Uses for Boys – Erica Lorraine Scheidt

usesforboysHer bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.

That’s Anna, protagonist of Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s YA novel Uses for Boys, remembering.  She remembers a time before stepfathers and step brothers, a time she calls the “tell-me-again-times.” Those were the times when her mother would gather her up and tell her how much she was wanted, “more than anything in the world.”

Unhappily for Anna, the “tell-me-again” times don’t last long. By the time Anna is eight her mother insists that she is “too big for stories.” It’s also the time that Anna’s mother decides that she is tired of being alone and ventures out to meet a man  and it seems just about any man will do. Early on Anna learns the lessons that her mother teaches: men will leave.

Despite its cover depicting kissing teens wrapped in twinkley lights, Uses for Boys is mostly the grim story of Anna’s search for unconditional love – the love she should have received from her mother if her mother had bothered to pay attention. Instead, Anna must seek it elsewhere and she does it by chasing (mostly) sexual relationships with boys.

First there’s Desmond who sticks his hand on Anna’s thirteen-year-old breast on the school bus in full view of his friends.  Then there’s Joey. And Todd. You get the picture. It isn’t until Anna meets Sam and his family that Anna realizes what she’s been looking for (and willing to give away to get it): family.

“Sam’s house is everything I wanted, but didn’t know to want.” Anna says about her first visit to Sam’s house. “I want to wrap myself in this house like a blanket.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with Anna. She has a nice home but a mostly absent mother. No one has guided her to make wise choices about her body or to value herself as a person, so it’s difficult to blame her when she makes poor decisions.  Scheidt’s writing is often poetic although I’m not sure if that makes Anna’s life any easier to bear.

Everybody Sees the Ants – A.S. King

antsEvery night in his dreams, 15-year-old Lucky Linderman, the narrator of A.S. King’s novel Everybody Sees the Ants, visits the jungles of Vietnam in a desperate attempt to rescue his paternal grandfather, Harry, who never made it home from that conflict. In the real world, Lucky isn’t as lucky as his name. In the real world he’s been at the mercy of bully Nader McMillan since he was a little kid and Nader peed on his shoes during a horrible encounter in a restaurant washroom. Lucky wants to stand up to Nader, or at least stay out of his way, but that isn’t always possible and Nader is a huge jerk.

I used to hang out with Nader sometimes, too, because of Danny, even after all the crappy shit Nader did to me, but that was before my famous freshman year social studies suicide-questionnaire screwup, when he decided to make my life a living hell again.

Lucky is an only child. His father is a chef who doesn’t seem able to cope with anything even remotely confrontational, an unfortunate predicament when you have a teenager who is being picked on. Lucky’s mom is a little more proactive, but even she isn’t aware of everything going on in her son’s life.  After a particularly nasty incident at the community pool, Mrs. Linderman and Lucky fly out to visit family in Arizona. This summer changes Lucky’s life for a variety of reasons.

Given the fantastic nature of Young Adult literature these days, I doubt most young readers would even bat an eye at Ms. King’s use of magical realism in Everybody Sees the Ants. It’s relatively obvious that Lucky’s dreamy ventures into the jungle to save Grandpa Harry are related to his own circumstances in the real world and his inability to defend himself against Nader. The dual narrative would work just fine like this, but magical realism operates on another level, one where magical elements are a natural part of an otherwise realistic world. So sometimes Lucky wakes up with leaves in his hair or clutching tokens of his latest visit to Laos. He also sees a lot of ants.

Ants appear on the concrete in front of me. Dancing ants. Smiling ants, Ants having a party. One tells me to hang on. Don’t worry, kid! he says, holding up a martini glass. It’ll be over in a minute.

Everybody Sees the Ants is a well-written, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Lucky is a character who will resonate with young adult readers who are climbing their own hill towards adulthood, but can’t quite see over the top.





Saturday Sum-up

Here’s what I found bookish & interesting on my tour around the Internet this week:


From Coffee and a Good Book


I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank when I was eleven or twelve. I was profoundly moved when I visited the Annex while visiting Amsterdam in the early 1990s. The world continues to surprise and dismay me:

Hundreds of Anne Frank’s book and other books about the Holocaust have been vandalized in dozens of libraries in Japan. Read the story here.

