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

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.

Shift by Jennifer Bradbury

Chris and Win are best friends. Senior year is over, and before they move on—Win to Dartmouth, Chris to Georgia Tech—they manage to convince their parents to let them cycle from West Virginia, their home state, to Washington, where Win’s uncle waits to see them onto the Greyhound in Seattle for their return trip home. Win’s cold, millionaire parents are reluctant, so are Chris’s struggling-to-make-it folks; but, the boys promise they’ll be safe. They put their money together, scrupulously pack their gear, and then say their goodbyes. What they don’t realize when they set out is that this trip will also be their goodbye to each other.
The reader finds in chapter one that Win and Chris separated a hundred miles short of Seattle. What the reader doesn’t know is how they parted…and if Win is alive. Whatever happened between them was bad, bad enough for Chris to come home on the bus alone and start school in Georgia without even calling Win to check on him. Anger is all he feels when Abe Ward, an FBI agent, shows up to investigate Win’s disappearance. Chris tells them all he knows, including that they’d been 50 miles from Seattle, and Win’s uncle, when they parted. But why should Chris care? This was another one of Win’s jokes, a big elaborate prank to get attention and take his mind off of how badly his family life sucked. But when Abe Ward asks Chris about the money Win owed him, Chris suddenly realizes he has motive. Unless he can give the officer a lead as to his former best friend’s whereabouts, he’ll just look guiltier. And according to Abe, this is serious. Telling what he knows could be the difference between life and death for Win.
Chris, who can’t wrap his mind around the prospect that he’s dead, begins to trace their trail, recalling in flashbacks their funny and disturbing times. Suddenly, it clicks. If his friend is alive, he knows where he is. But why would he disappear? When Win’s dad—a CEO with more power than Chris ever realized—comes to the forefront with an extortion plan, Chris’ gut tells him to hide what he knows, even if it gets his own family in trouble. If this was the real Mr. Coggans, maybe Win had a legitimate reason to run away. Chris begins to doubt the “FBI” investigation, too, as the threats, espionage, manipulation, and harassment continue to get worse. He fights between anger and compassion as his theory for why Win left unfolds. Regardless of what Abe Ward tells him, Chris says quiet. But he can’t sit on what he knows. He has to know if Win is alive. With a bus ticket, a plan to throw his stalkers off-guard, and a single chance at finding his friend, Chris heads West one last time. And if Win is alive, it will take everything he has inside not to kill him anyway.
Not very often does an author so fully and so beautifully develop two characters, but by the end of SHIFT, both Win and Chris have changed and grown so much it’s as if they are both the
protagonists. This would give students the chance to find a theme from both these boys’ experiences, and then connect them at the end. It’s also just a great work for students to study an author’s structure—from present to flashbacks—and how it strengthens the plot and the reader’s intrigue. In short, this has New Standards written all over it (for those of you readers in states where the unified core will be taking place next year).
Furthermore, this is a book that illustrates the complicated lines of telling the truth, because let’s face it, sometimes the truth isn’t ours to tell. Every teenager has been there—to tell or not to tell?—and this book gives them a platform to discuss, or at least think about, what those lines are and when it’s absolutely necessary to cross them (for instance, when it’s legally required for information about abuse or possible suicide). Watching this progression of Chris as he struggles with a grudge, a natural desire to save his own skin, an unexplainable loyalty to a jerk of a friend, and a completely realistic coming-of-age journey teens get to watch a character make the right decisions about telling the truth, though it caused him more trouble.
This compelling read is full of all you want in a novel: humor, tragedy, suspense, compassion, heart-warming characters, and a realistic plot. SHIFT by Jennifer Bradbury is one of my favorite YA novels out there, and, according to mwa, it’s one every high schooler should read. I recommend it highly.

Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

2010. Lodi, New Jersey: WestSide Books. pp. 250. U.S. $16.95
Kendra depends on her therapist more than she does her parents. That’s because she has no one else who understands the depth of what happened to her all those years ago. But even with Carolyn, sometimes she gets too close…close enough that the memories almost go all the way. This would be a good thing—to uncover the identity of the man who raped her as a child—if the memories ended when the sessions did. But when she leaves the comfort of Carolyn’s office, she alone is left to deal with the brutal aftershock of remembering. Further, she alone is left to deal with the death threats from the rapist. With each note in her backpack or each package at her door, she worries that remembering may not make things better. I will kill you if you tell. His handwriting chills her to her core, and only the utility blade can warm her up again.
Cutting becomes her addiction. She feels so brave at her sessions, when Carolyn helps her retreat to her dark past; but the memories she conjures—his voice, his hands, his breath, his body against her, the ache between her legs—don’t go away until she opens her flesh and lets them out. When she meets Meghan, the rebel girl who stood up for her in the hallway, she has no idea that the trust they build will lead her to revealing her arm…and her past. But with Meghan’s support and friendship-turned-romance, in addition to Carolyn’s sessions, Kendra becomes stronger. But so does the need for release. Her parents won’t leave her alone about being lesbian. Her teachers won’t leave her alone for being withdrawn. And most terrifyingly of all, her rapist won’t leave her along with his incessant reminders not to tell.
And then, her dad loses his job. At first her parents can’t afford therapy anymore. But then they can’t even afford to keep their house in the city. Kendra tries to tell them that she’s this much closer to remembering, and that they’re this much closer to bringing their daughter’s rapist to justice. She tells them that therapy is working and that moving would ruin everything. She can’t lose Meghan. She can’t lose Carolyn. She can’t leave the only home she’s ever known. That stress, in addition to the fear she feels when the surprise package comes, is too much. Kendra cuts too deep. And this time the blood isn’t enough to wash away her memories. His face is clear. He’s closer than she thought. And unfortunately, he’s a man of his word.
There are so many positive aspects to reading SCARS, a YA thriller fraught with dark issues. One of those positives is the elements of short story present in this work. As a teacher, I’m always looking for YA reads that will nuance classroom concepts. One concept of importance for freshman and sophomores is plot. This is one book I’ve read that closely follows a plot diagram: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. One doesn’t expect many books to have a denouement, but one may be surprised at how many YA reads seem to bypass falling action or even a resolution. Sure, this point is arguable, as many stories end as soon as the protagonist has fulfilled the running theme, leaving both falling action and resolution cut short, not absent. I get it; I respect it. But it’s also nice when a book comes along that can intrinsically fortify what kids are learning in the classroom. I can see SCARS being one of those thrillers helps students say, “Oh. I get it now.”
Although I foresee teachers, especially in rural areas, meeting resistance because of LGBT issues and cutting/suicide, this is a powerful read to which high-schoolers-and-up absolutely should be exposed, at least for optional reading. Its qualities as a thriller keep students’ interest, but there are deep issues here–about preventing suicide, especially in LGBT teens (a battle we should all be fighting), as well as the sanctity and acceptability of therapy–that will undoubtedly make a difference in teens’ lives. A point of particular interest to me was art as therapy, (see my post “Holocaust Reading Series” from Jan. 2011, featuring …I never saw another butterfly…, a collection of artwork and poetry of traumatized children from the Holocaust).
Furthermore, I applaud Cheryl Rainfield on her judicious use of cursing; her delicate and spot-on representation of a young, lesbian protagonist in a straight world; and her brave writing style that prevents often-marginalized issues from become cliché or avoidable. Great read!

Party by Tom Leveen

2010. New York, New York: Random House. pp. 240. U.S. $16.99
Once upon a time, in Santa Barbara, California, there was a party. But this party wasn’t just a party; it was the party. The entire Santa Barbara High School student body would be there. Some would come just to kick-off the summer, others to say goodbye to friends after graduation. Some would come in hopes of getting laid, others solely for the entertainment. A few will come to make friends, and a couple will be there only to see if they’re noticed. Regardless of what brings them there, all will leave a little older and not a little changed. Though a police raid usually ends friendships, for these eleven teenagers—Beckett, Morrigan, Matt, Brent, Daniel, Max, Azize, Ryan, Anthony, Josh, and Ashley—it strengthens what was nearly lost and makes them better human beings.
Somehow, each of the characters winds up on Shoreline Drive for this party. Through each of their perspectives, the reader learns of the major conflicts: Anthony, a.k.a. A-train’s troubled season; Azize’s hunger to make American friends; Morrigan’s Daddy Complex; Josh’s God Complex; Ashley’s Beckett Complex; Beckett’s plans to say goodbye; and Max’s desperate crush on Beckett. And although this may seem like a too-complex group of conflicts, the way these characters interact and suspend the tension works well to keep readers flipping quickly.
This is a tough review to construct, but only because I usually walk through the main characters and their conflicts, and to do that, would mean telling the entire story, which would ruin readers experience with this unique tale. And since I’m not as creative as one Tom Leveen, I’m not going to attempt further summary. Instead, I’ll jump right into analysis.
Upon flip-through, I was intimidated by the various perspectives in control of the plot. My initial assumption was that this book would be like other multiple points-of-view works I’ve read, where each chapter focuses only on that character and it isn’t until the end that the stories entwine. However, in the second chapter of PARTY, the reader sees that this book is unlike other multiple POV novels. Each chapter does revolve around a different character, but each chapter builds on the previous chapter to add more depth the characters and plot already introduced. I found myself so impressed and intrigued that I couldn’t wait to get to each new character because a.) I became really invested early-on because it felt so read and b.) I wanted to see how Leveen did it!
In addition to his creative organization, I must say that I’m absolutely in awe of Leveen’s ability to build such distinct and totally believable voice for eleven characters in one novel. Maybe I’m alone here, but I find that teaching about voice is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching writing. How does one describe to students with minimal control over the English language that voice is the play of elements—diction, syntax, repetition, action, etc.—in a character’s emotional arc? But if I used a work like PARTY, I could show it. Matter of fact, if someone pulled out random swatches of prose from each chapter, I know I could—hands down—place that prose with the chapter whose character controlled it. I can see this being an awesome way to show students what voice is and how it affects the reader. Call me crazy, but I’m already formulating how to fit PARTY into my classroom study of The Canterbury Tales, to juxtapose the use of voice in building character from medieval literature to YA. And I can just see other teachers finding this novel and adopting an I’m-tired-of-trying-to-force-voice-instruction-using-only-canonical-literature-that-kids-want-to-burn attitude, one that prompts teachers to, once and for all, show students what “voice” means to characterization.
More than I love what I could do with this novel, more than I love how much students would love it, I love the tolerance and acceptance that subtly emanates from the plot. This work is witty and fun, creative and real; but, more than that, it’s important.

