Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

  • Title: Airborndownload
  • Author: Kenneth Oppel
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0060531827
  • Page Count: 544
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: steampunk
  • Award(s): Printz honor

Author information: Kenneth Oppel is a Canadian author who has written more than a dozen titles for children of all ages. His website contains biographical information as well as frequently asked questions, information about his books, and upcoming news and events. He also has a portion of his website devoted to teachers, where they can find study guides for most of his novels.

Reviews:School Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist gave this title positive reviews. They commented on the fact that this novel is full of action, adventure, and fun, and Kirkus also points out Oppel’s keen attention to detail when describing the workings of the airships. Booklist says that the reader will have to suspend disbelief when confronted with the concept of the cloud cats, but that overall it is an enthralling read.

Summary: Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the Aurora, and since his father’s death it is the only place that feels like home, and his life goal is to one day be her captain. One day, Matt helps rescue a dying man and his airship and the man tells him about magical creatures before he takes his last breath. A year later, during a routine voyage, Matt meets this man’s granddaughter, Kate, who is determined to find what her grandfather saw. After being boarded and shipwrecked by pirates, Matt and Kate find themselves on the same island her grandfather spoke of, and see firsthand the creatures he wrote about. Headstrong Kate goes to increasingly aggressive lengths to document these animals so she will have proof when she returns home, but her antics ultimately jeopardize the entire airship and everyone aboard. A rescue attempt, led by Matt, will determine the fate of the passengers and crew.

Evaluation: I can understand why this book is so popular, but I was a bit surprised to learn that it won a Printz honor. Oppel does a fantastic job of world-building and placing the reader in the narrative, and the pacing is that edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next style that is middle grade gold. I loved the setting and all of the descriptive passages, and I also enjoyed the fact that it felt like an old-school, classic adventure story a la Treasure Island, but with an updated backdrop. However, I didn’t think the characters were very compelling. Matt struck me as being very one-note: most of his interior thoughts are about how much he loves his airship and feels at home on it, which is important for character development up to a point, but I feel like that’s all we got from him. Kate bothered me even more. It feels as though Oppel needed to fill his Strong Female Character quota and so he created Kate, but she just ends up coming across as stubborn, selfish, and short-sighted. There is much to like here, and I know exactly the type of reader I could give this book to, but it sadly didn’t resonate with me the way I had hoped it would.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The writing and descriptive passages of the book are engaging, but the plot is predictable and the characters feel more like caricatures than real people, especially Kate in her role as Strong Female Character (who actually ruins everything).
  • Popularity: 4/5  Readers looking for light action and adventure will enjoy this title. The steampunk setting, cloud cats, pirates, narrow escapes and ultimate triumph make this a title that’s easy to recommend, especially to younger fantasy/sci-fi readers who might not be ready for something heavier yet.
  • Appeal factors: steampunk, pirates, mythical creatures, action/adventure.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is an obvious choice for readers who enjoyed this book. Both titles are set in a steampunk alternate past where airships rule the skies. Both have likeable young male protagonists and plucky female characters who aren’t content with their social roles. Leviathan has more of a war/political bent, whereas Airborn is more of a traditional pirate/adventure story.
  2. Another good steampunk recommendation would be Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. Hester is clearly more of a badass female character than Kate, but there are some parallels between them, as well as between Tom and Matt, the male protagonists. Airborn is the lighter of the two, as Reeve doesn’t hesitate to kill or hurt his main characters, but both books showcase children/teens trying to save their homes and way of life (with varying levels of success or enlightenment along the way).
  3. Readers who enjoyed the traditional pirate/shipwreck story would likely enjoy a classic such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Pirates, swashbuckling, mysterious clues in the form of journals and maps, and tropical islands abound in both titles.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does Matt feel so connected to the Aurora?
  2. Both Matt and Kate are limited by their circumstances: Matt is poor, and Kate is a girl. How do they work to overcome these obstacles? Do you think they get what they want by the end of the book?
  3. Why do you think Oppel decided to set this book in an alternate reality past? Does this work? Why or why not?
  4. On several occasions in Airborn, Matt disobeys the orders of his captain. What motivates him to do so?
  5. Is Matt a hero?
  6. Do you like the character of Kate? Is she strong? Selfish?
  7. In what ways are Matt and the cloud cat similar?

