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Archive for the ‘YA books’ Category

salt to the seaI remember watching “Titanic” for the first time and refusing to get sucked in by Jack, Rose and their brief but ill-fated romance (though I did shed a tear for the brave string quartet, who serenaded the sinking ship with a dignified rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”) because the ending was a foregone conclusion.

So when I read the book jacket for Salt to the Sea, about the actual worst maritime disaster that I had never heard of, I wondered how author Ruta Septys would tell the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff in a way that would escape the feeling of inevitability without actually escaping the inevitable.

Septys kept things lively by dedicating a good part of the story to the dynamics between three of the four POV characters as they journey from somewhere frozen in Prussia to the equally frigid port where the Wilhelm Gustloff and the fourth character await.

For Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse separated from her family–pay attention to who her relatives are–guilt is a hunter.

For Florian, a disillusioned Prussian teenager on a secret high stakes mission, fate is a hunter.

For Emilia, a Polish girl caught between the Germans and the Russians, shame is a hunter.

For Alfred, a sailor on the Wilhelm Gustloff desperate to prove himself to the girl next door and to the Third Reich, fear is a hunter.

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Confession: ever since we set foot in the young adult department at the Cambridge Public Library and casually asked librarian Maya Escobar for book recommendations, we’ve been secretly plotting how to get her to do a Q&A with us.

When we finally got around to asking her about the state of YA–including common misconceptions about YA books and readers–and what it’s like to be a YA librarian, she graciously agreed.

picture day

Photo courtesy of Maya Escobar, who’s clearly showing off her love of comics!

1. How did you become the CPL YA librarian?

I first worked at Cambridge Public Library part time, mostly in the evenings, when I first got out of college.  I worked at the checkout desk and met and observed all kinds of interesting folks — not just library visitors, also my co-workers!  Then I went off for a bit and worked in graphic design and publications, ending up at a nonprofit called YouthBuild USA.  I really liked being back in a nonprofit setting, which was also geared towards improving the lives of young people.  But I missed having more face-to-face interactions with those people; I was mostly sitting in front of a computer, working on layout and editing.

Around that time I ran into CPL’s director, Susan Flannery, on the T, and she said if I ever wanted to come back to the library she was sure there would be something for me.  So I went in for an informational interview with the current head children’s librarian at the time, and learned more about what was involved in becoming a children’s librarian.  I decided that I wanted to go for it, and applied to the GSLIS program at Simmons and an entry level position at CPL at the same time.  And those both worked out!  So here I am🙂

2. Best job perk?

I work with really wonderful, smart, creative people!  And the children’s staff at Main has always been made up of a fun group of people who are really passionate about this work and have wonderful senses of humor.  I also like not having a formal dress code.  After working in the financial district, I can tell you: khaki pants NEVER AGAIN.

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wind and firedarkestpartofforest

The first time Sarah Rees Brennan read A Tale of Two Cities, she dropped it in the bathtub because it made her so upset. Too bad it was a first edition copy that belonged to her grandmother.

Family trauma aside, Brennan liked the book so much she ended up writing a retelling, she explained on Thursday during a talk at Brookline Booksmith. Holly Black (author of the wonderful Doll Bones) was also there, but most of the conversation revolved around Brennan’s Tell the Wind and Fire.

As Brennan sees it, the beauty of a retelling is the opportunity to both praise and insult the original author. She kept what she liked from Dickens’ novel (the basic plot, a sad ending, the key characters) and threw out the bad stuff. Most importantly, while Dickens’ Lucie Manette rarely talks and has no agency (she’s too busy fainting in carriages, Brennan noted, but “I’m pretty sure ladies could talk back then.”), Brennan makes Lucie the protagonist. And she definitely talks (she also fights, and does powerful magic). Brennan then took Dickens’ weakest plot point–the coincidental resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay–and makes it integral to the plot, by giving Lucie’s boyfriend a doppelganger created by magic. (more…)

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Review: The Hired Girl

the hired girlSet anything with class distinctions and fancy households at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Downton Abbey. But that would be a huge disservice to The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, which has the requisite detail and decorum for a period piece, but also substance and heart.

Fourteen year old Joan’s narration begins when she pours her thoughts and feelings into the diary her teacher gifts her after her father forces her to drop out of school and earn her keep on the farm. A harsh and stingy man, he isolates Joan, treats her like a servant, and belittles her at every turn. When he tries to break Joan’s spirit after she stages a one-woman strike to gain a sliver of financial independence, she flees to the city with the meager emergency fund her dead mother left for her.

