Caroline the Future Librarian

Caroline Davis | LIBR 265-10 | SJSU | Wrenn-Estes

The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Title: The Uglies
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Date: February 2005
ISBN-13: 978-0689865381

Plot Summary: Tally Youngblood cannot wait until her sixteenth birthday, when she’ll be given an operation to become a pretty.  Then she can leave the dorm where all the uglies live and move across the river to New Pretty Town, where the pretties just have fun and can party all the time.  Her best friend, Peris, had the operation on his birthday three month earlier, and Tally has felt lonely ever since he left.

That is, until she meets Shay.  Another ugly like herself, Shay also enjoys sneaking out and causing trouble, and can’t wait to leave Uglyville.  She tells Tally about her friend, David, who didn’t want the operation and lives in a mysterious place called the Smoke, where everyone chooses to stay ugly.  On the night before their shared birthday, Shay reveals that she’s planning to run away to the Smoke, and wants Tally to join her.

When Tally chooses to stay behind and receive the operation, an organization called the Special Circumstances forces her to follow Shay and help them find the Smoke – or else she can never become a pretty.

Critical Evaluation: The Uglies is the first in a science fiction series that Scott Westerfeld wrote for teens, and the strength of the book is in the questions it raises about the societal worship of beauty, and also environmental concerns.  The first issue is the most obvious message – is there any harm in venerating physical beauty?  Of course in Tally’s society, there is an obvious harm, because the operation also affects the brain and personality to create a conformist culture, but the question remains relevant when just considering the interaction between the Uglies and the Pretties (whenever Tally sees a Pretty up close, like her friend Peris, she can’t help but become awestruck), and when considering our own society’s obsession with beauty.  If offered a chance to get free plastic surgery – how many of our sixteen year olds would say no?

Another issue it raises is concern for the environment.  In Tally’s futuristic world, everything has been programmed to be self-sustaining.  When she comes to the Smoke, she is appalled to learn that they actually cut down trees and use wood to burn fires.  While we are nowhere near living in a completely sustainable world, her concerns may cause readers to think of ways that they can make a difference.  While I found the story itself occasionally lagged, I thought the issues that the book raised were worthwhile, and I hope that teen readers continue to think about them.

Reader’s Annotation: When Tally turns sixteen, she will finally receive the operation that transforms her from an awkward ugly into an attractive pretty, her only job to party all the time.  But when her friend Shay reveals that she plans to run away and never become a pretty, Tally starts to realize that there may be good reasons to avoid getting the operation.

Author Information: Scott Westerfeld is the author of the young adult series The Uglies, as well as science fiction titles for adults.  Born in Texas, Westerfeld married an Australian author (Justine Larbalestier) in 2001 and now divides his time between Sydney and New York City (depending on which hemisphere is enjoying summer!).  Before becoming a full-time novelist, Westerfeld worked as a substitute teacher, a textbook editor and a ghost writer.  He also enjoys composing music.

When asked about the difference between writing adult novels and YA novels, Westerfeld says, “The main difference is that the storytelling in YA is much more straightforward and direct: no lollygagging. Perhaps I’m a bit more language-focused in my YA work (teens are more into slang, poetry, and nicknames than adults), and my YA probably protags are a bit more uncomfortable in their own skin, in that teenage way. But I think that my basic themes and techniques are pretty much the same.” (Source)

Genre: Science Fiction

Curriculum Ties: Could be used in discussions about psychology, sociology, environmental issues.

Booktalking Ideas:
1) What makes Tally decide that she wants to defy the Specials?
2) What are the pros and cons to living in the Smoke?
3) Would it be worth it to be perfectly beautiful if you lost part of your personality?

Interest Age: 12 and older

Challenge Issues: allusions to partying and alcohol

Challenge Defense Ideas:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist available for viewing on Amazon.com.

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: In the bookstore where I work, The Uglies is consistently a popular series for teen readers.  One of my coworkers, who is in high school, also recommended it and lent me her copy.

Extras:

Scott Westerfeld’s blog.

The Uglies series downloadable wallpapers, screensavers, and more at Simon and Schuster.

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March 24, 2010 Posted by | Books | | Leave a comment

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June

Title: The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June
Author: Robin Benway
Publisher: Razorbill
Date: August 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1595142863
Reviewed from Advanced Reader’s Copy from publisher

Plot Summary: After their parents get divorced, prompting a move to a new house and high school, sisters April, May and June discover that they each have superpowers – which end up complicating their lives.  April, the oldest, receives visions from the future, but is not always able to understand what the visions mean.  May, in the middle, can literally disappear, but has trouble learning how to control her new skill.  The youngest, June, is thrilled to discover that she can read minds – a talent she can use to become popular at the new school, even though she is only a freshman.