Reason for reading: This is one of those titles that has been on my to-read list for years. I like steampunk (Mortal Engines is one of my favorite young YA books) and Airborn has gotten pretty positive reviews from both my co-workers and the online community. What finally pushed this book to the top of my reading pile is the fact that I’m hosting a middle school book club at the library, and this is the selection for this month. This particular group also really loves steampunk and science fiction (we’ve done both Mortal Engines and Leviathan with them), so I expect this will also get a good response from them (but I will report back).

**Reporting back** I had 11 middle schoolers (most of them rising 6th graders) who attended our book club event for this title. 8 of them liked the book, 1 did not, and 2 didn’t finish it. The ones who enjoyed it liked the heavy action and the humor of the book, whereas the girl who didn’t thought it was predictable and didn’t feel engaged with the characters.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first in a triology. Airborn was optioned for a movie in 2012 with Oppel to write the preliminary script and be an executive producer, but I was unable to find any current information about this project.

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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.

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.

Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins

  • Title: Repossessed
  • Author: A. M. Jenkins
  • Publisher: HarperTeen
  • Year Published: 2008
  • ISBN: 0060835702
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 240
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: paranormal fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: A. M. Jenkins is (and this surprised me) a woman! Her first career was as a high school math teacher until she quit to write full time. She has now written many YA titles. Her blog is updated a few times per month and includes details about her daily life, updates on her writing projects, and general thoughts and musings that she wants to share with her fans. The blog can be scattered, as the author says it helps her to talk through her ideas when working on a project and she likes to put all of her thoughts down on her blog to help her process them. Another YA author, Cynthia Smith, interviewed Jenkins on her blog about a few of her books, including Repossessed. In the interview, she says that the idea for the novel came to her quickly, but the challenge was making the demon’s experience interesting enough that readers would want to learn more and continue reading the book. She also says that creating the voice for Kiriel was easy because it is very similar to her own, natural voice. This interview also asked Jenkins what advice she would give her younger writer self (none–she wouldn’t have listened) and what upcoming projects she was working on at the time.

Reviews: Both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly gave this novel positive reviews. Both publications mentioned that Kiriel’s voice was funny and heartwarming and that his childlike sense of wonder at the world makes this book an enjoyable read. Kirkus comments that “Kiriel’s own search for meaning and direction from his own realm in this new life packs an intriguingly deep wallop” and Publisher’s Weekly echoes this sentiment by suggesting that Kiriel’s crisis of faith will mirror teenagers’ own uncertainties. Both reviews agree that this book will resonate with teens and they will be eager to read this novel.

Readers annotation: What would happen if a demon decided to take a vacation from Hell and live as a teenage boy instead?

Summary: Kiriel has spent centuries as a demon of hell, helping to torture the souls who have be damned for eternity. The problem is that after eons of the same work, Hell can become pretty boring. He decides he needs a vacation, so he possesses the body of a teenager named Shaun who is about to die after stepping into oncoming traffic while not paying attention. Because Kiriel is determined to experience everything he can before he is dragged back to Hell and punished for his actions, he makes significant changes in Shaun’s life regarding how he treats his family, his schoolwork, and his social relationships. Kiriel-as-Shaun begins being nicer to his brother and spending more time with him, tries to seduce Lane, a girl from school, so that he can experience sex, and stands up to the school bully, Reed, in an attempt to save him centuries in Hell for his mean behavior. During the course of his “vacation”, Kiriel learns a lot about himself and the beauty of human nature.

