desire to find love.
Talk about the Los Angeles/Hollywood focus – LA as a place of dreams and noir.
Have kids dress up and act out the scene of Weetzie meeting Dirk.

Reading Level: 5
Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues: Homosexuality, surrogate families, alternative lifestyles, sexuality.
Challenge Response: 
The alternative lifestyles in the book have provoked challenges, and anyone defending the book against a challenge should do research and be very familiar with the discussion and rebuttals to challenges.
Be extremely familiar with both the content and subject matter of the book but also with its tone, how the characters and situations are presented.
ALA Notable Children’s Books, 1995
Margaret A. Edwards Award 2005

Why Included: Considered a groundbreaking YA book.


Werlin, Nancy. The Rules of Survival. Speak, 2006. 273 pages. Tr. $13.91, ISBN: 978-0-329-64286-0

Plot: Matthew Walsh is writing a letter to his youngest sister, Emmy, to try to explain what has happened in their lives.. At 13, Matthew had become the protector of his two little sisters, Emmy, a toddler, and Callie, who is two years younger than he. Their home life is terrifying, their mother, Nikki, is dangerous and unpredictable, creating a highly charged and frightening atmosphere at home. Out of desperation, he carefully works to get help, but most of his efforts end in disappointment and fear.
            His first hope is Murdoch, a kind man who had made a strong impression on Matthew at a neighborhood store. He ends up dating Nikki, and Matthew thinks the set up is the key for the family’s safety. But Nikki eventually shows her true colors and the relationship breaks up. Nikki gets her revenge by going after Murdoch’s friend, Julie. She lands in jail and the kids find a safe haven in family members’ homes. When Nikki gets out, she kidnaps Emmy, leading up to a showdown between Matthew and Nikki.

Critical Evaluation: Although there are problems with the story’s set up (the idea is that he’s writing his “rules of survival” so that Emmy will be able to protect herself, but this is really just a retelling of a what happened).  Although it seems to want to be realistic, there are elements that place it in the genre of horror or thriller books.
            The character of Nikki will resonate long after the reader finishes the book. Her erratic moods and her terrifying behavior – she is a powder keg just waiting to explode – make for a good story (she is quite clearly the villain), but occasionally she seems one-dimensionally bad. She flirts, she can “act normal,” but Matthew doesn’t have a shred of love or respect for her and she seems bereft of a single good quality.
Those qualms aside, this is an extremely fast-paced and gripping story with an emotional edge. Werlin does a wonderful job of capturing the fear and hesitation of a young man who has been scarred by a truly frightening parent.
This is a dramatic book, with a plot that moves quickly and believable characters even in their most extreme emotional states.

Reader’s Annotation: A 17-year-old boy knows that he must leave his family soon in order to escape his dangerous mother, but how can he leave his sisters behind?

Author bio: An easterner now living in Boston, Nancy Werlin was a disaffected teenager who couldn’t wait to get out of school. She was also a huge reader, devouring about twelve books a week – Faulkner, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway. A graduate of Yale, Werlin was a technical writer before she began  to write books.
            Werlin has written suspenseful thrillers, fantasy romances, and realistic fiction. She is probably most famous for Impossible, a book about a girl who has to complete seemingly impossible tasks to end a family curse, and The Rules of Survival, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Genre: Realistic fiction.

Curriculum Ties: Health, English

Booktalking Ideas:
Describe Matthew’s bind – ask “ what would you do in that situation?”
Focus on the crazy behavior of the mother, talk about the abuse.

Reading Level: 4th grade
Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues: Child abuse.
Challenge Response: While there are some very harsh, even terrifying scenes in this book, the case should be made that this is about kids coping with fear. The focus is on escaping a bad situation.
Also, this book has been recommended in highly regarded magazines, with starred reviews in Booklist, Horn Book, and School Library Journal, and the author is a highly respected writer in the YA field.

Why Included: It is gripping, has incredibly well-developed characters, and a plot that emphasizes strength and resilience.

CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1989 (orig. published 1961). 524 pages. Tr. $21.30, ISBN: 978-1-45162-117-4
            Convinced that people are trying to kill him, Yossarian continues to plot to avoid combat by faking a liver illness and crafting other schemes. When he realizes that his bumbling tent-mate, who had been missing, has washed up in Sweden, he realizes that this is his ticket out of the war.

