Module 15: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Book Cover Image:

part-time indian

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

Arnold Spirit, or Junior, as he is known in Wellpinit, a town on the Spokane Indian reservation, has many strikes against him. He was born with hydrocephalus and underwent surgery at six months of age.  His brain disorder left him with physical disabilities and deformities. His family lives in extreme poverty – not even able to afford vet care for a dying pet – and his father is an alcoholic.  But somehow, Junior keeps fighting.  He is smart;  a talented cartoonist; and a decent basketball player. One day, he realizes he is using the same geometry textbook his mother once used, thirty years ago, because his school has no money to afford new ones. He gets so angry that he throws the book at his math teacher, an eccentric old man Junior calls “Mr. P.”  After that, Mr. P. has a serious discussion with Junior, about life on the reservation, about white people, and about Indians.  Mr. P. suggests the unthinkable — that Junior should leave the reservation and not come back.  For Junior, and for his culture, leaving the reservation is betrayal.  But Junior does leave; that very night, he tells his parents that he wants to attend a new school, in an off-reservation town called Rearden.  Once his parents agree, and Junior leaves Wellpinit, he finds himself stuck between two worlds:  he does not fit in at the white school, but he can never return to the reservation school.  Junior — now using his given name, Arnold — stays at the white school for the remainder of his freshman year.  He joins the basketball team; endures shunning from his entire town; and gradually makes friends at his school.  He also suffers from three deaths — that of his grandmother, his father’s best friend, and finally, his sister.  Arnold notes that the real difference between white and Indian youth is in the number of funerals they’ve attended; because of the prevalence of alcohol-related deaths on the reservation, Indian youth cannot even count their deaths on the fingers of both hands. At the end of the school year, Arnold and his former best friend, Rowdy, plan some one-on-one basketball.  Rowdy compares Arnold to nomadic Indians, noting that he is always seeking better ground.  Arnold tries to convince Rowdy to transfer schools as well, to get off the reservation, to be more nomadic,  but he knows the effort is futile.  In the end, there is only basketball, and a summer evening, and a resurrected friendship to think about.

 APA Reference of Book:

Alexie, Sherman. (2007).  The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.
 

Impressions:

The portrait Alexie paints of life on the reservation is both touching and horrifying:  the family connections and love that emanate from the page are touching, while the details of poverty, alcoholism, and fuitility are horrifying.  Alexie’s own life experiences inform his novel about a young teen struggling to find a way off the reservation that, according to his teacher, will kill him.  Some readers may have trouble believing Alexie’s descriptions, considering them exaggerations; however, I have some experience of living near a reservation, and find Alexie’s story  believable.  Junior, or Arnold,  is  at once humorous, and awkward, and confused, and lonely — just like any teenager. Because of some sexual allusions, I recommend this story for youth enrolled in 8th grade or older. My only criticism of Alexie’s work is the tone of  judgement with which he writes about life on the reservation.

Professional Review:

“Growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation, Junior is as unlikely a hero as you’ll ever meet. Born with a variety of medical problems and beset by family tragedies, he becomes a nerdy would-be cartoonist, his self-defense mechanism a wickedly sardonic sense of humor. As he explains it, ‘My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.’  But Junior, determined to break the cycle, enrolls in an all-white school off the reservation. His experiences leave us gasping in pain, laughing out loud, and feeling our hearts break. Told in a wise/wisecracking first-person voice, Alexie’s novel presents an unforgettable character, ready to take on the world. We as readers are pulling for him to succeed. “

Review Source:
Schmitz, T. (2009, January-February). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian.  [A review of the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by S. Alexie.] The Horn Book Magazine, 85(1), 25+.  Retrieved from Literature Resource Center.

Library Uses:

This novel can be used for multiple display purposes:  include it in a display of challenged books for Banned Books Week; use it in a display of literature by Native American authors for Native American Heritage Month; or display it among a collection of illustrated novels during Teen Read Week.