Evaluation: The strength of this novel lies in the narrative voice. Kiriel is a very sypathetic demon–his explanations for why he wants to leave Hell in the first place are logical and hilarious, his wonderment at even the most mudane things in life is endearing, and his decisions to help others, even when those decisions are motivated in part by selfishness, make him a relatable character and one that the reader is rooting for. Jenkins uses the premise of the novel to her advantage, finding the absurd in our everyday ations and highlighting them through the eyes of somebody who has never experienced them before, such as Kiriel’s attempts to seduce his classmate Lane. This novel also does a good job making Kiriel’s character development a gradual affair; he begins the story completely self-absorbed and by the end he understands the beauty of human relationships and connecting to another person. The weakness of the novel is that it often felt didactic and heavy handed. The morals that Jenkins was trying to demonstrate were obvious and at times it felt like she was hitting the reader over the head with humankind’s need to be kind to one another and develop meaningful connections. This could have been portrayed more subtley and to greater effect. In spite of this flaw, the book still remains entertaining and accessible while prompting the reader to think about his or her own life and appreciate the small things in the world.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The premise of this novel is clever and well-executed, the writing is witty and the narrative voice strong, and Kiriel is a sympathetic character. However, the moral is too obvious and the path the writer took to get to that moral was predicable and slow at times.
  • Popularity4/5  This is a great pick for reluctant readers. As mentioned above, the premise of this novel is unusual and will attract a wide range of readers, and Kiriel’s voice is a perfect blend of snarky and sincere for a teenage audience. Teenagers will enjoy Kiriel’s exploration of the world (especially in the realm of sexuality) and will be encouraged to examine their own lives based on the way the characters in the novel treat each other and themselves.
  • Appeal factors: demons, supernatural beings, relationship building, examination of the world with fresh eyes.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a natural recommendation for those readers who liked this novel. Although the stakes are higher in Good Omens, as the fate of the world is at stake rather than just the life and happiness of one demon and one teenage boy, both novels showcase supernatural creatures (demons and angels) interacting with the human world, and both use humor and sarcasm in order to do so.
  2. Readers who enjoyed reading about a demon in the human world may also like Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series. This series of five books imagines that Death, Fate, Time, War, and Nature are roles that are taken on by humans and held for centuries, and these are responsible for all of the major events that occur on earth. As with Repossessed, these incarnations often have to interact with humans and must deal with the consquences of this such as falling in love and developing relationships.

Book talk ideas: The premise of this novel is a huge draw to the book, so start by telling readers to imagine that a demon from Hell is bored and wants to experience human life, so he takes over the body of a teenage boy. Explain the difficulties that this could present to the demon and ask them to imagine what it would be like to experience  little things that are taken for granted, such as eating breakfast, for the first time. This book also has a strong narrative voice and might benefit from reading an exerpt from the first chapter so that potential readers can get an understanding of how Kiriel talks and the type of humor that is employed throughout the novel.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • “Knowing doesn’t hold a candle to doing.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
  • In what ways did having Kiriel narrate the story enhance the novel? How would a third person narration be different?
  • Did you think the ending was satisfying? Did you think the ending was appropriate?

Reason for reading: I’m a sucker for paranormal fiction, and as soon as I read the synopsis for this book I wanted to check it out. I don’t know if it met my expectations, as I’ve read many good novels that have demons, gods, or other supernatural beings in them that gave the subject more thoughtful treatment, but I did find the book interesting. I believe this would be a great title to recommend to reluctant readers, due to its short page count, its sarcastic and funny narrative voice, and its supernatural subject matter.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

  • Title: Code Name Verity
  • Author: Elizabeth Wein
  • Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 1423152883
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 352
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book, Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards Honor Book, Golden Kite Award Honor Book, Shortlisted for the 2013 CILIP Carnegie Award

Author information: Wein has written many books for young adults, but until Code Name Verity, her YA books were set in Arthurian England. Her website can be found here, and it includes biographical information, tour and appearance dates, bibliographic information, and a link to her blog that talks about her work and her daily life. Huffington Post conducted an interview with Wein in which she discusses her process of writing Code Name Verity, books that have inspired her work, and upcoming projects.