Critical Evaluation: A powerful critique that has become a classic. Heller pitches his character into a world of bureaucratic insanity in a way that resonates to anyone who has had to deal with the red tape of a large institution. Its plot isn’t linear but there is a structure, with frequent flashbacks tied to the present (1943).  Yossarian is the “Everyman” of the story, a character who is easy to identify with and who is swept up in forces beyond his control. Other characters serve symbolic purposes – with Colonel Cathcart representing the true insanity of war.
            The story’s flashbacks and sometimes confusing narrative also help to disorient the reader, putting him in Yossarian’s confused shoes. As funny as it is in the beginning, the end gets closer and closer to the terrifying darkness of war, and there are truly horrifying events that occur. Just because the characters are symbolic in nature doesn’t mean that what happens to them doesn’t hurt. The ending, though, presents the opportunity to escape the madness.
            Because teenagers so often feel that they are caught in the web of school and family obligations, they identify easily with Yossarian and his absurd situation.

Reader’s Annotation: When John Yossarian gets sent to the Italian front during World War II, he is swept into an insane system that he is desperate to escape, which puts him in a series of ridiculous situations in a place in which everyone is, basically, out of their minds.

Author bio: The son of Russian immigrants, Joseph Heller was born in Coney Island, New York in 1923. Before he joined the U.S. Army, he had apprenticed to a blacksmith.  When he was 19, he went into the military, going to the front and flying a multitude of routine and uneventful combat missions.
            After he came back, he went to college, eventually getting his MA in English and dipping into academia, journalism and copywriting. Catch-22 was extremely late to the publisher (possibly five years). It was hardly a hit, but the paperback version did well with the newly disenfranchised Baby Boomers, who responded to its anti-war message. The book was turned into a film nine years later.

Genre: Historical novel, satire.

Curriculum Ties: California State Standards, English – Literary Response and Analysis 3.0:
Literary Criticism
3.8        Analyze the clarity and consistency of political assumptions in a selection of literary works or essays on a topic (e.g., suffrage, women’s role in organized labor). (Political approach)

Booktalking Ideas:
Focus on the idea of an individual fighting against the machine.
2    Describe the set up of “Catch-22” and how the term stuck.
3       With someone else, act out a particularly crazy scene that captures the mad logic of the conversations.

Reading Level: 7th grade
Interest Age: 16+

Challenge Issues: Violence, sexual content.
Challenge Responses: A familiarity with the content of the book is a must.
This novel, now considered a classic, has been ranked on several lists as one of the best books in the English language. Keep classics lists in file.
Also, keep rave reviews on file, such as this one by the New York Times:

Why Included: Considered one of the best books written in the past 100 years, it appeals to teenagers because of its message about individuality and conformity.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Bibliographic Information: Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1969. 215 pages. Tr. $13.31, ISBN 978-0-7587-7978-6

Plot: After the autobiographical introduction, the story centers around Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and alien abductee. The plot is non-linear and purposefully disorienting.
            In the course of the story, Pilgrim has several time-tripping experiences and believes that he is abducted by aliens and displayed with a B-movie actress.. At other times, Pilgrim is living his staid, postwar life as an optometrist in Ilium, New York. The most famous section of the book is Pilgrim’s experience as a POW, which echoes Vonnegut’s own war experience. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, he and the other POW’s are taken to an old slaughterhouse, no longer used but still hung with some carcasses. Before a war-enthusiast friend dies of gangrene, he convinces a petty thief in the group that Billy is to blame and the thief, grudge-holding Paul Lazarro, promises that he will avenge the death of his friend by killing Billy. He watches the absolute destruction of the city of Dresden, but the POWs are safe because of their bunker.
Billy’s ability to go back and forward in time continues to pitch him into fervors that drive his family crazy. He has envisioned his own demise by Paul Lazarro, emerges during Billy’s speech on time and flying saucers.

Critical Evaluation: Like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut took his experience in World War II and wrote an absurdist novel that appealed to the Baby Boomer’s post-Vietnam take on war. It is a novel that attempts to capture the insanity of war through the prism of history and science fiction. An absurdist classic, packed with gallows humor, Vonnegut describes the insanity of war by pitching his character forward and back in time, creating a crazed novel of amazing genre-bending and social critique. While all of this might sound nonsensical, the craft involved in creating this book is obvious from the first page, as the writer describes his return to Dresden and the outlying areas and mocks the number of years he has been writing his impossible to write Dresden novel. He figured out how to write it by focusing on the insane nature of war (and also the disturbing lull that follows). Hilarious and piercing, it is one of the most important and fascinating novels of the postwar era. Older teens will enjoy Vonnegut’s gallows humor, ridiculous set pieces, and incisive edge as he dissects our society.

