October Boy Book of the Month
The Inexplicable Logic of my Life
by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Of the millions (there are millions, aren't there?) who fell in love with Benjamin Alire Saenz's writing in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Last Night I Sang to the Monster, or any of his other novels or poetry, most are going to enjoy the loving journey that is The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. In it, Salvatore, adopted son of Vincente, deals with similar qualms that Aristotle did... of feeling ethnically liminal...a white boy raised by a Mexican-American father; sexuality (in this case, that of his father, who is gay); and loving friendships (his longtime best friend Sam and new friend Fito).
There are traumas small and large throughout the novel, but not one conflict around which the narrative revolves. Instead, the book explores the various kinds of love that heal us when trauma strikes. Sam's mother, for example, is an addict, but that fact is merely part of her existence. When her mother dies, however, guilt streams in. It's one thing to wish she were dead, but when it happens...
There, however, is her surrogate father Vincente and ipso facto brother Sal, however, to take her in and make her part of the family. Healing, we learn, can only happen in an environment of caring, as inexplicable as love can be, because, after all, none of these characters is enduring a perfect life. They are each healing themselves as they heal each other.
Sal, for example, has just discovered that his long-missing biological father had written him a letter, but does Sal have room for a new person in his life? One thing he notices: he is consumed with anger lately and relies on his fists to deal with his emotions. When he starts to address the root of his angst, he finds himself asking questions about his past. He knows his present is rich with strong relationships, but there is another father out there waiting for him. Does he even need another father? He's worried enough about the only father he has known, Vincente. Growing to adulthood, Sal is just starting to realize the sacrifices the man has made for him. He loves Vincente all the more for his devotion and selflessness, but there is that guilt popping up again. And when Vincente's former boyfriend suddenly returns to their lives, Sal has a new source of anger and mistrust. Does he have to defend his father, too?
And what about Fito? The more Sal learns about his troubled friend, the more he admires Fito's own attempts to make something of his life. Thrown out of his house when his family discovers he is gay, he, too, becomes a member of Vincente's extended family, adding his pain and his love to the mix.
Finally, and the backdrop for all this drama, is Mima, Sal's dying grandmother. The most loving woman he knows, Sal realizes Mima has much left to share, but Sal fears there will never be enough time left to learn it all.
It all sounds complicated, but it is not. In fact, as is true in life, Saenz seamlessly allows the troubles to float in and out of these characters' lives. The book is staunchly realistic even as the prose itself is beautifully romantic. Those looking for a pat novel about a teenager obsessed with overcoming a single conflict in 200 pages need not look here. Instead, what Saenz has created is a book, perhaps, for someone who has endured enough troubles, thank you, and needs to be reassured, reminded that there is beauty to be found in every life. We can find hat beauty, Saenz reminds us, in our relationships. I can think of few books that can do this as well as Saenz does here. This is his love letter to the world, and to himself.
September Boy Book of the Month
Complete Wilderness Training Manual
by the Boy Scouts of America
It doesn't seem like a sexy book, but utilitarianism is much more important to boys than sexy. This training manual serves every level of outdoosperson with step-by-step instructions and pictures. In fact, there are going to be many readers who have little intention to sleep outdoors at all who will nonetheless enjoy the knowledge they will get to "be prepared" for any situation. (One version comes with a leather cover, and don't underestimate the "sexy" value of that.)
August Boy Book of the Month
Everybody Sees the Ants
by A. S. King
It's not a secret that I love A.S. King's novels. They reward thinkers--people who don't simply skate through life accepting society's rules and regulations, and people who understand suffering and try their best to come to grips with it. This one goes into her back catalogue, and boy is the journey worth it.
One of the few King books with a male protagonist, this is also one of her most easily accessible. It's easy to fall in love with Lucky Linderman. Bullied ruthlessly at the town pool, learning to deal with new feelings for some of the girls in his life, feeling so utterly alone, Lucky is enduring what every boy has experienced at
one point or another. Only he's experiencing it all at once.
King brings her brand of magic realism to this party, too: in Lucky's dreams he visits his grandfather, long missing in Vietnam, and brings items back with him when he awakes. He's trying to save his grandfather, and in doing so also attempts to save his own powerless father, and finally himself. When his mother brings him across the country to her brother's family, Lucky learns the valuable lesson that he's not the only one who's screwed up, and that's the most important lesson of all.
