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.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

  • Title: Inside Out and Back Again
  • Author: Thanhha Lai
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0061962783
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 272
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; Newbery Honor

Author information: Inside Out and Back Again is Thanhha Lai’s first novel. She does not seem to have a website, but it is possible to find information about her on the HarperCollins website. This includes a short biography, her educational experience, hobbies and interests, and a link to information about her book. The National Book Foundation has an interview with Lai on their website, in which she talks about the power of language in terms of self-expression and her hope that her novel will inspire others who have gone through similar experiences to tell their stories.

Reviews: This book received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. These reviews agree that the format of the novel is innovative and is one of its greatest strengths, and they agree that Lai’s portrayal of Hà is moving and provides an honest depiction of a young Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Three of these reviews cite the humorous elements of Hà’s voice and how this provides a strong balance to the more serious and darker tones of the novel.

Readers annotation: Growing up in Vietnam during the war may be tough, but Hà thinks that living in Alabama might be worse.

Summary: Hà has spent her entire childhood in Saigon, but as the war increasingly threatens her family’s safety and way of life, her mother decides that they need to escape. Hà’s father, a Navy sailor, has been missing in action for years, but one of his friends tells her family about a ship that will be leaving Saigon and helps them flee Vietnam on it. After a long and uncomfortable voyage, their ship is rescued and Hà’s family decides to move to America. Their sponsor, a Christian Alabama man, lets them live with him and Hà and her brothers start trying to integrate into life in the South. Hà is not used to being “stupid” and not able to keep up in class, and many of the other students tease or threaten her. Hà eventually finds an ally in her neighbor Miss Washington, who tutors her and helps ease her transition into American life, and the novel ends with Hà and her family hopeful about the future and ready to build a new life in America.

Evaluation: The format of this book is the most obvious strength of the novel.  Hà’s story is told as a series of poems that are roughly in chronological order, and these poems are beautiful when taken individually, but they become a tour de force when combined. At first, the format can seem daunting, and the reader may not think that a strong narrative will be able to form with such a limited number of words, but the power of Hà’s voice and story transcend the format of the narrative and create a compelling plot. Hà is a sympathetic and relatable character, and readers will root for her success as well as feel badly for her troubles. The story also addresses themes that any child (or adult) can relate to, such as feeling like an outcast, being bullied, and being nostalgic for the past. Hà is a fully developed character who is portrayed with honesty; she is shown as being strong and smart and hardworking, but also as being conflicted and occasionally cruel and a bully herself. Aside from having a compelling plot and being written as heartbreakingly gorgeous poetry, this novel also provides a much-needed look at an immigrant’s difficulties adapting to life in a America, and does so with a fresh and unforgettable perspective.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is unique both in its subject matter and the format with which it tells Hà’s story. Readers will find themselves lingering over each short poem as well as absorbed in the larger narrative.
  • Popularity: 3/5  Although the poetry format of this novel is highly accessible and arguably easier for reluctant readers than a novel based in prose, some readers may be turned off at the sight of poetry and not want to read it due to its format. Those who do, however, will find Hà to be a compelling and likable character and will relate to her story, no matter what their personal experience with immigration or bullying may be. The novel encourages readers to think about larger themes of kindness, acceptance, and courage and how they may relate to their own lives.
  • Appeal factors: immigrant experience, poetry, strong female protagonist, humor, hopeful ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. R. J. Palacio’s Wonder could be a good fit for those who liked reading about a child who was outcast from her peers because she was different. Like Hà, August is different, although his difference is not his race, but rather a physical deformity. He’s teased in school and doesn’t fit in, but, as with Hà’s story, this novel ends on a positive and hopeful note.
  2. For readers who want more on the subject of the immigration experience, The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan could be a good fit. Although this book features a Polish girl who immigrates to England rather than a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to America, both protagonists have to struggle with alienation, adjusting to a new life, and absent fathers.