Reader’s Annotation: Billy Pilgrim has just gotten unstuck in time, and he is careering forward and back, subjected to relive the bombing of Dresden and to being abducted by aliens shaped like toilet plungers. Will things ever settle down?

Author bio: Born in 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kurt Vonnegut shocked the publishing world in the 1970s with his darkly comic writing – combining history with science fiction. Combining black humor with prickly irreverence, he became a symbol of the traumatic after-effects of that tumultuous post-60s era.
Known as a humanist, Vonnegut experienced several personal traumas during his lifetime, including the suicide of his mother and the orphaning of his sister’s three children when, in the late ‘50s, their father died in a tragic rail incident in New Jersey two days before their mother (Vonnegut’s sister) died of cancer. He adopted the three children.  No doubt the tragedies helped shaped Vonnegut’s vision of the world as tragic and comic.

Genre: Science fiction with elements of autobiography.

Curriculum Ties: California Sate Standards: Historical and Social Sciences Analysis Skills:
Historical Interpretation – grade 11
1.              Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
California State Standards: English Structural Features of Literature – Grades 11-12
3.1        Analyze characteristics of subgenres (e.g., satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that are used in poetry, prose, plays, novels, short stories, essays, and other basic genres.
Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
3.2        Analyze the way in which the theme or meaning of a selection represents a view or comment on life, using textual evidence to support the claim.
3.3            Analyze the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.

Booktalking Ideas: 1) Focus on the book’s absurdist style – it’s mirroring a society in war and in the middle of huge social and cultural shifts.
2) Emphasize the humor – read a funny passage of the book.
3) Focus on the book as a bizarre –and shocking – classic.

Reading Level: 6th grade
Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues: Sexual content, science fiction, dark humor.
Challenge Response:
Be familiar with the book.
Focus on its status as a classic, and the many times it has been called a “masterpiece” by critics. The fact that critics find it to be a cultural touchstone might help.
Here’s a 1969 timeline composed by the New York Times which shows it to be on a list of most important events of that year, right next to global events:

Why Included: I loved the book when I was in high school. Curious to see if it would resonate now, I’ve handed it to a few seniors at my high school and they have gone crazy for it, going so far as to search out every book Vonnegut has ever written.


Plot: Hazel Grace Lancaster is 16, but she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 13. Since then, her life has become all about cancer treatment, the machines that keep her going, the experimental drug that has extended her life) and watching America’s Next Top Model with her loving parents. And reading and re-reading An Imperial Affliction, a beloved novel about a girl with cancer that speaks deeply to Hazel but ends abruptly. The book has become her obsession.
Diagnosed with depression, she reluctantly goes to a “Kids with Cancer” support group. There, she meets Isaac, a boy with eye cancer, and the incredibly seductive survivor named Augustus Waters.
            With philosophical wits made for sparring and shared love for an obscure book, the two begin to connect, but Hazel can’t shake this conundrum: Does connecting with another human being make any sense under the circumstances?
            As the two bond over An Imperial Affliction, Augustus secretly arranges to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet him. The trip is a key turning point as Hazel learns more than she wants to know about her writer-hero, commits to Augustus, and then learns about his terrible secret.

Critical Evaluation: Although some people who have had first-hand experience with cancer might have a difficult time picking this one up, it is a beautiful book, as much about life as it is about coping with illness. Green doesn’t seem capable of creating a trite character or writing anything that smacks of cliché. Throughout the book, Hazel punctures common ideas or misconceptions about kids coping with illness. The plot moves quickly, but the story turns on dialogue, with “Hazel Grace” and Augustus joyfully sparring back and forth, happy to have met each other’s match. Because of Hazel and Augustus’ dry wit and their fear of falling into cliché, the two inject their conversations with humor and sarcasm. This elevates the story, which is at times laugh-out-loud funny. The story is told from Hazel’s point of view, and she delivers her observations with wisdom and a piercing clarity of vision.

Reader’s Annotation: Hazel, a terminally ill cancer patient who has won some time, meets the unusual (and gorgeous) Augustus Waters at a “Cancer Kids” support group. After the two become obsessed with a strange, reclusive writer, they become determined to meet him but end up coming face to face with themselves, and each other.

