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.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 0374214913
  • List Price: $25.00
  • Page Count: 304
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: magical realism
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner

Author information: This is Sloan’s debut novel. His website is fairly sparse, but it does include a short biography, a link to information about Mr. Penumbra, a link to sign up for his email newsletter, as well as a variety of short pieces (articles, short stories, etc) that fans can read online. Mother Jones interviewd Sloan about his debut novel, and the interview discusses such topics as D&D, San Francisco, the inspiration for Neel, Clay, and The Dragonsong Chronicles, and the theme of immortality. The interview also talks about Sloan’s writing process and his use of the app, Freedom (which is an Internet blocker so that he cannot access distracting websites while he’s writing), which he credits with being able to finish his book.

Reviews: It was difficult to find reviews of this title from traditional sources. Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the title, but didn’t provide much more than a synopsis of the plot and a comment on its happy ending. Other sources, like NPR, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle, were more effusive. They all comment upon Sloan’s ability to weave a traditional quest narrative seamlessly with a modern day techno-world, incorporating elements of Google and elements of centuries old secret societies side by side. Entertainment Weekly sums Sloan’s novel up thus:  “Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age”.

Readers annotation: When Clay got a job at a bookstore, he didn’t realize he would be thrown into a world of secret societies, conspiracies, and the opportunity to discover the meaning of life.

Summary: Clay is laid off from his job, and, in a fit of desperation, takes the night shift at a shady 24-hour bookstore. He notices that most of the customers that come in are borrowing titles from the “waybacklist”, a collection of books that are not sold, but borrowed. His curiosity piqued, Clay discovers that these people are members of a secret society devoted to finding the secret of immortality. This quest takes him and his friends everywhere from the Google campus to a secret reading room in New York City. Eventually, Clay is able to decipher the original text written by Manutius, the founder of this secret sect, and he discovers that it does not contain an easy answer to the question of immortality. Rather, it suggests that the only way to become immortal is by living on through the work you do when you are alive.

Evaluation: I have incredibly mixed feelings about this title–moreso than I think I’ve had about any of the other books I’ve reviewed. I loved the conceit. Setting a quest narrative in modern day San Francisco and incorporating so many aspects of technology is brilliant and sure to attract readers looking for a fresh take on the fantasy novel. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore and Mr. Penumbra himself are incredibly likable and the reader is immediately drawn into their world. The storyline–that Mr. Penumbra is a foward-thinker who, with the help of Clay and friends, might be able to finally solve the mystery of Manutius if the villainous leader of the secret society weren’t trying to thwart their efforts, is compelling and readers will eagerly follow this story wherever it is going. The difficulty with this book is that the plot deteriorates from there. Clay eventually does find the way to decode Manutius’ pivotal text, but discovers that there are no secrets hidden within his story. The novel ends with the suggestion that true immortality comes from the friendships and bonds we build in this life, as well as the works we accomplish. This ending is a letdown for readers who expected a bit of a flashier ending. Although I did not expect that the characters would unlock the key to immortality, I was hoping for something less trite than “friendship is the most important thing”. I admire Sloan for the scope of this novel, but feel that at times the focus became scattered and the payoff at the end was disappointing. I do see the appeal this title would have to a teenage audience though; most of the characters are tech savvy young adventurers, which many teens will identify with.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 A fun blend of high fantasy and high tech, this novel breathes new life into the fantasy genre in light of all of our technological achievements. The premise is strong, but the narrative wanders and the ending leaves much to be desired.
  • Popularity4/5  The mixing of high fantasy and high tech, modern and ancient, digital and analog, is sure to delight readers, and one look at Penumbra’s bookstore will hook them.
  • Appeal factors: magical realism, technology, bookstores, secret societies, Google.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman might be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the juxtaposition of high fantasy with an urban setting. Like Clay, Quentin Coldwater doesn’t believe in magic until he’s accepted into a magical and sinister school. Combining common tropes and ideas from childhood fantasy classics, this book is a modern-day fantasy for sophisticated readers.
  2. Readers who liked the magical realism aspect of Sloan’s novel may enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Like Sloan’s book, this title’s use of magic lets the reader decide whether or not it is real, and incorporates serious themes such as growing up, loss, and destiny.

Book talk ideas: The best way to book talk this title would be by describing Mr. Penumbra’s store. Tell potential readers to imagine that they’re going to San Francisco for the day, and after they’ve done all their shopping and sight-seeing and wandering, they discover a small, hole-in-the-wall bookstore. It claims to be open 24 hours a day, and when you walk in, the shelves are so high that you need a ladder to reach the books at the top. After describing this scene, give a bit of plot details and explain how Clay ends up working there and discovers that there’s more to the little bookstore than meets the eye, and this discovery sends him on a hunt that takes him everywhere from the Google campus to a hidden underground reading room.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Clay assigns his friends archetypes for their “quest” (wizard, rogue, etc.). Why do you think he does this?
  2. How do you think the high-tech/low-tech interplay worked in the novel? What do you think this says about the relationship of the two in real life.
  3. Do you agree with Clay’s assertion at the end of the book, that creating lasting works and relationships are the key to immortality? Why or why not?

Reason for reading: As mentioned in a previous review, I was interested in looking at Alex award winners and seeing why they were chosen as having appeal to a young adult audience. The title of this book intrigued me (what aspiring librarian isn’t immediately taken with the prospect of a hole-in-the-wall, more-than-it-seems, 24-hour bookstore?) and I decided it would be a great way to round out my reviews for this class.

Additional relevant information: Mr. Penumbra grew out of a short story that Sloan had written, and is available on his website. He also wrote a short story to coincide with the paperback release of the novel, following Ajax Penumbra and how he came to find the bookstore that he owns when Clay finds him. This story is available on a variety of platforms, but can be purchased on Amazon for $2.99.

