Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘book reviews for young people

The Boy Who Couldn't DieWe are all familiar with the zombies of movies, television, and books: reanimated corpses that feast on human brains and spread the zombie plague through their bite. But there is another kind of zombie– the zombies of folklore and witchcraft. The Boy Who Couldn’t Die, by William Sleator, is about the second kind.

Most teenagers do not think about death, but after Ken’s best friend died in a plane crash he becomes determined to avoid it. It’s not difficult to find psychics in New York, but it takes a bit of searching before Ken can find someone who can help him with his particular need. He finally finds an ad that offers “Freedom from Death” — at the bargain price of fifty dollars. Cheri Buttercup says she can make Ken invulnerable. He just has to die first. Then she will take his soul and hide it, and then bring him back to life. And with his soul hidden, nothing will harm him. Simple.

Ken has misgivings. But he really doesn’t want to die, so he goes through with the ritual. But did it work? He soon finds out. A hot dish doesn’t burn him. The punches of a beautiful girl’s enraged boyfriend feel like feathers to Ken and a brick wall to the boyfriend. Ken doesn’t quite feel himself, but he enjoys knowing that nothing can hurt him.

Ken talks his parents into taking him to the Caribbean so he can learn scuba diving and swim with sharks. Well, he leaves out the part about the sharks. The week-long vacation in St. Calao begins with a day of scuba training culminating in certification. On the following day the scuba instructors take their six students out to a reef to put their new training to use. Ken sneaks away with he can to go looking for sharks. He finds one, but discovers that he was followed by Sabine, the sixteen-year-old assistant  trainer. And the shark has his eye on both of them. Ken is forced to put his invulnerability to the ultimate test, offering his body to the shark to save Sabine.

Now that Sabine knows Ken’s secret, he tells her everything. But the ritual he experienced in New York is familiar to the Caribbean girl. Sabine tells Ken that by giving his soul to Cheri Buttercup, it is now under her control. This explains why Ken is having disturbing dreams in which he sees himself helping to reanimate his friend Roger, and killing a man on the streets of New York. Sabine tells Ken that he must reclaim his soul.

Back in New York, Cheri buttercup is only happy to oblige–for the less-than-bargain price of $50,000. There’s always a catch, isn’t there?

Sleator grabbed my attention early and held it throughout his 162-page book. The Boy Who Couldn’t Die is obviously a very different kind of zombie story, and as such is a welcome change of pace. It reminded me of Stephen King’s Thinner, which is about a man who is cursed by a gypsy. Both stories are about someone who races to reverse a supernatural spell. Sleator has a streamlined writing style that is suitable for younger teens and up. Any lover of the macabre will enjoy this creepy tale.

I gave The Walking Dead graphic novels a try after becoming a huge fan of the television series they inspired. The graphic novels, by necessity, must tell a condensed story. They are like Cliff Notes with pictures. The Walking Dead television show, also by necessity, had to expand on the story told by the graphic novels.

There’s a sort of paradox posed by graphic novels. A scene of any complexity will require an abundance of panels to convey. Conversely, it requires very little time for the reader to scan those panels. So while a simple story will have a long page length, the time required to read it will be very short. Reading The Walking Dead graphic novels, I would try to slow myself down by studying the illustrations. Of course we all know the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words. Well… maybe in principle. When you’ve just looked at a panel in which a character is surrounded by zombies, and in the next panel the zombies are a little closer, how long do you need to look at that panel to understand what is going on? What will you gain by looking at the panel any longer than necessary?

To see how the television show differs from the graphic novels, let’s take a look at an early scene from both…

Rick’s arrival in Atlanta: the graphic novel

The welcoming committee greets rick upon his arrival in Atlanta

Rick rides into Atlanta on a horse. He is quickly surrounded by zombies. The zombies attack, knock Rick to the ground, and commence eating his horse. Rick shoots at the zombies, runs like hell, and stumbles into an alley. There he meets Glenn, who helps him escape to safety on the rooftops.

