Posts Tagged ‘realistic fiction’

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

Poliser_SummerLettingGo_jkt_website_207_1Gae Polisner’s The Summer of Letting Go (Algonquin 2014) will haunt me in all the best ways long after I turn the last page.  If you are looking for THE book to take to the beach or to the pool with you this summer, this is it.  Even if you are nowhere near a beach or pool, this hopeful, heartbreaking story will transport you there.

Francesca (known as Frankie) Schnell has been stuck in her life ever since she let her little brother SImon drown four years ago.  Now that she is about to turn sixteen, things are changing whether she wants them to or not.  Her best friend Lisette is dating Bradley, the boy Francesca likes.  Then another Frankie–Frankie Sky–shows up and cracks open questions that Francesca may never be able to answer.

One of the things I love about this book is the questions that it raises.  What is Frankie Sky’s connection to Simon?  What happens after we die?  There are more than enough coincidences to make Francesca–and readers–wonder, but the questions linger instead of being neatly answered.  It is in the asking and living of the questions that Francesca begins to live again and to let go of the guilt that plagues her.

How can you not love characters that live in these pages?  I love Francesca’s awkwardness and confusion and courage.  She’s not perfect, but she is willing to step up and do the hard things.  Frankie Sky is a whirlwind of energy and mystery–a four-year-old that is wise and stubborn beyond his years even when he tries to fly.  It is definitely Francesca’s story, but I love the supporting characters just as much, from the mysterious neighbor Mrs. Merrill to the struggling Mrs. Schyler.  Even the parents come across as real people–a welcome presence in a YA novel.  Oh yes, there just might be even a little romance.

Now I hope I can talk my daughter into reading it, but I may have ruined my chances by raving too much about it.

Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

casual vacancyI’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter series ever since my first year of teaching when a student presented a book report on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I stood in line at midnight release parties to ge the latest book as soon as it came out.  So when I heard that JK Rowling had written another book after finishing the Harry Potter series, I knew I wanted to read it.  I just didn’t get around to it until now.

Someone donated A Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, and Co., 2012) in a box of books for our Little Free Library.  I have to confess that I snagged it out to read before placing it in the library.  I am so glad I did.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Even though A Casual Vacancy is set in a small English village, I felt right at home.  Pragford reminded me of many small towns I have lived in.  I guess people don’t change that much around the world.

The death of Barry Fairbrother sets off a chain of reactions that both reveal and shift the existing faultlines in the relationships of the characters.  At first I found it difficult to keep track of the many different characters affected by Fairbrother’s death, but soon I was making connections between them as Rowling skillfully wove their stories together.  Many times the characters were not even aware of the threads connecting them in unsuspecting ways.

The novel begins and ends with tragedy, but along the way it is filled with humor.  That humor is needed as Rowling gives an unflinching look at some of the more selfish motivations shared by many of us.  The good people of Pragford have never forgiven the poor people of the Fields (mainly government subsidized housing) for being thrust upon them.  The good people of Pragford are ready to do almost anything to remove the Fields filled with undesirable people from their picture-perfect village.  Of course, Pragford is only picture-perfect as long as no one looks too closely or digs too deeply for long-buried secrets.

Even though A Casual Vacancy is filled with Muggles only, I loved every page.  It is not a book for every fan of Harry Potter, especially younger fans.  Rowling gives an unflinching glimpse of real life–including the darker side of drug abuse and promiscuity and violence.  I will be looking for her latest books, published under a pen name, to see what else she can pull out of her pen.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

imageI was captivated by Willow’s voice from the first page of Counting by 7s (Scholastic 2013) until the very last page.  Willow is not your ordinary girl, and she won’t let you forget it.  First off, she’s brilliant, but not the teacher’s pet.  I suspect her teachers don’t get her.  She loves numbers and is fascinated by plants and medical conditions.  She also picks up other languages such as Vietnamese in her spare time.

She also does not fit in at her new middle school.  When she scores a perfect score on the state standardized test (after showing no aptitude for high ability to her teachers), the principal accuses her of cheating and refers her to Dell Duke, the school psychologist.  Outside of his office, Willow meets Mai, a chance encounter that will change all of their lives.