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 Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating and appeal factors:

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

Read-alikes: 

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

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

Discussion questions/ideas:

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

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

Looking for Alaska by John Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating and appeal factors:

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

Read-alikes: 

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

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

Discussion questions/ideas:

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

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

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

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 Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb

  • Title: The Nazi Hunters
  • Author: Neal Bascomb
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 0545430992
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 12+
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction

Author information: Neal Bascomb has written several non-fiction titles for adults and teens. His website includes a brief biography of the author as well as a list of his titles. There’s also a link to Bascomb’s blog, where he discusses relevant information about his work, such as appearance dates and awards his titles have won. It does not appear to have been updated since 2010. His website also links to his Facebook page, which seems to be updated more frequently and serve a similar function as the defunct blog.

Reviews: This title received positive reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist. Both reviews commented on the thorough nature of Bascomb’s research as well as the finesse with which he blends fast-paced storytelling with significant historical events. SLJ commends how Bascomb rounds out the figures he presents in the narrative, saying that Bascomb “depicts Eichmann as more than just a soulless Nazi monster and target; he is also seen as a father and husband, giving this account some balance”.

Readers annotation: How far is one team willing to go to capture one of the most notorious war criminals of all time?

Summary: After World War II ended, Adolph Eichmann managed to evade the authorities and escape to Argentina, where he began a new life with his family under an assumed name. A blind man and his daughter are the first to believe that Eichmann might be more than he pretends to be, and their belief leads Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor himself, to open Eichmann’s case. Thus a plan to capture Eichmann begins to form. A team is created to take care of every detail of his capture, from forging necessary documents to physically catching him on his walk from the bus to his home after work. The team is successful in capturing Eichmann, but the plan does not go as smoothly as desired. Eichmann’s sons and other Nazi sympathizers try to locate Eichmann during a nerve-wracking few days in which the team must keep Eichmann hidden while also trying to convince him to go to Israel voluntarily. Eventually, Eichmann does agree and he’s smuggled out of Argentina on a special plane. Once in Israel, he stands trial, is convicted of crimes against humanity, and is hanged.

Evaluation: This book excelled at building suspense and keeping the reader’s attention throughout the story. Although this is a non-fiction title, it read like a spy thriller, a fact certain to please younger readers. The importance of Eichmann being brought to justice is highlighted, not only through Bascomb giving personal history of members of the team sent to capture him who lost friends and relatives due to Eichmann’s policies, but also by explaining why it was crucial to try him so that the younger generation would never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust. My one critique is that I wish this title had gone deeper into the events before and after the plot to capture Eichmann, such as a bit more detail about what Eichmann’s role was during the war as well as the testimonials at his trials and the worldwide reactions and ramifications it had. These subjects were discussed in the book, but not at the length it deserved, leaving those unfamiliar with Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust unclear about the details of his atrocities. However, I understand that a thorough look at Eichmann and the larger ramifications of his trial were not the main goal of this work (the title, Nazi Hunters, makes it clear that the emphasis of the book would be the hunting of Eichmann, and, indeed, never even mentions his name in the title) and overall this book was an entertaining and informative read that will appeal to a wide range of teens.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  The pacing of the story is great, the details about and portrayals of the team who worked to capture Eichmann brought them alive, and the importance of Eichmann’s capture is made clear. More backstory on Eichmann and reactions to Israel’s secret plan to capture him would have strengthened this already solid read.
  • Popularity: 4/5 As mentioned in previous posts, this title may suffer in popularity due to the mere fact that it is non-fiction. Readers willing to try a non-fiction title will find much to love in this fast-paced and memorable title.
  • Appeal factors: spy plots, Nazis, narrative non-fiction, World War II, Holocaust.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who would like another title that is narrative non-fiction and focuses on the theme of achieving justice for a wronged group of people would enjoy Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50. This book follows the explosion at Port Chicago and the trial of 50 African American sailors, and readers will find this book has much in common with Bascomb’s title.
  2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is a good selection for readers who enjoy WWII stories. Although Wein’s narrative is fiction, it too looks at the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the courage of a small team of people in combating them.

Book talk ideas: World War II and Nazis are high interest topics, so start by giving a little bit of background on Eichmann’s role in the war and the fact that he escaped justice and fled to Argentina. Talk about how important it was to Israel and Holocaust survivors that war criminals be brought to justice, and then explain that when Eichmann’s location was discovered, a team was put together to do just that. Mention that the book is fast-paced, reads like a spy thriller, and has the benefit of being something that actually happened.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Bascomb highlights each team member’s relationship to the Holocaust. How do you think this influenced their approach to catching Eichmann?
  2. Do you have any sympathy for Eichmann? Why or why not?
  3. Do you agree that it was important to bring Eichmann to trial in Israel? For what reasons? Do you think this has had lasting ramifications?

Reason for reading: As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I have a particular interest in World War II books, both fiction and non-fiction. I think this is because that time period showed both the best and worst of humanity–people fighting for their beliefs, sacrificing themselves to save others, showing kindness in moments of despair or crisis, as well as depravity, cruelty, and dehumanization on an unparalleled scale. When this title won a YALSA award this year, I knew it was a book I wanted to read. I was especially intrigued by the story of how WWII criminals were hunted down and brought to justice years after the war had ended.

Additional relevant information: Among other information on his Facebook page, Bascomb posted a New York Times article from September 2013 about a 92 year old Nazi who was being tried for war crimes he committed during WWII. This shows that there is still an attempt today to bring Nazi war criminals to justice while they are still alive, and is a great modern connection that can be made with this title.