The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

  • Title: The Scorpio Races
  • Author: Maggie Stiefvater
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 054522490X
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Maggie Stiefvater is a young adult author who has written numerous books for teenagers. Her website includes posts from her blogs, which focus on what is currently going on in her life (such as travel, new books she’s working on, and videos and articles she finds interesting) as well as a link to her Twitter feed. Her website also has a tab that includes information and purchase links to all of her books. It also includes appearance information and a short biography about Stiefvater. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed Stiefvater about The Scorpio Races, and she talked about her inspiration for the book (she wrote a short story on the topic of water horses and always wanted to expand on it) as well as the likelihood of a sequel (not likely, although she’s often asked). The interview also covers her relationships with her family and her love of music and the influence music has had on her life.

Reviews: Horn Book, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal all gave this title starred reviews. Many of the reviews mention the uniqueness of the title and the fact that it has cross-over appeal to a wide variety of readers (those who like romance, horses, action, etc.). Some of the reviews also mention the compelling character and world building that occurs, which is sure to attract and delight readers. Booklist says, “this seems to have a shot at being a YA blockbuster”, and all of the reviews are in agreement that this is a book worth reading.

Readers annotation: When the races begin, somebody will die.

Summary: Sean Kendrick participates in the Scorpio Races every year, and has won for the past four. Puck Connolly has never ridden in the races, but decides to do so for the first time in order to save her family’s home and delay her brother’s departure to the mainland. Each year, people die during the race, victims of the vicious water horses that they capture and ride Puck decides to ride her own horse, Dove, instead of a water horse, but many participants are angry that she is doing so, and angry at the fact that, as a girl, she is riding at all. She trains Dove in spite of this backlash, befriending Sean Kendrick along the way. Sean is the only rider who sticks up for her and takes her seriously, and a romance blossoms. On the day of the race, Sean’s employer’s son, who is viciously jealous of Sean, has his water horse attack Puck and Dove. Sean intervenes to save them, and Puck ends up winning the race. She uses her winnings to save her home and buy Corr, Sean’s water horse, for Sean.

Evaluation: This book has a fresh concept and builds upon mythology and folkloric tradition, the water horse myth, that is not often explored in literature. This premise will attract readers, and the gripping first pages of the novel, in which Stiefvater introduces how deadly the water horses can be, will intrigue them enough to continue reading. Unfortunately, the majority of the book does not live up to the dramatic and sinister promise of the first pages of the book. Although there is plenty of action and the water horses fulfill their promise of grisly killing, the pacing of the book overall is slower than one would expect from a book about horse racing. Stiefvater spends quite a bit of time developing her characters and fleshing out the world of Thisby, but this comes at the expense of keeping the plot moving forward. On a personal note, this title took me over a month to read, because I kept getting distracted by other books and was not invested enough in the narrative to focus my attention on this title for long periods of time. The world and character building is impressive, and will engage readers who prioritize this over pacing and action, but readers who pick this up expecting a lightning-fast read full of mythological beasts, killings, and racing, as promised by the book description and first chapter, will be disappointed. Readers who stick with the book to the end will find satisfaction, as Stiefvater wraps up the plot in a way in which all of her carefully crafted characters get what they deserve.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Stiefvater shows mastery in creating a realistic world and sympathetic characters. The way the novel is presented in regards to its back cover description, first chapter, and front cover are slightly misleading. The plot is slow-paced but believable and the ending is satisfying.
  • Popularity: 3/5 Many readers who are initially attracted to this title might not make it past the first few chapters. Readers looking for high action or a deep mythological basis will likely be disappointed; readers who like strong characters and an expansive and well-crafted world will find much to enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: horses, character and world building, happy endings, mythology.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who are looking for another title based in obscure mythology may enjoy Karen Healey’s The Guardian of the Dead. This title is based in Maori mythology, and, like Stiefvater’s title, is dark and full of murderous mythological creatures. Also, like The Scorpio Races, this book has a strong female protagonist that will remind readers in many ways of Puck.

Book talk ideas: Stiefvater and her publishers came up with the best book talk and most compelling way to get teenagers to read her book. It is the first sentence of the novel and is prominently featured on the cover of the book: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die”. This immediately sets up the urgency of the story and gets readers’ attention and makes them want to learn more. Start the book talk with that, and then describe the island of Thisby and how it is populated with murderous, beautiful, terrifying water horses, who locals race each year in a contest that causes many riders their lives. Explain that both Puck and Sean have their reasons for riding in the race and need to win in order to get their happy endings, but only one of them can be the victor.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does the relationship between the humans and the water horses say about humankind’s relationship to nature?
  2. Do the characters in the novel all get happy endings? Why or why not?
  3. The novel alternates between Sean and Puck’s points of view. How does this enhance the narrative?

