Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Bottoms:
  • Lansdale, J. (2000). The Bottoms. New York: Mysterious Press, 328 pp.
  • Genre: Suspense/Crime
  • Awards: Edgar Award for Best Novel
Joe Lansdale's novel The Bottoms is presented as a reflection of an elderly retired sheriff on the heinous murders that occurred in his town as a child. The story follows the exploits of a 12 year old Harry and his little sister Tom as they try to unravel these gruesome murders and make sense of the raging race violence in a small east Texas town. The story begins with Harry and Tom finding a dead body of naked black woman tied to the tree in woods by their house. The pairs immediate explanation is that the Goat Man must be responsible for the killing. Soon more women's bodies are found mutilated and tied to trees. Harry's father, the town constable and barber, is in charge of the investigations. However, at every turn he is confronted with bigotry. The town, steeped in KKK members, antagonizes Harry's father for caring about what happens to blacks. Harry acknowledges the ignorance of this bigotry and is propelled into helping his father solve the crimes and escape the trappings of racial hatreds. In the course of the story, a family friend, Mose is lynched in front of Harry and his father by the Klan for suspicion of the killings. This demoralizes Harry's father and sends him into a depression until Tom is kidnapped by the Goat Man. Harry pursues the kidnapper and rescues his sister from rape and murder. However, he learns that the killer is not the Goat Man.

This novel is an excellent piece of Southern crime fiction. The tone and style of the narrative give it a voice similar to Gaines except with an element of pulp crime novel. It contains many issues such as bigotry and kinship. The interactions between characters are skillfully developed and the dialogue flows with a smooth rhythm. Additionally, the segregation of black and white communities in Texas during the 40's is highly detailed. Every character--black or white--is inescapably tied to each other and their communities. Landsdale employs the use of the mysterious Goat Man in order to present the reader with a villain the children can easily conceptualize--something roughly like Satan. This disassociation gives the children characters a certain amount of reality. Additionally, it allows the true identity of the murderer to go obscured until the very end of the novel. The most important statement that this novel makes is that even the young can stand up against the most detestable acts of ignorance and violence.
  • Classroom Use: I could see using this novel in a literature circle or as an individual read. It is rather gruesome and would most likely not be appropriate for a whole class. It could easily be used as a jumping point for other contemporary works of macabre, such as Katherine Dunn' Geek Love or Jill Berry's Cruddy.
  • Appropriate Age Range: 16 and above. This novel is very violent. While it does deal with important social issues for all-ages to consider, the gruesomely detailed descriptions of murders, rapes, and corpses would not be appropriate for much younger students.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It possessed stylistic flare and kept me in suspense throughout. Additionally, I found that the dialog and narration were excellently orchestrated. My only criticism would be the relative unbelievability of some minor plot points.

The Lab:
  • Heath, J. (2008). The Lab. New York: Scholastic Press, 312 pp.
  • Genre: Action/Adventrure/Science Fiction
  • Awards: Unpublished
The Lab is a fast paced futuristic adventure story set in a dystopian world of corporate controlled continents. The plot follows the 16 year old agent 6, a genetically enhanced human with super powers, as he carries out missions for the morally conscious Deck agency. In the course of his work to right the moral wrongs of the Lab, a genetic weapons group, 6 discovers information concerning the origins of his very existence. Along the way, he meets Kyntak, another genetically engineered human. The two are forced to combine their strengths in order to conquer the Lab group and discover the secrets of their creation.