I have always said that A. S. King truly understands real girls, but in Everybody Sees the Ants, she exhibits that she
understands real boys, too.
July Boy Book of the Month
Bound by Ice
by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace
Naval officer George Washington De Long was at heart an explorer. After the Civil War ended, America had become obsessed with the idea of reaching the North Pole, and, not one to back down from a challenge, De Long made that his next goal. Nobody had succeeded at reaching the area, thought to house a sea teeming with organic riches, but De Long took off in 1879 with his hand-selected crew of the USS Jeannette to become the first. Within months, however, the ship became icebound. It drifted for two years before it was finally crushed, sending the crew off on foot.
Bound by Ice deftly follows the trials of the Jeannette crew as they depart from San Francisco filled with hope, only to quickly learn how dangerous their mission is. Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace bring the adventure to life not only with their thorough research and incorporation of crewmembers’ journal entries, letters and other official documents, but because they know how to tell a story in crisp, vibrant language. Any fan of adventure will easily immerse him/herself in the gripping drama as each chapter, each cliffhanger unfolds.
June Boy Book of the Month
by Cindy Pon
Cindy Pon's Want is a science-fiction tale full of conspiracy, idiosyncratic language, thrilling action and just enough reality to make the future seem very close indeed. Imagine Alex London's Proxy crossed with M.T. Anderson's Feed and Paolo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker, and you have a sense of Pon’s dark social commentary.
Jason Zhou lives in a dualistic Taipei where the rich can buy everything, including longer lifetimes. It's a polluted society, literally and figuratively, but the rich—called Yous—can afford suits that keep them safe from the city plagues. Zhou, however, is a poor Mei (“without”), and he is smarting from the dubious death of his mother.
Pon is a sci-fi writer of the highest order, and her
intelligent prose creates rich, complex worlds. Her Jin Corporation believably controls the economy; they not only design the pollution suits but probably manufacture the pollution in the first
place. Zhou is a likable hero who, with his Mei friends and against all odds, is able to infiltrate the You plutocracy to discover just how powerful it is.
May Boy Book of the Month
Moby-Dick, or The Whale
by Herman Melville
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: He couldn’t come up with a new book, so he went to the
classics and picked one out randomly. Or, then again, you may be thinking, There’s no way that book is
appropriate for a mere teenager. Honestly, you’re wrong on both accounts. Here’s the real
Rereading Moby-Dick recently, discussing with excitement several passages, the humor of the scenes with Queequeg, the grit of whaling, the obsession of Captain Ahab, the excitement of the pursuit, the frustration with fate, the desire to persevere, the personality conflicts, and on and on, it suddenly occurred to me: There's a reason why so many of the people in my class are excited about this. There is no more quintessential boy book than Moby-Dick.
It’s the finest of adventures, and, even if some of the symbolism might elude many teenagers, that’s perfectly well and good. The problem with books like Melville’s is that they have achieved such respectful status that one seems unworthy to read them, and that is the biggest shame. In fact, everyone is capable of reading Moby-Dick and deciding for him/herself what to do with it.
Yes, there are many passages of whaling details that bog down, but as Louis Sachar reports in his delightful Cardturner, we can easily fast-forward past those parts with no damage done. (They are part of the book and the experience, of course, but if they get in the way they can be skimmed).
So…Moby-Dick: the perfect summer read for an adventurous fourteen-year-old…and up.
April Boy Book of the Month
Me You Us
by Aaron Karo
Those who have read Aaron Karo's Galgorithm (there probably aren't many; it's a horrible title) will recognize this story. In fact, Me You Us is a repackaging of that same novel
with a much better title, cover and marketing strategy. Right there on the top of the bright white cover are those can't-miss words, "For fans of John Green." And while Green devotees are
unlikely to be appeased by anything but Green himself, the phrase is accurate. Karos has created a light and delightful Green-esque romp that speeds along as its likable characters pursue their
romantic quests. No, those looking for the surprise twists in the last act will not get the kind of stunning insight they would expect from Green, but the reader knows that's not where this novel
is going all along. At its heart it's really a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl story... with several boys and girls.
