The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

  • Title: The 5th Wave
  • Author: Rick Yancey
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 0399162410
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 592
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: science fiction
  • Award(s): New York Times Bestseller; YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults; Carnegie Medal in Literature Nominee

Author information: Rick Yancey has written numerous titles for teens and adults. His websiteincludes a biography about himself, links to all of his titles, contact information and appearance dates, and a link to his blog. His blog only has three posts, but all of them are from 2013, which means that it may just be a recent blog that is updated infrequently. One of the posts was a list of twelve things the reader didn’t know about the author. His website also includes his Twitter feed, which is updated regularly. His most recent posts have to do with the casting of a film adaptation of The 5th Wave as well as information and book trailers for upcoming and more recent books.

Reviews: This title was given starred reviews by Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly as well as a Perfect Ten from VOYA and a favorable review from School Library Journal. SLJ comments on the fact that this novel has strong multi-dimensional characters and is fast paced with many plot twists and turns. Multiple reviews mention that its dystopian plot and setting will appeal to young adults, especially fans of The Hunger Games. Kirkus says:

The 500-plus-page novel surges forward full throttle with an intense, alarming tone full of danger, deceit and a touch of romance. The plot flips back and forth with so much action and so many expert twists that readers will constantly question whom they can trust and whom they can’t. Best of all, everything feels totally real, and that makes it all the more riveting.

Summary: Cassie is a teenage girl who is fighting for survival in a dystopian Earth that is systematically being attacked by an alien race. They have sent four waves of destruction to kill humankind: an EMP wave that disrupted and disabled all electronics, from phones and computers to car and airplane technology. The second wave was a huge metalic rod dropped from the sky that caused massive tsunamis and wiped out all of the coastal coutnries and states. Following that was the third wave, a plague carried by bird that killed the vast majority of the human population. The fourth wave was the Silencers, human-looking assassins that have been tasked with picking off survivors. Cassie has survived the first four waves and is trying to locate her brother, from whom she was separated after the third wave. Another teenager, Ben, has also survived the waves and has been taken to a military camp to train to annihilate the aliens and reclaim the Earth. Both Cassie and Ben learn that nothing is as it seems, and that they must constantly be wary of trusting others.

Evaluation: This title truly packs a double whammy: a gripping plot and beautiful, evocative writing. Yancey does a tremendous job of creating a bleak and terrifying dystopian world as seen through the eyes of two young survivors. Cassie’s character seems realistic: she tough and hardened by everything she’s experienced, but she has moments of panic and vulnerability that elevate her above a stereotypical “strong female character” trope. The themes of trust, family, promises, and survival that recur throughout the novel add a deeper layer to what could easily have been a campy book and make this title a gem for book clubs. And although the premise of this book is aliens committing genocide against humankind, it absolutely makes the reader think about other, actual instances of genocide and mass murder that have occurred throughout human history. While the romantic element of the novel wasn’t my favorite plot thread of the book, I do think it worked and was plausible given the extreme circumstances Cassie endured. There are some plot points that were perhaps easy to predict, but there are enough twists in the novel to keep even the most experienced reader on her toes.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Not only does the plot draw in readers from the first page and make it difficult to set the book down, but the writing is beautiful and poignant and would hold up to multiple readings. The 5th Wave reflects on many of the most fundamental themes of being human–love, trust, survival, family, loneliness–which is guaranteed to be thought provoking and generate discussion.
  • Popularity: 5/5  The dystopian setting, compelling characters, fast plot, and of course, the premise of alien invasion is sure to pique the interest of many young adults. This is a novel that, once finished, begs to be recommended to friends or discussed in a book club.
  • Appeal factors: aliens, violence, lyrical writing, survival, dystopia, war, trilogies, strong female characters.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  I am Number Four by Pitticus Lore would be a good suggestion for readers who don’t shy away from violence and like the concept of a murderous race of aliens set on destruction. While Number Four incorporates teenage aliens with superpowers and can be more campy than Yancey’s title, both have a lot of action and are fast paced.
  2. Readers who liked reading about Cassie’s struggles for survival may appreciate the struggles of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Both leading characters have witnessed unspeakable horrors and injustices, and they are both motivated by their love and desire to protect their younger siblings.
  3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card also offers a look at humanity vs. aliens. The military training and brainwashing that Ender endures is akin to what Sam, Cassie’s brother, goes through at the Others’ training facility.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you agree with Cassie’s argument that “only the strong” remain by the time the 5th wave hits? Why or why not?
  2. Which wave did you find the scariest? Why? Was there a particular moment or scene that you found particularly horrifying?
  3. Cassie is compared to a mayfly, why? If you compared yourself to an insect, what would you be and why?
  4. Discuss how trust is built and destroyed in this book. How do you think the sowing of suspicion plays into the Others’ plan to destroy humanity?