This novel is highly energetic and great for lower level male readers. Additionally, the themes of genetic engineering and corporatism are at the fore of society today. The relevance of these topics give this novel more depth than simply a fantastical conspiracy theory plot. It is important for books targeting lower level readers to include relevant issues such as these. This work sets an example for young readers to be conscious of such activity and skeptical of its intentions. In this way the novel promotes adolescents to be more socially conscious. Additionally, the use of very specific details concerning weaponry and technical equipment provide incentive for many young boys interested in technology or weapons to read fiction. This demographic is considered one of the least motivated in reading fiction. The simple and straightforward prose also allows reluctant readers an experience with the thematic elements of plot and characters that is easily understandable.
  • Classroom Use: This novel would work well as an individual read. It can easily stimulate young males who may find literature either boring or effeminate. However, the transparency of the writing and the relatively shallow story offer little real literary merit.
  • Appropriate Age Range: I would suggest this novel for 9 and above. Again, it would probably be of more interest to boys than girls.
Even though this was not great literature, I enjoyed the novel on the whole and I could appreciate the audience it was targeting. Additionally, a novel like this would be a great introduction to works by Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Tom Robbins. This book clearly encourages reading through entertainment and that is admirable.
Brian Lee

Bad Boy:
  • Myers, W. (2001). Bad Boy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 214 pp.
  • Genre: Memoir/Non-fiction
  • Awards: National Book Award Finalist, Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts (NCTE), Parents' Choice Gold Award, Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Masterlist (Vermont), Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies (NCSS/CBC)
Bad Boy is Walter Dean Myers account of growing up in 1940's Harlem. Myers begins his story by presenting the reader with a brief genealogy and explains how he came to be adopted by his foster family. In the memoir, he details the love and attention he received from his family and especially from his mother. Myers was frequently read to by his mother and eventually encouraged to read aloud to her. As a child, this attention made him less aware of the desperate financial state of his parents and aloud him to escape into the world of fiction. As Myers grew older and entered school, he was immediately singled out for his genius, poor speech, and propensity for fighting. This lead to an increasing separation from his friends and family as he got older. Being tracked as on of the only black students in advanced high school, Myers was ostracized from his neighborhood friends. Additionally, his growing knowledge and literacy made it difficult for him to communicate with his working class family. As these conflicts increase in severity, Myers becomes more despondent and begins to slack in school. Struggling with his ethnicity and discovering his identity, Myers drops out of school. This results in him being forced into counselling. An increasing schism forms between a teenage Myers and his parents, which results in him enlisting in the army. This separates him from Harlem and his parents. A transition necessary for Myers to enter into the adult world.

Myers uses the backdrop of Harlem in order to explore many cultural and developmental issues that face adolescents today. For example, many teenagers have difficulty reconciling their childhood images of self with the emotional development that comes with adolescence. While Myers does not necessarily present a model of ideal behavior in dealing with these transitions, he does present an honest view. One that any young reader can benefit from and appreciate. Additionally, Myers addresses many social obstacles that face minorities in a culture of white privilege. Issues such as getting invited to parties will perennially face teens who feel ostracized by their peers because of race or handicap.

Bad Boy's use of a streamline prose style is very effective in keeping the reader interested. Myers has a point and he delivers it without the fat. This kind of no nonsense writing is invaluable for hooking young readers. It is a kind of prose that is immediate and energetic. Additionally, Myers' constant reinforcement of reading and books sets a prime example for burgeoning readers. He essentially creates a reading list for the disenfranchised teenager. He even provides detailed responses to some the books that sparked his creative and emotional development. This is also true for his description of his writing. By example, he illustrates that every experience is worth writing even if it is never developed. Any student who attempts to model reading and writing behaviors described in Bad Boy will find their literacy skills greatly improved. In this way, the educational quality of this memoir is highly valuable.
  • Classroom Use: This work would be perfect for whole group reading, literary circles, individual reading, and read alouds. Its sincere reflections on the developmental experience and encouragement of literacy make it a staple of adolescent literature. Additionally, the plethora of social issues this book brings to light are necessary discussion topics for any classroom.
  • Appropriate Age Range: 12 and above. While containing some mature subject mater, the reflections presented in this work are of the highest quality and written in a very clear voice.
I found this work extremely compelling. I was moved by the honesty of Myers' reflections and found myself contemplating the nature of literature. This book makes readers think. Even though it details Myers life, it presents topics that move the focus of the reader to self reflection.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Giver:

  • Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1993.
  • Genre: Coming of Age/Science fiction/Dystopian Literature
  • Awards: Newberry Medal (1994), William Allen White Award (1996), Booklist Editiors' Choice, Regina Medal