Senior protagonist Shane has spent the last two years of high school designing a methodology Green himself would approve of--really a combination of confidence-boosting, patience, social media mastery and compliments. The plan, in fact, proves foolproof, even for nerdy math teachers.
But what about Shane himself? Well, he's been celibate since being dumped two years ago by Faith, aka Voldemort. In the interim, he's turned his attention to helping hopeless boys find the magic formula (via Shane's galgorithm) for getting the girl. In all the excitement, however, he neglects one thing: himself. Well, two things: he has also long denied his feelings for his long-time best friend Jennifer/Jak (think Q and Margo from Paper Towns).
Ultimately, trouble breaks out when Shane's secret Cyrano-like interference is revealed to the school, and he becomes a pariah. While some may find themselves disappointed that the loose ends are tied up neatly in the end, there is also something refreshing about this simple, satisfying story in an era where too many books are trying to be "edgy" and not succeeding. Karos tries to recreate an 80's movie romance and succeeds.
March Boy Book of the Month
Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story
by Jimmy Piersall and Al Hirshberg
This is an old book but a timeless story, autobiography at its best. Jim Piersall was an up-and-coming minor league ballplayer in the 50's. From an early age, his father trained him to be just
that, the best all-around outfielder the Major Leagues would ever see.
After two agonizing years in the minors (Dad would not accept Jimmy's floundering down there when he was "the best.") But when Jimmy was finally brought to the Boston Red Sox, it didn't end his journey and bring him peace and satisfaction. Instead, it only brought more stress.
Piersall's early career with the Red Sox was marred by antics both humorous and frightening: arguments with teammates and umpires, behavior that got him suspended by his own team. Fans tended to love the antics, but underneath, Piersall was raging.
Then one day, Piersall snapped, and it landed him in a psychiatric institution. Through the help of a considerate doctor (whose attempts to cure also included the popular-at-the-time electro-shock therapy) and a patient, loving wife, Piersall made the gradual trip toward self-awareness and understanding.
This book was written at a time when sports autobiographies were not a popular genre, and neither was the confessional genre, so the frankness and honesty that Piersall shares is truly eye-opening. For those who have seen the decent film with Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden, this is far superior, but in any case, it will be eye-opening for sports fans, and kids whose parents try to live vicariously through their sporting successes.
February Boy Book of the Month
by Jason Reynolds
There is an abundant number of good middle grade books out now, most with a clever motif--time travel, myths and magic, troublemakers or young scholars, cat people,
talking dogs and fantastic quests. What's a little harder to find among them all is a great novel. Jason Reynolds' new track series, beginning with Ghost, is just such a
It succeeds, of course, because of Reynolds' magnificent gift for storytelling. I say "of course" because Reynolds has not written anything I have seen that was not superbly told. Here he has the urban tween voice down perfectly in his characters-- a group of youngsters with their own specific issues finding friendship, self-respect and pride on the track under the tutelage of "Coach" Otis. Readers coming to Reynolds, writing for a younger crowd for the first time, will find every note of character and setting rings true--we know these people and places. And when we get to the end of the manageable-sized page turner, it only whets our appetite for the next installment.
Equally entertaining and literary, this is a perfect book for the middle grades, where both buys and girls are represented and will be entertained, and teachers will find enough literary merit and lessons for discussion.
The story? Well, this one revolves around Castle Cranshaw, who has given himself the nickname Ghost and fashions himself a basketball player--though he never does
actually play ball, in a league or otherwise. Growing up in the projects with a single mom making do with very little, Ghost struggles to find meaning in or out of school. By happenstance
one day, he finds himself at the track where the Defenders, a ragtag team held together by the dedication of former Olympian and current taxi driver Otis Brody, are engaged in their first
practice of the season. Reynolds masterfully handles the conflicting personalities from this moment in the novel, and makes it hard not to root for almost all the wonderfully flawed, perfectly
There are many questions to follow about Ghost--can running help Castle Crenshaw overcome his fears, his temper, his self-doubt? How many times can Coach Otis pull things together for him?
Readers looking for a romantic, feel-good ending may be left hanging by the end. What they get is better—an ending to think about, and one that promises a lot more from these kids. And though this is clearly just the first in a series, Ghost is not merely toying with us in order to read more. Reynolds clearly has so much more to say about these kids, and it's hard to imagine this series not becoming a middle-grade favorite for a long, long time.
