Archive for the ‘Drama’ category

Vietnam: I Pledge Allegiance by Chris Lynch

September 20th, 2013

For our current students, soldiers from the Vietnam War are their grandparents’ ages, much like how my grandparents were in the World War II generation. Chris Lynch’s Vietnam series puts the war into perspective in an approachable manner.

The set-up is that the four books in the series follow the experiences of four friends from the same small town in New England. Each friend serves in a different branch of the military, so the reader gets to see the war from four vantage points. Morris, the protagonist of the first book, is in the Navy. What’s great is that students can see what life was like on a cruiser, see how distant the war was, and then follow Morris as he’s tranferred to a river runner on the Mekong River. He never knows where the next attack will come from and his eyes are opened to the darker parts of war.

What I appreciate about the book is that it’s not too preachy. With a tagline like “If friendship has an opposite, it has to be war”, you know that it will have some anti-war sentiments. For the most part, though, that’s Morris worrying about his friends. There is action that military or history enthusiasts will appreciate the detail down to the last C-123. The book does not glorify combat, though. This is not Call of Duty. People die unexpectedly; those left behind grieve as they spend the hours of tedium waiting for the bursts of chaos. This is war from an enlisted soldier’s eyes.

It’s a great book and a strong start to a series. It’s definitely worth having in your library.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

June 20th, 2013

A few years back I asked students to interview their families about their experiences when the family members were teenagers. One student from Cambodia started the interview with his dad only to have it interrupted quickly with a somber, “You don’t want to know.”

I found out that my student’s father had survived the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, a violent dictator that led Cambodia in the 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge came to power and murdered anyone who didn’t agree with them or fit with their racial plan for the world. This was the 1970’s, a generation after World War II and the Nazis, and yet genocide was still happening (as it is in other parts of the world even today).

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick tells the story of Arn, a young boy caught in the violence of a country in upheaval. McCormick does a phenomenal job with taking very, very serious topics – topics that have such a huge scope – and making them accessible to audiences that otherwise may not have known (let alone related to) the issues in her books. Protagonist Arn is someone you can connect with as he experiences the sorrow of being separated from his family, the terror as he tries to survive in the Cambodian jungle, and the remorse as he is drafted into the Khmer Rouge army.

The serious tone is not overwhelming to the point of depressing, though, because there are glimmers of hope throughout the narrative. Even in the worst circumstances, people are reaching beyond themselves to take risks for what they know is right and to help fellow strangers. Arn expresses the full range of emotions, reminding the reader of humanity in the midst of tragedy. It’s so expertly done by McCormick that it just seems natural.

One thing that really caught my attention was McCormick’s diligence with Arn’s grammar. As he’s telling the story in English and not Khmer, his word choice reflects a grammar sometimes found in non-native speakers. McCormick’s linguistic rendering is impressive in its accuracy and yet readability.

Never Fall Down, a title that has so many connotations throughout the story, is a perfect gift to the real-life Arn Chorn-Pond. The man has gone on to found the Cambodian Living Arts foundation to preserve the amazing culture that could have been lost when 2 million people died (25% of the people in a population of 8 million) during the Khmer Rouge rule. Yes, the book deals with harsh stuff, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is one that will stick with me. Just like Cambodian Living Arts preserves a nation’s culture, Never Fall Down will preserve Arn’s story. It’s one that I’m backing for the Grand Canyon Reader Award.

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

March 12th, 2013

I’m concerned with a condition like Asperger’s being minimized to a gimmick or a trend in YA literature, so I was a bit reluctant to read Colin Fischer at first. I’m glad that I did read it, though, because I would have missed out on a great story if I hadn’t.

Colin Fischer trudges through the daily life of a high school student, but has a unique perspective on life as someone with Asperger’s. I’ve enjoyed stories like Mockingbird by Erskine whose narrator gives us insight into their condition (what good story doesn’t do that, really?). What I especially liked in Colin Fischer was any time that an emotion was written. It was in a different font to represent Colin referencing a face chart to understand body language. The semi-subtle feature continued to draw me back into Colin’s mind. Characterization of duplicitous people, characters who said one thing but meant another, was enhanced by misleading faces. Colin has to sift through the information to get to the truth.

Colin Fischer is a detective in the same style as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. He’s in good company and borrows their techniques while applying them to a high school mystery. A gun has gone off in the school cafeteria and Colin will determine who fired the gun – simply for the love of truth.

