Book Review: The Memory of Things

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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)

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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: If You Feel Too Much

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Tworkowski, Jamie. If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For.    New York: TarcherPerigee, 2015. Print.

As I am writing this, I am merely weeks away from a brand new school year. The days to come will be filled with lots of work—setting up my classroom, writing and printing my syllabus, deciding what to cover in those important first days and weeks and months. Amid the back-to-school mania, I must pause and remember that my goal should be to provide a safe, caring space for my students, to tell them that they are valuable and loved and that they can live their best possible life.

That is why I am glad to have recently read Jamie Tworkowski’s If You Feel Too Much.

At last month’s VidCon, I spotted a booth from the suicide prevention organization To Write Love on Her Arms. Like all educators, I know students who have struggled with self-harming behaviors and attempted suicide. I am always looking for resources to place in my classroom that might be of some help to a struggling student, so I eagerly purchased a book at the booth written by Tworkowski, the organization’s founder.

If You Feel Too Much is a collection of short prose and blog posts that Tworkowski has written throughout his journey with TWLOHA. The collection spans nearly ten years and follows Tworkoski from his early years selling surfing equipment to his heavy responsibilities spearheading an important charity. Tworkowski doesn’t hide from tough topics—he discusses his growing distance from his father, his own battle with depression, his messy break-ups, and his fights with close friends and business partners. He talks of his grief after losing friends to suicide and cancer, and his uncertainty that he will ever find love or fulfillment. By the book’s end, Tworkowski urges the reader to examine their own story and find the strength not to give up. As he says in the collection’s last piece, “We will see you tomorrow.”

For those familiar with To Write Love on Her Arms, the book will reaffirm all of the positive work Tworkowski has done bringing awareness to mental health issues. His honesty is both refreshing and impactful. Some self-help books can be preachy, but since Tworkowski’s advice is dispensed from his own struggles, it is more relatable and easier to swallow. The pieces are also beautifully and lyrically written. Some could easily double as poems or songs.

My biggest struggle with If You Feel Too Much is that the pieces are presented without context; therefore, some parts of the book made me feel a little lost. Jason Russell is my Friend, for example, talked about the very public meltdown of Jason Russell, the founder of an organization called Invisible Children. I had to research Jason Russell and Invisible Children before I could continue reading, which certainly lessened the impact of the piece.

Overall, this book is a valuable resource that every classroom teacher should consider purchasing for their bookshelves. I’m planning to photo copy and display Towrkowski’s piece “There Is Still Some Time” in my classroom, a reminder to my students to seek help and comfort in moments of hopelessness.

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: The Burn Journals

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Runyon, Brent. The Burn Journals. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.

If you work with or parent teens, you’ve likely heard of the Netflix sensation 13 Reasons Why.

You might also know that the series is based on a YA novel by Jay Asher and centers around some tough topics—bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. Having taught the novel to high school juniors, I was anxious (and a little nervous) to see the adaptation. I enjoyed it overall, though some parts were downright painful to watch. I thought a few of the scenes might even be triggering to young people struggling with depression or other mental health issues.

This presents a conundrum. Many of us in the education field encounter students struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors. What books and media, then, can we bring into our classroom that will handle these topics in a sensitive and helpful manner?

I was searching for a non-fiction YA book (a rarity—I am certainly open to suggestions!) when I came across Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals. Reviews and key words revealed the book was about the attempted suicide of an adolescent boy. I purchased the memoir and steeled myself for what was to come.

Brent Runyon is fourteen-years-old and often acts impulsively. This behavior culminates in Brent tossing a lit book of matches into a gym locker, setting a t-shirt ablaze. After being told that the perpetrator of this crime will be in serious trouble, Brent feels trapped, especially in light of some earlier offenses. Brent comes home from school, douses his robe and body in gasoline, climbs into his shower, and lights a match. Writhing in pain, Brent eventually turns on the shower and then yells to his brother for help.

