Thursday, September 30, 2010

Co-review: Stargirl

Back in May, I wrote a post about the Top 100 Children's Novels poll that was done by the School Library Journal blog.  Going through the list is fascinating and I've often gone back to look for books for my children.  Caren suggested we pick a book from the list for a co-review, so we narrowed it down to #61, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.  We tried to find a book that was closer to the top of the list that neither of us had read, but these are classics that most people have read, including us.  It wasn't as easy as it looked.

Jerry Spinelli is probably more known for Maniac Magee, #17 on the list and a Newberry winner.  Spinelli shows that he isn't shy about tackling sticky subjects when he writes about racism in Magee, and Stargirl is his platform for examining conformity.  It takes place in a smallish town in Arizona and told from the point of view of high school student Leo Borlock.  High school is typically a homogeneous place with everybody fitting into their allotted cliques.  Once you fit into a spot, it's hard to move out of it, if my memory of high school serves right.  Mica Area High School is no different.

The entire school is thrown for a loop when Stargirl Caraway shows up.  She wears bizarre clothes, plays a ukulele during lunch and serenades kids on their birthdays, has a pet rat named Cinnamon that rides around in her purse, and seems completely at ease with her uniqueness.  Most of the other students find her unnerving, but eventually they start to love her, especially after she brings school spirit back to the sports teams by her antics during football.  Some of the other students hate her, especially Hillari Kimble, head cheerleader and queen of the school.  Hillari doesn't enjoy her spotlight being occupied by Stargirl.

When Stargirl becomes a cheerleader, the basketball team suddenly begins to have enormous success.  The whole school and community becomes obsessed with their winning streak, but when Stargirl cheers for both teams at the games, everyone turns against her.  Where she was once loved, she is now universally reviled.  Leo, who fell in love with her quirkiness and was fascinated with her generosity and love for people, is conflicted as soon as all the negative attention starts.  He wishes that Stargirl would just be like everyone else, but not for her sake but his own.

Not that there's much to spoil in this book, but as always, we talk about everything.

Jenny:  One of the hardest things about high school for me was that demand to blend in, to find a group of like-minded people and stay put.  It wasn't until I left for college that I felt like I finally was able to become the person I always wanted to be.  There just wasn't any room or tolerance for it in high school, but I was also too afraid to step outside my comfort zone.  I related to Leo so much because he loved Stargirl's individuality, but he was also afraid of it.

Caren: I don't think I was self-aware enough in high school to know what I wanted to be, but I definitely felt like my peers' perceptions barely scratched the surface of who I really was. Like you said, college was a refreshing opportunity to reinvent myself away from the stifling confines of high school.  Reading Stargirl, I found myself wishing Leo would stop worrying about what everyone thought and just enjoy their friendship.  But then I would have to remind myself that I can't apply adult perspective to a teenager who literally cannot envision life after high school.  When that's all you have and you can't imagine it ever changing, the risks for not conforming are a lot higher!

I was intrigued by the character of Stargirl.  Not at first.  At first she seemed to try to hard to be weird.  But eventually she won me over and I believed that her uniqueness was genuine and not just an act.  I think her believability was crucial to the success of the story, and Spinelli did a good job pulling it off when all was said and done.

Jenny:  I think what made her genuine to me was when we found out all the nice things she did for people.  Someone who is weird just to get a reaction out of people or draw attention to herself wouldn't be so generous and kind, I don't think.  The bit with going into the desert and meditating wasn't as believable to me as taking pictures of the neighbor boy or a future scrapbook.  That was sweet.

It really bothered me how the group of kids reacted when Stargirl was the guest for The Hot Seat.  It was a prime example of mob mentality and how dangerous that can be.  At first I thought it was an outrageous example, except that I remember from high school that if someone fell out of favor, their lives would become truly miserable.  It was like the whole school turned against them.  There wasn't necessarily screaming mobs in public places, the shunning was definitely common.  What happened to Stargirl was awful, but not unrealistic.

One of my favorite characters was the old professor across the street from the school, Archie Brubaker.  I thought it was a cool idea, but it made me sad to think that in real life, there wouldn't be someone like that.  It's too easy for people to assume horrible things of an old man who has kids over at his house all the time.  It's a nice idea, though.

Caren: I was actually relieved when the Hot Seat was over that it wasn't any worse than that.  Having seen what the teenage mob mentality can do, I was expecting worse!

