ASU English Education
James Blasingame Jr., Alleen Pace Nilsen, and Kenneth Donelson
Even though over the past 25 years, we have seen a tremendous increase in the number of awards and best book lists, deciding on the final choices is as hard as ever because readers and critics' tastes are increasingly diverse. And as usual, we are surprised when our own favorites don't get chosen as happened this year with Donelson's personal choices: Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (Scholastic, 2003, $19.95, 534 pp., ISBN 0-439-53164-0), Philip Pullman's Lyra's Oxford (Knopf, 2003, $10.95, 54 pp., ISBN 0-375-82819-2), and Carl Deuker's High Heat (Houghton Mifflin, 2003, $16.00, 277 pp., ISBN 0-618-31117-3), which is one of the best YA baseball novels he's read in years.
Just like Ken, many of you probably have your own favorites, but anyway, here are the eight books-a varied bunch--that at the end of 2003 we found judged as "the best" by the most people.
The First Part Last Angela Johnson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. 144 pp. $15.95. Grades 7 and up. ISBN: 0-689-84922-2
When Nia and Bobby, two middle-class, black teenagers in Brooklyn, New York, find that Nia is pregnant, they look through information brochures showing happily adopted children living in houses and they decide to give the baby up for adoption. But then a medical aberration causes Nia to go into a permanent coma, and Bobby decides to keep their baby daughter. However, the emotional force that drives Bobby is offset by the unpleasant reality of being a single parent. Suddenly Bobby's life follows a new set of rules.
Johnson's 2004 Michael L. Printz Award winning book is hard to put down and not just because of an interesting story and appealing characters. The story flows like a fast moving stream. Beyond the events of the plot, Johnson's language is believable and engaging. The wording is poetic, with nothing superfluous, and yet it sounds exactly as we can imagine the young protagonist talking. Only one chapter of less than two pages is told from Nia's viewpoint; this is definitely Bobby's story.
Near the end of the book as he tries to find a way to rise above the distractions of his neighborhood and to not rely so much on his and Nia's parents, he decides to move to Heaven, Ohio. His brother Paul lives there and convinces Bobby that it is an excellent place to raise a family. Bobby's decision comes just as the book ends and does not include a detailed explanation. In fact, it reads a little like a "To Be Continued" notice, so watch for a sequel. (JB Jr.)
The Canning Season Polly Horvath. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003, 296 pp. $16.00. Grades 7 and up. ISBN 0-374-39956-5
I'm old enough-just barely-to remember real "canning seasons." The hard work, combined with the sense of excitement and urgency, stripped people's psyches down to the bare essentials. The town was filled with characters as intense as those in Horvath's book, which prepared me for truly believing this almost surreal tale, which more sensible readers have compared to Roald Dahl's fantasies.
Two unwanted thirteen-year-old girls-Ratchet and Harper--find themselves living in an old Victorian mansion in the backwoods-way back--of Maine with two eccentric old women named Tilly and Penpen. The girls are as different in personalities as are Tilly and Penpen, but in spite of it all, the four of them "manage."
Harper's foster mother comes back for her, but it is only a temporary reprieve and after a couple of weeks she brings back a very depressed Harper. In an attempt to pull Harper out of her funk, Penpen shares the macabre story of how the twins' mother committed suicide when the twins were thirteen. Readers find the story more fascinating than Harper does, but then Harper comes back to her old self when she decides to make the world a better place by getting "that thing" (a terrible birthmark) taken off from Ratchet's shoulder.
It turns out that indeed Dr. Richardson can remove the birthmark. After all, he's used to removing the mangled toes, fingers, and even legs of the loggers who work in the nearby forests. And at the same time he doles out physical remedies, he's pretty good with the psychological help. Readers will set this book down with a smile on their faces and a jolt of hopefulness for the future of their world. (APN)
An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 Jim Murphy. New York: Clarion, 2003, 165 pp., $17.00. Grades 7 and up. ISBN 0-395-77608-2.
In An American Plague, Jim Murphy tells the story of America 's first major health crisis, the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia that wiped out thousands of people and caused half the population to flee in panic.
Murphy describes what the dying went through in their last moments and what those who survived faced in dealing with victims.
As the fever raged, villains and heroes emerged. Among the villains were landlords who raised rents whenever possible and thus increased the number of indigents who became more likely victims of the fever. Heroes also appeared, most notably Dr. Rush. He made his share of blunders, but he also was brave and caring and always at the center of the struggle against the fever. Nurses and other workers from the Free African Society worked tirelessly to go wherever they were needed. Perhaps the real heroes were the resilient citizens who stayed and endured.