Rather than uniting them, their new-found powers just complicate their already strained sibling relationships, particularly when April and May cannot hide anything from June.  But real life issues serve to bring them back together, as boys and parties can prove to be even more confusing than superpowers and sisterhood.  When April foresees an accident, the three sisters must work together to avoid tragedy.

Critical Evaluation: Like the fantasy novel East, Robin Benway’s upcoming novel about three paranormal sisters has an alternating first-person narration – in this case it rotates from April to May to June, and back to April, etc.  This is an effective technique for building the characters because it allows us to see their thoughts and experiences to understand their motivations, and also observes the characters through the eyes of their sisters, to understand how another would see them and to set up the sibling relationships.  The dynamics between the siblings and their rivalries is the central focus of the novel, and how they are tested and challenged by their parent’s divorce, their transfer to a new high school, and the emergence of their superpowers.

While I found it to be a fun read, I felt that the plot could be stronger.  There were some subplots that seemed to go ignored (for instance, they learn that their grandmother and great-aunts might have had the same supernatural gifts – but this is never fully explored and ends up as just an interesting background detail).  Their calendar-inspired names are also shrugged off as the result of “hippie parents” – not that I needed a thorough explanation about why their names were chosen, but it did require a suspension of disbelief.  Also, while the concept behind giving superpowers to a trio of sisters was a great idea, it never really went beyond the setting of high school – rather than fighting the battle of good and evil, they were occupied with boys and partying, which is presumably what they would be doing anyway.

I did enjoy The Extraordinary Secrets as an entertaining read, and I just wish that the introduction of superpowers could have been better used as a vehicle to take it to the next level.  I think there’s definitely potential for a sequel, which would do well to expand their horizons.  And answer the question about their names!

Reader’s Annotation: Three sisters – April, May and June – discover that they each have superpowers soon after their parents get divorced.  Initially, their powers just complicate their sibling relationships, but when April foresees a terrible accident, the sisters must work together to avoid tragedy.

Author Information: Robin Benway was born in Inglewood, CA, and grew up in Orange County before moving to New York City at the age of 18.  Her favorite books are Nabokov’s Lolita and Salinger’s Franny & Zooey, which she brings with her when she travels.  She says that quitting her day job to become a writer was the smartest thing she has ever done, describing it as “the hardest, scariest, most terrifying thing I ever did, and it changed my whole life.”

Benway says that her greatest achievement is having a strong relationship with her family, and adds that she counts her mother and brother as among her best friends.  Of her writing technique, Benway says, “I do a lot of writing in my head while driving, but then I’m desperate to jot down ideas before I forget them!” (Source)

Genre: Paranormal

Curriculum Ties: None

Booktalking Ideas:
1) Discuss whether the superpowers each sister receives reflects their personality or birth order (for instance, May can disappear – as a middle child, does she feel ignored?)
2) Decide which of the superpowers would be most useful – seeing the future, disappearing, or reading minds.
3) Is it significant that their grandmother and great-aunts may have had powers?  Does this mean that they’re not just experiencing a phase but will continue to have these gifts?

Interest Age: 14 and older

Challenge Issues: sexual content, profanity, underage drinking

Challenge Defense Ideas:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews available for viewing on Amazon.com.

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book through my job at an independent bookstore, and was excited for my chance to review an upcoming YA title.

Extras:

Robin Benway’s blog.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Books | | Leave a comment

Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis

Title: Tiger Moon
Author: Antonia Michaelis
Publisher: Amulet Books
Date: October 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0810944992

Plot Summary: In early 20th century India, a beautiful young woman named Safia is sold by her family (high in caste but financially poor) to become the eighth wife of a rich merchant, Ahmed Mudhi.  They are married quickly but the merchant becomes ill with a fever and is not able to consummate the marriage for a few nights – which Safia views as a few more nights added to her life, since she knows that he will kill her when he discovers she is not a virgin.  She passes the nights telling a story to the beautiful eunuch named Lalit who serves the merchant’s harem.

The story she tells is of an unlikely hero, a thief named Farhad, who is sent on a quest by the god Krishna to rescue his daughter, who is doomed to become the eighth wife of a wicked demon.  Farhad is accompanied on his journey on by a sacred white tiger, and the pair encounter a series of trials and mishaps that force Farhad to prove his worth.

As Lalit discovers, the two stories are connected in miraculous ways.