January Boy Book of the Month
Still Life with Tornado
by A.S. King
For those boys who honestly want to know how girls think, there's no better author than A.S. King. King's characters are, like real girls, deeper, more complex, more thoughtful and more complicated than most writers limn them as being. King's girls, like most real girls, worry about more than who their next boyfriend is going to be.
In Still Life with Tornado, the protagonist in crisis is Sarah, an artist deeply disturbed by the knowledge that nothing she will ever do will be 100%
original. But that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Throughout this kunstlerröman, Sarah deals with a school system that fails the individual, peers that buy into commercialized views of
what they're supposed to be, and a desire to belong. She meets versions of herself on the bus at various moments in her life, and has the chance to communicate with each of them, to ask
questions, find answers. And, as in her magnificent As I Crawl Through It, there's a mysterious and fascinating male adult figure who represents both danger and escape.
Like her protagonist Sarah, A.S. King tells the truth slowly. Sarah repeats in some form, "I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough." And it should be. But for her and so many other teenagers,it isn't. She carries a secret--or a series of secrets—burdens that shouldn't be placed on sixteen-year-olds. Secrets of older brothers who go away and do not return. Secrets of parents who despise each other. Secrets of classmates who steal what's most precious to her. Secrets of teachers who Sarah spies kissing one of her teenage friends.
King knows the troubles that sometimes afflict those of us living in the 21 century, and she is the voice of those who the rest of society would just as soon ignore,
deny or forget. Some might not want to read stories like this. What's more important, however, is that some people need to read stories like this.
December Boy Book of the Month
Trivia for the Toilet
by Gavin Webster
Let's not forget that books have the power to entertain, too. Webster's Trivia for the Toilet is not better than the
magnificent Uncle John's Bathroom Reader series, but it is filled with interesting trivia... some of which may be silly, some overstated, some fascinating. Ideas and facts are big things
for boys of all ages, and this one will not disappoint. If it works, then you'll want your get your hands on the more voluminous Uncle John's books for hours of sitting
November Boy Book of the Month
Highly illogical Behavior
by John Corey Whaley
Lisa Praytor is an intelligent teenage girl who "believes in herself more than....God." And she has a plan for her life, to get into the "second best psychology program in the country" (because that's something she can bank on, whereas you never can guarantee being accepted to the best school). That plan involves finding Solomon Reed, the boy who went crazy one day several years ago, took his clothes off and jumped into the school fountain. Once she finds him, Lisa's going to "fix" him and write an essay about her genius methodology. That should easily earn her collegiate placement.
If she sounds like the kind of girl most boys can't stand because of her hubris, self-assuredness and manipulative nature, she is. And most boys will immediate dislike Lisa. But that's alright, because Solomon is half of this narrative, as well. Sensitive, thoughtful, kind and damaged, he's someone everyone likes to root for.
On the one hand, the reader knows exactly where this is going: Solomon will be as much the teacher as the student, and Lisa will be forced to confront her own highly illogical behavior. The dilemma the reader faces, however, is how to root for Solomon to overcome his fears while hoping at the same time that Lisa gets her comeuppance. When she brings her boyfriend into the mix and inadvertently causes a love triangle, that conflict is heightened. What do we want to happen, after all? And in doing so, are we not as guilty as Lisa for wanting to manipulate her world at the cost of people's lives?
What John Corey Whaley does so well, however, is navigate the unlikelinesses in his fiction and make them flow like reality. After all, this is a man who wrote a magnificent novel about a boy who has a head transplant and none of it was ironic, cheeky or funny. Whaley's writing is so smooth, so compelling, so easy that the reader willingly accepts every unique situation Whaley presents. Simply put, what he understands as well as any YA writer alive, is the psyche of the 21st century teenage boy. As such, his books have an uncanny ability to stay with you long after you've read them.