Similar to other works of dystopic fiction, The Giver is set in a futuristic, seemingly Utopian society. However, as the main character Jonas learns more about his community he comes to see it as more of a police state than a happy, regulated society. When Jonas undergoes the Ceremony of Twelve he is assigned to be a receiver of memory due to his ability to see beyond. This ability allows Jonas to see color and hear music. As Jonas begins to receive memories from the community member known as the Giver, he starts to become more despondent from his friends and family. This is mainly due to the honesty and pain of memories from before the community system Jonas knows was in place. Jonas learns that concepts of family, love, joy, etc. are distorted and virtually nonexistent in the society which Jonas has been raised. During Jonas meetings with the Giver, his family begins taking care of an orphan, Gabriel. Jonas' father, a Nurturer, has been given the duty of taking care of Gabriel in order to make the sickly baby well. When Jonas learns that Gabriel maybe let go from the community, he kidnaps the infant and attempts to escape the society and release the memories that have been kept from the rest of the populous.

Lowery presents a story rich with social commentary. The community in this book presents the reader with a citizen base stripped of many of the necessary experiences and emotions of the human race. In doing so, Lowery asks the reader to consider if it is possible for a community to erase something like violence and still be able to feel joy. On a contemporary level, Lowery questions the role of censorship. She suggests that it is detrimental for any society to censor literary materials in light of the significant statements they possess on humanity. These are extremely important issues for adolescent readers to consider.

Additionally, The Giver provides an insightful view of alienation. This is one the most important emotional avenues a work for young adults can explore. Jonas' struggle in coping with the conventions of his society and his family reflect many of the struggles every teen experiences. With the emergence of sexual feelings and a rebellious spirit, Jonas is the image of any young person transitioning into adolescence. Jonas' uncertainty in dealing with almost all of the conflicts that arise in the novel make him a perfect archetype of youth and transition. It is with his decision to save Gabriel from the society that he confirms himself as an emotionally mature protector and supporter of humanity. He takes on the responsibility of another human life. While this might be a jump from an average teenager's track to maturity, Jonas' actions reflect the selflessness and respect for life, which all adolescents should develop.

  • Classroom Use: I could see this novel being used as an individual reading or a whole group reading. This novel is very easy to read and would be great for a variety of different reading levels due to the depth of its message. While it may appeal more to boys, it contains social material which would be great for sparking class discussions or assignments concerning contemporary social issues (i.e. race, gender, censorship, etc.).
  • Appropriate Age Range: 12 and above. I think this novel should be read as early as possible in schools. The issues that it presents are very relevant and provide a great bridge to classics like Brave New World and 1984.

My imagination was continuously stirred by this novel, which is a clear sign of good Science Ficton writing. Additionally, the social concepts presented in this work were scarily relevant to the state of eduction today. This is one young adult novel that I hope everyone reads. It is fertile ground for discussing important issues in the relatively safe context of fiction.

Brian Lee

The House on Mango Street:
  • Cisneros, S. (1984). The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, 110 pp.
  • Genre: Coming of Age
  • Awards: American Book Award (1985),

In Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street a young girl, Esperanza, navigates growing-up in the harsh environment of inner-city Chicago. Esperanza's sharp perspective leads the reader through making friends with the other children of the neighborhood, dealing with her family, and analyzing the intricate system of her neighborhood. When adolescence captures Esperanza's youth, she is forced to deal with many of the factors that accompany this transition: more freedom, attraction to boys, self consciousness etc. While in the midst of this transition, Esperanza is abandoned by her highly sexual friend Sally at the circus and is sexually assaulted by a group of men. Forced to cope with this experience primarily through writing, Esperanza returns to her older, less promiscuous friends. After escaping the brunt of adolescence, a more mature Esperanza considers leaving Mango street.