What do I love about this book?  Let me count the ways.  There’ll be seven since that is Willow’s favorite number.

1.  Connections:  Even when life seems random and cruel, connections bring people together.  Willow has a real talent for bringing people together, especially people who didn’t realize they needed each other.

2.  Voice:  Once you read what Willow has to say, you won’t be able to get her voice out of your heart.  She is true and honest and sees the world a bit differently–more brilliantly–than the rest of the world.

3.  Alternating points of view:  Willow is not the only teller of this story.  A third person narrator fills us in on the rest of the characters from pseudo-psychologist Dell Duke to Vietnamese nail salon owner Patty and generous taxi driver Jairo.

4.  Unforgettable characters:  Even the ones who rub you the wrong way at first–like Dell Duke and the angry Quang-ha–turn out to have a better side.  Mai is a loyal friend from the start, and Pattie opens her arms and home to a little girl.

5 .  Coincidences:  Is life random and cruel?  Is life random and lucky?  Maybe it’s all of these and none of these, but Willow experiences them all.

6.  Passion:  Willow gives everything to her interests.  She has mastered medical textbooks and would be glad to sit down with you to discuss any concerns you have.  She has created a garden oasis out of a desert–not just once, but twice.

7.  Family:  Whether it’s the family she’s lost or the new family she’s found, Willow comes home to people who love her for who she is.  Now if we could all be that lucky.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has crafted a brilliant story of love and loss, passion and friendship, tragedy and miracles.

Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

I don't have a guitar, but this book might inspire me to pick up my dulcimers again.

I don’t have a guitar, but this book might inspire me to pick up my dulcimers again.

For my students, music is not only the soundtrack of their lives (as it is for mine, too), but music is their lives.  If they could, they would go through their days with music pouring into their ears.  Many of them have music pouring out of them as well, through singing or playing an instrument.

As soon as I saw the cover of Guitar Notes (Scholastic 2012) staring at me from the shelf of the Scholastic Book Fair, I knew I wanted to add it to my classroom library.  Mary Amato did not disappoint me with this witty and heartwarming story.  The premise is clever.  Two students–completely opposite in temperament and musical styles–end up sharing a music practice room on opposite days.  They begin leaving notes for each other–at first insulting, but later revealing.

The point of view switches between Tripp Broody and Lyla Marks, letting us get to know them separately and gradually, just as they get to know each other.  Tripp is desperate to spend time with a guitar–any guitar–now that his mother has taken his away until he pulls up his grades.  Lyla is desperate, too, but desperate for a break from the high expectations her father and friends place on her for perfect grades and perfect cello notes.  Neither Tripp’s mom nor Lyla’s dad are bad parents;  they are just imperfect ones who don’t see what’s right in front of them.

The notes that Tripp and Lyla write are highlights of the book.  They are funny and sarcastic, downright snippy at first.  But soon Tripp and Lyla are looking forward to receiving and writing the notes.  They challenge each other to be honest, and they teach each other what they love about music.  As they come together, they begin writing songs to share together.  As I shared bits of the book with my students, they were sure romance was on the way.  I was glad Amato did not take the obvious path with that part of the plot.  The friendship that grows between Tripp and Lyla is so much more than just a romance, even if it takes a tragedy to reveal the depths of their friendship to their parents and friends.

This novel is an ode to the power of music, and it doesn’t stop with the last page. In the back of the book is a copy of the “Thrum Society Songbook,” which has the lyrics and chords for each of the songs that Tripp and Lyla write.  Throughout the book, Tripp and Lyla share pages from their notebooks where they brainstorm and write their lyrics.  You can also visit the Thrum Society website where you can listen to and download the songs for yourself.  Amato provides the tracks and karaoke tracks.  Even though the songs are copyrighted, Amato gives permission for readers to write their own lyrics, perform and record the songs, or create music videos for the songs for noncommercial use.  The website also gives free resources for songwriting–writing notebooks, blank chord charts, links to songwriting videos and more.

