Book Review: Caraval

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Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. Flatiron, 2017. Print.

As an aspiring author, I am always eager to hear how today’s popular writers overcome rejection and adversity.

I was fortunate to see many great young adult authors at this year’s BookCon, among them Stephanie Garber. Sitting on a panel with other YA authors, Garber talked about the sacrifices she made while penning her novel Caraval, including moving back in with her parents and dealing with various rejections from publishers. This surprised me as I’d seen Caraval’s beautiful cover on bestseller lists and Instagram posts. The humility and friendliness Garber displayed made me even more anxious to get my hands on Caraval.

Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella have grown up hearing fantastical stories of Caraval. A mixture between a carnival, scavenger hunt, and circus, Caraval takes place at a different location each year and is orchestrated by a mysterious man named Legend. Although Scarlett has longed to attend the event since childhood, she remains planted on her home island of Trisda, carefully watched by her cruel and abusive father. When her father orchestrates a marriage between Scarlett and a mysterious Count, Scarlett feels the remainder of her life has been mapped out. She might not ever get to see Caraval, but the marriage will present her with the opportunity to get away from her father and take Donatella with her.

Just as Scarlett has accepted her fate, she receives a personal letter and invitation from Legend himself. She at first resists the idea of attending, but after some forceful persuasion from her sister and Julian, a mischievous sailor, Scarlett finds herself heading to Caraval. Participants are tasked with solving a mystery using various clues spread throughout the island. After Scarlett and Donatella are separated, Scarlett is horrified to learn that, this year, the game will revolve around locating her missing sister. Scarlett must work quickly in order to locate Donatella and return to Trisda before her upcoming wedding. Will the sisters ever be reunited? Can Scarlett trust Julian? And why did Legend request Scarlett’s presence?

Although fantasy is not my favorite genre, I have read a few novels with such fantastic world building that I’ve suspended my disbelief: the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and now Caraval. This novel is drenched in imagery—rich descriptions of clothing and jewelry, vivid landscapes and interiors, various magical items and people, etc. Like all well-written fantasy novels, readers will believe the possibilities are endless for Scarlett. It is feasible that she would find a hidden passageway or take a potion that turns her world black and white or bring the dead back to life.

There are moments, however, when the descriptions in Caraval teeter toward ridiculousness. For example, a book in the novel is described as being “the color of dark fairy tales”. Two of the main characters are also extremely flat: Scarlett’s father and Scarlett’s fiancé.

Still, Caraval is a truly magical read from beginning to end, and students will be enraptured by Scarlett’s tale. There are a variety of ways to use this novel in the classroom. I’m planning on having my students annotate passages from Caraval when teaching imagery. With such lush, fantastic writing, there are few texts better suited for the job.

Book Review: Evil Librarian

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Knudsen, Michelle. Evil Librarian. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016. Print.

During the instructional day, a high school is a lively place. The halls are filled with chattering (or yelling, depending on how close you are to the end of the year), the thud of feet, and the metal clank of lockers opening and closing.

But there’s something incredibly creepy about being in a school alone at night.

Perhaps it’s the long, vacant halls, or the unexpected silence, or the flicker of the red “EXIT” signs. Whatever it is, I’m always determined to make my rare nightly visits as short as possible.

Therefore, a high school is perhaps the perfect setting for a horror novel like Michelle Knudsen’s Evil Librarian.

Cynthia “Cyn” Rothschild is having an ordinary but relatively happy junior year. She spends each school day pining over her long-time crush, Ryan, and joking around with her best friend Annie. After school, Cynthia has finally landed the coveted position of tech director for the school’s drama program. She’s determined to make the sets and props for Sweeney Todd the best they can possibly be.