Cisernos arranges this novella into a series of vignettes. This method of organization allows for Esperanza's voice to be a compilation of thematically relevant experiences rather than chronologically relevant. For example, some of the last vignettes are from the perspective of a much younger Esperanza than some of the vignettes at the beginning. Cisernos does an excellent job of using Esperanza's fragmented pictures and memories to construct a quilt of experience and maturity.

This type of narration is highly relatable to many adolescents who are stuck with the problem of attempting to sort out a brand new set of emotions from those experienced during childhood. Additionally, the juxtaposition of childhood and adolescence allows Cisernos to illustrate the complexity and fear involved in this transition from childhood to adolescence. Many adolescents will empathize with Esperanza's want to be more promiscuous like her friend Sally. However, Cisernos uses Sally to demonstrate the importance of not being swayed by the temptations of peer pressure.

Themes of transition and home are key in this novella. Cisernos plays on the multi-ethnic nature of the city as well as a variety of age ranges in her characters to create a highly diverse world for Esperanza to navigate. Esperanza is constantly attempting to determine where she fits both in her community and in the world at large. In the beginning of the book, Cathy--one of Esperanza's first friend in the neighborhood and one of the few non-Latino characters--advises against Esperanza being friends with Rachel and Lucy. This immediately introduces a cultural problem for Esperanza. This problem requires Esperanza to transition into being friends with Rachel and Lucy after Cathy moves. The volatility of these early friendships in Esperanza's life resonate with many adolescents attempting to find a social group to befriend. This is especially true for adolescents who feel some alienation due to ethnicity.

  • Classroom Use: I could easily see this novel being used as a whole group reading or read aloud. It contains invaluable perspective on cultural diversity and the process of maturation. Due to its relatively short length it seems perfect for even reluctant readers to attempt individually.
  • Appropriate Age Range: This book is appropriate for ages 13 and above. The perspective offered in this work is extremely relevant to individuals entering their teens. Additionally, this novella possess valuable lessons for both girls and boys.

The punch that a work as short as this novella packs is astounding to me. Its ability to address ethnic issues, developmental issues, domestic violence, etc. makes this work an essential read not only for young readers but also for adults. I would love to teach this book or simply discuss it with anyone interested.

Brian Lee

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Book Thief:

  • Zusak, Markus. (2006). The Book Thief. New York: Knopf an imprint of Random House Children's books, 550 pp.
  • Genre: Fiction, Death and Dying
  • Awards: Kirkus Award 2006, Booklist Editor's Choice 2006, Printz Award 2007, ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2007

Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is the story of a German family during WWII who have taken in an orphan, Liesel, and Jew, Max Vandenburg. The story is narrated by Death. While taking her brother's soul, Death notices Liesel and takes a particular interest in her. Liesel's mother, a communist, gives Liesel to the Hubermann family in order to protect her from Nazi persecution. After becoming an official member of the Huberman family, Liesel is introduced to Max Vandenburg. Hans Hubermann, Liesel's foster father, had his life saved by Max's father in WWI and has agreed to hide Max from the Nazis.

Zusak's writing brings this story alive with astounding clarity and an almost lyrical command of prose. The plot of the story illustrates both the value of diversity and the power of the human soul. The Hubermann house is a virtual haven for outcasts. Both Hans and Rosa Hubermann stand as examples of human virtue facing off against the horrific and inhumane nature of the Nazi party. This conflict is highlighted by the omniscient narration of Death acting as the ultimate and elevated purveyor of fatality, a role that is ever present in Nazi Germany.

The story is excellent for adolescent readership. Liesel who has many difficulties with reading and is frequently embarrassed by her shortcomings is a perfect protagonist for any nervous reader in the classroom. Additionally, her drive to get better at reading causes her to go to extremes in order to attain more books to read. This drive results in her becoming the book thief. In this story, books work as objects which Nazi's fear because they contain knowledge. This is an invaluable point to make to emerging readers in the classroom. It not only shows the importance of reading but also the immense power of knowledge.