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Module 14: Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Stories by Jane Yolen

Book Cover Image:

yolen

 

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

This collection of twelve stories delves into fantasy in its many forms: fable, fairy tale, horror and literary variation.  Yolen uses both legend and literature as the basis for her stories, and creates fantastical variations on well-known tales.  One story revisits Wonderland, where Alice learns, in facing the omnipresent Jabberwock, that her courage lies in her ability to laugh at danger.  Another explores vampiric lore, detailing the horror of a young boy whose dead mother has returned to prey on his village. “The Bridge’s Complaint” tells the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” from the bridge’s perspective, turning the traditional story upside down.  Each of the twelve stories contains elements of familiar stories, although the reader sometimes does not realize the connection until the very end: in “Wilding,” a story of teenagers who turn into wild animals upon entering Central Park, the main character is rescued from a predator by a Max,  one of those in charge of the wild things.  After her incident, she leaves behind her wilding ways and decides to ask her mother if there is still something warm for dinner.

 APA Reference of Book:

Yolen, J. (1997).  Twelve impossible things before breakfast: Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Impressions:

This book surprised me.  I don’t usually like short stories, and so did not anticipate enjoying this collection. However, the way Yolen uses traditional stories and well-loved literature as the basis for her stories made each story a small treasure.  Her use of the short story form is, as well, delightful:  each story moves slowly enough to develop a setting and background, as well as to build suspense; yet it also moves quickly enough to build to a climax and come to a final resolution.  Character development is minimal, but her use, in many cases, of already-familiar characters helps augment the in-story characterization.  I enjoyed each of the twelve stories, but my favorites were “The Bridge’s Complaint,” an alternate version of the traditional “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and “Wilding,” an imaginative elaboration of “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

Professional Review:

” Although 9 of the 12 fantasy stories in this collection have been published before, it is truly nice, as Yolen herself says, to have them together “under one roof.” Yolen consistently writes fresh, off-the-wall stories that even children who don’t normally read fantasy will enjoy. Some of the tales have elements of horror: “Mama Gone” concerns a boy whose deceased mother is a vampire; “The Baby-Sitter” is about a girl who must follow a ritualistic pattern of movements to placate the mysterious “them” who lurk behind closed doors. Some are sweetly tragic, such as “Bolundeers,” in which a father saves his son from monsters. Others are twists on old stories: in “Lost Girls,” a Peter Pan takeoff, a new Wendy raises the consciousness of other lost girls and foments rebellion in Neverland. Yolen’s introduction and her final comments on the origins of each story add to the fun and provide wonderful insights into the writing process. “

Review Source:
Sherman, C. (1997, November 1). Twelve impossible things before breakfast: Stories by Jane Yolen. [A review of Twelve impossible things before breakfast: Stories by J. Yolen.]  Booklist, 94(5), 463. Retrieved from Gale Literature Resource Center.

Library Uses:

School Library Journal online recently published a blog post about the importance of reading aloud to teens.  Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Stories is a perfect choice for a read-aloud, perhaps in a scenario in which the school librarian “drops in” to a classroom and reads for five or ten minutes.  Each of these stories is short enough to read aloud in that time, yet gives the listeners the satisfaction of a complete story experience.  Additionally, most teens will connect the short stories with their more-familiar traditional versions.

Module 12: Nevermore: A Photobiography of Edgar Allan Poe by Karen E. Lange

Book Cover Image:

index

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

Lange explores the troubled, often misunderstood personality of one of the most-remembered figures of American literature.  Beginning with the untimely demise of Poe’s mother when he was very young, she traces a line of loss and morbidity through his life.  Although Poe had friends, family and even a wife to bring him some measure of  joy, Lange portrays a dark, sober individual who thought often of death.  She also focuses on Poe’s contributions to the canon of American literature, referring to both his famous explorations of the horrors of the human psyche, such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher; as well as to his lesser-known contributions, such as the detective  character Dupin.   As an artist, the Poe Lange describes suffered for both his genius and his criticism of other artists’ work; indeed, Poe made very little money from any of his publications.   Although his losses, both personal and financial, weighed heavily on him, Poe seemed to have eternal hope for a better life: at the time of his untimely, and misunderstood, death, he was preparing to remarry and to publish his own magazine.  In the end, Lange observes, despite great losses and a tarnished reputation, Poe’s legacy continues; he is, she states, “A writer who, 200 years after his death, still speaks to middle and high schoolers.” (2009, p. 58)

 APA Reference of Book:

Lange, Karen E.  (2009). Nevermore: a photobiography of Edgar Allan Poe. Washington, D. C.: National Geographic Society.
 