Dare I say it? Here’s an event even more sacred than the Stanley Cup! That’s right, it’s almost time for Canada Reads.

Do you know that there’s this whole thing on YouTube where people talk about the books they buy.  It’s compulsively watchable especially for those of us who buy multiple books at a time.

Have a great day.

More Than This – Patrick Ness

morethanthis“Here is the boy, drowning” is the opening line of Patrick Ness’s confounding, riveting, philosophical and profoundly moving YA novel More Than This. If you are a regular visitor to The Ludic Reader then you know that I am a Ness fan. I have huge love for his novels A Monster Calls, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men.

More Than This was my pick for book club and we gathered on Feb 18th to discuss the novel over dinner. The discussion was rich with differing viewpoints; the dinner itself was only moderately successful. My book club – despite the fact that three of its members, myself included, are teachers – doesn’t normally choose YA fiction. The only other book we’ve chosen from the YA canon was Marcus Zusak’s amazing novel, The Book Thief. In any case, as I was reading I had a feeling that my choice might not float everyone’s boat. Even I had trouble wrapping my head around Ness’s ‘big picture.’

More Than This is the story of a boy who, in the novel’s riveting opening, drowns. And then he finds himself well, not dead.

He seems to be lying on a concrete path that runs through the front yard of a house, stretching from the sidewalk to a front door behind him.

The house is not his own.

And there’s more wrong than that.

For 163 pages, Seth (as the boy eventually remembers) is alone in a post-apocalyptic town in England. This is, as it turns out, the town where he grew up before he moved to America. Bits and pieces of his story come back to him when he dreams. For example, he remembers something horrible happening to his younger brother, Owen, something for which his mother never forgave him. He remembers Gudmund,  a boy for whom he has more than friendly affection. He remembers his other friends, H and Monica. As his previous life filters back to him in dreams, he tries to survive in this new wasteland.

And then he meets Regine and Thomasz. And the Driver, a creepy faceless virtually indestructible being whose sole purpose seems to be to try to catch the three teenagers. And how can there be just them? What has happened to the world?

One member of book club was certain that Seth was suffering from a psychotic break and while her argument is certainly plausible, I am happier taking Seth’s dilemma at face value. I think it’s a more interesting book if we believe in what he sees and experiences. Otherwise, it just feels like Bobby Ewing in the shower.

But believing what Seth does also proves problematic. I’ll admit: I was often confused. But that didn’t negate my love of Seth or his new friends. And, ultimately, I think More Than This has interesting things to say about the myopic lens through which teenagers view their lives. As Seth’s past and present converge, he starts to understand how his story, the story of his life, is unknowable, but that “whatever is forever certain is that there’s always more.”

The last couple of pages of More Than This are outstanding. Some members of my group felt that the novel was 150 pages too long, but I disagree. I think the novel packs a terrific punch and Seth’s journey from self-centered adolescence to manhood is memorable and magnificent.

I continue to be filled with admiration for Ness and look forward to talking about this novel with my students. But make no mistake – this novel has lots to offer thoughtful readers of any age.

Highly recommended.




Saturday Sum-up – February 15

Here’s what I found bookish & interesting on my tour around the Internet this week:


I’m celebrating my 500th post with today’s Saturday sum up.  That’s a lot of book talk, people!

Do you judge a book by its cover? Of course you do. Buzzfeed has posted 22 Absolutely Stunning Victorian Book Covers

ca7d632dd0ddbade22edddec8f6c6cbaI actually love this idea for the classroom – at the end of the year, I’ll have have students choose a book from my library that they loved and wrap it up for students to choose the following year. It’s something I actually planning on doing in the spring.

I watch my students choose books all the time. The students who don’t really care about reading just walk over to the shelves and grab a book – barely even looking at the cover. The keen readers do what I do: look at the cover, read the blurb on the book, maybe even check out the first paragraph before deciding to take it. More and more students are asking me for my advice – and they all know that I LOVE to offer it.

Not that I ever have any trouble deciding what to read next – I practically have a bookstore’s worth of unread titles in my house – but if you’re someone who isn’t sure what should be next on your tbr pile, check out What Should I Read Next, a handy site that lets you enter your current read into a search engine and then spits out a variety of titles which might interest you. It’s very cool.