Book talk ideas: The major objection readers may have to picking up this book is also it’s greatest strength: the poetry. In order to dispell the myth that a book written in verse is inaccessible, read one or two of the stronger (spoiler-free) poems as a way to introduce the novel. Then discuss the plot, and how Hà is a girl who has had to leave the life she knew for an entirely different country, one in which she is teased, made to feel stupid, and does not fit in. Highlight the feelings that such a situation would raise, such as loneliness, fear, and nostalgia for an old life. Ask if anybody can relate to those feelings. Possibly end with another poem from the book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What could the papaya tree represent? Why is Hà so obsessed with this fruit and its tree?
  2. Hà has difficulty adjusting from being a top student to one who struggles in school. How does this adjustment affect her? How would you feel if you were at an academic disadvantage like Hà?
  3. Although never seen in the story, Hà’s father is a presence throughout the narrative. How does Hà’s father influence/haunt each character?

Reason for reading: This book was on quite a few lists of Newbery honors and best books for children lists, and it looked like it could be interesting. I read the synopsis and it sounded unique, and I’ve never read an immigration story about leaving Vietnam during the war. I actually missed the fact that the narrative was a series of poems and I’m glad I did because I may not have checked it out if I knew. I think that may be the toughest part about selling this book to young readers–there is a stigma associated with poetry that makes readers feel like it is less accessible than prose and they may be reluctant to give this title a chance.

Additional relevant information: Inside Out and Back Again is semi-autobiographical and in part based on Lai’s own experiences as an immigrant. Her sponsor also lived in Alabama, and took on Lai’s entire family, ten people in all. It took Lai ten years to learn grammatically correct English.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

  • Title: Princess Academy
  • Author: Shannon Hale
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0756981808
  • List Price: $17.60
  • Page Count: 314
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor book; ALA Notable Children’s Book; full list here.

Author information: Shannon Hale has written many books for young readers, most of them with female protagonists at the forefront. Her website includes her biography, contact information, writing history, and book recommendations as well as a links to information about all of her books. Her site also includes links to her blog, upcoming appearances, and tips about writing and links to games and stories that her fans may enjoy. Hale also has a blog post in which she discusses how many in the YA field are sick of certain tropes (love triangles, absent parents, complaining protagonists), but that these are used for a reason: they resonate with and represent a teenager population in a way that is true.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Kirkus both gave this title starred reviews, and Booklist also gave it a positive review, all of which can be found here. SLJ says, “each girl’s story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, but this is not a fluffy, predictable fairy tale, even though it has wonderful moments of humor”, and both other reviews also highlight the spunk and intelligence of the female characters and how those qualities help this book stray away from the traditional fairy tale genre.

Readers annotation: Miri has the chance to be a princess. But the question is: is that what she really wants?