Reason for reading: This book has been on my to-read list for awhile. I knew that it incorporated elements of mythology (water horses) into the narrative, and I’m a sucker for any books that are based in mythology or folklore and I wasn’t familiar with many water horse myths and thought it would be an interesting read. I’d also heard good things about Stiefvater’s books and was interested in reading some for myself.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

  • Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
  • Author: Grace Lin
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 0521021960
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 288
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: fantasy/mythology
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Grace Lin has authored and illustrated books for a wide age range of children. Her website includes biographical information, contact information, and tour and event dates. It also includes a link to her blog, which focuses on activities and events that are releavnt to Lin’s life and work, such as a recent play production of one of her books and her advocacy for diversity in children’s books. Her webpage also includes links to all of her titles, as well as supplementary materials for parents and teachers such as craft ideas, discussion questions, and lesson suggestions.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Booklist both gave this title starred reviews. Both reviews comment upon the beauty of the illustrations as well as the use of Chinese folklore to further the plot and add texture and depth to Minli’s world. Booklist and SLJ agree that Minli is resourceful, smart., and an engaging protagonist, and that readers will be rooting for her. In regards to the novel as a whole, Booklist had this to say: “Children will embrace this accessible, timeless story about the evil of greed and the joy of gratitude”.

Readers annotation: Minli wants to change her fortune, but will the Old Man of the Moon tell her how?

Summary: Minli is a young girl who lives in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain and works the fields with her parents. Her family is poor, and her mother often laments their lot in life, while her father tells her fantastic stories about dragons and adventures. Minli decides to change her family’s fortunes, and so she goes off in search of the Old Man of the Moon to ask him how to do so. On the way, she befriends a dragon, meets a prince, and spends time with a family that seems to have discovered the secret of happiness. When she gets the the Old Man of the Moon, he tells her she may only ask one question, so she sacrifices her answer about how to change her fortune in order to ask him why her dragon friend can’t fly. This decision turns out to answer her own question as well; when the dragon flies to the Fruitless Mountain, it becomes bountiful and her family prospers. Although her family becomes financially rich, Minli’s adventures taught them all that happiness with loved ones is the most important treasure of all.

Evaluation: This is an utterly charming book. Lin weaves the narrative of Minli and her family with short fables and folktales that turn out to be significant to Minli’s adventure, layering different types of storytelling and myths into one cohesive story. The use of different colors to differentiate between Minli’s story and the folktales is eye-catching and makes the narrative easy to follow and keeps the reader aware of what part of the book she is currently reading. Minli is an enjoyable protagonist and the reader wants her to succeed in her quest, and secondary characters, like the father and the dragon, are nice complements to Minli’s story. Minli’s mother is one of the more interesting secondary characters due to her harshness at the beginning of the novel and her transformation as she realizes what is truly important to her, which is her family. Lin presents a good moral message as well as uses themes like friendship, family, and the meaning of happiness throughout the novel, which gives the reader much to think about. The ending, which provides happiness for all of the characters, is welcome and sure to put a smile on any reader’s face. The artwork is stunning and richly detailed, and provides a wonderful complement to this delightful book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  The use of storytelling within the greater narrative works well and enriches the novel as a whole. The characters are sympathetic and the happy ending is well-deserved.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will enjoy the miniature stories within Minli’s tale, which break up the narrative into easily digestible pieces and factor into Minli’s story later on. The fantasy and mythology aspects of the novel will appeal to many readers, especially as it stems from a tradition (Chinese) that isn’t as prevalent in writing for this age group.
  • Appeal factors: mythology and folklore, dragons, families, happy endings, stories within stories.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want to delve deeper into stories told against a mythological backdrop may enjoy Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. This series follows Percy, a modern day kid, who discovers that not only are Greek gods real, but that one of them is his father.
  2. For readers who enjoyed Lin’s fantastic story of Minli uses Chinese folklore as a backdrop, her book Starry River of the Sky would be a good fit. Like Mountain, Starry River follows a young protagonist and interweaves Chinese myths into the main narrative.

Book talk ideas: One way to approach this book talk would be to read one of the folklore stories out loud to potential readers, to give them an idea of how the book works. After doing that, tell readers that this novel follows Minli’s journey to change her destiny, and that stories like the one they just heard pepper the novel and influence Minli’s destiny. Also, possibly ask the audience if any of them have read other popular mythology/folklore stories, such as the Percy Jackson series, and suggest that this is a similar type of book but that it focuses on a different folkloric tradition: that of China rather than the more familiar Greek.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does the author choose to tell stories within the main narrative? What effect does this have?
  2. Describe Minli’s relationship with her parents? Why is her relationship with her father so different from the one she has with her mother?
  3. What is the most important lesson that Minli learns on her journey?