Annie’s odd behavior, however, momentarily distracts Cyn from the musical. Annie admits to being head-over-heels for the new librarian, a young and attractive man named Mr. Gibson. This crush results in some uncharacteristic and alarming actions—Annie skips class to spend time with Mr. Gibson, and is spacy and unresponsive when outside the library. And she’s not the only one—other students who spend time with Mr. Gibson are also in blank, zombie-like states. Panicked investigating leads Cyn to the cause: Mr. Gibson is not human, but is instead a demon. Cyn knows she must find a solution before her best friend and the rest of the school become soulless monsters or worse. Will she find allies who believe her story? Why are Mr. Gibson’s powers ineffective on Cynthia? And how will this demon invasion affect the highly anticipated school musical?

A premise as over-the-top as the one found in Evil Librarian would certainly be ridiculous had Knudsen not balanced it out with perfectly timed and dark humor. Cynthia is a plucky heroine whose internal dialogue is knee-slappingly funny. It’s difficult, even, to decide what’s more humorous—Cynthia’s frantic lusting over Ryan, or the demons’ excitement over the school production of Sweeney Todd. The characterization, too, is very strong. The demons are deliciously evil; Cynthia and company are brave and determined to save their school and friends.

As with most horror or thriller novels, the book ends with a final showdown. Although Knudsen paints a vivid picture, it’s a short battle that encompasses only a single chapter of a lengthy novel. With so much build up and anticipation, I was left craving more. It’s worth mentioning that there is a sequel to Evil Librarian, so I’m hoping Knudsen will reveal more of the demon underworld in the next volume.

With an abundance of suspense and mystery, Evil Librarian would be a fitting addition to a unit on literary horror elements. Don’t be deceived by the funny moments, either—the book asks some deep questions. How far would you go to save your best friend? What things or people in life are worth the ultimate sacrifice? What hobbies or passions do you turn to when life becomes difficult? Evil Librarian is a fun read—students will alternate between sitting on the edge of their seat and laughing out loud.

Book Review: Wonder

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Palacio, RJ. Wonder. N.p.: Random House USA, 2014. Print.

I’ve always been fascinated by bravery. I’m drawn to quotes about bravery, brave figures from history, and brave characters in books and movies. I like that courage means different things to different people. For Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, it meant fighting her way out of an arena filled with competitors who were determined to kill her. For Eleanor Douglas in Eleanor & Park, it meant laying aside insecurities and opening to the possibility of love. For August Pullman in RJ Palacio’s Wonder, it meant waking up, getting dressed, and facing his peers at school.

August “Auggie” Pullman has dealt with gawking and whispers his entire life. Born with a condition known as mandibulofacial dysostosis, Auggie has undergone multiple surgeries that have left his facial features distorted. Although he’s different on the outside, he truly is a normal kid at heart. He loves Star Wars, his doting parents, older sister Via, and geriatric dog Daisy.

His sense of security is shattered when his mother suggests that homeschooled Auggie attend nearby Beecher Prep as he begins middle school. Unbeknownst to him, Mr. Tushman, the middle school director, has asked a handful of kids to take Auggie under their wing. Among the students tasked with befriending him are Jack Will, a flawed but goodhearted student, and Julian, a bully who feigns innocence around adults.  As the school year begins, Auggie is talked about and ostracized. Will he find the courage to continue attending school? Will he make any true friends? And how will this new transition affect the people closest to him?

One of my favorite aspects of Wonder is the use of multiple narrators. Storytelling shifts from Auggie to Via to Jack Will to Auggie’s friend Summer and so on. Readers can clearly see that Auggie’s foray into mainstream schooling has a definite ripple effect on those around him. Palacio also does an excellent job capturing the language and mindset of teens and preteens. The descriptions of insults and unfair treatment are hard to read at times, but they reflect the bullying and social hierarchy that are (sadly) sometimes part of the middle and high school experience. This is also a story that could have easily become melodramatic or overdone, but it refrains from being preachy or haughty. The most emotional moments in the entire book were quiet, subtle, and expertly written.

As it is an easy read with an important message, I had few complaints about Wonder. I was a bit puzzled by the narration of Justin, Via’s boyfriend. Although his narrative voice isn’t drastically different than the others in the book, the author chose to forgo uppercase letters. I initially thought this reflected his shyness or nervousness, but he later lands the lead role in a school play, so this assumption was incorrect.

