Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Michael Printz Award’ Category

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

Like many others, I have been a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson since reading her debut young adult novel Speak. Now from Anderson comes another social issue novel that is receiving critical acclaim. The Impossible Knife of Memory is about post-traumatic stress disorder and veterans, a topic close to Anderson’s heart. When Anderson was in middle school, her life changed dramatically due to her father’s battle with PTSD. With The Impossible Knife of Memory, Anderson also for the first time includes a love interest. Although at times the novel fell flat for me, I did over all enjoy this best-selling title from Anderson.

Perhaps because adolescence is the time when the imperfections of adults becomes most notable, if parents make an appearance in young adult realistic fiction, their role seems to be that of the dysfunctional parent. Case in point, both parents in The Impossible Knife of Memory are alcoholics. Initially this turned me off. Anderson ultimately won me over in a couple of ways, one being her gripping portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. To cope with his memories of war Hayley’s dad turns to alcohol and drugs. These addictions might spark his short-temper that results in job losses. However, it’s just as likely that the battlefield memories, many of which are interspersed as stand-alone chapters written in italics, fuel his inabilities to copy with daily responsibilities. Most definitely, the nightmares in his head are what lead to his shooting up appliances, furniture, and eventually the family’s entire living room. Anderson also won me over, because this isn’t just another teen novel about a loser parent. Despite all the grief Hayley’s dad heaps upon the family, it’s clear from Hayley’s actions how much she loves her dad. It’s also clear how much the dad wants to make things right, feels remorse for his actions, and loves his daughter. As for Hayley’s mom, all I’ll say is that relationships are complex. Anderson does a nice job of recognizing that while parents might be flawed, this doesn’t mean teens should discredit them.

No matter the genre, love also seems to typical fare for young adult fiction. Up until now, Anderson was one of the few exceptions one could depend upon to give full attention to other teen matters. While I feel disappointed that Anderson has joined the masses, I do have to give her credit for creating a believable love story. The romance is a little sudden, but is also reasonably justified. Hayley’s best friend introduces her to the newspaper editor, from the mistaken belief that Hayley might want to write for the paper. The romance also develops pretty quickly, but again is reasonably justified. Hayley needs help in math; Finn needs articles to keep the newspaper afloat. I also like that Finn isn’t the stereotypical romantic date. He isn’t a hunky football player. He isn’t even the most popular guy in school. In contrast, he’s kind of skinny, kind of nerdy, while also being cute and sweet. I also appreciate that when the going gets tough, at times Hayley bails and at times Finn bails. Naturally, they never stay completely broken up, but it adds to the realism that they both need time to know how many challenges they’re willing to face together.

As you can see, most everything worked for me. Yet as I said at the start, at times, The Impossible Knife of Memory also fell flat. Is it just the hype surrounding it? Is it that perhaps I wasn’t really in the mood for another teen angst story? Either of those could be true. However, it might also be that I felt a need for a little more positive portrayal of families. Sure, families are flawed. It just seems that those in Anderson’s novel are flawed to the extreme. Not only does Hayley’s parents drink, but her best friend’s parents hate each other so much that they can’t be in the same room without a fight, and her boyfriend’s family is dealing with a drug-addicted daughter. Really? Are there no even semi-happy families?

I also tired of all the negative references to school policies. They fed too much into the angst of the story. Take for example, the fact that Hayley’s boyfriend wants to save the school newspaper, which was due to be cut because of financial constraints. While this is a realistic scenario, the problem I have is that when the paper actually does get cut, Anderson just drops that plot line. This leads me to view it as a contrivance, intended to bring Hayley and Finn together. Alternatively, given all the other school-bashing lines, it seems as times if the references are more that of Anderson’s own opinion than that of her characters and their situations.

When my husband and I were trying this year to decide what young adult book to both read, The Impossible Knife of Memory was a top pick. Minor flaws aside, Anderson remains one of the best for writing about anxiety and depression in adolescents. As such, she remains a vital voice for teens.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Why do I call myself Mad Woman in the Forest. First of all, these woods have a a lot to do with who I am and why I became a writer. I’ve been camping here since I was three years old. When I was a kid, my parents would come here and turn me lose….”

–Laurie Halse Anderson, Mad Woman in the Forest

Laurie Halse Anderson is a New York Times-bestselling author who writes for young people of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous state and national awards, as well as international recognition. In 2009, Halse was honored with the Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature”.


