Round one: The Winner’s Curse vs. This One Summer

In The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski, readers are introduced to a world wherein the nation of Herrani had not very long ago been conquered and then enslaved by the Valorian army. Kestrel, our seventeen year old main character, is the daughter of a Valorian army general, and is on the cusp of having to make a huge life choice because at the tender age of twenty, Valorian citizens are forced to either enlist in the military – or get married.winner's curse

Kestrel, of course, wants nothing to do with either of these options, preferring to devote her life to the piano rather than follow in her father’s footsteps or raise a litter of children. Music, however, was highly esteemed in Herrani society, and while it is acceptable for Valorians to enjoy, it is not permitted for a Valorian to play an instrument, sing, or otherwise make music in any way or form.

When the book began – and, honestly, based off of its summary – it reminded me of a strange combination between Wuthering Heights and Footloose, a correlation which was only strengthened by one of the characters, Arin Smith, and his resemblance to a younger, more verbose Heathcliff. But I digress – the book picks up remarkably once it delves into Smith’s revolutionary plans, and, even better, Kestrel grows a spine (apparently political intrigue suits her).

The Winner’s Curse also falls within the romance genre, and there is of course an obligatory love-triangle, which was for once not that obnoxious – all three characters are pretty well-developed, amusing, and well-written. On top of this, the world building was excellently handled; there was no info-dump, everything (society, rules, the culture, etc.) made sense and was explained naturally through the course of the book, and the political plot is, in a word, amazing. There were portions in the story where the plot was transparent, but it is an overall enjoyable journey that even featured awesome background characters.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki is, first and foremost, a piece of breathtaking artwork. I mean, the art for this graphic novel is seriously A+, 10/10 would recommend. This One Summer is about a young girl named Rose Abigail Wallace. Rose has gone on a family vacation to the same each in the same town and played with the same friend (Windy) since she was five, but this summer – THIS summer – it’s different. This summer Rose’s parents are fighting.

There are other kids at the beach, locals and vacationers like Rose and Windy, and everybody seems to know everybody in a small-town kind of way – which would be great, but apparently RThis-One-Summer1ose’s parents’ fight has also caused Rose to feel the need to act out in cruel little vindictive ways girls do – especially when aimed at other girls.

This One Summer is, at its heart, a coming of age story. The story is tied with a meditation on divorce and its possible effects on the children caught between feuding parents, but it is mostly about that period in life where a child teeters on the edge between youth and their teenaged years – and you can literally feel the teetering here, it’s excellent. On one side, Rose is very ambivalent towards growing up; all Rose really wants to do is relax at the beach with friends she’s had for years. On the other hand, however, this summer Rose is obsessed with the lives of the older teens at the beach, and is also experimenting with the words they use (sluts! boobs!) and the things they try (bullying! sex! cigarettes!).

The characters in This One Summer are achingly familiar to anyone who has grown up. The artwork is beautiful and the characters are lovely and bittersweet in their awkward transition towards adulthood. The story was very real and did not pull punches with either content or language.

The Verdict: This was a challenging round to judge for me. Not only is judging between two mediums is always going to be difficult, but I equally adore graphic novels and the Fantasy genre, so attempting to choose between the two was a strain. As much as I love myself some High Fantasy and world building, The Winner’s Curse was at heart a Romance and did not have a strong enough female protagonist for my tastes, never mind the whole casually treated background issue of war and enslavement of the conquered society. This One Summer, however vivid and beautiful, was just so horribly negative – though essentially a bildungsroman, the entire story was filled with girls hating on other girls (spoiler: there’s slut-shaming).

I honestly thought I was going to like This One Summer best, but it turns out the winner is…

Winner: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski

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Round one: Glory O’ Brien’s History of the Future VS Grasshopper Jungle AKA Chronicles of the Apocalypse

In Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King, Glory O’Brien has no future. Despite her impending high school graduation, and her talent as a reflective and creative photographer, Glory has applied to no colleges and made no plans. Glory has become paralyzed by the fear of becoming her mother, Darla. Darla O’Brien, also a smart, funny, creative young woman and a gifted photographer, committed suicide when Glory was four years old. Glory’s father never recovered, giving up on his own career as a painter and eating himself to 400 pounds; he has stopped truly living. Glory has a “best friend,” Ellie, who is a friend only by default of proximity. Though Ellie brags about one day running away from her family’s controlling hippie commune, she too has no future plans.Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

When Glory and Ellie drink the desiccated remains of a bat, the two girls can suddenly see the past and future of each person they meet. And Glory sees horrific things. Everyone’s future culminates in a second Civil War, the history of which Glory begins to write down. She seeks out new people to piece together the story of this future she uncovers, and in doing so discovers her own past, present, and future. She gains the courage to ask questions about her mom, sets healthier boundaries with the parasitic Ellie, and reconnects with her dad. Readers watch a frightened teen become a compassionate, courageous young adult who not only turns away from numb despair toward hope, but helps others do the same. Despite the dark future Glory sees, knowledge that she will play a role in the future empowers her. She has the power to build her own future and begins to do just that.

