“Love and hate in seventh grade are not far apart, let me tell you.” In 1967 on Long Island, NY, Holling Hoodhood’s English teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him about as much as she loves William Shakespeare. How does he know? Because every Wednesday afternoon, when half his class leaves for catechism lessons and half leave for Hebrew school, Holling, the only Presbyterian, is left alone with Mrs. Baker…and Shakespeare. When Mrs. Baker first proposes that they read and study the Bard’s plays together, Holling is less than thrilled. But that’s before he discovers Caliban’s curses in The Tempest, or how to use lines from Romeo and Juliet to woo the fair Meryl Lee. Suddenly, Shakespeare doesn’t seem so stupid anymore. In fact, the long dead playwright’s words help Holling in all sorts of situations: facing a bullying neighbor, speaking up to his overbearing father, and winning a coveted place as the only seventh grader on the school’s new cross country team. And even though it’s harder to find comfort in plays while the Vietnam War rages on and Martin Luther King is assassinated, Mrs. Baker shows Holling that what Shakespeare wrote about wars and kings is just as relevant in 1967 as it was in 1587. Schmidt’s warm, solid autobiographical read is getting mad love from teachers and librarians because even though she’s prickly, Mrs. Baker is smart and cool (like we like to think we are) and well, it’s about the power of SHAKESPEARE! But don’t worry, Schmidt filled his story with lots of funny, subversive stuff for teens too–think Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story. Take a look at this one yourself and see if you agree that its a book that both a teacher AND a student could love.
After fifteen-year-old Tamar’s beloved grandfather commits suicide, it is three months before she can bring herself to open the old box of keepsakes he left her. When she does, the odd assortment of WWII memorabilia that dates back to his days as a spy for the Allied Forces in Nazi-occupied Holland holds little meaning for her. Until she looks closer, and realizes that “Grandad hadn’t been mad when he put these things in it. I knew that these things fitted together in some way, and I had to find out how.” Using a set of maps, an old crossword puzzle, and a bundle of money that adds up to 1945, Tamar sets out on a journey along the English river she was named for to uncover the past of a man she thought she knew. Alternating chapters tell the story of her grandfather’s final dangerous mission into occupied Holland during the terrible “Hunger Winter” when the Dutch people were slowly starving to death waiting for the Allies to come. Working undercover, he and his partner were given orders to try and unite the chaotic Dutch Resistance; desperate rag-tag groups of men who did whatever they could to undermine the Nazi’s efforts, including stealing supplies and bombing roads. What he did there had always been a total mystery to his family…until now. The two stories finally converge in the shocking truth that drove Tamar’s grandfather to suicide, leaving Tamar with a new understanding of the complicated man who asked that she be named for his code-name: a beautiful, winding river that could be both treacherous and calm. Friends, I loved this epic story, but I’m not going to lie, it was a struggle to get into. Clocking in at just over 400 pages, it takes a while to get going. But those last hundred pages make the initial slog through the first hundred all worth it. Full of espionage, romance, and incredibly brave acts of derring-do, this satisfying war-time tome is like six-course banquet, so don’t sit down to it unless you’re ready for a serious feast of historical fiction!
On the surface, seventh graders Kirsten and Walk couldn’t be more different. Kirsten is an overweight secret eater who hides her unhappiness over her parents’ constant fighting behind mountains of candy bars and bags of potato chips. Walk is a smart loner trying to make it as one of the only black students in Kirsten’s mostly white private school. But they become unexpected friends when Walk stands up for Kirsten when she is falsely accused of stealing a teacher’s wallet. When they each begin to talk about their new friendship at home, their families become suspicious, and neither Kirsten nor Walk can understand why. Is it because Kirsten is white and Walk is black? While that seems to be the rationale at first, there is another reason their parents don’t want them to become friends, a secret that will shake the growing tree of their relationship to its very roots when they find out. What looks like a benign school story from its innocent, colorful cover is actually a pretty deep read that will challenge the way you think about race and economic class, and help you understand that even though they often try to convince you otherwise, adults mess up too. And if you haven’t read her stuff before, you’ll definitely want to go back and check out Choldenko’s hip historical fiction, Al Capone Does My Shirts.
I have just two words for you, James St. James: LOVE IT! Your unrepentantly outrageous and brutally honest bi-polar portrayal of seventeen-year-old Billy Bloom, drag-queen-in-training-wheels is one of the freshest, funniest YA novels I’ve read in YEARS. My only complaint is that this wasn’t a picture book, so I couldn’t get a gander at all of Billy’s meticulously constructed outfits. Yes, to Billy Bloom, “Being fabulous, being relentlessly fabulous, is damned hard, hard work, I can tell you…It requires more than just…platform boots and an ironic tee to cut it in today’s marketplace.” Billy is determined to bring fashion and culture to the “Stepford teens” who populate his new private school in the depths of swampy red state Florida. But his unrelenting good cheer in the face of apathetic teachers and waves of spitballs is finally squashed by a brutal beating that he suffers at the hands of several football players. After a long recovery and a great deal of soul-searching, Billy comes to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with him, it’s the REST of the world who needs to learn how to deal! So he decides to launch his most ambitious project to date—a run for Homecoming Queen. Does Billy have a hope in heck? Or are all his glitter-dreams destined to go up in a poof of lavender-colored smoke? Make no mistake, this book isn’t just for the cross-dressers among us (although, they will love it). It is for every teen who was told he or she couldn’t play, can’t join, or isn’t invited, and who perservered anyway. Even though St. James’s message comes dressed in heels and a tiara, it still rings true: be yourself, no matter what, because at the end of the day, “you must find your own path and live with your own decisions.” And really, can any book blurbed by both Michael Cart AND Perez Hilton be anything short of FABULOUS? Slide into your best pair of feathery pink marabous and RUN not walk to your nearest library branch or bookstore to check out the best comeback-kid story since Justin Timberlake’s post ‘N Sync career!
