This Star Won’t Go Out by Esther Grace Earl

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Stars: 4/5 

If you loved The Fault in Our Stars, you MUST check out this book–especially if you are being required to read nonfiction. This is the story of the young woman whose friendship with John Green inspired The Fault in Our Stars. If you haven’t read his book yet, read this one first. There are all kinds of ways he incorporated her story into his own remarkable book. You will learn about Esther’s life from her own perspective with insight from her parents and friends.

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Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari

MarathonBoaz Yakin’s credits include Remember the Titans and  Joe Infurnari is no slouch either, so their collaboration on Marathon is a worthy addition to First Second’s lineup of meritorious graphic novels. The story opens with Eucles, an Athenian man who is running for his people’s lives.  A series of flashbacks provide the story of Eucles, son of a slave, who watches as King Hippias slaughters his bastard son for losing to Eucles in a footrace. The execution draws enmity for Eucles and is the seed of a hatred of Hippias that extends throughout Eucles’s life. It is Hippias’ return with the forces of Persia that provides the impetus for Eucles to make the race of his life to round up allies and rally the Athenians who will engage in a battle to save their lives and their democratic ideals. This is a book that would make a great pairing with World History texts or literature from the Greek Classical Period. For educators seeking to expand their Graphic Novel collection, this is one that will appeal to fans of the movie 300, history buffs, and sports enthusiasts. Cho, Choi, and Krashen (2005) noted that graphic novels, especially high quality ones, can benefit young readers immensely. This is a title I feel confident in recommending to both middle and high school educators and librarians.

References

Cho, G., Choi, H., & Krashen, S. (2005). Hooked on comic book reading: How comic books made an impossible situation less difficult. Knowledge Quest, 33(4), 32-34. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/194728147?accountid=35812

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Under the Bridge by Michael Harmon

ImageUnder the Bridge has all the grit of Last Exit to Normal, but its tone lacks a lot of the tongue in cheek humor that made Last Exit to Normal an Evergreen nominee. In spite of its heavier tones, there are many young adult readers who will identify with the hard choices Tate has to make. Indy, Tate’s older brother, has a lot of talent, but hates living at home and dealing with their rigid father’s rules. Tate’s big enough and tough enough to handle himself, so when his brother gets involved with a drug dealer, Tate has to face problems that are bigger than he can solve.  Tate has no love of school, and less confidence that Ms. Potter, a naïve school guidance counselor, can be of any help. It turns out that Ms. Potter is full of surprises as she figures out how to help Tate navigate those gray areas that young adults seem to inhabit. The love of a good woman, in the person of Kimberly Lawson, adds an additional complication to Tate’s world. With each chapter, Indy’s behavior becomes more egregious until finally his parents kick him out. Life for the two boys goes from bad to exponentially worse when Indy is pinned as an accomplice to a murder. Once again, Harmon has created multi-layered family relationships that are characterized by conflict so real it’s palpable. The setting of Spokane is likely to make this a favorite for young adults in the northwest, but any disenfranchised young man struggling to find himself is likely to connect with Tate’s character. This is a story that would garner my nomination as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.

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Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty

Only those who listen to the audiobook version of this tale get the benefit of hearing the author discuss how carefully she researched the setting for this uncommonly rich novel. The sea folk of this story are nothing like the benign character from the Disney movie. Although the name Syrenka is attached to Polish folklore, this Syrenka of this tale is a mermaid of the immortal variety who gives up her immortality in order to be with the man she loves.  Syrenka’s story is told parallel to the story of Hester Goodwin, a beautiful young woman who has sworn off love entirely out of fear. The women in her family die shortly after giving birth to daughters, and while Hester loves and respects her stepmother, she does not want to leave her own daughter motherless. A series of unusual encounters with a minister, a childhood friend named Linnie, and a mysterious man named Ezra set Hester on the trail of a mystery that is a tapestry of tangled threads. The town of Plymouth, Massachusetts provides the history that spans from the 1600s to the 1800s to the present, and the curse that only Hester can lift. Ancient lore and magic permeate this incredible story, and like those ancient tales, rape and violence are a part of the telling. The intertwining of plot lines as well as the careful rendering of the dialects take what is quantitatively not such difficult text (7.0 GE/780L) a qualitatively much more complex story. This is a sophisticated story that can easily cross the barriers of YA fiction into adult reading. The book, in both print and audio formats, is a work of art, and is one that I will be nominating to YALSA for best fiction and audiobook.

