On Volcanic Eruptions and Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer: Young Adult Book Review

Life as We Knew It
Susan Beth Pfeffer
0152058265 / 9780152058265
337 p.

This was one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Sixteen-year-old Miranda is a typical teen living a usual life in a small town … until an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it off its orbit. Within days, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis have killed millions. Soon after, volcanic ash permeates the atmosphere, ushering in an early, exceptionally cold, and exceedingly long winter.

Through daily entries in her diary, Miranda tells the story of how her family nearly freezes and starves to death. Day by day, over the course of 10 months, the reader experiences the grim dwindling of resources, the infrequent reasons for optimism, and the inescapable death of hope. For me, the end of communication with anyone other than those who lived within a mile or two of Miranda’s family was one of the most frightening aspects of the book. It made me realize how much I rely on television, radio and the internet to inform me about what’s happening in the world.

Fortunately, Miranda’s mother had the sense to stock up on food before things got too dire, and the subsequent, to-be-expected mass looting of provisions. Day by day, Miranda records the food her mother allows them to eat, and the too frequent times when they eat nothing at all. The book goes on and on, with Miranda recording also the struggle to stay warm, the minor irritations between her family members who are confined to one room of the house, and the disease and death that settles over her small town.

Toward the end, I seriously doubted that anyone would survive. But in the end, there is a small glimmer of hope. Had this been a real occurrence, it’s still doubtful to me that anyone would survive, but I'm glad that Ms. Pfeffer chose to come down on the side of hope. That's what novels are for.

Mt. St. Helens Volcanic Eruption

On a personal note, my family experienced the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980. For days, weeks and months afterwards, this created varying amounts of havoc in the surrounding area. The most frightening aspect to me, once I knew what was happening, was to watch the sky growing ever darker with ash. We heard the explosion at around 8:30 am. (Mt. St. Helens is over 300 miles away from where we live.) My husband and I were outside planting shrubs at our new house. We spent the morning watching a dark cloud moving closer and closer to us. We thought it was a thunderstorm, but it wasn't getting any cooler or windier. At lunchtime, we went inside and turned on the radio. That's when we found out that Mt. St. Helens had erupted. Scientists had been predicting it for months.

By 2:00 pm, you couldn’t see your hand stretched out in front of you. Throughout the day and evening, birds, blind in flight, kept smacking against our windows, which was eerie and unnerving. When I went to bed that night, it was with dread: Would we see the sun in the morning?

Fortunately, we did.

These are our kids outside in the ash the next day. It may've looked like snow, but it smelled acrid, like ashes from a fire.

This picture was taken on July 27. I was in the hospital after having our third baby, on the 26th. The morning of the 27th, my husband and his dad decided to go see the mountain that'd blown its top off. There were restrictions about how close you could fly near it. This was as close as you could get at that time.


Top Dystopian Movies and Links to Dystopian Booklists

Teen Read Week's theme, Read Beyond Reality, can be interpreted in any number of ways, but the most popular books for teens today are definitely not of this world, thus it's a great theme choice for 2009. The books that teens are flocking to are, in fact, dystopian in genre.

What is a dystopia? Simply put, a dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. According to Wikipedia, it is a "culture where the condition of life suffers from deprivation, oppression, or terror." For a very thorough, enlightening definition and analysis of dystopian fiction, see Wikipedia.

Over the next couple of days, I plan to review three of my favorite dystopian novels, but first ... some exciting booklists and a movie list. Should you become interested in dystopian fiction, these are a wonderful resource, a great place to start. Or if you're already a big fan, they're a great place to fill in the gaps.  

Bart's Bookshelf has a relatively complete list of Adult and Young Adult novels that are dystopian in theme. Plus, if you're interested in joining a dystopian reading challenge, this is the place to sign up. 

Booklist Online also has a core collection list. This one is made up of exclusively Young Adult titles. It lists  titles that Bart left out, so don't overlook this one.

As you are probably well aware, Dystopian is also a popular movie genre. For a very exciting list of movies you might want to view (or review), see the Top 50 Dystopian Movies of all time. Some are definitely not for young children, but most would be appropriate for high schoolers.

(Picture is of Mel Gibson in 1979, starring as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max.)


North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley: Young Adult Book Review

North of Beautiful

By Justina Chen Headley
Little Brown
February 2009
Young Adult
384 pages

Terra’s an artistic high school senior who was born with a facial port-wine stain and a cruel father who regularly belittles both her and her overweight, subservient mother. He’d done the same to Terra’s brothers, but they’re grown and gone—as far away from their father as they could go. Feeling ugly, Terra escapes into art. Collage art, built layer upon layer, until a thing of beauty emerges. Kinda like the layers upon layers of makeup she applies to her face, to hide the ugly birthmark beneath. To make up for her “ugly” face, Terra exercises like mad and has an amazing body—which is the only thing her meathead of a boyfriend seems able to appreciate about her.

