Ellen Hopkins does not shy away from tough topics– and she delivers them to a dedicated YA audience that embraces her use of both poetry and prose to tell her stories.
In People Kill People, Hopkins tackles the American gun violence epidemic. Through the stories of six teenagers; readers are invited to walk in the character’s shoes and make sense of the reason as why they might be compelled to pull the trigger. Someone will die, she tells us, but who?
People kill people. Guns just make it easier. Highly recommend this read for YA and beyond.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote in a scholarly essay a powerful metaphor for books:
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.
This metaphor speaks to me so deeply. I often ask my students about the books that they have read and when they have found windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors. These can be fascinating and illuminating conversations.
I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was seventeen years old. It was a terrifying plot that offered no hope to a young teen about to head off to university the following fall. I accepted that this book was only a window, even a sliding-glass door, into a world that Atwood had created– absolute fiction, not possible, especially not in my lifetime. (Read this timely essay by Atwood about the novel in the time of Trump.)
I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale last summer, and it suddenly looked much more like a mirror. The book, if you are unfamiliar, is classified as a dystopian novel set in a totalitarian regime called Gilead, and centers around a handmaid named Offred. Her name derives from the possessive form “of Fred”; handmaids are forbidden to use their birth names and must echo the male, or master, whom they serve. The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women attempt to gain individuality and independence.
Many of the central plots of the novel are playing out simultaneously on the news. The book no longer seems fictional.
Women, and their bodies, are the objects of men in the book; likewise, in today’s political climate, rights over women’s bodies are argued over by (primarily) old, white men in government. Gilead came to be because the government instilled a fear of “others” in the masses. The same is now happening in much of the world. Aunt Lydia, the woman tasked with brainwashing the future Handmaids to perform their government-ordained duties, repeats part of a Bible verse to them over and over: “Blessed are the meek.” Offred points out that she never finishes the verse: “…for they shall inherit the earth.” Although not officially government-ordained, much of the opposition to homosexuality that exists in the world today — and especially in America— is supported by certain Bible passages. In Gilead, women are brainwashed to believe that any sexual assault they may have experienced was their own fault; a result of their dressing or acting a certain way. When female survivors of sexual assault attempt to report their attacks, now, in real life, more often than not they are questioned about what they were wearing or how much they drank.
The Testaments picks up fifteen years later in Gilead. One of the key players is Aunt Lydia– who tells the story of how she became a high ranking aunt and what she is prepared to do with that power. We also get the stories of two new young women: Agnes, who has grown up in Gilead and is preparing to be married to the Commander; and Daisy, a young woman who was smuggled out of Gilead and into Canada. It is a thrilling exploration of Gilead from within and outside of its borders, one many readers have long awaited. It is also immensely more hopeful, and in that way, it rests easier to be a mirror of our experiences. If you were left bereft as the van door slammed on Offred, pick up The Testaments and go back to Gilead with Margaret Atwood.
This is a compelling and riveting YA novel set far in the future. A future in which all disease has been cured, and humans live forever. Except for a few, here and there, who are “gleaned” by a sanctioned group of Scythes who are able to permanently take the lives of people to control earth’s population.
Becoming a Scythe is an arduous process that is closely monitored and governed by a conclave of eternal Scythes who occasionally take on apprentices and welcome them into this elite group of killers.
Neither Citra nor Rowan wanted to become Scythes, but they find themselves as apprentices and then suddenly, pitted against each other in a contest that will prove fatal to one of them.
Shusterman envisions a plausible and complicated future and offers up lots of exciting adventure for his characters! This is a great read, and the first arc in a championed trilogy.
I’ll admit, this one took me two tries. The first time I gave up much too easily. I picked it up again with the intention of finishing, and I am glad I did.
Harari gives a whirlwind tour of how we have ended up as the singular species to survive over the last 100,000 years. That’s a lot of ground to cover! Stay with him, he is a reliable and skillful story teller. And our story is fascinating.
Throughout this examination of our battles for dominance and how we moved from foraging clans to defining ourselves as citizens of cities and kingdoms, Harari also questions how it is that we came to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism. And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
It will challenge your thinking about what you know about Sapiens and give you much to ponder. A worthwhile read.
Title: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager
Author: Ben Philippe
Date Read: August 19, 2019
Norris Caplan is the son of Haitian parents, living in Montreal and loving Canadian things like hockey, specifically the Montreal Canadiens. But now his parents are moving– his dad to Vancouver with his new wife and baby; and he, with his mother, for her new job in Austin, Texas.
Norris feels extremely out of place as a black French Canadian in the heartland of football and high school tropes straight from a teen movie. Spending most of his lunch hours alone, he walks the campus cataloguing the people he observes: jocks, cheerleaders, loners, and even his dream girl. He figures his notebook will be plenty of company until he can finally return to Canada where he belongs. Much to his surprise he actually makes friends, good ones. And he realizes he may have been rash and unfair in the judgements he scrawled in his notebook.
But what happens when someone else sees his notebook?