Reason for reading: I wanted to diversifying the types of books I was reading for this project, and try to include other cultures whenever possible. I found this title on a list of Newbery books (possibly on Goodreads, but I don’t remember for certain) and was intrigued by reading a book with roots in Chinese folklore, and this book did not disappoint. Before requesting it from the library, I really knew nothing about the plot other than what I gleaned from the cover, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Additional information: Grace Lin has been very active in the We Need Diverse Books campaign. This campaign (which just occurred last week, May 1-3, 2014) was a social media call to action in support of diversity in children’s literature. It asked for people to photograph themselves with a sign expressing the importance of diversity in children’s books and then upload it to Twitter, followed by Twitter chat and push to encourage diversity in libraries and bookstores. Since this is a very recent campaign, I look forward to learning more about it and its impact over the coming months.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

  • Title: Parrots Over Puerto Rico
  • Author: Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
  • Publisher: Lee & Low Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:1620140047
  • List Price: $19.95
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 6-11
  • Genre: scientific nonfiction
  • Award(s): Sibert Medal Winner

Author information: Cindy Trumbore is an author of children’s books as well as an accomplished editor. Her website includes biographical information, links to information about each of her titles, information about writing workshops the author has given, and information about her editing services and the publishing industry.

Susan L. Roth has illustrated and co-written a number of children’s titles. Her website, as befitting an artist, is full of pictures and color. Her site includes biographical information and contact information as well as links to all of her books. Her website also includes information about her artwork, such as how she got interested in collaging, how a beginner could use this technique, what kind of tools she uses, and some fun getting started exercises. She also includes a brief Q & A section as well as a section about the research she has done for her books.

Reviews: Booklist gave this title a starred review. It mentions the fact that the scope of this book–focusing on over 7000 years of history–was a daunting choice and one that is difficult to pull off well, but this title manages flawlessly. It lauds the multi-faceted artwork and says that it enhances and complements the narrative. Finally, Booklist says that this book is “a triumphant reminder of the inescapable connection between people’s actions and the animals in the wild”. Horn Book and Kirkus also give this title starred reviews and say similar positive things about the book: it has an ambitious scope, important message, and wonderful artwork.

Readers annotation: Parrots lived in Puerto Rico for millions of years, and then, because of humans, they almost vanished.

Summary: Parrots lived on the island of Puerto Rico long before humans did. In 5000 BC, humans started settling there, and in 1493 Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain. People kept migrating to Puerto Rico and building on the island, cutting down the forests in which the parrots lived. Then, another bird species started stealing the parrots’ homes and food, making the parrot population diminish further. By 1967, only twenty four parrots remained. In order to save the parrots, Puerto Rico and the United States worked together to rebuild habitat and incubate parrots in captivity, and the parrot population is slowly rising.

Evaluation: This is probably my favorite picture book that I’ve read for the class, which is why I chose to review it last. The artwork is stunning. The cover, which is completely wordless, features three large collaged parrots against a bright blue background, and the combination of colors and wordlessness immediately captures the readers’ attention and makes them want to open the book. The book itself is skewed so that readers flip the pages up instead of from the right, an artistic decision that makes the parrots seem like they are taking over the sky and gives the artwork a scope and depth it would lack in a traditional format. The collages capture color and movement exquisitely, from the wind of a hurricane to the rushing of a waterfall. The pictures are a visual delight and will cause readers to linger over each page, marveling at textures and noticing details in each scene. The narrative matches the strength of the artwork. It takes the readers through the story of the Puerto Rican parrots, from their life before humans reached the island, to their decline from deforestation and competitive species, to the successful attempts at reviving this species. Although the story ends on a hopeful note, it also provides a strong cautionary tale about the impact that humans can have on the environment and how humans can easily destroy an entire species. The book concludes with an afterword that has photographs of the parrots and scientists and gives more background information about the recovery process, driving home the point that this is a true story and scientists are still working on the preservation of this species today.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  5/5  The collages are gorgeous and the message of this book is well-delivered and crucial in today’s world.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Some readers may find this story to be a bit slow, considering there is no defined protagonist or single character to root for, but the majority of readers will find much to love in this title. The artwork is captivating and readers will be drawn in by the plight of the parrots and the efforts to protect them, made all the more urgent and compelling because it is a true story.
  • Appeal factors: collage artwork, animals, wildlife conservation, scientific nonfiction, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Bird lovers may also enjoy Sibert Honor book, Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate. Although this book lacks the stunning illustrations and moral message of Parrots, it would be a great fit for readers who are intrigued by Parrots but want to be able to learn about nature more locally and interact with it on a more personal level.

