Literature Log #2
The Hazel Wood
Author - Melissa Albert
Copyright - 2018
SUMMARY: “Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice's life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice's grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get.” - World Cat
MY REACTION: What would life be like if fairy tales were real and a bunch were coming after you? That is the main premise of The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. This fantasy suggests that there is an alternate reality that hovers nearby which is the world of a group of fairy tales. The world is called the Hinterland and it is ruled over by the storyteller. This is suggested to us in the very first few pages, but doesn’t really make any sense until you have gotten through a large part of the story.
Alice Crewe is the grand daughter of the elusive Althea Proserpine, the author of Tales from the Hinterland. She has never met her grandmother, never gotten to see her huge house called The Hazel Wood, and instead, she and her mother from town to town with a trail of bad luck following them. Alice has never read her grandmother’s book and only knows that she was named after one of the stories. After her grandmother dies ,Alice sees a man who had tried to kidnap her years before with a copy of the book and then is asked about her last name by a classmate. The beginning of the quest takes place.
The book took a bit of time for me to get into, but once the story got going, it was a really engaging read. I am a huge fan of fairy tales and love to look at them in a variety of ways. The fairy tales that exist in the Hinterland are not nice little tales, but feel more like the warnings that the original Grimm tales held. The closer Alice got to the Hazel Wood, the stranger the book became and the more engrossing as well. People who enjoy fantasy, quests, and fairy tales will adore this book.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: The Hazel Wood lends itself perfectly to having teens think about the fairy tales that they know and to change them. There are tons of fractured fairy tales out there, but this book brings in the idea of what if a main character wasn’t there. It would be a very interesting assignment to see teens transform a well known fairy tale similarly.
AUTHORS: Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
SUMMARY: “Things usually do not go as planned for seventeen-year-old Noah. He and his best friend Walt (aka Swing) have been cut from the high school baseball team for the third year in a row, and it looks like Noah’s love interest since third grade, Sam, will never take it past the “best friend” zone. Noah would love to retire his bat and accept the status quo, but Walt has big plans for them both, which include making the best baseball comeback ever, getting the girl, and finally finding cool.” - Goodreads
MY REACTION: Wow. Plain wow. I actually listened to this title and then read through the book. I think that having the author read a book in verse can have a huge impact on how the story is presented as you get their intended cadence, but no matter how you approach this book, there is power in the story.
It doesn’t feel all that abnormal for a teen to have a crush on someone that they have been friends with for years. But how do you tell that person without completely ruining the friendship? Noah is walking a fine line trying to figure this out for himself. At the same time, his friend Walt, aka Swing, is trying to act like the big man on campus even though he is geek through and through (slightly hyper, loves jazz, and baseball, even though he can’t play). Noah is struggling with the words to tell Sam when he comes across old love letters in a bag he has bought for his mother. They become Noah’s inspiration. We learn that Noah is also an artist, and when Walt sees the drawing that Noah has done of Sam, he sticks it into Sam’s bag as an anonymous note. This sets the story fully in motion.
But this book is by far just about the love story between Noah and Sam. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why the book was titled Swing. Then you get towards the end. The reader is introduced to Mo, Swing’s brother, and a vet with PTSD. Without giving away the ending, it is their story that is by far the most powerful aspect of the book.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: There are lots of possibilities in how to use this book. One way that would be powerful would be to have a mock trial about the officer reacted at the end of the book. Given that the reader knows the characters so well by this point, does that change the way they see things happening?
The 57 Bus
AUTHOR: Dashka Slater
“One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.
If it weren't for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.” Goodreads
MY REACTION: One little act done in a moment of stupidity for a 16 year old changed the lives of 2 teens forever. That’s part of the story that you will get in The 57 Bus. The rest of the book is the lives of the two teens. What it means to be agender in America, and for some what agender even means. It is what it is like to be Black in East Oakland or most big cities. It is what is right and what is wrong with our criminal justice system.
Sasha is agender, which means they don’t fit anywhere on the gender spectrum. They like to wear skirts and ties. They prefer the pronoun “they” since it reflects them best. Sasha is fortunate to live in a middle-class family and go to a small private school. Richard’s family is poor. His mother has to work multiple jobs and they live in the inner city. Richard is anything but a thug, he is a goofy kid trying to fit in. He is smart and cares about school, but most of the people around him don’t. He sees Sasha daily, but on the fateful day in question, he was on the bus with two friends who dared him to light Sasha’s skirt on fire. He never meant for them to get hurt. He figured the skirt would smolder some and then burn out or Sasha would notice it.
