Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones

Sophie Stein, a.k.a Fifi/Sofa/Couch, is a popular almost-full-blown teenager, and for her, like most girls, this means boys…lots of them. With an exposition that includes her infatuation with hot-boy Dylan, Sophie seems like just another experimental beauty queen; however, when Sophie drops Dylan because of his bad traits—including his fear that his parents will find out she’s Jewish—we see that there’s more to Sophie than meets the eyeliner. In the aftermath of a failed relationship with Dylan, and a completely insane attempt at online dating, Sophie finds herself dangerously attracted to the most unlikely guy ever, the guy whose very name is synonymous with “loser”: the school’s iconic geek, Robin Murphy. At first, she fights the weird desire to know what his lips would feel like on hers, but as she gets to know him, her character begins an arc of change that transforms the formerly flighty female into an independent, almost-full-blown woman.

The closer she gets to Robin, the more she realizes he’s a better friend than she’s ever had. Her closest friends—Rachel and Grace—don’t have messed-up home lives, so she can’t talk to them about her mother being more concerned with her soaps than Sophie, or her father practically being a ghost. In “Murph,” she finds someone to talk to who doesn’t judge her, who listens and makes life more bearable, who gets her laughing uncontrollably, and who likes her for who she is, not just for her pretty face. It only takes a little while for Sophie to realize that the boys she had liked before were all “Dylans,” good-looking jerks that only cared about themselves. And in that same short amount of time, she begins to realize that Robin is the total opposite of that, and she falls for him completely…and secretly.

Life outside school is great. She spends lots of time with Robin and still enough time with her girlfriends to keep them unaware; but, as her life outside of school gets better, her world inside gets complicated. Robin claims to understand her social situation and volunteers to keep doing things like sitting alone at lunch while Sophie hangs with Rachel and Grace. For a while, Sophie lives the façade of single, teenage perfection, but all the while, she is plagued with guilt for being a snob. That guilt manifests itself when her friends go on vacation and she has a wonderful week just to spend with just Robin. It takes some soul-searching, but in a cliffhanger climax, Sophie decides that, despite the danger of losing her popularity, she owes honesty to Robin, her friends, and ultimately, to herself.

What’s awesome about this novel-in-verse is that Sonya Sones creates a protagonist so vivid and entertaining that readers forget they are actually, wait for it…reading! As Sophie moves from one crush to another, awakening memories of early teenage drama and excitement in readers of all ages, the pages will begin to turn on their own. For struggling or reluctant readers, this kind of book is the penultimate. It’s appropriate, non-intimidating in layout (not many words on each page), and fast.

While What My Mother Doesn’t Know deals with big issues—peer pressure, antisemitism, online safety, etc—it’s also light-hearted and fun. In a market dominated by dark YA novels (that are awesome, too, so don’t get me wrong), a read that doesn’t have potential to spurn ulcers or wreck your fingernails can be refreshing. And even better? It has a sequel! What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, which picks up with Robin’s point of view at the cliffhanger, is every bit as creative, witty, and wonderful as the first. I must warn you, though; these books have somehow found their way onto banned lists in Kentucky (and maybe other places, too). So you know what that means? You should read them as soon as possible and then pass them on to a teenager near you. Happy reading!