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Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

This is a completely delightful story that takes folklore, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes, turns them every which way from Sunday, sprinkles a little humor, and turns it into something highly entertaining with some subtle—and not-so-subtle—suggestions about how to live life well. It’s foundation is the nursery rhyme about Monday’s child and goes throughout the week with descriptions of the progeny born on each day of the week. Our story picks up with the musings Sunday, the last and youngest daughter of  Jack and Seven Woodcutters. With so many siblings and extended family living with them, Sunday frequently feels left out, and so she writes. Papa Woodcutter warns her often, however that words are very powerful. In her experiments, she has found that this is true because many times what she writes and the stories she tells come to pass. Her life changes dramatically when she meets a frog at the wishing well. Grumble seems wise beyond his years and is willing to listen to her writings. While stuck in his frog form, Grumble, or the cursed prince Rumbold, has found himself in quite a dilemma. He is very taken with Sunday, but her family has been at odds with his for years—going back to when Jack Junior, the eldest child of the group, found himself enchanted while in the prince’s service. The family had not heard from him again, and his talents and high spirits are sorely missed by his parents. What makes Enchanted unique and delightful is its utterly witty use of language. Pithy pieces of wisdom are sprinkled among sardonic observations of human foible and triumph in a homespun fairy tale so down-to-earth that its wisdom is embraced. The rhythm and cadence makes this story a great candidate for a read-aloud, and the audio version of this book is so well narrated that I found myself chuckling out loud—often. Alex Flinn has done an elegant job of reworking fairy tales, and this book easily finds a place of honor next to A Kiss in Time or Franny Billingsley’s Chime.

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Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas

Loners

Hold onto your lunches kiddos, anyone reading Quarantine is in for a stomach-churning, page-turning ride. Following in the steps of Alexander Gordon Smith’s Furnace and Michael Grant’s Gone series, Lex Thomas is a dynamic duo that pumped out an adrenaline-junky’s dream. David never wanted to be a leader. In fact, he is reeling from the betrayal of his girlfriend and one of his football player brothers-in-arms. When their school is suddenly locked down—with locked down defined as being fully encased in a bubble from which they cannot escape—the kids trapped inside begin to develop their own code. Anyone entering the school is immediately infected, and anyone over the age of 18 dies of the virus that is running rampant in the school. Some of the students are carriers, and the only way a student can exit the school alive is if he or she tests negative for the virus on his or her eighteenth birthday. Lockers become coffins, and the new facility falls into rapid decay. Violence rules as various cliques develop and create their own system of barter. The Varsity, a gang made up of jocks, quickly becomes the muscle. Alliances are made between groups: the Nerds, the Geeks, the Sluts, the Skaters, the Freaks, and the Pretty Ones. David is just interested in keeping his brother, Will, alive. Will’s seizures make both him and David vulnerable as lawlessness sets in. Eventually David becomes the protector of a group of students who refused to align with any of the groups, and they become the Loners. Time is not David’s friend, and as the girl Will fell for at summer camp begins to develop feelings for David, a new kind of rivalry develops between the brothers. The tension created by David’s insistent loyalty and Will’s increasing jealousy adds another element to the tenuousness of their world. Like Smith’s series, violence permeates the story. The authors skillfully ratchet up the stakes for David, and readers are constantly left to wonder if he will survive and remain heroic or whether he will succumb to the pressures of the violent society around him. This will be a story that will grab readers—primarily male readers—and keep them riveted until the end. The story is an interesting commentary on the high school scene, and the gross caricatures of the cliques may or may not be lost on the readers. Readers who liked Variants by Wells will find many similarities in this story—minus the androids. It’s sure to be popular among reluctant readers because of its vivid imagery and fast pace.

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Every Day by David Levithan

Readers don’t encounter books  like this one every day, and that is what makes this book by David Levithan stand out. The main character is genderless because who (s)he is depends upon the body that (s)he inhabits. This constant change doesn’t bother “A” very much until (s)he meets Rhiannon. Something about her intrigues A so much that (s)he seeks out future encounters with Rhiannon—sometimes to the detriment of the bodies that (s)he inhabits for the day. As Rhiannon becomes fascinated with A, they look for opportunities to meet and develop the relationship—in spite of the challenges. A must dodge the attacks of a  young man (s)he inhabited for a day as the youth is convinced that A is a demon and must be exorcised.  A’s transient nature causes him/her to look at objects and people very differently, and provides Levithan with opportunities to not-so-subtly suggest truths about love, existence, and material possessions.  The detail Levithan brings to this work creates an utterly plausible impossibility. Each character becomes a mini story in his or her own right creating a depth that is remarkable. I have read other works by Levithan, but this is by far my favorite for the philosophical questions it raises. Although written at a 7.0 GE/650L, the concepts are both timely and appealing to the young adults who will pick up this title. As with many books dealing with the issue of love and intimacy, this book has some pretty frank—but not graphic—sexual content. This is a book I will be recommending for YALSA’s best fiction list and an audiobook that is also award worthy.

