National Book Awards: The Next Bracket

national book awards

In June, I posted about a project that I am doing with a group of other educators. Dr. Steven Bickmore (you should go read his YA blog, by the way) gathered a bunch of us together to read all of the National Book Award winners and runners up since the award for YA turned twenty this year. We divided up the books by year (there are five books per year); my year was 1996 and I posted about those books here.

We each chose a “winner” from our year to move on to the next round. I chose A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (a finalist in 1996; the winner that year being Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez).

From there we were put into groups of five to read each other’s picks and work together to nominate one from our group to move on. These are the next four books I read (in addition to A Girl Named Disaster):

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan (2000 National Book Award Winner)

Maybe it’s my historical fiction kick, but I really loved this book. In fact, this is tied for me with A Girl Named Disaster to move on to the next round.

So what is the book about? Koly is only thirteen years old when her parents arrange a marriage for her. While an arranged marriage is typical in India, Koly’s takes a tragic turn and she is left to fend for herself in a large city. The book is a quick read and appeals to all levels. It’s set in India and asks the reader to wonder about family structures, cultures, and traditions while also addressing the idea that the individual does not have to fit a mold to be a happy part of society.

Godless by Pete Hautman (2004 National Book Award Winner)

While Homeless Bird was my favorite of the four new books I read, this was my least favorite. I wanted it to be my favorite. I wanted to fall into it and find a bit of myself in it. The book is narrated by teenager Jason Bock whose family is very Catholic. Jason identifies as a “agnostic-going-on-atheist”. His parents try to get him into the fold of religion by sending him to a class at church for teenagers to talk about issues. The class only solidifies Jason’s apathy toward organized religion. In a moment of boredom and, according to Jason, clarity, he decides to create his own religion–one that worships the town water tower.

I really wanted this book to push the envelope and dig into the questions many teens have about religion and God. I was one of those teens and I craved books that showed others feeling and questioning as I did. This book fell short and only seemed to graze the surface. I was disappointed.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008 National Book Award Finalist)

This was another one that I loved. I almost put this as my vote to move on, but didn’t just because I think Homeless Bird appeals to a larger range of students than Chains does.

Chains takes place just as the Revolutionary War is about to begin. Isabel is a 13-year old slave in Rhode Island whose mistress dies. She and her sister are to be freed according to their mistresses will, but that does not happen and she is sold to a cruel New York City couple who side with the King and not with the American Revolution. Isabel finds herself befriending a slave boy who works for the Rebels and delivers messages and makes other dangerous errands that could get her beat…or worse.

This book was brilliant. It was long, and took a bit to get into, but the way Anderson wove both history and fiction together was flawless. Anderson has a follow up novel, Forge, and also a third, Ashes. I think students who love American History and have more reading stamina will fall in love with this series.

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (2012 National Book Award Finalist)

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction and what I do read is usually memoir, and I definitely don’t read books about science, war, or bombs, so I waited to read this one until the very last. Where Godless disappointed me, this one thrilled me. Bomb is written as a narrative of how the nuclear bomb was imagined, theorized, tested, and finally created. It also weaves in Russia’s attempts to steal the bomb using primary source quotes from American and Russian spies. It’s a real-life story of war and espionage. While I know what happens in the end–we make the bomb before he Germans and bomb Japan–I was still on the edge of my seat for the personal stories of the scientists who worked on the bomb…and those who leaked information to the Russians. The photos throughout were also a wonderful addition to the book. I want a separate category for books like this, but I feel like maybe this is one of a kind.

Overall I think the books I can see my 8th graders picking up and reading on their own are Homeless Bird and A Girl Named Disaster. Those are tied for me and I would be happy to move either on to the next round!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Six World YA Lit Books You Should Read NOW

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It’s been awhile since I wrote about what I’ve been reading, which is actually funny because I have been reading more than I ever have before. In fact, I am on book 22 for the school year! Crazy!

Anyway, in the last month or so, I read six Young Adult Lit books that fall under the category of “world literature” and “historical fiction” because my 8th grade classes would be choosing between them for their final class book of the school year. Each of my five classes has a “book club” centered around each of these books. So far, it’s a wonderful experience, and I think the fact that the book are so darn good is has a big part of that.