After being airlifted, Brent regains consciousness in a children’s hospital. Now he must face his new reality: he is severely burned, and will require multiple surgeries, skin grafts, and physical therapy before he can return to a “normal” life. Although various psychologists attempt to delve into the reasons why, Brent remains guarded and unsure of his own motivations. Will Brent tell his family about his previous suicide attempts? Will he grow accustomed to his new scars and limitations? Will he be able to recuperate and go back to school?

This book brilliantly places readers in the mindset of a teenage boy. The conversations between Brent and his friends are crass and nonsensical. His feelings of unexplainable sadness are stated plainly. The most revealing part, for me, were Brent’s thoughts regarding his out of control behavior. When Brent lights the locker on fire, for example, he says: “I don’t know why, but I grabbed them and lit one of them on fire and then, because I thought it would be funny to see everybody’s reaction, I set the whole pack on fire.” Descriptions like these—rash actions with no logical reason behind them—add to the chaos of the story.

Like most memoirs, there are moments in The Burn Journals where the action and pacing feel slow and certain anecdotes seem unnecessary. For example, Brent meets and speaks with a few celebrities during his hospitalization and recovery. These are usually short meetings, but Brent rarely has many thoughts to share afterward. This, I thought, was a missed opportunity for Brent to possibly comment on his conflicting emotions of excitement and shame or the coddling of children with serious afflictions.

Just as I would not show the television series 13 Reasons Why in my classroom, I would likewise not make The Burn Journals required reading. There’s simply too much objectionable material—language and sexuality—even though some of the themes are redemptive. Even so, I would not dissuade my students from independently reading Runyon’s memoir. In fact, I urge educators and parents to seek this book out immediately. I came away from Runyon’s story understanding more about the psyche of the children in my classroom, and that was certainly valuable information.

Book Review: Defy the Stars (April Uppercase Box)

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Gray, Claudia. Defy the Stars. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Print.

One of my favorite new shows last Fall was HBO’s Westworld. If you haven’t seen it, here’s what you need to know: robots that closely imitate humans can easily garner their sympathy.

Also, they can be unnerving. Terrifying, even.

This was in the back of my mind when I received a signed copy of Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars in my April Uppercase Box. I’d encountered lots of snapshots of the book on Instagram (the beautiful cover is fun to photograph) and I knew a humanoid robot featured heavily in the plot. Would he be a pitiable or terrifying machine? I quickly began reading to find out.

Noemi Vidal is a citizen of Genesis, an eco-friendly and religious planet. Genesis became a haven for many Earth residents as their resources and climate began to erode. Because of this, Earth and Genesis are constantly warring with one another. Noemi, a soldier, is planning to take part in a suicide mission that will destroy the gate between Earth and Genesis. During a training exercise that ends in a surprise ambush, Noemi discovers a marooned ship, Daedalus, and a stranded “mech”—or servant robot—named Abel abandoned inside.

This mech, however, is far more advanced than the models Noemi has learned about in her studies of Earth. Abel has a photographic memory, excellent combat and piloting skills, and a sense of humor not seen in many machines. He even inadvertently gives Noemi an idea to save her planet, one that will require him to sacrifice his own life. Noemi, thrilled with this solution, holds Abel as something of a hostage. But, as they grow closer, Noemi discovers that Abel is more human than she had ever imagined. Both Abel and Noemi know that he was built for a great purpose—but what can it be? Will Noemi carry out her plan, saving her planet but destroying Abel? In this planetary war, who will come out on top?

The characterization of Noemi and Abel are Defy the Star’s greatest attributes. From the book’s beginning, readers will root for Noemi Vidal—she’s tough, has a heartbreaking backstory, and thirsts for vengeance. Abel, too, quickly endears himself to the reader. He is, at times, painfully lonely, and tries to understand human emotions and interactions. His matter-of-fact manner of speaking and cheeky arrogance sometimes made me laugh out loud.

Defy the Stars is action-packed—which is a good thing—but my main complaint is that the action rarely slows. In fact, there weren’t many moments of stillness until around page 300 or so, and the effect was dizzying. Those quiet, tender moments between Noemi and Abel were so important in showing Abel’s humanity and Noemi’s changing ideas. I simply wish there had been more of them.

