Don’t ban this one!

Ban This BookBan This Book by Alan Gratz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it is a beautifully realised middle grade novel about a school council who decides to ban some books, and the girl who stands up to them. On the other hand, it is the story I was in the middle of writing, so…. yeah…..
Ban This Book is a gem. Amy Anne Ollinger discovers the library has removed her favourite book from the shelves (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler), as well as others. The librarian, Mrs Jones, is powerless against the will of the school council; led by the evangelical Mrs Spencer. I will admit, I read this during Banned Books Week, so it resonated very strongly with me. The themes here would elicit some great class discussion if it was used as a read-aloud text, and Amy Anne is a sympathetic protagonist, particularly for students who find sanctuary in the library and its resources.
I loved the little library that Amy Anne starts, and how the students all manage to find her and gain access to the books the well-meaning, but misguided, adults are trying to keep from them.
Amy Anne develops well as a character, and the reader is in her corner all the way, willing her on.
I don’t want to post any spoilers, but there are lovely themes of family relationships, friendship, sharing, finding one’s voice, and injustice in this terrific little novel.
Ages 10 and up.

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Consider Yourself Schooled

Teacher - One woman's struggle to keep the heart in teachingTeacher – One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching by Gabbie Stroud

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a teacher you will, at some point, recognise yourself in this book. I did and, while I am not a teacher, I work closely with students every day. If you are not a teacher, you will want to walk up to every teacher you know and THANK them for what they do every day. For how they care, for the time they sacrifice, for the absolute gut-wrenching crap they have to endure most of the time to make sure your children, OUR children, get the best education possible.
This is a harrowing read. No doubt. There are moments of emotional uplift, but mostly this is a very raw, very real account of how the joy of teaching, as a profession and a calling, is being constantly eroded and demeaned by powers who have no business dictating a letter, let alone dictating what the national curriculum should be. Gabbie Stroud’s voice is loud and clear. Teacher is a highly readable and extremely well-written memoir, and a searing indictment on our education system and its “standards”. Our education system is broken. This book won’t fix that, but Gabbie’s voice, the voice of so many educators out there, needs to be heard. By everyone. Read it, cry, then resolve to never let another child sit the NAPLAN and to tell your child’s teacher they are valued, that they MATTER. A heartbreaking call to arms. A must read for EVERY parent of school-aged children, and everyone else too. Highly recommended.

Americus the Beautiful

AmericusAmericus by M.K. Reed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Americus is one of the best graphic novels I have read in recent years. I have been meaning to read it for nearly five years, so I am glad I finally managed to catch up with it today. Set in the ficticious town of Americus, the plot centres around a young guy, Neil, who has just started high school in the US (Year 9) and his life. Neil and his best friend, Danny, are ardent fans of a book series called The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde (a thinly veiled Harry Potter lookalike). Danny’s mum is, in the Australian vernacular, a God botherer. She takes it upon herself to “save” Danny from the satanic evils of witchcraft by tearing up the latest installment in the series in front of the local public librarian and then sends Danny to military school so he won’t risk being exposed to the wickedness Americus’ public library. Parents, town officials, school management and the kids square off against one another in various combinations as the fight for the right to read starts a battle for the ages. Neil is a perfectly pitched character – embarrassed by his own mum’s fussing, but grateful for her support when he needs it most; awkward around most people, but starting to find his tribe by the close of proceedings. I loved every page of this fantastic book. There is plenty to say here, and clearly the writer is firmly on the side of reading freedom, but there is room for discussion with young people around the issues this raises. Karma is handed out to all – and the ultimate irony of Danny’s banishment by his mother when he writes to Neil about what he is reading is sweet perfection.
An instant classic and suitable for ages 12 and up.

X marks my heart

The Poet XThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hot tears of recognition stained my face as I finished reading this in a cafe this morning. Xiomara lives with her twin and parents in Harlem. She is fierce and feisty and has had to defend herself against unwanted male attention, thanks to a early-maturing body, for a long time. Constantly warned by her fervently religious mother about the perils of her own body, X writes poetry to escape and to make sense of a world that constantly tells her to be ashamed of who she is.

When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults.
I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.

X becomes involved romantically with a boy named Aman, who loves her for her words, and her heart, rather than what her body appears to promise. Encouraged by her English teacher, X joins a poetry club at school and finds her tribe; like-minded souls whose emotions spill onto the page just like hers.
The suffocation of Xiomara’s life, under the searing gaze of her judgemental and punitive mother, is palpable. Always being told what she is not allowed to do or allowed to be because she is a girl, X pours her hopes, dreams, frustration and anger onto the pages of her precious leather-bound journal.

And I think about all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.