From Rick’s arrival in Atlanta to his escape from the zombies with Glenn, the action is simple and straightforward, spanning six pages that can be easily “read” in less than a minute. Any drama created by Rick’s predicament is short-lived because the crisis is quickly averted.

Rick crawls under a tank to escape the zombies

Rick crawls under a tank to escape the zombies

Rick’s arrival in Atlanta: the television show

You can watch this scene here: Watch Rick’s arrival in Atlanta.

Rick rides into Atlanta on a horse. The seemingly deserted city is littered with the remnants of a lost battle, with abandoned cars and military vehicles on every block. Rick rounds a corner to find a massive gathering of zombies. Rick and his horse turn tail and the zombies follow. More zombies come out of side streets and cut off Rick’s escape. The zombies close in, surrounding Rick, grabbing at him, pulling him from his horse, pulling his horse to the ground. The zombies begin to make a meal of the horse as Rick watches in horror. Other zombies take notice of Rick and move in for the kill. In a panic, Rick scrambles under a tank. Zombies crawl after him. More zombies crawl under the tank from the front. Rick shoots a few zombies but there are just too many. Collapsing on his back, Rick puts his gun to his head as he prepares to take his own life before the zombies can get to him. Glancing up he sees an open hatch in the belly of the tank. Rick scurries up and in and slams the hatch cover. There is a dead soldier in the tank. But of course he isn’t dead. Rick dispatches him quickly with his gun, but in the confined interior of the tank the blast of the gun is deafening and disorienting. As Rick struggles to clear his head, he notices the open top hatch. He crawls through to check things out, catches the attention of the zombies, retreats back into the tank and closes the hatch. Rick is isolated and trapped, but safe. For now. Rick sits still and attempts to gather his wits. The radio squawks. A voice says: “Hey, you. Dumbass. Yeah, you in the tank. Cozy in there?”

The voice belongs to Glenn. From Rick’s arrival in Atlanta to hearing Glenn’s voice over the tank’s radio, the scene lasts five minutes. And Rick still hasn’t actually met Glenn, nor is he truly out of his predicament. What next? Well, viewers of the television show had to wait, because this is where the episode ends.

As you can see, the TV version is more complex and, therefore, more dramatic. It made my skin crawl, frankly. More than once, I was sure Rick was doomed. How was he going to get out of this? Whereas when reading the graphic novel, there just isn’t time to get too worked up about anything.

You may think I don’t think much of the graphic novels. Not true. They are simply a different beast. And yes, I do prefer TV, movies, and regular novels to graphic novels. But graphic novels have their place, and their fans. And I am eternally grateful to the creators of The Walking Dead graphic novels: Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. Without them, The Walking Dead universe would not exist. And while comparing the original medium to the television series, it is worth noting that obviously the television series has a larger creative team (which, by the way, includes Kirkman and Darabont). It’s therefore to be expected that the television series would sometimes add creative twists to the storyline.

Because I am such a huge fan of the television show, and because the television show seems to stick fairly close to the general plot of the graphic novels, I have stopped reading the graphic novels for now. The graphic novels are ahead of the television show, of course, and I don’t want to ruin the television show for myself by reading “spoilers” in the graphic novels. However, one day the television show will end, and when it does I will almost certainly want to return to the graphic novels to appease my addiction. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend the series to fans of graphic novels and comic books. And I especially recommend the series to teens who struggle with reading.

Editor’s Note: Sorry, no zombies this week. My husband came down with a cold towards the end of the week. But have no fear — the zombies will return in seven days.

Understanding Animals as Pets, by Rita Vandivert

Understanding Animals as Pets by Rita Vandivert influenced my childhood love of animals. Thanks to this book in part, I grew up wanting to own a variety of pets. Published in 1975, it remains as fresh and relevant as the day I first read it. Alas, it’s also only available as a used book. Why then I am talking about it?