Wolf Storm by Dee Garretson

imageStefan auditioned for a part in the action movie Ice Planet Earth never dreaming that he would actually get the part.  Now he finds himself on location in mountains of Slovakia.  He is trapped with a stuck up costar Raine, annoying costar Jeremy, and supposedly cursed costar Cecil.  Throw in some trained wolves for the movie and wild wolves surrounding the set–a run-down abandoned castle–and a blizzard closing in, and Wolf Storm (Scholastic 2011) has all the ingredients for an action-packed adventure.

Dee Garretson creates a story filled with suspense and danger.  The tension between the young costars soon turns to tension to survive against ever escalating dangers.  A snowstorm turns into a blizzard.  A blizzard turns into an avalanche.  Wild wolves circle closer, hungry.  Now Stefan, Raine, Jeremy, and Cecil have one chance to do whatever it takes to survive.

The Batboy by Mike Lupica

imageMy middle school sports fans love Mike Lupica, and I enjoy his books, too, even though I’m not a big sports fan myself.  Now that baseball season has rolled around once again, it is the perfect time to introduce The Batboy (Scholastic 2010) to my classroom library.

Brian Dudley loves baseball, especially his home team of the Detroit Tigers.  Even though his dad was a big league pitcher, Brian knows he is lucky to have a spot on his travel team.  Along with his best friend, Kenny, he plans to make the most of this summer of baseball.  But travel ball is not the only ball in Brian’s summer.  He has his dream job–batboy for the Detroit Tigers.  He gets to see every home game from his post right beside the dugout and wear the Big League uniform.  Brian doesn’t care that being batboy involves lots of work both before and after the games as long as he gets his fill of baseball.

Just like Lupica’s other books, there is plenty of baseball action, but there is much more than sports.  Brian’s dad may have been a great pitcher, but he loved baseball more than he loved his family.  Brian is elated when his baseball hero, Hank Bishop, comes back to play for the Tigers.  Unfortunately, Bishop doesn’t act like much of a hero in the locker room.  Brian’s efforts to deal with the disappointment caused by his heroes provides the heart of this story.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

lit selfie fangirlHow do I count the ways that I love this book?  While I fell instantly in love with Eleanor and Park, it took me a little longer to get to know and adore Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  However, Fangirl (St. Martin Griffin 2013) is one of those books that lingers in my mind and heart.  I haven’t wanted to pick up another book to read because I don’t want to leave Cath and Levi yet.  There are so many things I love about this book.  I think I will count them for you…or at least begin to count them.

  1. Cath is not just quirky.  She might just cross over the line a time or two.  After all, she lives more in the fantasy world created by a best-selling series than she does in the real world.  In fact, she often spends more time and effort avoiding the real world because new people and new places creep her out.  Despite her weaknesses, Cath shows strength and determination when it comes to protecting her dad and her sister.  Did I mention that Wren is her twin sister–her identical twin who promptly dumps her once they arrive at college.
  2. Fanfiction weaves in and out of this story in poignant and hysterical ways.  Yes Simon Snow is a boy wizard off to learn magic at a boarding school and destined to save the world from the evil Humbdrum.  Rowell treats us to “Encyclowikia” entries about the series, excerpts from the first seven (of eight) books in the series), and best of all,  excerpts from the highly popular fanfiction series Carry On, Simon by Magicath.  (You guessed it.  Cath writes this incredibly popular fanfiction that gets thousands of hits daily.)
  3. I wasn’t sure what I thought of Reagan at first.  She did terrify her freshman roommate, Cath, at first, but I came to relish her tough love.  Her brusque, matter-of-fact view of life is just what Cath needed.
  4. Levi is the perfect (slight spoiler alert) boyfriend.  I appreciate the fact it took half the book for the romance to blossom.  (I never liked that Nick guy anyway.)  Besides being absolutely adorable, he respects Cath for who she is–quirks and all–and will drop everything to be with her.  He’s even adorable when he messes up.
  5. Rowell deftly handles sensitive issues–mental illness and homosexuality–as part of the story but without making them ISSUES.  Cath worries about her dad and about herself,  but there different ways of seeing the world are just that–different, sometimes a challenge and sometimes a gift.  Most of all, I cheered for Cath as she discovered the strength of her own voice.

