“Keesha’s House” by Helen Frost

Keesha's House Book Cover Keesha's House
Helen Frost
Juvenile Fiction

Keesha has found a safe place to live, and other kids gravitate to her house when they just can’t make it on their own. They are Stephie – pregnant, trying to make the right decisions for herself and those she cares about; Jason – Stephie’s boyfriend, torn between his responsibility to Stephie and the baby and the promise of a college basketball career; Dontay – in foster care while his parents are in prison, feeling unwanted both inside and outside the system; Carmen – arrested on a DUI charge, waiting in a juvenile detention center for a judge to hear her case; Harris – disowned by his father after disclosing that he’s gay, living in his car, and taking care of himself; Katie – angry at her mother’s loyalty to an abusive stepfather, losing herself in long hours of work and school.

Stretching the boundaries of traditional poetic forms – sestinas and sonnets – Helen Frost’s extraordinary debut novel for young adults weaves together the stories of these seven teenagers as they courageously struggle to hold their lives together and overcome their difficulties.
Keesha's House is a 2004 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Another novel in verse. Before starting this project, I would have completely passed these by. Now, though, I’mexcited when I find that another book is a novel in verse.

This one, though, was just too short and spare for my taste. A lot gets left out when there is just the lines of poetry, and a lot more is left to the imagination, but this seemed too bare bones. I think part of that, for me, was having too many voices — we were following 7 teenagers (I think? It was hard to keep track of them when they each got so little time on the page. I wanted more from each, or fewer voices and more from each one.

What is there, though, is great and important. These are all teens in crisis, with lives and situations very far removed from my own, but not necessarily from many of the students around me.

I’d love to see the teenagers at my school read some of these great books — not necessarily spending 6 weeks wringing every bit out of one novel, but a new novel every week, dipping and tasting. Experiencing different genres and techniques — I bet some of them would find they actually *like* poetry if they read it in a setting like this.

Of course, there’s not enough time and not enough money. Wouldn’t it be nice if we spent millions on books for kids instead of on professional athletes?

“A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern Light Book Cover A Northern Light
Jennifer Donnelly
Juvenile Fiction
Harcourt Inc

2004 Michael L. Printz Honor Book

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Jennifer Donnelly's astonishing debut novel effortlessly weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, and real, and wholly original.

I’m always fascinated by books that retell a story, whether it’s real or a famous fictional story, but from the perspective of someone other than the typical protagonist. In this case, the story is a murder in 1906, that inspired a book I’ve heard of, but didn’t know anything about (An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser).

In this case, the narrator is a young girl who is working at the hotel where the murder takes place. The story isn’t so much about the murder, though, as it is about this young girl and what her life is like. Quite a bit different than what kids have to deal with now. It’s easy to get down on “kids these days” and how entitled they are. I suppose that isn’t fair, because I’m sure that if they had to do the chores and help with the land and cooking and everything, they’d rise to the occasion, but sometimes….Sometimes, I think they need a reminder about how lucky they really are. I do, too, I suppose.

The book itself with was well written, although it jumped around in time quite a bit, and I wasn’t always sure at the beginning of each chapter where I was in time, that was a little disconcerting. Donnelly did a great job of capturing what life was like in the Adirondacks at the turn of the century, without being boring or preachy or anything like that.

Bottom line: good book, highly recommended.

“Fat Kid Rules the World” by K.L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World Book Cover Fat Kid Rules the World
K. L. Going
Juvenile Fiction

2004 Michael L Printz Honor Book


Troy Billings is seventeen, 296 pounds, friendless, utterly miserable, and about to step off a New York subway platform in front of an oncoming train. Until he meets Curt MacCrae, an emaciated, semi-homeless, high school dropout guitar genius, the stuff of which Lower East Side punk rock legends are made. Never mind that Troy's dad thinks Curt's a drug addict and Troy's brother thinks Troy's the biggest (literally) loser in Manhattan. Soon, Curt has recruited Troy as his new drummer, even though Troy can't play the drums. Together, Curt and Troy will change the world of punk, and Troy's own life, forever.

I didn’t want to like this book, but it grew on me and it ended up giving me warm fuzzies by the end. Unfortunately, I’ve let a little too much time go between reading it and trying to write about it, and I’m at a loss as to what to say about it.

I might be making this up, but it seems like an overly large proportion of the books I’ve read for this project have taken place in NYC. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York City as a place to visit, but I’m not sure I’d want to live there, or try to raise kids there. But I bet there are plenty of people who look at the life I lead in Iowa and wonder how I survive without Big City Opportunities.

(The answer is, just fine. I have the Internet. And books.)

As with  many of the books that are honored by the Printz awards, this book is full of stuff that us parents probably wish our kids didn’t know about, like sex and drugs, as well as things we wish they didn’t have to worry about, like body issues and death. There’s a lot of hope in this book, too, though, and humor, and that’s the kind of thing that kids who are dealing with scary stuff need to hear about.

2003 Printz Project Wrap Up

Moving right along! I’m scheduling these posts ahead of time — I had actually gotten many of these most recent books read more than a week or so ago, but never got around to sit down and right about them. I’m almost caught up to what I’ve been reading, but I’m sure I’ll get behind again.

I’m finding it difficult to write about them all without being super repetitive in the kinds of things I say about these books.

This year’s list was an enjoyable one (even My Heartbeat, which I later had qualms about, was something I liked reading at the time). I think of all of them, The House of the Scorpion, was probably my favorite, perhaps because it’s most like the books I normally read. I still think it’s interesting that I avoided it for so long.

It’s also the only one that I might have picked up on my own, even thought I hadn’t ever done so. The others were good, but not on my normal book-radar, which is too bad. I think a lot of people get in a rut of “I only read X or Y or Z” and managed to miss out on a lot of really great books. It’s hard to know which a person will like, though, and which is something that will end up turning them off to another genre for good.

There’s also the problem that there are just too darned many great books out there and no one will pay me to sit and read all day long.

“Hole in my Life” by Jack Gantos

Hole in My Life Book Cover Hole in My Life
Jack Gantos
Biography & Autobiography

2003 Michael L Printz Honor Book

Becoming a writer the hard way

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.
Hole in My Life is a 2003 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

I was aware of Jack Gantos from having looked at reading Newbery winners (Dead End in Norvelt), but I haven’t actually read anything by Gantos before. He was brought up recently when Drew Daywalt, author of The Day the Crayons Quit visited our school: Daywalt studied at Emerson College, Gantos was one of his professors.

I was pleased to see this come up on the list, but had no idea what I was getting in to — and it turned out to be a really fascinating ride! By turns funny, horrifying, touching, and inspiring, this is probably not a book for younger teens, but it was definitely worth the read (um, listen….I found an audio version, narrated by Gantos himself).

There are lessons to be learned, but this was not a preachy book, by any means. Gantos was matter of fact about the mistakes he made, that lead to his year long incarceration for drug smuggling. This is the kind of thing that maybe some parents would prefer their kids NOT know about the authors of the books said kids are reading: but I think it’s great that this is out in the world. He could have made so many other choices, but he figured things out and turned his life around.

Definitely a thumbs up on this one, must add his other books to my reading list…..