Author bio: Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1977, John Green grew up in Florida and then went to a boarding school in Alabama (inspiration for his acclaimed debut, Looking for Alaska, which was set in a boarding school). 
            Green, who majored in English lit and religious studies in college, became a chaplain at a children’s hospital, an experience which has, he says, informed every book that he has written. He has lived in Florida, Chicago, and New York. He currently lives in Indianapolis with his wife and toddler son.

Genre: Realistic fiction, romance.

Curriculum Ties: Common Core Standards: Craft and Structure –
RL.11-12.6. Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Booktalking Ideas: 1) Discuss the central question of the book. Does it make sense for someone who is dying to fall in love?
2) Focus on the dialogue – read a bit of an Augustus/Hazel conversation, such as their first conversation.
3) Talk about kids with terminal diseases…what would their lives be like? How would their families cope? How do they get through each day?

Reading Level: Fifth grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: Grim subject matter, sexual content.
Challenge Responses: Rave reviews abound:

Why Included: In spite of the grim subject matter, this is a philosophically probing book about the meaning of life and love.

SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

Halse Anderson, Laurie. Speak. Farrar Strus Giroux, 1999. 197 pages. Tr. $15.34, ISBN 978-0-374-37152-4

Plot: Melinda Sordino begins her first day of high school as an outcast – her best friend, Rachel, won’t speak to her and everyone seems to despise her. The cause is complicated: Melinda broke up a party during the summer by calling the police, but she never explained why she did it. A party destroyer and a snitch, Melinda is the school’s new untouchable.
            She tells the story in the form of a diary and there is clearly something wrong, but she won’t speak about it and she won’t even write about it. At first, Melinda responds to the double trauma by turning inward – she despises mirrors, burrows down in her bedroom, and even creates a bunker at school, setting up a closet as her space to hide.
            The center of the issue is Andy, a.k.a. “IT,” and Melinda is clearly terrified of him. As what happened that horrible night is finally recounted (the healing process helped along by an iconoclastic art teacher and an intellectual friend), Melinda is forced to fight back and attempt to find her voice.

Critical Evaluation: Weaving together elements of the classics with some fairy tale symbolism, Laurie Halse Anderson re-envisions high school as a place of endless trials (and occasional triumphs). Driving the book is the narrator’s voice; Melinda, acerbic, shocked, funny, and wounded, is a fully realized character. Her reactions to her Post Traumatic Stress are completely believable as are the characters who help her heal (who in high school didn’t have one unique teacher who made the day somewhat worthwhile?). The fact that she is helped along by expressing herself through art is also believable.
            By taking some of our ancient fears – the shapeshifter (aka backstabbing friend), the bogeyman in the closet (Andy) and the all-seeing mirror on the wall (Melinda, afraid of being seen, must hide it), Halse Anderson makes this novel universal. High school becomes Melinda’s gauntlet, her house of mirrors and her dark forest (an extension of the forest in which she first encountered “IT”/Andy). With this peripatetically unfolding plot – which reveals itself in fits and starts – this book’s conflicts echo some of our longest held fears about fitting in, speaking out, and confronting the beast in the closet.

Reader’s Annotation: One of the first things that Melinda sees on her first day of high school is her “best friend” mouthing “I hate you” at a school assembly. It’s Melinda’s first year of high school and, because of something that happened at a summer party, it already feels like a living nightmare.

Author bio: One of the most famous YA authors, Halse Anderson lives in Oswego County in New York State. She has written picture books and YA historical novels (Forge, Chains) and she wants people to know that her name is pronounced “haltz” not “hal-see.” She has four children and two step-children.
            Halse Anderson is known for writing intense books for teens – Catalyst, Twisted, Wintergirls, and Speak (her groundbreaking book) capture extreme emotions and intense situations. She cares deeply for her readers and has included their responses to speak in the book’s anniversary edition.

Genre: Fiction, romance.

Curriculum Ties: California State Standard: Health: Standard 4:
Interpersonal Communication
4.1.M         Seek help from trusted adults for oneself or a friend with an emotional or social health problem.
4.2.M   Discuss healthy ways to respond when you or someone you know is grieving.

Booktalking Ideas: 1) Focus on the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What someone who has been traumatized would feel like, do?
2) Focus on the isolation and the disappointment of her first year in high school.
3) Focus on her voice – the humor and intense bitterness with which she describes everything she sees.