I really love historical fiction, but I admit I hadn’t read much YA historical fiction until now. And of course reading six titles, probably qualifies as binging on it, but I am Ok with that. I highly recommend all of these titles to anyone 13 and over, so let’s get into the books…

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson 

Based on stories friends and family have told her, Edwardon bases her book in Alaska in the 1960’s when public schools were unavailable to the majority of children who didn’t live in a main city. Before 1976, students who wanted to attend high school had to travel hundreds of miles to boarding schools. In My Name is Not Easy, Luke (whose real name is not really Luke, but something too difficult for white speakers to pronounce) and his brothers–along with other children including Chickie, Amiq, Junior, and Sonny–are sent to Sacred Heart School where they realize that the students–Eskimo like them, Native American (Indian), and white–segregate themselves in the lunch room almost as if some sort of war is going on. The staff at Sacred Heart forbid use of native language and push to assimilate the children to a white, Catholic culture, but the students main goal is just to survive school and get back to their families.

I not only loved all of the characters in this book, but I knew many of my students would identify with having a name and culture that society may not understand. Many of my students may feel that they have to push their own culture behind them at school.

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

Engle tells the story of Cuba’s struggle for independence through poetry through the eyes of characters in the middle of the action, mainly Rosa–known to some as a witch for her knowledge of holistic healing with herbs. The story begins with her childhood learning the different powers of flowers and plants, and it follows her as she becomes a nurse to those injured–from both sides–during Cuba’s fight against the Spanish empire. The setting is mainly near the concentration camps where former Cuban slaves were sent. While the poems are mostly from Rosa’s point of view, some are also from the voice of Lieutenant Death, a slave hunter who has a particular vengeance for capturing Rosa. The character of Rosa is based on Rosa Castellanos, an historical heroine known as “la bayamesa”.

This book was both beautiful and devestating. I had forgotten home much I love to read narrative poetry, and how quickly the actual reading goes. The imagery and  just sensations this book oozes are wonderful and terrifying. I went back and re-read some of my favorites. This book is in English, but a Spanish version is also included. Many of my students are hungry to read in their native tongue and lots have family in Cuba. I knew this would be appealing to those kids.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

This is book is a dual narrative about Salva–one of the Sudanese Lost Boys–and Nya. Salva’s true story begins when he is eleven years old in 1985. Salva is separated from his family when fighting comes to his village in Southern Sudan. He has to walk for days in hope to find his family. He struggles to find food and people. He ends up walking for seven years before ending up in a refugee camp. Nya is a fictional character whose story begins in 2008 when she is also eleven years old. She has to walk to a pond that is two hours away twice a day to provide fresh water for her family. Her story emphasizes the lack of clean water in Sudan and the importance of family. In the end, Salva and Nya’s stories cross making a very important push for Salva’s cause of bringing clean water to South Sudan.

This was the first book of the six I read and I remember closing it and thinking, “these books are going to leave me emotionally drained.” I was right. Reading Salva and Nya’s stories was like going on these walks with them. And although I knew Salva survived to create the Water For South Sudan project, I kept thinking, “this is it. He can’t survive this.” I knew this book would appeal to the widest range of students, and since its the shortest, easiest read many of my reluctant readers chose it and are loving it.

Climbing The Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Vidya is fifteen and dreams of going to college. But she lives in British-occupied India during World War II. Her family is loving and supportive and fairly liberal, encouraging her to be what she wants to be. However tragedy strikes and they are forced to live with ultra-conservative relatives who believe women should remain uneducated, serve men, and wait around to be married to a good family. Vidya is miserable, but she secretly breaks the rules and ventures upstairs to her grandfather’s library to read books she is not supposed to even touch. Here she meets Raman who treats her as an equal. When her brother leaves unexpectedly, Vidya is suddenly forced to think about the political situation in India and what she can do to hold on and make her dreams reality.

