Monthly Archives: March 2010

My Invented Life Guest Blog + Contest

I absolutely loved Lauren Bjorkman’s debut YA novel, My Invented Life. Remember my review? This book is hilarious. It is heartfelt. It is substantial. It is full of Shakespearean insults. Well good news gang! Lauren is here guest posting today with a funny list penned by Roz, the main character in My Invented Life.

Signs of the Impending Apocalypse:

(List courtesy of Roz the gossipy out-spoken, attention-seeking entertaining, and mildly obnoxious all round amazing high school junior from MY INVENTED).

1. Your sister, who happens to be your best friend, deletes you from her life. For no reason whatsoever. That thing you did to her pom poms was sooo long ago.

2. Your crush from elementary school moves back to your high school. He’s incredibly hawt. He asks out your sister.

3. The drama coach plans to stage AS YOU LIKE IT. You know you’ll get stuck playing the scorned shepherdess. Which is better than being the cow in Jack in the Bean Stalk. But still.

4. You cut off your hair for attention. Your new style looks cute. Nobody at school notices. Except for your arch-nemesis who asks if you were attacked by a lawn mower.

5. The only boy crushing on you happens to be a terrible actor. A Greek statue would show more emotion.

Reasons to go on living:

1. Someone pours a bottle of Evian over your head. Your sister’s boyfriend notices how good you look in a wet T-shirt.

2. Your arch-nemesis gets cast as the scorned shepherdess. For once. You get the lead.

3. You discover your sister’s boyfriend is a jerk, but it doesn’t matter.

4. Because you learn from first hand experience that Greek statues can be amazing kissers.

5. You do something right for once, and your sister un-deletes you from her life.

(Shelf Elf says if you haven’t read this book yet, thou art a rascally ill-nurtured hedge-pig!)

Lauren is kindly offering up a signed copy of My Invented Life as well as writing journal with the cover of her book on the front to two lucky winners.

To enter the contest, just leave a comment below sharing which Shakespearean character you are most like – any play you want folks!

Thanks for visiting Lauren!

My Invented Life is published by Henry Holt.

the year of goodbyes

Once you start reading, you will not be able to put down Debbie Levy’s book, the year of goodbyes. There are many books written for young people about the Holocaust, and yet Levy has found a uniquely powerful way to explore this dark period. This slim book has tremendous emotional force. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s a profound reading experience. I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature for young people, and this book is one of the strongest.

the year of goodbyes tells the story of Levy’s mother’s experiences in Hamburg in 1938, her family’s last year in Germany prior to leaving for America. Levy was inspired to write this story after reading her mother’s poesiealbum from this period, which is essentially like an autograph or friendship book. The album was full of messages written to Jutta, Levy’s mother, during that year before she left Hamburg. Each chapter of the year of goodbyes begins with a handwritten message, an actual image of the page from the album and then Levy uses that entry as a launch into a free verse poem.

The poetry feels completely true to the voice of an eleven-year-old girl. The language is direct and honest, which makes it convincing. I was impressed by the way Levy keeps the narrative line clear and compelling from poem to poem. Tension builds and there is nothing choppy or separate about the different chapters. One flows to the next, which proves how skillfuly Levy has drawn a story from the entries of her mother’s album, as well as extensive research.

Close to halfway through the book, I had to stop for a moment when I came to one of the entries. When you’re a teacher, handwriting says a lot to you. You imagine the child behind the letters. As you get to know your students, a lot of the time, their handwriting makes sense given who they are. The crazy huge letters of the child with the world’s messiest desk. The flowy, curly script of some types of girls. The super-slanted, angled letters of kids trying to make their writing look grown up for the first time. There was something about the tiny, perfect script of Ellen Berger that reminded me so much of the handwriting of a child I taught in my first year of teaching, also named Ellen. Which of course, made me wonder about Ellen Berger. Was she a careful, precise girl? Was she quiet? Did she have small hands? Was she good at drawing things? Did she take pride in making things look just right? At this moment in Levy’s book it struck me how much I had to know if these children survived. This realization is what makes the year of goodbyes so poignant. Many of these children did not survive. At the end of the book Levy reveals the fates of many of Jutta’s friends, but there are some of those stories that she could not discover through research.

the year of goodbyes is a perfect book for anyone interested in experiencing a very personal and human portrait of the Holocaust. It is the right book to read with a younger reader as an introduction to many of the more explicit books on this historical period. It will make you imagine the people who were lost, as individuals, because their words are here, on the pages.

the year of goodbyes is published by Disney Hyperion.