I like that Terra, unlike her mother, never succumbed to her father’s repeated attempts to beat her down. Instead, Terra copes by being an achiever. She’s athletic and in terrific shape. She gets good grades and has applied to an art school across the country, partly for its prestige, but more to get away from her father. She’s accepted, but her father doesn’t see any value in it.

Then one day, Terra and her mother have a minor car accident with Jacob, an Asian Goth classmate, and his mother who adopted him. It’s easy for Jacob to accept Terra; he has the scars left from a cleft palate.

Eventually the four of them travel to China, and everything begins to change for Terra and even her mother. Both acquire the confidence to be who they are, and who they will be, apart from who their father and husband had defined them to be.

Ms. Headley uses map metaphors and geocaching to illustrate Terra’s journey from Washington state to China and back again; from believing she is ugly to knowing that true beauty is on the inside; from not knowing to knowing who she is, who she loves, and what she wants to do and be.

Should you read this book? Yes! It's wonderful.
Justina Chen Headley's website.

For another book about a girl with a defect, even a port wine birthmark, read Every Crooked Pot by Renee Rosen. Every Crooked Pot Review.

For a fantasy about a boy with a defect, read Defect by Will Weaver. Defect Review.

Every Crooked Pot by Renee Rosen: Young Adult Book Review

Every Crooked Pot
by Renee Rosen
St. Martin's Griffin
June 2007
ISBN: 0312365438 / 9780312365431
Young Adult

Nina Goldman was born with a disfiguring birthmark above her left eye. Along with an older sister and brother, she is raised by loving and prosperous Jewish parents. Beginning when Nina is seven years old, the story chronicles her life for the next 13 years. As readers would expect, she feels ugly and unlovable. Fortunately, her parents do everything in their power to get her to the best doctors. Eventually there's not much left of the birthmark, though a few more years pass before the internal scars are healed. The story follows Nina through childhood insecurities, including teasing by her classmates, to her first sexual experience, through first love and self-acceptance. The lives of the entire family revolve around Nina's good-hearted and loving but often exasperating, narcissistic father. In addition to making peace with her birthmark, Nina must forgive him for his failures-real and imagined-and forgive herself for sometimes hating him more than loving him. In the end, she comes to terms with those feelings as well. Beautifully written, and with larger-than-life characters, this book will remain in readers' hearts for a long time to come.

Visit Renee Rosen's website.

For another book about a girl with a birth defect, even a port-wine birthmark, read North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. North of Beautiful Review.

For a fantasy about a boy with a birth defect, read Defect by Will Weaver. Defect Review.

Defect by Will Weaver: Young Adult Book Review

by Will Weaver
ISBN: 0374317259 / 9780374317256
Young Adult

I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but this one about a boy whose birth defect gives him arms that are like a bat's wings is one of my favorite books of all time. The cover gives me a rush as well.

David is ugly: He was born with a small face, bug eyes, a stooped back, poor hearing, and a strange body odor. There is also something else that he’s kept secret from everyone: He has collapsible wings. He can fly.

After being the target of continual bullying, and moving from school to school, foster family to foster family, David finally moves to an alternative school in another state. A childless farm couple who’s seen birth defects in animals compassionately takes him into foster care. He meets Cheetah, a girl whose epilepsy makes her as much of an outcast as David is. Only, Cheetah isn’t shy like David. Cheetah fiercely champions David to the limit. They strike up a friendship, and then a romance.

As usual in a book where the protagonist has a birth defect, David is faced with a decision. Shall he live with the defect? Or shall he undergo surgery at the hands of a doctor who claims he can make David “normal”? Only, in this book, David’s decision isn’t so easy as to choose whether to become more conventionally handsome, or to live with the defect. It’s not as simple as coming to realize that true beauty lies within. That’s not to say that this type of realization is easy. But David also has an incredible gift: he can fly. It makes his decision all the more difficult, and his choice in the end is genuinely thrilling.

Visit Will Weaver's website.

For a book about a girl with a birth defect, read North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. North of Beautiful Review.

For another book about a girl with a birth defect, read Every Crooked Pot by Renee Rosen. Every Crooked Pot Review.