Reviews: Code Name Verity is one of only six books in 2012 that received starred reviews from all six major publications for youth (The Horn Book, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books), Kirkus called it “unforgettable and wrenching”, and all the reviews highlighted the strong narrative voice and the compelling, twisting plot that keeps readers engaged.

Readers annotation: A plane crashes over Nazi-occupied Germany. Two best friends are inside. Can they survive?

Summary: “Verity” (real name Julie) is an Allied spy who is captured by Nazis when her plane crashes in Germany. Her Nazi captors force her to write her story to reveal important military secrets, so she writes about her past, from meeting and befriending a female pilot named Maddie, to the events that led her to the Nazis. Interwoven with this story of the past is the story of what is happening to her as a prisoner of the Nazis, who threaten and torture her. The second half of the novel is told by Julie’s best friend Maddie, who was also with her in the plane when it crashed. Maddie tries to save Julie from prison, and it is quickly revealed that much of Julie’s written confession in the first half of the novel is full of lies to trick the Nazis. Maddie’s attempts at rescue take a torturous turn at the end of the novel when, in order to spare Julie from further torture, she honors her request for death by shooting her.

Evaluation: From the first sentence of this book (“I am a coward.”), I was hooked. The narrative voice of the first half of the novel is believable and sympathetic, alternating between raw confessions of Julie’s personal failings, tortured confessions of military secrets, and musings on her life before the war. The complexity of Julie’s character only deepens in the second half of the novel when the reader realizes that most of what she said was untrue. Readers will find themselves invested in Julie and Maddie as if they were real people, not just characters in a novel. The historical detail enriches the novel and makes the setting come alive, and the themes explored in the book linger long after it has reached its conclusion.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The plotline is compelling and the narrative voice is stunning. Both Julie and Maddie are fully realized characters who the reader will fall in love with, and the prose will make readers want to pick this book up and reread it many times.
  • Popularity4/5  It pains me to give this anything less than the 5 I feel it so rightly deserves, but as much as it will captivate any reader who picks it up, it may not appeal to some male readers due to the fact that both protagonists are female.
  • Appeal factors: Dual narrators, blurred lines between truth and lies and hero and villain, and girls flying planes and just generally being bada$$ are all strong draws that make this a book you don’t want to put down.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak would be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the WWII setting and the unique narrative perspective. The Book Thief, narrated by Death, follows a complex female character that may appeal to readers who loved Maddie and Julie.
  2.  Readers who want another title that deals with the horrors of war as well as the theme of honesty and lies may like Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down. This novel is based on a true story and looks at the Cambodian genocide, so could be a good recommendation for readers with a more serious bent.

Book talk ideas: It’s very hard to improve upon the copy written on the cover of this book (see reason for reading section below), so lead with that. Emphasize the themes of friendship, sacrifice, and truth, and what those might mean in a context where human life is on the line.  Potentially include an excerpt (maybe of Julie’s list of things she’s afraid of) to give potential readers an idea of the narrative voice and draw them in.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • “I have told the truth.” How much of Julie’s story do you believe? Maddie’s?
  • How did the shift between narrators enhance the book? How would it have been different if the story had only been told by one of the girls?
  • Is Anna Engel a hero or a villain? Somewhere in between?
  • Were you satisfied with the way the book ended?

Reason for reading: I really enjoy reading about World War II, whether in a fiction or non-fiction capacity. I think the entire range of the human experience can be found in WWII, from the greatest stories of triumph to depictions of the basest, cruelest parts of human nature. Because I’ve read quite a bit in this genre, I was very interested in the perspective this book offered–two young, female protagonists who took an active role in the war against Germany. Plus, it’s difficult to turn away from a book with jacket copy like this: Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

Additional relevant information: Wein has her pilot’s license, which is one reason why Maddie’s experience is so believable. Wein is following Code Name Verity with the recently released Rose Under Fire, which is also about a female flyer in WWII. She is captured by Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. The character of Maddie is revisited in this novel, and the book received positive reviews.