Caught kissing Aman one day, X’s life spirals out of control and what comes next for her is devastating, terrifying, and agonising. My heart ached and broke for this wonderful girl, and for her twin brother, as they faced gut-wrenching choices about what comes next.
I held this book to my chest when I finished it, trying to imprint Xiomara and her poetry onto my heart. I didn’t need to; they were already there, and there they will stay. I think this is probably the best YA I have read all year, and possibly WILL BE the best I have read all year. It will take something remarkable to top it.
Highly and enthusiastically recommended. Do not wait. Do not “put it on your list”.

Read it. Now.

Glowing prose

White NightWhite Night by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was excited when this book landed at my local bookshop. Anything new from Ellie Marney is always going to be good, but this is great. Still set in rural Australia, in the fictional town of Lamistead, this is a terrific YA realist novel with a message that doesn’t beat you around the head.
Bo is approaching the end of his schooling and trying to decide whether to follow his gut and study subjects that will lead to him becoming a chef, or stay with what is expected and focus on sports and things his Dad will approve of. New girl Rory comes into his life, after being home-schooled forever, and everything gets turned on its head. Not only has Bo fallen hard for Rory, she lives in a community called Eden, which is about saving the planet – and Bo find himself drawn to their message (and Rory). Toss in a family secret that has Bo doubting everything he thought he knew about his parents, a friend going through a rough time at home at the hands of an abusive parent and sibling, and the imminent closure of the local skatepark, and you have the ingredients for an engaging and involving novel that hits all the right notes. The developing relationship between Bo and Rory is believable and sweet, and all the bit players like Sprog, Lozzie and Cam are terrific too. I wrote about this novel as a classic example of YA realism for a Uni essay this year and got 95%. Need I say more! Read it – you won’t be sorry.

On Target

First Person ShooterFirst Person Shooter by Cameron Raynes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I wake to the fig tree rattling its fruity thumbs against the gutter outside my window and lie there, thinking good thoughts…” p.3
When I read the opening line of Cameron Raynes’s new YA novel, I knew I was in good hands. I could immediately hear that sound and imagine the tree, and I knew it was an Aussie summer. Raynes’s descriptive language in this book is wonderful. He captures so well the inner voice of his protagonist, Jayden, who is constantly battling with a stutter and the bullies and sapped confidence that so often accompany such a condition. Jayden has no stutter in his narrative voice, when he is talking to the reader, at least, and we see a smart guy who never really gets the chance to show it because his mind won’t let him. He describes the worst thing about stuttering as “that horrible moment when a person turns away from me. As if…they can’t bear to look.” The next worst is “the way it makes me look timid and frightened.” (p. 12)
Jayden lives in a town where shard (Ice) is an industry and two families rule the roost. There is a war brewing between these families and the town is worried about being caught in the middle. Jayden’s best friend (and developing love interest), Shannon, is awaiting the release of her mother from prison after her mother, Madeleine, shot her abusive husband. There is a lot of tension surrounding this impending event because the dead man’s brother, Pete, is a psychopath intent on revenge. Pete is a spectre hanging over everyone’s heads because the town knows he will show up when he knows Madeleine is back in town.
Jayden plays first person shooter video games such as Call of Duty, to let off steam. He has a lot of pent up frustration surrounding his stuttering and the unwanted bullying from Thommo, who is related to one of the drug cooking families. These are a big part of his life, to the detriment, sometimes, of things like school work. His father does not approve of him playing them so often, but he also does nothing decisive to stop it either. Both of them are still suffering the death of Jayden’s mum a few years earlier. Jayden’s dog, Charlie, is dying and the way Jayden takes care of him is touching and poignant. His neighbour, Nigel, a veteran, is also dying and Jayden and Shannon take turns looking after his chooks and both visit him regularly. Nigel is the wise man of the piece, offering many pieces of sage advice and has already held his own wake so he could see all the people who are important to him and say goodbye.
From all this, you are probably thinking this book is a bit of a downer. It is so far from it. This is a life-affirming book, a story full of characters to cheer for – especially Jayden and Shannon. Shannon is courageous and caring; Jayden is intelligent and resourceful and they make a great pair. Jayden and Shannon do something that will force the hand of the rival drug gangs, and it sets in motion a series of confronting and life-changing events for both of them. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but if you are anything like me there are tears of rage and sorrow ahead.
If you know anyone who stutters, I would point them to this book – it is certainly a well-crafted depiction of what it is like to deal with a stutter daily, in everyday situations. I think Raynes really captured the feeling of utter frustration of one’s body (in this case your mouth) not doing what you are telling it to do, and how it impacts on the other parts of your life.
This book would be suitable for mature 14 year olds and up.

