Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sword and Verse

Volume Eleven in the Books That Matter Series

"This was all writing was, in the end: markings in the dust. It didn't do anything, couldn't change anything. They kept it a secret, made it seem powerful--and that had made me want it more. But it was nothing." -Raisa (from Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan)

Nothing could be further from the truth in Kathy MacMillan's Sword and Verse and that is why it is a book that matters. It took me a little while to get into it, but once I did, I couldn't believe the depths of which the author drew me into the story.

Raisa is an Arnath slave, turned Tutor, tasked with the job of one day teaching the future king's heir how to write. Unlike most slaves in Qilara, who are forbidden to learn how to read and write, Raisa is in an unique position. She is the child of the Learned Ones, a secret she must keep from everyone if she hopes to survive as a slave and Tutor.

In a time when so many Young Adult novels are about dystopian societies and revolutions, this book stands apart from the pack. It has the feeling of being set in a much older timeframe while still remaining current for readers. At points, the story had the feeling of being set in ancient times, but there was also a strong sense of the Civil War era too. The aspects of the Resistance and the dystopian society make it current to what is already in the market but it also addresses the power of the written word and how taking that from people is a means of keeping them down. Because of this creative aspect, it spoke to me as a writer, an educator, and an avid reader. At times, I question if writing actually can make a difference, and then I look to my Books That Matter Series, and I remind myself that it can and it does.

If you are looking for a good book that fits solidly in the Young Adult market while still being unique, then I highly recommend Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan. The power of words can make a difference. Not to mention, the ending is pure genius but you will have to read it to find out for yourself.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Year We Fell Apart

Volume Ten in the Books That Matter Series

"Tracing the infinity pendant on my necklace, I wonder where the invisible line is. The line that determines which parts of our past are still close enough to go back and fix, and which parts we have to live with forever."
- Harper Sloan (The Year We Fell Apart by Emily Martin)

Harper's summer has just begun and it is not looking any better than junior year. Rumors have been floating around about Harper and her indiscretions regarding "the pool incident" that happened in the spring. Her childhood best friend and ex-boyfriend, Declan, who she hasn't talked to since October, has just returned home from a year at boarding school, which he was sent to after his mother's death. And Harper's mom has just been diagnosed with cancer.

In The Year We Fell Apart, Harper has a lot to deal with. The death of Declan's mother was hard on her and now she is faced with her own mother's illness. In the beginning of the story, Harper reflects on the drunk driving accident that killed her best friend's mother by thinking: "But this is a world in which beautiful people die ugly deaths all the time." It is such a bleak thought but one that cannot be disputed because it does happen. Afraid to lose more people who are close to her, Harper copes by pushing people away and finding distractions to take her mind from the things that could hurt her most. Sadie, her supposed friend (and bad influence), gets Harper mixed into the party scene. Sadie is the type of person who, as she puts it, does not believe in giving "someone the power to break your heart" because "you won't see it happen when they do."  And Harper falls into that line of thinking as well. Between the booze and the guys, it is not helping Harper's reputation any. Because as Harper thinks: "We carry our past with us everywhere we go." And yet, it becomes clear to the reader early on that Harper feels like all of the rumors are well deserved, even if the reader cannot understand why at first.

Author, Emily Martin, does a superb job of getting the reader to believe all of the rumors, so much so, that even the reader might not believe Harper when she finally starts denying some things. Despite Harper's many flaws and her constant mistake of putting herself into bad situations, readers will root for her. She blames herself so much for everything that is going on that all she can do is hit the self-destruct button and fall into the trap of letting the rumors define who she is. The story is masterfully told and Emily Martin has some beautiful quotes that will stick with readers long after the book is closed.

Harper is a girl struggling to accept the things she cannot change while trying to decide if it is better to close herself off to those closest to her so she never has to feel the pain of loss again. She looks for distractions to keep her out of the house so she doesn't have to deal with her mother's illness, and the perfect image her parents are trying project. But the more she avoids her family and home, the more she is brought back into Declan's life, forcing her either to face the mistakes she has made with him or to run to Sadie for the distractions that caused them in the first place.

Having several friends and acquaintances who are battling cancer or coping with a family member who is going through the fight, I needed to read this book. With so many people going through this, it can feel like things are out of control for them, for their family, and for all those who care about them. But yet, they remain positive and continue to face each day with courage, hope, and strength. And Harper's thoughts stuck with me at one point when she is reflecting on her mother and thinks: "I mean, if she can manage to enjoy life despite having freaking cancer, then there's really no reason for me to wallow in my mistakes and let them dictate my whole future." After all, life is about the way you live, despite the obstacles you may face.

Monday, December 28, 2015

All the Bright Places

Volume Nine in the Books That Matter Series

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is powerful, moving, funny in spots, and heartbreaking in so many others. This story follows two high school seniors, Violet Markey and Theodore Finch. Violet is still grieving the loss of her older sister one year after the car accident that claimed her life. Theodore Finch has had a tough life with a family who barely acknowledges his existence and a father with violent mood swings. When Finch and Violet both meet atop of the school bell tower, rumors spread that Violet saves Finch from jumping. Used to being "the freak," Finch allows the rumors to spread and keeps Violet's secret. Then, a school assignment to explore their home state of Indiana pairs Violet and Finch together so they set off on a journey to discover all the bright places. This is the story of Violet and Finch -- one of grief, despair, mental illness, and how there can still be beauty in the world even after disaster. Reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye, this book is sure to withstand the test of time and become a modern classic.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Marvels

Volume Eight in the Books That Matter Series

Brian Selznick has done it again. I first heard of his new novel, The Marvels, when I had a chance to preview an advanced copy of it in May. However, I was only able to look at the opening pictures. Then, a few months later, I had the chance to hear Brian Selznick speak about his book. It was a wonderful experience. And I can say, the book, The Marvels, lives up to its name. From the gorgeous book design to the detailed pictures and the touching story that unfolds, The Marvels is certainly a book that matters.

