ASU English Education
Alleen Pace Nilsen, James Blasingame, Jr., and Ken Donelson
For fuller descriptions of these books, which were named as “the best” by at least four respected editorial or prize-giving sources, see the September 2005 issue of English Journal, pp. 103-108. For those of you working with middle schoolers and ninth graders, we also recommend E. L. Konigsburg’s The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (Atheneum), Cynthia Kadohata’s Newbery Award winner Kira-Kira (Atheneum), and Russell Freedman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (Houghton Mifflin). Conventional wisdom has been that United States teenagers will seldom read books set outside of borders which they consider comfortable--whether these borders are geographical, chronological, or psychological. This year we are happy to write about some good books that promise to move teen readers beyond their usual borders. And so with an extra strong warning that these are not the only good books published in 2004, here are brief descriptions of the seven books on our 2004 “Honor List.”
Kenneth Oppel. New York: HarperCollins, 2004, 368 pp. $16.99. Grades six to ten. ISBN 0-06-053180-0.
No thesis is going to puzzle the reader of Oppel’s swashbuckling novel. Even though it goes on for nearly 400 pages, it’s basically a simple adventure story about a boy and the airship he loves and calls home and some adventures he shares with a young passenger on the airship. The novel begins quietly and romantically enough with the musings of fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse and then continues with the appearance of a hot air balloon.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s—when airplanes and airships were new—dozens of such stories were written and printed in pulp magazines and boys books featuring an airplane under attack by pirates. Now thanks to Kenneth Oppel, a new generation can share in this kind of excitement. (KLD)
Andy Warhol, Prince of Pop
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. New York: Delacorte, 2004. 193 pp. $16.95. Grades 9-up. ISBN 0-385-73056-X (trade)
Starting with the flat-black cover decorated by eight identical--except for their vibrant colors--silk screens that Andy Warhol made of his own face and hair, this is one classy book. The writing is smooth and sophisticated. While not shying away from Warhol’s controversial life, Greenberg and Jordan walk a fine line between sensationalism and worshipfulness. The 21 chapters each deal with a chronological period in Warhol’s life. They run between four and ten pages long and the spacious opening pages are decorated with Warhol quotes. The one that starts the book is “I never wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be a tap dancer.”
On p. 52, the 1963 chapter entitled “Fame!” begins with his most famous quote “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Other chapter openers that will probably speak to teenagers include “Scripts bore me. It’s much more exciting not to know what’s going to happen” (p. 91), and “Buying is much more American than thinking, and I’m as American as they come” (p. 121). The book is as much a history of American popular culture as it is of Andy Warhol. Even young readers not particularly interested in art may be fascinated by this slice of American life that was so real to their grandparents’ generation. A bonus mentioned by many reviewers, and heartily endorsed by this reviewer, is that the book also makes fascinating reading for adults. (APN)
Allan Stratton. New York: Annick Press, 2004, distributed in U.S.A. by Firefly Books, 193 pp. $8.95 (pbk). Grades 9 and up. ISBN 1-55037-834-1 (pbk) ISBN 1-550737-835-X (bound)
Chanda’s Secrets tells a depressing story about a sixteen-year-old girl whose baby sister has just died. Readers catch on before Chanda does that the baby has died of AIDS and that it is AIDS that makes Chanda’s mother so sick. The father of the baby committed suicide before people found out that he too was dying from AIDS. Chanda’s mother concocts a ruse for returning for a visit to her far-away, but unwelcoming, family hoping to spare her remaining children the disgrace of having the neighbors know that their mother is dying from AIDS.
The Annick Press provides a complimentary teacher’s guide--really a 31-page mini-unit. Go to www.annickpress.com and click on “For Teachers.” If you are even slightly interested in teaching this book, which will probably be read by few students without a teacher’s encouragement, the high quality of the supporting information may be just the encouragement you will need. (APN)
Pete Hautman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, $15.95. 208 pp. ISBN 0-689-86278-4. Grades 8 and up.
In Pete Hautman’s National Book Award winner, sixteen-year-old Jason Bock is bullied, threatened, coerced, degraded, ridiculed, manipulated and generally pinballed through life. The local tough guy, Henry Stagg, “scares the crap out of” him, while his mother schedules endless doctor’s appointments insisting he has one imagined disease after another. Jason’s father is an attorney and a “borderline religious fanatic.” When he finds one of Jason’s nude cartoon drawings of “Bustella, the Sirian Goddess of Techno War,” he is convinced that Jason’s soul is in jeopardy and so he forces Jason to attend Teen Power Outreach (TPO), “a weekly brainwashing session for teenagers held every Thursday night in the church basement” (p. 16). TPO quickly exterminates whatever connection Jason had felt for the Catholic Church.