Critical Evaluation: Similar to The Sherwood Ring, this book has a story set within another story, and both tales end up being connected in surprising ways.  Safia is the main character for the “real” story – a poor but high class girl who has no choice in deciding her future, and is sold by her father to a wealthy merchant.  Although she cannot change her situation, she can tell a story that imaginatively creates a hero sent by Krishna to come rescue her.  Her audience, a eunuch named Lalit, becomes so inspired by the story that just listening to it makes him feel heroic.

Most of the book is focused on the story that Safia tells.  Farhad is a great protagonist because his character actually develops as he takes his journey.  He begins as a common thief that will steal without thinking about it or feeling guilt, but as the story progresses he learns to care about other people, he prays for the first time, and cries for the first time.  The white tiger, Nitish, provides some comedic relief, and rescues Farhad when he gets into trouble.

Tiger Moon might be best for an older teen audience, since younger readers may not be mature enough for some of the content.  There are a few sex scenes (not too explicit), and some violence and death of characters that some may find disturbing.

Reader’s Annotation: A young Indian bride knows that her husband will kill her when he finds out she is not a virgin, so during her last few nights she tells a story to one of the servants about a hero coming to rescue a young woman from being married to a demon.

Author Information: Antonia Michaelis is a German author of books for children and young adults.  She lived in a small coastal village in the Baltics for her first two years, then moved with her family to South Germany, where she grew up.  Michaelis lives in North Germany and is currently focused on writing books, although she has also studied medicine.

Michaelis became interested in India after living in South India for a year, teaching at a school near Madras.  She has also traveled to Turkey, Greece, Syria, Italy and the UK. (Source)

Tiger Moon was translated from German into English by Anthea Bell, a British translator who specializes in children’s literature.  Bell also translated the Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke.

Genre: Multicultural Fiction

Curriculum Ties: Indian culture and mythology

Booktalking Ideas:
1) Discuss Farhad’s transformation from a thief into a hero.  What caused it?
2) Does everyone have the potential to become a hero?
3) Talk about what the bloodstone symbolizes – why is an evil object so integral to Farhad’s journey?  Compare it to the ring from The Lord of the Rings if you are familiar with both works.

Interest Age: 14 and older

Challenge Issues: sexual content, violence and death

Challenge Defense Ideas:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist available for viewing on Amazon.com.

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: I ran across a copy of Tiger Moon at the bookstore where I work, and the description was enough to get me interested in reading it.  It diversifies my current collection because it is set in India, and the author is not American.  I wonder how many great young adult books there are that I’m not aware of because they haven’t been translated into English.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | Books | | Leave a comment

Heist Society by Ally Carter

Title: Heist Society
Author: Ally Carter
Publisher: Hyperion Books
Date: February 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1423116394

Plot Summary: Katarina Bishop has been involved with the family business since a young age – although in her family, the family business is theft.  Kat decides that she wants to pull the best job ever and steal herself a normal life, so she cons her way into a private boarding school and leaves the criminal life behind.  But she can’t stay at the Colgan School for long, because her family pulls her back in – and this is a heist she can’t ignore.

Someone has stolen paintings from the evil Arturo Taccone, and he believes that it was Kat’s father.  If Kat can’t find and return the paintings, something bad will happen to her dad – but how will she find out who really took them?  Kat assembles a team of the best teenage thieves around and sets off on a trail of clues that takes her around the world.  But time is running out – will they make it in time?

Critical Evaluation: There is much to love about Heist Society, the first in a new series by young adult author Ally Carter.  The main character, Kat, is a very relatable protagonist for teenage readers, as she is trying to set herself apart from her family and gain some independence, but still finds herself connected with them.  The characters are one of the strengths of the book – each member of Kat’s team is distinctive, making it easy to understand the dynamics at work within the group, from Kat’s jealousy of her cousin Gabrielle, to her crush on the young billionaire, Hale.  It’s easy to visualize this thriller as a movie, so it’s unsurprising that Warner Bros. has already optioned the feature rights to the novel.  One of my favorite features of the book was a countdown that kept track of the remaining days before their deadline and their current location.  A really fun read and a great mystery!

Reader’s Annotation: Born into a family of thieves, Katarina Bishop pulls the best job ever and cons her way into a normal life at boarding school.  But she can’t stay for long, because her family pulls her back in for another heist – and this time her father’s life is in danger.