Miller and Stentz do a good job of balancing out the seriousness of the situation with some fun pop culture references. On second thought, make that a ton of references. Almost every page has a footnote explaining some kind of allusion, whether to the Kuleshov Effect or Die Hard. It makes sense that the authors would have a finger on the pulse of entertainment. They’re the screenwriters from X-Men: First Class.

This has the potential to be a popular book and rightfully so. It’s stellar realistic fiction and I would love to see the mystery genre jump off. Browsing the aisles of Barnes and Noble and seeing the majority of stories revolving around a girl rebelling against a corrupt government [cough] Hunger Games [/cough], Colin Fischer stands out. I hope that others will take a look at it, too.

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

October 9th, 2012

I don’t love running.

In high school I hated it. Running was for when you were late to basketball practice or when you missed a free throw. Running for running’s sake seemed crazy.

Over time I’m starting to see the benefits and I’m hoping that one day that love will kick in like it does for main character Jessica in The Running Dream. You can tell that Van Draanen has run competitively and she does a good job of describing the sport without bogging the narrative down in too many details.

Jessica is a compelling character. Of course we’ll root for her, she’s fighting to regain the ability to walk – and maybe run. We’re not going to dislike that. We know that she’s going to grow as a character and learn more about herself; the book would flop if that didn’t happen. What I enjoyed were the character interactions. Each person involved in Jessica’s life has a distinct personality that seems like someone from real life. Like other authors have said before, a good story will explore and challenge what we know about the human experience and The Running Dream succeeds.

One of the key themes, the wide valley between good intentions and concrete actions, grabs the reader throughout without being preachy and leaves much for discussion. If you would like to learn more about one of Van Draanen’s personal causes, check out
This is a great story that will stick with me. It was an enjoyable page-turner that didn’t need to rely on dystopian governments, aliens, or explosions to keep me reading.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

May 9th, 2012

This matches up extremely well with Lost Boy, Lost Girl to compare fiction and nonfiction about the Second Sudanese Civil War. While Linda Sue Park says this is fiction, she does mention how closely she based it on the real Salva Dut’s life. Like in Lost Boy, Lost Girl, the depiction of human perseverance in spite of horrible circumstances is amazing.

The really cool part about Long Walk is that it has an interwoven story from 2009 with an update on how southern Sudan is doing. What I love is that Salva Dut, just like John Bul Dau, hasn’t just enjoyed his time in the United States; he has gone on to found Water for South Sudan, an organization to install wells for clean water. Go check them out.

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

May 7th, 2012

I am convinced that Ken Oppel is required by contract to have at least one weird creature in his books. We’ve had flying cats, lonely bats, and maybe even mutated rats (that last one I may be wrong on, but it rhymes, so I’m keeping it).

In This Dark Endeavor, though, the creatures are real. Some are rare, but they still exist. That’s what I love most about the book. Yes, it’s a prequel to Frankenstein and it’s all about alchemy, but the chemistry and the biology stay pretty realistic.

Victor Frankenstein, creator of the famous monster, is the protagonist and the narrator. What is interesting is that Victor is deeply brooding – which, little known fact, is also a requirement by contract for YA characters. Oppel does a good job setting up the man who will try to conquer death itself through science. I guess that’s part of the trend of the “when they were young” books that are coming out; we get to see the origins of well-known characters.
The downside of that trend, though, is that those books sometimes rely too heavily on prior knowledge from the original source. While I benefited from having read the original Frankenstein, students that have read only This Dark Endeavor were still able to understand and appreciate what was going on. In fact, some went on to check out the original.

Having a semi-villain for a protagonist makes for an interesting romance. Normally, you cheer for the hero to win their love, but this time he’s trying to steal from his brother, we know he’s making things worse, and can’t quite endorse what he’s doing. It’s definitely not your normally love story.

Oppel succeeds in making the Frankensteins seem like a real family from history and the characters are the backbone of the story. Students who like adventure stories and won’t be daunted by an 18th-century setting will enjoy it.

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

February 21st, 2012

This is one that I should have read but never did because I taught 8th grade and this was a 7th grade class novel. This year I read through it looking specifically for nonfiction connections (there are a ton and expect a future post about that later) and I was glad I did. The voice is amazing and the story so well-paced. It’s short, only 160 pages, but every single word counts. This was his first book for youth. He had written mysteries and suspense novels for adults for 15 years previous to writing Freak the Mighty and yet, when I think Philbrick, this is the book that I think of.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

December 2nd, 2011

Selznick’s Wonderstruck is in the same style as his Hugo Cabret. The massive illustrations contribute significantly to the narrative, although Wonderstruck switches it up a bit. For most of the novel, the text follows Ben, a young orphan in 1977 as he tries to find his father. The pictures, though, are of a young girl in 1927 running away from home. The two plotlines mirror each other in engaging ways and, since one is in text and the other pictures, Selznick can jump back and forth between time periods without too much trouble.

