Book Review: Not on Fifth Street

not on fifth street cover

Wiechman, Kathy Cannon. Not on Fifth Street. Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, 2017.

There’s something about natural disasters that have always terrified and intrigued me. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable fury of Mother Nature or the reminder of how small and vulnerable we truly are. Whatever the cause, my heart is always uplifted and warmed by stories of human beings persevering despite their extreme and dire circumstances.

That’s what drew me to Kathy Cannon Wiechman’s book Not on Fifth Street. Wiechman’s novel covers the flood of 1937, an event that devastated many areas of Ohio and Kentucky. As I’d never heard of the flood, I was intrigued.

Gus and Pete Brinkmeyer are brothers living in Ironton, Ohio. Despite their relation, the boys are extremely different. Older brother Gus is a romantic and a bookworm. He excels in school, reads Shakespeare, writes poems and short stories, and moons over his newest love interest, a girl named Venus. Pete, on the other hand, is practical and handy and enjoys repairing items around the house. After a squabble, a rift forms between the two brothers. Gus gives Pete the cold shoulder despite his many attempts to apologize.

The Brinkmeyer family is no stranger to flooding. Living near the Ohio River, they experience some degree of standing water every year. Houses closer to the river—such as their friend Richie’s on Second Street—usually incur damage, but Gus and Pete live on Fifth Street, where they believe the flooding will not touch them. But the year 1937 begins with torrential, unrelenting rain, then a melting, slushy snowfall. The boys watch in horror as the Ohio River creeps closer and closer. Gus goes to help his father fill sandbags in an attempt to slow the water’s approach. Will they be successful? Will he be able to help Venus and her family across the river in Kentucky? Pete is left in charge of the rest of the Brinkmeyers—his mother and two younger siblings. How will he keep them safe as the water rises? Will his knack with repairs matter without the aid of electricity or running water?

This novel is obviously well-researched. Small details, like the newly invented rotary phone, make the setting feel authentic. And Weichman makes the flood water predatory and ever-present. Readers will feel as though their own clothing is soaked, their hands and feet numb with cold.

The dialogue can feel stilted and unrealistic, though I have little knowledge of slang or speech patterns from the 1930’s. Because of the language, simplicity of writing, and short chapters, Not on Fifth Street would likely be of little interest to high school or teenage readers. It is more suited for late elementary or middle school students.

Excerpts from this novel would be a smart inclusion in a history class, especially within classrooms near the Ohio River area. Young Pete’s task of caring for his family make this a perfect example of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Excerpts from Wiechman’s book would be a great way to drive this concept home.

Book Review: Panic

panic cover

Oliver, Lauren. Panic. Harper, 2015.

There’s a truth universally accepted by gray-haired parents and teachers everywhere: teenagers can be fearless. This attribute is blamed on everything from still developing brains to a lack of understanding about the finality of rash decisions. No matter the cause, the thought of my students endangering themselves by engaging in risky behavior puts me immediately on edge. Perhaps that was why I found Lauren Oliver’s Panic such a suspenseful, engaging read.

In the small, downtrodden town of Carp, there are few opportunities for young people to thrive. Drug addiction runs rampant and leaving for college is a rarity. The town’s desolation led to the creation of Panic, a game reserved for recent high school graduates. The game features a series of increasingly dangerous dares until one lone victor remains. The winner is awarded a handsome cash prize—a little over sixty thousand dollars gathered from mandatory weekly dues. There’s a shroud of secrecy around the organizers and judges of the event, and the stakes are high. A past participant has even been paralyzed.

Dodge and Heather are two participants in Panic. Heather doesn’t know why she joined in—emotional after a split from her boyfriend, she impulsively leaped into the festivities. Dodge, on the other hand, has a clear motive for participating: thoughts of his sister, Dayna, at home in a wheelchair motivated him to seek revenge. As the challenges grow in difficulty and danger, Dodge and Heather bandy together. Will either of them win Panic? Will Dodge secure justice for Dayna? And when Panic causes a death in Carp, will the game shut down for good?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book kept me on the edge of my seat. Oliver continually increases suspense and anticipation throughout the narrative. In fact, during a silent reading period at school, a student walked by me as I read Panic and remarked, “Wow. You look intense.” Oliver’s language and description are also masterful. There are so few novel ways to describe fear or anguish, but Oliver’s descriptions are visceral and gritty, contributing to the overall mood of the book.

