The Geography of Girlhood – Kirsten Smith

girlhoodTurns out The Geography of Girlhood was written by someone who knows a lot about teenage girls – at least in the movies. Kirsten Smith is the co-writer of some classic teen flicks including 10 Things I Hate About You, Ella Enchanted and one of my all-time, never-get-sick-of-it faves She’s the Man. (I can not stress how much I love She’s the Man. I’ve seen it many times and it still makes me laugh I love that I can share it with my students when we study Twelfth Night.)

When The Geography of Girlhood starts, Penny is just fourteen.  Having rowed herself out into the middle of the bay to contemplate her life she thinks: “One day, I’ll find my way away from here/ and go somewhere real/ and do something great/ and be someone wonderful.”

Of course, the problem with being a teenage girl is that there’s a whole lot of crap to wade through before you get that “someone wonderful.” Fourteen, Penny intones, “is like rotten candy.”

The novel, told in free verse form, follows Penny from the end of grade nine until just after her sixteenth birthday.

Penny is jealous of her  perfect, older sister, Tara, her “long torso,/ the breasts lodged high/ like tea cakes/ on her powdery skin.” She longs to experience “love” as she imagines it exists between Tara and Bobby, her sister’s boyfriend. “I look at her/ and memorize everything./ So when the time comes,/ and the boy’s eye glitters like a crime,/ I will know what to do.”  We learn about Penny’s complicated feelings for the mother who left her, who, in fact “always wanted to leave wherever she was.”

Readers will recognize themselves in Penny. While it’s true that fourteen was a L-O-N-G time ago for me, I can totally remember that feeling that  “you look good only once a week/ and it’s never on the day of the dance.”

Penny navigates the treacherous geography of  her girlhood, in language that is both  poignant and pointed.  She falls in and out of love in the way of all teenaged girls. She makes stupid choices and does stupid things, but she is also smart and resilient and open to all the possibilities life has to offer.

“If anyone tells you that life is predictable,/ DO NOT BELIEVE THEM,” she remarks.

I really enjoyed this book.



Our Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis


Picking a book for my book club  is serious business. The way our group works, we have one opportunity to pick and host per year and so you don’t want to choose a dud. The women in our group our merciless [cough] The White Iris [/cough] and it sucks to be on the receiving end of a book choice gone bad.  Usually I spend a lot of time choosing my book. This year I thought I would choose something from my own massive tbr  pile, but the problem was that every book I selected from my shelf was unavailable at local stores. In the end, I headed over to Indigo to peruse the shelves. The only criteria at that point was that there were enough copies on the shelf for the members of my club.

In the end, I chose a book I’d never heard of but which was plastered with accolades and a bright red sticker proclaiming that it had been longlisted for the Giller in 2012. Feeling confident of its pedigree, I brought home Lauren B. Davis’s novel Our Daily Bread.

Davis’s novel owes some of its gripping story to the real-life Golers from South Mountain, Nova Scotia. But Davis is quick to point out that Our Daily Bread is not ABOUT the Golers. While it’s true that Davis’s fictional Erskine family shares some similarities with the real-life family, that is only one small part of this mesmerizing and beautifully-written tale.

Albert Erskine is not like the rest of his violent, drug and alcohol addicted, sexually deviant family. He has already separated himself from the pack by building himself a small shack away from the main buildings on his family’s “compound”  on North Mountain.  His uncle Lloyd comments on Albert’s ‘otherness’ by saying: “You don’t act like the family at all now, do you? Don’t come visiting. Live in your little shack. Course maybe you have your own parties. That it? You have kids come to see you?”

It’s near impossible to trace the branches of  Albert’s family tree. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of younger kids with questionable DNA and Albert regards them with a mixture of annoyance and helplessness.  When ten-year-old Toots stops by his shack looking for food,  Albert ponders the sticky question: “What would she be like, if she’d been raised in some other place?” Albert often wonders how he might be different if his circumstances had been different. It’s a painful road for both Albert and the reader to travel.

Down in Gideon is another family with their own struggles: Tom and Patty Evans and their children Ivy and Bobby.  Tom is a good man. He grew up in Gideon and is well-liked and well-known. His wife, Patty, is another story. For starters, she’s from away. And although Tom seems desperately in love with her, she seems detached and unhappy. No matter what Tom does, it’s not good enough. As the tension in the household escalates, Ivy and Bobby seek shelter elsewhere. For Ivy, it is with the benign widow Dorothy Carlisle; Bobby’s new friend and confidant turns out to be  Albert Erskine. The intersection of these lives makes up the bulk of the narrative of Our Daily Bread.