Here is the trailer, which I think captures rather well the spirit of the book:

Just beautiful

I am worried that there may be readers out there who take a look at the cover of Elisha Cooper’s new picture book, Farm, and think, “Oh, okay, another book about how a farm works. Done that. Good times. I’ll remember this one for when I’m looking for something for the tractor-loving-five-year-old.” Please, PLEASE do not make that mistake. If you do, you will miss out on one of the most gorgeous, poetic, heartfelt picture books I’ve come across in a long time. Open it up. Start reading. You’ll see straight away that Farm is not a typical farm book. Farm is beautiful – the words and the pictures – every page. It is honest and moving. And yes, there are tractors for those who require them.

On his website, Cooper shares that he grew up on a small farm in New England, which he describes as like a “farm out of a children’s book,” not a serious working farm like the type he brings to life in this book. He was inspired by the huge farms he’d driven past in rural Illinois and he spent time doing research in that part of the world. You can read more about his research in this interview with Publishers Weekly. In Farm, he describes a year in the life of such a farm – the weather, the equipment, the animal and human inhabitants, the larger community, the land. It’s all there, the whole world of it. He describes it in perfectly simple, often poetic language, and the watercolour illustrations are evocative, in muted, natural shades.

The night scape in the middle of the book made me all shivery. The sky really is that big and that black in the country. Looking at those pages made me long to be a country girl again. Actually this whole book made me nostalgic for the rural life. The long dirt concession road where I grew up was mostly lined with family farms, so this life is not so distant from my childhood, even though our “farm” was very much a hobby farm where half the animal population consisted of embarrassingly pampered barn cats. My mom sold our farm a few years back and since then, the concession has changed a lot. Quite a few of the old farmers are gone now, and the land is being bought for purely residential use. It kind of breaks my heart, this shift away from smaller family farms.

I think Cooper’s book may open some readers’ eyes to the beauty and richness of rural life, and hopefully will get kids thinking about how farms are about more than just tractors and combines and cows and corn. Farm is a very distant cousin to the farm books you might have read before, which are so often impersonal, generic, about tools and jobs, not about a complex way of life, hard work and home. This book has emotion. It’s been a while since I’ve read a picture book that touched me this much. I’m keeping it.

Farm by Elisha Cooper is published by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

Flash Burnout

The last time I checked out the “books for boys” in my local independent bookstore, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the stories on those shelves could fit into three categories: action / adventure, fantasy, funny. Not all, of course, but most. It got me thinking. Is more “realistic fiction” written and published for girls than for boys? I think that would be an interesting question to investigate because it sure seems like there are more books about real teen life and the day-to-day struggles of growing up, that are targeting girl readers compared to those written for boy readers.

L.K. Madigan’s first YA novel, Flash Burnout, is one to take note of for any teen guy who likes a story about real life – no spies with guns, no wizards, no goofball comedy (but still funny – just not all funny, all the time). The novel won this year’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award (given to the most impressive new voice in YA literature). It was up against some well-reviewed titles, so I had high expectations. It met them, quietly.

Flash Burnout is the story of Blake, a pretty ordinary kid, a nice guy. He’s a bit of a clown, always trying to get people laughing. He has a girlfriend, who is a total babe. She’s the first girl he’s ever said, “I love you” to. He’s figuring out exactly what it feels like to be with someone you care about that much. He thinks about sex, quite a bit, but he’s not sure whether he’s ready or not, and he’d really like it if his dad stopped trying to talk to him about it. Blake is also friends with a girl named Marissa from his photography class. She’s cool, and they have great conversations. She takes photos of pretty things, and he takes pictures of edgy stuff, which is why their photography teacher calls them “pretty and gritty.” By chance, Blake ends up taking a picture of Marissa’s mom on the street for photography homework, and this gets Marissa back in touch with her mom, who has been addicted to meth for a long time and has drifted in and out of Marissa’s life. The more Blake gets involved with Marissa’s messy personal life, the more he has trouble juggling time with his girlfriend and his girl friend. Flash Burnout is about love and loyalty, growing up and making mistakes, and learning how messy relationships can be.

Blake has a voice that is immediately engaging and true, which really pulls you into the story. This is a book very much focused on everyday life, the ordinary interactions that happen between family members and friends at home and at school. This means that it isn’t a fast-paced read, but it will be satisfying for someone who appreciates convincing relationships between characters and values that more than external drama. It is refreshing to read a story about such an ordinary kid. He’s not grappling with a life or death situation. He’s not tortured by his past / present experience. He’s just figuring out his life as he goes along, and is beginning to appreciate the complexity of friendship and love. I’d like to listen in on a YA book club discussion of this title, because I think it would stir up some good conversation among girl and guy readers. So remember Flash Burnout when you’re in the mood for a little real life.

Flash Burnout is published by Houghton Mifflin. This post is cross posted at Guys Lit Wire.