Book Review: The Memory of Things

the memory of things cover

Polisner, Gae. The Memory of Things. Wednesday Books, 2016.

Everyone has their own September 11th narrative. Here’s mine.

I was a sophomore in high school, enjoying the final minutes of my first period History class. An announcement came over the intercom: all teachers were instructed to turn on their television sets and stay abreast of the news. After seeing the images of fire and smoke and terror, I can remember a feeling of helplessness and an acute awareness of the world that I hadn’t felt before. That evening, my parents began repainting my bedroom a cheery yellow color which clashed strongly with the mourning that permeated the rest of the world.

After attending BookCon in New York City this summer, my husband and I visited the September 11th memorial. As we viewed the etched names of the lost in the drizzling rain, the enormity of the event struck me once again. I thought, too, of my students, many of whom were born after 2001. Would they ever understand how that day—how those losses—changed everything?

When I received an e-mail from Macmillan with a description of Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things—a YA novel recounting one teenager’s September 11th experience—I jumped at the chance to read and review it. I hoped that this might be a tool in assisting my students’ understanding.

On September 11th, 2001, Kyle Donohue watches the collapse of the first Twin Tower from his nearby high school. He and his classmates evacuate and scramble toward their homes, a journey that takes Kyle across the Brooklyn Bridge. As he moves with other New Yorkers—all frightened and shocked, most covered in ash and debris—he spots a girl sporting costume wings, poised as though prepared to jump from the bridge. Kyle pulls this stranger back before taking her hand and, for reasons even he doesn’t understand, leading her to his apartment. He asks her name; the girl, frozen in fear, says she doesn’t remember.

Kyle’s father works as part of the Terrorism Task Force in NYC; Kyle’s panicked mother is awaiting a flight out of California. Therefore, Kyle is solely responsible for this winged stranger and the care of his paralyzed uncle, Matt. As Kyle struggles to piece together what is happening in New York City and around the country, he is also attempting to uncover information about the winged girl and the source of her amnesia. Where did she come from? Is anyone looking for her? Were both her parents killed in the towers?

The Memory of Things brought back many painful but accurate facets of the September 11th terror attacks—the barrage of constant news coverage, the various rumors and snippets of false information, the immediate kindness and unity of the entire country. It is interesting, too, that the narration shifts between Kyle and the winged stranger. Her point-of-view is written in free verse, a fitting style that speaks to her spotty memory. One thing that particularly stood out to me is Kyle’s desire to seek out information about international tragedies in the wake of the terror attacks. Kyle’s friend Marcus, for example, is a survivor of the Ugandan Bush War, and his sudden understanding of his friend’s hardships was both poignant and important.

The novel is divided into sections with headings, and these mostly confused me as I read. The sections are not accompanied by page breaks, so I at first thought the headings were part of the text. The headings, too, seemed largely unimportant and sometimes even gave away what was going to occur in the pages to come. I found myself wishing that the headings and sections would be removed altogether, and the book could stand as is.

Although the selfish English teacher in me would love to recommend this novel for language arts classes only, The Memory of Things is the type of book that reaches across the curriculum. History teachers who are trying to capture the feelings and trepidation after September 11th would be wise to check out Polisner’s novel. Those who teach psychology classes or units on mental health issues might also find it pertinent—there’s a great deal in the book about memory and the processes of the brain. Overall, any educator struggling with the lack of understanding—and sometimes lack of empathy—that can emerge when talking about September 11th will find it a touching and useful text.

Book Review: Everything All at Once (August Uppercase Box)

everything all at once cover

Leno, Katrina. Everything All At Once. New York, Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers, 2017.

I’ve accepted the fact that my attachment to fictional worlds and fictional characters is extreme. I’ll finish a compelling YA series and refuse to read anything for weeks, missing the characters as though they are dear friends who moved far away. I’ll see a fantastic movie and talk about it for days, whereas everyone else has already grown bored with discussing it. I’ll read fan theories and browse fan art while most people my age are firmly planted in reality.

