Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

sharpMy son Connor recently purchased Sharp Objects and zipped through it in a couple days. I had the same reading experience and now I’ve read all three of Flynn’s novels. Of the three I liked Dark Places the best, though I know Flynn is most well-known known for Gone Girl. One thing I can say for sure, she sure does like damaged female protagonists.

Camille Preaker is a reporter for a third-rate Chicago paper, the Daily Post. Mostly she covers “slice-of-life” pieces, stuff her curmudgeonly editor Frank Curry hates. Then, when a young girl goes missing in Camille’s home town, Wind Gap, Missouri, Curry suggests Camille head home and see what’s the what. Camille isn’t all that fussy about going back to Wind Gap, a town she describes as “one of those crummy little towns prone to misery,” but she can’t say no to Curry, a man whose always looked out for and believed in her.

Wind Gap truly is a backwater, though, and it’s been eight years since Camille has visited. Her mother, Adora, and step-father, Alan, still live there. So does, Amma, her half-sister who is just thirteen. Then there’s the ghost of Marian, Camille’s baby sister who died many years ago.  Camille’s arrival back at the family home, “an elaborate Victorian replete with a widow’s walk, a wraparound veranda, a summer porch jutting toward the back, and a cupola arrowing out of the top” is fraught with polite tension. When Camille rings the doorbell and her mother answers, Adora actually asks if everything okay and “didn’t offer a hug at all.”

Small towns don’t change and secrets are hard to keep, but as Camille works the few connections she has in Wind Gap, another girl goes missing and Camille struggles to keep her equilibrium. Wind Gap, it seems, is filled with old ghosts, ghosts she has worked extra hard (including a stint in a psychiatric hospital) to keep at bay.

Camille is not dissimilar to the main character in Dark Places, Libby. Both are women with troubled pasts. Both are prickly and anti-social. Both are smart and resilient.  I think, ultimately, I liked the mystery in Dark Places better than the one in Sharp Objects but if you are looking for a well-written psychological page-turner, Flynn won’t disappoint, no matter which book you read.

Off the Shelf – The “C” Word

Listen here.

Dave Pilkey, author of the often-challenged Captain Underpants books, made a great little video about censorship:

According to Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee, “Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book.”

The topic of censorship is a tricky one because I have my own personal views which, basically, can be summed up like this: I think people should be able to read whatever in the heck they want…and that includes teenagers. I am a parent and I have teenagers who love to read. My son read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History when he was barely 14. Is there adult content, sure. Could we talk about it – absolutely.

The question that immediately springs to mind for me is: what are we so afraid of that we have to censor reading material? Personally, I believe that people should have access to all sorts of reading material without judgement or interference. That said, you won’t find Fifty Shades of Grey in my classroom library. For obvious reasons. When I am choosing books for my library I try to pick material with literary merit…

The Canadian Organization, Freedom to Read has a comprehensive (and honestly, funny,) timeline of books that have been banned dating back to 259-210 B.C.

It’s amazing what’s on that list – everything from Shakespeare (1788: Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned from the stage until 1820 — in deference to the insanity of the reigning monarch, King George III.) to Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books (1980s: During its examination of school learning materials, the London County Council in England banned the use of Beatrix Potter’s children’s classics The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools. The reason: the stories portrayed only “middle-class rabbits.”) And here’s one of my favourites: 1983: Members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank because it was “a real downer.” It was also challenged for offensive references to sexuality.

I thought I’d share with you three YA books that have been banned at one time or another in one place or another and which I think are worth reading:

part time indianOne of the most challenged book in the US is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

This is a National Book Award winner and I read it a couple years ago. Here’s the funny thing – acclaimed books, award winning books often make the banned books list as well.

This novel is, in part, based on the author’s own experiences growing up. It’s the story of Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, a fourteen year old Native American who lives on’ the rez’. He’s got a whole host of physical problems, ten teeth too many and a head that’s too big. He’s picked on a lot and says he’s a member of the “Black Eye of the Month Club.” But he’s funny and smart and it is almost impossible not to fall in love with him.

So, this book has been banned in multiple school districts in the States for being vulgar, making references to masturbation and using inappropriate language. Personally, I didn’t find it objectionable and I often recommend it to boys who aren’t particularly enthusiastic readers because it’s straight – up funny and also because Junior is an aspiring artist, it’s filled with drawings and doodles. I haven’t had a single kid tell me they didn’t like it.

ratsRats Saw God – Rob Thomas (not of Matchbox 20 fame, but of Veronica Mars fame and a former Journalism teacher)

This book is about a high school senior called Steve York who is pretty close to flunking out of school despite the fact that he’s super smart. This book was challenged because Steve smokes drugs, but the book hardly endorses drug use – it’s actually very much a coming of age story a la Catcher in the Rye (another books that has been challenged multiple times.) Anyway, Steve’s guidance counselor gives him one last chance to save his year- he has to write a 100 page paper about…anything…and ultimately Steve uses the writing to work through his issues. Clever book, terrific main character….positive messages for struggling teens.

