Friday, May 1, 2009

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Subjects: identity, sense of self, culture, immigrants, parent-child relationships, romance, conflict, death, marriage, divorce, coming of age.
Grade: A+

Lahiri's first novel is a flowing, beautiful masterpiece. It is at once reminiscent of classic literature and entirely modern. The novel follows the Ganguli family from its start, when two young Indians marry (after only meeting briefly - an arranged marriage) and move to the United States. Their attempt to settle in a foreign land, becoming foreigners themselves serves as the background for the story, their struggles becoming secondary to their son's similar conflict; Gogol, an American-born Indian, throughly American and yet very much his parents' son. We follow Gogol from childhood to adulthood, through adolescence, a normal struggle for identity, but his struggle becomes more intense when he leaves for college, and trades his ill-fated (in his mind) name, Gogol, for his "good" name, Nikhil. Though he always remains Gogol to the narrator, and to the reader as well, we follow Nikhil through various romances and rites of passage, trying to find himself. He keeps searching for an identity farther away from his family, but it is ultimately his family that brings him back home, back to himself. Though the story is largely Gogol's, his parents, Ashoke and Ashima are intricately developed as well, so much so that I feel as if I know them, know their culture, understand their lives - and yet all I know of them is bound between the covers of this novel. Lahiri's language and imagery is painstakingly stunning, every word carefully chosen and perfect in its detail and description.
To be fair, since this is a blog on YA Lit, I should admit that this is a decidedly adult novel, not YA Lit. That said, it is certainly a novel that mature or advanced high school readers would enjoy. It sticks with you in the best possible way, leaves you fully satisfied and yet still wanting more.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bronx Masquerade, Nikki Grimes

Bronx Masquerade, Nikki Grimes
subjects: spoken word poetry, verse, alternating narrators, poetry slam, writing, urban teens, poverty, teaching, teen pregnancy, romance, domestic violence, courage
Grade: B

Set in a Bronx high school classroom, this book is written with alternating narrators, partially in verse. The main narrator, Tyrone Bittings ties the story together, recounting Fridays in English class when they have a poetry slam and students volunteer to perform their spoken word poems. The poems carry on the narration as well. The difficulties each of the teens face is clear, as is their strength and resilience (not to mention budding writing talent, as evidenced through their poetry).
It's a powerful story, well-woven together. For me, it didn't have the same narrative pull or ingenuity as Levithan's The Realm of Possibility, but it was engaging nonetheless.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Awesome book festival!

I went to the Teen Book Festival today in Rochester. It was awesome! I was able to attend author presentations by Linda Sue Park (When My Name Was Keoko), Matt de la Pena (Ball Don't Lie, Mexican Whiteboy), and Sharon Flake (The Skin I'm In, Money Hungry). They were all great! It was nice to get to see the authors up close and personal, and I'll definitely be going back to school to brag to my students. I really wanted to see Ellen Hopkins and David Van Etten (really three authors working together, which I didn't realize entirely before this conference), but I knew their sessions would be overloaded, and since it was a book festival for teens it was only fair to let the teens have the seats. I was so glad to see how many avid readers were there! I was able to get David Levithan to sign my copy of The Realm of Possibility. I seriously felt like a devoted groupie to a rock band - I absolutely adore that book, so it was really cool to meet the author and have him sign the book for me. I was also able to have Sara Zarr sign my copy of The Story of a Girl. They'll join my two other autographed books (from Laurie Halse Anderson) on top of my whiteboards at school, where I can proudly display them but students can reach them... I'm now determined to get the same kind of festival started in Syracuse. If Rochester can do it, so can we!

Hunger Games Questions

So, I think I covered most of my thoughts on the Hunger Games with my review post (see review a few posts down) but my high school students are reading it for our book club selection this month. I'm really eager to get the teenage perspective. Just thought I'd open it up for question suggestions - what would you want to discuss about the Hunger Games in a book club? And/Or what would you want to know from a teenager with regards to the book? I think I have a fairly diverse group coming, so it should be interesting. Feel free to leave me some discussion questions. I'll post after the meeting on Tuesday with what my students have to say. Thanks!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Teen Book Festival

I just found out about a Teen Book Festival (thanks Book Girl!) that will be in Rochester, NY next weekend. Check out the information at A great list of authors will be presenting, including Ellen Hopkins, Sharon Flake, David Levithan, Chris Van Etten and lots more. All I need to do is arrange a baby-sitter (my daughter is a little too young for this just yet...) and I'm there!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Categories: dystopia, survival, humanity, war, poverty, class issues, children, brutality, relationships, romance
Grade: B+
(Especially since this is YA Lit, a stronger message of redemption and hope is needed to push it into the "A" range for me).