First, you need to understand that I grew up in a small town without much exposure to pets beyond dogs and cats. My hometown, with a population of less than twenty thousand, did not have a pet store. My main exposure to pets came through our dogs, our neighbor’s pets, and trips to the vet and SPCA. There were horses at a nearby farm, which I saw only during school field trips. And there was my cousin’s turtle.

Next, you need to understand that I grew up on the island of Newfoundland, which limited my exposure to wild animals as well. For example, my province doesn’t have any native rabbits or snakes, which here in Nebraska can be found easily in one’s own back yard. There are no native species of amphibians in Newfoundland — for comparison, Nebraska has fourteen — but a few have been introduced. I once found a toad in the woods and kept it until friends convinced me that it was responsible for the wart on my hand.

Larger animals — such as moose, elk, caribou, bears, and coyotes — like to stay in the West or the East, and tend to avoid the Central region where I am from. Likewise, while Newfoundland is famous for its marine life, my dad and I would have to travel several hours to see them.

Which brings me to my third point. My dad does not drive. Not now, not ever. So I grew up knowing only the small part of the province to which we could walk or bike. I saw a few kinds of birds. I saw lots of fish. And that one toad. Maybe that’s why one of my hobbies was collecting rocks.

I am truly one of those individuals who can say: Everything I learned, I learned from books. For example, I learned about menageries from Caroyln Haywood’s Eddie books. I learned about mice from Beverly Cleary’s Ralph books. I learned about horses from Marguerite Henry’s many factual stories about them. I learned about raccoons from the adventuress shared by Sterling North in his autobiography Rascal. And from Rita Vandivert’s guide to animal care, Understanding Animals as Pets, I learned about a variety of pets that I could only dream of owning someday. Because of her, I wanted to own not only a dog and a cat and a horse, but I also wanted to own the exotics including hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, and rabbits. Oh, and I also dreamed about caring for with orphaned wild animals, such as raccoons and skunks. Incidentally, neither of these exist in Newfoundland either.

Yes, there were other influences on my love of animals as pets. My dad raised me around dogs and taught me to rescue earthworms and spiders. And then there’s that cousin of mine, who also had dog and a cat in addition to the turtle. But my strongest influence came from books. I still have my copy of Understanding Animals as Pets, and always will. It’s the reason why I a girl with little exposure to real animals could grow up with such love for them.

The Enemy (Higson novel)

How do you get rid of the adults? Every writer of children’s fiction, from picture books to young adult novels, has had to answer this question. Adults aren’t fun. Adults get in the way. How can kids have adventures if they’re stuck doing homework and chores? Enter the old standbys of  divorce, death, abandonment, and prison.

Charlie Higson found a better solution: turn them all into zombies.

The Enemy is the first book in a planned young adult series of seven. A strange disease turns everyone over the age of sixteen (or is it fourteen?) into zombies. Of course these are not classic undead zombies, but living zombies — people who have become animalistic brain-craving monsters as a result of a mysterious illness. Not only does this get all those pesky adults out of the way — in the sense that they are no longer authority figures who do nothing by spoil kids’ fun — but it gives kids license to kill them on sight.

I wondered at first about the overly specific cutoff between zombie and non-zombies. How can it be so specific? (And what is the cutoff age anyway? I swear it was sixteen in the copy I read, and reviews on Amazon say it’s sixteen, but Wikipedia and Penguin Books’ trailer says it’s fourteen. Is it fourteen in Britain and sixteen in the U.S.? Anyway, for the purposes of this review and my sanity, let’s say it’s sixteen.) Where was I? Oh yeah. So there isn’t any physiological difference between a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old that would make one immune and one not. Ah, but Higson has a rational explanation. Seventeen years prior to the events of the book, there is a worldwide plague. Everyone alive at the time is infected. But the disease doesn’t manifest itself immediately. It remains dormant for sixteen years. Meanwhile, everyone born in the wake of the plague is disease-free. Kids born to infected parents do not have the disease. So when the disease finally kicks in, only those people who were alive at the time of the plague become zombies. Elegant.