The whole time I read Stargirl, I couldn't help but think of As Simple As Snow that we reviewed back in March.  There were a lot of similarities, but while Galloway seemed to be intent on forcing a dark edginess to his story, Spinelli kept his lighter and therefore more realistic.  Spinelli really seemed to be speaking to teenagers, whereas I'm not really sure who Galloway's audience was supposed to be.  Contrasting the two, I marvel that Spinelli's climax revolves around something so mundane as the bunny hop, and yet he relates it so skillfully that you really feel like those kids were changed when it was over.

Jenny:  That's true.  I loved that scene, with everybody happy and exultant after bunny hopping way out yonder and back.  It was a good way for Stargirl to disappear into the sunset.  I'm glad it ended that way instead of Stargirl just evaporating and everybody realizing after the fact that she only did good things for them.

Apparently there's one book after this one, Love, Stargirl.  I haven't heard great things about it, but it's written in Stargirl's point of view, which might be interesting.  Also, according to Jerry Spinelli's website, you can start your own Stargirl society.  Maybe it's because I'm not a teenager, but I didn't feel so moved by the book that I felt like I should start my own Stargirl society.  Then again, I suppose promoting individuality in teenage girls isn't a bad idea.  Most girls that age need a boost to break out of the mold.

Caren: I had mixed feelings about the ending.  While I was glad that Leo had come to realize what a treasure Stargirl was, I was kind of bothered that he still hadn't gotten over her fifteen years later.  I mean, she was great and all, but that seemed a little much.

I liked that the things that endured were the kindnesses to others.  Individuality for its own sake can be just as forced and fake as conformity with the masses, so I don't think that's the most important thing that Stargirl brought.  But the sensitivity to others and getting outside oneself -- that really was a gift.

I felt the same way about being moved by the novel.  It was good, but I wouldn't read it again, and I'm kind of surprised that people love it so much that it would have made it on the top 100 list.  I'm curious if I would have felt differently if I'd read it when I was a teenager, but we'll never know!

Jenny:  Yeah, I was kind of surprised to see it on the list lumped in the same group as The BFG, Henry Huggins, A Long Way From Chicago.  Good, but not Top 100 of All Time good.  Maybe we're missing out on something because our teens are too far behind us.  I'd love it of one the RHE readers read it as a teen and could give us feedback.  Or if anybody has a teenager handy to read it and report back.  Anyone?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Forest Born

Forest Born is Shannon Hale's most recent addition to what is now being called her Books of Bayern series.  What started out as a complex and imaginative retelling of the lesser known fairy tale, The Goose Girl, has spread to four novels featuring selected characters from the original story and their supernatural gifts.  Forest Born is different from the other stories in that it features a young girl who wasn't part of the original tale.  Rin is the younger sister of Razo (who received his own story in River Secrets, the third Bayern book), and as with the other forest born characters we've met so far, she finds herself leaving the forest and moving to the city where she experiences some defining coming-of-age moments.

The reader quickly discovers that Rin has a special gift -- that of tree-speaking -- which is expected in these tales of people-speaking, wind-speaking, fire-speaking, and so on.  It takes Rin a little while to realize this, and causes her some grief because for some reason the trees have seemed to turn against her.  Anytime she tries to communicate with them she is filled with such loathing and rejection that she decides to flee the forest and see what the future will hold for her in Bayern's capital.

There she becomes a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Ani/Isi from The Goose Girl.  Rin helps care for Isi's young son, and develops a great amount of respect for Isi and her friends, Enna and Dasha.  When the three "Fire Sisters" leave to investigate some mysterious burnings near the border, Rin secretly follows.  As she grows to know these women better, and as they band together to face a secret enemy, she also begins to face her own self-doubt and desire to know who she really is.  That means solving the mystery of her personal conflict with the trees, and coming to terms with another gift she possesses -- a dangerous one that can destroy her and all she loves.

It was a good story, and well-written as all of Hale's work is, but it wasn't my favorite of the four by any means. It was hard to really connect with Rin, since she spends most of her time observing rather than participating in many of the interactions with the Fire Sisters.  But there's a reason for that, and Hale does do justice to the psychological and interpersonal issues she explores.  It was fun to see so many characters from the earlier books and continue to follow their stories.  There is action and suspense and drama, though it didn't feel quite as fresh and intense as in the first two books, The Goose Girl and Enna Burning (my two personal favorites).  So worth reading if you've enjoyed the others, though not necessarily worth raving about.  I do have to mention that reading it right after finishing Avalon High gave me an intellectual sigh of relief.  I'll pick up a Hale over a Cabot any day!