Slater takes the reader through both Sasha’s life and Richard’s. We meet their friends. We see what normal life is like, and we see how the incident impacted them. Was what Richard did a hate crime? Was it a dare or something filled with malice? Slater also brings in a lot of information on what it is like to be black in America and what happens to teens who wind up in the system. When the question arises about whether Richard should be tried as an adult or as a child, you can’t help but think about being a young, moldable mind in a jail full of adults who have given up.
The 57 Bus is a quick read, but one that is full of information for the teen audience. I found myself wondering “what if” a number of times. What if they hadn’t been on the bus that day? What if Sasha hadn’t been deep in sleep? What if someone had done something immediately? What if Richard’s lawyer had given Sasha’s family his letters immediately? What if Richard had been white? There are two stories here that most people never consider - the life of an inner city black teen and the life of a teen within the LGBTQ+ community. Both sides need their support structures. Both sides need compassion.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: There is so much to talk about with this book. The 57 Bus is a look at black life without the often contentious topic of police brutality, though it also addressed that underlying fear. Peer pressure is such a daunting topic for teens, this book could open up the conversation about the way teens feel pressured by their friends and the way that they stand up for them. I also think that this is a really amazing title to have on display for LGBTQ+ information.
What the Night Sings
AUTHOR: Vesper Stamper
CATEGORY: Historical Fiction
SUMMARY: “Liberated from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in 1945, Gerta has lost her family and everything she knew. Without her Papa, her music, or even her true identity, she must move past the task of surviving and onto living her life. Gerta meets Lev, a fellow teen survivor, and Michah, who helps Jews reach Palestine. With a newfound Jewish identity she never knew she had, and a return to the life of music she thought she lost forever, Gerta must choose how to build a new future.” World Cat
MY REACTION: I have read a lot of Holocaust books, perhaps too many. But this is the first time I have read a book that dealt with what it might have been like for someone in a camp after they were liberated. It wasn’t as if the camps got liberated and everyone had a place to go. Rather, there were people in a daze, some who had lost every person in their family and had no place to go. The people in their “home” countries didn’t want them anymore. What could they possibly have been going through? Vesper Stamper has both written and done artwork to tell this story in an amazing manner. The art does make an impact, so I would highly suggest that people read the actual book versus an ebook if possible.
In this story, Gerta Rausch didn’t even know that she was Jewish until the Nazis came to take her and her father away. Her father was a famous viola player and after her mother died, he married a famous opera singer. She was training Gerta in voice while her father trained her in viola. The book is divided into parts that tell her story in flashbacks. From Terezin she and her father go to Auschwitz and her life is saved because she can play the viola and from there she goes to Bergen-Belsen. These spaces each have different meanings to anyone versed in Holocaust history and Stamper does an excellent job painting them to readers who do not.
Once the camps are liberated, Gerta and others are left to flounder. She meets and befriends Lev, a fellow survivor who was raised in a very observant Jewish home. She also meets Michah, another survivor who is now working with the underground to get Jews to Palestine. She goes back and forth in relationships with both, but even more, as the time after liberation extends, she grows stronger in both physical and mental health and learns who she is now that her entire world has changed. This is a story about being a survivor. About going on and living your life even when such horrendous things have happened all around you.
This was an exceptionally powerful book. Then I read the author’s note and learned why she wrote it. It was both because she knew little about the Holocaust even though she had grown up Jewish and because she had been in a car accident years earlier and the dream she had of being a musician was immediately crushed. She had to find her own survival story in the same way that Gerta and the other survivors did. I think her story is important because it is a way for teens to understand that the story has value for them even if they are not Jewish and even if the Holocaust does not hold deep meaning for them, but we all have to consider our own stories and know that there is strength in all of us to make something of ourselves.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: Every year in April is the Jewish holiday, Yom HaShoah, a day set aside to remember those that we lost in the Holocaust and the stories that we need to continue to tell. I think this book deserves a place in a display of Holocaust stories. There are many books that tell the story in a variety of ways, and having something that talks about what happened to Jews after liberation is especially important.
A Vast Large Expanse of Sea
AUTHOR: Tahereh Mafi
CATEGORY: State Winner
SUMMARY: “It's 2002, a year after 9/11. It's an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who's tired of being stereotyped. Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She's tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments--even the physical violence--she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she's built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother. But then she meets Ocean James. He's the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her--they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds--and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she's not sure she'll ever be able to let it down.” World Cat
MY REACTION: If you have ever wondered what it might feel like to be on the other side of the story of Americans vs Muslims, this is a must read. Tahereh Mafi crafted a story that feels incredibly real and plausible. She doesn’t attempt to solve any of the problems that are faced by Muslims in America, those that wear the hajib and those that don’t, but she shows just how complicated life can be.
