Let’s Celebrate Teen Literature Day, April 17, 2014 by praising and giving thanks for the wonderful work of The Abraham Lincoln Award and the Read for a Lifetime Reading Program committees. Illinois teen librarians are so fortunate in having two lists that promote reading for high school students. At Niles Public Library, these lists are crafted into colorful brochures each spring. This allows time for recruiting new readers for both programs and also allows time for the high school students to read the four books from each list. Since most titles are also appropriate for seventh and eighth graders the brochures are distributed with Teen Summer Reading logs.

Jeanne Urbanek of the Illinois Secretary of State Office oversees Read for a Lifetime with an excellent website that contains all participation, reporting and annual lists. Here is the “Hot off The Website” 2014-2015 list. Book Selection for the list is done by a 10-12 member Read for a Lifetime Book Club of public and school librarians, teachers, administrators and parents. The first of March each year, the members receive an e-mail requesting their suggestions. Each member sends a list of 25 titles. Jeanne puts all the suggestions together and pulls out the multiple mentions. The multiple mentions comprise the core list. She sends the remaining titles back to the members and they choose 15 titles from that list. This pattern is continued until the final list of 25 titles is attained. The deadline for reading the books is usually in the middle of April. All high school students who read four or more titles from the list receive a certificate from Secretary of State Jesse White. During the first 15 years of the program 17,450 students and 123 adults from more than 500 high schools and public libraries throughout Illinois have read 78,500 books.

The Abraham Lincoln Award committee is under the supervision of the Illinois School Library Media Association Board. The committee also maintains an excellent website with voting and registration information. There is a registration fee to participate in the voting process. All registered librarians and teachers nominate adult, young adult fiction and non-fiction titles in the fall and the nomination committee selects a long list. The reading committee, after reading the nominated books carefully, meets to debate and select the final list of 22 titles. The ABE committee is fortunate to have a high school student reader panel that participates in the selection day process. All titles selected by the students are noted on the yearly list. The deadline for posting votes for the ABE award is March 15th of each year. Here is the 2015 Abraham Lincoln Award List, also hot off the website. In 2014 150 public and school libraries participated in the ABE reading program with a total of 3451 high school voters.

Both lists coordinate well. The Read for a Lifetime list includes more classic and non-fiction titles along with contemporary young adult fiction while the ABE list mostly includes recent popular young adult fiction. There was a rule in the past that all books on the ABE list had to be paperbacks but that has changed in recent years to include hardcover books. The 2014-2015 lists have only two  titles Eleanor & Park and Raven Boys on both lists.

Happy Teen Literature Day to all Illinois Young Adult Librarians!

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Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Uncategorized


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FINAL ROUND!: Battle of the Author Last Names that I Can’t Pronounce

The plots of both titles have been summed up in previous posts, so I’ll spare you a couple of paragraphs.
Charm & Strange.

Charm & Strange tackles a common theme in YA fiction with a new slant and I applaud Keuhn’s approach to the subject charm and strangematter.  The protagonist, Drew, is a compelling character that grows immensely by the end of the novel.  I found Charm & Strange dark and remarkably peculiar.  I did, however, have several issues with this book.

The writing was a bit weak and the story had some major holes. With the exception of Drew, most of the other characters were particularly special or relevant to the plot.  The female friend could have been a great character; however, if her character was nonexistent; it wouldn’t affect the plot.  The ex-roommate, once again, could have been great but he was extremely underdeveloped.  Kevin and the cousins were flat and I didn’t care about them.

Out of the Easy
Girl power in teen fiction is the romantic comedy of movies. There are so many and in order to make it stand out, the writing has to be impeccable, the characters have to compelling, and the story has to be slightly different from the norm.  In Out of the Easy, Sepetys takes a different approach by introducing us to a strong girl who grew up in a brothel with a prostitute for a mother in 1950’s New Orleans.
Many authors have tried to write this story and have failed. Sepetys, however, manages to write wonderful round characters that are essential to the plot and Josie’s struggle to get out of the Easy.  She writes a relatable heroine who wants the educated boy who symbolizes hope as opposed to the hustler with seemingly no opportunities.  She writes a flawed girl who has been strong her entire life and finds it difficult to accept help.  She writes a role model who has a clear goal and works hard to achieve it.

index.aspxThe winner of this final battle is Out of the Easy.
Charm & Strange takes on a serious and familiar subject with a new approach. Out of the Easy also takes on a familiar subject but in a familiar approach. Out of the Easy stands out because of the writing and the characters. From the nasty brothel floor that Josie has to scrub to the streets of the French Quarter; Sepetys takes the reader to Josie’s life in 1950’s New Orleans.  Sepetys’s characters are beautiful people that you want to be friends with, including Willie.  It’s an engaging story of a girl with an unconventional family and an unconventional life who fights for her dreams.