Author Information: Ally Carter is actually the pen name of author Sarah Leigh Fogleman, who writes for adults and young adults and is well known for her Gallagher Girls series about a girl attending a prestigious spy school.  She describes To Kill a Mockingbird as her favorite book, and recommends Amazing Grace by Megan Shull as a great YA novel. (Source)

Of her transition from writing for adults to writing YA fiction, Carter says, “It was actually very easy for me.  I am a huge fan of the great YA work that’s out there right now, so it was fairly effortless once I knew who my main character was.  After that, I just had to sit back and see where she took me. And if you’ve ever been in a car with a fifteen-year-old who has her learners’ permit, you know that can be an interesting ride.” (Source)

Genre: Mystery

Curriculum Ties: Art History – specifically it can be used to spark conversations about ownership of art that has been plundered.  A Reader’s Guide with Classroom Connections can be accessed from Ally Carter’s website.

Booktalking Ideas:
1) Discuss Kat’s return into the life of stealing – was it inevitable, or was she really going to reform and stay at boarding school?
2) Talk about the character Visily Romani.  How much do we know about him?  Was it one person acting alone?
3) If the paintings were taken by Nazis from their original owners, who do they rightfully belong to?

Interest Age: 13 and older

Challenge Issues: None, although some may take issue with the portrayal of thieves in a positive light.

Challenge Defense Ideas: This book has no apparent challenge issues, but if a challenge comes up:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews available for viewing on Amazon.com.

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: I read a review of this book on A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy which piqued my interest.  I also haven’t reviewed any mysteries yet, so I was adding some variety to my collection.

Extras:

Ally Carter’s website.

Book trailer for Heist Society:

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Books | | Leave a comment

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Date: September 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0375842207

Plot Summary: When she is nine-years-old, Liesel Meminger is brought to a suburb of Munich to be raised by strangers, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.  It is the last time she sees her mother, and her younger brother dies on the journey.  Liesel settles into her new life on Himmel Street, making friends with Rudy Steiner, a good-natured neighborhood troublemaker, helping her foul-mouthed foster mother with her laundry business, and learning to read from her gentle foster-father, who comes in and comforts her every night when she wakes from nightmares.

When a mysterious man appears in the middle of the night, Liesel is warned to never tell anyone about him – in 1940s Germany, it just means trouble to have a Jew found in your basement.  Max also suffers from nightmares, and Liesel is a kindred spirit that helps him through his confinement.  Money is scarce, so Liesel occasionally resorts to stealing food – and books.  Her books become her companions, and she eventually writes her own about her experiences on Himmel Street.

Critical Evaluation: The plot of The Book Thief is strong enough to create a powerful novel on its own, but the real achievement is the narration.  The novel is told in the first-person, and Death is the narrator – a narrator who knows everything about the story and sometimes skips around in history, sometimes giving away the end before explaining the events leading up to it.  He is fond of making interjections in bold – with titles such as ***THREE SMALL BUT IMPORTANT FACTS*** that add important information about the situations and characters, or even just share his opinion.  The most significant part of the narration is the beauty of the language – Death seems to be quite a poetic writer.  For instance, this excerpt describes a Nazi book-burning: “The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them.  Burning words were torn from their sentences” (Zusak, 112).  If we are going to see a glimpse inside Nazi Germany, Death will describe it for us beautifully.

Reader’s Annotation: During World War II, Liesel Meminger lives with her foster parents on a poor street outside Munich, where money is scarce so she has to resort to stealing food – and books.  Her books become her companions during the war, and she eventually writes her own about her experience.

Author Information: Markus Zusak is an Australian author of young adult novels. The son of an Austrian father and a German mother, Zusak grew up hearing stories about his mother’s experiences in Nazi Germany, and the bombing of Munich – which inspired his most popular work, The Book Thief.

Zusak was inspired to become a writer after reading The Old Man and the Sea and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.  Of his experience trying to get published, Zusak says, “It took seven years to get published and there were countless daily failures, but I’m glad those failures and rejections happened. They made me realise that what I was writing just wasn’t good enough – so I made myself improve.” (Source)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Curriculum Ties: World War II

Booktalking Ideas:
1) Compare Liesel’s relationships with Rudy and Max.
2) Why would the mayor’s wife allow Liesel to steal her books?
3) Talk about the meaningful objects in the book – the accordion, The Gravedigger’s Handbook – what do they symbolize beyond their perceived uses?

Interest Age: 14 and older

Challenge Issues: violence, death, some profanity (mostly in German)

Challenge Defense Ideas:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and The Washington Post available for viewing on Amazon.com.

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: I work in a bookstore, and first heard about The Book Thief because several adult book clubs were reading it.  I wasn’t even aware that it was originally a young adult book.  Having witnessed the response that many had to it (one woman earnestly told me it was one of the best books she had ever read), it seems to be a young adult book that has crossed over to an adult audience.

Extras:

Markus Zusak’s website.

Teen Book Video Award winning trailer for The Book Thief:

March 1, 2010 Posted by | Books | | 2 Comments