Chasing Brooklyn by Lisa Schroeder

Brooklyn is a junior in high school. But she’s a freshman at living with ghosts. Why, she asks, does it have to be Gabe haunting me? Why not Lucca? She lost her boyfriend in an accident last year. And now, this year, the year life was supposed to start looking up, the driver from that accident—Lucca’s best friend, Gabe—dies, too. Words cut through her brain. Suicide. Accidental death. Drugs. No one knows what exactly happened. No one except Brooklyn. She knows he’s dead because she gave up on him, because she was too lost in her own pain to reach out to him. And that’s why he’s chosen to haunt her, to leave her freaky clues that mean absolutely nothing. A dead bug. Shards of paper. Ice-cold whispers in the night. He says something about fear, something about love, something that would make her seem crazy if she ever told.

Nico is a senior in high school. But he, too, is new to living with ghosts, even if it is just his brother’s. Why, he asks, does Lucca want me to help Brooklyn? Why me? I barely even know her! Nico isn’t sure what’s going on, but the signs his brother leaves all point to helping the girlfriend he left behind. So he tries, even though he knows nothing about fixing broken hearts, even though he should be devoting his every minute to training for the triathlon coming up, even though he has his own life to sort through. The more time he spends with Brooklyn, the more he realizes she’s holding back. He wants to tell her about his dreams, about Lucca telling him to look after her. But he can’t. She’d run away screaming, and that’s definitely not what she needs. So, he just tries to be there for her, to help her stay active, to help keep her mind off death for long enough to see life again.

All that changes when Nico gets the vibe that she likes him, as in likes him. He can’t betray his brother. More than that, he can’t go through life dating a girl that desperately wants him to be his brother. So he goes away, leaving Brooklyn alone…again. But then Gabe comes when she’s not sleeping, and Brooklyn has no other choice but to face him or run. But to choose the latter, she knows will only mean she’ll have to run forever. And through this decision to face her ghosts, she accidentally faces what was in her heart all along.

Lisa Schroeder’s verse, like Sonya Sones’ and Ellen Hopkins’, masterfully commands the text arrangement to poetically affect the tone and emotion, which is perfect to teach “pathos” in literature. I love having students identify parts of a novel that appeal to their emotions and then watching them identifies the elements that created those feelings. I can see this book being powerful in a classroom setting.

Furthermore, Chasing Brooklyn is appealing for two reasons. First, it isn’t intimidating to young, often reluctant readers. Actually, I think books like this—with quick chapters; creative word arrangements; and simple, economic diction—actually help students feel more confident as readers because they feel like they’ve not just read a good book, but they’ve read a really big one! Second, this book should appeal to male readers, which is a big plus. Yes, the cover features a female which may encourage boys to “keep looking” in a library; but with Nico’s role, as well as the frequent altercations with ghosts, male readers probably wouldn’t toss this away as a “chick flick.” Schroeder’s imagery is so powerful that readers will conjure some pretty scary scenes, and boys love scary (in my experience, anyway).

Lisa Schroeder has written a rare, peaceful, and sweet read that resonates for long after the book is shut. It’s so nice to find a compelling story that leaves the reader with the certainty of hope and happiness even in the wake of teenage death. I can’t wait to order this for my classroom!