Tuesday, July 26, 2016

LS 5623.20 Review: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek
by Maya Van Wagenen

Van Wagenen, Maya. Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek. New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2014. Print. 

Maya Van Wagenen is not exactly popular at her high school. In fact, she is pretty much the exact opposite of popular. She is hardly noticed at all, aside from the couple good friends that she already has. When she comes across a book written in the 1950s by Betty Cornell, she decides to read it. The book is about how to be popular, and instead of just reading it, Maya decides to follow the directions in the book. After all, it could still work at making her popular, and it could not possibly hurt since she is hardly noticed to begin with. What Maya does not know is how much the experiment will really change her life, and not just with her classmates. Maya begins to build up her self-confidence, something she was incredibly lacking beforehand. Her experiment even leads her to meet Betty Cornell herself. 

Critical Analysis: 
The first thing I want to mention about this book is the cover; it is wonderful. When I think of informational books, I tend to think of covers that are a bit dull. They usually just have one big picture and title, and it is nothing too creative. I love how the cover looks like a paper doll with clothing, and it makes even more sense once you have read the book. It was an excellent idea, and I do believe that it will help draw in readers. This book will have no trouble keeping readers, either. The voice in this book is wonderful, and something very unlike anything I have seen in nonfiction before. It is humorous, wry, saddening, cheerful, defeated, and so many other emotions at varying times. It is so easy to relate to Maya, and it is wonderful to remember that she is a real person; that this is her real life. Some of the situations are so amusing, that they could easily be found in a fiction book as well. I do believe this is something else that will draw in young readers; a lot of it does read like a fiction story, realistic fiction, but the fact that it is true makes it much more exciting. 

Informational text is supposed to teach its readers something, but this book goes so much further than that. On the surface, we get a story about Maya who wants to be popular. She comes across a book from the 1950s that leads her to try out the steps in the book to become popular. Some of the steps lead to amusing situations, like wearing shapewear or lipstick every day, which is not something that a lot of young adults do at school. Others lead Maya to realize that it might not be working, and that she is still very unknown. However, it is the change in Maya, and not in the other students, that makes this book so interesting. Maya becomes accepted by her classmates, but she also begins to accept herself, which was something that was lacking. We see Maya build self-confidence and learn to accept herself, which is a wonderful lesson to be able to get across in a nonfiction text. The fact that it does so in an interesting and amusing way, instead of preaching the lesson, is even better for young adult readers. 

Creative Activity: This book would be easy to use in a reading or English classroom. In fact, we used an article about the novel in my reading classroom this past year, before I even read the novel myself. We used the article to compare it to other articles that had to do with popularity and social media, and the students really enjoyed it. I do believe that this book would be a wonderful model for expository writing as well. Students could read an excerpt of the novel, and then work on a part of their own memoir where they learned a lesson as well. 

Related Resources: 
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank - This is another wonderful diary that students could use, and compare to Popular. While they are about very different situations, I do think that similarities can be found between the two girls. Students can discuss how the voice is similar and different as well; we know that Anne managed to stay quite positive despite her situation. 

How to Be Popular by Meg Cabot - This is a fiction book that has a very similar story line to Popular, though it is not a true story. The main character wants to be popular, and so she goes through a list of things that are supposed to help her get there. It would be interesting to see a fiction side of the same plot as well. 

Published Review: 
Publisher's Weekly. Dutton Buys YA Memoir by Teenager, 2013. 26 July 2016. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/57973-dutton-buys-ya-memoir-by-teenager.html

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

LS 5623.20 Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
by Andy Weir

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Crown, 2011. Print. 

Mark Watney, along with the other members of his NASA crew, are the first six people to walk on Mars after arriving there on a mission. The plan was to stay much longer and to gain information from the planet, but a sudden severe dust storm changes everything. They realize they need to evacuate the planet in order to ever make it off alive, and Mark is injured in the storm in the process of leaving. Believing him dead, his crew has no choice but to leave him behind. Mark is not dead, however, but he has no way of informing his crew or anyone on Earth of this. Mark has an incredible sense of humor and strength, though, so he is not going to sit back and die without a fight. Instead, he uses his botany skills to find ways to prolong his supplies while he tries to determine a way to make contact with NASA and make it back home to Earth. 

