Monthly Archives: January 2012

New Twist on an Old Tragedy

TITLE: The Watch That Ends the Night: Voice from the Titanic

AUTHOR: Allan Wolf

LENGTH: 480 pages

Most people, including my seven-year old daughter, know about the sinking of the Titanic. The tragedy is as much a part of our collective history as the American Revolution or World War II. This tragedy, like others of its ilk, fascinate humankind because many of the people who could tell us exactly what happened were lost on that cold night in April 1912. Even those who survived to see old age gave varying accounts and differing interpretations of the events that led to over 1000 people’s deaths. The curiosity over how such a tragedy could happen and what it would have been like to be a Titanic passenger whispers through the years to awaken the detective in all of us.

Allan Wolf has given depth and personality to the lives of survivors and victims alike. Told in narrative prose, this novel encapsulates all strata of society berthed on the great ship. The doomed and the saved alike are given a chance to tell their individual stories within the five days at sea.  There are every imaginable passenger and crew member represented. The fear and longing of a Lebanese immigrant girl separated from her father resounds in her dreams of the frightening and exhilarating future that awaits her in America. The hope and fear of a father “smuggling” his own children to a better life haunts the lifeboats as he relinquishes his two boys into the hands of  a stranger. The pride and resignation of the shipbuilder as he watches his life’s work descend into the deep reverberates from the set of his shoulders as he stoically refuses to abandon his creation.  The iceberg that unemotionally awaits his date with the fated liner. Ultimately this retelling of Titanic’s  short life does something that no history book could accomplish – it highlights the humanity and hope rather than the selfishness and desperation of the very human, very real souls who walked her decks. And he does so with a respect and tenderness that makes one appreciate again what it means to be alive.

BRIDGE: This novel would be an amazing introduction to research. Much like the Holocaust of World War II, the inherent intrigue in the story would hook students immediately. And from the first pages of the novel, students would be clamoring to know more. Wolf has included an excellent bibliography from which students could begin their inquiries. Students could research the time period, specific passengers, specific seafaring vocations, the engineering and construction of past and present ships, the economics of  Atlantic crossings. The list could go on and on.

In addition, because the novel is written in verse, there are so many literary spring boards. Some of the poems have meter, some rhyme, some are free verse and some take shape. Paired with other poems and essays written about the disaster, this one book could encapsulate and entire literary unit in itself. In addition, the cross-curricular applications of this novel are immense. Teachers could work in math, music, history, and science in studying all the different layers of the work – the possibilities are staggering.

READERS: This book would be perfect for any number of readers. History buffs will devour its authentic people and places. Story lovers will enjoy the interwoven narratives. Math nuts will balk over the figures associated with Titanic, her dimensions and the tonnage of cargo. Science aficionados will want to map the coordinates of her journey and investigate the path of the icebergs and other ships in the vicinity. Even reluctant readers would be pulled in to the story and navigate the verse with ease.

OTHER TITLES: Readers who enjoyed this book would also enjoy Between Shade of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, or Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.

Nerdy Vampires Exist!

TITLE: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod

AUTHOR: Heather Brewer

LENGTH: 182 pages

SUMMARY: Vladimir Tod is a vampire and a nerd. He’s bullied and tormented as only 8th graders can be yet he’s content with this less than perfect teenage existence. Sure, it’s a pain to pretend to eat real food, have to put on sunblock EVERY DAY – rain, snow, or shine – before going to school, and refrain from draining his tormentors dry, but it’s a price Vlad’s willing to pay in order to fit in with the human kids. Vlad’s father was a vampire and his mother was a human so he’s writing his own rule book as far as what is “normal” for his kind. He lives with his “Aunt” Nelly after his parents’ tragic deaths in a house fire and subsists on a combination of real food and bagged blood she pilfers from the blood bank at her job as a nurse. Vlad’s best friend, Henry, makes horrible puns about Vlad’s secret and the two are navigating their 8th grade year as best as any middle school boy can.