Wonder could serve many purposes in the classroom, from teaching standard literary elements to serving as a focal point in an anti-bullying unit. It’s an excellent way to springboard important conversations: how is kindness a choice? When have you ever felt excluded from your peers? Why is our society so fixated on physical appearance? Well-written and realistic, Wonder is a novel that your students will still discuss months or even years after reading the final page.

Book Review: From Now On

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Chopchinski, Zachary, Cathi Desurne, Lindsey S. Frantz, Nealy Gihan, C.D. Scott, Lichelle Slater, Christina Walker, Katy Walker, and KT Webb. From Now On: The Last Words Anthology. N.p.: n.p., 2017. Print.

I noticed an interesting trend during last year’s presidential election—no matter their political leanings, my students became acutely aware of their government, its flaws and positive attributes alike. This awareness made it a particularly interesting time to teach dystopian literature. Though we delved into a few short stories by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen Vincent Benet, students spent the bulk of their time reading novels. I assumed that this was typical in the dystopian realm—the amount of world building required by the genre just couldn’t be contained within the boundaries of a short story.

This is why I was particularly excited to read From Now On: The Last Words Anthology. It was described as a collection of dystopian short stories, many with young adult protagonists. Each story closed with the same line: “From now on, I’ll save myself.” Below is a synopsis of each piece in the collection.

When the Body Parts Hit the Fan by Zachary Chopchinski: A wise-cracking protagonist named Guy tries to maneuver through Maine post-apocalypse; however, his progress is impeded by murderous shadow creatures who tear passerby limb from limb. Guy knows there is only one way to receive salvation—he must stay in the light.

The Pack by Cathi Desurne: At only seventeen, Grace is a feared and respected member of The Pack, a group of revolutionaries who adhere to a wolf hierarchy. However, Grace has suspicions that the group is being followed and watched. This feeling of uneasiness is coupled with confusion when Grace begins to have romantic feelings for a fellow member of The Pack, Ryder.

Erilyn’s Awakening by Lindsey S. Frantz: Erilyn is not like her peers—she has darker hair, eyes, and supernatural abilities that appear in times of duress. An orphan who lives below ground, Erilyn has no true friends or companions other than a solitary jar of glow worms. While gathering food and plants, Erilyn is tormented by the other children in her party and makes the decision to travel “upworld”.

Something Old by Nealy Gihan: Hope lives in a world ruled by gemstones—those who have all gemstones in their genetic makeup are deemed most desirable. Hope has only two, but a proposal from a wealthy member of the reigning race gives Hope the opportunity to move above her station. Slowly, Hope learns that life among the elite is not as she dreamed it would be.

The Wall by C.D. Scott: Treece attempts to flee her negligent father on the morning of her sister’s wedding. Unbeknownst to her father or sister, Treece is in love with a man “beyond the wall”. She dreams of traveling to his homeland and starting a new life, but will it be possible?

Shadow of Heritage by Lichelle Slater: After the release of an environment-altering bomb, all citizens of the United States have some degree of supernatural ability. While Corvits’ father is a supervillain, he has the rather tame power of bringing artwork to life. When he is given additional information about his mother’s murder, however, he realizes that he might have a dark side after all.

The Weeding by Christina Walker: Nina believes she lives in the perfect society with true equality among citizens. However, when the leaders of the government announce plans for a “weeding”, Nina feels uneasy. Her worst fears are realized when the elderly and disabled are forcibly removed from their homes. Can she reach her arthritic friend Scott before it’s too late?

Mirrors by Katy Walker: Allan has a miserable life. Divorced and unemployed, he spends most of his time playing video games until a weird moment with his bathroom mirror changes his life forever.