Impressions:

For nearly ten years, I worked as a high school English teacher; the junior American literature class was usually part of my assignment.  Yet, for all I thought I knew about Edgar Allan Poe, Lange’s photobiography revealed facts that were unfamiliar to me.  In particular, I appreciated the description of the early losses of his life, and her speculation about how that may have colored his personality, and indeed his writing, far beyond childhood.  However, Lange’s biography, though dark, is not hopeless.  The Poe she portrays devoted his life to the pursuit of excellence in his craft, and to the pursuit of happiness in his personal life.  He was not the depressed, manic, nearly insane character as which he is often described.  The addition of photographs, both of Poe’s family and home, and of modern-day trinkets modeled on the Poe character, lend an element of authenticity to the biography, and provide information beyond that revealed in the text.  In addition, further reference material at the back of the book encourage deeper exploration. This is an excellent, balanced, and informative biography that reveals another side of the Poe legend.

Professional Review:

” This very readable biography introduces Edgar Allan Poe. Effectively orphaned before the age of two by his father’s abandonment and his mother’s death, Poe was taken in by a foster family and educated well. As an adult, he lived in poverty and struggled with alcoholism and emotional instability, but wrote well-crafted, original stories and poems that profoundly affected those who followed him, particularly mystery and horror writers. Illustrated with many period photographs as well as pictures of Poe-related places and artifacts, the book has varied, spacious page layouts in which shades of turquoise add color to some of the illustrations and backgrounds. The jacket art, which features a photo of Poe’s face, overlaid with lines of manuscript, peering outward with haunted eyes, will draw both fans of Poe and a new audience. A chronology and lists of quote sources, books, articles, Internet sites, and historical sites conclude this handsome introduction to an American original.”

Review Source:
 Phelan, Carolyn. (2009). Review: Nevermore: A photobiography of Edgar Allan Poe. [A review of the book Nevermore: A photobiography of Edgar Allan Poe by K. Lange ] The Booklist 105(15), 35. Retrieved from Literature Resource Center.

Library Uses:

During the school year, around the time of Halloween, prepare a spooky story program for middle school students.  Darken the library; play spooky music; and read or storytell one of Poe’s short stories, along with other spooky tales.  After the program,  visit the classroom to booktalk  collections of Poe’s works, as well as nonfiction books about Poe.  Include this nonfiction book in the booktalks, and show some of the pictures  to the students.

Module 10: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Book Cover Image:

img

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

Mattie Gokey lives in upstate New York at the end of the 19th century, and does the best to fulfill the role of her deceased mother to her younger siblings.  Her father, distant and aloof since her mother’s death, does not understand Mattie’s desire for an education, and particularly does not understand her love of writing.  For Mattie, however, writing is the one part of her life that brings her freedom and exhilaration.   Her teacher encourages her to apply for a college scholarship, but even though she fills out the paperwork, Mattie can’t see herself actually leaving home and her family responsibilities to pursue a college education.  Compounding this feeling is the fact that she has a suitor, Royal, who seems to yearn for Mattie’s family’s land as much as for Mattie herself.  It seems to Mattie that a life of marriage and family has already been decided for her.

When her family’s financial situation goes from bad to worse,  Mattie convinces her father to allow her to take a summer job at a nearby lake resort.  There,  a young woman named Grace Brown makes an odd request of Mattie:  she hands her a bundle of letters and asks Mattie to burn them; a day later, Grace Brown’s dead body is brought back into the hotel.  She had gone boating with her companion — Mattie is unsure if his name is “Carl” or “Chester” — and it appears that both drowned.  Mattie can’t burn the letters; compelled to discover the story within them, she stays up late reading.  Within Grace’s letters, and Carl/Chester’s replies, Mattie learns the truth about a murder case.  Although Grace is now dead, her letters help Mattie to step out into a life of her own design.