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell

So this was Ms. Rowell’s first novel and it caused a huge splash when it was published – partly because John Green wrote a glowing review and partly because it’s awesome – but it’s also been called “dangerously obscene” – which it is certainly not, unless maybe you don’t like 80s new wave music.

Eleanor is an awkward teenager who lives with her mother and step-father (who is a creep) and her younger siblings and Park is half Korean and comes from a stable, loving home and this novel is about friendship and love.

Interesting discussion with some Australian YA writers about banning books

Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

roomiesMaybe it’s because my daughter is graduating from high school in a few weeks and heading off to university or maybe it’s because, just lately, I have been feeling unsettled and nostalgic, but whatever the reason: I LOVED Roomies. Co-written by Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl) and Tara Altebrando, Roomies‘ narrative is comprised of the back and forth e-mail communication between Elizabeth (EB) and Lauren (Lo), who have been assigned a room together at UC Berkley, as well as their first person narrative of events during that pivotal summer between high school and what comes next.

EB lives with her single mother in a condo on the Jersey Shore (but she doesn’t sound like a character from the reality show of the same name.) Her first e-mail to Lauren is a rant of epic proportions: she’s just had a fight with her mother and she’s already counting the days until she can leave the nest and fly across country.

Lauren has five younger siblings. They are so much younger, in fact, that she’s more like another mother than an older sister. She loves her family, but she has been dreaming about a single room for a while and so the first note from EB comes as something of a disappointment. She imagines writing a reply to EB that says:

I requested a single. All I’ve wanted for the last decade is a room of my own. Some privacy. A place to be alone with my thoughts where they are not constantly interrupted by someone else making some kind of racket, or even just someone else just quietly trying to exist in the same space as me…A “roomie” is really not what I had in mind. Really not what I had in mind at all.

Of course, this is not the note Lauren sends. Her actual reply is much less personal and honest. Nevertheless, despite the awkward beginning, the email exchange between EB and Lauren slowly morphs into something special as each girl tries to navigate that tricky period between “childhood” and “adulthood”.

I remember that summer between high school and university as a very transitional time. I wasn’t actually going away to school; my parents couldn’t afford it. Most of my best friends did go away, though. And so did the boy I fell in love with that summer. I wanted to be someone different – desperately. (Funny, that – almost forty years later, I still often want to be someone different.) Zarr and Altebrando capture that yearning ache so perfectly that I felt myself magically transported back to that long ago summer. Everything was funnier or sadder or profoundly important then.

When you go off to university (which I did the following year) you get to reinvent yourself. The person you were in high school can be magically shed like an old skin; there is no one around who “knew you when” and there’s something pretty amazing (albeit terrifying) in that. But there is also something pretty amazing about being with the people who have known you through all those formative years – people who know your flaws and love you anyway.  I appreciated the way Zarr and Altebrando handled those high school relationships – the push and pull that comes from preparing to make the break and also desperately holding on to something that is important.

Lauren writes:  “There’s this party on Saturday with kids from our high school and she (Lauren’s best friend, Zoe) wants to go and wants me to go with her. I don’t know. I just feel like high school is over…”

EB writes: “Lately my friends don’t talk about anything I find interesting. I’m not sure when that started.”

Over the course of the summer, the correspondence between EB and Lauren becomes more personal as they share details about their last summer at home. I loved each girl’s voice and story. I loved the secondary characters: parents and boyfriends. I loved how EB in particular comes to a deeper understanding of her mother. Perhaps some day my own daughter will understand me a little bit better, too.

Although I would love to follow EB and Lauren through their first year as roomies, I am glad that Zarr and Altebrando decided to end their story where they did. I haven’t read a YA book I have loved as much as this one in a long time.

As my daughter prepares to embark on her own journey I am both elated and terrified. I hope she makes friends like EB and Lauren. I hope she becomes the person she wants to be.

Highly recommended.

Pushing the Limits – Katie McGarry

pushingThe only limit Katie McGarry’s YA novel Pushing the Limits pushed was my patience. It took me forever to get through this brick of a novel which was, by my estimation, about 200 pages too long. And it pains me to say this because if there’s one thing I love it’s a bad boy/good girl.

Pushing the Limits is told in the alternating voices of high school seniors Noah and Echo (and oh, how her name grated). We meet them (separately) in the office of Mrs Collins, “Eastwood High’s new clinical social worker.” We meet Echo first. She’s in the office with her father and pregnant stepmother (slash former babysitter, that’s right, the dad married the babysitter). She’s there because “after the incident, Child Protective Services had “strongly encouraged” therapy.” Echo is reluctant to talk and desperate to know more about “the incident”, an event that left her with horrible scars on her arms.

Noah doesn’t want to spend any time with Mrs. Collins, either. “Look,” he tells her at their first meeting, “I already have a social worker and she’s enough of a pain in my ass. Tell your bosses you don’t need to waste your time on me.” Of course, Mrs. Collins sees straight through the tough-guy façade to the cream puff that lives underneath. No question, Noah is a “bad boy” but he’s been dealt a crap hand: his parents were killed in a house fire and his two younger brothers are in foster care, but not in the same foster home as he is. He’s barely allowed to see them because of his “anger” issues.

