“Looking For Alaska” by John Green

Looking for Alaska Book Cover Looking for Alaska
John Green
Juvenile Fiction

2006 Michael L. Printz Award Winner

Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" (François Rabelais, poet) even more. He heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.

After. Nothing is ever the same.

I first read this book in 2011. This was the “review” I posted to Goodreads:

I just don’t really have the words for this one. Such a good book. I was bawling over my Cheerios the other day.

Because I had read the book already, the emotional impact wasn’t quite as strong the second time through. You’ll note in the book description that it refers to BEFORE and AFTER, and I’ll admit that as the THING that happens got closer (you can tell, because Miles counts down how many days BEFORE), I read more slowly, and had to put it down for a day or so before I could read through and keep going.

I’m a big John Green fan, so I’m predisposed to like anything he does. I had a harder time with this book, the second time through, though, because my own teenage boys will be juniors in high school in the fall, and as a parent, I can’t help but be horrified by the drinking and smoking and sex that was going on. I want to stick my fingers in my ears and close my eyes and sing really loud and pretend it doesn’t exist.

And it’s hard to write about a book when you have your eyes closed and ears plugged with your fingers. Avoiding this post has stopped me from writing about any of the other books I’ve read — the project was not only to read the books, but to reflect on them. Most of the time, I don’t feel quite up to the task about writing about the really good books, the ones with sentences and paragraphs and chapters that take your breath away.

So, after more. than a week of having read this and trying to say something, I’m going to leave this incoherent mess and move on.

“I Am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak

I Am the Messenger Book Cover I Am the Messenger
Markus Zusak
Juvenile Fiction
Random House of Canada
2006 (first published 2002)

2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book

protect the diamonds
survive the clubs
dig deep through the spades
feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He's pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That's when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That's when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who's behind Ed's mission?

I have a copy of Zusak’s book “The Book Thief” sitting on my bookshelf. I bounced off it when I tried it awhile back, and have always meant to try again (I guess that’ll come true here after a few more books….). Having bounced off a previous book, I approached this one with trepidation.

I was fearful for absolutely no good reason because I loved this book. It has that fairy tale quality that appeals to me so much. Was it real or wasn’t it? Does it really matter?

I’ve been thinking for more than a week about what to say when I write about this book, adn I still haven’t come up with anything very good that might express why I think someone else should read this. “Because you should” isn’t very compelling.

The intricate plotting, the lovely language, the likeable characters (who are definitely not perfect…), and the powerful message of doing good, even if the good things is as simple as a buying someone an ice cream cone: all of this combine (with lots of other awesome bits) to make up what I loved about this book. So go read it, because you should.

“Chanda’s Secrets” by Allan Stratton

Chanda's Secrets Book Cover Chanda's Secrets
Allan Stratton
Juvenile Fiction

2005 Michael L Printz Honor Book

Chandra struggles with the deaths of those around her and the shame of being molested as she continues her education and cares for her siblings and friend Esther, amidst the poverty and AIDs epidemic that plague her African homeland.

I had to order, and then wait for delivery of this one. It was a quick read, and unfortunately, it was only OK for me.

I didn’t think the execution of the idea lived up to what it maybe could have been. I didn’t think the writing was all that spectacular. On page 6 is this:

“Maybe they shooed her away,” I think.

It’s first person. The whole book is what Chanda is thinking, so I’m not sure why it was necessary to call attention to this with quotes and the dialogue tag. If it had simply read “Maybe they shooed her away.” I wouldn’t even have batted an eye. As it was, this felt clunky and sorted of colored my thinking for the rest of the book.

The setting of this book is a fictional country, but it was inspired by many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and their struggle with AIDS. I did find the descriptions of what life was like to be interesting. There are so many things I take for granted — this family didn’t even have running water! But I felt like this one was trying a little too hard.

The message was a little too obvious and maybe even heavy-handed. It felt like it was a little too much of a book written to instruct, and possibly be used in lit classes to torture teenage readers.

The whole thing just felt flat and a little one-dimensional. I had trouble connecting to and caring about much of anything in this one, which is too bad, because I felt like I *ought* to be connecting.

“Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” by Gary D. Schmidt

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy Book Cover Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
Gary D. Schmidt
Juvenile Fiction
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

2005 Michael L. Printz Honor Book

In 1911, Turner Buckminster hates his new home of Phippsburg, Maine, but things improve when he meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, a girl from a poor, nearby island community founded by former slaves that the town fathers--and Turner's--want to change into a tourist spot.

I feel like I should like this one a lot more than I actually do. Yes, it kept my attention, I didn’t set it aside and moan about having to read it, and yes, Turner, the main character was very likeable. But everyone else seemed like a cardboard character. The bad white guys are very bad. The black inhabitants of Malaga Island, that the bad guys want to get rid of, are all good. Sure, Turner’s Dad comes around a bit, and when his Mom is finally acknowledged as a character that can speak, she stands behind Turner, but where was she sooner? Why did it take Turner’s Dad so long to get his act together for his son?

OK, fine, some of the bad characters weren’t so bad after all, they had Reasons for being like they were, but it all felt very staged, very much a Book with an Important Message.

Needless to say, I was underwhelmed.

“how i live now” by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now Book Cover How I Live Now
Meg Rosoff
Juvenile Fiction
Wendy Lamb Books

2005 Michael L. Printz Award Winner

“Every war has turning points and every person too.” Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy. As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary. But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way. A riveting and astonishing story.

This one started off a little rough for me — run-on sentences, fragments, a young teen just spilling her guts on the page. I was worried it was going to be a slog to get through an entire novel like that. Luckily, though, after awhile, my awareness of the style (which, I later figured out was purposeful, of course…) slipped away. I got drawn in to Daisy’s story and couldn’t put it down.

Eventually, as Daisy is forced to grow up, her voice matured (as voices tend to do, I guess). And at the end, when it switches to a number of years later, the “voice” was completely grown up.

The premise of the book was fascinating. There is a war going on, and Daisy and her cousins (that she’s just been sent to live with) are left without adult supervision. But at the time and even later, when Daisy is grown up, it is never clear who the enemy was. Or why they were fighting. Or what they wanted. Or even for sure how it all ended.

In some ways, that’s what made it all the scarier for me. How often do you hear stuff on the news and come away wondering if you ever really understand why this or that is happening and what it really  means to you, personally? I know I often listen to then news and hear Charlie Brown’s Teacher. I know they are saying words, but it doesn’t seem to be anything that makes actual sense.

Some reviews were unhappy with or offended by the relationship between Daisy and her first cousin Edmund. My first reaction to those reviewers was ….. good grief….get off your high horse…….On reflection, though, it’s not my place to judge what squicks out another reader.  My problem with those readers would only come if they then try to use that opinion to keep others from reading.

Repeat after me: “not for me doesn’t equal this is bad.”

Personally, I didn’t find their relationship problematic. I’m not sure I can picture anyone I know falling for their first cousin, but I know that it isn’t completely unusual. These first cousins are teenagers when they first meet and who are thrown together in extremely unusual circumstances. And nothing is explicit on the page, this is YA after all.

And really, their relationship informed the whole story. For me, it worked. Even now, several days after I read it, I’m still thinking about Daisy and Edmund as characters, as well as the actual mechanics of how this was written, the style shift I mention above. The more I think about this one, the more I’m glad this project gave me the chance to read it.