Shirin walks around school with a chip on her shoulder. She has moved so many times that she has lost count and knows the drill. She knows that her appearance will disturb some of her classmates. She knows that her teachers will have difficulty pronouncing her name. So she hides with her earphones neatly hidden by her hijab and just tries to make it through the day. Her older brother doesn’t have it quite as hard. He doesn’t wear anything to announce his faith. So when Ocean takes an interest in her, she admits that she was so lost in her own loneliness that she never even noticed that he existed. She feels at once that she has just as much right as anyone to belong while constantly feeling that she is not welcome.
What makes this story extra interesting is that Ocean, and thereby the reader, gets a lesson in white privilege. Ocean is somehow naive and oblivious to the reactions that their fellow classmates have toward Shirin. He can’t understand why the two of them dating might not sit well with everyone else and why Shirin keeps trying to push him away. Little does Shirin know, he is also a big man on campus. As their relationship progresses and the taunts continue, Ocean’s desperation rises while Shirin has a growing need to disappear.
The book doesn’t give any true closure to the issue. The idea isn’t to have closure, but to have hope. Shirin says it best in the book - “Ocean had given me hope. He’d made me believe in people again. His sincerity had rubbed me raw, had peeled back the stubborn layers of anger I’d lived in for so long. Ocean made me want to give the world a second chance.”
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: There are a lot of conversations that could be had with this book, but I also think it would make for a very interesting discussion about religious practices surrounding clothing for both men and women and how the westernization of countries has impacted some of those traditions. This discussion would also help students see the similarities between various religions and their customs, hopefully providing a better understanding. Part of the problem with clothing items like the hajib is simply that people don’t understand what it is or why it is worn. Similarly, people don’t understand men wearing tzitzit or women dressing in a frum style.
I'll Give You the Sun
AUTHOR: Jandy Nelson
SUMMARY: “At first, Jude and her twin brother Noah, are inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them. Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways . . . but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor. The early years are Noah's to tell; the later years are Jude's. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they'll have a chance to remake their world. This radiant, award-winning novel from the acclaimed author of The Sky Is Everywhere will leave you breathless and teary and laughing—often all at once.” Goodreads
MY REACTION: This book won a Printz Award and was a Stonewall Honor book. I spent the first half to two thirds of the book wondering how that was even possible. I found myself incredibly frustrated and bored with the beginning of the story, yet knew I had to finish it because I was running out of time to get all of my books finished. There are many pieces to this story and it has unusual elements, let alone being told by alternating characters in alternating times. Noah is constantly painting pictures in his mind and coming up with random titles for them. Jude apparently talks to her dead grandmother and spouts random sayings that are either bible quotes or notes of how the universe works. Neither of these things worked particularly well for me. The first half of the book struggled to have a story to grasp onto. That fortunately worked itself out, but it didn’t happen soon enough.
The book is filled with secrets and it is those secrets that cause the bulk of the problems. Not that we don’t all keep secrets, but pretty much everyone in this story has big secrets that they are keeping - sexuality, relationships, art school applications, even the belief that they caused someone’s death. It gets a bit overwhelming to have so many storylines center around secrets.
As Jude meets Guillermo and Oscar, I found myself getting more involved in the story. Oscar’s character is especially interesting and had been one of the few bright moments of the beginning of the book as well. There is a lot of meat to this book and lots of things to consider, but it was a bit too much for me. As for the honors, I do understand the Stonewall honorable mention as their handling of sexuality was done incredibly well.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: Considering that I’m not the best source to hold a discussion on this book, I would use this title in displays about LGBTQ+ topics, award winners, and family dynamics. Interestingly, this book is also on the NC MBOB list this year, so it could go on a display of current and previous Battle of the Books titles as well just talked about with the team. I am actually very curious how our team will feel about this book (I’m a volunteer assistant coach at my daughters’ school).
AUTHOR: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
SUMMARY: “Hey, Kiddo is the graphic memoir of author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Raised by his colorful grandparents, who adopted him because his mother was an incarcerated heroin addict, Krosoczka didn't know his father's name until he saw his birth certificate when registering for a school ski trip. Hey, Kiddo traces Krosoczka's search for his father, his difficult interactions with his mother, his day-to-day life with his grandparents, and his path to becoming an artist.” Goodreads
MY REACTION: This was another book where “everyone” gushed over it and I felt “meh.” I think his story is interesting and I give him a lot of credit for getting through a truly rough childhood with the strength and determination that he did. That said, the book itself felt repetitive and felt dark due to the color choices. I would have also liked to have seen dates on when some of the story was taking place.