In an alternate sci-fi Old West, where both buffalo AND robots roam the range, famed train robber Daisy Kutter has hung up her guns. Ever since her square-chinned ex-beau Tom repented of his wild ways and became the local sheriff, Daisy’s not only lost her partner in crime and one true love; she’s also lost the will to illegally lighten trains of their valuable loads. Enter mysterious oil magnate and security specialist Mr. Winters. Winters proposes a job that has Daisy’s trigger finger itching—if she can successfully rob his new security enhanced train, he will pay her the handsome sum of 350,000 lugs (what passes for pesos in Daisy’s world). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Winters just won Daisy’s dry goods store in a high stakes poker game—and if Daisy wants it back, she’s gonna have to strap on her gunbelt one last time. Now, this IS the Old West, so expect some double-crossing and serious gun play before this story is through. Kibuishi’s b&w graphic novel, chosen as one of the 2006 Best Books for Young Adults, features a trash-talking heroine who is equal parts Annie Oakley and Tank Girl, with moves that out-manuever Laura Croft. You’ll be hard-pressed not to frantically flip pages to find out what happens next, but after you do, take a moment to go back and admire Kibuishi’s cool, clean art, heated up by his heroine’s bad-ass action sequences.
Sixteen-year-old Tessa Scott has incurable leukemia. She is going to die, probably before next spring. “It’s really going to happen…I really won’t ever go back to school…I’ll never go to college or have a job…I won’t travel, never earn money, never drive, never fall in love or leave home or get my own house. It’s really, really true.” But Tessa isn’t about to take the matter of death lying down. Instead, she composes a list of all the things she wants to do before the cancer takes her. Have sex. Spend a day saying nothing but “yes” to every question she’s asked. Shoplift. Try drugs (besides the kind she takes for her cancer treatment). Drive a car. And maybe, if she’s lucky, fall in love. Meanwhile, her surrounding family and friends each struggle with their own feelings about Tessa’s impending death: her desperate father, who spends his days searching the Internet for alternative therapies; her distant mother, who copes by pretending everything is alright; her little brother Cal who fusses over her one moment and taunts her the next; her best friend Zoey, who manages to be both selfish and supportive; and finally, her next-door-neighbor Adam, who, in the last months of Tessa’s life, unexpectedly becomes the love of her life. But no matter how much they all care about her, Tessa will have to finish the list–and her life– on her own. My adolescent friends, I never thought I would find the book that could knock my much beloved and oft-read copy of Norma Klein’s sob-inducing Sunshine (also on this list) out of the top tearjerker spot in my heart. But Before I Die has done it. Like Sunshine, it’s not sappy, corny, or saccharine. It’s just a very clear-eyed, realistic portrayal of what it means to die young, and how it feels to die from this particular disease. Downham pulls no punches, she takes you with Tessa right to the very end, an ending that you won’t forget, now or ever. To heck with the box of tissue, you’re gonna need stock in Kleenex to finish this one. But believe me, I’m not crying when I say this is one of the best books of 2007! (4 weepies)
Bec is a college student at loose ends. Not crazy about her advertising major, she’s successfully avoided deciding what to do with her life thus far by partying hard with her roommate and best friend Jill and carrying on a guilty affair with a married professor. Then, while looking for a new part-time job that pays more than waitressing, she answers an ad for a home health-care aide. Expecting a weak, bed-ridden old lady, Bec is surprised to find that wheelchair-confined Kate, afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, is young, smart, and sophisticated, with a wicked sense of humor. Like this exchange: “‘Oh my god,’ I said embarrassed. ‘You think I’m like those TV movies where the person with the disease teaches everyone how to live.’ Kate laughed soundlessly. ‘It’s always so nice of us.’” When Bec begins working for Kate and her husband Evan, she discovers a whole new world of witty conversation, gourmet cooking, and urbane dinner parties. Soon Bec is so immersed in Kate’s life that it becomes difficult for her to distinguish where Kate’s life leaves off and her own begins. Kate is dying, but Bec’s life has just begun. Will she ever be able to establish her own identity and personality while under Kate’s charismatic shadow? This sharply observed novel, full of painful realizations, hilarious conversations and some of the best food descriptions I’ve ever read, perfectly captures that time in our early 20’s when our adult identities are beginning to form and we are so easily influenced by those around us whose personalities are set and stronger than our own.