Through luck, naivete and a bit of deception, Joan lands a position as a serving girl with the Rosenbach’s, a wealthy German Jewish household. Out of kindness, the Rosenbachs hire her without references, with the stipulation that their very old, very picky Orthodox housekeeper has the final say over Joan’s employment. (more…)

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Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion rulesErin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules starts with a chilling premise: hundreds of years into the future, after humans nearly destroyed themselves fighting over dwindling resources, an artificial intelligence named Talis decided to take things into its own hands. (As Talis points out, the humans should’ve expected it: “I don’t know how it surprised people–I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”)

Talis took control of the high-power weapons that could destroy entire cities. Then it tried to dissuade humans from launching small-scale wars by installing a hostage system: the president/king/queen/ruler of every country must give up their child. The kids are educated in schools called Preceptures, and released at age 18. But while they’re there, if a country declares war on another, the children of both rulers are killed. It’s proven quite effective at keeping wars to a minimum (“The world is at peace,” says the Utterances, a collection of Talis’ collected wisdom. “And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?”)

Bow starts the book long after Talis begins his rule. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (part of modern-day Canada), is a seventh-generation hostage. She’s not far from her 18th birthday, but her nation is on the brink of war. Greta has accepted her likely death, and vows to meet it with dignity—until a new student, Elián, arrives at the Precepture. Elián’s grandmother leads an army that’s about to declare war on Greta’s country, and unlike the other students, Elián doesn’t accept the rules of the hostage system. His rebellion forces Greta to open her eyes and see things for what they really are.

Up until now, it sounds like a familiar YA dystopia. But Bow twists the tropes into something new, so it never feels like you’re reading a well-trod genre. It ties with Black Dove, White Raven as my favorite YA read of the year. Among the welcome surprises: (more…)

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black dove white ravenWith Elizabeth Wein single-handedly dominating the YA category of gutsy female pilots in wartime, it’s tempting to compare her latest novel, Black Dove, White Raven, to its predecessors, Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity. Publishers Weekly remarked on the obvious: the main characters “share an avocation with those in her award-winning novels.” Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews praised Wein’s ability to “plait together the historical record, her passion for flying and ferociously vivid characters to create a heartbreaking adventure that grounds readers in the moment even as geopolitical complexity threatens to knock them off their feet.”

Nevertheless, I’d like to celebrate an equally important but overlooked Wein trademark: friendship. This may not seem like a big deal, but how often do you come across a YA book where the main relationships are between two close friends?

In Black Dove, White Raven, there are two such friendships. And one stolen plane.

The first friendship belongs to barnstorming, daredevil pilots Rhoda Menotti (aka the White Raven) and Delia Dupré (aka the Black Dove.) They learned to fly together, star in an aerial show together, and even raise their kids—Rhoda has a daughter, Emilia, and Delia, a son named Teodras—together.

In the decade after WWI, Delia, who is black, dreams of leaving behind racially segregated America so she and Rhoda, who is white, can raise their kids together under the wide, promising skies of Ethiopia. When tragedy strikes, however, it is up to Rhoda to make Delia’s dream come true.

Emilia and Teodras–Teo for short–are also a double act. At the age of five, their mothers buckled them into the middle cockpit of the family plane, shared with them a secret hand signal, and took them up into the sky for a spin. They have been “in the soup” together ever since.

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storyofowenI’m not a big fan of dragon books, so I was skeptical when I heard the praise for E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, which got a lot of media buzz last month when it was nominated for the Kirkus Prize (it ultimately lost to Aviary Wonders Inc. by Kate Samworth).

Even the premise sounds nonsensical: the story is set in contemporary Canada, but in an alternate version of history where dragons are real. Dragons, it turns out, are addicted to fossil fuels, so they will attack anything that spews carbon: factories, power plants, oil rigs. After the industrial revolution, dragon populations skyrocketed, and cities employed teams of official dragon slayers to combat the problem, leaving rural, less wealthy areas virtually unprotected.

As bizarre as it sounds, the premise works because the dragons don’t feel forced. Johnson manages to make the dragons a believable force in geopolitics. We get glimpses of their role in World War II, the building of the Suez Canal, the First Gulf War, and the power of corporations to influence public policy. You could interpret them as a metaphor, and they do shine a light on all kinds of real-world problems, from environmental decay to celebrity culture and socioeconomic inequality. But leave that to the Common Core curriculum. I had much more fun admiring how Johnston inserted dragons into everyday activities. Think Driver’s Ed is boring? You might miss the boredom if you had to deal with a lesson on what to do if a dragon goes after your car while you’re driving down a lonely road. (more…)

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