And did you know there is actually a book cover archive? lr shelves

Book covers are actually one of the reasons (okay, call me superficial) that I prefer physical books over virtual ones. My reading life is like art…and looking at my heaving bookshelves never fails to give me pleasure.

I’d like to celebrate my 500th post with a little contest. Leave a comment below, or follow my Ludic Reader Facebook page (link on the right) and I’ll enter your name in a draw to win a bookish prize pack. Contest closes tomorrow (Feb 16) at midnight (Atlantic time).

Have a great Saturday!

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq – Mark Alan Stamaty

aliaMark Alan Stamaty’s graphic story will resonate with anyone who has ever visited a library. Its simple black and white drawings tell the story of Alia, a woman who lives and works in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Iraq is on the verge of chaos as Britain and the U.S. are planning to invade the country and remove Hussein from power.

Alia is the head librarian at the Basra Central Library. We are told that “ever since she was a little girl, books have been a source of happiness and adventure for her.”  When she reads the story of how the Mongol Invasion destroyed the Baghdad library resulting in the loss of  “irreplaceable treasures” Alia worries that something similar could happen to her beloved library. alia1 When the fighting starts in Iraq, Alia feels compelled to save the books in the library. When she can’t get her own government to help her, she starts moving the books herself.

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq is a simple story, geared for younger readers.  It only took me about ten minutes to read, but don’t let that deter you from checking it out. Alia’s story proves what book lovers already know: books are worth fighting for.

Saturday Sum-up – Feb 8

Here’s what I found bookish & interesting on my tour around the Internet this week:


The above picture will never happen to me. That’s because this is my to be read shelf!  IMG_0211

It is both awesome and daunting to have so many books waiting to be read, especially when I also have a little notebook filled with hundreds more titles

Not nearly as often as I should, I visit the blogs I’ve linked to (see right) to see what other bloggers are reading and talking about. One click led to another and suddenly I came across this fabulous page: 100 Essential Sites for Voracious Readers. I’m just – gah! Where has this page been all my life?

I suspect that many of you are already familiar with Book Drum, a wonderful site that allows readers to offer (academic) insight into the books they love by way of pictures, video, footnotes etc. I actually submitted a project – for lack of a better word – on Helen Humphreys’ magnificent novel, The Lost Garden. For teachers out there – try Teaching with Book Drum.

I suspect that everyone and their dog has seen this sweet little video – but just in case you missed it:

Happy Saturday!


Where Things Come Back – John Corey Whaley

wherethingsThe members of the English department at my school decided before Christmas that it might be fun to have a book club to look specifically at Young Adult fiction. There’s so much great fiction for teens…and this will be a no-pressure way to look at some of the titles.

Last night I hosted the first meeting where we discussed John Corey Whaley’s much-lauded debut novel Where Things Come Back. Seriously, this book has won several prizes including two of the biggest: Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris. I’ve learned that prize winners don’t always live up to the hype and I am sad to say that I’d put this book in that category.

It started off okay.

I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body. It wasn’t my cousin Oslo’s. It was a woman who looked to have been around fifty or at least in her late forties. She didn’t have any visible bullet holes or scratches, cuts or bruises, so I assumed that she had just died of some disease or something; her body barely hidden by the thin white sheet as it awaited its placement in the lockers. The second dead body I ever saw was my cousin Oslo’s

Intriguing enough. And the character’s voice was distinct and I was interested. But to say that Where Things Come Back fulfilled its early promise would be a lie. And my fellow teachers agreed; not a single one of them liked it either.

The first question I asked at last night’s gathering was whether or not we should hold YA  to the same rigorous standards we hold other literature to. And the answer is – of course. As a teacher I want my students to read the really, really good stuff, but I also know that often times they will read stuff that is below my lofty standards. Geesh – I often read stuff that is below my lofty standards! I have many books on the shelves in my classroom that are just…yuck. But someone will read those books and love them and as long as they are reading I feel like they are walking that path towards better literature.

Once we determined that no one liked the novel, we set about trying to determine why.

“Fiction is driven by character,” said Karen. (Karen is a colleague and has also been one of my dearest friends for the past 30-odd years. Our philosophies are quite similar when it comes to teaching and reading.) “I just didn’t like any of the characters in this book.”