Reading Level/Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues: Rape.
Be familiar with the book’s contents.
Focus on the universality of the themes and the hopeful message about the possibility of healing after trauma.
Challenge response: Anderson has recently been up against some challenges, so she has been vocal. Save her comments and let the author respond to the challenge:

Focus on the incredible accolades the book has received, including this:

Why Included: This is a breakthrough book that has garnered raves for a decade, including a starred review in School Library Journal.


Hodkin, Michelle. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2011. Tr., $16.99. 978-1442421769

Plot: Young “Mara Dyer” (a pseudonym) wakes up in a hospital room after a horrible accident that killed her boyfriend Jude, her best friend from childhood and her “frenemy.” She is not sure exactly what happened, but she has a sinking feeling that she is, if indirectly, somehow responsible. (The occult undercurrent of the book is introduced with a flashback to a scene with a Ouija board that suggests that Mara might kill someone.)
In order to get a new start, she and her family move to Florida, where her father restarts his law practice and Mara is enrolled in a private school. As if she doesn’t have enough stacked against her, she is a public school girl through and through. Early on, she meets a handsome fellow student, the wry, British, and movie-star handsome Noah Shaw, and Mara is instantly seduced and repulsed.
When she enters her first class and has a shocking hallucination, creating a strong first impression that few of the students will soon forget, it becomes clear that Mara is battling a pretty serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is also being haunted by the memory of Jude – she hears him laugh at her in the bathroom and sees his figure as she turns corners.
The murder of a local girl is tied to one of her father’s cases, and this murder pulls Mara in as she constantly must question what is real and what is her mind playing tricks on her.  As if she needed more against her, the school’s queen bee, a gorgeous and catty blonde, has begun a campaign against Mara, tied to her on-again, off-again relationship with Noah. When Mara’s hallucinations start becoming true and dangerous, it becomes more and more necessary that she get to the bottom of what is really happening.

Critical Evaluation: The fact that the narrator in this story is unsure what’s real and what’s in her own head creates an inherent tension. It’s a technique, a sort of self-aware version on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, that would never work if Mara weren’t such an attractive everygirl character. Confused, honest, bumbling, smart, funny, and sharp-witted, she is an easy character to get behind. Readers will want to solve her problems as much as she does. Further enriching the story is the character of Noah – intelligent, handsome but imperfect, charming but with cracks in his smooth delivery. Teamed up, sparks fly, as much as Mara protests.
            The multiple plot twists in this story will keep readers guessing. One weak point in the book is that the ending will make readers revisit what has happened. There are a lot of questions that remain, but some elements might seem more contrived with a second look back.
            Overall, Hodkin does a good job building a spooky tone and suspenseful atmosphere.

Reader’s Annotation: After the death of her friends, Mara picks up and moves to a new state, hoping for a new start, but – as she meets a sexy stranger and falls into disturbing hallucinations that are coming true – her plans go horribly awry.

Author bio: Michelle Hodkin grew up in Florida, near Miami. Writers who inspired her include Steven Kig, Oscar Wilde, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
After majoring in English at NYU, Hodkin moved to Michigan to complete law school. She rescues stray animals and is working on the sequel to Mara Dyer, which will come out in October 2012.

Genre: Paranormal romance, suspense

Curriculum Ties: Curriculum Ties: Curriculum Ties:  California Content Standards: English -- narrative analysis, tone, mood

Booktalking Ideas:
1) In the story, “Mara” is writing a confessional letter; write a letter (including a few baffling questions that come up in the book -- to Mara and read it out loud to the audience. Example: “Dear, Mara: I know that Mara is not your real name, but why did you change it? Do you feel guilty? Do you think you had something to do with your best friend’s and your boyfriend’s murders?...”
2) Describe Noah in the book – their love/hate relationship.
3) Describe a couple of the hallucinations that Mara has. Ask the audience – Do you think she’s crazy? She certainly does.

Reading Level: fourth grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: violence, sexual scenes, supernatural elements
Challenge response:
1)Rave in VOYA.
3) Become familiar with the story and emphasize that this genre goes back to such classic writers as Shelley and Poe.
4) Emphasize the PTSD angle, that one of the main questions of the book is how people deal with trauma.

Why Included: This book is a gripping read for those who love suspense. It’s extremely popular with teens, both girls and boys, who are looking for paranormal romance with a suspenseful edge. Good for struggling readers.