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

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

As Eden looks for the courage to cross the delicate lines of falling in love in a fundamental, Christian environment, Seth finds those lines crossed for him, “outing” and exiling him. As Whitney desperately seeks someone to pay attention to her in her upscale existence, Ginger runs from those who, since her childhood, have been paying for her “attention.” And as Cody becomes so lost to a gambling addiction that his moral compass spins out of control, his hometown, Las Vegas, becomes a central, paradoxical haven for all five. However, what they find in Sin City is far from safety and shelter; it’s illusion-shattering reality and death.
Five teens. Five disparate lives. One curse: turning tricks. Eden, Seth, Whitney, Ginger, and Cody are teenagers whose pre-Vegas lives have hang-ups. From oppressive parents to dead ones, from being pimped out at home to coming out of the closet, these protagonists deal with situations that no one should ever have to experience. Yet, as it so often is, the teenagers involved must face their problems alone. Penniless, powerless, and jaded, they fight their circumstances with their only inherent tool: their bodies. With no promise of safety and or of meeting basic needs, they enter into the world of prostitution to beat the cruel lives their parents created for them back home.
Their lives irrevocably change while Vegas flourishes. Through addictions and rape, each of the five feel as if no one in the world can help them gain control again. In a sadly sweet twist of circumstance that brings these kids together at the end, their hearts warm but they can’t mend. Because genuinely caring does little to reverse the damage of turning tricks.
In a harrowing, horrific account of the very real circumstances out there for some teenagers, Ellen Hopkins does not hold back. Perhaps this is why her books get a lot of negative publicity (is there such a thing?). One reason, beyond her fealty to Realism, is that her stories ask the right questions. Here’s one: “Are you selling yourself out to satisfy someone else?” Whether or not teenagers act on their curiosity, the mystic nature of sexuality is part of the fiber of adolescence. Ellen Hopkins weaves those fibers into empowering stories teens learn from.
Let’s face it; life for teenagers today often involves at least minuscule forms of prostitution: sex parties, sexual bullying, unspoken force to have sex, sexting. I could go on because the sexual stakes have never been as high as they are for this generation. So, while books like these are hard to read and often get censored so badly that they never see teens’ hands, it is books like these that are so important. That’s because they scream “Get help!” in voices that teenagers trust. When we, the adults, put a book like this in teenagers’ hands, our jobs as protectors-of-youth become a little easier. That’s because not only does it build our credibility with the fragile ones we’re trying to reach, but this kind of literature gives us a place to start crucial, often intimidating discussions.
If you’re reading this blog and leery of anything seemingly explicit—let’s say you like it but you are hesitant to recommend it—let me assure you of something: these conversations are already out there for teens. Because these situations are happening. Sure, not every kid in your grasp will wind up in Vegas selling his body. But, kids in your grasp will find themselves in some precarious situation that will require forethought and maturity. Trust me. This is a book you’ll want to read and that hopefully, you’ll want teens to read. I’ll warn you: It’s horrific in a lot of places. I wanted to shut it, to throw it, to flip back to the happy parts and stay there; but, I couldn’t. Because the kids those characters represent are worth it. And I, for one, won’t let my reading choices or recommendations say that some experiences don’t matter to me.

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

From crushes to dreams, Anna and Frankie have told each other everything. But Anna has a good reason for not telling her about Matt, the boy she’s been secretly making-out and falling-in-love with for nearly a month. That’s because he is Frankie’s older brother and because he asks Anna not to tell their secret until he has time to break it to her first. She can’t help but feel like she’s betraying Frankie, but it’s only temporary; after all, the vacation during which he plans to break the news is only a few days away. But sadly, when that day arrives, Matt is no longer alive. He is killed in a car crash shortly before the vacation, and the devastated Anna must lock away all that remains unspoken not only between her and Matt, but also between her and Frankie.
When Frankie asks Anna to go on vacation with them, their first time back to the California beach house since Matt’s death, it is with initial reluctance that she accepts. She understands that their façade of normalcy cannot be attained without her to keep their emotionally-unstable daughter “happy.” But Anna is not ready for what Frankie has planned to keep them busy: the ditching of the A.A., Anna’s Albatross, a.k.a Anna’s virginity. When a seemingly back-to-herself-excited Frankie names the game by saying they have to meet twenty boys to find the right guy, Anna smiles and nods. Frankie could say it had to be fifty boys and it wouldn’t make a difference; Anna would still only think of one.After a few beach make-outs between Frankie and random guys, Frankie pesters Anna about her disinterest in boys. But when Jake and Sam come along, Anna changes. She gets the same bubbles in her belly that she got around Matt, and the more time she spends with Sam—the more they kiss, the more they hang out, the more they talk—the more she feels Matt fading. Feeling like a traitor, she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about this cheating on a dead boy, and this drives a wedge between their friendship.

 Broken in so many ways, Anna and Frankie must either learn to miss Matt together or go their separate ways. Will they break up as friends or pick up the pieces and move on?

Sarah Ockler has written a novel that talks. The strong, organic presence of foreshadowing, imagery, and symbolism make this character-driven, emotional thriller a stand-out. Further, its high-interest nature works as a guarantee that teens will a.) Read it, b.) Engage with it, and c.) Intrinsically derive from it a fortification of literary elements and devices.