I felt somewhat understood when I began reading Katrina Leno’s novel Everything All At Once. As the protagonist’s deceased aunt was a celebrated children’s author—her fame on level with that of JK Rowling—it was interesting to see how she was mourned by not only her family but by the entire world.

Lottie Reaves is reeling following the death of her Aunt Helen, a famous author whose Alvin Hatter series is the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Her grief is amplified by her own anxiety. Lottie has always been terrified of death, and watching her aunt succumb quickly to breast cancer has left her frightened and on-edge. Most nights, Lottie lays awake while her mind cycles through all the various ways she and her remaining family could die.

At the reading of her Aunt Helen’s will, Lottie is bequeathed her aunt’s jewelry collection, some old journals, and a stack of twenty-four letters written in her aunt’s neat script. According to the lawyer’s instructions, she is to open only one letter at a time. The first letter instructs Lottie to throw a party in her aunt’s honor, with plenty of food and dancing. At the party, Lottie meets Sam, one of her aunt’s former students from her stint teaching at a local university. With the help of Sam, her brother Abe, and best friend Em, Lottie sets out to fulfill her aunt’s final wishes. Why did Aunt Helen leave Lottie such detailed letters? Why did she want her to have her old journals? Is Sam really a former student, or did he play a larger role in her late aunt’s life?

The characterization of Lottie and Helen Reaves make this a spectacular read. Lottie is vulnerable, and her anxiety about her future and her imminent demise will be relatable to many readers. Through her letters, Helen confesses her own insecurities and regrets. Her letters are so vivid that she became my favorite character despite never appearing in the novel. The book also provides intermittent excerpts from the Alvin Hatter series, which provided fantastic depth in a way that reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but I wasn’t a fan of Sam’s revelation at the book’s end. Without giving too much away, it certainly lessened the contemporary feel of the novel and made Lottie and Helen a little less relatable.

Everything All At Once would be a great recommendation for a student struggling with anxiety or the loss of a loved one. There’s also a great deal of discussion in the book about the meaning versus meaningless of life. It would be interesting to read the book as a class, discuss the many themes, and then have students create their own life mottos and maxims.

Book Review: Solo

solo cover

Alexander, Kwame and Mary R Hess. Solo. Nashville, TN. Blink. 2017.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

I have a confession to make, one that might be a bit shocking to my fellow English majors: I’m not a poetry person. I have the deepest admiration for poets, and have read some pieces from Sylvia Plath and Percy Blythe Shelley that have touched me tremendously. While poems can certainly paint a pretty picture, I am drawn instead to the characterization and plot found in short stories and novels.

So, when teaching poetry to reluctant readers, I once found myself at a loss.

Thankfully, that changed when I heard about Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover, the winner of a Newbery Medal. Written entirely in narrative verse, The Crossover allowed me to teach poetic elements while also providing a timely story that kept my students engaged. I was excited to meet Kwame Alexander at BookCon so that he could sign my copy of The Crossover, and I was even more excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Solo, Alexander’s latest novel-in-verse.

Solo follows Blade Morrison, the son of world-famous musician Rutherford Morrison. Rutherford, an addict, is both erratic and neglectful, while Blade’s sister Storm is self-absorbed and shallow. As his mother died unexpectedly during his childhood, Blade’s only moments of happiness come from playing guitar, writing songs, and spending time with Chapel, his girlfriend. Blade is in love with Chapel, even though they must sneak around to see one another. Chapel’s father does not approve of the relationship—Rutherford is constantly in the news because of his bad behavior, and Chapel’s father believes that Blade will follow suit.

After his father embarrasses him at his high school graduation, Blade shuts his family out. He wants to run away with Chapel and never look back; however, in the midst of his anger, Blade receives some shocking news—he is adopted. Will he be able to locate his birth mother? Why did his family keep this secret? Will his relationship with Chapel last? Will he be able to forgive Rutherford?

Like The Crossover, Solo is written entirely in verse, but Alexander experiments with other non-traditional forms. Some sections of the novel are handwritten song lyrics, some are explanations and meditations on famous rock n roll songs, some are text messages. The unique formatting drew me in immediately. The surprises and climatic moments in the text also felt genuine, which makes it a difficult book to put down.