Side Effects of Progress by KT Webb: Nick is a hardworking scientist who dreams of creating the perfect vaccine to guard against illness. Unfortunately, his manipulative boss has other plans, and Nick must work around-the-clock to save his co-workers and possibly humanity itself.

Each piece in this anthology has a different narrative voice and unveils a crumbling society in a unique way. As with most short story collections, some pieces are stronger than others: Frantz’s Erilyn’s Awakening, for example, has vivid imagery and great moments of suspense—I felt my heart rate increase as Erilyn navigated her way through an underground cavern while being pursued by other children. Scott’s The Wall had a nice plot twist that made me crave an entire novel of Treece’s adventures. Gihan’s Something Old contained both a unique premise and a theme of female suppression reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale.

I did find a few grammatical errors during my read and, as I downloaded the anthology as an e-book, there were some noticeable formatting issues while reading on both my tablet and phone.

Overall, teachers who are focusing on dystopian literature would be wise to purchase and download From Now On: The Last Words Anthology. There are stories that pair well with many of the main dystopian characteristics: figurehead worship (Walker’s The Weeding), fear of the outside world (Frantz’s Erilyn’s Awakening), restriction of freedom (Webb’s Side Effects of Progress) just to name a few. In a market saturated with dystopian novels and movies, these are fresh, inventive short stories that will hold your students’ interest and challenge their imagination.

Book Review: Geekerella

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Poston, Ashley. Geekerella: A Novel. Philadelphia: Quirk, 2017. Print.

I’m 31-years-old and I love fan conventions. Go ahead—make fun of me if you want.

I’ve been to exactly three: VidCon, NerdCon Stories, and BookCon. Each has presented me with the opportunity to meet authors and online celebrities, buy cool merchandise, and fangirl with people who are just as excited as I am. When it comes to vacations, I’d take an interesting con over time on a beach any day of the week.

It’s this love of conventions—and my kinship with the people who attend them—that attracted me to Ashley Poston’s Geekerella. Reviews described the novel as a Cinderella retelling in a fan convention setting, and I simply couldn’t resist.

Danielle “Elle” Whittimer has been living a miserable, robotic life since the death of her father. She gets up each morning and cooks breakfast for her stepmother, Catherine, and twin stepsisters Chloe and Calliope. She also completes whatever chores Catherine deems necessary: cleaning the attic, shampooing the carpet, or repairing household leaks. Elle then goes to work at The Magic Pumpkin, a vegan food truck where she has only her sullen co-worker, Sage, for company. Her only moments of happiness come from watching re-runs of her favorite galactic drama, Starfield, and authoring a blog about the show. Elle hopes to one day turn her hobby into a screenwriting career, leaving her evil stepmother and life of toil behind. When she hears about a cosplay competition at ExcelsiCon—a Starfield fan convention that her father began before his death—Elle feels she might finally have a chance to make a name for herself. Will she be able to sneak away from Catherine and attend the convention? Will she find the perfect costume? And who is the mysterious boy calling himself “Prince Carmindor” who continuously sends her flirty texts?

Darien Freeman has been a Hollywood heartthrob since he first appeared on the teen soap opera Seaside Cove. Because of this, his casting as the main character Prince Carmindor in the newest movie adaptation of Starfield is unconventional and unpopular. Diehard Starfield fans haven’t hid their disappointment, railing against him in person and online. Darien has a secret, though—he too is a Starfield fan, and he wants his portrayal to be spectacular. He doesn’t want to attend ExcelsiCon, however, as it brings up painful memories of his former life and friendships. In an attempt to maneuver his way out of the con, he texts ExcelsiCon management and ends up conversing with Elle. The two grow close, though Darien manages to keep his identity a secret. Between demands from shooting the movie, strict orders from his hard-nosed manager/father, and being swarmed by paparazzi, Darien’s conversations with Elle are truly the highlights of his day. Will the Starfield movie be a success? Will Darien reveal his true identity to Elle? And who keeps leaking photos and video footage from the Starfield set?