The Enemy is set in London one year after the zombification of the majority of the population. The story focuses on a group of kids who have holed up in a Waitrose supermarket. Their lives are what you’d expect: sending out groups to forage and fighting off zombies. There’s also the occasional encounter with a rival gang holed up in the nearby Morrisons supermarket.

Naturally change is a-comin’, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. A stranger arrives and invites the Waitrose kids to return with him to his group’s stronghold. His group is well-organized, and their leader has big plans. And so they pack up and set out and have an incident-free journey through London. Well, no, not really. There are zombies everywhere.

English: Charlie Higson, comedian and Young Bo...

English: Charlie Higson, comedian and Young Bond author, taken at Los Angeles book signing in 2005 by John Cox (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Higson adds variety to the story by providing a couple of subplots. Two of the Waitrose kids do not tag along with the main group. One stays behind at Waitrose because he’s a bit agoraphobic, and another is separated against his will and has adventures of his own. I like that one of these subplots is not wrapped up in a tidy package at the end of the book. In fact, the main plot isn’t wrapped up in a tidy package either, as naturally the promised land is not what the Waitrose kids were expecting.

If you aren’t in the mood for a nitpicky complaint, please skip to my concluding paragraph. Okay, here it is: I am not a big fan of the word “though”. It’s hard to explain, but I’m of the opinion that it’s a word for amateurs. Often it just isn’t necessary, and other times it’s just ungainly. And in The Enemy, it’s overused. (The Enemy contains 112 uses of the word; The Hunger Games, which is the same length as The Enemy, contains only 66.) Here’s an example from The Enemy in which I think it’s both ungainly and unnecessary: “He was happy. Almost happier than he had been before the disaster. The one thing he longed for, though, was peace of mind.” The phrase “The one thing he longed for” implies that what follows will be an exception to the character’s happiness. So why add “though”, which interrupts the flow of the sentence? Try re-reading those sentences without the “though”. You still understand what’s being said, and the passage reads better. The word “though”, used like this, is a jarring speed bump — one that can often be avoided. It tells the reader that the narration is contradicting itself. Here’s an example that is completely made-up by me but which is illustrative of the way the word is frequently employed in The Enemy: “It was quiet. Everyone was on high alert, though, sensing that something was wrong.” See the contradiction? It’s quiet, so you’d think everyone could relax. But no, they can’t. Now, consider instead: “The uncharacteristic silence was unnerving. Everyone was on high alert.” This rewrite tells you upfront that something is wrong with the silence, and so the second sentence does not need to be presented as a contradiction that requires explanation. Furthermore, the rewrite has better pacing — no speed bump! Have I made my case? I wish I could cite an “expert” who agrees with me, but I can’t find anyone who has an opinion on “though” one way or another. So maybe I’m the only person in the world who’s bothered by it. Could be. I won’t let it get to me, though. (Hee hee.)

Enough nitpicking. What matters is this: I’m hooked. Despite the abundance of “thoughs,” Higson writes well and has created an exciting adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip through zombie-infested London. As an adult, I appreciated that Higson did not write a watered-down gore-free child-friendly zombie tale. And as someone who is not a teenage girl, I also appreciated that Higson wrote a real zombie story and not a Twilightesque teen-zombie grope-fest. The next book in the series is The Dead, which is a prequel to The Enemy and is set about a year earlier, two weeks after people began turning into zombies. Unfortunately this means that I’ll have to wait until at least the third book to find out what happens to those Waitrose kids.

Charlie Higson on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

Penguin Book’s trailer for The Enemy

This past October, I heard Grace Lin speak at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival. Her struggles as a multicultural author inspired me so much that I bought all her published juvenile books, which she signed for me. So, it’s with great delight I had the opportunity to interview her recently by email for Allison’s Book Bag.

Allison: Growing up you struggled to find balance between your cultural/ethnic identities.  Many of my students’ families are from other countries and face the same struggle.  What advice would you give to these students on finding balance?