If there are any flaws in Panic, they perhaps lie in its believability—the idea that a large group of teens could get away with such a dangerous activity year after year with minimal attention from the police. I was bothered, too, by the pot of money in the game, and the fact that high school students are required to contribute to it. This detail felt far-fetched.

Still, Panic is quite possibly one of the most thrilling novels I have read in some time. Excerpts from this novel could teach students a great deal about literary suspense. Panic would also be helpful in showing students how an author can create a certain mood through sensory details and diction. If you’re looking for a book that would appeal to your students’ adventurous natures, Oliver’s novel is perhaps the perfect fit.

Book Review: The Love that Split the World

love that split the world cover

Henry, Emily. The Love That Split the World. Razorbill, 2016.

Kentucky isn’t a glamorous state. The weather changes frequently–you can go to work sporting a cardigan on a frigid morning and find yourself sweating as the temperature rises at day’s end. While there are certainly beautiful natural landmarks and caves and hiking trails, there are none of the big tourist attractions you might find in other states.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. While I love to travel and experience the bustle and chaos of larger, notable locations, I have a profound love for and loyalty to the Bluegrass State. That’s why I felt both proud and giddy as I began Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World. Set in Union, Kentucky, the novel highlights many Kentucky and Appalachian attributes–rich cultural history, oral storytelling, and strong familial ties–without falling into overused tropes and stereotypes. And the Kentucky native in me squealed at the sprinkling of Kentucky-specific details: mentions of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and Ale-8 One (a soft drink sold only in Kentucky and a small number of surrounding areas).

Natalie Cleary is closing the book on her high school career. While she participates in the traditional parades and Senior Nights that the end of the school year entails, she is also looking to what lies ahead. She has been admitted to Brown University where she hopes to study history and learn more about her heritage. Adopted at birth by doting parents, Natalie is Native American and feels out of place beside her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She is also feeling a lack of connection toward the activities and people she once loved–her ex-boyfriend, Matt, friend Rachel, and her high school dance team.

Natalie’s race isn’t the only thing that makes her feel different. Since childhood, she’s had nightly visits from a phantom–an elderly woman she has come to call Grandmother. Grandmother imparts wisdom in the form of fables and tall tales, and Natalie is comforted by her presence. After a visit with a psychologist, Natalie fears Grandmother has finally disappeared; however, as high school ends, Grandmother reappears with a chilling message: Natalie has just three months to save him. She doesn’t specify who him is, and Natalie is on-edge. Shortly after the visit, Natalie’s world begins to change. Sporadic flashes reveal a second, strikingly different Union than the one that Natalie has known her entire life. While her friends and family exist in the new Union, she does not. While in this new world, Natalie encounters Beau, a boy who does not exist in her world. As she and Beau try to sort out their unique predicament, Natalie is frantic to decipher Grandmother’s cryptic warning. Will she be able to save the mysterious him?

The transition from high school to adulthood is a complex time, and Henry does a fantastic job capturing all of Natalie’s angst and confusion. Natalie wants to maintain relationships with the people and traditions she has come to love while, at the same time, she knows she must assert her own independence and find her place in the world. All the characters are round and multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed NKU professor Alice Chan, Natalie’s twin siblings Jack and Coco, even Natalie’s Saint Bernard, Gus.

While the characterization, imagery, and plot in The Love that Split the World were all fantastic, I often found the rules and nuances of Natalie’s time-bending abilities confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps this will be clearer for readers who are more familiar with time travel fiction or media. In my case, I simply had to accept Natalie’s abilities as the story unfolded.

I would love to introduce this book to my students–positive portrayals of Kentucky are increasingly difficult to find. That aside, this book would be relatable to graduating seniors, adopted students, or anyone who is facing a big transition. The Love that Split the World discusses what it means to love deeply and unconditionally, a topic worth thinking about and discussing.

 

Book Review: Girl Online

girl online cover

Sugg, Zoe. Girl Online. Keywords Press, Atria. 2014.

As an adult, I like to pretend that I was never an awkward pre-teen or teenager. The proof is inescapable, however. My mother recently found an old photo from a glamour shot session–sequined blazer, big hair, and too much rouge.

So, in short, I know a little something about being awkward.

That’s why I found the synopsis of Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online appealing. The protagonist is clumsy, unsure, and very relatable.

