Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

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Green, John. Turtles All The Way Down. Dutton Books, 2017.

To say I am a fan of John Green would be a tremendous understatement. Not only are his books fantastic and popular with my students and co-workers, his Crash Course videos make frequent appearances in my instruction. I am a proud Nerdfigher and have attended two conferences spearheaded by the Green Brothers—VidCon and NerdCon Stories. There’s a Nerdfighter flag draped across the wall of my classroom, a Nerdfighter enamel pin affixed to my tote bag. I like to hear John’s views on everything from politics and religion to whether pineapple belongs on pizza.

So, like other YA fans, I was aflutter with excitement when John announced his forthcoming novel, Turtles All The Way Down. I pre-ordered an autographed copy and waited with bated breath.

I can happily report that Turtles All The Way Down was certainly worth the wait.

Aza Holmes lives with debilitating anxiety, worrying endlessly about bacteria and contagious diseases. It’s a fear that has resulted in a variety of rituals—Aza habitually presses her thumbnail into her middle finger, creating a callus that she must continually douse with hand sanitizer and rebandage. Thoughts of microbes and fatal bacteria often cause her thoughts to spiral, and she’s rarely mentally present when spending time with her mom or best friend, Daisy.

It is during one of these obsessive thought spirals that Aza hears about the disappearance of Russell Pickett, a billionaire on the lam. Russell’s son, Davis, was one of Aza’s childhood friends. After some brash encouragement from Daisy, Aza seeks out Davis, and the two reconnect. As Aza and Daisy piece together scant clues from Russell’s disappearance, Aza struggles with her feelings for Davis and the constant, nagging presence of her phobias. Will she learn to regularly take her medication? Will her mental illness interfere with her burgeoning relationship? Will anyone uncover Russell Pickett’s location?

I’d sorely missed John Green’s writing style, and starting Turtles All The Way Down was a breath of fresh air. The language is smart, the characters varied and complicated. There were great moments of humor and the painful scenes were genuine and raw. John Green does a fantastic job writing Aza’s obsessive thoughts, allowing the text to tighten on the reader in the same way that Aza’s fears close around her. Aza’s relationships—both romantic and platonic—are refreshingly real. There are no neat happily-ever-afters, making this an accurate depiction of mental illness.

There is little to dislike in Green’s newest novel. The number of conflicts and plot points can almost feel overwhelming, but this perhaps speaks to Aza’s mental state.

Like all of Green’s novels, Turtles All The Way Down will be an essential addition to a high school classroom library. Students who are dealing with anxiety or loss will find it especially relatable. Overall, Turtles All The Way Down is a fantastic read from an author who contributes a great deal to teenagers, educators, and the world at large. What’s not to love?

Book Review: The Future of Us

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Asher, Jay, and Carolyn Mackler. The Future of Us. Simon & Schuster Books, 2011.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but there are a few items I will purchase somewhat impulsively: donuts, office supplies, and gently used bargain books. I especially enjoy stocking up on cheap YA paperbacks before school starts, trying to make my shelves look as full and varied as possible.

It’s easy, then, to forget individual purchases. I was perusing my shelves before summer break and discovered a copy of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us. As Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has become a Netflix sensation and a popular read among my students, I was surprised that I never tackled The Future of Us. Recently, I decided to remedy that.

In the time of dial-up internet and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, Josh and Emma are neighbors and best friends. The relationship is on the cusp of blossoming into something more, but frightened Emma puts an immediate stop to it. Amid the awkwardness that follows, Josh brings Emma a copy of AOL to install on her new computer. As Emma gets to work creating her first e-mail address and setting up instant messenger, she discovers an interesting website. Called Facebook, the website contains photos and strange, stream-of-consciousness statements from a woman in her mid-thirties. Emma is startled to discover that the woman is her in the future, seemingly unhappily married to a stranger.

Puzzled and frightened of a computer virus, Emma invites Josh over to examine Facebook. They find an account for Josh as well, and are in shock as he seems to be married to one of the most attractive and popular girls in school. While Josh is desperate for his future to pan out just as Facebook says it will, Emma is determined to change the present, creating ripple effects that will give her the happy life she wants. How will Emma’s actions impact both their futures? Will Josh work up the courage to speak to his future wife? And will Josh and Emma ever resolve their feelings for one another?

Older readers will smile at the bits of nostalgia found in Asher and Mackler’s novel: the necessity of logging off the internet when another household member needs to use the phone, and the use of Walkmans, cassette tapes, pagers, and pay phones. The premise, too, is intriguing. Who could resist catching a glimpse of their future, especially if they knew they could change it?

Although I was certainly drawn in to The Future of Us, I found Josh and Emma’s relationship problematic. Emma spurned Josh’s affections until other girls began to find him interesting, making Emma something of an unsympathetic character. It would be difficult, too, to maintain the timeliness and relevancy of the book. Although students are still familiar with and use Facebook, social media is constantly changing and evolving.

The idea of the butterfly effect—found in time travel fiction and related to the decisions human beings make every day—has been a topic of conversation in my classroom this year. I could see excerpts from this novel strengthening my students’ understanding of the concept and encouraging them to think more seriously about the many ways their present impacts their future.

Book Review: Solo

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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

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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: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.

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: 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.