A more visceral apocalyptic tale, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is quite literally a story of piss, shit, blood, and semen – the very stuff of life. The dust jacket promises catastrophic action, with 6-foot, man-eating praying mantises, yet these monsters don’t appear till almost 150 pages into the story. And while they do provide pretty provocative action, they are but a metaphorical and atmospheric backdrop for Austin Sczerba’s quest for truth. Austin is chronicling the history of the end of the world as these giant bugs take over. And much like the giant bugs, EVERYTHING in the history of the end of the world makes Austin horny – most of all his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend Robby. They are both in love with him, and he with them.  Austin can’t decide between the two people he loves more than anything in the world and he smashes both their hearts trying not to decide between them. But this is not the real crux of the story either.

As Austin tells his Grasshopper Junglepersonal history of the end of the world, he recounts the history of his Polish immigrant ancestors (and their glamorous urinals), vagrants, cooks, neighbors (and their testicles), friends, strangers, politicians (and their testicles), teachers, Saint Casimir, a mad scientist (and his semen), cave painters, and humanity itself. In the larger narrative created, we are a bunch of messy animals, trying and failing miserably to prevent the repetition of our own mistakes. And the inevitability of it is gut wrenching, terrifying, and tragic. The bugs, Austin, his friends, and family become a metaphor for all of humanity desperately chronicling their terrible mistakes in an effort to create some tiny change in human history. It’s funny and clever, crude and uncomfortable, raw and poignant, and absolutely heartbreaking. This is a story, like all of Andrew Smith’s, that will stay with me.

These were excellent books to juxtapose – both about teens finding themselves amidst tragedy, the unraveling of civilizations, and the connectedness of past, present, and future. But the history chronicled by Glory O’Brien pales in comparison to that written by Austin Sczerba. Glory’s magical visions of the future are almost unnecessary to the novel. They are emotionally distant, lifeless, lacking detail. But her story is more accessible than Grasshopper Jungle. I will be book-talking Glory’s story to my students, not Austin’s. Yet Grasshopper Jungle wins this competition, hands down. Austin’s history of apocalypse is acerbic, poetically profane, and epic in scope. The many layered meanings of Austin’s story, while creating a rich and complex picture of the human condition, do make it impenetrable to an inexperienced teen reader. This book requires a special student – one with advanced reading skills but also liberal appreciation of scatological and sexual references. For that reader, however, this book will dig inside and crack them open like the giant bugs of MI Plague Strain 412E.

P.S. I’m glad that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Shaun of the Dead) has signed on to direct the movie version of Grasshopper Jungle. If anyone can do this book justice, it’s the creator of The World’s End.

Winner: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

 

Round one: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces Vs. The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory is the kind of book that hauntingly sucks you into its depths. I will be
the first to admit that this is not the type of book that I pick up on my own, so I was hesitant at first
about whether I would truly enjoy it.

The book follows 17 year old Hayley as she attempts to survive life with her war-injured veteran father.  impossible knife of memoryAs is slightly predictable, Hayley’s father is irrational, impulsive, bordering on alcoholism and very clearly suffering from PTSD. Andy Kincain is so torn apart by war that lacking the ability to re-adapt to life stateside, he consistently moves from place to place, never staying for long. He fears overpasses, crowds, IEDS and snipers around every corner.

Hayley attempts to raise herself and take care of her father while trying to figure out her own place in this world. Both Hayley and her father strike out against a cast of well-meaning characters and we, as the readers, know that the book will have to hit rock bottom before getting better.

This book was, I felt, a true representation of what it must be like for many families dealing with PTSD after military service. This kind of insight is deep and raw and your heart breaks for both Hayley and her father. Anderson does a good job at getting to the core of the emotion she is trying to convey and the book achieves the emotion well.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces is the story of a 17-year-old Mexican-American girl living in California. She is a very average American girl living with the constant struggle of trying to be a “good” Mexican girl. Her family, her mother in particular, put a lot of pressure on her to help the family, not have sex and to lose weight. She is dealing with the very normal teen themes of friends, family, boys, high school, and college applications among other things when her real underlying stress is her drug-addicted father. He is a classic disappointment to his children, always making and breaking promises and disappearing for weeks on end to get high. She finds some release from this struggle in poetry, at which she discovers she is very good. It even leads to a new relationship with someone who seems to truly see her for who she is.

The book is told in diary format, which only serves to make you feel like you’re getting the entire truth from the character – good and bad. The truth is, there is no bad to Gabi. She is a good person, trying to look out for those she loves while searching for a way to be herself and love herself and be okay with that.

Seeing all this through Gabi’s eyes made me feel very connected to my own teenage years. Quintero has a way of writing that really makes it believable that these are Gabi’s words and not an imagining of a teen by an adult. You truly feel that this is a teen who isn’t sure where priorities should lie, but that nothing might ever be as important as what is happening right now. If that doesn’t describe most teens, than I don’t know what does!

The Verdict: As I have seen many other judges say that they weren’t sure who the winner would be until this point, I too am at a loss. While neither book was something I would have just grabbed off the shelf (dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombies being my drugs of choice) both of these books were touching in memorable ways. The realism of both characters rang true. Both writers seem to grasp their stories, and neither of the endings seems far-fetched or drawn together too neatly to be real. Therefore, I have to go with my winner for two reasons. Firstly, the voices in each book felt real, but one book felt more true to really being the thoughts and words of a teen.  Secondly, hope. While both books had a hopeful ending, one of them left me feeling more hopeful that everything would be okay. I know, I know that’s a weird thing for a fan of dystopian books to choose as a deciding factor, but there you have it.

Winner: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

TEEN LITERATURE DAY

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!

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.

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

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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

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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