Some people may see the title, read the first few chapters, and assume this book is about sex—about a snow-balling, generational irreverence of innocence—but it couldn’t be further from that. At its core, Twenty Boy Summer, is a cleverly-titled, literary story of the emotional vulnerability of teenagers in crisis. Yes, in this work teenagers act out—they lie to their parents, sleep around, drink alcohol, go to parties, and generally put themselves in idiotic situations; but, it’s because they need substance at home, not empty words and advice. It is stories like this that teenagers, and parents, need to read, because so many of them are characters and don’t realize it. Talk about a book to springboard important dialogues for families; this is the one.

Even without an adult reading partner, mature teen readers will pick up on the negative portrayal of promiscuity, the necessity of having someone to talk to, and the heroic representation of staying true to oneself. I highly recommend it, and I massively love it.


The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

In any English/Language Arts classroom, as The Chosen One is appropriate and digestible for even middle school, I know exactly what I would teach with this: juxtaposition as a rhetorical device. The presence of the book mobile, juxtaposed to the ultra-Puritan compound, introduces the reader to the seemingly dualistic setting: modern time period, ancient mindsets. It is toward the end, when shopping for wedding dress material in town, that Williams has the family eat at  Applebee’s. Something about this setting, juxtaposed to the topic of conversation, leads the reader to a point of no return: this is a time of book mobiles, a time of franchised restaurants, a time of independent women. This isn’t Lot’s daughter. This is a little girl trapped in an exploitation scandal masked by religious obedience and seemingly protected by America’s constitution! It becomes scarier than ever at this point.
The rhetorical effect of Williams’ juxtaposition can be further expounded with young readers, as this turning point forces readers to confront the complicated sympathies developed for the characters: for the normal mothers who only want the best for their family; for the complicated father, who, compared to the other men, is a loving, open-minded man who tries to save Kyra; for Joshua who “chose” her when she shouldn’t require the dominance of a man; and for her ridiculous-yet-compelling-and-sadly-sweet desire to marry him when she is–wait for it–thirteen years old. The effects of this one rhetorical device create shifts in the reader’s understanding, which, in turn, compliment the heartbreak and urgency with which Kyra herself shifts.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Courtesy of http://madwomanintheforest.com/youngadult-twisted/

Laurie Halse Anderson. 2008. New York, New York: Speak. pp. 250. U.S. $9.99

Tyler Miller had no idea that The Foul Deed—spray-painting the school (and misspelling “testicle”)—would elevate his social status from Nerd Boy to Bad Boy. But as he serves his probation, working over the summer to repair the school’s roof, he finds that his body, and his reputation, has changed for the better just in time for senior year. Though this should be a good thing, it is arguably the inciting incident for Tyler’s conflict, as his newfound attractiveness gets the attention of Bethany Milbury, who is a.) the hottest girl in school b.) out of his league. c.) his dad’s boss’ daughter and d.) his mortal enemy’s twin sister. But while the toxic attraction to Bethany is the catalyst for much of Tyler’s angst, it is by no means responsible for it all. His screwed-up home life is also to blame.
Tyler’s dad is obsessed with climbing the corporate, and social, ladder. He will do anything, work any hours, or suck-up to anyone necessary to get to the top. Imagine, then, the thorn in his side that Tyler—who is still on probation—represents. And it only gets worse when Tyler causes Bethany to injure her foot at one of the Milbury’s posh parties. Determined to save his family’s honor, and his career, he forces Tyler to deliver a droopy, homemade, “I’m Sorry” cake to the Milbury’s home. It is at this “cake point,” that Tyler and Bethany bond.
After a series of homeroom and lunchroom chats, and an almost-fight with Chip (the aforementioned mortal enemy), Bethany asks him to sit with her at the Homecoming football game. Harmless, right? Wrong. This invite eventually leads him to a party where Bethany, who is wasted, takes him to a private room and begs for sexual attention. Tyler, whose post-pubescent life has been a continual Bethany Fantasy, is faced with a pivotal decision: listen to his hormones and sleep with her, or listen to his brain and act chivalrously. In short, he listens to his brain; but, the next guy doesn’t. And that guy takes pictures.
Tyler’s record, paired with witness reports that he and Bethany were together at the party, makes him the likely suspect for posting the pornographic photos online. During the investigation, he is incarcerated in an office closet during school hours, jumped by Chip and his gang after school hours, and verbally abused by his father during all hours. Not long after the incident, Tyler, desperate for a way out, considers suicide; however, with the cold barrel in his mouth, he self-revolutionizes. Life, he decides, is worth more than a handful of empty accusations. With dead-man’s resolve, he confronts his father. Soon after, the investigation runs its course and proves him undeniably innocent.
Tyler’s sexual angst, as well as his troubled record, brings a force of camaraderie to teenage readership. This comfort with the pitifully-real protagonist keeps the readers on-guard while Tyler enters into the Milbury fantasy world. For several glaring reasons, Tyler and Bethany could never work, and it is with this rudimentary understanding of social classes that teens grasp the dramatic irony Laurie Halse Anderson presents.