How to Speed Read a Novel

Let’s face it. You’ve probably been asked, or required, to read a book you just couldn’t read. It just wasn’t your kind of book, and the thought of reading it made you want to stick your finger down your throat and gag. For years, I reviewed for School Library Journal. Every month, I excitedly awaited each new book's arrival. Ripping open the padded mailer and pulling out a shiny new ARC was frequently a highlight of my workday. I had the privilege of reviewing the first book in several series that have gone on to television fame: Alias, Gossip Girl. The first book in the popular S.A.S.S. series. Jen Calonita’s enormously popular series, Secrets of My Hollywood Life. Reading and reviewing those books was a cinch. It was fun. But then there were others, which shall go unnamed. I had to read them, so I figured out a way to speed through them. Here’s how to do it:

1. Jot down the title and the author. Read the back cover blurb and the inside front and back cover flaps. There’s usually an unanswered question, stated or implied, that the character faces, which will propel her and you through the book. Jot down the question.

2. Note the number of pages in the book. Divide it into eighths, and put sticky notes at the end of each chapter that is closest to the 1/8, ¼, ½, ¾ and 7/8 marks. Mark your tabs accordingly.

3. Read the first and last page, or the first and last scene, of the book. Scenes are usually identifiable by a line break or, sometimes, hash marks or other identifiers. If the thought of reading the last page makes you cringe, we’re speed-reading, remember? What was the problem on the first page, or in the first scene? How was it finally resolved in the end?

4. Now go back and read, consecutively, the last page (or scene) before each of your tabs:

5. One-eighth of the way into the book, the character has reached a turning point. Until now, the author has been setting things up. You’ve been given the background that explains why the character is in the fix she’s in. You’ve met some of her friends and family, and the villain. Sometimes the villain is cosmic (God, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves). Often, it’s societal, or clannish. More frequently, it’s distilled into another person. Almost always, the character needs to face something in her own self that’s holding her back. There is the external problem, and the internal one. At this point, the character finally decides to take action to fix her external problem. What action does she take?

6. One-quarter of the way into the book, the character’s actions have made her situation worse on some level, either externally (plot-wise) or spiritually/emotionally (story-wise) or both. What’s worse now than it was before? What is the new development?

7. The middle, between the quarter and the three-quarter marks, is where the character develops needed skills, or discovers needed information, to surmount the external plot problem in the last quarter. The reader will learn more about the events that made the character who she is today, and why it’s so hard for her to solve her problem. The early, easy conflicts have been solved. What’s been solved? Now, a new, unexpected plot event, known as a twist, generally propels the plot in a new direction. Or if not that, the character takes bolder action to solve her external problem. What’s happened? How has she been caught off guard? What bold step is she planning to take?

8. Three-quarters of the way into the book, the character reaches a dead end, known as the black moment, or dark night of the soul. She won’t get what she considers to be the solution to her external problem. Or if she does, it’s at a devastating emotional or spiritual cost. There’s often a second twist at this point. She learns something that changes everything, but it’s too late. What did she learn? What action does she plan to take?

9. In the pages between ¾ and 7/8, she finds herself between a rock and a hard place. Here is where she is experiences most profoundly the effects of her actions. I love this part best. It’s where she finally pauses to reflect, to take measure, to regain her bearings, to decide what she really wants, and who she really wants to be. Often, another character is needed to show her where she’s gone wrong. Here, she finally makes the right decision and knows the right actions to take to solve the story question, or her internal struggle. What’s making her sting at this point? What happened to her that she feels she cannot live down, but if she would but take responsibility for her actions, she would be forever free?

10. Between 7/8 and the end, she takes whatever external actions are necessary to solve the story question that faced her on page one, and dogged her to the end. What does she do?

So there you are. Do you want to go back and read the book? Does it interest you more than before? If not, you still did what you set out to do. You just read a novel in an hour or less.


Kaleidoscope Eyes by Jen Bryant: Book Review

Kaleidoscope Eyes
By Jen Bryant
May 2009
Middle Grade (5th-8th)
Novel Written in Verse

I wanted to love this book more than I did, and so I’ll tell you what I think young readers will love about it, and then what Ms. Persnickety (me) didn’t like so much.

It’s the summer of 1968. The Vietnam war is raging, and Lyza’s mother has deserted the family. Both of these things hover in the background of the story, which is the way tough issues tend to be handled in MG. The foreground is on a pirate treasure hunt, which begins after Lyza’s beloved grandfather dies and leaves her a treasure map. He’d been a grand adventurer, and she’s the only family member who loves adventure as he had. Armed with the map, and accompanied by her friends, Malcolm and Carolann, Lyza sets off to find the lost treasure of pirate Captain Kidd, hidden in their own state of New Jersey. Who doesn’t like a mystery? And what kid’s eyes don’t light up at the thought of finding buried treasure? Young readers will love those elements. Probably even the implausible conclusion. Given the audience this book was intended for, this book does just fine.