The book explores Deaf culture (lower case “d” is the condition, upper case is the culture) in two different eras. One thing I never really thought about before was that, during the silent movie era, both hearing and nonhearing audiences could enjoy the movie just the same. Once theaters added “talkies”, a whole people group was left out.

Side note: did you know that some movies offer captioning? Check out to search for captioned movie showings in your area.

The book moves quickly, although it feels like there is more text in Wonderstruck than Hugo. I also missed the photos from movies that Hugo had. We do get to meet Lillian Mayhew, an actress from the 1920s that went through personal scandals in Hollywood. We also learn about some of the inner workings of museums around New York.

It’s one to check out. I finished it within a 24-hour period. I really enjoyed seeing a Star Wars poster in the background of one of the drawings, since the book takes place the summer of 1977. One thing you’ll have to look for when you read it: all of the references to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai

November 3rd, 2011

This is a simple story on the outside that has a lot fine nuances in the way it’s told that make it a great story. Fadi and his family live in Afghanistan right before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The Taliban has gone from being the heroes who liberated the people from warlords to being the warlords. Fadi’s father is asked to join the Taliban, the father says no, and the family knows that they must leave quickly because no one tells the Taliban no.

Even though I knew ahead of time that the little sister would be left behind (that’s in the cover synopsis, so I’m not ruining much), it’s how Senzai tells it that makes it emotionally jarring. It’s third-person perspective limited to Fadi’s viewpoint. A middle schooler is not as naive as an elementary school student, but still doesn’t know all of the details of what danger awaits his family.

Fadi is able to make it to the United States and struggle with the traditional middle grade conflict of dealing with bullies. What sets this apart in Shooting Kabul, though, is that Senzai shows how bullying increased after the World Trade Center attacks. The types of slurs the bullies use are the exact same I heard uttered in 2001. Only once did the dialogue seem a little far-fetched: a janitor yells, “You ruffians!” It took a serious scene, where Fadi is alone and jumped by bullies, and made me laugh, which is not the reaction I wanted.

The photography aspect of the story is interesting. You can tell that either Senzai is a photographer or has done her research. Fadi’s father gives advice on how to take better photos that readers could apply to their own photos immediately.

Like I said at the start, Shooting Kabul is a simple story. There are no car chases, no life-threatening illnesses, and the controlling government is not the main antagonist. The book does have realistic interactions between Fadi and his family. Fadi’s motivation, winning a photo contest to travel across the world to find his sister, runs throughout the entirety of the story and never lets us forget just why we like Fadi.

After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick

October 3rd, 2011

If I told you that a book about cancer patients was funny, you might call me disturbed, crass, or several versions of inappropriate. But After Ever After is funny despite the very serious subject.

This is a sorta sequel to Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. Jeffrey, the younger brother from the first book, is now the main character. He is in remission and has been labeled a cancer survivor. Even though he’s a survivor, cancer could still come back and that’s a fear Jeffrey and his family deal with each day. He makes friends in elementary school with a boy named Tad who also survived cancer. This is part of what sets After Ever After apart from other books that deal with cancer.

The two major players in the book deal with cancer through humor but have very different attitudes towards others. Tad is extremely defensive to the point of being downright mean to everyone in the school. Jeffrey is constantly coaching him on how to be nicer while Tad pushes Jeffrey to never give up.

Cancer is the big force of the book, yet standardized testing is the looming conflict. Jeffrey is doing better in Math, but his efforts could be meaningless if he doesn’t pass the state test and is held back. Methotrexate treatments have made it tough for Jeffrey to stay focused for extended periods of time. The fact that his girlfriend could go on to high school, and high school boys, without him adds to the distraction.

None of this sounds funny, right? What balances the book is a sarcastic narrator. Sonnenblick took a risk making his main character so flippant about life-threatening decisions. It reads as if Jeffrey has truly endured and learned what to take serious and what is out of his control.

Like how Okay for Now made me want to go back and read Wednesday Wars, After Ever After makes me want to read Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. This is a must-have addition to any library.

Here’s another reminder of HopeKids, an organization that helps families with life-threatening illnesses. Good friends of mine run one of the branches. It’s definitely worth checking out.