Reason for reading: I will admit that I probably have a bias regarding this book. I love science fiction and dystopias, and I think that Rick Yancey is one of greatest YA horror writers alive today. That being said, I had very high expectations regarding this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Because of the nature of being a youth librarian, I’ll often read the first title in a trilogy or series and feel like I’ve gotten enough from that first book that I can confidently recommend the series or author to the appropriate audience without reading on. The Fifth Wave is one of the rare books that not only got me to read the second in the series (The Infinite Sea), but it got me to do so the very next day. I’ve become a huge 5th Wave fangirl and am eagerly anticipating the release of the movie and final book.

Additional relevant information: Chunk Wendig (another YA author) interviewed Rick Yancey about The 5th Wave on his blog. Yancey answers questions about his favorite paragraph in the book, how he got the idea for the novel, and what the most difficult part of writing it was. It’s a very quick interview, but one that fans of the book will enjoy, as it adds insight and texture to the novel they already love.

This novel also has a pretty fabulous book trailer. A film is set to release January 2016, but currently there is no trailer for the movie.

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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.

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.

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.

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

  • Title: The Monstrumologist
  • Author: Rick Yancey
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 1416984488
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 448
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: horror
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Rick Yancey has written numerous titles for teens and adults. His website includes a biography about himself, links to all of his titles, contact information and appearance dates, and a link to his blog. His blog only has three posts, but all of them are from 2013, which means that it may just be a recent blog that is updated infrequently. One of the posts was a list of twelve things the reader didn’t know about the author. His website also includes his Twitter feed, which is updated regularly. His most recent posts have to do with the casting of a film adaptation of another of his YA novels, The Fifth Wave.

Reviews: Booklist, VOYA, and School Library Journal all gave this title positive reviews. All of these reviews talk about the compelling nature of the narrative and how well Yancey does horror and gore. Booklist also comments upon the strength of the portrayal of the relationship between Will Henry and Doctor Warthrop and the complexities that lie therein.  All of the reviews mentioned the sophistication of this novel that takes it beyond a traditional horror story, which VOYA echoes, saying “This book is perfect for readers who want their nightmares in a literary package.”

Readers annotation: Flesh-eating creatures threaten to consume the residents of Will Henry’s town. Is it too late to stop them?

Summary: Will Henry is an orphan who has been taken in by and apprenticed to Dr. Warthrop, a monstrumologist who employed his father for years. One night, a grave robber brings the Doctor the corpse of a woman being eaten by a monster called anthropophagi, and thus begins Dr. Warthrop and Will Henry’s search for information about the origin of the creatures as well as a quest to eradicate them. They discover that Dr. Warthrop’s father had the flesh-eating monsters brought over by boat, and that they escaped from their enclosure on the ship and killed the entire crew, save the captain who was subsequently committed to an asylum. The doctor and Will Henry, along with another monstrumologist and the local authorities, devise a plan to destroy the monsters, and spend a harrowing night fighting more than two dozen of the creatures. They follow the matriarch of the monster family into her den, where they are able to kill her and eradicate the threat of the creatures. Both Will Henry and the doctor survive the encounter, but others, including a teenage boy who had lost his family to the beasts, were not so lucky. The story concludes with the promise of further adventures.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The writing style was long-winded and could drag at times, but this is mostly due to the conceit that the account was written by Will Henry, who grew up in the mid 1800s. In spite of the prose, the plot moved quickly and the action scenes were vivid and captivating. Yancey made both Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop into convincing, complex characters with troubled back-stories, and the reader relates to Will Henry and even sympathizes with the trials that the doctor has been through and pities him for his difficult childhood. The anthropophagi are revolting and terrifying, making this one of the most spine chilling books I’ve encountered in a long while. Because of the frequency of violence and gore, this title may not appeal to more sensitive readers. The resolution of the conflict is satisfying but leaves room for further stories about Will Henry, which readers will be eager to pick up.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  This book was suspenseful and fast-paced, and the characters were complex and well developed. The prose occasionally becomes cumbersome, but this is easily forgivable.
  • Popularity: 3/5 This book may be too macabre and violent for some readers, as there is quite a bit of death and gore throughout the novel. Readers who enjoy more sinister books will find this to be delightfully spine-chilling and a gripping read.
  • Appeal factors: monsters, violence, supernatural horror.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who can’t get enough of flesh-eating monsters will love Demitria Lunetta’s In the After. This story follows Amy, a survivor of an apocalyptic infestation of creatures, as she fights for her life and her freedom.
  2. Rotters by Daniel Kraus is another good pick for readers of the macabre. Unlike Yancey’s book, Rotters does not delve into the supernatural, rather it focuses on a teenage boy who begins to learn his father’s trade of grave-robbing. The dark and disturbing tone of the novel nicely matches that of The Monstrumologist.