This book is also important for adolescent readers because it addresses the importance of diversity in culture. One of the central issues of this story is the importance of understanding and acceptance. For example, Liesel sees herself in Max and Max's struggle to survive. Both characters have lost their birth parents and been adopted by the Hubermanns. This type of acceptance is an essential lesson for adolescents who might be tempted to label certain individuals or groups as outcasts. Additionally, it shows adolescents who might feel like outcasts that there is always someone who will accept them. Equality is further expounded by the fact that Death accepts everyone.

  • Classroom Use: I would most likely use this novel as a read aloud. Its rich language rolls off the tongue and begs to be spoken. Additionally, the size of the book would make it a challenging read for many students' schedules and attention spans.
  • Appropriate Age Range: As a read aloud, this book is appropriate for age 12 and above. Otherwise, it would most likely be appreciated more by 15 and above.

This is a beautiful story. It absolutely captured my imagination. While it is labeled as teen literature, I found its language and literary quality to escape any labels. The sheer weight of creativity contained in this book is unparalleled, and I am certain that this book will have an extensive shelf life.

Brian Lee


  • Spiegelman, Art. (1991). Maus. New York: Pantheon Books a division of Random House, 296 pp.
  • Genre: Graphic Novel; Autobiography
  • Awards: 1990 Max & Moritz Prize, 1992 Pulitzer Prize, 1992 Eisner Award, 1992 Harvey Award, 1993 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction

Maus is simultaneously Art Spiegelman's autobiography which emphasizes his quest to reconcile with his elderly father, Vladek, and the story of his elderly father's experiences during the Holocaust. Vladek and his wife Anja lived in Poland until the Nazis forced them and their extended family into ghettos and eventually into Aushuwitz. Through skill and luck, both Vladek and Anja come out of the Holocaust alive. The couple then immigrates to New York, where they have Art. Art's childhood is fraught with stresses of living with two Holocaust survivors, both experiencing post traumatic stress. In 1968, Art's mother kills herself and leaves no note. Art and Vladek are emotionally destroyed by the event. Art begins to blame his father for pushing his mother to suicide. Though Art knows his father is not guilty, it takes Vladek explaining his experiences in the Holocaust for Art to understand and forgive his father.

With the use of flashbacks, the setting of the story is constantly in flux between 1970's New York and 1940's Poland/Germany. These flashbacks are the central plot structure of the novel in that they allow Spiegelman to compare his experiences with his elderly father's recollections of his struggles as a young man trying to survive genocide. Spiegelman oscillates between his personal reflections on his father and the stories his father told him in order to understand Vladek as a whole person rather than just a father.

By illustrating the father-son relationship on such a complex level, Spiegelman creates a work that is effective in allowing adolescent readers to more clearly understand their interactions with their parents. Additionally, Spiegelman addresses many ethnic and cultural issues, which expand the book beyond his immediate family. Maus contains invaluable lessons on the destructive nature of bigotry and what it means to survive such persecution. By writing about real events, Spiegelman has created a device for adolescents to vicariously experience emotional contempt for parental figures, the horrific nature of ethnic biases, and the importance of reconciling with the past in order to live a healthy life. Additionally, the first person voice of the story adds a certain intensity in that it creates realistic strife. The narration is too honest and sincere to be taken lightly. It seems that this sincerity will be compelling for adolescents searching for reality in literature.

  • Classroom Use: This book could easily be used as a whole group reading. Its historical significance makes it easily defensible. As well, the graphic novel component alleviates much of the tension which novels may create for nervous readers. The content of the work is also perfect for any small group discussion. This work is of such high quality that it could be worked into the classroom at any level and still have a beneficial effect for all students.
  • Appropriate Age Range: 14 and above. The graphic nature of this book, though being directed at mice not humans, should be approached by readers capable of understanding the significance of the violence in the story. Additionally, many of the English/German linguistic colloquial merges would be difficult for younger readers to maneuver.

Maus was an extremely moving read for me. Its reflections on themes such as guilt, survival, family, and desperation were thought provoking and inspiring. The confessional style of Spiegelman's narration made the words and illustrations soul wrenching. He was successful in making the reader feel what he and his father felt.

Brian Lee