Book talk ideas: Start by showing the kids the cover of the book.  If that doesn’t get their attention, nothing will. Ask them to call out ways in which humans can negatively affect the environment (pollution, building, killing animals, etc). Then explain that this book is the true (yes, true) story of how a species almost went extinct because of humans, but then humans helped to save and protect it. Show a few of the collage pictures of the book to really stimulate interest in reading this book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How does this book make you feel?
  2. In the book, we learn how humans have hurt the environment and the animals around us. What other examples can you give of this happening?
  3. In the end, humans help the parrots survive. What are some ways that you can help the environment?

Reason for reading: This was one of the first picture book titles I read this semester and it remains one of my favorites. I was interested in looking at some nonfiction titles for this project and this title immediately caught my eye. I volunteer at the California Academy of Sciences and am very interested in nature and environmental conservation, and I’ve previously read other nonfiction titles in this same genre (Moonbird by Phillip Hoose). Of course, the cover of the book and the quality of the artwork captured my attention as well.

Additional information: This semester, I read all of the Caldecott Winner and Honor Books for 2013, as well as a number of books that were considered Caldecott “hopefuls”, such as Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and The Dark. I enjoyed most of the books that were honored this year, but I do think that Parrots Over Puerto Rico was at least as worthy, if not more, of receiving an Honor. Many blogs, such as Wonders in the Dark, also pegged this book as a likely Caldecott candidate. I wonder to what extent this title’s win of the Sibert medal influenced its consideration for a Caldecott, if at all, considering the Caldecott winner, Locomotive, was a Sibert Honor book.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

  • Title: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
  • Author: Gavin Extence
  • Publisher: Redhook
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:0316246573
  • List Price: $26.00
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner; more here.

Author information: Alex Woods is Gavin Extence’s first novel. His website includes links to purchase the title as well as excerpts from the book. It also includes a short biography, a music playlist of songs Alex Woods listens to in the book, a recommended reading list, and links to videos of the author on YouTube. YALSA interviewed Extence about his book, asking about his use of Vonnegut, literary and musical references, astronomy, epilepsy, euthanasia, and other relevant topics. In the interview, Extence talks about the fact that he always intended for the readership of his book to be adult, but he wanted the writing to be straightforward and accessible, so when his publisher suggested marketing it as a crossover title, he was thrilled.

Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly gave this title a starred review, saying it “skillfully balances light and dark, laughter and tears”. Library Journal also comments upon the book’s complex tone, calling it “bittersweet” and saying that it will appeal to a broad range of readers. This title also received positive reviews from publications such as People Magazine, the Observer, the New York Post, and the Denver Post. All of these reviews mention the humor of the narrative as well as the strong voice of Alex Woods.

Readers annotation: Alex Woods is hit by a meteor when he is ten years old. And his life just gets weirder.

Summary: Alex Woods has always been unusual; when he is ten he’s hit in the head by a meteor, which is an unimaginably rare occurrence. Because of this injury, Alex has to deal with epilepsy and is taken out of school so that he can learn how to cope with these fits. When he begins to get his epilepsy under control, he returns to school, but he is a misfit because of his condition as well as the fact that his mother is weird and all of the activities he likes are “gay”. He’s teased and bullied by his schoolmates, and the bullies chase him into a stranger’s greenhouse and then break the windows. Alex refuses to tell on them, so in order to make restitution to the elderly homeowner, Mr. Peterson, Alex begins visiting him every weekend to help with chores. As time goes on, Alex and Mr. Peterson develop a friendship and talk about books, classical music, and their lives. Mr. Peterson is diagnosed with a fatal illness and decides he wants to end his life, and Alex promises to help him do so when the time comes. Alex drives Mr. Peterson to Switzerland to a euthanasia clinic and stays with him when he dies, satisfied that the decision he made to help Mr. Peterson die without pain was the right one.