Mrs. Collins figures that Echo and Noah would make good study partners and it doesn’t take long before the two of them are concentrating more on each other than on calculus.

And seriously, this exchange (before they are even ‘dating’) just made me cringe:

I smacked my lips like a cartoon character and bit into the succulent burger. When the juicy meat touched my tongue, I closed my eyes and moaned.

“I thought girls only looked like that when they orgasmed.”

Trust me, there’s more where that came from.

I can’t quite decide why Pushing the Limits didn’t work for me.  I started to get irritated by the number of times Noah called Echo “baby” or reminded me of her silken red curls and cinnamon smell. The central mystery (if you can even call it that) of what happened to Echo is revealed ever…so…slowly and when the truth finally makes its way into the light, it’s a bit of a bummer. There was something shrill about these characters and the way they fumbled through their story towards their happily ever after.

Off the Shelf – LGBT Fiction for Young Adults

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May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia so I thought this was the perfect time to talk about books that feature LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) characters.

First off – I’m no expert so if you are wondering what it all means there’s a great glossary at the UC Davis Resource Centre.

I’ve often talked about how important it is for young readers to recognize themselves in the books that they read, and for that reason it’s obviously important for LGBT characters to have access to books with characters that reflect their own experiences. I don’t know whether those books existed when I was a teen – although that was a million years ago.

I spend a lot of time choosing books for my classroom library. I’d love to have a little bookstore someday, but stocking the shelves in my classroom is almost as much fun. But I digress. When I’m buying books for my class I try to keep in mind all my students – so I have to buy books about hockey and skateboarding and kids from other countries. I have to buy non-fiction.I have to buy easy books and challenging books.  I have to appeal to all my readers and, more importantly, I have to give my kids an opportunity to read books that will expand their worlds. Books have done that for me; I want books to do that for them.

Having the opportunity to read about someone’s journey – regardless of what that journey is – goes a long way to developing understanding, acceptance and the most important human quality – empathy. We seem to be inching our way towards a world of acceptance – lots of positive things happening out there – the straight guy who asked his gay friend to the prom, for example…but the world that I dream of for my own kids is one where people are just people and that kindness extends to everyone and that a story like that is the norm…and therefore, not news, really.

So I have some book suggestions.

16BLEVITHANEvery Day – David Levithan

So every day the main character ‘A’ wakes up in a different body. He spends 24 hours in that body and he is essentially that person. This is a strange way to live, but it gets even stranger when A falls in love with Rhiannon, the girlfriend of one of his ‘host’ bodies. This book really blurs those gender lines and asks its readers to consider what love is and, more importantly, what it is not. I recommend this book a lot in my classroom.

morethanthisMore Than This – Patrick Ness

So everyone knows I am a huge Ness fan and I loved this book, too. The fact that Seth, the main character in this confounding novel is gay is only incidental, really. The novel starts with Seth drowning and then waking up in a bizarre sort of post-apocalyptic world. More Than This is a page turner, for sure. It’s philosophical and difficult and profoundly moving.

aristotle_and_danteAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Bejamin Alire Saenz

I just finished this book and I loved it. Aristotle is a 15 year old Mexican American and lives with his parents in Texas. It’s 1987. He’s angry and sort of depressed, too. He meets Dante at the pool and they become friends when Dante (also Mexican-American) offers to teach Ari to swim. This is a coming-of-age story and a story about family and community and it’s a love story. I may have teared a few times reading it. So good.

Here are some other books featuring LGBT characters and I encourage everyone to expand their reading horizons to mark May 17th, sure, but beyond that – let’s make every day a day of acceptance.

Beautyqueens-670x1024 ifilie luna miseducation totally joeadambeyondloveglobalrainbow

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle_and_dante Aristotle (Ari for short) is a 15-year-old Mexican American living in Texas in 1987. He’s bored and miserable and pretty much hates his life.

Dante is also 15, and also Mexican-American, but he’s “funny and focused and fierce.” Ari says “there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you. How could a guy live without some meanness?”

Aristotle and Dante meet at the local pool where Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim. “All that summer, we swam and read comics and read books and argued about them.” It’s the beginning of beautiful friendship, something that Ari seems to desperately need.

Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that. Maybe it had something to do with my birth order. You know, I think that was part of it. I didn’t like the fact that I was a pseudo only child. I didn’t know how else to think of myself. I was an only child without actually being one. That sucked.

Ari has older twin sisters and an older brother who is in prison. He was born after his father returned from serving in Vietnam.

Sometimes I think my father has all these scars. On his heart. In his head. All over. It’s not such an easy thing to be the son of a man who’s been to war.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a coming of age story. It’s a story about fathers and sons and mothers and sons. It’s about sacrifice and loyalty. It’s a story about friendship.

I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.

It’s a love story.

I was the age of these characters somewhere around 1976. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Okay, looking back – of course I did, but we didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t acknowledged. As far as I know, they weren’t out. I am profoundly grateful as a teacher and a parent, just as a human being, that books like this exist. Alire Sáenz has written a story about boys who are smart and fragile and flawed. I admit it – I got teary a few times reading this book.

What are the secrets of the universe? As Ari discovers “we all fight our own private wars.”

This is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it.