Krosoczka’s childhood was a painful and confusing one. His mother was an addict and in and out of jail, he had no idea who his father was, he lived with his grandparents who themselves had an awkward relationship. He constantly saw the people around him making poor choices and fighting. His only escape from this reality was art, and he was very fortunate to have some teachers along the way that supported him.
The story was exceptionally sad. There is also nothing that I could personally relate to which made it more difficult for me to get invested. But I also know that this is an important book because there are a lot of kids out there who CAN relate to this story. They need this story to see that even though life can be really, truly awful, that doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed. The fact that Krosoczka has gotten as far as he has shows that his determination and desire can help a person get past the crudy parts of childhood.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: As I said above, I think that this is an important book to have in school libraries and an important book for a lot of teens because it can help people going through difficult times have hope. The positive outcome for Krosoczka is his career and this book would make a great entry way in having students make their own comics or zines. Whether they draw them out by hand or use a program like storyboard.com, they can tell their story through comics. I would also pair it with Raina Telgemeier’s Smile.
Girl in the Blue Coat
AUTHOR: Monica Heese
CATEGORY: Edgar Award Winner
SUMMARY: “Amsterdam, 1943. Hanneke spends her days procuring and delivering sought-after black market goods to paying customers, her nights hiding the true nature of her work from her concerned parents, and every waking moment mourning her boyfriend, who was killed on the Dutch front lines when the Germans invaded. She likes to think of her illegal work as a small act of rebellion.
On a routine delivery, a client asks Hanneke for help. Expecting to hear that Mrs. Janssen wants meat or kerosene, Hanneke is shocked by the older woman's frantic plea to find a person - a Jewish teenager Mrs. Janssen had been hiding, who has vanished without a trace from a secret room. Hanneke initially wants nothing to do with such dangerous work, but is ultimately drawn into a web of mysteries and stunning revelations that lead her into the heart of the resistance, open her eyes to the horrors of the Nazi war machine, and compel her to take desperate action.” Goodreads
MY REACTION: Girl in the Blue Coat was a wonderfully written novel that did a great job in showing how people living through the German occupation were unaware of what was really happening and how some people fought back. Hanneke is a headstrong character who has been hurt by the loss of both her love and her best friend. She has gotten used to being alone and not relying on anyone. When she is forced to accept help from others, she is able to see the bigger picture. I listened to most of this book as an audio book. I read parts of it when I was just so engrossed that I wanted to absorb it as quickly as possible, but for me, it is best as an audio book. There are so many Dutch and German words in this book and names that we are not used to, that having the audio book alleviates the feeling that you are constantly mispronouncing something.
Hanneke is a young girl just trying to stay alive and help feed her family. She has become adept at lying to soldiers and sneaking around. When Mrs. Janssen asks her to find a young Jewish girl and tells her the backstory of why she was hiding her, she wants no part of it, but she is good at solving puzzles and the story pulls at her. When her questioning leads her back to her boyfriend’s brother, she winds up getting pulled into much more than just looking for one girl, she learns that there is a whole resistance going on trying to make a difference.
But this is also a book about friendship, betrayal, faith, and forgiveness. Hanneke is very angry at her situation. Her boyfriend was shot and shortly after she feels that her best friend has betrayed her so she dissolves the friendship. Ollie has to trust Hanneke and as she comes to know his group of friends, she realizes that try as she might, they have also become her friends that she feels an obligation toward. The betrayal at the heart of the novel is handled so well, but can't be discussed because it gives too much away.
This book tore at my heart. The characters were very real and as the story continued to unfold, so many things broke my heart. There has always been talk about “how could people have not known” what was happening to the Jews. It was easy. The Nazi’s were good at hiding it. Hanneke’s eyes are opening in more ways than one in this powerful story and I highly recommend it.
HOW I’D USE THIS TITLE: This book needs to be part of a larger display and lesson about the Holocaust. The German Occupation impacted people in so many countries, and it wasn’t just the Jews. Heese talks about how Jews were hidden, how locals turned people in, how there were many people doing all they could to save as many children as they could. Heese even brings in what it was like to be LGBTQ in that time period. A lot of great information for high schoolers.