Okay, and one more thing that bugs.  I loved the stylized artwork they used for the cover art of the first three books.  But when they printed them in paperback, they switched to some cheesy model photos (my mom aptly described them as "seductive American Girl").  Bad enough to do that to the paperbacks, but whatever.  Until they also used that style for the hardback printing of Forest Born, and now it sticks out like a sore thumb against the other three books in my collection.  I much prefer the classy style of the first three and wish they had kept it up for continuity.  Lame.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


If you haven't heard of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins then you are spending your days either living in a cave or being way more productive than I am.  The third and final installment in the series, Mockingjay, just came out this last month and I keep seeing them everywhere.  I picked up a copy at Costco, for cryin' out loud, that's how big of a deal these books are.  I've got some conflicting feelings about the conclusion of the series and I'm going to try very hard to write about it without revealing spoilers.  It's gonna be hard.

I loved the first book, The Hunger Games, but the second, Catching Fire, didn't capture me nearly as well as the first did.  The concept wasn't new and it felt a bit recycled as far as plot and tension went.  I was reading over the posts I did for both the books and while I gave The Hunger Games it's own post and couldn't say enough good things, Catching Fire was lumped in with two other books in a post about series books.  Not a good sign.  If I had been smart, and had the ability to wait that long, I should have waited until all three books are out and then read them back to back to retain more details.  I couldn't remember half of what happened in the previous books which made me keeping saying, "Huh?  What?  Who was that again?".  It could also be that my brain is full of holes.  I wouldn't rule out that possibility.

Mockingjay jumps right in where Catching Fire leaves off with Katniss in District 13 and reluctantly part of the rebellion effort.  Peeta is in the custody of President Snow and presumably being tortured for information.  Ends up, District 13 isn't some idyllic place to live, though it is out from under the Capitol's thumb.  The leaders of the rebellion have their own agenda for Katniss, including to be mascot to stir up rebellion efforts in other districts.  She just wants to be left alone.  Ah, Katniss, you just always want to be left alone.  You've got pouting and agonizing down to a science.  Get over it.  Be helpful or get outta Dodge, I wanted to tell her.  Grow up!  That was another one.  I felt impatient with her pretty much the entire book.  Granted, it's not like she's got some kind of ideal existence but she's so bent on revenge and nobody understands her and everybody just wants to use her.  Whatever.  At least her love for her family felt sincere or I'd worry that her character was intolerable.

One of the big draws of this book is the action and boy howdy, there's plenty.  But not until more than halfway through the book, which was kind of irritating.  There isn't a whole lot of plot before that point either, just lots of worrying by Katniss.  Then, it feels like Collins was trying to make up for the lack of action by making it totally gruesome.  I can't remember how violent the previous books where, but there's no way this wouldn't end up rated R if they made a move out of it.  That's not to say it wasn't exciting and totally intense, but I wouldn't recommend it to my grandmother or anyone younger than fifteen years old.

The other big draw is the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle.  Future writers take note: to sell lots of books make sure you include a love triangle.  For me, it became obvious fairly quickly who Katniss was going to end up with, but it seemed like Collins changed what we knew of the guy she didn't go with so that it would make sense for her not to be with him.  It's hard not to give out details.  What I'm trying to say is the guy that was eliminated had to take a pretty big dive to be taken out of the running and it didn't seem in character.  I'd have to go back and read the first two books again to catch what was implied, but instead I'll let you fans of the series correct me.

In all, it was exciting but gory, satisfying but annoying.  I expected to like it more than I did and that was disappointing.  The only thing I really like was what Collins did with Peeta's character.  That was fresh, brilliant and interesting.  The ending took me by complete surprise, but I didn't really understand what had happened so I had to go back and read it again.  I kept thinking, "What now?  Huh?" during the last couple of chapters.  The very last chapter was very satisfying, though, with what Collins did with Katniss and her future family.  It felt right.  I'd re-read the first book for sure, but it wouldn't make sense to not re-read the other books so then I wouldn't re-read the first one after all because then I'd feel obligated to read the next two.  Meh, forget it.

Since young adult novels based on bleak and dystopian futures are all the rage these days, I decided to write my own and pay for my kids' college funds with the piles of money I'll eventually make.  It takes place in the not-so-distant future when the human race has become so fearful of dairy products, due to the careful plotting of the poultry industry, that all cows have been eradicated and harsh fines and prison sentences imposed on those who dare to raise them.  The human race has become universally lactose intolerant and plagued with illnesses related to calcium deficiencies.  High cholesterol has plummeted, though.  The book starts out with a young girl on her family's ranch in Montana where they raise llamas and donkeys and, of course, the government-approved flock of chickens.  Our hero, a girl named Dogla, and her family are hiding a big secret, though.  They are secretly raising a few dairy cows in an underground bunker.  A really smelly underground bunker.  Dogla has to hide her strong bones and teeth from the other kids at school lest the traitorous nature of her family's work be revealed.  When the secret is discovered  by government agents ('cause you know it will be) Dogla and her family are shipped off to the poultry work farms in Alabama as punishment.  Dogla has to plan her escape and bring down the government's evil plot against cows (and goats too, now that I think of it) over the course of at least three books.  Four if I can get a good enough deal with a publisher.  What do you think?  Newberry material?  Not that I care.  I'm in it for the money and you know these babies are gonna sell like vampire novels!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pulling two dusty classics off the shelf