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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Book Review, Tournament of Books


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Just One Day by Gayle Forman and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys are two of my favorite books of 2013. Both authors construct characters with the skill of a painter’s stroke.  The settings of New Orleans and Paris are vivid. Allyson Healey and Josie Moraine are strong protagonists who show a great deal of determination and character and throughout both books I was totally empathetic with both their struggles.  What is there not to enjoy while turning the pages!   Decisions, decisions…


In Just One Day Allyson Healey is the good girl who has always followed the program of her parents. Everything her parents want she wants. This novel is relatable to the huge universe of teens with helicopter parents. Her depression following the Paris episode is understandable and her lack of joy at the beginning of her freshman college year heartbreaking.  How Allyson comes to life with the friendship of Dee and her Shakespeare class progresses the story well. Although this is a coming of age story is it above all else a romance, a passionate love story. Willem is everyone’s first love.


Out of the Easy is all heart. “Josie girl, she got a heart like an artichoke. A leaf for everyone.” When I first read this book last summer I cried at the end. Rereading it for this review, on Fat Tuesday for true atmosphere, I again cried. I am such a sap for sad endings.  I loved the characters.  I loved the spunkiness of Josie, her concern for Charlie, and her quest for a college education. The banter between Josie and Willie was hilarious yet touching. The villains in the story are so slimy. Her poor excuse for a human being mother is pure evil and Mr. Lockwell made my skin crawl.

Ruth Sepetys can write!   She has crafted a historical fiction novel that captures the Southern charm of the city of New Orleans with all its highs and lows. Rising above the typical tired tale of a madam with a heart of gold she has written a novel with unique characters with a setting so strong you can envision every scene. Heart wins over Passion. 

My vote is for Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.

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Posted by on March 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


Charm & Strange VS The Dream Thieves: the inner lives of boarding school boys

17347389charm and strange

The two challengers that I was up against were The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater and Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn.

The Dream Thieves is the second book in Stiefvater’s Raven cycle. It follows the continuing adventures of Blue, who has joined up with a cohort of private school boys in order to revive a long dead Welsh king who they believe is buried in Virginia. This work delves deeper into the backstory of the violent and mercurial Ronan, and also introduces us to the mysterious Grey Man.

Stiefvater’s characters are always witty and fun to read, the various relationships are lovingly built up, and the last five chapters of The Dream Thieves had my eyes glued to its pages, but the beginning of the book was so odd and disjointed, that I had a less than immersive reading experience (it took me far too long to finish).

Full disclosure: the book may have also been put at a disadvantage in this challenge because I had not read the first novel in the series and reading the two back to back was jarring. After the adrenalin laced magic and wonder of the end of The Raven Boys my attachment to the characters was diminished by Stiefvater’s return to her first love, character development. The endings of both of Stiefvater’s books are spectacular, so much so that I am almost able to forgive each books’ interminable beginning… but not quite enough to let it win this round.

Charm & Strange is a wonderful book, but also problematic to review. I actually have a great deal to say about the work, but it is one of those books where the impact will be diminished if too much is revealed in advance. For librarians, however, I will caution that the cover image and intentionally vague synopsis may lead you to inaccurately categorize the work and I would warn against recommending this book to teens until after you have read it (and I personally will stick with pitching it to older teen/adult audiences).

This brilliant first work delves deeply in to one young man’s story, told in alternating chapters. Present day Win is living at a boarding school in Vermont, exerting control anyway he can, mostly by isolating himself and starving his body. In contrast we also get a series of flashbacks that show the same character as a young boy, Drew, lashing out in rage at himself and everyone around him. The more you learn about his past and present the more you want to immerse yourself into his life, and Kuehn masterfully builds the pace in both time frames to a heart shattering climax (that may or may not have left me in tears). She never loses focus and never backs off, which makes for an extremely intense reading experience.