October Boy Book of the Month
by M.K. Asante
You hear the word “edgy” used a lot these days, but I tend to resist it. I like to think I’ve saved it for a book like Buck, M.K. Asante’s autobiographical novel about growing up on the streets of Philadelphia and discovering books as a way to a brighter future. Focus on the “edgy,” by the way, and less on the “lessons learned,” and you have a sense of Asante’s fiction. Yes, there is didacticism here, but teaching only works when the stories captivate, and Asante’s “Killadelphia” is loud, brash and compelling. His family narrative is disturbing and heartbreaking, but his rise is a tribute to dreamers everywhere. You’ll turn these pages quickly as you fall in love with Asante’s original voice, and Asante himself.
Late Summer Boy Books of the Month
Capstone's Captured History (series)
by Michael Burgan, Don Nardo, Danielle Smith-Llena and others
Capstone’s Captured History series of middle-grade picture books proceeds from the belief that a photograph can change the world. To that end, it has inaugurated its series with exquisite and insightful texts focused on the most iconic photographs in history. From Che Guavara’s face to the Hindenburg in flames to death at Kent State and the iconic flag-raising at Ground Zero, each book succinctly takes a measured approach to understanding the visual imagery, historical context and complex sociopolitical climate within which a photograph thrives.
It is a mistake to think young boys (of any age) do not care about history. It's simply a matter of making history interesting, pertinent and less long-winded than school curricula often make it. Capstone understands that, so they whet the reader's whistle and sometimes leave the reader with more questions than when he started. This is not necessarily a bad thing. These brief texts, each at 64 pages, will only ignite interest in younger readers and make them hungry to learn more about the world around them.
July Boy Book of the Month
by David Lubar
It's hard to write much about David Lubar's magnum opus, Character, Driven, without providing spoilers. In fact, saying much at all about it risks altering the reader's intended voyage. Suffice it to say that amid Lubar's long career, his latest novel is his finest foray into the Young Adult genre. In it, seventeen-year-old Cliff provides the perfect unreliable narrator. Cliff begins with a riveting first-person tale and keeps the throttle going throughout. Cliff is, like many Lubar protagonists, all personality, the kind of kid most readers love because he is, like them, struggling to make his life what he desperately wishes it were.
Usually, it's hard not to root for a Lubar protagonist, though in this case, because Cliff deliberately lies from the outset, we find ourselves in more of a love/hate relationship with him. That relationship forms the basis for the experience of Character, Driven. It is, after all, a book more about character than plot. Within a few days of meeting him, we experience Cliff falling in love with Jillian, the new girl in school. Despite his contention that all he wants to do his senior year of high school is lose his virginity, he's a much richer, deeper character than he paints himself out to be. As such, we're often frustrated by him, because we want to know him deeper, yet he continually keeps us at arm's length, using humor as his shield. We laugh at him, sometimes with him, but we want the relationship to be stronger, and that makes us want to read deeper (Genius writing, Lubar, just genius!).
Like most of his novels, Lubar populates this one with a supporting cast that is as wonderful and engaging as his main characters. In this case, Cliff's best friends are the delightful Jamaican immigrant Robert, the simple and loyal Jimby, gay weight-lifter Nicky, and the gender-fluid but currently heterosexual female Butch (she changes her name every few years). Lubar has always recognized that teachers for the most part are always looking out for their students, and he brings two superb teachers into the mix here. There is Mr. Piccaro, an English teacher who slips novels wrapped in brown paper to Cliff at opportune moments. And even more perfect is Ms.Ryder, another considerate adult looking out for Cliff's best interests.
If I haven't satisfied your appetite for information about the novel, well, go back to my opening statement. All I will say is this: the book will appeal to Lubar's fans because of it's plausibly imperfect, often-failing protagonist, and the characters around him, all of whom are richly drawn and seem as real as the people you meet every day. It also has the most realistic, graphic, yet tasteful sex scene I've read in YA to date. Make no mistake about it: Lubar gives us a unique novel here, one that defies description. It is in rare territory indeed, among the very finest original creations of the 21st century, right next to Andrew Smith's magnificent Winger. And like that book, this one will not please everyone, but it will change many people's lives. That is the best kind of novel.
June Boy Book of the Month
Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children's Crusade
by Kurt Vonnegut
Perhaps the oldest book I ever recommended, it's also one of the most important. This again falls under the category of "not really a YA text," but anyone interested in war stories, and especially war stories that aren't glamorous, needs to read this. It is perhaps the best anti-war book ever, focusing on Billy Pilgrim's experiences starting with the bombing of Dresden and going forward, backward and around that infamous event. Life magazine called this a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears," and that's a perfect explanation in my opinion.