Book talk ideas: Start by asking readers, with a show of hands, how many of them like scary stories. Ask if any of them watch popular shows like The Walking Dead or like movies such as World War Z. Let them know if they enjoy their stories with a lot of violence and gore, this is the perfect series for them. Explain that The Monstrumologist deals with a strange creature called the anthropophagi, who feed exclusively on humans, and the fact that Will Henry and his mentor have found a colony in their small town. If they are unable to stop the monsters, untold numbers of people will die.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How do you think Dr. Warthrop really feels about Will Henry?
  2. Are the anthropophagi evil, or are their eating habits just part of their nature? Who or what is truly evil in this story?
  3. Why does Will Henry stay with Dr. Warthrop?
  4. The novel is framed as the journal of Will Henry, found upon his death. How does this impact the understanding of the novel?

Reason for reading: I took a teen materials class last year, and this title was on my list of books I wanted to read but wasn’t able to get around too. I think I had mistakenly believed it would be slow paced–from what I had read of the description it seemed to be in the same vein as Frankenstein, which, while a great read, also requires a mental commitment that I wasn’t ready for at the time. I checked this book out over a month ago and couldn’t get past the first ten pages, but when I revisited it two days ago, I finished the whole novel.

Additional relevant information: There are currently four books in the Monstrumologist series, the most recent of which, The Final Descent, was published in September of 2013. There have also been talks of a movie version of the first book being created.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

  • Title: Eleanor and Park
  • Author: Rainbow Rowell
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1250012570
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 336
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor book; more here.

Author information: Rainbow Rowell is the author of two other novels besides Eleanor and Park as well as a new forthcoming novel to be released in July 2014. Her website’s homepage includes new blog posts, her Twitter feed, and recent news. Her website also includes links to information about each of her books, her biography, a list of upcoming events, and praise for her works. In one of her blog posts, she addresses a frequent question she gets in regard to Eleanor’s weight, and discusses that Eleanor is “fat”, but that this doesn’t mean that Park can’t find her attractive. She says, “Park thinks Eleanor is beautiful. He loves her for who she is on the inside, and he loves her for who she is on the outside. He wants to kiss her. He wants to have sex with her. And it isn’t because he’s brave and deep — it’s because he’s attracted to her”.

Reviews: Booklist and Kirkus gave this title starred reviews and School Library Journal also gave it a favorable review. All of these sources applaud Rowell’s use of dual narrative and the multi-dimensional nature of the characters. John Green gave a glowing review of this book in the New York Times, saying that “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book”. He also talks about the strength of Eleanor and Park’s relationship in spite of the obstacles they face, and how Rowell presents an authentic look at young love.

Readers annotation: Eleanor and Park could not be more different, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Can they stay together when it seems the world wants them apart?

Summary: Eleanor is the new kid at school who dresses funny and is overweight. Park is Korean-American whose father has lived in the town his entire life, but met his mother while serving in Korea and brought her back with him. They meet one day on the bus, when Park reluctantly lets Eleanor sit next to him. Gradually they become friends; Park lends her comic books to read and makes her mix tapes. They start to date, but their different social and economic circles proves challenging. Eleanor’s stepfather is an abusive alcoholic and Eleanor lives in constant fear of him in her unsafe home. Park is preoccupied with what people at school think and doesn’t understand why Eleanor gets mad at him or cuts him off for seemingly no reason. They persevere with their relationship and fall deeper in love, but things reach an intolerable point when Eleanor’s stepfather destroys her personal belongings and writes a foul message to her, causing her to realize that he’s been her invisible tormentor throughout the school year. She understands that she has to get out of her home and go somewhere safe, so Park, with the approval of his family, drives her to her uncle’s home. The distance between them proves painful and Eleanor cuts off contact with Park for a year, but the end of the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Park receiving his first postcard from Eleanor since she left.