This book would be an excellent way to springboard class discussions or debates about politics, government, and even climate change. In Defy the Stars, Earth reigns over other small, habitable planets, and further dominates in weaponry and wealth. The planet is slowly being stripped of its resources, few plants and crops thrive, and humans tightly pack large cities such as London. It would be interesting to have students consider various “butterfly effects” that would result in such a future, and to brainstorm positive changes they can make in the present to better our world.

Book Review: The Breaking Light

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Hansen, Heather. The Breaking Light. New York: Skyscape, 2017. Print.

Not to brag, but I’ve loved dystopias before dystopias were cool.

But, like most voracious readers of YA fiction, I found myself a bit “dystopia weary” following the monumental success of franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent. As much as I loved them (my classroom is still slathered with Hunger Games memorabilia), I longed for something new and perused YA fantasy or realistic fiction instead. My self-imposed hiatus officially ended this past weekend with an email from Amazon. I could receive a download of a yet-to-be-released YA dystopian novel, The Breaking Light, as a perk of my Prime membership. The premise was simply too good to resist.

Arden and Dade are citizens of a completely vertical society. The poorest and most destitute—like Arden—live in the Undercity, housed at ground level. Above the Undercity stretches a series of Levels, topped by the Sky Towers where the wealthiest of citizens—like Dade—reside. Those in the Sky Towers, called Solizen, are the only individuals granted access to the sun. The rest of the population relies on time in a sun booth or injections of Vitamin D. When citizens cannot afford or access these alternatives, they often die from a painful affliction known as Violet Death.

Arden is heavily involved in a ruthless gang called Lasair. The group is headed by her brother and notorious for stealing Vitamin D shipments to turn into a recreational drug known as Shine. Arden is on her way to a Lasair meeting when she has an altercation with Dade, who she views as an obvious outsider. Unbeknownst to Arden, Dade also steals Vitamin D shipments, though his motives are a bit more virtuous—he distributes the injections to clinics who use them on orphaned children. Although Dade and Arden part after a scuffle, neither can shake their mutual attraction and their desire to see one another again.

As fate would have it, their paths cross for a second time at a nightclub where Arden is dealing Shine. Their reunion is short-lived as the club is soon infiltrated by government operatives—referred to as “govies” throughout the novel. After their escape, Arden and Dade reveal their identities to one another and struggle with the desire to be together despite their numerous differences. Socioeconomic divide aside, there are difficulties looming in the couple’s future: Dade’s father, a powerful member of the Solizen, has forced his son into an engagement with a girl named Clarissa for political reasons. Arden’s brother, Niall, is planning a complete upheaval of the government and families in power, known as Project Blackout. Arden and other members of Lasair view Project Blackout as nothing short of a suicide mission. Will Dade somehow stop his upcoming wedding? Can Arden slowly distance herself from Lasair and Project Blackout? Will the couple ever find acceptance in a completely divided society?

It was easy to lose myself in the society Hansen created—a world that was terrifying, dysfunctional, and had eerie similarities to plights citizens face today. Dade, like celebrities in our world, is constantly hounded by paparazzi. And, while most claim to hate the Solizen, they do love to keep up with them via broadcasts on their datapads, hearkening to society’s current obsession with fame and social media. Furthermore, it’s not difficult to see the parallel between the lack of healthcare available to citizens of the Undercity and the terrible treatment of the impoverished in our own world.

While the concept and world building were outstanding, I did find the writing style a bit juvenile at times, even for a YA novel. This is most prominent whenever Arden thinks about Dade. In one section, she describes his “yumminess”, in another she describes a kiss between them as “raw, needy, and hot”. Sure, teenagers are hormonal, but the voice felt jarring for someone as cunning and street smart as Arden.

That said, I would be open to recommending this book to my students. It would also be a fresh addition to their Dystopian Unit where they choose books such as 1984 and A Brave New World to read independently. The Breaking Light also has some striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet which were fun to uncover as I read; I can imagine, then, that they’d be equally fun to discuss with a class. I was excited to learn that The Breaking Light is the first in a series—let’s hope Hansen continues the tale of her star-crossed lovers for many books to come.