Evaluation: This novel has a strong narrative voice and grapples with some of the toughest questions of humanity, such as the value of human life, the importance of friendship, the struggle of how to fit in and make a place for oneself in the world, and how to stick to one’s morals in the face of obstacles. These questions frame the narrative and make the reader stop and consider her own position on these questions and how they might factor in to her own life as she reads about Alex and Mr. Peterson. Alex is crafted as an entirely sympathetic character that the reader is rooting for, and his voice is genuine and honest. Alex’s friendship with Mr. Peterson is believable and tender, and it shows two outsiders who find solace in their friendship with one another and have an understanding of each other that transcends society’s rules. Their dialogue is at once poignant and hilarious, switching fluidly from deadpanned humor to philosophical discussions without missing a beat. Extence’s decision to start the novel at the end of the story and then go back in time to work up to the climax works beautifully and draws readers in at the first chapter because they are curious to know how Alex ends up in the situation he’s shown in during the first pages of the book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  Extence combines heart and humor in this story, and his characters are vivid and richly portrayed. The ending satisfies, and the plot is strong.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The writing is crisp, clear, and moves the story along quickly, which will likely engage readers and keep them interested. Alex and Mr. Peterson are well crafted characters, and the novel gives readers much to think about. Readers who shy away from darker themes, such as death or bullying, may want to stay away from this title, but those who enjoy tackling thematically heavy works will find much to enjoy in this book.
  • Appeal factors: outcasts, unlikely friendships, bullying, strong narrative voice, euthanasia, coming-of-age, complex themes.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon would be a good fit for readers who liked Alex Wood’s voice. The main character in Haddon’s novel, Christopher, is autistic, academically gifted but socially challenged, and his voice is crisp and straightforward in a way that will remind readers of Alex.
  2. It would be remiss not to suggest Kurt Vonnegut’s works to readers who enjoyed Alex Woods. Like Extence, Vonnegut combines humor with poignancy, and many of the themes of Extence’s novel, such as the importance of friendship and kindness, can be found in Vonnegut’s work. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in particular explores the theme of how humans should treat one another.

Book talk ideas: The strength of the plot should be enough to draw most readers in. Alex Woods is stopped at the border, with an obscene amount of marijuana and a dead man’s ashes in his car. How did he get to that point? In the interest of not giving anything away, a book talk for this title would have to be vague, but it can mention that this title deals with a variety of complex themes, like coming-of-age, feeling like an outsider, unlikely friendships, and the meaning and value of life.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think Alex has a good relationship with his mother? Why or why not?
  2. Alex is bullied by other kids at his school, and he refuses to give up their names when they destroy Mr. Peterson’s greenhouse and Alex gets in trouble in their place. Why do you think he acted this way? How would you have handled the situation?
  3. What is the importance of the Kurt Vonnegut book club in the story? For those of you who have read Vonnegut, why do you think this author was chosen?
  4. Do you agree with Alex’s decision to help Mr. Peterson die? What would you have done in the same situation?

Reason for reading: I was really interested in reading some Alex award winners for this project because I was curious to see if I agreed that these books have teen appeal. Although I know (both from being a teenager and from interacting with teenagers) that young adults don’t tend to let labels about whether a book is for “adults” stop them from reading it if they look interesting, I was interested to see what type of book would be chosen for having special appeal to this age group. After reading Alex Woods, I agree that teenagers will probably enjoy this book as much as adults.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

  • Title: Looking for Alaska
  • Author: John Green
  • Publisher: Dutton Books
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0525475060
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 221
  • Age Range: 13+ yrs
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award Winner; YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers; more here.

Author information: John Green has written several young adult books and is unarguably one of the most popular contemporary YA authors. His website contains a biography and FAQ section (which is broken into multiple parts based on subject or book title), a list of the author’s upcoming events, links to information about each of his books, and links to and information about his vlog with his brother, Hank. His vlog demonstrates how well Green relates to the teenagers he writes for and about, and includes humor, thoughtfulness, and intelligent discussion on a wide variety of subjects.

Reviews: Kirkus and School Library Journal both gave this title starred reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly also gave it a positive review. All of these reviews mention the honesty with which the characters are portrayed and the believably in Miles’ voice. SLJ says that “Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends” and all of the reviews agree that this novel demonstrates Green’s promise as a new writer.

Readers annotation: Miles went to boarding school to find a Great Perhaps. He found Alaska.

Summary: Miles is a teenager who is bored of his hometown and wants to go off in search of a Great Perhaps. His search takes him to boarding school, where he meets new friends, like his roommate the Colonel, and the mystifying and alluring Alaska Young. Miles, nicknamed Pudge at school, gets to know Alaska, who is an emotional ball of energy, one moment laughing at his jokes and smoking cigarettes, the next moment enveloped in guilt and sobbing into Pudge’s shirt. The novel follows Pudge’s first year at boarding school, which is full of pranks and burgeoning feelings for Alaska, until Pudge and the Colonel help her leave campus one night when she is very drunk, and she ends up driving into a police car and dying. Following her death, Pudge and the Colonel try to determine whether it was a suicide or an accident by piecing together Alaska’s final moments. They finally determine that they will never know, pull off one final prank in Alaska’s honor, and try to come to terms with the fragility of life and the resilience of the human spirit.