 APA Reference of Book:

Donnelly, J. (2003). A northern light: a novel. New York: Harcourt.
 

Impressions:

The powerful story of how societal norms and expectations destroy one young woman’s life, and threaten to destroy another’s, captured me from the beginning of Donnelly’s novel.  In particular, the innocent, unsuspecting voice of Grace, revealed  through the letters Mattie reads, is unforgettable.  Donnelly’s style masterfully weaves together Mattie’s story, Grace’s letters, and the subplots about family and friends in the North Woods.

However, when I read the author’s notes at the end of the novel, and there discovered the truth of the Chester Gillette murder trial, and of how Donnelly came to learn of the story, my appreciation for this well-written, historically accurate novel grew.  The letters from Grace are not fictional, but based on actual letters that were presented as evidence during the trial.  Adding to the authenticity of the story is the thorough bibliography upon which Donnelly based the facts of the novel.  Donnelly notes that, “My grandmother, who worked as a waitress in a Big Moose camp in the twenties, says Grace Brown still haunts the lake.  Her letters will always haunt me.” (p. 383)  I would add that this novel, one of the most well-crafted I’ve read, will haunt me, as well.

Professional Review:

“Jennifer Donnelly’s first book for adolescents is a love story, historical novel, murder mystery, and coming-of-age tale all rolled into one engaging work of literature. The novel is based, in part, upon the sensationalistic true story of the murder of Grace Brown, whose body was discovered in the waters of Big Moose Lake, on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. Donnelly uses this event to spark and shape an intricate story that is large in scope and powerful in design.

The year is 1906, and 16-year-old Mattie feels trapped. Her mother has died, her elder brother has fled, her father is emotionally distant, and she is now responsible for domestic chores on the family farm, including taking care of her younger sisters. These responsibilities interfere with Mattie’s desire to write. Her liberal-minded teacher, Miss Wilcox, encourages her to apply to Barnard College. Mattie fears, however, that even if she is admitted on scholarship, she will not have the money to go and, more important, will not have the courage to leave her father and sisters when she thinks they need her most.

Mattie’s dilemma is further complicated by Royal Loomis’s romantic interest in her. Mattie admires Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, all of whom refused to give up their writing. . . . Despite this realization, Mattie feels safe and secure when she finds herself in Royal’s arms.

When money gets tight, Mattie convinces her father to allow her to spend the summer working at Glenmore, a resort a few miles up the road from her rural community in the Adirondacks. There, Mattie and her coworkers learn of the death of one of the patrons, a young woman who drowned while boating with her male companion, Carl. Just prior to her death, the woman, Grace, gives Mattie a bundle of letters and begs her to dispose of them. Overtaken by curiosity, Mattie reads the letters and learns the truth behind Grace’s relationship with Carl. This truth drives her to make a difficult decision regarding her own future.”

Review Source:
Glenn, W. J. (2003). A northern light. [A review of A Northern Light by J. Donnelly.]  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(3), 265-265,268.  Retrieved from www.proquest.com

Library Uses:

The Chester Gillette murder trial, the historical event upon which A Northern Light is based, was also the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser’s play, An American Tragedy.  In a high school library setting, create a rotating display of novels, plays, and nonfiction books that correspond to the time period being studied in history classes.  When the early twentieth century is the focus of study, make arrangements with the history teacher to booktalk this novel; if one of the literature classes is reading An American Tragedy, booktalk the novel there, as well.

