Try Not to Breathe – Jennifer R. Hubbard

breatheI think I am starting to suffer from YA fatigue. Or maybe it’s just that, despite its accolades, Jennifer Hubbard’s novel Try Not to Breathe, didn’t quite work for me. I don’t mean to imply that the novel isn’t decent or that it isn’t well-written, either. I can’t say for sure why it was that when  I got to the novel’s tidy ending,  I just felt sort of meh.

Ryan is 16 and has recently returned home from a stint at Patterson, a psychiatric hospital. Ryan attempted suicide and now “everyone snuck looks at me in the halls…Sometimes I was tempted to foam at the mouth and babble to invisible people, because the other kids seemed so disappointed that I didn’t. But I couldn’t be sure they would realize it was a joke. The few times I’d tried to make anyone laugh, all I got were nervous glances and squirming.”

Ryan’s circle is pretty small. He’s an only child; his father travels a lot and his mother works from home – to keep an eye on him. Everyone is pretty much on tenterhooks. His only freedom comes at the waterfall, where he stands under the punishing water “because [he] needed it.”

Into his world comes Nicki. She’s the younger sister of a guy he sort of knows from school. She shows up at the waterfall and the two form a friendship that soon becomes necessary to them both. Nicki isn’t afraid to ask Ryan questions, and soon Ryan discovers that he isn’t afraid to answer them. She has an agenda, as it turns out; her father committed suicide and she thinks, given the circumstances, Ryan might have some insider information.

The other important people in Ryan’s life are Val and Jake, two other teens he met during his stay at Patterson. He thinks he has feelings for Val, but a road trip orchestrated by Nicki (who is too young to drive, but does it anyway) delivers the heart-crushing news that Val is not as willing to take a chance on Ryan. It’s just one of the post-suicide-attempt blows Ryan is dealt, but he manages to rally.

Try Not to Breathe does a good job describing a teenager’s depression. Ryan had “lived behind what felt like a pane of glass, separated from the world.” Ryan is a likeable character, too, and so is Nicki. I found his parents less successful, sort of hovering non-entities. Despite my own reservations, I think the book will likely speak to teenagers who have ever considered suicide because, ultimately, Ryan’s is a story of survival.

Off the Shelf – January 26, 2015

Listen to Off the Shelf here.

I was recently invited to submit a column to The Nerdy Book Club, a well-known book blog moderated by four teachers, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about classics – because that’s sort of what I wrote about.

The impetus for the discussion was actually a discussion I had with my tenth grade English class after we finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the book, of course, and while the majority of my students could see its merits they also wondered why we were reading something so – as they put it – old. So that lead us to a great discussion of what makes a book a classic.

What makes a book a classic?

First off we had to decide on the criteria we’d use to determine whether or not a book is a classic. In the end, we liked the list of qualities Laura Miller listed in her Salon article “What makes a book a classic?” She actually compiled her list from a Goodreads discussion. So, according to Miller via Goodreads a classic

  • Must have stood the test of time
  • Be filled with eternal verities
  • Capture the essence and flavor of its own age
  • Have had a significant effect on that age
  • Have something important to say
  • Achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection
  • Be challenging or innovative in some respect
  • Scholars and other experts must endorse it and study it (I guess that leave out 50 Shades of Grey)
  • It has been included in some prestigious series like Penguin Classics or Modern Library
  • It appears on lists of great books

Ultimately, though, our idea of a classic is probably defined by our own personal and highly subjective criteria…meaning, I guess, 50 Shades is back on the list.

So what happened to To Kill a Mockingbird based on this criteria. Well, of course, TKaM totally meets most of that criteria and my students could see that, for sure. Will this list make the book any more palatable for students who don’t necessarily want to read it? Like, is there anything worse than someone telling you you MUST read a book and write an essay? Unless you’re totally geeky like me, probably not, right?

My students wanted a crack at compiling their own list of classics. So, they had to pick a book – any book they’d read – and pitch it to the class. These are books that they really felt should be available for them to read in the classroom. Studied even. I’ve got 25 students in that class, so I’m not going to share all their titles, and truthfully I didn’t agree with all of them, but I will share three.

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

So some people might know John Connolly as the author of Charlie Parker mysteries. If you’re already a fan, you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s the story of 12-year-old David who goes on a magical quest to save his mother after she dies. And that’s the simple version. I read this book a couple years ago and I heartily recommend it.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

Now this is a book I haven’t read, but the student who pitched it, Chloie, totally sold it. Kirkus says the novel “uses a dog as narrator to clever effect in this tear-jerker about an aspiring race-car driver who suffers more woes than Job but never mistreats his dog.” Chloie said she’s read it several times and never gets sick of it, always sees something new in it. I think a book the bears up under repeat readings is pretty solid.

13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Now this one I have read and this one I do have some issues with, but what I like about the selection is that it demonstrated how impactful the book was for this student and there was a lot of agreement in the class about the books merits. Will it stand the test of time – or will other books eclipse it. I think probably, but what Asher did do is find a unique and original way to tackle a really difficult subject – teen suicide.

Other titles the students suggested included:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb

Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Freak the Mighty – Rodman Philbrick

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare

Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings

Ruby Red – Kerstin Gier

Playing with Fire – Theoren Fleury,  Kirstie McLellan Day

I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The interesting thing was the some of these books, by their advocate’s admission, did not stand up to Miller’s criteria – but they loved the book anyway. And that’s good enough for me.

Speaking of classics, Huffington Post recently posted a list of the 20 new classics every child should own. These are picture books geared for younger readers.