But then Vlad’s English teacher, Mr. Craig, goes missing and is replaced with the eccentric Mr. Otis Otis. And this substitute shows more than a passing interest in Vlad. As the search for Mr. Craig peters out, Mr. Otis begins to make more and more thinly veiled remarks about vampires and other supernatural creatures. Vlad worries that Mr. Otis may somehow know his secret. The impending threat of having his secrets out in the open sends Vlad searching for clues. He finds a strange symbol at Mr. Craig’s house that matches a book in his father’s library. He returns to his family’s former home to uncover the truths about his parents’ deaths, the reason for Mr. Otis’s interest in Vlad, and maybe even the legacy of the vampire world he has lived without. Until now.

BRIDGE: This book would be a great introduction for middle school students into the world of literary allusions. Brewer’s story is chocked full of references to Brahm Stoker’s Dracula as well as historically “vampiric” figures like Vlad the Impaler. Teachers could use the text as a companion to Dracula or in a set of vampirically themed YA to compare and contrast the different mythologies surrounding vampires. One could even do a minilesson on puns using the banter between Vlad and Henry.

For older students, this could even lead to research in different areas: history, mythological creatures, and even biology. It would also be a great way to introduce the tradition of myth and the use of allusion in layering a narrative.

READER: Any reader who is fascinated with the supernatural will enjoy Brewer’s Vlad. Though about vampires, the first few books in the series aren’t too gory and are well balanced with humor. The series would appeal more to male readers and would be a good pick for reluctant readers.

OTHER TITLES: Readers who like this book would also enjoy The Maximum Ride books by James Patterson, Fat Vampire by Adam Rex, The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan, or The Skinjacker books by Neal Shusterman.

Laurie Halse Anderson: The Diagnosis

While attending the ALAN Annual Convention in Chicago in November of 2011, I had the pleasure of looking forward to Laurie Halse Anderson give the keynote address. I was pumped. She is one of my favorite YA authors because she (and her books) don’t compromise. I had met her twice already (briefly) at the ALAN reception and signing autographs at her publisher’s booth at the NCTE exhibits. Little did I know that Anderson’s speech would be memorable not only for its kick-ass message about fighting ignorance and censorship, but also that Anderson would finish the speech under circumstances that would make normal humans rush home to Mama.

My conference clique and I were camped out right next to the staging area for the featured authors. We actually chatted with Anderson a few moments before she went on stage and she told us she wasn’t feeling well. We were worried about her because-I mean, she’s a warrior! If she was saying, OUT LOUD, that she didn’t feel well, something was wrong. A few minutes in to her speech it was clear that she was truly unwell. She finished her speech in true LHA-superstar fashion.* The next day, ALAN-ites were told she had a bad case of food poisoning. While that was true, it seems there’s more to the story and it started way before NCTE/ALAN IN 2011.

Read Anderson’s own words about her health with her trademark humor and panache.

*See video within linked post.

Disappointing Death Diva

Violet is still exploring her romance with Jay as the second installment in the Body Finder Series by Kimberly Derting begins. As they try to get back to normal after the terrifying events at the dance at the end of the first book, Violet is attempting to reconcile her ability to sense dead bodies and live a normal teenager’s life. That’s made all the more complicated when she senses another body locked inside a shipping container and, when she lets the authorities know, she may have given herself away.

Mike and Megan, a new pair of siblings moves to town, and suddenly Violet is competing with Mike for Jay’s attention when she needs him more than ever. Violet struggles to maintain honesty in her relationship with Jay as she fears having her ability discovered. When she starts receiving anonymous, threatening messages and learns a secret about Mike and Megan, she has to decide who to trust. If she doesn’t decide soon, they could all be in danger.