Module 9: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Book Cover Image:

verity

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

The friendship between Maddie and Julie begins when they meet as enlisted girls in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1939, at the beginning of Great Britain’s involvement in World War II.  It ends on a riverbank in occupied France in 1943. The story of the relationship that builds in between these times is revealed, scrap by scrap, by Julie, who writes on pieces of paper she earns by trading bits of British radio code with her Nazi captors.  Just before Julie – also known as Verity, Katharina, Eva, and Queenie — is captured, the plane she and Maddie are flying crashes in Nazi-occupied France.  Julie, under threat of torture and execution, gradually reveals British code and landing strip locations to the Gestapo, in exchange for her life and the ink and paper she holds dear.  Her rambling story of her friendship with Maddie, interspersed with almost casual descriptions of her suffering at the hands of the Nazis, builds the first half of the novel.  In the second half, the story is narrated by Maddie, who fills in details of how Julie came to be in France in the first place, tells of attempts to rescue her, and gives the reader the final, gut-wrenching conclusion.

 APA Reference of Book:

Wein, E. (2012). Code name Verity. New York: Hyperion.
 

Impressions:

In a good mystery novel, the ending shocks the reader, tears down all the inferences previously constructed, and yet concludes the story in a way that perfectly solves the puzzle.  This description perfectly captures my reaction at the end of Code Name Verity.  So many loose ends are suddenly, shockingly, tied up in Maddie’s portion of the novel, and the final conclusion, though terribly sad, is also profoundly satisfying.  Wein portrays the main characters, Maddie and Julie, precisely by not portraying them:  by instead letting the intrigue and mystery of the story carry the reader along just as it does Julie’s inquisitors.  Her masterful use of the technique of the unreliable narrator leaves the reader wondering what parts of Julie’s writings are truth, and what parts are fabrications; ironically, her code name, Verity, means truth.  Usually I can figure out a mystery novel halfway through, and then continue to read just to see if my conclusion is correct.  Not so in Code Name Verity:  I did not foresee the final ending until I read it, sobbing the entire time. Code Name Verity is more than a mystery novel: it is at once a mystery, a spy novel, and a brilliant example of historical fiction. This is a perspective of World War II not often seen in Young Adult novels; interestingly, the Nazi interrogators, though brutal, retain human qualities in Wein’s hands.  Ultimately, though, this is a story of love and friendship despite horrible circumstances, in the face of pure evil.  One friend sacrifices her life for the other; the other returns the favor by sacrificing her innocence.

Professional Review:

” If you pick up this book, it will be some time before you put your dog-eared, tear-stained copy back down. Wein succeeds on three fronts: historical verisimilitude, gut-wrenching mystery, and a first-person voice of such confidence and flair that the protagonist might become a classic character – if only we knew what to call her. Alternately dubbed Queenie, Eva, Katharina, Verity, or Julie depending on which double-agent operation she’s involved in, she pens her tale as a confession while strapped to a chair and recovering from the latest round of Gestapo torture. The Nazis want the codes that Julie memorized as a wireless operator before crash-landing in France, and she supplies them, but along the way also tells of her fierce friendship with Maddie, a British pilot whose quiet gumption was every bit as impressive as Julie’s brash fearlessness. Though delivered at knifepoint, Julie’s narrative is peppered with dark humor and minor acts of defiance, and the tension that builds up between both past and present story lines is practically unbearable. A surprise change of perspective hammers home the devastating final third of the book, which reveals that Julie was even more courageous than we believed. Both crushingly sad and hugely inspirational, this plausible, unsentimental novel will thoroughly move even the most cynical of readers.”

Review Source:
Kraus, D. (2012). Review: Code name verity. [A review of the book Code Name Verity by E. Wein] The Booklist, 108(17), 50.  Retrieved from www.proquest.com.

Library Uses:

Create a display about World War II, pairing fiction and nonfiction works.  Include Code Name Verity; The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak; Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepeyts; and The Boy who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti as examples of fiction.  Pair Code Name Verity with an autobiographical nonfiction book about a real female double agent, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley.

Module 8: Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Book Cover Image:

finnikin

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

Finnikin is a young man whose father was captain of the King’s Guard in their beloved homeland of Lumatere.  Following a coup by a neighboring lord, Lumatere is placed under a curse that isolates the country from the outside world. Finnikin, his father, and several others have been living in exile for a decade, waiting for a chance to save their country.  Hope comes in the form of a strange girl, Evanjalin, who claims that Finnikin’s friend and heir to the throne, Balthazar, is still alive. Evanjalin has a strange power: she can “walk the sleep” of others – in other words, share in their dreams.  She uses the information she discovers, as well as her own boldness, to push events to a climax so that Lumatere can finally be freed. In doing so, Evanjalin has to hide her own secrets, however — secrets that will affect Finnikin and the entire country if discovered.