Recently, my 7-year-old asked if she could read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It had been some years since I had read it, and aside from stylistic elements that wouldn't interest a child, I was curious if there was anything objectionable for young readers.  As I started glancing through it before giving the okay, I soon became caught up in the story and spent the rest of the day reading it, while my daughter got tired of waiting and found something else to read!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually a relatively short story.  It has been romanticized on screen and stage so much that it was surprising how very little the original story contains.  The basic story is the familiar one that has been retold so often; a curious scientist develops a potion that allows him to change into a being who houses all of his base passions and selfish desires -- those that he normally keeps in check to allow him to live a successful and upstanding life.  The more that he indulges in his other darker self, the stronger the person of Mr. Hyde becomes until he begins to transform even without the potion and finds himself struggling to remain the respectable Dr. Jekyll.

I thought it was interesting that it is all told from the perspective of a Mr. Utterson; a friend of Dr. Jekyll who is concerned for his welfare and inexplicable involvements with the criminal Mr. Hyde.  Having that distance allows the mystery to be revealed slowly to the reader.  Of course, we know that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same, but it would have been interesting to have read it for the first time when it was published over 120 years ago; back when it was still a surprise ending.  Even without the romance and graphic nature of some of it's popular retellings, I was still carried along in the psychological thriller and wished with all my heart for a better ending for poor, misguided Dr. Jekyll!

Not long afterward, I found myself without a fresh book to read, and no plans to go to the library, so I once again turned to my personal library for inspiration. This time I landed on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, a thrift store find that I had failed to finish in the past.  But gritting my teeth, I determined to plow my way through it!  And sometimes it really did feel like plowing!  The early chapters were dark and gloomy and so full of mistreatment and abuse that I soon remembered why I didn't make it very far the time before.  My interest picked up after Oliver escaped the workhouse and ran away to London, but it was such a long and wordy tale that it still took me a couple of weeks to make it through.

Oliver Twist is a morality tale about an orphan boy whose inherent goodness helps him escape the clutches of society's lowest criminals, leading him to eventually find happiness and security while his enemies' dark deeds earn them humiliation, imprisonment, and even death.  But getting to that point is a long and painful process full of nightmarish desperation and fear.  This popular novel is a tale of character extremes, social protest, and hypocrisy.  It's also in part a mystery as we uncover the truth of Oliver's parentage and how that affects his future and that of other characters within the story.

There were some very interesting characters; most notably Nancy, the prostitute, whose efforts to help Oliver in the end cost her her life.  She is treated very sympathetically by the narrator, and her unbreakable attachment to the vicious and cruel Bill Sikes adds a complex sense of reality that is lost on some of the other characters who are either all good or all bad with nothing in between.  Indeed, many of the story's main players have a feeling more of caricature than character.  Dickens uses a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor which helps prevent the narrative from getting too heavy and difficult.  But he also goes off on tangents occasionally that could have benefited from a good editor.

Here's a good example of the narrative indulging in humor at the expense of brevity.  After introducing a new character who asserts, "I've been lamed with orange-peel once, and I know orange-peel will be my death at last.  It will, sir, orange-peel will be my death, or I'll be content to eat my own head, sir!" the narrator offers this commentary:

This was the handsome offer with which Mr. Grimwig backed and confirmed nearly every assertion he made; and it was the more singular in his case, because, even admitting for the sake of argument, the possibility of scientific improvements being ever brought to that pass which will enable a gentleman to eat his own head in the event of his being so disposed, Mr. Grimwig's head was such a particularly large one that the most sanguine man alive could hardly entertain a hope of being able to get through it at a sitting -- to put entirely out of the question a very thick coating of powder. (p. 134)

Notice that the preceding quote is all one sentence; and by far not the longest run-on sentence in the novel!  Despite it's length, by the time I finished it I was glad I did.  I enjoyed it more towards the end, and was rewarded with a neat and tidy conclusion.  But I have to admit that I was a little put off by the preachiness, especially since Dickens himself wasn't nearly as morally irreproachable as he would have you believe.  But even if some of his personal moral ground was a little shaky, I can understand why this would have been such a notable work in his day, and why it continues to be considered a classic in ours.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

You're just going to have to trust me that I had a beautifully eloquent post written about The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen because this one isn't going to be nearly as good as the one I wrote before Blogger chewed it up and swallowed it.  I'm too tired and frustrated to remember everything I wrote when it was fresher on my mind and I was waxing more philosophical.  Maybe someday I'll get smart and figure out how to write posts in Windows Live Writer or something, but today is not that day.