Three Wonders of the World

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder StoriesAuggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of three novellas is a must for anyone who read and enjoyed Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder . The story of Auggie Pullman touched millions and in this book, three of the characters whose lives were affected by Auggie in different ways are the protagonists. After being so moved by Wonder, I was sceptical about reacting in the same way to these stories. If anything, these are even more moving because we are able to see deep into these characters’ minds and emotions.
“The Julian Chapter” centres on Auggie’s nemesis, Julian Albans. In his introduction to this book, Palacio explains this was a story he had to write. Many of the letters he received after writing Wonder were about how mean Julian was to Auggie. Readers wrote asking why he had to be that way. Palacio decided he had better tell them. The story that unfolds lifts the lid on Julian’s home life, and his past. His bullying behaviour in the first book is not glossed over, nor is it excused. What the reader does get is a keen insight as to how this kind of behaviour can happen, and how it can so easily get out of control. We meet Julian’s paternal grandmother, a Frenchwoman who loves her grandson, but doesn’t let him get away with anything. It is she who draws the Auggie saga out of Julian and tells him an unforgettable story that will change him, and the reader, forever. Julian is still not a likeable character – he is spoilt, childish and over-indulged by his parents – but by the end of his chapter there is hope he is becoming a more sensitive human being.
“Pluto” is Christopher’s story. Auggie’s long-standing friend who has moved away, has been affected by his relationship with Auggie all his life. The reader is taken back to the first time Christopher really understood how different his friend is. We see him creating a world that is safe and reliable for Auggie – and we see how hard it has been for him sometimes. It is clear there are moments when Christopher struggles with being Auggie’s mate. He sometimes feels resentment when his mother helps out Isabel and Nate (Auggie’s parents) and then his own family moves away, he resents having to keep in touch with Auggie – when all he wants to do is develop his new friendships and play in the after-school rock band. All the way through this story the one thing that shines through again and again is Christopher’s gentle good nature. He is a kind person and coming straight after Julian’s story it really stands out.
The last story, “Shingaling”, is perhaps the most revealing. Charlotte Cory who, along with Julian, and Jack Wall was asked to befriend Auggie when he started middle school, is living through a time of change. As well as meeting Auggie, she is going through something many girls face – friendship group changes. She talks about the “boy war” that started after the winter break in Wonder – where the boys all took sides for or against Auggie after Jack Wall hit Julian. Charlotte’s best friend, Ellie, has moved on to the “popular” group and now Charlotte is trying to find her way to a new friendship group. There is pressure for Charlotte to declare herself on the “right” side of the war and she refuses to do so, which just makes the girls more agitated than they already are. Charlotte, Ellie and some of the other girls audition for a prestigious dance production at school and Charlotte, Summer (Auggie’s close friend) and Ximena (a “popular” girl) are chosen. These girls don’t have much in common on the surface, but as they talk to each other, they discover there is a lot of common ground. Once the girls learn more about one another, they become friends, although none of them really publicise the fact at school – there is still a political balance to worry about. Charlotte’s journey through the friendship minefield is something MANY readers will instantly recognise. What the reader learns by reading this story is that everyone is struggling with something– in fact that is the overarching theme in all of these stories.
The quote Palacio uses at the beginning of “The Julian Chapter” really sums up what his book is trying to say:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren.
Every middle school student should read this book, heck, every human being should read this book.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Wonder-Full

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book is all about page 270. I can’t tell you what happens, except to say it is a moment that literally made tears spring to my eyes.
R.J. Palacio has written a beautiful story. A story about pain, about love, about hardship, about forgiveness, and a story full of hope.
August (Auggie) Pullman has been an outsider all his short life. Born with life-altering facial abnormalities due to a series of genetic misfortunes, he has been home-schooled by his doting mother, until it is time for Middle School. Now he is enrolled at Beecher Prep and is thrust into the swirling waters of junior high school. Auggie is an engaging protagonist. Not only is he intelligent, he is also witty and courageous. He knows how people react to his appearance, to the very last tic or sideways glance. Many find it hard to look him in the eye, let alone talk to and interact with him. Julian, a boy full of his own importance thanks to superficial parents, is one student who is not prepared to make Auggie’s life easy at school. Julian uses his considerable social influence to directly and indirectly bully and torment Auggie on a daily basis. To his credit, Auggie stands up to this pretty well because he doesn’t really care what Julian thinks of him.
Auggie has a few friends at school by the time his birthday rolls around and his friends sustain him – until he accidentally hears one of them, Jack, speaking badly of him behind his back. It is clear that Auggie values truth and loyalty in his friends most of all, and Jack has to work hard to eventually win back Auggie’s trust.
There are other relationships going through rocky times in this novel. Auggie’s Mum is struggling with his growing independence and not sharing every second of his day, and she struggles with Auggie’s older sister, Via, for similar reasons as Via starts Senior High School. Via has her own problems as her old circle of friends rejects her and she is forced to strike out on her own to find a new group to hang out with. Via is also highly protective of her brother and is there to offer him some good advice about how the politics of the school ground work.
Having the different characters tell part of the story worked well, particularly as the reader is able to see the various conflicts in the novel from different points of view – a point about empathy being well-made without ramming it down the reader’s throat.
Auggie’s resilience, the loyalty of his small group of friends, and his loving, supportive family make this a book with irresistible appeal. When Auggie finally makes it to the school camp that will change everything (a la page 270), we are totally with them, and rooting for Auggie all the way. The ending made me feel happy, and proud of the characters. I can’t tell you, spoilers, but I think it will make you feel that way too.
This book has been a huge hit at my school and across the globe, and now I know why. It teaches the young people reading it that life, even when it feels terrible and there are things about your life you can’t change no matter how much you wish you could, does get better – you just have to give it time and have self-belief. It’s a great message, really well communicated. It’s wonder-ful.
For ages 10 and up.