 APA Reference of Book:

Marchetta, M. (2010). Finnikin of the rock. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
 

Impressions:

 Marchetta spins a tale of a land torn apart by war, betrayal, and slavery, and of characters who are attempting to heal and restore their people. The complex plot line flows smoothly as Marchetta’s intelligent writing style weaves disjointed characters and events into a unified novel. One common element of high fantasy missing from Marchetta’s work is the presence of monstrous creatures; instead, the evil forces in this novel have human faces. In that way, even though the setting and some of the characters’ abilities are fantastic, the themes are powerfully real, and pertinent to both historic and current events. Be aware that, because so many of the story events are based on real-world happenings, all types of human brutality occur in this story; it is one for more mature readers. This novel is the first of the Lumatere Chronicles; the sequels are Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn.

Professional Review:

“A kingdom stolen and ravaged, a dark curse, a blood oath, and fierce love drive this sweeping fantasy set in an imagined feudal land. Since Lumatere was taken over by brutal enemies who slaughtered the royal family, Finnikin has wandered for ten years with his mentor, the king’s First Man, training in combat and diplomacy to prepare for a new Lumatere. An impenetrable black mist shrouds the kingdom, preventing their return, so Finnikin and Sir Topher seek a new land for the suffering Lumateran exiles. Then a strange message brings them to a cliff-top temple and a young novice, Evanjalin, who propels them on a journey fraught with danger but resolutely toward home. Revealing bits of her prophetic visions (but withholding other parts), Evanjalin both fascinates and infuriates Finnikin – a sure sign of romance – and readers will guess that she is more than a simple novice. Finnikin is a dashing hero (handsome, intelligent, a brilliant swordsman, and “no stranger to women”), but the mysterious Evanjalin is the stronger leader; their fateful love is entwined with the fate of the kingdom. A fully realized medieval world of bloody battles and dark mysticism, the fantasy is a clear allegory for the real-world atrocities of war, addressing sickness, hunger, violence, even rape. Swagger and swordplay among the men and tender moments between the young lovers lighten their hardships and hint at a hopeful ending.”

Review Source:
Adams, L. (2010). Finnikin of the rock. [A review of the book Finnikin of the Rock by M. Marchetta] The Horn Book Magazine, 86(3), 86-87. Retrieved from http://proquest.com.

Library Uses:

A central theme of this novel is exile.  Introduce this novel to junior high and high school students by referring to current news stories that show exiles and refugees, then ask students to imagine not being able to live in their homeland.  After posing this situation, give a booktalk about Finnikin of the Rock that focuses on the struggles of the Lumaterans to find and restore their homeland.

Module 7: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Book Cover Image:

alaska

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

In Looking for Alaska, we meet Miles Halter as he is about to embark on an adventure that will propel him, in his words, into “the Great Perhaps.”  Miles is a student of last words; he reads biographies only to find out what, at the moment of death, were the utterances of people from all walks of life.  And when he read the last words of Francois Rabelais – “I go to seek the Great Perhaps.” – Miles adopts this philosophy as a reason to leave behind his milque-toast life in Florida and attend Cutter Creek Academy, a boarding school in Alabama.

At Cutter Creek, Miles experiences both the academic challenge and the lack of parental supervision that boarding school offers.  For the first time in his life, he makes friends:  Takumi; Lara; his roommate, Chip – better known as the Colonel; and Alaska.  Alaska, a clever, funny, messed-up girl with a penchant for pranks and other illicit teen pleasures, also loves books.  Her entire dorm room is filled with them – what she calls her “Life Library.” As far as last words go, Alaska knows only those of one person, and she’s not even sure if they’re historically accurate: according to a famous novel about Simon Bolivar, the general’s dying expression was “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”  Alaska takes this to mean the labyrinth of suffering that is a part of human life, and Alaska has had plenty of suffering in her own.