Critical Analysis: 
First things first, this is not a book that I would typically pick up. Even though I have reached an adult stage of my life (supposedly), I still read typically young adult literature exclusively. However, I have had this book sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and when I saw it on the science fiction list, I decided it was time to give an adult book another go. The truth is, I loved the book, but I think I will still stick to YA for now. My middle school students could certainly not read this book, and I do think that it would probably be upper high school before I would feel comfortable with a student reading it mostly due to the language. There is a lot of foul language, and while some people are not bothered by that, it can be an issue when it comes to what students are reading. Even I was a little uncomfortable with how much there was, and I'm an adult! Still, I do think that there are plenty of wonderful things that readers can get out of this book, if they can get past the language. 

The first thing that really hooks the reader are the characters, and most specifically the protagonist of Mark Watney. It would be very easy for this novel to turn depressing very quickly based on the situation, but it keeps from doing that with Watney's sense or humor and personality. Despite the situation he is going through, he keeps a level head and a humorous attitude, which draws the reader in. What makes it even more interesting is that this is a science fiction novel that does not have a person as the villain or antagonist. Instead, it's a planet; Mars. Mars is a place that we cannot experience in our regular, every day lives, so it is exciting to get details in the novel, and Weir does a great job of developing the setting that we are so unaware of ourselves. 

The best thing about this science fiction novel, however, is how real it actually seems. That is one of the best things about this genre; it is still a fairly easy process for readers to put themselves in the shoes of the character. Of course, this particular book may be a little more difficult as the character is older, but students could learn a lot from his behavior and the way he handles the stress of the situation. It has a universal theme of friendship, loyalty, and never giving up, and that is a valuable lesson for all students and individuals to learn. 

Creative Activity: One of the most challenging aspects of this novel is that one character has to carry a lot of the story, activity, and plot in the book without having other people to interact with. This can be a difficult thing to do for anyone, and a difficult concept for authors to create without it becoming dry and boring. This seems like it would make for a wonderful journal prompt in a high school writing class. Students have to create a story and plot around one character, where they do not have any other individuals to interact with. They must create a world and scenario that is interesting and intriguing in order to continue to hook their readers through the entirety of their writing. 

Related Resources: 
For related resources, it seems like a good idea to use other science fiction novels, or even just excerpts of them to compare. One that instantly comes to mind is The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. This would work because it is a very believable setting and characters as well, with the addition of aliens. Definitely similarities in the plot lines. 

Another interesting concept could be to introduce a nonfiction book to use with the book as well. It could be something about Mars or space travel, and they could demonstrate how well Weir did research and presented the information in the book based on the facts that they read and find. 

Published Review: 
Publisher's Weekly. The Martian, 2011. Web. 19 July 2016. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8041-3902-1

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

LS 5623.20 Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven

Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey could not be any more different, or so it seems on the surface. The truth is, they are both battling similar inner demons. They both spend a lot of time thinking about death, and wondering if it would just be easier to leave everything behind. The two meet at the top of the school bell tower, where it seems they both were considering jumping. Finch quickly realizes that Violet's friends do not understand the situation, and instead pretends that Violet climbed the tower to save him. From there, the two begin a friendship and school partnership based on a mutual understanding. They can each be themselves around one another, but that does not necessarily make things easier. While Violet begins to overcome her difficulties, Finch's still prove to be too much, and he continues to struggle with where he wants his life to take him. 

Critical Analysis: 
The first thing that should be said about this novel is that it is most definitely targeted towards an older teen audience. There are many triggers involved including suicide, death, grief, depression, and mental illness. There are some individuals that struggle when reading materials with these topics involved, and so it is good to make sure that it does not get into the hands of someone it may cause discomfort to. However, with all of that being said, I do believe that this is a wonderful book for young adults to read, as long as they are of the appropriate age. The characters deal with topics and situations that a lot of people experience in life, and if they have not, one of their friends may/have. It gives them a way to see into the situation, and perhaps gain a better understanding of why someone may feel a certain way. 

Speaking of characters and their experiences, All the Bright Places packs a punch when it comes to our two protagonists. Often when there are two "main" characters in YA text, one seems to be a bit more developed or have more voice than the other. This is not the case in Niven's novel. Both characters are developed, complex characters. They both have their issues and inner workings, and we get to see a great deal inside both of their heads through dual perspective. This adds an interest in the book that we do not see in many young adult novels. I believe it will appeal to more young readers because there are two narrators, and one does happen to be a male. 