The book opens with a series of pictures that start in 1766. When the text begins, it opens with Joseph who is looking for his uncle in 1990. The story offered mystery and intrigue as I tried to figure out how the pictures in the beginning of the book were going to connect to Joseph and his uncle. The connection far exceeded my expectations. And even though Joseph's story takes place twenty five years ago in a house that seems to live in the past, it still seems current and important for children to read today. Joseph's uncle is battling more than what meets the eye. And as the story often says: "You either see it or you don't."

Like its predecessors, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, The Marvels also shows the importance of family and home. It speaks to life and legacy and the impact people can have on another. It touches on the importance of stories and how they relate to truth.

So if you check out The Marvels, also be sure to read the afterword about the actual people and places that inspired the book.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib

Volume Seven in the Books That Matter Series

Up until now, I have focused on contemporary and realistic fiction as the focus for my Books That Matter Series. However, fantasy, mythology, and mystery can be just as powerful of a portal as novels set in a more realistic setting. This is the case for Adam Shaugnessy's THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB.

Upon reading the title, one might ask: "WHAT IS THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB?" It is the question printed on a card that eleven year old Prudence Potts has just received. On the reverse side is a message: "Be grave in your search and avoid having stones in your head." No one but Pru can see the card--except for a new boy, ABE, who moves into town after the cards arrive. As the story progresses, it soon becomes clear that in the small New England town of Middleton, nothing (and perhaps no one) is as it seems. There is a world of Norse mythology mingling with the town, a mystery is brewing, and it is up to Pru to plunge into an investigation.

But what really makes THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB part of my Books That Matters Series is the message behind it. Pru recently lost her father to a violent act. He was a detective and Pru is following in his footsteps by conducting investigations, including her latest Sasquatch debacle that landed her in detention with her least favorite teacher. Throughout the story, Pru must confront truths (and lies) she hasn't wanted to face. This story is just as much about grief and fear as it is about mysteries and Norse mythology. And yet, it remains playful, light, and humorous while also still addressing the seriousness of deeper issues. Often children's books turn dark and heavy to deal with such topics but Adam Shaughnessy shows readers, writers, and children that it does not have to be that way. He brings the topic to an appropriate level and deals with it in a way children would. Grief impacts children in a much different way than adults. THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB brings the topic to life with fantasy, mythology, and mystery--tapping into the wonderful imaginations that children so naturally have.

I met Adam seven years ago when we were both enrolled in the same picture book writing class. He hadn't written this novel yet but he was an educator who believed in bringing a world of play into classrooms and schools. Now, he has poured that belief into his book.  And to top it all off, Adam is a natural born storyteller who has a way with words. I highly recommend THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB to children, parents, educators, writers, and anyone who is looking for a good read.

Plus, it will answer the question that is now at the forefront of your mind: "WHAT IS THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB?"

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wonderstruck

Volume Six in the Books That Matter Series

For years, people have told me to read Wonderstruck. "If you read The Invention of Hugo Cabret--" which I have--"you'll love Wonderstruck," they said. So when I picked up the book this week, I had high expectations and it ended up exceeding them. I was used to Brian Selznik's set-up since I had also read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I wasn't prepared for how skillfully structured this book would be. Just like Hugo, the pencil drawings were beautiful and added so much to the story but Wonderstruck took it to a whole new level.

Wonderstruck is two stories in one. It opens in the 1970's with Ben, who has hearing in one ear -- his story is told in text. Then, it gives a glimpse into Rose's life from fifty years earlier. Rose is deaf -- her story is told in pictures. As the story progresses, readers learn how isolated Rose feels because she is deaf. I loved how the drawings started with a vast scene where Rose is pictured as a small entity among a much larger world and then the drawings that follow continue to zoom in to show just how alone and isolated she is, even among a bustling city of people. Ben, on the other hand, has hearing in one ear when the story opens. His journey in words balances well with the silence that comes across in Rose's pictures.

As readers learn the connection between Ben and Rose, despite the fifty year difference in their stories, the pictures start with a zoomed in scene of a connection and then each drawing moves out again to show the characters' places in the world. The contrast between the opening drawings and the ending drawings show just how much things have changed.

Wonderstruck left me in awe of the story arc that took place in the drawings. If I were just to read Ben's section, the story would make sense. If I were to follow just Rose's pictures, the story arc would still be clear to me. The two distinct but connected stories blended well and carried a beautiful message to readers. I urge you to check it out.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

See You At Harry's

Volume Five in the Books That Matter Series

Recently, I heard the author of this book, Jo Knowles, speak at an event. Her speech moved me to tears. I had read two of her books before: Jumping Off Swings and Pearl. But I was surprised to hear her work has been met with such harsh criticism. Because of her speech, I checked out one of her other books, See You At Harry's. Once again, Jo Knowles moved me to tears with her words. This book needs to be out there. It is so true to life. It should be available for a person who is dealing with grief, for someone who is gay and longs to see relatable characters in books, for people who need to know that love is not something that should be banned. This book impacted me greatly. See You At Harry's is a book that matters. And more importantly, Jo Knowles is a voice that matters.