Evaluation: One difficulty I had with reading this book is that I had read quite a bit about it before I read the book itself, which I think colored my approach to the book. With that being disclosed, I thought the book did a good job creating two characters who were flawed and had a lot of uncertainties and showing how these two characters developed a relationship in spite of (or because of) these imperfections. Rowell portrays Eleanor’s home situation in a stark and heartbreaking fashion, allowing the reader to understand what is going on with her on a personal level, making her bullying at school that much more tragic. The dual narrative perspectives allow the readers to get a glimpse inside both lovers’ heads and have a better understanding of what each character is feeling and why, and the prose of the novel is witty and sharp while also being brutally honest. The major fault I found in this novel was its portrayal of minority characters. I think Rowell does a good job addressing the racism that minorities in this town are subjected to as well as the complicated identity and self-esteem issues that Park has as a result of them, but many of her minority characters fall flat. The two black students who hang out with Eleanor seem like they are only there so Rowell can have black characters, and their potential is thrown away–the only dialogue we hear them speak is when they talk about boys or the stupid white bitches at the school. Park’s mom also toes the line between character and caricature due to her broken English, her job as a stylist, and the fact that her husband brought her from Korea. In spite of this, the book resonates as an honest story about young love and the terrible obstacles some teenagers have to face in their lives.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The writing is elegant, the main characters are believable and likable, and the situations the characters face are horrifying yet not outside of the realm of possibility of things a teenager might have to face. Some of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, but the strength of the plot and the endearing nature of Park and Eleanor and their love story is enough to carry this novel.
  • Popularity: 4/5 This novel doesn’t feel like a traditional love story because of the heavy issues that Eleanor has to deal with at home, so it will appeal to readers of the romance genre as well as those who don’t typically read romance books. Both protagonists are smart and their voices are sympathetic and keep the reader engaged with what happens to them, and the story of Eleanor’s home life will appeal to more serious readers. This book may not find a wide audience in the male population, but male readers who are sensitive and open to reading different perspectives will find much to enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: witty protagonists, dual narration, romance, family issues and abuse.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Again, I would recommend John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for readers who enjoyed Eleanor and Park’s witty voices and unconventional love story. Both romantic pairs have to deal with falling and staying in love when life throws terrible obstacles in their paths. For Eleanor and Park, this is familial abuse. For Hazel and Augustus, this obstacle is cancer.
  2. For readers who want another title that deals with difficult home situations, alcohol abuse, and questions of self-esteem and identity, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both books feature dark humor, and Alexie’s protagonist, Arnold Spirit, deals with the similar feelings of helplessness and self-loathing that Eleanor experiences.

Book talk ideas: This book is rife with good quotes, so start with a piece of dialogue to pique readers’ interest, possibly the conversation about high school love lasting that mentions Romeo and Juliet and Bon Jovi. Talk about how different these characters are but how they fall in love with each other anyway, and talk about the struggles Eleanor faces both at school with bullies and at home with her stepfather. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What role does Eleanor’s mother play in her life? Why doesn’t she try to protect her children?
  2. Was the love story between Eleanor and Park believable? Why or why not?
  3. How did you feel about the portrayal of Park’s mother? Did you think she was a strong character or did she fall flat?
  4. Park has a difficult relationship with his dad. Why do you think this is?
  5. What role does music play in this novel? Did setting it in the 1980s and using 1980s music enhance the book? If so, how?
  6. Were you satisfied with the ending? What did you think the postcard said? What do you think happens next?

Reason for reading: I’m actually using this book in a teen book club at the library this summer, so reading it served a dual purpose both for this class and for my work. I chose this book for the book club because of its popularity; I felt that this selection may encourage teens to read it because they had heard so much about it from friends, and those who have already read it may attend so they can talk about how they felt. I am worried that we won’t have a large number of males attend due to the nature of the book, but I do think that our teen base includes some thoughtful young men who would be willing to step out of their comfort zone and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.

Additional relevant information: When researching books to choose for my teen book club this summer, I read quite a few reviews about the portrayal of race in the novel. Bloggers at Respiring Thoughts and Clear Eyes, Full Shelves gave thoughtful commentary on this subject, focusing both on the casual racism of Eleanor and other white characters as well as the deeper problems associated with the portrayal of Park and his family. I had read these reviews prior to reading the novel and they definitely impacted how I read the book and my opinions of it, and I think they raise some valid points about how flawed the examination of race is in this book.