Born in 1961, Anderson grew up liking animals, reading books, and writing stories. All of these, she talks about at length with Reading Rockets. For her love of words, she credits first her father. He was a minister. He’d talk to the family about the roots of words in different languages and about language is connected. Thanks to his influence, Anderson studied linguistics in college. He was also a poet. When Anderson was a child growing up, her father was always writing poetry, crumpling it, and then rewriting poetry. He was also a natural-born storyteller. He’d tell gossipy stories about the family at night, but also told tales from the pulpit every Sunday morning. Those stories would have a theme, examples, subtext. They’d also make people laugh, cry, and think. Anderson says that she would not be a writer, if she were not his daughter.

Her mom, on the other hand, was not so much into the book world. In fact, on rough days, her mom would suggest that Anderson consider nursing school. Yet Anderson’s mom has also impacted her career choice. Her mother would send Anderson to her room to clean it, but instead Anderson would take out a book and read. When her mother discovered her reading, she’d hem and haw, but eventually tell Anderson to finish the chapter and then clean up. The room rarely got cleaned, but Anderson grew up loving books.

Despite all these literary influences, when Anderson was growing up, no one believed that she would become a writer. Her earliest teachers knew her only as a struggling reader. She also went to speech therapy. Anderson says that when she did crack the reading code, she became that kid who was always in the library. Yet being a voracious reader didn’t turn her into a good student. She wasn’t great at paying attention in class. She also wasn’t fond of grammar, spelling, or literature analysis.

Anderson jokes, “…. that’s when God laughed, I think, and decided to make me into an author. I was the kid who actually did question a teacher about symbolism and claimed that it didn’t exist. So this is my penance.”

More seriously, Anderson credits a second-grade teacher who taught the class how to write haiku. Anderson liked haiku, because the format was short enough that she could grasp its structure and even spell her words right. This teacher explained to Anderson that if she write down how she was feeling in this structured poem, then the person who would read it would understand what she felt. Anderson still remembers sitting in class when she experienced the A-HA moment. She’d written a poem about her cat. And suddenly she realized she could write!

As for her relationship with animals, Anderson says that it’s been a conflicted one. As a teenager in the 1970s, she was a tree-hugging type of girl whom you’d expect to also be vegetarian. Then she got sent to a pig farm. She got an eye-opening look into what farmers do for a living and what real work is. She also had a wonderful time.

The farm had geese. And it had ducks. Both were slaughtered at Christmastime to make money for the farm. Anderson never anticipated that she would come away with from Denmark was a real fondness for meat. And, hence, an inability to become a vegetarian.

Her relationship with animals is also a conflicted one because she has allergies, but at the same time loves animals. They have always been a part of her life, especially German Shepherds. When people ask her to talk about her pets, Anderson says she has to stop and think: “Do I have pets? Because they don’t feel like pets. They really are… it’s a cliché, but it’s a really accurate cliché. That’s part of my family.”


Since second-grade, Anderson has loved to write. She discusses her growth as a writer in the Official Biography of Laurie Halse Anderson. When an adult, she began her writing career as a freelance reporter for newspapers and magazines, but she had a lot to learn about the field. When Anderson started submitting her books to publishers, she earned hundreds of discouraging rejections letters. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and finding a supportive critique group made all the difference.

Her first published book was a picture book. Indido Runs came out in 1996. It’s a story about a Bantu girl from Kenya. In it, Anderson explored what is it about folks from Kenya that makes them into such tremendous athletes and world quality marathoners? She interviewed a lot of people and learned a lot. The book was translated into four different South African languages, remains popular in South Africa and Kenya, but didn’t sell well in America. Since then, Anderson’s picture books have fall into two categories: exaggerated stories and historical fiction.

Her newest picture book, The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School, became a New York Times bestseller. Anderson dedicated this book to her daughter, who became a teacher that year.

Anderson is probably best known for her Young Adult novels, all of which are talked about at GoodReads: Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson. Her debut novel, Speak, was a National Book Award Finalist, Printz Honor book, and New York Times bestseller. The book was also quickly placed into curriculum at hundreds of schools around the country. The film version features Twilight star, Kristen Stewart.

Some of Anderson’s books draw on research. For example, to write Wintergirls, Anderson had to get into the head of an anorexic. She found this a painful experience, requiring her to take plenty of walks and to fill her non-writing time with happy activities.