Summary: Miri has always felt out of place in her village. While everybody else spends their days working in the quarry to produce enough linder to trade for supplies, she believes she is too small and weak to contribute, and she is deeply ashamed of this fact. Her life changes when dignitaries come to her rural mountain village with news that all young girls must participate in a Princess Academy and the kingdom’s prince will choose his bride from among the graduates from the Academy. Miri does not like the way the girls are treated at the Academy and protests, getting herself and others into trouble, but she does become a top student and learns a lot that can help her village and gets her selected Academy Princess. When she finally meets the Prince, she isn’t impressed, and he leaves the Academy without choosing a bride, which means that all of the girls have to stay at the Academy for another season. During this time, bandits attack their school and Miri once again shows her courage and quick thinking by saving everyone, using the villagers’ ability to “quarry speak” to alert the village to the girls’ plight. Eventually it is revealed that one of the girls grew up with the Prince and is in love with him, and when he returns to find her among the Academy girls he happily chooses her as his bride. Miri finds contentment in remaining in her village and teaching others all she has learned, and is happy at the prospect of a romance with her childhood best friend.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The title, Princess Academy, gives the reader a preconceived idea about what this book will be about, and for me, the title immediately turned me off to the book. Once I began reading, however, I found much to applaud. Miri is a complicated protagonist who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and a desire to fit in, but she also displays strong positive traits, such as courage, loyalty, intelligence, and self-sacrifice. She struggles with the question of whether she actually wants to be a princess and what that would mean, and ultimately she decides that she would rather improve her community and stay with her friends and family than move away for the glamour and glory of being royalty. Many of the other female characters are portrayed with similar complexity; Katar, an older girl, makes it clear that her desire to be princess has nothing to do with wanting to marry a prince, but rather is because she wants to travel and see the world. Portraying girls at a Princess Academy who have more ambition than just getting married to a prince is gratifying and one of the highlights of the book. However, much emphasis is placed on the romantic aspect of the book and prevents the characters from reaching a fully developed point. Even though Miri does not want to be a princess and marry the prince, she still has a love interest and it’s clear that Peder is one of her major reasons for choosing to stay in the village. Similarly, Britta, the girl who grew up with the prince, turns into a shaky, sick mess when he comes to visit and can’t even force herself to get out of bed. We discover that her backstory is that she was sent to the mountain specifically to participate in the Princess Academy and be married off, and even though it’s clear she’s a pawn in her father’s power games, she’s more than content to go along with it so that she can marry her prince. Also, the entire idea of a Princess Academy, from which a prince gets to select his bride from any one of two dozen willing girls, may rub some readers the wrong way, especially since the Academy ends up working exactly as intended and the prince does choose his bride this way. Overall, this novel does a good job of portraying strong female characters within the confines of a male dominated society in which they have no true agency, but Hale had the opportunity to do more to make this novel more empowering for girls and show that falling in love and getting married isn’t the only path a girl can take. This book was fun and stronger than I expected, but could have done more with its premise.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 This book is entertaining and has some complex female characters, but while it bends the expectations of the traditional princess genre, it never breaks them. The pacing of the novel and the obstacles and perils Miri and her friends face keep the reader engaged until the final page.
  • Popularity3/5  The title is the major deterrent of this book. Very few boys will even consider reading something with “princess” in the title, and some girls may balk at the prospect as well. Those who do read it will identify with Miri’s insecurities and will root for her success, and they will enjoy reading about her relationships with the other characters as well as her courage dealing with difficult situations.
  • Appeal factors: princesses, strong female protagonists, magical elements, romance.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a natural recommendation for readers who enjoyed a princess story with a little more substance and a stronger than usual female character. Like Miri, Ella takes control of her own fate and displays traits of ambition, intelligence, and courage.

Book talk ideas: I think the best way to book talk this book is to focus on how it differs from traditional princess stories. Ask the potential readers: what if you were forced against your will to train to be a princess, even if you weren’t sure you even wanted to marry a prince? What if you were locked in a closet with rats if you disobeyed, and soldiers guarded the gates so you couldn’t return home and see your families? This is what Miri faces when she’s told a prince will be coming to her rural mountain village to select his bride from the eligible girls of the town. Miri must use her quick thinking and courage to protect herself and her friends from the obstacles they face at the Princess Academy, and she has to decide what it is that she really wants.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Miri says the most precious thing she owns is the week after she was born when her mother held her. Why do you think this is?
  2. All of the girls at the Academy have their own reasons for wanting to marry the prince. What are some of these reasons? What are some other ways they can achieve these goals?
  3. What do you think happens after the novel ends? Choose a character and write another chapter about what this character does once the book is over.

Reason for reading: This book was recommended to me by one of my co-workers, who is also getting her MLIS and has taken a class in which she had to read quite a few Newbery books. She said that this book was one of her most surprising reads because, due to the title, she didn’t expect to get much out of it or enjoy it very much. Based on her suggestion, I decided to check it out. When I was leaving the library with the book, another librarian saw I was carrying it and mentioned that she had read it and was surprised at how much she liked it. I had seen this book on lists of award winners but never even considered reading a summary of it because of the title, and it seems that I’m not alone in being put off by it, but I do agree that the book itself is much better than the title would imply.

Additional relevant information: This book would be an ideal candidate for a Blind Date with a Book/Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover display. The cover (and, thankfully, the title) could be covered with a brown paper bag that has words and phrases about the book written on it. I think that someone would be more likely to pick up a paper bagged book that said things like “bandit attacks”, “there’s magic in the rocks”, and “spunky protagonist” than a book called Princess Academy, but then again, it’s impossible to deny that some girls just really love reading about princesses.