Murphy's work is impressive, dramatic, and detailed. The greatest proof that Murphy is a real historian comes in the last paragraph of the brief section of acknowledgements. He had gone to the Library Company of Philadelphia for help in locating materials. The curator of its Afro-American collection handed Murphy the actual copy of a book donated to the Library by the Free Africa Society in 1794. Murphy wrote that "a chill ran through me . . . Reading about our nation's history is one thing; actually holding it in your hands is something altogether different." (p. 156)
Yes it is, and any scholar should recognize a kindred spirit in those lines. (KLD)
Getting Away with Murder Chris Crowe. New York: Phyllis Fogelman Books, 2003. 128 pp. $18.99. Grades 8 and up. ISBN: 0-8037-2804-2.
In this nonfiction companion to his young adult novel Mississippi Trial, 1955, Chris Crowe provides historical information surrounding the tragic death of Emmett Till, an event so horrendous that it is often identified as the igniting spark for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till, a resident of Chicago, Illinois, was visiting relatives in rural Mississippi near the small town of Money. He entered Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market and was alone for a few moments with white store owner, Carolyn Bryant. She later claimed that the young visitor made inappropriate remarks to her, remarks which according to interviews with Look magazine would lead to Emmett Till's brutal torture and murder at the hands of Bryant's husband Roy and Roy's half-brother J.W. Milam.
Although overwhelming evidence pointed to the guilt of the two men a jury in Sumner, Mississippi, unanimously found the two men not guilty after little more than an hour of deliberation. The South was in cultural chaos after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed segregated schools. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, it was a watershed event in that it was the first time in Mississippi that a white man was charged and put on trial for killing a black man.
Nonfiction can be difficult to write so as to engage readers, but Getting Away with Murder treats the story of Emmett Till with enough pathos balanced with objectivity to make for a good read. Books for younger readers about events of human cruelty on such imposing scales as the Holocaust and slavery can be overwhelming or emotionally numbing to the point of being counterproductive. Chris Crowe has successfully walked a fine line with this award-winning book. (J.B., Jr.)
A Northern Light Jennifer Donnelly. San Diego: Harcourt, 2003, 389 pp., $17.00. Grades 9 and up. ISBN 0-15-216705-6.
Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light is based in part of the sensational true story of the murder of Grace Brown whose body is found in Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. It is not the center of Donnelly's novel, but is always there, lurking in the background. It's better known to most adult readers as the basis for Theodore Dreiser's novel, An American Tragedy (1925).
The center of Donnelly's book is sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey who lives a life of near poverty in 1906. Her mother has died of cancer and her father has hardened and is almost unreachable. Mattie and her younger sister Beth and Weaver, a young black boy who is Mattie's closest friend and kindred spirit, love to play with language. Each day Mattie or Weaver selects a word, for example iniquitous, and then they duel back and forth providing synonyms of the word of the day until they are bored.
With her teacher's help, Mattie has won a scholarship to study at Barnard College, but she knows that her father and her sister need her at home. She's held back in part by her feelings for dull Royal Loomis, though those feelings are more confused than romantic. To help get more money, Mattie takes a job at Glemore, a resort on Big Moose Lake, as a waitress. She meets Grace Brown, one of the resort's guests who loves Carl Grahm. Before she goes out boating again, Grace gives Mattie a packet of letters and asks Mattie to burn them if Grace does not return.
Mattie is torn by the promise yet ultimately she decides to read the letters, all of them showing Mattie what real love-or passion or frustration or loneliness--can do to a human being. She discovers in one letter evidence that Grace cannot swim, and then Mattie knows.
Mattie is a spunky girl, but she's far more. She's a wondrous and fascinating creation who feels and thinks, the kind of rounded character who is all too rare, and Donnelly deserves full credit for creating someone we can and will care about. A Northern Light is one of those exceptional books that stick in the mind, weeks after the book is ended and readers have turned to other things. The highest praise I can pay Donnelly is to say that I've read God alone knows how many YA books in the past fifty years, and this was for me one of the very best. (KLD)
Fat Kid Rules the World K. L. Going. New York: Putnam's Sons, 2003, 187 pp. ISBN: $17.99. Grades 7 and up. 0-399-23990-1.
Everyone would love to have a friend who is not only famous and influential, but who also provides unconditional love and inspiration. Curt McRae, local punk rock legend, vaults into just that kind of friendship with Troy Billings, a 296 pound high school outcast, who is treated with contempt even by his own little brother. Troy 's self concept is so low that he punctuates each experience with a news release head line: FAT KID HALLUCNIATES ABOUT COOL FRIEND" (29), or "FAT KID DREAMS OF BEING IN A BAND" (122). As Troy contemplates suicide on the subway rails, an apparent vagrant (the sometimes homeless, errant, punk rock star, Curt McRae) talks him out of it only to begin a strange friendship based on the wild and eccentric Curt's faith in Troy as a friend and potential punk rocker. Something about Troy's total lack of pretense makes Curt think Troy can become the best punk rock drummer in history if they will just team up-and if Troy will learn to play the drums.