I've been avoiding writing about this book because I don't want to use trite or over-used phrases and that was all I could come up with.  Blame it on being busy, which is my favorite excuse, but I put off writing anything until I could fully wrap my head around what I wanted to say.  The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is unlike anything I've read before.  The story, the characters, and the way it was told was so unique.  Let me back up and give you a rundown.

T.S. Spivet is a twelve-year-old genius cartographer who lives on a ranch in Montana with his cowboy father and scientist mother.  He has a fairly normal older sister, one who is prone to fits of drama but normal despite having an odd family.  T.S. also had a younger brother, Layton, who was killed in a tragic accident and the family is still reeling from it.  T.S. is short for Tecumseh Sparrow, Tecumseh being a name given to the men in his family for several generations after his first Finnish ancestor changed his name in honor of the Native American chief.  His mother gave him the name Sparrow because a sparrow hit the window the moment of his birth.  She had the sparrow's skeleton mounted for him and it became one of T.S.'s most valued possessions.

The story starts out a few months after Layton's death.  T.S. has a mentor at a nearby college who has been submitting his work for him to scientific journals, since nobody would believe the maps and diagrams he creates could be from a kid who hadn't even hit puberty.  Much to his surprise, T.S. gets a phone call from the Smithsonian awarding him the Baird fellowship for his work.  He is invited to come to D.C. and accept his award and move into the rooms reserved for the fellowship.  T.S. neglects to inform them that he is actually twelve years old and instead decides he's going to get himself to Washington and accept it.

The one bump in this plan is how he's going to travel two thousand miles in just a few days.  After having done a unit study in school about railroad transportation, T.S. decides to ride the rails like a hobo and get himself there.  The journey is absolutely crazy, starting with T.S. discovering a Winnebago being transported that conveniently has an open door.  T.S. gets to ride in comfort, that is until he reaches Chicago and hits some bumps.  This journey takes up a large portion of the story and the reader learns more about T.S. and his dis-functional family.  I began to see more and more that though T.S. may be a genius, but he's still just a kid.  He copes with the disappointment of his father and the mystery of his mother's life through his drawings.  I spent most of the book wishing I could grab and hug him until his ribs squeaked.

This description so far doesn't sound all that cheery, but this book is actually really funny and tender and quirky.  I laughed out loud many times.  The characters are so well written that they became three-dimensional for me.  There's a mystery to Dr. Clair, T.S.'s mother that you don't find out about until the end and even then, it's not totally clear what motivates her, but she's fascinating.  T.S.'s dad is such a gruff person, but he's also funny and complex and surprising.  In fact, the ending of the book nearly took my breath away.  The characters surprised me many times, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, but they were always enjoyable to read.

What makes this book so unique is that the margins this over-sized book are filled with drawings, side stories, notes and pictures.  This book wouldn't be the same without them and though it makes the story even longer to read, it was worth it.  I haven't even described the whole tangential section in the middle about what Dr. Clair was up to all the years she was supposed to be studying beetles, which fit perfectly into T.S.'s journey.  Oh man, there's so much to this book and I don't want to write a post that would rival the length of the book.  I'd rather you read the book!

It's a pretty clean book, though there is a foul-mouthed racist trucker who gives T.S. a ride the rest of his way to D.C.  But that trucker is also the most compassionate person he encounters on his journey, making sure he has enough to eat and gets some rest.  I guess Larsen wanted to make every person in this book not what they seem.  There are some scary moments, like when T.S. encounters a deranged homeless man in Chicago, and some intense ones like when he finally arrives at the Smithsonian.  If you can get over the trucker's language, then this book is worth it, a hundred times over.

I wish there was some way to erase my memory and read this again fresh!  Reif Larsen is a young guy so there's plenty of time for him to write lots more books.  I look forward to future books, but it would be awesome to read this one all over again and experience it for the first time again.  I guess I'll have to be satisfied with just re-reading it and knowingly chuckling to myself and anticipating what I already know to be an amazing book.