I am guessing that some of the women in my group will have difficulty with the graphic (but never, imo, gratuitous) nature of the subject matter. As a mother, it’s certainly upsetting to see children in peril. The interesting thing about this book is that peril means different things to different people. Is Ivy’s falling-apart life any less horrible because she has a warm bed to sleep in? The impact Bobby and Albert have on each other’s lives is astounding and heart-breaking, too. Bobby is filled with a fifteen year old’s rage and angst and it isn’t until the novel’s powerful climax that he understands the value of his father’s love.

It truly is the mark of a great novel when you can empathize with so many of the characters. I loved Ivy’s resolute determination and Albert’s jaded hope and Dorothy’s refusal to bend to the will of small-town politics. And I loved Tom. A lot. As he copes with his unraveling marriage, as he asked himself the question, “How can I ever trust myself again?” I just saw so much of myself in him. But, ultimately, it all comes back to Albert. I so desperately wanted him to get in his truck and just go. I will be thinking about him for a long time.

Our Daily Bread isn’t ‘light’ reading, but this is a book that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

As expected, our discussion of this book was lively and we were SO excited to be able to Tweet with Ms. Davis about her book. Here is some of our conversation:

Lauren B. Davis:  Oh, that’s wonderful, Christie!  If you have any questions, just send me a tweet! Thanks so much. #Ilovebookclubs

The Ludic Reader: Lively discussion about Our Daily Bread. @Laurenbdavis girls want to know if you think Albert ever contemplated a sexual advance towards Bobby?

Lauren B. Davis‏:  Not consciously, altho I do think the conditioned response of his childhood arose (pardon the pun) a few times, including that moment in the cabin the night Bobby came up to the compound with him.

@bitebymichelle wants to know where the wife went.

Lauren B. Davis‏: At the very end of the book?  Ah, who knows.  She is a lost soul, I fear.  I wonder if she’ll  ever come back and finally make that long walk up to the door.  What do you all think?

The Ludic Reader: Nobody is going to love her like Tom did, but we don’t think she’ll come back until her life is shit.

The Ludic Reader:  We all loved Albert so much – why did he have to die? (Altho we do know the answer.)

Lauren B. Davis‏: Can’t tell you how I tried not to kill him.  In the first draft he survived, but it just didn’t work.  I suppose it’s the symbolic sacrifice, but to be honest, I still grieve him. I found the final scene difficult to write.

The Ludic Reader: Some feel the trial was not necessary. Why did you decide to include it?

Lauren B. Davis:  It is rough, isn’t it?  But I felt readers would want to know what happened to the abusers, and since the courtroom  dialogue was taken from trial transcripts, I felt I was bearing witness to the children whose story inspired me. There was so much more of the Goler case which I did not include, because it was simply too horrible. But the response of the townspeople was important to the meaning of the book  I understand the squeamishness.  I felt I, too.  But yes, I think it’s important to be fearless in our gaze and to speak  truth to power even if our voice shakes.

Wonder – R. J. Palacio


R. J. Palacio’s debut novel Wonder is wonderful. It tells the story of ten-year-old August (Auggie) Pullman who was born with “a previously unknown type of mandibulofacial dysostosis caused by a autosomal recessive mutation in the TCOF1 gene,” or, in other words, he’s not “normal” looking.  Auggie has already had twenty-seven surgeries in an effort to correct some of the problems, but he has  come to terms with the way he looks. He doesn’t like it, but he accepts it.

August lives with his parents and 14-year-old sister Olivia (Via) in North River Heights, which is located at the very top of Manhattan. His parents have decided to take the very brave step of enrolling August in school for the first time. Until now his mom has been home schooling him. They are all hyper-aware of August’s stare-inducing face, but  his mom and dad also understand that they can’t protect him forever.

Wonder follows August through fifth grade, not only from his point of view, but from the perspective of some of his classmates and his sister, too. One of his new friends, Summer, says:

I sat with him that first day because I felt sorry for him. That’s all. Here he was, this strange-looking kid in a brand-new school. No one was talking to him. Everyone was staring at him. All the girls at my table were whispering about him. He wasn’t the only new kid at Beecher Prep, but he was the only one everyone was talking about. Julian had nicknamed him the Zombie Kid, and that’s what everyone was calling him.

August’s favourite day of the whole year is, you guessed it, Hallowe’en.  He says it’s “the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in a costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and no one thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me.” If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

Olivia is also spreading her wings and her fierce love for her brother is  tinged, realistically, with some adolescent id. For example, she doesn’t want her parents to attend a school play because they’ll bring August and she doesn’t want her new high school friends to see him.  Despite understanding the extreme nature of Auggie’s problem  – she would never call it deformity, but there you have it – she is starting to want some of her mother’s very  August – focused attention for herself. Still, she is a good sister.