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

  • Title: Why We Broke Up
  • Author: Daniel Handler
  • Illustrator: Maira Kalman
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0316127256
  • List Price: $19.99
  • Page Count: 368
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Daniel Handler has written books for all age ranges, notably the A Series of Unfortunate Events series under the pen name Lemony Snickett. He has a website at lemonysnicket.com, but the link did not appear to be working when I checked. The Steven Barclay Agency has a biography about Handler and talks about his early life as well as his current projects. NPR’s Fresh Air did an interview with Handler, in which he discussed his use of big words in his books, saying: “You see failed vocabulary in the adult world so often, and it’s often because once you reach a certain age you’re kind of embarrassed to go look up a word if you don’t know what it means. And then you just start using it however it feels right. … I think children are less embarrassed to go look up the truth.” He also discusses his interest in the music world and his musical influences during this interview.

Reviews: This book received favorable reviews from Booklist, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly. Each of these reviews comment on the fact that this novel is a typical teenage heartbreak story that is written in a fresh style with a compelling narrative voice. Booklist admits in the first sentence of the review that even though this is a well-known story, what makes this novel special is “all in the delivery”. The reviews also recognize the authenticity of the book and how well Handler captures the emotion of first love and first heartbreak.

Readers annotation: Min Green and Ed Slaterton broke up, and Min wants him to know why.

Summary: Min and Ed are from completely different high school social circles—she’s an opinionated movie buff and he’s a popular basketball star, but they fall in love anyway. She chronicles their entire relationship, from meeting at her best friend’s birthday party, to their first date seeing an old movie he had never heard of, to a big Halloween bonfire where she feels very out of place. Ultimately Min loses her virginity to him, against the advice of her friends. After that happens, Min discovers that Ed has been cheating on her for the majority of their relationship, and Min has her heart broken. Min’s narrative takes the form of a letter written to Ed that she dropped on his doorstep along with a box of objects she collected throughout their relationship. Each object corresponds to an important moment for the two of them and explains why they dated and why they broke up.

Evaluation: Min and Ed aren’t perfectly sympathetic characters–Min is a know-it-all and overly dramatic and self-absorbed, and Ed is clueless and sneaky and also self-absorbed. Although these flaws may bother some readers, they are also what makes the novel feel true. While reading the book, I was reminded of how urgent those feelings of first love can be, and I think Handler conveyed this beautifully through his characters. Min and Ed resonate with readers because they are honest portrayals of the intensity of teenage emotions and the complexities of young relationships. Arranging the narrative around objects enhances the immediacy of the story and allows readers a real glimpse into Min’s world.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  This book takes a subject matter that could easily be eye-rollingly, cloyingly trite and infuses it with energy and honesty, making it a true depiction of what it means to fall in love for the first time. Some of Min’s ramblings go on for too long and sometimes the characters make the reader want to throw something, but that’s the beauty of the characters–they feel real.
  • Popularity3/5  Although this is not a standard love story and Handler’s treatment of the subject matter makes it a book that both boys and girls could enjoy, this title probably will not appeal to a male audience just based on its plot. Readers, male and female, who do give it a chance will find a unique story about love and heartbreak that will resonate.
  • Appeal factors: witty narrators, unusual storytelling format, romance, break-ups.

Read-alikes: 

  1. For readers who like unconventional love stories, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars may be a good fit. Like Min, Green’s narrator Hazel is a smart, self-aware, teenage girl who finds love in an unlikely situation. By the end of the novel, Hazel has to cope with losing her first love and learns a lot about herself in the process.

Book talk ideas: One of the strengths of the novel is its storytelling format and how the book is set up so that objects in Min’s break-up box introduce the  next segment of the story. Ask readers to think about (or maybe share) an object that has importance to them and what stories they have that are associated with that object. Discuss how we as humans connect our feelings to objects, and then talk about how Handler has based his book on these significant artifacts of a relationship, and each one furthers the narration to its inevitable climax.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Min and Al are best friends, but by the end of the book it seems that they might be something more. Do you think this is a good idea? Are Min and Al a good fit?
  2. Do you think Min is a good narrator? Is she a believable character?
  3. How do you feel the pictures enhanced the story?

Reason for reading: I’ve read a lot of Daniel Handler’s work for different age groups (early readers, middle readers, adults), and I love his voice. This seemed like a natural book to read for this project because I wasn’t aware that he also wrote YA and I was curious to see how it would compare to his books for younger and older readers.

Additional relevant information: Daniel Handler created a blog called The Why We Broke Up ProjectThis site, based on the book, is a forum in which people can share their own break-up stories, which Handler will occassionally comment on. There is also a section devoted to celebrity break-up stories, including stories from Brian Selznick, Sara Shepard, Neil Gaiman, and David Levithan.