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

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Funny in Farsi

Seven-year-old Firoozeh Dumas moved from Iran to America with her family in the 1970s. Her father, an oilfield engineer, had gone to school in the States, and her brother recently had moved in with relatives in Pennsylvania to do the same, but curious-and-precocious Firoozeh had nothing more to go on than her dad’s “when I was in college” memories of her new home. Imagine the overwhelming tasks of both learning a new country, with its intricate systems and processes, and explaining your home country, with its location virtually a mystery to most Americans (and its pronunciation the same). If it hadn’t have been for her driving sense of wonder and thriving sense of humor, even at such a young age, Firoozeh may have had a different story. Funny in Farsi owes its humor and pace to those very attributes.

But there is more to this memoir than just a small girl’s journey through the lighthearted attempts at understanding America, and even at understanding real political turmoil when she witnessed the riots surrounding the Iranian Shah’s visit in 1977 (I mean, have you seen Argo?); it is her strong characters who dance in and out of the pages that make readers laugh until the lines blur, leaving a familiarity that surpasses culture, time, and parchment. Though this dynamic of characters keeps the reading light, the author shares family insights that reach deeper than readers may realize. Firoozeh learns from her father that religion must evolve to make sense in a modern world. She learns too that good, and bad, people abide in every country, every church house, every family. These snatched gifts of universal truth that stayed with the author as a young girl will stay with readers as well, reminding subtly (often juxtaposed to scandalously grilled lobster or an 70’s metallic fat suit) that humans are bound together by shared experience.

Even without the current push for nonfiction, as a result of the Common Core State Standards, teachers would find this read an absolute treasure—a gift to students who do need to read more nonfiction but who also need read what interests them. The way in which Dumas crosses cultural boundaries and softly integrates the faith of her upbringing makes for excellent class discussion that, in this political climate, is necessary.  Rooted in tolerance, acceptance, and bouts of excellent humor, Funny in Farsi should be on classroom shelves all over America.


Manicpixiedreamgirl by Tom Leveen

Tom Leveen has done it again. I swear he is the master of voice, and he has created one of the most honest stories I’ve ever read featuring the archetype of the unattainable, broken damsel, a.k.a the “manic pixie dream girl.” I’m a high school teacher, so I see students when they go through their ultimate crushes, and every once and again I see one struggling to breathe in a world full of air because of desire—desire for what they don’t even know or understand. And there’s not an adult in this world that can break that spell, or that can inject Truth into the visceral fiction floating overhead that simply does not parallel reality. This book does that: smashes Realism into Romanticism’s face like cake at a marriage where the bride doesn’t show—but it does so gently (and with one of the funniest secondary characters you’ll ever meet).
Through a narrative that pulses like a heartbeat, Tom has created real people that are the embodiment of the teenage learning curve, or in Becky’s case, the pitiable result of selfish parenting. Readers will become attached to them all, but especially Tyler who only tries to create a relationship in which he isn’t the “asshead” but the hero. And maybe in the end, he did.
Kudos, Tom. You’ve wowed me again.

The Night She Disappeared by April Henry

Have you ever pondered the power of one moment? Ever looked back on what you perceived as an inconvenience—missing the subway, taking a wrong turn, losing your seat on a flight—and wondered if it somehow altered the course of your life? 

It was a Wednesday night, a night when Gabie usually delivered for Pete’s Pizza. On this day, however, she had switched shifts with Kayla. So, it was Kayla who delivered the three pizzas to a fake address on some dark and isolated highway. But the man who placed the order had asked for the girl in the Mini Cooper—Gabie’s car. If she hadn’t have switched shifts, it would have been her whose DNA was all that was left behind on that riverbank in Oregon.
The knowledge of this detail haunts Gabie throughout the two weeks after Kayla goes missing. The man who targeted her could come back for her at any time. Living in constant fear and guilt, Gabie continues working at Pete’s Pizza just to keep busy, and she finds an ally and best friend in her coworker Drew, the quiet and misunderstood boy who occasionally sold a joint out the restaurant before Kayla’s disappearance. They find that they have more in common than they realized, and if it wasn’t for the extenuating circumstances which had forced them into companionship, they might have become friends anyway.Gabie and Drew constantly go over the details of that Wednesday night and try to recall something—anything—they might have missed. Somewhere in that process two things happen: 1.) Gabie sees Kayla in her dreams and knows she isn’t dead, and 2.) Gabie falls for Drew, whether out of conditional accident or genuine attraction, she can’t tell at first. There really is no time to find out who they are outside of Kayla’s disappearance because the more time they spend together, the more they think of her. When the rest of the town considers Kayla to be dead—at the hands of a local meth addict whose truck was seen in the vicinity of her disappearance—Gabie continues to insist that the police haven’t caught the real perpetrator yet.

