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Other people’s lives

13 Jul

When I was in high school, mom volunteered at a shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse. She was shocked that it happened in “good families”.  She is still shocked by stories that she hears in the news about dysfunctional families.  As a teacher, I’ve seen, or heard, a lot of family stories. There is very little that shocks me anymore, but my heart breaks with every sad story I hear.

Gem and Dixie by Sara Zarr is the sort of story teachers know. Gem is the sort of kid a teacher encounters and miss because she tries to maintain a facade of normalcy. She doesn’t ask for help, even though she should. He dad has left and her mother

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Publisher’s Summary: Gem has never known what it is to have security. She’s never known an adult she can truly rely on. But the one constant in her life has been Dixie. Gem grew up taking care of her sister when no one else could: not their mother, whose issues make it hard for her to keep food on the table, and definitely not their father, whose intermittent presence is the only thing worse than his frequent absence. Even as Gem and Dixie have grown apart, they’ve always had each other.

When their dad returns home for the first time in years and tries to insert himself back into their lives, Gem finds herself with an unexpected opportunity: three days with Dixie—on their own in Seattle and beyond. But this short trip soon becomes something more, as Gem discovers that to save herself, she may have to sever the one bond she’s tried so hard to keep.

This is not a happy book, though it ends with hope. It certainly captures the instability of too many kids’ lives. It also reminds me of a few other books for adults.

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Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Goodreads Summary: At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby’s gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby’s spirit, she will ultimately realize that the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.

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Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray

Goodreads Summary: Liz Murray was born to loving but drug-addicted parents in the Bronx. In school she was taunted for her dirty clothing and lice-infested hair, eventually skipping so many classes that she was put into a girls’ home. At age fifteen, when her family finally unraveled, Murray found herself on the streets. She learned to scrape by, foraging for food and riding subways all night to have a warm place to sleep.

Eventually, Murray decided to take control of her own destiny and go back to high school, often completing her assignments in the hallways and subway stations where she slept. She squeezed four years of high school into two, while homeless; won a New York Times scholarship; and made it into the Ivy League. Breaking Night is an unforgettable and beautifully written story of one young woman’s indomitable spirit to survive and prevail, against all odds.

Revenge, thy name is Hag-seed

7 May

I make no secret of the fact that I am a fan of Margaret Atwood. But I will admit to not loving everything she has written.

I did, however, love Hag-seed, and have recommended it to several people.

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Publisher’s Summary: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest retold as Hag-Seed

Connectedness

30 Apr

Many years ago, when I was in college, my now brother-in-law introduced me to a friend of his who had spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Tom told me his friend thought he’d become invisible,  which sort of made me laugh. When his friend explained it to me, it wasn’t funny at all. I remember to this day that he felt that the lines connecting him to other people were getting so long he couldn’t be seen. It is an image that has stuck with me.

In Shaun David Hutchinson’s At The Edge of The Universe, the protagonist has a similar, though opposite problem. Everyone and everything else is disappearing and he is feeling more and more isolated.

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Publisher’s Summary: From the author of We Are the Ants and The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes the heartbreaking story of a boy who believes the universe is slowly shrinking as things he remembers are being erased from others’ memories.

Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since the second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.

More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.

Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon he suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.

When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.

But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy—that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as it takes to get his boyfriend back.

This is another excellent YA novel dealing with mental illness, and it brings with it the hope for treatment and recovery.

 

Realistic, with humor and empathy

27 Apr

Some characters just touch your heart. Bixby Alexander Tam, the main character in A Boy Called Bat, is one of those.

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Publisher’s Summary:From acclaimed author Elana K. Arnold and with illustrations by Charles Santoso, A Boy Called Bat is the first book in a funny, heartfelt, and irresistible young middle grade series starring an unforgettable young boy on the autism spectrum.

For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.

But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.

Bat is clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum. He has learned some important lessons and is trying to apply them to real life. He is not good with people, but he is great with animals and longs to be a vet like his mom.

Arnold lets us into the anxieties and worries Bat experiences gently and there are moments when I teared up. Some of the writing about eye contact is that touching. Even though the book is about Bat, I really got a sense of how Bat’s mom must be feeling. This is such a lovely book.