Both of these books have strong and compelling endings and each author graced their characters with rich and complicated lives, but the clear winner for me was Charm & Strange for doing such a wonderful job of exploring deeply disturbing real world issues in a unique way.

Winner: Charm & Strange

charm and strange

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Posted by on March 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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In the Shadow of Blackbirds VS Out of the Easy

Which one will be the winner? Both of these books were stories I had been looking forward to reading. I decided not to read the previous bracket reviews of both and just start with the basic knowledge I had of both stories. So, on with the fun!

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters is set during the influenza outbreak of 1918. Mary Shelley lives in a in the shadow of blackbirdsworld where everyone’s nerves are frayed and on edge. Between not trusting neighbors for fear they could be spies and the flu pandemic that is striking down healthy young men and women, the country is gripped by terror. Mary Shelley is on run to San Diego to live with her aunt after her father was arrested for being a traitor. One solace Mary Shelley has is thinking of her love Stephen, who is off in Europe fighting in the war. Soon word of Stephen’s death reaches her. Voices and mysterious happenings make Mary Shelley believe Stephen is reaching out from beyond the grave to tell her something. Is it real or is it fake? And if it is real—what does he want her to know?

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys is also a historical novel, this time set during 1950 in New Orleans. Josie has essentially raised herself since she was 12. She has a mom, but her mom doesn’t care at all for her. Josie works mornings at a brothel for Willie. Willie might be a madam but she’s also a savvy businesswoman, well-connected in the community, and Josie’s mom’s boss. Josie second job is as a shopgirl at a bookstore. Between these two jobs and taking care of Charlie (the owner of the shop who’s suffering from a brain injury), Josie dreams of a life away from New Orleans and away from the life she associates with her mom. She’s inspired to apply to Smith after meeting an out-of-town Smith student as well as a bookstore customer who mistakes her for a college student. When the customer dies mysteriously, Josie’s world starts to falter as her mother is suspected of murder.

The winner is Out of the Easy. I really enjoyed In the Shadows of Blackbirds’s atmosphere and the contrast between Mary Shelley’s scientific mind and what is happening to her. I felt on edge during the whole story—would anyone survive? However, Out of the Easy captured my heart from the beginning. Josie was an amazing character to spend time with. The people who made up Josie’s world were an eclectic mix and I liked the family that she had found in them. A mix of mystery, coming-of-age, romance, and historical fiction—I felt like I could feel the steamy air of New Orleans around me. The feelings of not fitting in and wanting more are so universal that I found myself hoping that Josie would win out over New Orleans.

Winner: Out of the Easy


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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Book Review, Tournament of Books


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The 5th Wave vs. Just One Day (AKA Macarons vs. Sardines)

Trying to compare Gayle Foreman’s Just One Day and Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is more difficult than comparing apples and oranges. It’s like comparing…the perfect macaron in a Parisian café to tinned sardines when you’re starving amidst an alien apocalypse. They are both something you would not want to miss—but they are very, very different things. While Just One Day can certainly be categorized as romance, I would more precisely term it a coming-of-age novel. The 5th Wave is falls squarely in the post-apocalyptic province. Both books are excellent examples of the genre they represent. Since we’re on the second round of the tournament now, plot summaries of Just One Day and The 5th Wave have already been done splendidly by my colleagues. Here I will direct my focus to the merits and weaknesses of each book.

The 5th Wave blends the action-oriented quest to survive with the exploration of philosophical theme, “Whom 5th wavecan I trust?” The shifting points of view in this novel highlight the isolation of each character as he or she is faced with the conundrum of distinguishing the good guys from the bad. As humanity faces possible extinction by aliens, the age-old question, “What does it mean to be human?” arises amidst the characters’ attempts to maintain hope, dignity, camaraderie, and love. The fast-paced plot works both for and against this book. The pages turn as secrets reveal themselves and the reader seeks to know who will live and how. However, the abrupt changes in point of view and time frame occasionally disorient the reader, and keeping track of the first four waves of the alien invasion is in itself a challenge!  Also, because the extremity of the situation has distilled the protagonists’ lives to the bare essentials, the characterization sometimes feels sparse, lacking the endearing quirks that often enhance the sympathy one feels for the characters.