The characterization in Geekerella is superb—there are truly no flat characters. Elle is both a pitiable and savvy Cinderella and her moments of heartbreak brought me to tears. Darien is a perfect Prince Charming who desires true, untainted affection. As dual narrators, they both have differing, unique voices. Perhaps my favorite thing about Poston’s novel is that the minor characters are so fantastic they could easily have novels of their own—Sage, Calliope, Catherine, Darien’s co-star Jessica Stone, etc. Additionally, the chaos of ExcelsiCon is described perfectly. In one scene, for example, costumed attendees from various fandoms join forces to support Elle.

Geekerella is possibly one of the best books I’ve read this year, so my complaints about the novel are mostly nitpicky. I winced at Darien’s use of “frak” as a curse word. I also wondered about the legality of Catherine’s tight hold on Elle, but there is perhaps no way around that when bringing Cinderella to the 21st century.

This novel would be a perfect, modern addition to a fairy tale unit, as many of the well-known fairytale conventions are still intact. It can also begin some great conversations about memories and legacies. How can we honor the memories of our loved ones who have passed on? How can we take the values and beliefs of our family and make them our own? If your students would enjoy a funny, well-written novel with a deserved happily ever after, you can’t go wrong with Geekerella.

Short Story Review: Kindred Spirits

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Rowell, Rainbow. Kindred Spirits. Roadswell Editions, 2016. Print.

The first time I saw Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, I was supervising a class of freshmen in the school library. Our librarian is a pro at making eye-catching book displays, and Fangirl was among the new releases. I picked it up, examined the minimalistic mint cover, read the synopsis, and checked it out immediately. And, when I was finished, I missed Cath and Wren and Levi as though they were dear friends.

So, I did the only logical thing I could think of to soothe my book hangover: I checked out Rowell’s Eleanor & Park.

And my heart exploded.

Since then, I’ve read all of Rowell’s work. I’ve devoured her novels for both young adults and adults. I even made one of Rowell’s short stories, Midnights, part of the freshmen curriculum.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rainbow Rowell at the Books by the Banks Festival in Cincinnati. After waiting in line for a photograph and her signature, my mind was a blur. When I finally reached her, I think I mumbled something about loving her books and introducing them to my students. She was as kind and humble as I’d hoped.

So, needless to say, I’m a Rainbow Rowell fangirl—pun definitely intended. She is my favorite author.

It pained me, then, that I hadn’t read her latest short story Kindred Spirits. The story was originally released for 2016’s World Book Day. Luckily for me, it was recently rereleased as an e-book with all proceeds going to the ACLU.

Days away from the premiere of the latest Star Wars film, Elena is hoping to have the ultimate fan experience. She arrives at a movie theater with dreams of camping out with other die-hard fans and becoming part of a community. To her surprise and disappointment, there are only two other individuals in line: Troy, an older, bearded gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Star Wars, and Gabe, a quiet boy around Elena’s age. Camping out is also not as glamorous as Elena imagined—she finds herself cold and needing to go to the bathroom. Will Elena be able to endure her discomfort until the movie starts? Will she be able to break through Gabe’s icy exterior? Will she have the fan experience she is hoping for?

If you’ve ever been truly passionate about a book series or movie franchise, you will relate to Elena a great deal. Her determination to have a positive experience and her enthusiasm about Star Wars is endearing. I also like that Kindred Spirits discusses what makes a fan a “true fan”—do you have to read every book, see every movie, and be bursting with trivia to be welcomed into a fandom?

Perhaps the only down side to Kindred Spirits is that it is a short story, so readers will likely finish it craving more. Rowell manages to make the main characters multifaceted despite the length of the text. Readers will want to know more about Elena and Gabe’s lives at school and home, which is a credit to the author.