August is  smart and funny and well-supported by parents who love him and understand that they cannot shield him from life’s cruelty forever. He is beginning to make his way in a world that may not always show him kindness and yet he is so buoyed by the love of his family and the support of friends, one can only imagine that he will be just fine.

If  the ending is perhaps just the teensiest bit instructional, the proffered lesson is one I can get behind. We must be kind to each other. Cynical readers might also argue that Wonder‘s ending is a bit saccharine. I disagree. Instead, I agree with Auggie’s mother when she  tells him: “You really are a wonder.” And so is this book.

A must read.

Hawkes Harbor – S.E. Hinton


There was a time – perhaps not in recent memory, but in my memory at least – when the Teen section of a book store didn’t offer quite the selection that it does now. Books written specifically for a teen audience were not so readily available; I did most of my book-buying from the Scholastic flyer and a great deal of my reading from the stacks of the local library. Perhaps the fact that there weren’t so many ‘teen’ books is the reason why so many people of my vintage have read many of the classics (and all of Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew!)  But if you had to compile a list of YA fiction from the 70s (which is when I was a teen) S. E. Hinton would surely be at the top of the list. (I also have a very vivid memory of this romance that took place at the beach – an insecure, plain girl falls in love with this Greek Adonis, who just happens to have a prosthetic leg. Can’t remember the book or the author, though. Damn.)


S.E. Hinton is best known for her novel, The Outsiders. Seriously, is there a person on the planet who is not familiar with this book? Hinton was still a teenager when the book was published. (I love to tell my students she was just 16 when she wrote it, but I don’t know that for sure.) The Outsiders is pretty much the slam-dunk book to give to a student who claims he doesn’t like to read. Works for girls, too, by the way. But then I love to tell them that if they enjoyed Ponyboy and Johnny and the rest of the greasers, they’ll love That Was Then, This is Now, which is my favourite Hinton novel. Her characters feel authentic to me and I suspect that’s why teens still love them, even though some of the stuff  feels dated.

Which brings me to Hawkes Harbor. Published in 2004, it was Hinton’s first novel in 15 years. It was also her first adult novel. It’s also really, really strange. And, truthfully, i don’t know if I mean that in a “don’t waste your time” way or in a “I couldn’t stop reading it even though it was really bizarre” way.

Jamie Sommers (not to be confused with the bionic woman) is orphaned at a very young age and sent to love with the nuns.  It is 1950…and that is all you get to know about that. When we catch up with him he’s a mental patient at Terrace View Asylum. Bad stuff has happened and Dr. McDevitt is trying to help him remember. McDevitt can’t decide if Jamie’s tales of derring-do are authentic or the fantasies of an addled brain. In any case, the reader learns that after a stint in the navy, Jamie hooked up with an Irishman named Kell and the two of them sailed around the world looking to make their fortune – mostly illegally. Eventually they ended up in Hawkes Harbor and that’s where things took a turn for the worse.

Um. This is where we meet the vampire. It’s not what I was expecting. At all. And I can’t say that I believed it because it was at this point that Hinton broke her contract with me. Really? A vampire? I just didn’t get it.

The writing is decent, albeit choppy, which might have something to do with the nature of the narrative  and the fact that the story jumps around. Jamie is compelling enough. This is a decidedly adult novel, so I won’t be recommending it to my students.  Sadly, I doubt I’d recommend it to anyone.

No matter. I still love you, Ms. Hinton.

All Unquiet Things – Anna Jarzab

allunquietthingsAnna Jarzab’s first novel All Unquiet Things is  mature and thoughtful. Kirkus called it “a sophisticated teen mystery.” It’s actually hard to believe that this book is written for young adult readers; its prose, while not exactly sophisticated, is a cut above many other books published for young readers.

It was the end of summer, when the hills were bone dry and brown; the sun beating down and shimmering off the pavement was enough to give you heatstroke. One winter came, Empire Valley would be compensated for months of hot misery with three months of torrential rain, the kind of downpours that make the freeways slick and send cars sliding into one another on ribbons of oil.

All Unquiet Things is the story of Carly, Neily and Audrey, students at Brighton Day School, a prestigious private school outside of San Francisco. Through a series of flashbacks – told from Neily and Audrey’s perspective – we learn about how Carly and Neily’s middle school friendship blossomed into something more, and how the arrival of Carly’s cousin Audrey changed the dynamics of their relationship.