Perhaps verse doesn’t lend itself to a great deal of characterization, but I felt many of the female characters came across flat. Chapel, especially, is the typical high school heartbreaker.

Although Solo is lengthy, it would be a valuable text to pull selections from or read it its entirety. While it is an excellent way to introduce poetry, Solo is also poignant in its contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. This could certainly lead to important—and life changing—class discussions.

Book Review: Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories

summer days and summer nights cover

Perkins, Stephanie, editor. Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories. Griffin, 2016.

School is officially back in session. So far, I can’t complain—I have great students and am happy to be reunited with my coworkers. I feel satisfied and productive at day’s end.

But I miss summer already.

I miss sleeping late and planning vacations and excursions. I miss the fantastic weather and my uniform of t-shirts and flip flops. I miss the casual, breezy air of the people I encountered.

That’s why I was glad to begin reading Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories. A collection of short stories written by notable YA authors—Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare among others—Summer Days and Summer Nights brings back the easy feelings of summertime. I’d also read and enjoyed My True Love Gave to Me, a Christmas-themed YA collection edited by Perkins.

Each story in the collection features a different facet of summer, from Dairy Queen ice cream cones and dips in the pool to days working at summer camps and resorts. Below is a short synopsis of each piece.

Head, Scales, Tongue, and Tail by Leah Bardugo: Gracie believes she’s seen a scaly creature in the lake of her small town. She consults a well-read tourist, Eli, and the two develop a strong friendship that resumes each summer. But will they get to the bottom of the supposed sea monster?

The End of Love by Nina Lacour: Fiona is desperate for distraction in the midst of her parents’ divorce. She signs up for a Geometry summer course despite already passing and excelling in Geometry. There, she reunites with three figures from her past, including one old flame.

Last Stand at the Cinegore by Libba Bray: Kevin works at the Cinegore, a movie theater that screens horror flicks and is owned by a mysterious movie director. He thinks this is perhaps his last chance to tell his coworker, Dani, how he feels about her. This plan is foiled when the patrons start acting a bit strange.

Sick Pleasure by Francesca Lia Block: I frequents a teenage dance club with her friends M and L. There she meets the mysterious A, a boy who loves to dance and sports a mohawk. Will their relationship last the entirety of summer?

In Twenty Minutes, Turn North by Stephanie Perkins: Marigold is reeling following her breakup with her boyfriend, North. After hearing that he has quit his job at his parents’ Christmas tree farm, Marigold decides to confront him and ask him to attend college. She finds him employed as a tram operator. Will North leave with her?

Souvenirs by Tim Federele: Matt peddles t-shirts at a local amusement park and is nearing the pre-determined “breakup date” he set with his boyfriend, Kieth (misspelling intentional). Kieth also works at the park as a performer, and he asks Matt to attend an end-of-the-year awards ceremony. How will this affect their relationship?

Inertia by Veronica Roth: After her friend Matt is in a devastating accident, Claire is summoned to the hospital to be part of his “Last Visitation”—a procedure that allows friends and family members to explore happy memories with someone who is near death. As Matt and Claire reminisce on their time together, Claire begins to wish she had handled some aspects of their friendship differently. Will she get a second chance?

Love is the Last Resort by Jon Skovron: Lena is employed at a resort, and she knows that summer is by far the busiest time. As she juggles the wants and needs of the various guests, she is intrigued by a new hire, Arlo. Will a plan involving the resort guests bring Lena and Arlo closer together?

Good Luck and Farewell by Brandy Colbert: Rashida is devastated when her cousin Audrey announces plans to move to San Francisco with her girlfriend, Gillian. After the death of Rashida’s mother, Audrey served as a mother figure. At the couple’s going away party, Rashida wrestles with her feelings while encountering similar ire from Gillian’s brother, Pierre.

Brand New Attractions by Cassandra Clare: Lulu is content with her life working at a “dark carnival”. When her father mysteriously runs off, Lulu’s uncle Walter and his stepson, Lucas, step in to take ownership of the carnival. Lulu is not pleased with some of her uncle’s changes.  Are his motives as pure as they appear?