This book is witty, honest and fun to read. Phillipe’s use of the field guide format is a unique way to open his chapters, I got a kick out of it– I bet you will too!
We all play roles in our lives, and Mara plays many: she is a twin; a daughter; a girlfriend; a friend; a student; and an activist. Although all of these roles have independent names, her loyalties and decisions are blurred as these roles intersect and find themselves at terrible odds.
Mara and her fraternal twin, Owen, are close. Very close. They share stories of the stars from their rooftop together. But when her brother is accused of raping her friend Hannah, it tilts her whole world on an unsteady axis. As she navigates her way through her family loyalty it forces her to deal with the trauma of her own past.
“This. This is why I never said anything. Because no one ever believes the girl.”
(Ashley Herring Blake, Girl Made of Stars)
Herring Blake explores, with compassion, the complicated lives of teens– especially young female teens, as they navigate high school friendships, relationships (LGBTQ), misogyny, and the misuse of power. Mara is a fully developed character with whom we can see ourselves and for whom our heart aches as she tries to makes sense of how to just be with others as each of her roles morph.
One of my favourite passages is where Mara wonders at the types of things that could be inscribed as an epitaph to her as she tries to sort out who she is, and who she wants to be.
Mara McHale, Some type of girl
Maybe I’m the type of girl who likes short skirts.
Maybe I’m the type of girl who likes boys and girls and those who sometimes feel like both and neither.
Maybe I’m the type of girl who slaps a boy in the face when he does something shitty.
Maybe I’m the type of girl who hides and cries in her bed alone, remembering the terrifying day that took away all her control and trust.
Maybe I’m the type of girl who’s tired of hiding and crying alone.
Maybe I’m the type of girl who realizes she’s not alone.
Maybe I’m the type of girl whose favorite person in the world did something unforgivable.
Maybe I’m the type of girl who finally accepts it.
Maybe I’m nota stupid girl.
Maybe I’m just a girl, plain and simple and real.
(Herrington Blake, p.264-5)
We are all, all types of girls. Highly recommended reading! You will love the Girl Made of Stars.
This was a lovely surprise, a gift from my dad. I’ll savour a glass of bubbly in a whole new way now!
This unique historical fiction tells the true story of the secrets held in the caves of the Champagne region in France. The winemakers of this region endured immense hardship both to keep the grapes and barrels producing some of the world’s finest champagne while also sending messages to the Allies, protecting Jewish refugees, and storing and supplying guns and munitions to the renegades who worked against the Nazis in World War Two.
This multi-layered story skips back and forth between World War Two and present day to unravel the story of Edith Thiery, and her granddaughter, Olivia. Secrets abound and reveal a beautiful story of trying to do what is right in the face of everything being wrong.
Author: Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Date Read: August 2, 2019
I inhaled this one!!! It is a sensational YA novel adapted from the Broadway smash-hit. Beware: after reading you’ll want to book a trip to see it on the stage as well!
Evan’s chronic social anxiety leads his therapist to give him a unique homework assignment: write a daily uplifting letter to himself, promising that today’s going to be a great day.
Evan is lonely, he doesn’t fit in, and he begrudgingly completes his letters without much belief that they will ever really help him to cope with life in high school. When his letter falls into the wrong hands, Evan becomes embroiled in a lie that takes on a life of its own. For the first time in his life he is no longer invisible– he is a viral social media sensation and his life at school is remarkably changed as well. But it’s all a lie. And one lie leads to another.
Dear Evan Hansen explores life and how we choose to live it. Do choose to read this book– you will love Evan Hansen!
I thought the structure of this novel seemed compelling; there was a mixture of what looked like poetry, lists, and prose. It is introduced as a novel written in warnings, scrabbled words on the backs of envelopes from a woman who has had enough. It grew old quickly.
Although true to the character Schofield has imagined, I found Bina’s repetitive ramblings tiresome. There is a good story there– but I felt like it wound around itself over and over and nothing new was ever really revealed.
There are no bad books… only books that haven’t found the right reader. I was not the right reader for Bina.
This New York Times Best Seller came highly recommended by friends who had read it, and it did not disappoint!
Owens writes in an elegant prose that transports you to the North Carolina marshlands and surrounds you with the sights and sounds of the southeastern United States. A wildlife scientist herself, Owens layers her tale with precise and deliberate descriptions of nature unfolding through seasons and landscapes.
“And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.”
(Owens, p. 124)
This is a compelling and heart-wrenching coming-of-age story. The central character, Kya, is as complex as she is misunderstood. Kya, or “The Marsh Girl” as she is known by the townspeople who shun, ridicule and exclude her, is hauntingly alone but resolutely determined. She navigates heartbreak, questions how to trust others, and struggles to make sense of how to know and understand love. Interspersed within this beautiful narrative an engrossing murder mystery unravels as we flash back and forward through Kya’s life, wondering at the threads of who might have killed Chase, the town’s handsome quarterback.
This book has it all: a tumultuous family upheaval; a beautiful love story; a fascinating murder mystery, a courtroom drama reminiscent of Atticus Finch, and ethereal prose. An absolute must-read.