Anderson does an impressive job creating a complex situations that adds to the complications of Tyler’s life without villainizing the usual suspects. The father divvies out insurmountable pressures, and because of his emotional absence, he is and unaware of their effect on his son. Because of his own pressures, and because he is simply unaware of Tyler’s true angst, the father cannot be seen as the antagonist. On the flip, nor can Bethany Milbury, the girl taken advantage of for her stupid mistakes, be seen as the antagonist. Only in a delicately balanced piece of fiction can Coincidence be the nemesis, and Laurie Anderson exemplifies delicate balance in literature. She creates and sustains dynamic relationships which so complicate the readers’ thinking that archetypal “boxes” become increasingly more difficult to check.
Additionally, LHA creates a situation in which a character is assumed guilty because of a prior record. This works as a fantastic method to justify Aristotle’s idea of “ethos” (credibility). When students evaluate the evils acting against their protagonist, they are forced to acknowledge that credibility—their own believability—precedes truth. In a world where character education—in additional to the traditional standards in academic education—is increasingly necessary, Twisted is an important read for high school students, as they are forced to consider the long-lasting effects of their actions, or as Jimmy Buffet calls it, the permanent reminders of temporary feelings. A tale of quiet heroism, ignored chivalry, and nearly altruistic selflessness, Twisted should be required reading for every high-school-aged product of Generation Me.

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill

Photo courtesy of http://soulenchilada.ning.com

Soul Enchilada

David Macinnis Gill. 2009. New York, New York: HarperCollins. pp. 356. U.S. $16.99

Eunice “Bug” Smoot is alone in El Paso. Poverty-stricken and lonely after her grandfather’s death, she is thrown into a merciless world where rent is due and groceries are expensive. At least she has a car: the vintage Cadillac she inherited from her grandfather.  Not only is that vehicle her only possession, it is her only source of income, as she delivers pizzas (which she is dang good at doing!). So, it annoys her the morning she awakes to find her Cadillac egged…and occupied. 

Beals, the bounty-hunting demon in the passenger seat, informs Bug that she signed the papers promising her own soul as collateral for her grandfather’s loan. The loan, she finds out, was for her precious car; the payment, her grandfather’s soul and his Cadillac. The demon gives her 61 hours to produce the soul that never showed up in Hell, or her own soul is eternally damned. This ultimatum officially ruins her day. 

But as if things weren’t bad enough already, her encounter with Beals makes her late for work, which gets her fired, which means she can’t pay the rent, which gets her evicted. And what’s worse, Beals—and his stinky egg-white-snot that covers the seat—won’t leave her alone! To her good fortune, Bug meets Pesto at a car wash. When he realizes there is a demon riding shot-gun, the action, and their attraction, really begins. There are two things about Pesto that make him the perfect match for Bug: 1.) He works for the Waste and Disposal division of ISIS (the International Supernatural Immigration Service), and 2.) His mother is a witch who, through spells, curses, and seances, can help Bug get out of this mess. 

Before Pesto’s mother can formulate a plan, Bug challenges the demon to a Pizza Delivery race, the only thing she is really good at. Beals brings in a non-biased demon to officiate, and when she loses the race, her soul is signed to that demon, who happens to be Beals’ nemesis. Now she is caught between two demons and the ghosts of her past—why would her grandfather do this to her? Why can’t her mother be here to help her? While she processes and recalculates another plan to get her soul back, she moves into the room above Pesto’s garage, holds a séance to find her grandfather, eats lots of good Hispanic food in Pesto’s kitchen, and fittingly celebrates the Day of the Dead. Meanwhile, the two demons are feuding for her soul, which works to her advantage. With the action never slowing, Bug, Pesto, his mother, the ISIS team and a few other soul enchiladas take on the demons, and with a surprising twist at the end, Bug gets to keep her soul…and the boy. 

Early in the book, David Macinnis Gill sets up a time-constraint that keeps readers on-edge, as Bug has only 61 hours to save her soul. By deviating from traditional “good versus evil” plots, the author keeps readers from grumbling, “I’ve seen this before.” Though the overarching topic of selling one’s soul has, indeed, been seen numerous times, an execution like this has not. For this reason, the reader is left to wonder at every leg of the story if the plot will be formulaic, if the protagonist will get out of it. For a few reasons, most YA does follow a recipe, but the key to keeping readers satisfied is to make them think the story will not end happily and then surprising them with at least a quasi-formulaic ending. David Gill masterfully does this, leaving us with an ending that not only can we can live with, but Bug can, too. 

In addition to the engaging plot, Gill gives his readership a unique protagonist (Hispanic and African-American) with attitude and spunk, the rich smells and tastes of a Hispanic subculture of El Paso, and some insight into a celebration—Dia de los Muertos—that is often misunderstood or underrepresented by American culture. Even if the plot didn’t keep us guessing and reading, the inclusion of this amazing culture would have done the trick. So much about his book is enjoyable, thought-provoking, and satisfying. But I have to say, some of the demonic descriptions are pretty scary, so I recommend for ages 14+, at parents’ and teachers’ discretion.