There is much more I love about Fangirl, but you should really read it for yourself.  Go get a copy while I wait for more books by Rowell.

The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

imageI already have a line of students waiting to read The Raft (Scholastic 2012) by S.A. Bodeen.  If they are looking for a gripping survival story, they will not be able to put this book down.  I picked the perfect time to read it, too, with the news story yesterday of the fisherman who survived a year at sea in his fishing boat before coming ashore on the Marshall Islands.

Robie thinks she is tough.  The fifteen year old survived the pain of getting her nose pierced by thinking of something worse.  It’s how she gets through unpleasant experiences.  She thinks she’s ready to say a week by herself in Honolulu while her aunt goes away on business, but once a homeless man attacks her, she gets herself on the next flight back to her home on Midway Island.  She’s an experience traveller and knows the pilot.  The co-pilot, Max, is new, but that shouldn’t be a problem.  Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the cargo plane runs into a thunderstorm and loses an engine.  Max shoves a life vest at Robie and prepares the life raft as the plane goes down.  She hits the water and Max pulls her into the raft, and their struggle begins.

Robie and Max don’t have a lot of options–no water and little food (Skittles, anyone?).  If they’re lucky, they might hit an island, but Robie soon realizes that no one knows she got on the plane.  Robie must learn just how tough she is if she has any hope at all to survive.

From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson

imageWhen I picked up From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (Puffin Books 1995) at the Authors as Artists series with Jacqueline Woodson, I didn’t know much about it.  I chose it because I connected with the description of Melanin on the back cover.  Melanin Sun sometimes has trouble getting his words out when he speaks, so instead he writes them in his notebooks.  I sometimes stumble when I have to speak deep truths aloud, but if I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the words flow much easier.

I loved how the first person narration and the excerpts from Melanin’s notebooks give glimpses into his mind and heart.  Melanin is happy with his life with his mother in their Brooklyn, New York apartment.  He hangs with his friends Raphael and Sean when he’s not poring over his stamp collection of endangered amphibians.  He carries Angie’s phone number in his pocket, dreaming of having the nerve to actually call her.  Then his mother brings home Kristen for dinner and reveals a secret that will change Melanin’s life forever.

Through Melanin’s eyes and words, Woodson explores sensitive topics of racism and sexuality with compassion.  In learning to accept who is mother is–opposed to who he thought she was–Melanin must find his own voice and strength.  He learns which friends he can count on and that he can open his mind and heart to more that he thought possible.  Woven through it all is an exploration of the power of words–power to shut out and to open up, the power to hurt and to heal.

Now that I’ve read all the books I bought, I’m ready to hit the shelves in the library to discover more.

Me, Him, Them, and It by Caela Carter

imageMy daughter picked this book up from our latest trip to the library.  As soon as she finished it on one of our many snow days, she handed it to me and said, “You have to read this, and you have to put in your classroom library.  It will be powerful birth control.”

Caela Carter gives an intimate look at the heartbreak caused by an unplanned, teen pregnancy in Me, Him, Them, and It (Bloomsbury 2013).  Evelyn is a good girl turned bad.  She’s still in the running to be valedictorian, but she has shortened her skirts and started drinking at parties in order to get back at her silent parents, who are no longer speaking to each other or to her.  As part of her bad-girl makeover, Evelyn hooked up with Todd, a friend with benefits.  She didn’t plan on falling for him–or to become pregnant–or to lose her best friend.  Now that her world is crashing down around her, Evelyn withdraws further and further into herself.

Evelyn is funny and heartbreaking all at the same time as she tells her story and tries to sort out what has happened to her and to her family.  She has no idea about what to do with this new life growing inside of her, and she is afraid to let anyone–even her beloved Aunt Linda–close enough to help her.  As the baby grows bigger and bigger, she is running out of time to make decisions.

I’m not sure any book is enough to be used as book control, but this novel certainly offers an eye-opening look at the changes an unplanned pregnancy can bring, and it does so without being preachy.  Thank you to my daughter for introducing me to another great book and author!

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