Evaluation: This book is a page-turner. The characters are drawn with Green’s trademark humor and tenderness, and his teenagers are smart and likeable. Each of his characters is articulate and capable of complex thoughts and reasoning, but they still struggle with the difficulties of growing up: how to iron a shirt, how to navigate romantic relationships, and how to find a place in a world that doesn’t always make sense. The fact that Green is not afraid to create intelligent teen characters who are also vulnerable and make mistakes is the greatest strength of the novel, and one that will resonate with most young adult readers. The plot of the story, while interesting, is secondary. The first portion of the novel shows Pudge trying to make friends, pull pranks, and fit in, while dealing with his crush on Alaska, who relentlessly gives him mixed signals. The second part of the book deals with Pudge and his friends coming to terms with Alaska’s death. Although these two sections have different tones and deal with different subjects, both of them encompass the teen experience and the variety of struggles that teenagers encounter, from the silly and mundane to the unspeakably tragic. Green’s writing will also make readers take notice, and they will want to re-read this book or particular passages just because he articulates the teenage (and human) experience so beautifully. Pudge’s thoughts and conversations about the labyrinth of suffering, his obsession with famous last words, and his devotion to Alaska are just a few of the areas in which Green’s prose shines. Finally, the themes in this novel are real and depicted with honesty. Readers of this book will find a lot to think about, both on personal and universal levels, and this book lends itself well to group discussion.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  The characters are brilliantly drawn and realistic, portraying the innocence and agony that is common during teenage years. The plot is smooth and believable, and the themes leave much for the reader to think about.
  • Popularity: 5/5  The name recognition that John Green has is enough to give this book a 5/5 on the popularity scale. That might bring readers to the book, but the smart characters and complex themes will keep them turning the pages.
  • Appeal factors: John Green, coming-of-age, grief, first love.

Read-alikes: 

  1. For readers looking for another title that deals with complex themes of loss and depression, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why would be a good fit. Like Green’s novel, this book deals with a teenage male protagonist who loses the girl he is infatuated with (in this case, due to suicide), and goes on a journey that helps him discover he didn’t really know much about her struggles in life.
  2. John Knowles classic A Separate Peace would be a good recommendation for readers who want a coming-of-age story told against a prep school backdrop. The protagonist, Gene, has a tumultuous friendship and then rivalry with Finney, a character who is his polar opposite, and then has to come to terms with Finney’s death.

Book talk ideas: The mere mention of John Green’s name is enough to get this title to fly off the shelves. To book talk, start by mentioning John Green’s works as a whole and how he crafts realistic and smart teenagers who are struggling with a lot of universal issues, like growing up and finding out how they fit in the world, finding and losing love, and how to handle grief and tragedies. Segue into talking about Alaska specifically, and give a brief overview of the plot and how Miles leaves his home for a boarding school and a Great Perhaps. Possibly also mention Miles’ affinity for last words, and share some of his favorites.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does Miles go in search of a Great Perhaps? What do you think he means by a Great Perhaps?
  2. Many of the characters in the novel experience and have to live with extreme guilt? How do you think this shapes their personalities and their actions?
  3. What do you make of Alaska and Miles’ relationship? Was it realistic? How did it compare to the relationship between Miles and Lara?
  4. Why do you think Miles loves last words? How does not knowing Alaska’s last words affect him?
  5. How do you get out of the labyrinth?
  6. Do you think Alaska’s death was intentional or accidental? Why do you think Green left this ambiguous?

Reason for reading: I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars last year for my teen materials class and I loved it. I thought the characters were smart, funny, and the type of people I wanted to learn more about, and I thought the plot was compelling and heartbreaking. It was also wildly popular when I was reading it last year, and I work with a lot of teenagers who told me I simply had to read it. After I finished it, I started watching some of the Vlog Brothers videos and becoming really interested in how John Green connects to his audience. I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson with my book club later that year, and Looking for Alaska marks my third foray into Green’s writing. Even if I didn’t enjoy his writing as much as I do, I feel that it’s important to read his work because he is such an influential YA writer.

Additional relevant information: Green’s FAQ page about Looking for Alaskalocated on his website, is a must-have for anybody doing a book discussion on this novel or to recommend to readers who want to dive a little deeper into Green’s creative process surrounding this book. It discusses a variety of subjects: Green’s decision to label the chapters in chronological relation to Alaska’s death, the inclusion of the “sexy” scenes, the use of religion throughout the novel, stories about the pranks and the level of autobiography in the text, and Green’s favorite parts of the novel, among other subjects. The information divulged here will definitely spark conversation, help readers notice details they missed when reading the book, and prompt further thought about the themes and ideas expressed within the novel.

Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone

  • Title: Peppe the Lamplighter
  • Author: Elisa Bartone
  • Illustrator: Ted Lewin
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 1997
  • ISBN:0688154697
  • List Price: $6.99 (PB)
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Caldecott Honor book

Author information: Elisa Bartone does not have a website or much of an online presence. She has written two children’s books, Peppe and American Too. A variety of Google searches turned up no additional information about this author, such as interviews or biographical information. I was unable to even ascertain whether the author was still alive, but her most recent title was released in 1997.