These teenagers are smart, but they also have a lot of other issues including deadbeat or overly demanding parents. Neily’s parents are divorced and according to Neily his father “hadn’t really parented me since I was very young and I tended to get away with most things….” The girls have problems of their own.

So what’s the mystery? Well, Carly’s dead. (Don’t worry – her ghost doesn’t speak.)  Someone shot her four times and the circumstantial evidence points to Audrey’s alcoholic/drug addicted father Enzo, so he’s serving time in jail. Audrey is convinced that her father is innocent and even though her relationship with Neily has been strained by events, she seeks him out to help her try to figure out who really ended her cousin’s life.

Their investigation exposes the slimy underbelly of Brighton’s facade, but also allows the reader a glimpse into the messed up lives of students with too much money and not enough parental involvement. As Neily and Audrey try to figure out what really happened to Carly, they become friends, at first united in their search for the truth but then because they grow to genuinely care for each other.

You can’t really see whodunnit early on, which makes this a perfect read for students who like a page-turner. All Unquiet Things works on another level, too. Neily has to consider how he has been shaped by his love for Carly and how that love, no longer sustainable or attainable, is holding him back from living a fulfilling life. Audrey has to own up to her own part in Carly’s story and come to terms with the fact that her father might not be capable of all she hopes for him.

All in all, a terrific book.




A Family Secret – Eric Heuvel

family secretEric Heuvel is a Dutch comic book artist, so A Family Secret, a story which takes place in Amsterdam during the second world war, is perhaps a topic especially close to his heart.

Jeroen is looking for items to sell at a flea market held on Dutch Queen’s Day. He decides to head over to his grandmother’s house, hoping to score some good stuff without actually have to visit with his grandmother. Snooping through the attic, he comes across a scrapbook filled with items marking the German occupation of Holland.

“I”ll tell you why I started this scrapbook,” his grandmother tells him. Jeroen is thinking: I hope this doesn’t take long. It turns out, though, that her story is riveting.

When I was twelve or thirteen I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. It was one of those turning point books for me, as I am sure it was for many other young people. Here was a real teenager, coping with typical teenage problems but under extraordinary circumstances. Decades later, while visiting Amsterdam, I was priviledged to visit the house where she and her family were hidden away. I can’t begin to explain to you the feeling of stepping behind the hidden door and heading up the stairs to the annex where she spent just over two years of her short life.

A Family Secret tells another one of the, I suspect, hundreds of thousands of personal stories about that horrific time in history. Jeoren’s grandmother tells of her father, a Dutch police officer, forced to make choices she doesn’t understand until years later, about her brothers, one who joins the resistance and one who joins the Nazis and of her childhood friend, Esther, a  German Jew who fled with her parents to the safety of the Netherlands…only to discover there was no safe place for them.

The graphic novel format of this particular story makes it a perfect read for reluctant readers, but all readers should get something meaningful out of the personal choices the characters are forced to make in times of great distress.

These atrocities continue to be written about, as they should. We should never be allowed to forget.

Borderline – Allan Stratton

borderlineAllan Stratton’s YA novel Borderline wouldn’t necessarily be something I’d pick up on my own, but I am trying to read more ‘boy’ books, especially those that might appeal to reluctant readers. I’ve inherited a class this semester and the majority of them are boys and many of them wouldn’t exactly put reading at the top of their to-do lists. I always think the key to reading success is to find just one book that they like. Borderline could be that book for someone.

Sami Sabiri is almost sixteen. He’s a pretty average teenager; he lives in an American suburb, crosses swords with his strict father,  and tries to stay out of the way of bullies at the expensive private school he attends. He’s also Muslim.

At first, Borderline doesn’t seem like anything more than the pretty standard YA fare. Sami is likeable and relatable and his life is just ‘other’ enough to be intriguing. The fact that he is Iranian offers plenty of opportunities to discuss today’s headlines, too, because suddenly Sami finds himself in the middle of an FBI investigation.

The agents grill me to a crisp. Questions about Dad, his work, who he knows, what he does. I hardly hear a word….”We’re Americans,” I blurt out. “Mom and Dad – you can’t put them on a plane. You can’t send them off to be tortured.”

Sami’s journey to discover the truth about his father’s supposed terrorist activities is also a journey of self-discovery. Suddenly he has a reason to stand up and be counted. As his loyalty to his father wavers, he finds hidden reserves of strength and courage. If the resolution is, perhaps, a little too convenient, it won’t really matter to the majority of young readers. Sami is a character worth rooting for.

As to whether my reluctant readers would like this book – I think they would. The writing is accessible with a minimum of flowery prose. It’s pretty much straight-up plot and I think most of the boys in my current class would enjoy it.