Kindred Spirits and Rowell’s short story Midnights are terrific, high-interest texts that students will love. In the past, I’ve used Rowell’s texts to teach annotation techniques, direct and indirect characterization, the parts of the plot diagram, and thematic statements. Kindred Spirits also presents a great opportunity to discuss the “masks” we wear in everyday life and the various communities to which we belong. How do we tailor our personality or behavior depending on where we are or who we are with? This is a story your students will surely relate to and enjoy and with proceeds benefitting a worthy cause, this is the perfect time to add it to your e-book collection.

Book Review: Windfall (May Uppercase Box)

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Smith, Jennifer E. Windfall. New York: Delacorte Press, 2017. Print.

There are several characteristics that attract me to a novel: an intriguing, unique plot, recommendations from my fellow bookworms, an author whose previous work I have enjoyed, etc. I am often loath to admit that there is one additional attribute that will draw me to a book, something that makes me sound a bit superficial and vapid.

I am a sucker for a pretty cover.

And, in my view, there are few covers prettier—or more interesting—than the cover to Jennifer E. Smith’s Windfall. I’d seen it many times on Instagram: a cascade of blue and green confetti, flecks of gold glitter, and two golden figurines: one a bear, one an alligator. I was overjoyed, then, to see Windfall in my May Uppercase Box. I read it eagerly, hoping to find similar beauty behind the cover.

Alice’s early life was marred by bad luck; her parents died only a year apart. Since then, she has lived in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Leo. Though they love and provide for her, Alice finds herself yearning not only for her late parents, but for her home state of California. She hopes to return by attending Stanford University, a college that her mother planned to attend before her untimely death. Now a high school senior, Alice spends her time reminiscing about California, volunteering, and hanging out with Leo and their mutual best friend Teddy.

Alice feels that Teddy’s eighteenth birthday is the perfect occasion to admit her romantic feelings for him. She fesses up in a birthday card and buys him a small gift: a lottery ticket with numbers that are meaningful to them both. Though she panics and diverts his attention away from the card, Teddy does receive the ticket. The next morning, she and Teddy realize that the numbers Alice selected were winners, and after dumpster diving for the discarded ticket, the two realize they are in possession of a life changing slip of paper. Teddy is now a multimillionaire, and he offers to give Alice a hefty share, which she refuses. Saddened by this rejection, Teddy’s attitude begins to shift and he makes unwise decisions. He spends money on frivolous items and is overly generous with his friends and even his teachers. Teddy also refuses to see how he is being manipulated by his father, Charlie, a compulsive gambler who has been absent for years and has conveniently returned to his son’s side. Will Teddy’s good luck destroy his friendships and his life? Will Alice ever admit her true feelings? Will she go off to Stanford and leave it all behind?

Windfall is, at its core, a love story, and the chemistry between Teddy and Alice is strong and believable. They both have shared devastations and disappointments—Alice with the loss of her parents, Teddy with the abandonment of his father. They balance each other out as Teddy is more fun-loving and goofy and Alice is more stoic and purposeful. They protect and support one another, and I rooted for them from Teddy’s introduction onward. Teddy and Alice even reminded me of one of my favorite literary couples: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series.

Romance aside, Windfall is also about becoming your own person away from the shadow of your parents or your past. Alice realizes that she is the creator of her own story and can become much more than the “orphan” label that has haunted the latter part of her life. I was surprised, then, that Alice makes the ultimate decision on where she will attend school based on her proximity to her family and to Teddy. This did not seem like the decision of a girl who was discovering and enjoying her burgeoning independence, though this was just one small thing that irked me in a largely wonderful and entertaining story.

There are lots of great ways to use this book to teach literary elements and symbolism; however, there are also great financial lessons in Windfall. Many of our students (and—who am I kidding?—many of us!) daydream about suddenly acquiring large sums of money. But, like Teddy, some teenagers spend their money impulsively and rarely think about the future. Reading this book can provide many teachable moments about the right way to spend and save. It can also lead to some great discussions about how money can change both the recipient and the people around them. When Teddy first wins the lottery, he is insanely popular and sought after. As time passes, jealousy creeps in and many of his classmates want to see him fail. There is a dark side to wealth, though this might be something students have never considered.