Honestly, I was disappointed in this sequel. I was so intrigued by Violet’s ability in the first book and she seems to be a refreshing type of female protagonist. She has both parents who are at home and involved. She has a solid network of friends and has established what seems to be a healthy romantic relationship. She is equal parts decisive and doubtful, as most teenagers are. But she seems to unravel in the second book. She becomes more indecisive and almost whiny. She doesn’t trust anyone, not even Jay, who is the one person who seemed to be a constant in the first book.

In addition to Violet’s unraveling character, the plot in this book seemed weak. I felt it was a little too predictable and the pacing seemed off. I was pretty sure I had it figured out by the time the first message appeared. And, more than in the first novel, Violet seems controlled by the echoes she hears. I always got the sense in the first book that Violet was in control. Here in the second book, it seems that Violet is merely being pushed around by all the different forces she faces. It’s almost as if the plot took over the characters.

All in all, a disappointing second installment. I have to give it a THUMBS DOWN. However, I like Derting’s writing style and the length of her books is suitable for readers who may shy away from longer tomes but are interested in paranormal fiction. I am anxious to see if Derting continues Violet’s story and if a subsequent book will redeem Violet for me. I have heard marvelous things about The Pledge and am hopeful that Derting will deliver with this new book.

Talking Dogs and Terror: what more could a reader want?

TITLE: The Knife of Never Letting Go

AUTHOR: Patrick Ness

LENGTH: 496 pages

Todd can hear other men’s thoughts – just like every other man in Prentisstown. The Noise isn’t the only thing strange about Todd’s town: there are no women or girls in Prentisstown and Todd is the last boy in his town. There are no others. The Noise has been a part of his life as long as he can remember even though things like his parents or silence or females are things of a long-ago past. Living in Prentisstown comes with lots of “askings” and very few answers.

Todd returns home with a secret of his own after a routine trip to the swamp with his dog, Manchee. He “heard” silence. Todd wonders if he should share his discovery or not. But Aaron, the town’s spiritual leader, hears of Todd’s discovery in Todd’s Noise and by the time he makes it home, the town’s leaders are coming for him. His guardians, Ben and Cillian, rush him out of the house with an already stocked back-pack and a knife, telling him not to return to Prentisstown. They explain nothing other than Todd must leave and never return if he wants to remain safe. Ben tells Todd that his mother’s diary is in the back-pack and it will explain everything once Todd is safely away and can read it. Todd and Manchee barrel through the swamp in an attempt to flee Prentisstown. In the course of their escape, Todd discovers the source of the silence and realizes that it may be up to him to solve the mystery of Prentisstown, the silence and possibly save not only himself, but everyone else.

BRIDGE: This book could be used in a variety of ways but there are two that I think would be most beneficial. This book would be an amazing Mentor text to use in discussion of diction. Todd speaks with a country accent and uses some interesting vocabulary like saying “asking” instead of “question”. This would be a good way to show writers how to create a character’s personality merely through his/her dialogue. In addition, there are multiple types of formal and informal diction used throughout the writing to enhance differences between certain characters. Again, this would be helpful in showing students how to differentiate between characters with minimal description. It could also be used as a discussion point for a vocabulary lesson as several words most would consider a normal part of everyday language are not present in the book. It would be interesting to  turn these different observations into minilesson on etymology or the evolution of language.

Ness’s novel could also be used to introduce classic novels that deal with dystopian societies such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or Brave New World. In fact, I think it would be interesting to pair contemporary YA dystopian novels with more classic novels in a Literature Circle atmosphere and then compare and contrast all the titles. Perhaps four classic novels paired with four contemporary YA books. It would be interesting to see which elements of this genre remain constant while noticing which elements have faded or become inapplicable over time.

READERS: This book would appeal to readers who enjoy not just dystopian novels, but mysteries. The mystery of Prentisstown is slowly unraveled right up until the last page. Readers who enjoy fast-paced reads will enjoy the action and will feel just as spent as Todd by the end of the book.

OTHER TITLES: Readers who enjoy this book would also enjoy The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner series by James Dashner, or Divergent by Veronica Roth.

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