At Culver Creek, besides the regular academic subjects offered at most high schools, students also take a comparative religion class. This turns out to be Miles’ favorite, partly because it lets him think about the Great Perhaps. For their midterm paper, the aging professor requires the students to compose what they think is the most important question human beings have to answer, and then to consider how the three major world religions have answered that question. Miles centers his paper on what happens after life, the ultimate Great Perhaps.

When the time comes to assign the end-of-year paper, the religion professor has a new question for the students to answer.  The question was both the thesis of Alaska’s midterm paper; and probably Alaska’s last question:  “How will I ever get out of the labyrinth of suffering?”

For Alaska Young, the answer seems to have been “straight and fast.”  Her friends spend most of the second semester of school trying to determine whether Alaska’s end was intentional or accidental — a “suident or accicide.”  In the end, however, they determine that it doesn’t really matter.  What matters more is that they had a friend named Alaska, that she made some terrible mistakes, and that they forgive her – and one another.

 APA Reference of Book:

Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.
 

Impressions:

It was with a somber heart that I read John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005).  From the beginning of the novel, the ominous chapter titles –  titles such as “one hundred thirty-six days before,” and “nine days after” —  imply that tragedy will strike at some point.  Unfortunately, the book’s tragedy is all-too-common in my community, and in our nation.

Green’s novel explores the tragedy of adolescent suicide from the viewpoint of those friends who, left behind, wonder how they failed to read the signs.  Some even wonder if Alaska’s death was really a suicide, as she always seemed so vivacious, despite the awful pain she’d endured.   In my experiences, helping three of my teenage daughters through the suicides of three different friends, the emotions that Green’s characters experience are exactly what my daughters have felt:  a sense of failing their friend; confusion; shock; a feeling of “but he always seemed so happy.” Miles and his friends express all of these emotions, and more, after Alaska dies. Green captures quite accurately what the teens who are left behind go through.

He also captures Alaska – both the crazy, reckless nature of a girl who is trying to mask her pain from herself and others, and the deep, introspective brooding of a troubled soul with no firm grasp to pull her out of “the labyrinth.”  Green draws Alaska with such realism that the reader connects with her, cares for her, and mourns her when she dies.

As Miles writes his final paper, he thinks of Alaska:  “. . . if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself — those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.  . . . We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.” At least for Miles, the labyrinth comes to represent not only the condition of human suffering, but also the conditions of friendship, adventure, and love.

In the end, it seems, there are no right answers for the question of how to escape from suffering.  There is instead just a choice to go on living. The Colonel sums it up best when he says, “After all this time, it still seems to be that ‘straight and fast’ is the only way out — but I choose the labyrinth.  The labyrinth blows, but I still choose it.”

As a mom, an educator, and a librarian, I wish we could tell all the  Alaskas in our world that we just want them to choose the labyrinth.

Professional Review:

” Sixteen-year-old Miles Halter’s adolescence has been one long nonevent -no challenge, no girls, no mischief, and no real friends. Seeking what Rabelais called the ‘Great Perhaps,’ he leaves Florida for a boarding school in Birmingham, AL. His roommate, Chip, is a dirt-poor genius scholarship student with a Napoleon complex who lives to one-up the school’s rich preppies. Chip’s best friend is Alaska Young, with whom Miles and every other male in her orbit falls instantly in love. She is literate, articulate, and beautiful, and she exhibits a reckless combination of adventurous and self-destructive behavior. She and Chip teach Miles to drink, smoke, and plot elaborate pranks. Alaska’s story unfolds in all-night bull sessions, and the depth of her unhappiness becomes obvious. Green’s dialogue is crisp, especially between Miles and Chip. His descriptions and Miles’s inner monologues can be philosophically dense, but are well within the comprehension of sensitive teen readers. The chapters of the novel are headed by a number of days “before” and “after” what readers surmise is Alaska’s suicide. These placeholders sustain the mood of possibility and foreboding, and the story moves methodically to its ambiguous climax. The language and sexual situations are aptly and realistically drawn, but sophisticated in nature. Miles’s narration is alive with sweet, self-deprecating humor, and his obvious struggle to tell the story truthfully adds to his believability. Like Phineas in John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace”(S & S, 1960), Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends.”