Some of her books draw on her passions. For example, Anderson feels society has a lot of educating to do when it comes to rape, the topic of Speak. When she hears people making rape jokes, she asks them, kindly and sincerely, why they think it’s funny. When someone is forced to explain the joke, it sometimes gets through that there is nothing funny about rape. As another example, while writing Chains, Anderson was inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou. She thought that including it in the story might help add another dimension.

Others draw on personal experience. For example, a few weeks before ninth grade, Anderson was raped. She became isolated and very depressed, just as Melinda did in Speak.

LaurieHalseAndersonHer latest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, brings readers into the chaotic life of a high school student whose father is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Again, the situation is familiar to Laurie from her own childhood. “I was a shy, happy little girl, but things became complicated and sad when I was in middle school. That was when my father’s PTSD grabbed him by the throat. My family’s life changed dramatically—we moved a lot, were broke, and worst of all, my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about what was going on.”

I’ll review The Impossible Knife of Memory tomorrow. Save the date: February 6!

The year after high school, Colin is looking for three things: a Katherine, a workable theorem, and a best friend. Sounds intriguing, right? Too bad the premise of An Abundance of Katherines is far-fetched and its execution is sometimes dull. As for the main characters, when they aren’t boring themselves, they’re kind of obnoxious. There are some bright spots in this Printz honor book by John Green, but sadly they are far too few.

The premise is that Colin has been dumped by nineteen Katherines. Hence, the title of the book. And so now Colin wants to find another Katherine. Not a Kathy. Or a Katerina. A Katherine. I’m not sure why. To get dumped again? How does anyone even know that many Katherines? It’s a silly premise, although the idea of being dumped multiple times is in itself a serious one. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea almost as old as creation, which means I am only going to read two hundred pages about the woes of being dumped if there’s more to the story.

Green does attempt to integrate other subplots, such as: a road trip, an unexpected job of interviewing townsfolk, and a new love interest. Unfortunately, none of these work well enough. Colin and his friend make a detour to a small town in Tennessee known as Gutshot, where they are inexplicably invited by strangers to stay for dinner and are then hired for a summer job. The latter could conceivably make for an interesting twist, but it ends up feeling like a string of haphazard anecdotes. As for the new love interest, it’s a cliché idea. Also, Lindsey feels like a milder version of Miles’s flame in Green’s Looking for Alaska. Plus, she’s no Katherine. 🙂

Speaking of reinvented characters, Colin feels a tad bit like main character Miles from Looking for Alaska, in that he’s a self-absorbed nerd. The two even have a geeky quirk: Miles loved to memorize famous last words while Colin gets a kick out of turning names into anagrams. Of course, if Miles and Alaska worked once, why not recycle them in a second book? As long as Green can be original about it, the more power to him. Except for one problem. I don’t like Colin. Oh sure, both he and Miles are searching for the meaning of life. However, Colin’s search seems far shallower. If he can find a theorem that will predict the outcome of dating, he believes this will give him a place in the world. Whatever. Admittedly, I did at times recognize some of Colin’s traits in the likeable nerds in my life, which made me somewhat empathetic. Unfortunately, he often bordered on being pretentious. Whether this was a deliberate choice by Green or not, I don’t know.

How to respond to Green’s characters was a problem for me throughout the book. Am I supposed to laugh at or feel sympathy for Colin’s narcissism? What am I supposed to think about his best friend, an overweight Muslim teen? He’s overweight but seems comfortable with his size, and he claims to be religious but doesn’t mind lying, drinking, and feeling up a girl. Am I supposed to like him or not? Lindsey is one of the other significant characters, whom eventually it seems we’re supposed to view as mixed-up as Alaska from Green’s first book. Yet for the most part, she just seems like a bored small-town girl who enjoys going steady. With a guy whose name coincidentally is also Colin. Last, there are the people whom Colin and friends interview. At times, they come across as stereotypical small-town hicks. Are we supposed to like them, or not? I couldn’t decide.

There were a few bright spots. Ironically, Colin’s flashbacks to his long history of Katherines actually made for a more interesting read than Colin’s day-to-day encounters. Also, the scene in which Colin and Hassan try to fend off a wild hog is hilarious enough that I almost want to recommend An Abundance of Katherines. Unfortunately, too much of the story is overly flippant and uninspired for me to like.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

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