Reviews: This title received positive reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. All of these reviews comment on the moral and happy ending of the book as well as the depiction of the relationship between Peppe and his father. Although the reviews mention this, they primarily focus on the captivating artwork of the book. SLJ says the illustrations ” give a strong sense of time and place” and PW says that the artwork “exhibit[s] a cinematic sweep that proves quite remarkable”. All of the reviews agree that this is a beautiful and rich book.

Readers annotation: Peppe’s job may not be glamorous, but his heroic actions earn him the respect of his family and community.

Summary: Peppe is a young Italian immigrant who now lives in New York City. His father is ill and his mother dead, so he has to find a job to support his family. He asks for work at a variety of shops, but none can use his help. He eventually finds a job as a street lamplighter, but his father disapproves of the job. His father scolds him so much over his work that Peppe decides not to light the lamps one night because he is so sad and ashamed. Because he doesn’t light the lamps, his youngest sister gets lost in the dark, and his father begs him to go and light the lamps, and tells him that it’s a very important job. He finds his sister when he lights the lamps, and his family and his father are very proud of him.

Evaluation: The story of Peppe and his family is told with heart and the message of the book transcends its historical setting. Peppe’s relationship with his father is characterized as a strained one; it is clear that his father disapproves of his job because he had hoped for greater things for his son, but Peppe is hurt by his father’s lack of support and shame. The resolution at the end shows Peppe’s father acknowledging his mistake and telling his son how proud he is of him, which will warm the reader’s heart. Although the plot is well executed, the true strength of this book lies in its artwork. Each page is meticulously detailed and brings the story to life with its rendering of the garb and streets of 1900s New York. The illustrator also does an amazing job with his use of light; often the scenes are painted in dark colors other than the light of a streetlamp or house lamp, which helps set the tone of the story and makes light an important focal point of the narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  The artwork is stunning and conveys a strong sense of place and time, and goes far in developing the tone of the book. The story is sweet and would lend itself well to discussion.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The story builds slowly, which may discourage readers who are interested in more action, but the book will satisfy those who want a quiet and heartwarming story.
  • Appeal factors: historical fiction, detailed illustrations, father-son relationships, happy ending, immigrant story.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Crow Call by Lois Lowry would be a good recommendation for readers who enjoyed the historical fiction aspect of Peppe as well as the child-father relationship it presented. Liz, the young protagonist, doesn’t know her father very well because he’s been away at WWII, so this story follows their attempts to reconnect.
  2. For those who would like to read more about the immigrant experience, Home at Last by Susan Middleton Elya might be a good fit. Although the setting is more contemporary than Peppe, this book still shows the struggle that many immigrants face when trying to adapt to a new culture.

Book talk ideas: The strength of this story is the illustrations, so I might take one of them and ask the audience to tell me everything they notice about the picture. We could talk about the clothing, the carriages, the lamps, the lights, and anything else they might notice. I would use this conversation to segue into a brief synopsis of the book’s plot, emphasizing the fact that Peppe is doing a job in order to support his family even though his father does not approve of his work.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why doesn’t Peppe’s father want him to be a lamplighter?
  2. Do you think Peppe and his father have a better relationship at the end of the book? Why?
  3. What images in the book let you know that the story takes place in the past? Which illustration is your favorite?

Reason for reading: This was one of the last picture books I read for this assignment. I had already read more than the required fifteen award winning picture books, but I was looking for titles that I felt I could say a lot about and that made me have a strong reaction, regardless of whether that reaction were positive or negative. I had intended to review one of the other books I had read for this project but just didn’t feel I had enough to say about any of those titles for a review of it to be productive, so I consulted more Caldecott lists to see if any titles struck me that I may have overlooked before. Peppe appealed to me because my grandfather, with whom I am very close, is a first generation Italian American, and the turn-of-the-century immigrant story is part of my family’s lore.

Additional information: Peppe the Lamplighter is loosely based on a story that the author heard about her grandfather. Her grandfather emigrated from Italy and eventually owned a chicken market in New York. The names of Peppe’s siblings are the real names of Bartone’s grandfather’s family.

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

  • Title: The First Part Last
  • Author: Angela Johnson
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2003
  • ISBN: 0689849222
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 144
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award winner; Coretta Scott King author award; more here.