Hannah the Heartbreaker

The ProtectedThe Protected by Claire Zorn My rating: 5 of 5 stars I read this book in 3 hours. It’s that good. Hannah’s sister Katie is dead. Killed in a car accident in which Hannah’s dad drove, and Hannah was a passenger, the accident happened almost a year ago. With a court case approaching the pressure is on for Hannah to remember what happened in the accident. But she can’t. Or won’t. Hannah’s mum spends most of her days in bed,m not talking to anyone. When she does venture out an argument with Hannah’s dad usually ensues and it is a miserable existence for all of them. We learn that Hannah has been bullied ever since starting high school 3 years ago and that Katie was not the sister she should have been. In fact, Hannah’s life was a living hell and Katie was a bystander – not bullying, but not standing up against it either. Through a series of flashbacks we learn just how horrible Hannah’s life was – until her sister died and everyone started treating her differently. Hannah is one of the most hearbreaking characters I have read in reent years. She is gentle, sensitive, intelligent and good listener, but also timid and socially awkward. As I read about this girl who is not understood by anyone in her family I remembered the teasing I faced in my early high school years – about being the tallest, the one with the biggest boobs, and the nickname that stuck right up until year 12, FA (Fat Arse). Hannah doesn’t reach out to her parents for help, because she knows that nothing they can do or say is going to make a difference. She wants to break free of her isolated life, but can’t because she is held back by her memories of Katie and the accident. Hannah felt very real to me and Claire Zorn writes her perfectly. The way she talks, the way the other characters talk, feels authentic. Anne, the school counsellor, is wonderful – the right mix of concern and warmth, without being schmaltzy and Mrs Van, Hannah’s next door neighbour is a peach. Josh, the developing love interest, is great but he was a little Augustus Waters for me at first. He got better as the novel went on and seemed a perfect foil for Hannah in the end once his posturing was over. This is a great book for anyone who has experienced the pain of not quite fitting in, and the tiny fluttering joy of finding someone who wants to stick around and help you find a niche. This book has been long-listed for the 2015 Inkys and I am confident it will be on the shortlist – you read it here first. Suitable for ages 13 and up. Highly recommended.

Cuts Like a Knife

The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hayley Kincain’s father is suffering from PTSD – a legacy of his service in the US military. She has been homeschooled by him on the road since she was eight, as he drove them around the country in his eighteen-wheeler. Until this year. This year, they are living in her late grandmother’s house and Hayely is enrolled at Belmont High as a senior. She is constantly in detention for proving her history teacher wrong, and she is not keeping up with her class work. Understandable really – under the smart-arse surface of her is a girl harbouring a fear of abandonment, of getting home and finding her father gone, or worse, him being there and just his mind gone. Hayley has methods and routines to keep people at arm’s length – even her best friend Gracie, whose parents have taken divorce warfare to a new level.
Into this picture strolls Finnegan Ramos. Finn. Smart, funny, handsome, afraid of heights and totally besotted with Hayley. Slowly some of Hayley’s walls start coming down and she finds herself growing closer to Finn – closer than she has ever been to anyone. Then her former stepmother turns up, and Hayley’s world begins to fall in on itself. She wants nothing to do with the woman she feels abandoned her father, abandoned her, but she also longs for that mother figure in her life – missing since the death of her birth mother. She starts pushing people way – even Finn.
One day Hayley comes home and her Dad is not there. He has left a note and a frantic search ensues, ending at the quarry, where Hayley’s father told her it was dangerous to walk…
This is a great novel – the writing is superb and I fell in love with Hayley and Finn, so much so that I read the last part of this book in a 90 minute flurry in bed this morning. It is an important story about family, about illness, about love and about hope.
Read this – I will be looking up Anderson’s back catalogue to catch myself up on an amazing writer.
For ages 14 and up – mainly because of the themes involved.