This is totally a “girl power” book. Venkatraman bases her characters on family members who have told her stories of growing up in India during this time period, and I was excited to see some of my strongest girls chose this book, and have already commented that they are totally loving it!

Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert

This was the last book I read of the six and I admit to needing to take a break from reading after this one. For one, I had binge-read six historical fictions in less than four weeks. Secondly this one made me think and I just needed the time to reflect before diving into something new.

Part One of Far From Home is Tariro’s story.  She is fourteen years old, lives in Zimbabwe on her ancestral grounds near the baobab tree that she was born under. Her dad is the chief, she is in love with the brave and handsome Nhamo–things couldn’t be better. Then white settlers arrive and violently and tragically drive her and her family out of their home into new areas zoned specifically for the blacks.

Part Two is Katie’s story and takes place twenty-five years later. Katie is also fourteen and lives on a farm in Zimbabwe near the baobab tree. She loves her family, her exclusive boarding school, and her home. Then disaster strikes when the second War for Liberation occurs and natives begin to reclaim their land. She is forced to leave the only hone she has ever known and go back to London with her family.

It was hard for me to feel sorry for Katie at first. Her relatives had been the ones to drive the natives off their land! But as I read, I understood the complexity of it. Katie, herself, had not been involved in the relocation. This home was where she was born and raised. It’s all she knew. Plus as the entire story unfolds she learns about white privilege and humanity.

While it is worlds away from us, there are definite connections with today’s society here in the United States. It’s a more difficult, longer read, so only a few of my higher reading level students are tackling this one, but so far they are enjoying it and I am enjoying the conversations that are coming out of it.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

This one affected me the most out of all the books. This is the true story of Arn, a survivor from the Cambodia Civil War during the 1970’s. He was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his village, killing the upper-class and educated and separating the rest of the people into work camps. Arn was sent to a work camp that was also where they took prisoners and slaughtered them. He was forced to work with almost no food or sleep and witness the horrific murder of many people–some of whom he knew. If the kids reacted, they were also killed. Arn eventually volunteers to become a musician for the propaganda-like revolutionary songs the Khmer Rouge has them play. Later, when the Vietnamese invade to help the people of Cambodia, Arn is forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is true, and that Arn does survive and make it to the United States because I kept expecting him to die. Reading this from the lens of a mother and teacher was hard. I found myself putting the book down several times because the imagery was so horrifying. I knew my students would be engrossed in a book about a kid close to their own age having to survive experiences that were too terrible to even imagine. I was right.

All six of these books are about real historical events, many of which we don’t learn about in school. And if we do, it is only briefly covered in a textbook which dates and a few facts. These books humanize the wars and struggles so many children had to endure.

Have you read any of these? Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? (because I am always open to adding more to my To Read pile!)

We Are All Made of Molecules

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I am on the biggest YA Lit kick since I was a teenager myself, I think. I am going through them fast and furious this summer. I never set out to do that either. In fact, before this summer I would claim to not really enjoy YA Lit that much other than the occasional stand out like Winger by Andrew Smith.

This summer I am finding myself not just enjoying YA Lit recommendations, but seeking out titles for myself. While searching for new reads a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Neilsen. I had never heard of the book, but I read the inside flap and thought it was definitely for me.

The story has dual narrators: thirteen-year old Stewart and fourteen-year old Ashley. While I am getting a bit tired of the whole “two points of view” trend, I decided the story seemed like one my students (who are also in the 13-14 year old age range) would relate to: a blended family.

Stewart loses his mom to cancer. Ashley’s parents divorce. Stewart’s dad and Ashley’s mom date and move in together. It’s like the Brady Bunch. Only it’s not at all like that because there are only two kids and it seems they have absolutely nothing in common. At all.

Stewart is, well, he’s different. He’s taking all ninth grade classes (even though he’s technically an 8th grader) now that he is enrolled in the public school after transferring from the Little Genius Academy.  This means he is in some of Ashley’s classes.