Finally, at Kayla’s “funeral” an officer confronts Gabi with an ultimatum: either stop insisting that Kayla is alive, and thus causing unnecessary emotional distress to Kayla’s family, or watch as Drew’s meth-addict mom goes to jail. Torn between what she thinks is real about Kayla and what she knows is real about Drew’s situation, Gabie tries to put aside her whims.

Only she can’t do it. And with the ending turn of events, it’s a really good thing she can’t.
April Henry weaves as tight a plot, and just as compelling, as any C.S.I.-esque thriller. Indeed, a reader could probably read this book in about the same amount of time because the pages start turning themselves. Perspective is what struck me most in the framework of Henry’s text. Instead of a continuous, omniscient narrative, The Night She Disappeared offers two protagonists, several prominent voices (including that of the killer—creepy!), a wide swath of point-of-views, and chronological epistolary snippets that heighten the details and connect the images that bring the picture to completion. And this is so perfect because it reminds all readers—teens and adults—that there is never just one side to any story.
Eerily reminiscent, at least for me and probably more for adults than for teens, of the 1980’s Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, April Henry’s novel has the same ingredients to build a cult fan base as the movie did in the early 90’s. In short, April Henry nailed it. Proof? Not only did I devour this novel in one sitting, but I did it with a toddler biting on my toes and the Wiggles playing on repeat.


What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Mclean Sweet’s dad, Gus, takes a traveling job to do what he does best: fix failing restaurants. What he doesn’t know—what no one knows—is that Mclean is more broken than any business he’s commissioned to fix. After her mom cheated on her dad with the Defreise head basketball coach, Mclean’s life is about as familiar as each new town they wind up in. So, every time they move, Mclean tries on a new alias and attempts to find herself in the wake of life’s new dynamic. When they move to Lakeview, however, something crazy happens: she accidentally tells the truth, revealing to her new neighbor, Dave Wade, that she is Mclean. But it isn’t a comfort; it’s like name is nakedly transparent. Embarrassed of her mother’s infidelity, Mclean struggles to protect the rest of her identity so that her dad won’t be hurt all over again when people bring up what happened.
Protecting her father is also why Mclean won’t make up with her mother. She avoids her phone calls and video chats because a.) she isn’t ready to make nice, and b.) it might hurt her dad too much to see her acting like everything is okay—like it’s normal to have darling twin siblings spawned from an illicit affair; like it’s normal to laugh with the mother who destroyed everything else in your universe. But she can’t forever avoid the family vacation her mom has planned. Mclean finally tells her dad that she needs to go on a trip with her mom and new family. He isn’t hurt, but Mclean still feels guilty—so guilty and confused that the vacation is a chore.
The new, rich life her mom has stumbled into is far from the relaxed and low-key vacations her “real” family used to take at that same beach. In the height of her guilt and confusion—almost enjoying the vacation yet refusing to—she overhears something that makes all the difference in her choice to forgive her mom and move on. Mclean rushes away from the beach house without permission and meets Dave who, despite the drama of having found all Mclean’s sharply contrasting personas online, helps her makes sense of it all. When her parents finally find her at the hotel where they used to stay, Mclean tells them everything that she—not Eliza, Lizbet, or Beth—feels, leaving the reader with a satisfying climax. In the sad-but-real resolution and denouement, Maclean realizes there is nothing she can do to change the past, but she can embrace who she is for now and change her approach to the future.
What strikes me most about this book is the cadence. Sarah’s words leave a lull in your head that you don’t realize is there until you stop reading. What Happened to Goodbye is no less beautiful and refreshing, suspenseful and foreboding, peaceful and heartbreaking than the ocean. Now that the book is finished, I kind of want to hold a seashell to my ears.
Beyond its organic and aesthetic appeal, this book makes me happy because it gives life and a voice to an often-marginalized group of readers: “normal” kids who are suffering from their parents’ decisions. So many teenagers escape into books rooted in fantasy, and that’s okay—I’ve read books just to escape before. But I think that’s because if kids can’t find themselves in books, they at least find who they want to be. It’s a form of escapism. What Happened to Goodbye is so real in an everyday sense that it speak to those kids who can’t find their stories in the paranormal or the romantic; it mirrors the internal conflict of those who are devastated and embarrassed by divorce, affairs, and watching their parents date and remarry again. It kind of makes you wonder if this has anything to do with Sarah D’s ridiculous fan base—you know, that she has this way of speaking to people? 🙂
Parents and teenagers alike should read this book. It’s a flawlessly real look at the ripples of our actions and how those ripples turn to waves, sometimes drowning who we are.

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!