Fifteen-year-old Penny Porter seems to continually find new ways to embarrass herself, whether it’s falling in a pothole, knocking over a display, or inadvertently telling the boy she likes that she has fleas. And there’s an alarming new development in Penny’s life–following a serious car accident, Penny has panic attacks. Her only moments of true peace and security come from being with her family, best friend Elliot, and sharing her thoughts in a blog entitled Girl Online. Despite her lackluster popularity in the “real world”, Penny has a slew of readers who encourage and uplift her.

After a particularly painful incident at Penny’s school, her parents make an announcement–they will be traveling abroad to New York City to help coordinate a wedding at the Waldorf Astoria and they want Penny and Elliot to come along. The distance and glamour of New York are just what Penny needs to heal from her embarrassment. While helping her mother with wedding preparations, Penny meets Noah, the grandson of the wedding’s caterer. With his dimples, Brooklyn accent, and ability to calm her when she is anxious, Penny begins falling for Noah almost immediately. But she knows that soon she will have to return home to the UK. Will she and Noah be able to maintain a long-distance relationship? Why does Noah rarely go out in public? And as the popularity of Girl Online grows, will Penny be able to keep her identity a secret?

There were great little details and moments of humor that endeared this book to me–Sugg’s descriptions of New York at Christmastime, the contrast between UK and America, and Penny’s tendency to say the wrong thing in times of duress. Although relationships in YA romances sometimes feel forced, Noah and Penny’s chemistry was palpable and believable. Blog posts and text messages are interspersed throughout the chapters, and they provide a nice break from the narration. Overall, Girl Online is a quick, enjoyable read.

I felt the immense popularity of Penny’s blog was somewhat far-fetched; the insertion of more blog posts would have possibly helped the reader see what made it attractive to so many readers. And Megan, Penny’s “frienemy”, was so thoroughly evil that she felt flat.

This will be a beloved addition to a classroom library–not only is it a high interest text, but the author, Zoella, is a popular vlogger on YouTube. More importantly, this book could possibly provide comfort to students struggling with their own anxiety. Girl Online is a nice reminder that the teenage years can be awkward, but they can be amazing, too.

Book Review: Little & Lion

little and lion cover

Colbert, Brandy. Little & Lion. Little Brown, 2017.

As a high school teacher and avid reader, I’ve become familiar with the continuously growing roster of popular YA authors. It’s rare—and therefore extremely exciting—for me to come across an unfamiliar author. While reading the YA anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights, I saw many names and writing styles I knew—Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, Lev Grossman. But my favorite story came from an author I’d never read: Brandy Colbert. I went to Amazon and quickly purchased her latest novel, Little & Lion.

Suzette is a proud member of a diverse, blended family: she’s close to her stepfather, Saul, and stepbrother Lionel. She and her mother even convert to Judaism, though, as an African-American, Suzette must deal with her share of insensitive questions. She and Lionel (nicknamed “Little” and “Lion” respectively) share a unique bond, one that is tested when Lion has a strange, violent outburst. Lion is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while he struggles and tries a myriad of medications, Suzette’s parents worry that she is too preoccupied with her brother’s health. They send her away to boarding school in Massachusetts.

When Suzette returns home for the summer, many things have changed—her brother appears to be in better health, while she is reeling following an abrupt, messy breakup with her roommate, Iris. Suzette lands a part-time job at a florist where she feels a pull toward her tattooed, spunky co-worker, Rafaela. But when Lion meets and expresses an interest in Rafaela, Suzette feels conflicted. This is further complicated by a secret Lion shares with Suzette alone: he is shirking his medication. Will Suzette find the courage to tell their parents? Will Lion function without the assistance of his medication? Will Suzette stay with her family in LA or return to the boarding school in the Fall?

Little & Lion inspires the reader to think about family—how they come in many shapes and sizes, and how the family we choose often means more to us than a biological connection. It also highlights the helplessness a family member feels when someone they love struggles with mental illness. Suzette, too, is a fantastic protagonist. Her feelings of devotion and concern are often at odds with her feelings of jealousy and resentment, which makes her relatable and human.

I struggled with the characterization of Rafaela—I couldn’t decide if she was bold and unpredictable or just a troublemaker. Some of her actions seemed rash and unkind and caused me to dislike her almost immediately.

I could certainly see using passages from Little & Lion to springboard conversations about mental illness or blended families. The book would likely be a popular and relevant choice in a classroom library. I can’t wait to read more of Colbert’s work—her clear, honest writing style will be attractive to both teenage and adult readers.

Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

turtles all the way down cover

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

the future of us

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.