Ashley is not interested in school. Or books. Or learning. She is interested in fashion, boys, and herself. I spent most of the book hating Ashley. But I liked Stewart. He was my kind of kid–totally nerdy. He’s got the brains of Sheldon Cooper, but he is nice and thinks of others.  I mostly love the way he loves his mom and his relationship with his dad. I also love how he truly seeks to find the good in everybody. Even Ashley. Even when she gives him no reason to.

I think I gave the book three stars on GoodReads. I think it’s one my students would really like. The characters have very authentic voices–especially the teenagers.  I enjoyed all the characters (well, Ashley was pretty awful and so was Jared, but you will have to read to find out about who Jared is). It took a while to get to any real action though, and once there was finally something going on, it all ended quickly. I felt like 3/4 of the book was a day by day narration of how things were going being a blended family and then BAM 1/4 of the book was about bullies and other stuff and then it wrapped up.  My head was sort of spinning at the end.

It was a quick read though, and like I said, lots that teenagers can find to relate to from blended families, to bullies, to the hierarchy of popularity in high school, to deciding to stand out or blend in.

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Want to contribute to my classroom library? Check out my students’ Wish List!

Links are affiliate with Amazon. Anything purchased via those links will give me Amazon credit toward books for my classroom.

 

We Were Liars

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I didn’t even realize We Were Liars was a YA novel until I went looking for it in the book store. I was scouring the fiction and literature section for E. Lockhart, and I was annoyed I couldn’t find it. I was going to ask at the desk, but I wanted to check out the YA section first to see what I might nab to read that I could add to my classroom library. And there it was.

(This should tell you how much I need to know about a book before I will read it. Hint: not much.)

It seemed like every time I posted a new “review” people would follow by asking “Have you read We Were Liars yet? So I caved and read it.

The book is told from the point of view of Cadence, a seventeen year old who is part of an East Coast family of “Old Money” Democrats. Her mother is one of three sisters in the family and Cadence is the oldest grandchild, so she stands to inherit much of the Sinclair legacy which includes a private island complete with houses for her grandparents, her family, and each of her mother’s sisters’ families. Cadence is very close with her cousins, Mirren and Johnny and Johnny’s mom’s boyfriend’s nephew, Gat (yes, it’s that complicated and weird). The family has nicknamed them The Liars. Every summer, the entire Sinclair family lives on the island. The family is very rich and very entitled and very snotty.

Anyway, Cadence has some sort of accident on the island when she is fifteen. Because of it, she suffers migraines and complete amnesia about the summer it happened. When she is sixteen, her dad takes her to Europe rather than go to the island, something that bothers her. When she is seventeen, she goes back to the island and is determined to figure out what happened two year previous.

I will say none of the characters were particularly likeable, however the plot was very fast-paced and I read the entire book in about 48 hours. Even though I found the teenagers entitled and full of themselves, I still wanted to know what the heck happened, so I was drawn into the story. I think my students will definitely love it.

The ending is…well…the ending is why you read the book. Everyone who asked me if I read it said, “I won’t say anything, but when you finish? Let me know. I want to know what you thought of the ending.”

I am of the “I liked it” camp with the ending. Rumor has it, Lockhart wrote the book after reading Gone Girl because she loved the plot twists. Since I can’t give my students Gone Girl, I like We Were Liars as an example of a fast-pasted novel full of twists.

I also sort of like that it’s hard to relate to any of the characters. I think a book can still be good and the writing done well even if you don’t like the characters. The Great Gatsby is a wonderful example of that. However, I think Fitzgerald and even Flynn purposefully wrote unlikable characters. I’m not convinced that Lockhart wanted her readers to dislike the teens in her novel, given the ending. But maybe.

Either way, I liked the book. It was a great quick read for the summer and I know my students will love it, so I look forward to adding it to my pile of Book Talks this fall!

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Want to contribute to my classroom library? Check out my students’ Wish List!

Links are affiliate with Amazon. Anything purchased via those links will give me Amazon credit toward books for my classroom.

 

4 More Books for You and Your Teen

A while back I did a post about books I recommend to teens (and their parents). I also told you about these five books that you and your teen really need to read.

Well guess what? I keep reading, so I have more recommendations! Yay!

Here are four more to add to your To Read Pile and which I have added to my classroom library.