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Gilt by Katherine Longshore

Gilt

Margaret George is one of my favorite historical novelists. Her rendering of King Henry the VIII was intricate in its detail and brilliant in its plot, so it was with apprehension and a determination to keep an open mind that I approached this book. Longshore’s contribution to the Tudor story surpassed my expectations. The title alone, with its double entendre, is an apt introduction to the high stakes hijinks in which Catherine Howard, or Cat, engaged. The story is told from the point of view of Kitty Tylney who accompanies Catherine from the Duchess of Norfolk’s residence to her ascent to royalty. In an author’s note, Longshore acknowledges the suppression of an early affair that Catherine had as well as the amalgamation and renaming of some of her characters for the sake of clarity; however, I was willing to forgive such historical tweaks in the name of the sure luxury of prose she created. Readers are given a front row seat as Catherine systematically self-destructs—from the moment she reigns as the Queen of Misrule in the Duchess of Norfolk’s permissive household to the assignations in which she engages once she is the capricious Henry’s fifth wife. We feel the pain of Kitty whose bond to Catherine will not allow her to disavow her friend even at the high cost of imprisonment in London Tower. Kitty’s resolute sense of duty and propriety is starkly juxtaposed against Catherine’s search for happiness in relationships of pleasure, power, and wealth. Any young woman who has felt like the dowdy shadow of a much brighter star or who has watched helplessly as a close friend makes devastating choices will identify with and hope for a happy ending for Kitty. Longshore embellishes the story with lush details about people, and personalities, and fashion that evoke a sense of the sights and smells of the world in which Kitty lived. It is with an equally careful hand that Longshore discusses Catherine’s promiscuity. Sometimes craft is not in an abundance of details, but in the choice of details; and Longshore does a remarkable job of taking the salacious details of a decadent court and softening the sharp edges without sacrificing any of the tartness.

For those who prefer their literature via audiobooks, the audiobook version of Gilt is exceptionally well done.

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The Summer My Life Began by Shannon Greenland

The Summer My Life BeganElizabeth Margaret has her life planned. She will intern at her father’s law firm before taking her expensive prep school prepped self to Harvard and into the life her parents expect her to have. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she receives a postcard from a mysterious “Aunt Tilly” inviting her for a summer of fun at her Bed and Breakfast located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The summer turns into one of self-discovery as Elizabeth, or Em, finds out truths that rock her previously sheltered life to its core. Under her aunt’s tutelage, Em begins to find out who she is and what she wants.

Greenland creates a wonderful tension in a plot that highlights an ageless conflict: young women trying to balance the expectations of others with their own desires. The theme is punctuated with the examples of Em’s mother and her Aunt Matilda. Em comes to appreciate the sacrifices that go with doing what is expected of you as well as the benefit of being a free spirit and the contrast of pragmatism versus spontaneity. It is this very classic struggle that would enable educators to pair this story well with classic literature as well as the biography of authors such as Bronte sisters in a critical examination of feminine roles in society–even when those young women come from a privileged social class.

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Body of Water by Sarah Dooley

What should a girl do when her world falls apart? In Body of Water, Dooley creates a complex character who has no easy choices. When her family’s manufactured home goes up in flames, Ember loses everything. Platitudes about still having your family and your health mean little to a twelve-year-old who has to move her residence to a church basement and then to a campground. At twelve, Ember is also a size 14, and her weight is an ongoing struggle as she battles the depression of loss and the frustration of making friends when her and her family’s religious beliefs are off-putting to both family and strangers. Through Ember’s eyes, readers are given an insider’s view into the practices of Wicca and homelessness. Dooley does an excellent job of replicating the tremulous voice of a preteen as it alternates between sarcasm, depression, and wonder all in the space of a couple of hours’ worth of events.  Readers are invited to meet a panoply of fascinating characters from Ember’s immediate family to the exotic Felice to Lucy and witness Ember’s subtle transformation from sullenly self-absorbed to a more philosophical and balanced member of her family.

The comparisons between Wicca and Christianity are liable to create tensions in highly conservative contexts; however, it also provides an example for discussion about world religions and perspectives. Teachers wanting to integrate the Common Core State Standards will find ample material for helping students develop skills in the anchor standards of Key Ideas and Details and Craft and Structure.

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