Here’s what disappointed Ms. Persnickety: I thirst for books set in the late 60’s. I came of age then, and well remember the times. I spent a year writing a manuscript (unpublished) set in 1968-69. So when I cracked open Kaleidoscope Eyes, I expected to be taken on a grand journey back in time … to breathe the air I breathed … to see the sights, hear the sounds … but I didn’t. Ms. Bryant got most of her history right: the death of Martin Luther King; that young men were being sent to Vietnam, or sneaking off to Canada to evade the draft. But the details just didn’t resonate deeply with me, and I’m not sure why. Maybe the free verse poetry couldn’t come close to evoking the sights, the sounds, or the smells of the times. It couldn’t come close to catching the pulsating energy of the times, or the all-consuming anger. For that, perhaps chunky paragraphs would’ve worked better than short lines of verse, which give the illusion of slightness, airiness.

Then there is at least one factual error. Lyza talks about her sister being a Hippie—in 1966. Hippies didn’t come on the scene any sooner than the fall of 1968, early 1969. Our society underwent a paradigm shift at that time. One day, we were the plastic, space-aged people of the early 60’s, jello eaters, Kool-aid drinkers, a people destined for the moon. The next day, we were about protesting on college campuses, dropping acid, and rioting in the streets.

Even apart from the 60’s backdrop and the Vietnam War, I had issues with Kaleidoscope Eyes. When I read in the first few pages that Lyza’s mother had deserted the family, I expected the story to be about Lyza coming to terms with that, like so many other MG books where a parent leaves or dies. In the end, she realizes that finding the treasure won’t bring her mother back, nor the young men who’ve died in the war, but more of her personal ponderings about those issues throughout the book would’ve made it feel less like reading a Nancy Drew mystery, and more like the story it could’ve been, to me.

But as I said at the beginning, for the intended audience, this book works just fine.


Jumping off Swings by Jo Knowles: Book Review

Jumping off Swings

By Jo Knowles
Young Adult
230 pgs

Told in four alternating viewpoints, Jumping off Swings by Jo Knowles moves the teens, who are caught in an unexpected situation, through various feeling states to a conclusion—and does so with incredible deftness and reading speed.

Sixteen-year-old Ellie, who comes from a perfect but judgmental family, wants only to feel loved. Hoping to find it with someone, she has one-night stands with several boys. Before long she’s pregnant with Joshua’s baby, after Joshua loses his virginity with her.

From there, the story advances a step at a time, with each of the viewpoint character’s reactions to each new development. Though Ellie isn’t “bad,” she’s branded by her classmates as a slut. She takes it to heart, believing the pregnancy is her punishment. But she does have some friends: Caleb, who’d had a secret crush on her since forever, and her best friend Corrine, who doesn’t abandon her. The baby’s dad, Joshua, isn’t a villain, but is as confused about the situation as Ellie is.

The strength of this novel lies in the alternating viewpoints. Over the course of each teen’s short sections, the reader gains access to that person’s thoughts about the pregnancy as well as his or her current family situation, and how that family came to be—which multiplies the viewpoints to about a dozen. The attitudes and beliefs about what could be done are shown through so many different angles that the reader comes away with a comprehensive view.

In the end Ellie makes a tough and, for our times, unusual decision. Lest society has forgotten, it’s what most girls did a generation or two ago, if they didn’t marry the father. But attitudes slowly shifted and our government’s entitlement programs grew, making it easier to keep one’s baby. In the course of a generation, what’d once been acceptable became mostly unacceptable in the eyes of our society.

With our economy being what it now is, it’s possible that entitlement programs will begin to shrink, and we’ll see attitudes slowly shifting once again. Ellie’s decision will shed light on yet another option for teens who find themselves in the difficult situation of an unplanned pregnancy, and will give everyone, pregnant or not, food for thought.

If you read this book, what do you think about Ellie’s choice?


Book Review: The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins -- October is International Dinosaur Month

October is International Dinosaur Month, to the delight of children and adults alike. You might want to make plans to sit down as a family and watch (again!) Jurassic Park and Ice Age, but there are plenty of great picture books to read as well.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins
By Barbara Kerley; Illustrated by Brian Selznick
Arthur A. Levine Books
48 pgs
Grades 2-5

This book came out eight years ago, but it feels every bit as fresh and innovative now as it did then. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins is the true story of Victorian artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a painter and sculptor who was commissioned by Queen Victoria to recreate life-sized dinosaurs based on fossil remains, thereby educating people who’d never even heard of dinosaurs about their pre-historic existence. Using clay models, Hawkins then erected skeletons made of iron, covering them with cement casts to create his public displays. In addition to the sculptures in England, Hawkins made two for Central Park in New York City. Unfortunately, he antagonized the wrong person and the sculptures were smashed to pieces and then buried beneath the park, where they remain today. Though many of Hawkins’ models have been found to be inaccurate, the true subject of this book is his passion for the ancient creatures. Selznick’s artwork contributes as much to the story's exuberance as the words do. Independent readers grades 2-5.
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