Grace: Gosh, that’s hard because I do think it’s different for every person—each person has his or her own set of conflicts to experience. I guess the best thing would be to try to remember that for every problem your cultural heritage gives you, there is also a gift. It may not always be easy to see, but it’s there.

Allison: You write in your books that sometimes you were the only Asian girl in your school, and that this affected how you were treated and how you felt. What advice would you give to teachers who have students in similar situations? What can they do to help students of different races/cultures/needs feel more comfortable and more accepted?

Grace: Hmm, this is also a hard question to answer. I can only speak from my own experience; I am by no means an expert on child behavior. I do remember one specific teacher experience that was extremely helpful to me as a child; I wrote about it in The Year of the Dog. I never learned Chinese as a child and my classmates expected me to be able to read and speak it, one of them asking rather accusingly why I did not. My teacher spoke up and pointed out that all of the students in our class had ancestors from other countries and very few of them spoke any other language other than English. Some were German-American, some were Italian-American—yet they did not speak German or Italian. So, there should be no reason why I, as a Chinese-American, must be able to speak Chinese. I remember feeling very grateful, and in many ways, enlightened by my teacher’s words. It made me feel that, really, I was just like everyone else—even if it wasn’t as obvious.

Allison: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a mix of fantasy and Chinese folklore. What are your favorite Chinese folktales?

Grace: I have many favorite Chinese folktales, which is why I include them in my books! My favorite that I’ve never used in any of my books (yet) is the “Magic Paintbrush,” where a young boy is given a paintbrush and whatever he paints with it comes to life. Maybe I’ll use it in a book, someday!

Allison: If my readers wanted to broaden their reading of multicultural fiction for young people, what books would you recommend?

Grace: I would definitely encourage people to read these books. I think because these books are labeled “multicultural” many readers think the books are not for them, that it will be a story they won’t be able to relate to—and that’s not true at all!  And not only will readers find the stories relatable, they are also truly enjoyable. There is a great list of multicultural books to start of with here:

Of course, I hope readers try my books, like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as well as the Pacy series. Off the above list, I highly recommend the Ruby Lu books and the picture books illustrated by Yumi Heo.

Allison: Although your family is from China, you grew up in the United States. A few years ago, you were able to visit China yourself. What was that experience like for you?

Grace: My parents are from Taiwan, which, depending on whom you talk to, is its own country or part of China. Regardless, there is definitely a very heavily Chinese-influenced culture. I’ve been to Taiwan many times, and it directly influenced my new novel, Dumpling Days, that comes out in January. That book is part of the Pacy series, and it is all about Pacy’s first trip to Taiwan.

I visited mainland China for the first time a few years ago and it was extremely interesting. Taiwan feels very modern, especially Taipei where my relatives live, but China was definitely more of a blend of very old and new. When we visited the ancient parts, the Asian folk and fairytales that I read in my youth came back to me—suddenly I could see the setting of where those stories could take place.  And this directly effected me—inspiring Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the book I am working on now, Starry River of the Sky.

Allison: In each of your chapter books, you write a lot about holidays. What is your favorite Chinese holiday? What is your favorite American holiday?

Grace: My favorite Chinese holiday is the Moon Festival. It’s kind of like the Asian equivalent of Thanksgiving. I even made a picture book about it—Thanking the Moon. I like it because it focuses on gratitude and quiet contemplation. My favorite American holiday is Christmas. I like all the crafts and decorations and the food!

Allison: What’s next?

Grace: As I mentioned, my novel Dumpling Days comes out in January. It continues Pacy’s story from The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat. This book follows Pacy on her summer vacation to Taiwan with her family. Like the prior books, it very much is based on my real life.  Dumpling Days is my parents’ favorite book of mine!

As that has been printing, I’ve been hard at work on the companion book to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  It’s called Starry River of the Sky and it comes out in October.  For those readers that know Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, this book is not a sequel—it doesn’t follow Minli’s story—but it takes place in the same world and there might be some other characters they recognize!

For more about Grace, check out her Frequently Asked Questions or Jama Rattigan’s In the Kitchen interview.

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