A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong by Jennifer E. Smith: Annie has spent most of her summer employed at a day camp where she is in charge of an active group of six-year-olds. When she runs into her crush, Griffin, at the grocery store, she decides to make a bold move and ask him on a date to the arcade. But does Griffin feel the same?

A Map of Tiny Perfect Things by Lev Grossman: Mark is living the same day—August 4th—over and over again. He isn’t sure to what to do about his predicament, but his interest is piqued by the appearance of a new face, Margaret, at the local pool. Margaret, too, is trapped in August 4th. Will the two find a way to break the cycle?

Each story has a unique narrative voice and the collection presents a myriad of romantic relationships. I like that fantasy pieces are placed alongside contemporary work and points-of-view and writing styles are varied. Some of the stories were so fantastic that I wished they could be elongated into a novel: Colbert’s Good Luck and Farewell and Roth’s Inertia were outstanding.

I felt some of the stories were too fast-paced and scattered, particularly Skovron’s Love is the Last Resort. With a wide cast of characters and an abundance of motivations, it was almost impossible to keep up with who was who or to care deeply about the plot.

I would certainly recommend Summer Days and Summer Nights to teachers as these are all school appropriate, high-interest texts. Summer might be over, but these stories provide a fun way to revisit the (in my opinion) best time of the year.

Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls

words on bathroom walls cover

Walton, Julia. Words on Bathroom Walls. New York: Random House, 2017. Print.

Although I have read some amazing fantasy books this year, YA contemporary fiction continues to be my favorite genre. As a teacher, there’s nothing more satisfying than locating a book for a student that deals with the same issues they might face in their day-to-day life. I love that today’s contemporary authors don’t shy away from tough topics, including mental illness. A great example of this is Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls, which centers on a teenage protagonist struggling with schizophrenia.

Sixteen-year-old Adam has entered a clinical trial for a new schizophrenia drug, ToZaPrex. This trial requires regular visits to a psychologist, but Adam refuses to engage in conversation during his appointments. He reaches a middle ground with his psychologist: he will answer the doctor’s questions in a journal. Within this journal, Adam chronicles his transition to a new, Catholic high school. Along with typical high school issues—classes, homework, making friends, dealing with bullies—Adam must also deal with the constant presence of his hallucinations. They range from Rebecca, a quiet, reassuring woman, to a group of mobsters who fire weapons into the ceiling.

Adam notices slight improvement while on ToZaPrex, and this is coupled with an exciting development: he meets and begins dating one of his classmates, Maya. A smart and attentive girl, Maya notices Adam’s twitching and grimaces. As their relationship intensifies, Adam considers telling Maya about his schizophrenia, but fear of her reaction keeps him silent. Just when things seem relatively calm, Adam receives some bad news: he isn’t making progress on ToZaPrex, and he will be dropped from the clinical trial. How will the lack of medication change Adam’s symptoms? Will he be able to function during the school day? Will he ever reveal his secret to Maya?

Words on Bathroom Walls is a quick, smooth read. Adam’s narrative voice is authentic, and the reader will feel as though they are privy to his private thoughts and struggles. There is truly no way to read this novel and not come away with a different point-of-view regarding mental health issues. In one of the most poignant sections of the book, Adam compares his life and illness to that of the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Massacre. He knows that his illness will always scare and appall others, and that sort of loneliness and ostracization is difficult to imagine.

There is a pivotal moment in the book when Adam’s illness is revealed to his classmates. Without giving too much away, this scene is described in a quick, choppy manner, and I wanted more clarity regarding such a large reveal. It can be argued that the ambiguity speaks to Adam’s mental illness, but I still wished the entire scene was considerably slower.

Teachers who tackle psychological issues in their curriculum or teach a psychology class will want to check out Words on Bathroom Walls. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about a variety of issues—witch hunts, modern medicine, honesty, blended families, and religion. Students will be drawn in by the easy, conversational language and the vulnerability behind Adam’s tale.