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
AUTHOR: Steve Sheinkin
SUMMARY: From Steve Sheinkin, the award-winning author of The Port Chicago 50 and Bomb comes a tense, exciting exploration of what the Times deemed "the greatest story of the century": how Daniel Ellsberg transformed from obscure government analyst into "the most dangerous man in America," and risked everything to expose the government's deceit. On June 13, 1971, the front page of the New York Times announced the existence of a 7,000-page collection of documents containing a secret history of the Vietnam War. Known as The Pentagon Papers, these documents had been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Chronicling every action the government had taken in the Vietnam War, they revealed a pattern of deception spanning over twenty years and four presidencies, and forever changed the relationship between American citizens and the politicians claiming to represent their interests. A provocative book that interrogates the meanings of patriotism, freedom, and integrity, Most Dangerous further establishes Steve Sheinkin as a leader in children's nonfiction.
MY REACTION: I am not a huge reader of nonfiction, but Steve Sheinkin grabbed my attention from the very beginning and never let it go. Even though I know a lot about the Vietnam war and especially about the news coverage of the Pentagon Papers, there was always something to learn. This book might technically be considered YA, but Sheinkin’s style of writing and attention to detail can be appreciated by anyone.
While the book is, on some levels about Daniel Ellsberg, it is also utilizing him as a way to paint a picture of what was happening in Vietnam. As we move further away from the war and as the experience gets talked about less, the current generation definitely doesn't know as much about what happened and how it shaped our country. The current generation doesn't know about the forced draft, about the political protests, and about the secrets that could happen in a political climate without the internet.
Sheinkin wrote this book in a way to keep middle and high school kids turning the pages. There were moments of anticipation in many ways it felt like an action packed thriller with you wondering what was going to happen next. A definite must read for school aged kids.
HOW I'D USE THIS BOOK: This book is a must for American History classes discussing America during Vietnam. It is also a very important read to discuss civics and the first amendment. Kids right now are inundated with a political machine that claims the media is printing and producing fake news. There are many lies out there, and students should have a class talking about that. But in addition to fact finding, the newspaper has always been an important part of our country in that there are no governmental controls other than not printing things that are libelous. In addition to reading what the various papers chose to do with information that they were not supposed to have, it is a good question for students to ponder - how would they have reacted? Parts of the movie "The Post" could also be played while discussing this.
AUTHOR: Neal Shusterman
CATEGORY: Printz Award
SUMMARY: Thou shalt kill.
A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.
Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own. - Goodreads
MY REACTION: I loved this book. On some levels I wish I had read it sooner, and on others, I’m glad I waited because I can jump right into book 2.
Scythe is a gripping novel that takes readers into the future and poses questions that should be on the minds of people today. Issues that plague us now have been alleviated in this future society because all of that information that gets uploaded to “the cloud,” has morphed and managed to gain artificial intelligence alleviating the need for politics and politicians that lie. The newly renamed Thunderhead contains information on everything you ever wanted to know about anyone in its near infinite memory.
Scythe focuses on two teens - Citra and Rowan. Each come face to face with a scythe and walk away unharmed. Even more, they have both impressed this scythe so much that he chooses both of them to be his apprentices and learn the art of “gleaning” people. It is a job that no one really wants to have, but someone has to do it and gives their families immunity from being gleaned for as long as they remain scythes. The teens move in with Honorable Scythe Faraday and he trains them in how he selects people to be gleaned and how to kill someone in more ways than you could imagine. Chapters are also interspersed with entries from a few scythe’s gleaning journals contemplating how and why they do what they do.
As the book progresses, the world they live in becomes increasingly darker and it becomes obvious why there is no such thing as a true utopia. There is always going to be someone wanting power, it is basic human nature. There are always going to be questions of judgement and right versus wrong. Within the world of Scythe, Citra and Rowan have to consider what is the right way to decide who should be gleaned? Should gleaning be quick and painless or should you prepare someone for it? And what about mass gleanings?
This quasi-utopian society has ideals of what life could be like but shows that darkness exists in humans no matter how perfect you think you have made a society. Shusterman leads readers to this world and makes them think a little bit more about life and death, right and wrong, power struggles, and the information you put in the cloud. Greatly looking forward to book 2.
HOW I’D USE THIS BOOK: This is a great book to include in a discussion about Utopias. You can’t ignore the classics of 1984 and Brave New World, but students will probably be able to relate to Scythe better than those. Additional discussions would be to compare Scythe to other modern dystopias like The Hunger Games. Additionally, there is a lot to unpack about the mass killings that Goddard and his crew perpetrate and how the people in his crew respond to them.