Interview with Eileen Cook

Thanks so much for agreeing to interview, Eileen. I can’t wait to host you at For the Love of YA! Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood is one of the few books I’ve sat down and devoured within hours. Usually I have to chase kids, teach school, grade papers, etc. But this time, the kids were in bed and I just stayed up all night. I couldn’t put it down. And I have to say, I enjoyed every second of the revenge. Maybe I’m a mean girl, who knows?!
Here are my questions. Knock yourself out!
1.)I usually can’t picture every detail of a character’s face, but I saw Lauren Wood. How did you develop such voice for the teenage social cliques?
I suppose one answer is that I never fully grew up. I work hard to respect my readers, I don’t talk down to them or assume that they need me to teach them something. YA readers have a very well defined BS detector. If something doesn’t ring true to them then they’ll stop reading. I think there is an assumption that writing for teens is somehow easier than writing for adults, but I don’t believe that is true.
2.) The character of Brenda evoked so much emotion out of me. I wanted to help her. So when Claire/Helen took her on as a personal project, I was excited…until Claire started to act exactly like Lauren. Was it difficult to write the parts where Claire publicly dissed Brenda?
Out of all the characters in the book I am the most like Brenda, as a result when she suffered I felt for her. One of the harder things to do as a writer is to really torture your characters. Readers want to read about conflict and trouble. If your characters spin from having one okay day to another it isn’t very interesting to read. As a result, you have to be willing to make the characters you love miserable.
3.) Where did this story actually pop into your head and how did you develop it?
I was an English major in college and I still have bookshelves full of the classics. Now that I don’t have to read them for a paper or exam, I enjoy them way more. I had recently re-read The Count of Monte Cristo and I thought how much fun it would be to re-set the story in a modern high school- that was the beginning of Getting Revenge of Lauren Wood. The second inspiration for the book is that almost everyone I know knew a “mean girl” in school and dreamed of getting revenge. This book was my opportunity to imagine what that might have actually been like.
4.) I can’t wait to read your other YA books—What Would Emma Do? and The Education of Hailey Kendrick—and I’d say that, based on the teen-appeal in Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood, teens all over the world feel the same. Could you tell us how many countries now have translations of your books? And how your readership has responded to your novels?
My first book, Unpredictable (an adult romantic comedy) has been published in German, Taiwan, France and Russian. My YA’s so far are in France and Greece.
I feel quite lucky as so far with each book my readership seems to grow. The feedback I’ve gotten from readers has been wonderful. There is nothing better as a writer than hearing from someone who enjoyed your book. One of my favorite emails came from a reader who found my books to be a great distraction while her mom has been going through cancer treatment. The idea that I could make someone laugh and forget their problems, even for a few hours, made me feel great.
5.) What did you do before you decided you wanted to be a writer? Why YA?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I worked as a counselor for people who’ve had catastrophic accidents or illnesses. I love writing YA! I think some of the most exciting, interesting books coming out are in the YA genre. There is an intensity in YA that makes it really fun to write.
6.) Which novels were important to you as a teenager? Why?
This question is so hard because I know I’ll forget so many wonderful books. Growing up we went to the library every week. I read everything from mysteries to romance to horror novels. I loved Judy Blume. One of the first times I can remember wanting to be a writer was after reading a Stephen King novel. I was around 9 or 10 years old and I wanted to check out his book, Salem’s Lot. My mom warned me that it would be a scary book. I figured how scary could it be? I knew it was fiction, I understood the concept of things being made up versus real. Then I read the book and ended up sleeping with the light on for weeks. Even though I knew it was imaginary, it made me feel real emotions. I love when books have that power- you find yourself cheering for a character or wanting to slap some sense into someone. I wanted to be able to write books that would have that kind of power.
7.) What has been your greatest success in writing YA?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I used to go to the library and run my hand along the shelves and slide my hand between the books where mine would go. When I saw my book in print for the first time it was a huge highlight. However, my greatest success comes when I hear from teen readers who enjoy the books.
9.) What does a day in your life look like?
My day is spent between walking the dogs, drinking gallons of tea, reading, and writing. (And occasionally spending entirely too much time looking at random things on the internet.) The days vary in terms of how much time is spent on what particular activity.
10.) Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there (like me!)?
Read! I’m a firm believer that books are the best teacher. The second piece of advice I would give is to never give up. There will be plenty of people who will tell you that it can’t be done, don’t bother listening to them. Instead focus on your dream.
This creative little bonus round is in dedication to the Spring that has been taking its time approaching. So, it’s the first really hot day outside, what/where do you:
A pair of capri pants and this old beat up grey sweater I found at a vintage shop years ago.
Grab the dogs and head to the beach. I love the sound and smell of the ocean. They love rolling around on dead things.
Listen to?
A new iTunes playlist that my husband makes for me. He makes sure that my musical taste doesn’t stay frozen in the 1980’s.
There is a cupcake place near my house- my all time favorite is the red velvet with cream cheese icing. Mmmmm
What are you reading? I love knowing what books other people are enjoying so I can add it to my to-be-read list.

Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood by Eileen Cook

Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood is such a fresh, light, and witty take on the Mean Girls archetype. Though at first readers may think they’ve read “this” before, it is important for stake-holders to know that this book is different. It’s one of those books that doesn’t sit so heavily on the emotions that is leaves kids distraught; but, at the same time, while it is entertaining and enjoyable, it is a book that won’t just end when the cover is closed. This is a read that will make readers think critically about the deep issues Helen faces (betrayal, revenge, humiliating, high school angst, etc.) and how they might act in similar situations.
This would be a stellar read to include on middle and high school reading lists. As a teacher, I’m thinking of ways to get students to compare the development of themes in literature. So, I can see students comparing and contrasting “mean girl” types of books and movies as a literary analysis/ popular culture project. Along the sames lines, it would be great to let students discuss/analyze the allusions to The Count of Monte Cristo, possibly as its source text, since it was indeed the impetus for this fabulous read. Additionally, I’m thinking kids will have great discussions about voice (Eileen’s technique is smooth and engaging) and how it effects the tone (hilarious and pensive); but, even without the classroom connections, Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood will be a hit. I recommend it highly.

YA in AP?

This post has been running laps around my brain since the end of March, when I was forwarded an email from an out-of-state friend which said, basically, that the use of any books labeled Young Adult would not be approved in that particular state because “dumbing down” the AP curriculum was not the way to raise test scores. I understand, and agree, that AP should be rigorous and should include diverse reading materials that challenge students, but I also know, from the remnants of my years of fighting to prove the worth of YA, that all over the United States schools have YA titles listed online as part of required or optional AP reading. I actually have copies of more than fifty schools–public and parochial–that have such works on college-bound and AP lists. Just in flipping through those copies, I found these YA titles on AP and pre-AP, lists alone:

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Blood Brothers by SA Harazin
Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Unwind by Neal Schusterman
Wake by Lisa McMann

This may seem like a lot, but of the lists I have, there are way more canonical or otherwise non-YA reads than strictly YA, and I think that is fine. But does an anti-YA generalization, as above, seem harsh, and just maybe elitist, to anyone but me?