Other teachers had problems with the novel’s narrative structure.

And who cares about the woodpecker? None of us.

Where Things Come Back  is mostly Cullen  Witter’s story. He lives with his parents and younger brother, Gabriel, in Lily, Arkansas. Lily is a backwater little town where nothing ever happens. One day Gabriel just vanishes.  Where Things Come Back is also, superficially at least, the story of Benton Sage, a teenager doing missionary work in Ethiopia who suddenly has a crisis of faith. How Cullen and Benton’s stories connect finally becomes apparent in the novel’s final pages – but by then I didn’t care. And that’s a failing of two things: character and telling. So much of this story is told to the reader.

Perhaps there was just too much story to handle. Cullen’s journey after Gabriel’s disappearance might have made for some riveting reading.  Benton’s story, too, had potential. But the clunky denouement tipped over into melodrama that didn’t serve either character, really.

One teacher had a student who read this book and loved it and I will happily add it to my classroom bookshelf – but I won’t be rushing to recommend it.



I’ve made up with Facebook

I recently rejoined the land of FB, after years of saying it was ‘the devil.’ (I have my reasons; I am working through it.) Anyway, I thought FB might be a great way to share The Ludic Reader with people, so please drop by and like the brand-spanking new fb page for The Ludic Reader  I’ll be sharing some content with this blog, but also posting lots of other book-related content exclusively to FB as well.

While you’re at it, there are loads of fabulous writers/bookish things on FB and you should like their pages, too.

Lauren B. DavisOur Daily Bread

Jennifer McMahonPromise Not to Tell

John Connolly – The Book of Lost Things

Gillian FlynnDark Places, Gone Girl

Nikki Gemmell – With My Body, Cleave, Shiver, I Take You

John GreenThe Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns

Stephen King – Joyland

Book Outlet

The New York Times Review of Books

And I am sure this is just the tip of the toppling bookpile of stuff to like on FB.

The Death of Sweet Mister – Daniel Woodrell

sweetmisterThe Death of Sweet Mister is grim and virtually unputdownable.

Woodrell’s novel is set in 1960s Ozarks. I don’t know anything about the Ozarks but Wikipedia tells me that “It covers much of the southern half of  Missouri and an extensive portion of northwestern and north central Arkansas. The region also extends westward into northeastern Oklahoma and extreme southeastern  Kansas.”

Morris “Shug” Atkins is thirteen and lives with his mother Glenda and her boyfriend, Red. “The idea that Red was my dad,” says Shug “was the official idea we all lived behind, but I wouldn’t guess that any of us believed it to be an idea you could show proof of or wanted to.”

Red is an ex-con, a mean snake of a man who drinks and does drugs and abuses both Shug and his mother.

…Red was near only the height I was at that age, but a man. He had the muscles of a man and all those prowling hungers and meanesses…

Their lives are just about as miserable as you might imagine them to be.

The three of them live in a house that “looked like it had been painted with jumbo crayons by a kid with wild hands who enjoyed bright colours but lost interest fast”  in the middle of a graveyard. In exchange for their dwelling, Shug maintains the cemetery – mowing and the like.  Red contributes to the family’s meagre existence by sending Shug off to break into houses and steal pharmaceuticals. You know it’s only going to be a matter of time before Shug gets caught.

Shug’s mother, Glenda, is the sort of woman who will never “get too plain or too heavy. Her eyes were of that awful blue blueness that generally attaches to things seen at a distance.” She copes with Red’s nastiness by drinking rum and cola, her special “tea”.

None of the characters in The Death of Sweet Mister seem to hold out much hope for a brighter future, but then into the narrative drives Jimmy Vin Pearce. His shiny green T-Bird and his flashy clothes seem to signal hope, like maybe Glenda and Shug might be able to escape the smallness and meaness of their lives. But one day Shug comes home to find blood had “whirled and whirled in the kitchen.”

I loved the language of Woodrell’s book. I loved Shug’s voice. I felt tremendous sympathy for him. He is a product of his environment and so it’s not particularly surprising how his story concludes. Doesn’t make it any less sad, though.

Highly recommended.