Author information: Angela Johnson has written over 40 books and has won numerous awards for her writing, including three Coretta Scott King awards, the Ezra Jack Keats award for new authors, and a Printz award. Her books range from titles for early readers to works for young adults, and her website includes links to all of her titles organized by age group. Her website also includes biographical information about herself and a list of honors and awards that her works have received. In an interview with CCBC, Johnson talks about her books and her writing style. She discusses the challenges of getting into the head of an adolescent boy for The First Part Last and how the dynamic between Bobby and his friends represents the teenage male bond–Bobby’s friends are there for him and support him, but will crack a joke or say something mean when things get too serious in order to diffuse the tension.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. These reviews all suggest that the writing is the strength of the novel; Johnson uses spare sentences to construct her characters and narrative and evoke emotion. They agree that Bobby is a well-developed character and that the issues presented in this novel will resonate with young readers.

Readers annotation: Bobby is your typical sixteen year old boy–except now he has to take care of a baby.

Summary: On his sixteenth birthday, Bobby finds out he is going to be a father. In a narrative that alternates between the past and the present, Bobby explains both the events leading up to his daughter’s birth as well as how his life changes after. He and his baby’s mother, Nia, struggle with deciding whether to keep the baby or give it up for adoption as well as how to cope with having a baby when they are still teenagers themselves. Flashes of Bobby’s life after the birth of his daughter show him exhausted and sleep-deprived, uncertain whether he will be able to manage as a father. In spite of his self-doubt and exhaustion, he loves his daughter, and at the end of the novel, he tells Feather about her mother. Nia suffered from eclampsia when Feather was born and is now in a permanent coma. Bobby decides that he and Feather need a fresh start, so they  move to Heaven, Ohio to build their life together.

Evaluation: I appreciate many aspects of this novel, but I don’t know if it worked as a whole for me. The tone of the book was raw and real, and the immediacy of Bobby’s life and the despair he feels at being a child trying to raise a child is tangible. His voice is honest, and he alternates between being an innocent and naive sixteen year old and being a father who is shouldering a burden that he doesn’t know if he can bear, which seems like an accurate representation of teen parents. Readers will sympathize with Bobby’s plight and root for his success, and their hearts will break for him upon the obvious but tragic revelation that Nia is (essentially) dead. The narrative style of flashing between points in time works well and paints a solid picture of what Bobby’s life was like before and after the birth of Feather. The novel’s use of short chapters and flashes through time makes the story read quickly, but the narrative loses some strength of characterization regarding the secondary characters as well as provides an underdeveloped understanding of Bobby’s life and future plans. This is clearly a narrative choice as opposed to sloppy writing, but the novel left too many unanswered questions for me to really invest in what was happening. That, coupled with the predictability of the plot, were the major weaknesses of the text. However, this book will likely attract reluctant readers due to its short length, quick chapters, and relatable narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The language is beautiful and Bobby’s plight is sympathetic, but the plot is underdeveloped and predictable.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The short chapters and strong narrative voice is sure to attract readers, especially reluctant readers.
  • Appeal factors: urban fiction, teen pregnancy, coping with loss, African-American protagonist.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want another book with emotional gravitas that deals with tough life experiences and features a non-white protagonist might try Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Although Alexie’s novel is more humorous than Johnson’s, the humor is biting and highlights the pain and injustice that the characters suffer, and Alexie delivers an emotional punch with his narrative.
  2. My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt might be a good fit for readers who are looking for another urban fiction title. While the main struggle in Johnson’s book is teen pregnancy, Leavitt focuses on drugs and the downward spiral that they can cause. Leavitt’s protagonist, like Bobby, finds herself trying to protect a younger and more vulnerable child from the harsh realities that she has to live through.

Book talk ideas: Perhaps start the book talk by asking the audience what differences they think there might be between a teenager’s life and a teenager with a baby’s life. Then read a chapter or passage from the book to highlight Bobby’s struggles–possibly one where he talks about his exhaustion or when he spends the night in the hospital with Feather. Then give a brief description of the book and talk about how it switches between past and present tense.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why do you think Bobby’s mother refuses to help with the baby? Do you agree with her decision?
  2. The author flips between the past and the present. Do you think this technique worked? How does it influence the way the story is told?
  3. Do you agree with Bobby’s choice to keep the baby? What would you have done?

Reason for reading: I’ve read fairly extensively when it comes to YA literature. It’s always been an area of interest of mine; last year I took a teen materials class for my degree and during fall semester I held an internship in the YA department of the Mill Valley Library. I made a conscious choice not to reread books I’ve already read for this project, because I feel there are so many valuable titles out there that I haven’t read that it would be a disservice to just reuse books I’m already familiar with. Johnson’s book is a title I probably never would have picked up outside this class. I don’t tend to gravitate towards urban fiction and the cover and book description didn’t do much in convincing me to read it. However, I thought it would be a great title to review precisely because it’s outside my comfort zone.