Books for You and Your TeenThe first on my list is Butter by Erin Jade Lange.

Butter is a high school junior and he weighs well over 400 pounds. Miserable and on a quest to take control of the gossip about himself, Butter sets up a website where he announces he will eat himself to death live on the Internet on New Year’s Eve.

He expects pity and gossip, but he really never expects this announcement to gain him acceptance with the most popular kids in school.

As the deadline approaches, Butter has some decisions to make: go through with it or live with what people will say if he “chickens out”.

This book is cleverly written and humorous, while at the same time emotional and dark. Lange captures teen angst coupled with the sorrow of being an outcast perfectly, while giving Butter a strong, witty voice. I laughed out loud at the way Butter tells his story, but I also found myself wishing I could dive into his world and either hug him or shake him.

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Books For You and Your Teen

Next up is All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

Oh this book. This is a book about Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. They are high school seniors who run with totally different crowds.

Finch is a “freak” who is fascinated by death–and how he might die. He is constantly striving to stay awake and alive. He looks for a reason each day to stay in this world.  Violet is completely focused on graduation and getting out of their tiny Indiana town. She feels defined by her sister’s death and is finding a hard time going back to her old friends and hobbies.

Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of a bell tower at their school and ultimately save each other. They end up partners in a Geography project that has them “wandering” all over the great state of Indiana and then report back to their class. Clearly they are thrown together in love…but their story is so heart-wrenching and beautiful.

If you liked Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, you will LOVE this book. If you didn’t care for Eleanor & Park, you will still love this book. It puts suicide and mental illness in a new light.

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My next pick is Paper Towns by John Greene.

Like a metaphor rendered incomprehensible by its ubiquity, there was room enough in what she had left me for endless imaginings, for an infinite set of Margos” (173).

Quentin and Margo have lived next door to each other in Orlando, Florida their entire lives, but run in different crowds (notice a theme here? Come on, it’s YA lit). Quentin hangs out with mostly kids in band and likes his self-proclaimed boring routine. Margo is exciting and popular and pulls all sorts of crazy stunts like running away and spending the night in Disney World.

One night, Margo shows up at Quentin’s window and takes him on a ridiculous night-long adventure, but then disappears. It seems she has left clues, but they are for Quentin to figure out. What happened to her?

I read this book over a weekend, but if I had not had children needing me, I could have easily read it in one sitting. It’s fast-paced and hard to put down. I wanted to know what in the heck was going to happen! I also love the way John Green portrays teenagers. Some criticize him for making characters that are not believable, but as someone who has taught teenagers for twelve years, I can say that teens like these do exist. And they are my most favorite.

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My last pick is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.

I grabbed this book from Barnes & Noble because I had a 20% off coupon on top of my membership discount. And the back of the book said it was the “funniest book about death” ever. Sold.

Greg is a high school senior who gets along with everybody, but has no actual friends. Well, other than Earl. And Earl is not so much a friend as a “co-worker”. They make films together. Terrible films that they show no one because they are terrible.

Greg’s mom makes him hang out with Rachel, who is dying from Leukemia. And that’s when things get weird.

The hilarity of this book is how honest and self-deprecating Greg is. He lets the reader know right off the bat that this is not a heart-warming “cancer book”. He does not fall in love and he claims not to learn anything. In fact, he thinks he may be worse for the entire experience. I don’t know if I agree with him, but I think the story is more of what might happen in real life than say, The Fault in Our Stars. There is some bad language and sexual humor, so reader beware if that is something that offends you.

4 YA books that you will enjoy as much {if not more than} your teen!

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What is your favorite YA book? What are you (and/or your teen) reading this summer? I want to know what to put on my reading list/classroom library list next!

If you’d like to donate to my classroom library, I just updated it with a bunch of junior high titles. Almost 500 books to choose from to donate, many under $8 each. I also created a DonorsChoose profile that collects donations toward my project–50 books for my classroom library.

Book links are affiliates. That means if you click and buy, I get a couple cents. Just trying to earn some Amazon dollars to buy books for my classroom library!

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