As Troy comes to understand Curt, he discovers that Curt is cool but caring and part of Curt's appeal with the in-crowd upper echelon has more to do with his personality than his music. Along with this knowledge comes an understanding of Curt's vulnerability, a vulnerability that has created a lifestyle often misinterpreted as sheer rebellion by his fans. When Curt's continued health and happiness are threatened, Troy drops his lifelong mantle of helplessness and steps in, with some help from his dad.
Going's novel has a rapid-pace and staccato rhythm that gets the reader racing through the pages. Told in first person as filtered through Troy 's cynical eye, there is a dark humor which gives over to compassion as the novel races to its conclusion. Troy is a very funny narrator, and Curt is as likable as he is unpredictable. Readers who have felt the self-consciousness of a less than perfect physique will relate to Troy 's self deprecation, and anyone who follows popular music will recognize the idiosyncrasies of fads and the absurdity of their origins. The book is appropriate for all readers, middle school and up. (JB Jr.)
True Confessions of a Heartless Girl Martha Brooks. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003, 181 pp. $16.00. Grades 7 and up. ISBN 0-374-37806-1
Noreen, the girl in Brooks's True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, infects and changes the lives of several "cold hearted" people in the small Canadian prairie town of Pembina Lake. She lands in the community when a storm forces her to pull off the highway as she's running away in the pickup truck that, along with a pocketful of money, she stole from her boyfriend. But instead of being an even-dispositioned and happy child or even the kind of high spirited and impetuous girl as was Rebecca, Anne, or Pollyanna, 17-year-old Noreen is a one-woman disaster zone. She isn't cruel; she's just ego-centric and completely unaccustomed to thinking about the consequences of her behavior. She is taken in by a single mother who used to teach high school but is now running a small café in hopes of making a life for herself and her five-year-old son. On Noreen's first night, she nearly kills the family dog by thoughtlessly tossing him a chicken bone. Then in the restaurant, she impulsively pulls on a swath of loose wallpaper and down comes great hunks of water-damaged drywall. And finally, when she gets invited to stay in the summer cottage that Danny, a single man in his 50s, had lovingly crafted as a memorial to his drowned brother, she accidentally sets it on fire. The fact that Noreen is pregnant is almost incidental to the rest of the story.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which in Canada won the 2002 Governor General's Literary Award, and which was a favorite of Hornbook, Booklist, and School Library Journal editors. I interpreted what's been described as "overblown sentimentalism," as a tongue-in-cheek modernization of the literary observation that on the title page Brooks attributes to John Gardner and William Least Heat-Moon: "There are, really, only two plot lines: a stranger rides into town, and a stranger rides out of town."
The River Between Us by Richard Peck. New York: Dial, 2003, 164 pp., $16.99, Grades 7 and up, ISBN 0-803-72735-6.
We all know that Richard Peck is a wonderful writer of historical fiction, but readers will be disappointed if they pick up this Civil War Story hoping to get the light-hearted humor that is in his Blossom Culp ghost stories on in the books about Grandma Dowdel ( A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago). To hook readers, Peck starts the story in 1916 when fifteen-year-old Howard Leland Hutchings and his younger twin brothers are going on a car trip to get acquainted with his father's family and to see the family home. The fact that his mother declines to go is the first clue that there is something different about the southern Illinois family that they are going to visit.
After these beginning pages, Peck does a flashback to the town of Grand Tower, Illinois in 1861. The Civil War is just beginning and river travel up the Mississippi is irregular at best. Two intriguing young women get off a boat that has unexpectedly come to the end of its voyage upriver from New Orleans. The older and fairer girl is Delphine Duval, who readers later learn is the daughter of a rich and powerful Frenchman and his half-black mistress.
He learns that Delphine is really his grandmother, although to be on the safe side, everyone was always told that his father was the child of Tilly and the doctor she married rather than of Delphine and Tilly's brother Noah. This is Howard's coming-of-age story as he hears stories of what the Civil War did to their family and the whole area. Readers learn a lot about what women did during the Civil War if they weren't Scarlet O'Hara.
Peck is looking into cracks and crannies of the war that even many adults have not thought about, and to appreciate the details of his story readers need to know more basic history than do the fourth and fifth-graders that I'm acquainted with. Even with seventh and eighth graders, teachers may need to offer encouragement and a little background to help readers ease their way from its beginning in 1916 back to the main story which takes place in 1861. (APN)