The writing itself in the book is something to discuss, and as Niven is a new author, I am shocked by how well written the novel is. The text is detailed and appeals to the senses, and really allows the reader to step into the shoes of the main characters. We get to follow them around as they explore exciting places in their Indiana city, and the description puts the reader in the book, and makes them want to continue reading. The emotion is raw and real, and if nothing else, it will leave the reader with a lot to think about. 

Creative Activity: The dual perspective is an interesting asset in this novel that we do not get to see in a lot of young adult text, so I think that is something that teachers could focus on. Along with that, with the writing being so good in general, it would be a wonderful model text for a variety of reasons. However, if students are working on fiction, and trying to really develop voice in their writing, this would be a great book to focus on. Students could create two of their own characters, and tell the same story from each of the character's point of view. They will have to realize how each character would look at the events differently, based on their personalities and background. It would be a thought-provoking and challenging assignment for students. 

Related Resources: 
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman - This is a fiction novel based on Shusterman's autistic son. This would be a wonderful companion piece because it focuses on the mental illness side of the theme, and gives another incredible look at this tough topic. 

My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga - This book has the same theme of suicide and a friendship between a boy and a girl that help the characters deal with their struggles. It would be a good book to compare with All the Bright Places.

Published Review: 
Publisher's Weekly. All the Bright Places, 2014. Web. 12 July 2016. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-385-75588-7

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

LS 5623.20 Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print. 

Summary: This novel, based on some of the author's own life experiences, tells the story of Junior. Junior was born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where his future was already set out for him, at least if he did not do something about it. Instead, he decides to take things into his own hands and determine his own future. He leaves the rough school on the Indian rez in order to attend an all-white school in a rural area where the mascot is the only other Indian around. Junior tells his own story through wit and illustrations (by Ellen Forney), as a budding cartoonist, and he quickly teachers readers that things don't always have to be just black and white.

Critical Analysis: 
Diversity is a topic that is often talked about at great length these days when it comes to young adult literature, and this novel is a wonderful example of how to add positive diversity into a library collection. Junior is a relateable protagonist for all young adults, no matter their cultural or ethnic background. He must deal with trying to be accepted in a new environment, as well as having old friends and family turn his back on him for attempting to better his life. This is no easy feat for a high school student, but there are many teenagers who go through similar, difficult situations and will relate to Junior's issues. 

While this novel could have easily taken a dark and depressing turn and tone, Alexie did a very good job of not making this the case. While there are tough situations and difficult subject matter, much of the novel is handled with wit and a sense of humor. Our main character is uplifting and positive, which is a wonderful example for young adults, especially teenage boys, to see in a protagonist. The light spirit of this book made it an easy read, and I believe it is one that students will be able to stick with and finish, even if they are not typically a reader. 

Along with the wonderful text and plot line, the illustrations add a wonderful, whimsical aspect to the book. Teenagers still love having pictures in their books (even adults still love to see this, in my opinion), and the cartoons contained in the novel are great fun. They add detail and emotion to the novel that we do not get completely from the text. Overall, Alexie did a wonderful job of writing a strong, enjoyable piece that has a universal theme. 

Creative Activity:
One of the greatest aspects of this novel are the cartoon illustrations that go along with the text, meant to look like the drawings of the protagonist. This is an element that will keep a lot of young adults reading the novel, and so it seems like a great focus point for an activity. In a writing class, students could create their own protagonist, and as they continue writing their story, they must add in their own cartoon illustrations to add to the text. This will allow students to add description not only through their writing, but also in an artistic manner.

Related Resources: 
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang - this is another story of a young boy who moves to a new neighborhood where everyone is very different than he is, and he must learn how to adjust to the new environment. An added bonus is the fact that it is a graphic novel, which many young adults really enjoy. 
Short Stories by Gary Soto - Gary Soto is a wonderful author for young adults, and most of his stories are based off of events in his own life, which relates back to what Alexie did in his novel. Soto's characters also often deal with acceptance and fitting in. 

Published Review: 
Publisher's Weekly. An Absolutely Great Novel by Sherman Alexie, 2007. Web. 5 July 2016. Retrieved from http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=158
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