Just One Day, on the other hand, luxuriates in the rich details of setting, and the reader relishes the description of each character–even the obnoxious ones! Readers cheer for protagonist Allyson as she tentatively asserts her own identity against the one her parents have chosen for her and as she gains the confidence to pursue the mystery of what happened to Willem. Forman further explores the theme of self-definition through parallel and foil characters like Melanie, Allyson’s BFF from high school who reinvents herself monthly in college, and Dee, Allyson’s code-switching, out-and-proud, gay African-American study partner. At the close of this novel, the reader feels absolutely compelled to read the companion piece, Just One Year, which tells the same story from the elusive Willem’s perspective. Shall I count it a weakness of Just One Day that the story is not complete in the first book? Or is it Forman’s strength that she manages to show the other side of the coin with equal depth, detail, and pathos in the second book? (I know, I know, that’s cheating…I’m only supposed to review the first book for this comparison!) Still, if I have to pick “Just One Book” to move to the next round of the tournament purely on its own merits, I will pick Just One Day because of the richness of the life into which it draws the reader and the empathy it evokes for the characters, especially Allyson, in her voyage to find her own identity.

Winner: Just One Day by Gayle Forman.




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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Book Review, Tournament of Books


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Of Boxers, Saints and Dream Thieves

I had the task of deciding between two very different challengers, Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves.  It was hard to compare one to another since Boxers & Saints  are historical fiction graphic novels with a touch of fantasy and The Dream Thieves is a blend of realistic fiction and paranormal fantasy.  (Actually now that I’m reading through this again they’re kind of similar with how pieces of fantasy are intertwined in the story, but I feel it has a much bigger role in The Dream Thieves’  story building)

Boxer & Saints were well-crafted graphic novels, detailing the events of the Boxer Rebellion in China from two boxers and saintsdifferent perspectives.  The choice in topic really made the books stand out because I can’t think of one fictional YA book that focuses on the Boxer Rebellion (not saying that another doesn’t exist).  Plus the graphic novel format makes the topic much more approachable and engaging for some teens.  Along with detailing the two sides of the rebellions, I really liked the personal development of both of the main characters.  Both characters had flaws and difficult decisions to make throughout their journeys and the right answer wasn’t always clear.  Added bits of humor throughout the story help lighten some of tougher issues addressed in the book.  I enjoyed how Gene Luen Yang connected the two stories together by having characters from each book show up in the other story and sometimes even taking a critical role.  Overall, I appreciated the unique views that the two books provided on the Boxer Rebellion and how it deeply divided the Chinese people. While the experiences of the main characters were fantastical at times, both characters had relatable experiences, whether they were the complications of falling in love, family issues or where one’s loyalties lie.

The Dream Thieves is the second installment of a planned four book series by Maggie Stiefvater. If you had a chance to read the first book in the series The Raven Boys, you may have wondered how its storyline would spread out over four books especially since the ending (or what seems like the ending) is revealed at the beginning of the first book. The Dream Thieves makes it clear how this complex and interesting story can develop into a series.  Maggie Stiefvater impressed me by focusing much of this book on the dark and moody Ronan, which was a shift from the character focus in The Raven Boys. In The Dream Thieves, Ronan learns more about his ability to pull actually things from his dreams and he also starts to piece together secrets from his past. At the same time Adam is still trying to figure out his place in the world. Blue is struggling with her relationship with Adam and her visions of Gansey, and Gansey is still in search of a dead king, Glendower.  The story is told through alternating viewpoints, each is well developed. The characters are very deep, and more layers are revealed as you progress through the book, even with secondary characters.   Written beautifully with enchanting descriptions of dream worlds and reality The Dream Thieves keeps you transfixed and leaves you gleefully awaiting the next book in the series.

After much internal debate, I decided the The Dream Thieves is the winner.  The excellent writing and spellbinding story kept me turning the pages to the end.  It was one of those books that you’re sad to finish because you know you’ll have to go back to reading just- okay books for a while.

Winner: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

dream thieves

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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Book Review, Tournament of Books


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