This book took me much longer than I had anticipated to read, mostly due to my incredibly busy schedule, but also partly due to how uncomfortable this book was to read! I should preface this review with the fact that my curriculum coordinator (my boss, essentially) asked me to read this book because one of the eighth grade teachers wanted to use it in class. My response was to ask the age of the protagonist, since matching the age of the audience with the age of the main character is usually the easiest and quickest way to determine the appropriateness. Katniss is 16, so I had some serious reservations. Honestly, reading the book has upheld those reservations.

Classroom applications aside for a moment, this is a very well-done book. It's captivating, and honestly, a little too realistic for my taste. The fact that it is so riveting is in itself disconcerting. I'm not comfortable with realistic fiction that depicts children fighting to the death in a government-sponsored (and required) "sport." I don't want any sense of realism attached to this concept, and that's why this book is uncomfortable. That's also why it's good - it's nothing if not convincing. The fact that it's set in the indeterminate future did not actually make me feel any better - if anything, that's more disturbing and almost more realistic. The thought of a film version is frightening, since I don't want to add any further level of reality. That said, Katniss and Peeta are very well-developed, concrete characters, and the imagery is striking (also problemental for me - again with the uncomfortable realism). I enjoyed Rue's character quite a bit and thought her situation was handled well. I have to admit, however, and I'm not necessarily a glass-half-full kind of reader, but I really thought there would somehow be a more redemptive end, something that could circumvent the inevitable, so my disappointment that The Hunger Games were carried out as usual (with only one small, though noteworthy exception) added to my horror of the concept. The "wolves" at the end of the book were terrifying, and frankly, unforgiveable.

It's no doubt that my review of this book is filtered through the lens of a high school English teacher and by my original intention of determining if this book is appropriate for 8th graders (13-year-olds). I maintain that it isn't, unless they're very mature readers. At a higher level, in high school, it could absolutely be paired with 1984, Animal Farm or other similar books and perhaps do a much more effective job of prompting critical thinking about government control, humanity and survival.

Will I read the sequel? Yes. I do root for Katniss and Peeta and I do want to know what becomes of them. I'm also secretly hoping for some more thoroughly embedded optimism, or at least a shred of hope in the next book, so I will stay tuned. But will I let my daughter read this before she's a teenager? Absolutely not. This one will definitely be shelved on the adult end of the Young Adult shelf.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I'm still reading Hunger Games, but this week has been so crazy that I've only had a few minutes to spare here and there to read. Unfortunately yesterday my husband came down with a really nasty case of the flu, and the only positive part of that is the nearly four hours we spent at Urgent Care that gave me some unexpected time to read. Of course I'm all but a single parent at home while he recovers, so it still might be a few days before I have time to finish. My student teacher starts this week, so hopefully that'll lighten my work load a bit as well. I'm on the fence with Hunger Games right now. It's well written and it's beyond engaging, but it's also really uncomfortable. I want to keep reading because I want to know what's going to happen, but at the same time, I really don't! These are kids!- and as the Hunger Games continue, more of them are going to die. I knew this from the outset, and of course I have some working theories about how some of that outcome might be abated, but still... ugh. It's heavy, so I'm really hoping there is some redemption to be found. That's one of the main things I look for in YA Lit - no matter what the subject, I think teens (and adults, really) need some sense of redemption. Hopefully I'll finish soon and give my full review.

On a brighter note, my professional development workshop on using Young Adult Literature in the Content Area was on Friday, and it went really well. We didn't have quite the across-the-content turnout as we'd hoped - no math teachers and only one science teacher came - but we did have a lot of English, Social Studies, Special Education teachers and librarians come. They all seemed really receptive to the titles and strategies we presented, so hopefully we managed to give YA a boost into our curriculum across the district.

I'm still (always) looking for titles you think would work well in schools - middle and high school level - so keep the suggestions coming!