The answer to Jason’s need to take charge of his world comes by accident when he mockingly tells the TPO group that instead of being a practicing Catholic he actually worships the town water tower. In this frivolous moment, a new religion is born, and Jason has a moment in the sun as its founder, but Jason soon ends up on everybody’s blacklist. Ironically, none of the adults will believe it was just a prank; they brand Jason as a lost soul, a weirdo, a trouble maker, and, as Shin’s mother says, “a bad influence.” Truth be told, he is none of these things. Jason is perfectly normal and fairly well adjusted despite the quirky attempts of his parents to help him grow up. An absence of obscenity, violence or sex, make Godless accessible to fairly young teens, but its content will make the most sense to teens mature enough to have begun wondering about the kinds of questions that even by the end of the book Jason still struggles with. (JB Jr.)
How I Live Now
Meg Rosoff. New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2004, 208 pp. $16.95, Grades 8 and up. ISBN: 0-385-74677-6.
This winner of the Printz Award is set at an unspecified time in the future when fifteen-year-old Daisy comes of age during a war whose cause and specifics are as unclear to readers as they are to her. Daisy’s father has sent her from New York to England to live with her Aunt Penn, and three cousins, while Daisy’s new stepmother, Davina the Diabolical, as Daisy calls her, suffers through pregnancy. As deeply as Daisy feels unwanted by her father, she soon feels loved by her Aunt and cousins, especially fourteen-year-old Edmond, whose sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others approaches psychic ability. Daisy and Edmond’s relationship develops both romantically and sexually, but the more important point is that they are soul mates, and when separated, the disequilibrium of adolescence, coupled with the life and death uncertainty of the war, creates a sense of desperation for Daisy that readers feel strongly.
Very much like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now does not focus on the particulars of war itself, but instead, keeps them intentionally vague. And also very much like Golding, Rosoff uses the war as a means for putting the characters in a situation of total disorder to discover how they respond. The absence of graphic sex or violence (it’s implied, but the specifics must be supplied by the reader’s imagination) makes this book appropriate for younger readers, but it will be most meaningful to those old enough to understand the horrible things that war and tragedy do to people. This would be an excellent book for students simultaneously studying World War II. (JB Jr.)
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Clarion/Houghton Mifflin, 2004, 224 pp. $15.00. Grades 6 and up. ISBN 0-618-43929-3.
At the turn of the last century, two preacher’s kids--black, rag-tag Lizzie Bright Griffin and white, thoroughly starched Turner Buckminster--are the young teens at the heart of this story, which is based on a true event in Maine history. Lizzie has been raised by her grandfather, the preacher and apparent leader of a group of some 50 outcasts whose ancestors settled on Malaga Island some 125 years earlier. Their island community is an eyesore and a constant irritation to the upwardly mobile citizens of mainland Phippsburg. Turner has been raised and educated in Boston and when he and his mother and father move to Phippsburg, it takes Turner only a few hours to decide that he would have preferred for his father to have become the town’s new minister somewhere else—preferably “out west.” (APN)
Michael Morpurgo. New York: Scholastic (American ed.) 2004, 208 pp. $16.95 Grades 7 and up. ISBN 0-439-63648-5
In another war story set in England, nightmare images swarm through the mind of British soldier Private Thomas (or Tommo) Peaceful as he guards a World War I battlefield. He cannot fall asleep, for while sleep sounds delicious, falling asleep can lead to Peaceful’s sentence of death at a court-martial hearing. The horrors and pointlessness of trench warfare, the constant fear of gas attacks, the deaths of long-time (or new) friends, all these are mixed with images out of Thomas’s past—a dead crow, reminders of Molly (his first love), lacing up his father’s boots, his father’s death, enlisting in the British Army, and cruel and repeated memories of the Colonel who controls Tomas’s mother now that his father is dead. It’s a jumbled mess, all centered around death and blood, and the fact that between 1914 and 1918 over 290 British soldiers were executed for desertion or cowardice, sometimes judged only by the fact that they fell asleep on watch duty.
Private Peaceful is one of a number of powerful books about war—not the glories nor the noble deeds but of what we do to each other. We can only hope that knowing about the cruelties of a war almost one hundred years ago will do some good in overturning the stupidities and continuing cruelties of today’s wars. (KLD)