When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead

book-whenyoureachmeRebecca Stead’s Newberry Award winning novel, When You Reach Me, is a puzzle of a book. And I should note that the Newberry isn’t the only prize this book received – there’s a list of twenty other prizes and distinctions this book has received. This book has some serious pedigree. It’s a middle grade book, but I’m telling you – those middle grade kids better be on their toes because this book is a puzzle.

Twelve-year-old Miranda lives in a New York City apartment with her legal secretary mom. Sometimes her mom’s boyfriend, Richard, is there. That’s okay because “Richard looks the way I picture guys on sailboats – tall, blonde and very tucked-in, even on weekends.”

Miranda’s best friend, Sal, lives one floor below Miranda. For as long as Miranda can remember it’s been Sal and Miranda, Miranda and Sal. Until it wasn’t.

It happened in the fall, when Sal and I still walked home from school together every single day: one block from West End Avenue to Broadway, one block from Broadway to Amsterdam, past the laughing man on our corner, and then half a block to our lobby door.

Miranda has been receiving mysterious notes, notes that seem to predict the future. The notes seem to know an awful lot about Miranda and her life. And then the spare key to the apartment goes missing. And while all this is happening Miranda has to manage her estranged relationship with Sal and all the other pre-teen drama a twelve-year-old must face.

When You Reach Me is a delightful hybrid. It’s one part coming-of-age novel, one part science fiction, one part homage to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and all parts fabulous.

This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis

whatI didLast week Bruce kicked me in the balls at Scouts and all his buddies were there laughing and I started crying.

That’s Logan, the thirteen-year-old narrator of Ann Dee Ellis’s compelling and unusual YA novel This is What I Did:. Logan is a target for bullies for a variety of reasons: he’s the new kid and he’s mostly silent. There’s a reason, of course. His family has recently moved to the new school because of something horrific that happened concerning Logan and his best friend Zyler. Logan doesn’t want to talk about it, so the details of the event is unspooled in the kind of painful way that makes you read faster.

I also loved the way Logan shared his story.

A year ago I was fine. That’s when there was nothing wrong.

A year ago, in seventh grade, I was fine.

We were living on Mulholand with the hills and the lake and the freeway and the Minute Man Gas Stop and my best friend, Zyler, ate Twinkies and coke and hated girls, except one.

Dialogue looks like this:

Ryan: Why do you sit down here all the time?

Me: Where’s Mack?

Ryan: Helping Dad with something.




Ryan: Okay, I think I’m going to go back upstairs.

And then he left.

Logan has parents who desperately want to help him, but aren’t sure how. Given that we see them only through Logan’s eyes, they are believable and sympathetic, but by no means perfect.

It is only when Logan meets Laurel that he starts opening up. One day she hands him a note that says “Nascar=Racecar, Racecar=Palindrome.”  Soon, he and Laurel are sending each other palindromes regularly and before he knows it, Logan has made a friend.

I really liked This is What I Did:. It tackles some weighty issues without shying away from them and allows the reader to share Logan’s journey from broken to healing in  way that was both satisfying and hopeful.

Highly recommended.

Who’s with me?

26 books in 2015

There are all sorts of reading challenges out there aimed at motivating you to stand down from the TV/computer and read a little bit more. Check out this Pinterest page, which lists LOTS to consider. I aim to read 60 books this year. I didn’t meet my goal of 65 last year and the number really doesn’t matter all that much…so long as I am reading. What are your goals for the 2015 reading year?

Off the Shelf – So you want to start a book club…

Off the Shelf – CBC’s Information Morning

This morning I talked about the benefits of belonging to a book club. If you can’t find one, you can start one of your own. If you are looking for some advice, check out what I had to say about book clubs here.

If you are looking for some reading suggestions, I have a list of the books my book club has read here. Many are linked to my reviews.

The books I specifically mentioned this morning were:

ourdailybreadOur Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis

Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones

Small Island – Andrea Levy (predates this blog)

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters finger

If you have questions, by all means, I am happy to help out! Ask away.

Rats Saw God – Rob Thomas

ratsRob Thomas shares his name with the lead singer of Matchbox 20, and although they are both writers, this Rob Thomas is better known for his television show Veronica Mars than his hit songs.

Rats Saw God is a Catcher in the Rye-esque coming of age novel about Steve York, a high school senior who ends up in his guidance counselor’s office trying to explain why he’s flunking out when his SAT scores are through the roof. The fact that he’s regularly stoned might also be a contributing factor, but in any case, Steve finds himself sitting in Mr. DeMouy being offered a cup of tea. DeMouy tells him that at the end of the semester he’ll be one English credit short.  DeMouy makes him an offer: write 100 typed pages – about anything. If he does that, DeMouy will make sure Steve graduates.

When Mom and the astronaut called Sarah and me into our Cocoa Beach, Florida (see I Dream of Jeanie) dining room to tell us they were getting a divorce, I admit I was shocked. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but the warning signs had been such a part of the status quo.

Thus begins Steve’s paper. It’s the story of his junior year. After the divorce, he moves with his dad, “that barely animate statue,” to Houston and his sister, Sarah, twelve at the time, moves to San Diego with her mom. In the summer, they swapped. Steve and his father have an estranged relationship:

He would leave for work before I woke but would provide a list of chores by the sink, paper clipped to a ten-dollar bill, which was to provide me both lunch and dinner.

At school, Steve befriends Doug, a skateboarder, and that friendship leads him to Dub, and the people who eventually become GOD, the Grace Order of Dadaists.  Dadaists, Steve explains ” were painters, writers, sculptors in the twenties who believed in art without coherent meaning. Nothing they did had to be justified. The more abstract, the weirder something was, the better.”

Rats Saw God is funny and smart  and it is a delight to watch Steve try to figure out the world, even when he has to face the truth that sometimes people will disappoint you. Of course, sometimes they’ll surprise you, too.