Review Source:
Lewis, J. (2005, February 1) Review: Looking for Alaska. [A review of the book Looking for Alaska by J. Green] School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://bookverdict.com.

Library Uses:

Create a book display for National Suicide Prevention/Awareness Month in September; feature Looking for Alaska, along with other titles about teen suicide and the survivors.  Some possibilities include Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher; Impulse by Ellen Hopkins; Where She Went by Gayle Forman; and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Module 5: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Book Cover Image:

shipbreaker

 Image Credit: Campbell County Public Library. (2015) http://www.ccpls.org.

Book Summary:

Nailer lives on what used to be the Gulf Coast in this novel, which is set in a post-oil world, following an apocalyptic world disaster. Like the many poor living in this brutal society, Nailer scavenges old shipwrecks for copper wire, crawling through the innards of the grounded ships to find every bit of wire available. Hopefully, what Nailer finds and turns in to his crew boss will be enough for one day’s survival. Nailer’s only friends are Pima and her mom; for everyone else around them, survival is worth any price, even the price of their humanity.  Nailer’s father is one of these characters, caught in a world of drugs and crime that threatens Nailer’s safety. Nailer’s hard luck seems to change when a hurricane grounds a wealthy sailing ship, and he begins to scavenge the luxury craft for whatever he can sell.  When he finds a girl aboard the ship, however, Nailer has to make a difficult choice:  sell the girl; keep her for ransom money; or treat her with dignity.  In this world, the most insane choice is the last one.

 APA Reference of Book:

Bacigalupi, P. (2010). Ship breaker. New York: Little, Brown, and. Co.
 

Impressions:

It’s easy to see why this novel won a Printz award: from the beginning the detail and storytelling draw in the reader.  One is with Nailer as he is trapped in a small hold in a sunken ship, or as he is avoiding his murderous father.  Gradually, chapter by chapter, Bacigalupi builds a deeply complex world of rules and beliefs by which any remaining society survives.  For simply the rich world-building and detailed descriptions of characters and places, the novel deserves an award. Throughout the action and detail of the story, however, Bacigalupi also weaves several important themes.  For the reader, there are several levels on which the story may resonate:  as a warning of what might come should our current dependence on oil remain unchecked; as an exploration of humanity’s survival instincts; and, especially, as a testimony of both the evil and the good of which humans are capable when faced with horrific circumstances. Nailer’s agony while trying to decide what to do with Nita reveals both sides of this humanity, and the reader is never entirely sure what course Nailer will take. In his final decision, he allows the good to triumph, and by this stage of the story, that decision feels like a triumph for the reader, as well.

Professional Review:

“. . . Ship Breaker is breathless, non stop action, with barely room to breathe. Getting lost in ships, hurricanes, deadly infections, knife battles, and that’s just the first third! The world-building is done so seamlessly that it’s not noticed. Along the way, much is given to the reader to think about. This is set in the future, but all the big questions are about our today: the divide between the haves and have nots, the ecological impact of actions, the use of child labor, as well as questions about loyalty, choice, and fate.

Everything is stacked against Nailer, from his violent upbringing to his daily exposure to health risks to his scarred body. Still, he strives, to escape, to better himself, to be a better person. I love this boy. I want him to win. I want him to triumph. . . . ”

Review Source:
Burns, E. (2010, August 20) Review: Ship breaker. [A review of the book Ship Breaker by P. Bacigalupi] School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.slj.com/.

Library Uses:

Do a book-pairing with this story and Ashfall by Mike Mullin:  both describe the unrecognizable physical geography of a post-apocalyptic world, and both detail the evil and the good of which humanity is capable in the face of disaster. This book pairing could take the form of a bookmark or handout, using the phrase “Like this? Read this!” to link the two novels.