Interview with Jennifer Bradbury

Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview, Jennifer. I’ve been so excited to offer this review to readers, and I just wish I would have read it sooner, so I could have ordered lots of copies when I had a grant. But not to worry, I’ve got my eye out for more grants to bring awesome YA reads like SHIFT into my classroom! For all my readers out there, trust me: you want this one on your shelves.
Alright, Jennifer-from-Kentucky, here are some questions:
1.) To write extensively and believably about any sport or hobby, usually authors have some experience in that field. Since SHIFT is a story revolving around cross-country biking, what experience do you have with biking? How did that shape your story?
My own bike touring adventures certainly informed what happens in SHIFT. When I started thinking about writing the story, it was sort of an effort to combine some of the anecdotes from trips that I’d taken with my husband (cross country from SC to LA, in AK, and little trips around WA), and the trips he’d done before he met me with his best friend. So the biking stuff all comes from those experiences. Plus, I go to spin class once a week, and still haul my two little kids around in the trailer attached to my bike.
2.) When you were writing SHIFT, did you come to any proverbial flat tires? If so, how did you push through?
I love the way you phrase this question, but not really. At least not many I can remember. From the beginning, I felt like I had something that was really working with the book, and it really pulled me along at a steady pace. The closest I think I came to a flat tire would probably be near the very end of the publication process when I was going through those last passes and copyedits. At that point I’d read and reread and revised the manuscript so many times that just getting through the text was hard, because my brain kept playing tricks on me regarding what was there and what had been at some point in the manuscript.
3.) How did you find the inspiration to create Chris and Win? What methods did you use to characterize them so flawlessly?
I’m so glad they are convincing characters for you. I was actually really hesitant to write about guys, as before I’d only written from a female perspective. But I borrowed a little from the dynamic of my husband and his best friend at that age, and then played around with the personalities. And I just tried to make them sound like guys I’d observed in my classes as an English teacher, or guys I hung around with at camp when I used to work at Rockmont in NC. But at the core, I think the emotions and challenges the guys face are pretty universal. After that it was a matter of making the ways they communicated with each other feel authentic.
4.) While I was not confused in the least as a reader, I can’t imagine how you didn’t get confused as the writer. What kind of pre-writing did it take to “shift” back and forth between the present and episodic memories without losing track of time?
I plan stuff out really carefully, and the book blocked out that way from the beginning. At one point I did pull out the post it notes and have a big flowchart on the wall. Now I’m into using Scrivener, which would have been really handy when I was working on SHIFT. But honestly, it was really fun to sort of puzzle the book together.
5.) Because I’m always so excited to read great books from Kentucky authors, can you discuss how living in Kentucky affected you as a writer?
Can I just say how flattered I am to be considered a KY author? I’ve read enough Bobbie Ann Mason and Jesse Stuart and Wendell Berry to feel really, really honored. And KY is certainly a huge part of who I am. And spending time studying English at WKU, where I really felt like I gained confidence as a reader and a writer was a big part of that. And I think there’s just a bit of that love for story and storytelling that is so strong in that part of the country. And even though Chris and Win are from WV, there’s a lot of overlap in my mind regarding that quality. They’re also just very normal kids, and those are the ones I was around growing up—nothing like the crazy, stylish, superadult kinds of kids on TV. Speaking of KY, I’m really excited to tell you I’m working on a couple of books set in KY, one a historical and one contemporary–but it will be a long time before they’re ready.
6.) I’m a writer, too (though I’m unpublished as of yet), and in my current ms, the mc is a golfer. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ll disinterest my reader with my golf language. What advice to you have me, and other writers who need to incorporate lots of jargon?
I always kind of like to read that jargon, particulary because it makes me feel like I’m getting a bit of a truer glimpse of a lifestyle that may not reflect my own. I think for me the key is not using it for its own sake, that is, not throwing it in to try and gain credibility with the reader. It should be natural, it should be part of how the character thinks or speaks. I don’t think it even matters that much if the reader can get from the context what you’re talking about so long as it feels right. My editor is always saying to write for your smartest reader, the one who’ll get everything. If readers don’t know what a derailleur is, chances are it won’t make them put the book aside, but if I spend a ton of time having one of the characters explain what it is, then that might.
7.) What are the last five books you’ve read? Why those?
Right now I’m nearly through with Bill Bryson’s At Home. I don’t read much non-fiction, but he’s a writer I really enjoy and the book is pretty fascinating. Before that, I read M.T. Anderson’s The Game of Sunken Places (because they had it on display at the library and I hadn’t read that one yet!). Let’s see, the one before was The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise. Honestly, it had a cute cover and was about the Tower of London, so that’s all I really needed at the moment. I also recently read the final book in Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. I gave a lot of his books away as Christmas presents this year. And also recently I read Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson, which I liked even better than Chains.
8.) On your website (<http://www.jennifer-bradbury.com/bio.html>), I see that you were in English teacher in your “former” life. This makes me happy! I love hearing of teachers-turned-writers and their journeys. Could you tell us a little about your transition from a teacher to a full-time writer? (I bet you miss the kids; I know I would!)
I do miss the kids, but my own (5 and 2 years old) keep me really busy. I taught for ten years before leaving to spend more time with my kids and try to write a little more regularly (which means when they take naps). But I only stumbled into writing YA fiction (and really, writing at all) because of my time teaching. I read so much YA over a couple of years when I first started in an effort to have books I could recommend to my students, that something in me made me want to join in the fun. And I even read chapters aloud to my ninth graders in writing workshops, and got great feedback.
9.) Can you tell us about your next YA novel and when we can buy it?
WRAPPED is a historical adventure set in 1815 London. My husband calls it Pride and Prejudice meets Indiana Jones meets Alias. It releases on May 24, 2011.
10.) Would you share some reader responses to SHIFT with us?
My favorites are usually the ones where readers are writing to tell me they want to learn more about bicycle touring. Those always make me smile.

All of these bonus round questions take place on a lonely highway in North Dakota in June. You’re on your bike and you can take…
One person with you? My husband.
One luxury item? My espresso machine? Or maybe just a Starbuck’s card.
One book? Whichever one I’m working on. Can I cheat and say my MacBook?
One food? Dark Chocolate.
One picture? One with my kids in it.

Alright, Jennifer. Thanks so much for participating. I can’t wait to get SHIFT into the hands of my students not only because it’s great, but also so we can beam with pride at another successful Kentucky author!