The b&w illustrations by Charles Santoso are fabulous. I was reading the book at school during silent reading and disturbed kids sitting near me to show them the illustrations of Thor, the skunk kit.

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They beautifully capture Bat’s isolation, love for Thor and relationship with his mom.

This book is written for readers younger than those in my class but I might just book talk this one, in case they have younger siblings who would enjoy this one. This is the first book in a series and I look forward to reader more about Bat.

When good kids make bad decisions

17 Apr

We often tell 6th graders who have done something really stupid, that this is the time in their life when they can make mistakes and truly learn from them, never repeat them. We let them know that, when they are older, the consequences of their actions will be more severe. We say this when they turn in a friends work as their own and mess around in the bathrooms. We have really good kids.

But sometimes, really good kids make tragic mistakes, and it adults don’t tell them this is their chance to learn, they want them punished.

That is the premise of Jeff Zentner’s second novel, Goodbye Days.

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Publisher’s Summary:What if you did something so terrible that it literally steals your breath away?

Something you wish you could take back every waking minute of your life. Something everyone is guilty of doing at one time or another—but this time, it destroyed life as you knew it forever.

“I would tell you that I definitely killed my three best friends. Here’s the cruel irony for the writer I am: I wrote them out of existence.

Where are you guys? Text me back.”

Carver Briggs never thought a simple text would cause a fatal crash, killing his three best friends, Mars, Eli, and Blake. But now Carver can’t stop blaming himself for the accident and even worse, a powerful judge is pressuring the district attorney to open up a criminal investigation.

Luckily, Carver has some unexpected allies: Eli’s girlfriend, the only person to stand by him at school; Dr. Mendez, his new therapist; and Blake’s grandmother, who asks Carver to spend a “goodbye day” together to share their memories and say a proper farewell.

Soon the other families are asking for their own goodbye day with Carver—but he’s unsure of their motives. Will they all be able to make peace with their losses, or will these goodbye days bring Carver one step closer to a complete breakdown or—even worse—prison?

Although intended for a slightly older audience, this is a YA novel that I can easily put on my 6th grade shelf. There is a little romance, but the book is intelligent and heart-breaking.

First Book of 2017

2 Jan

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Janet McNally’s debut novel  Girls in the Moon is an understated, nicely written novel. Phoebe, the main character isn’t faced with a big crisis; she’s just trying to figure out family history and her place in it. Her story is contrasted with vignettes narrated by her mother, Meg, that sheds light on things Phoebe wants to know.

Publisher’s Summary: Everyone in Phoebe Ferris’s life tells a different version of the truth.

Her mother, Meg, ex-rock star and professional question evader, shares only the end of the story—the post-fame calm that Phoebe’s always known. Her sister Luna, indie rock darling of Brooklyn, preaches a stormy truth of her own making, selectively ignoring the facts she doesn’t like. And her father, Kieran, the co-founder of Meg’s beloved band, hasn’t said anything at all since he stopped calling three years ago.

But Phoebe, a budding poet in search of an identity to call her own, is tired of half-truths and vague explanations. When she visits Luna in New York, she’s determined to find out how she fits in to this family of storytellers, and maybe even to continue her own tale—the one with the musician boy she’s been secretly writing for months.

This soul-searching, authentic debut weaves together Phoebe’s story with scenes from the romance between Meg and Kieran that started it all—leaving behind a heartfelt reflection on family, fame, and finding your own way.

On the Run

7 Nov

Jason Reynold’s Ghost isn’t about anything scary. At least not in the haunted house sense.

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Publisher’s Summary:Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel of a brand-new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Ghost has a crazy natural talent, but no formal training. If he can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all starting with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who blew his own shot at success by using drugs, and who is determined to keep other kids from blowing their shots at life.

Ghost makes some bad decisions and at first, I found him a little hard to like. But, just as Coach took the time to get to know him in the book, I took the time to get to know him and was glad I did. He has a lot of anger bottled up inside and it doesn’t always come out in a good way. Fortunately, he stumbles into track and it might just be the making of him.

At 181 pages it is a quick read. I don’t know when the rest of the books about the team come out, but I will be looking for them.

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