May Boy Book of the Month
by David McCullough
Too often, adults believe that adolescents are so enamored with young adult literature (and/or that YA is so "perfect" for adolescents) that they start to believe adolescents can't read adult literature. That couldn't be further than the truth. Case in point: David McCullough's magnificent tour-de-force, John Adams.
For those who love history, and there are many, John Adams provides the perfect introduction to the American Revolution. What McCullough does best in general, and especially here, is tell stories. His books are not exclusively about any single event or person. Instead they center around the event/person and bring to life with vivid, engaging details the whole story of that event/person. In the process, historical myths fall by the wayside as his readers grow to become a part of the era.
No biographer understands the importance of stories in bringing a person or era to life like McCullough does. He's a storyteller first and foremost, and those with an interest in any of his many nonfiction topics should seek his tales out before reading any others.
April Boy Book of the Month
Please Ignore Vera Dietz
by A.S. King
Yes, I know this isn't a new book from A.S. King, but I've fallen in love with her writing (and her protagonists). Where has she been all my life? Truth be told, King's protagonists are the girls I had as best friends in my senior year of high school: brilliant, thoughtful, intelligent, wickedly funny and sarcastic in a way that you could never call smarmy. That's why I contend King's girls are more real than most characters in contemporary YA--or at least should be. There's such substance to them; it's hard to come to grips when you're done reading King's work that Vera Dietz isn't actually out there in Pennsylvania still delivering pizzas. She is, isn't she?
Here, Vera deals with a common King (and general YA) backdrop of having a parent she admires but can't quite connect to and yet needs to in order to emerge on the other side of a crisis a little bit more whole than she is. In this case, Vera's crisis is due in large part to her best friend's betrayal of her (no spoiler alert here). Vera has been falling in love with Charlie through the years. But Charlie Kahn has had more than his share of issues growing up. Still, he has always had Vera to rely on as best friend and soulmate. Until high school, that is. Like so many teens, Charlie's homelife catches up to him and leads him to doubting everything about himself—including Vera. Why should someone as wonderful as her care about someone as damaged as he is? So, what is a boy to do, if not self-destruct and push Vera away… so far and so completely that she has no choice but to abandon him?
Yes, it's easy to use the word heartbreaking in book reviews, but heartbreaking is when characters don't simply suffer from a stroke of luck or a single bad occurrence. Heartbreaking is a fully fleshed out set of lives that intersect, weave together, and touch each other but not enough to save each other. Heartbreaking is when one of those characters is left alone to pick up the pieces and reconstruct her life anew. King's characters don't avoid loss at the last minute… as in life, they suffer loss and must learn to go on, forever damaged but forever strengthened.
March Boy Book of the Month
We Are the Ants
by Shaun David Hutchinson
I'm a sucker for teenage angst, and Shaun David Hutchinson's opening chapter alone has it in spades. His protagonist, Henry Denton, opens with a no-holds-barred attack on just about every ritual a 21st century American partakes in from dawn to dusk, and it's hard to fault him for his frankness. Yeah, he's right, to a degree: what's the purpose in making up our faces, plucking hairs, purchasing products to make us look pretty, especially when there are deeper issues confronting us.
Take Henry, for example. His mom copes with her own existential crisis of keeping her family from splintering by chain smoking. His older brother has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, his grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and his boyfriend committed suicide a year ago.
This realistic set of issues is juxtaposed with a fantastic background: aliens abduct him regularly since he was 13, and have made it clear that the world is going to end and have given him the opportunity to change that fate. He has 144 days to decide, and all he has to do is press a big red button.
But is Earth worth saving? That’s the big question.
So many young men confront these big issues on a regular basis (yes, publishing world: boys do more than play basketball in the 21st century) and don’t like what they see—out there, or in themselves. This book will resonate with those who think about those big issues and don’t know how to answer them. We all have our big red button, and need to learn how to like ourselves enough to press it.
February Boy Book of the Month
Symphony for the City of the Dead
by M.T. Anderson
I’ve long believed that M. T. Anderson was the smartest man writing for young adults in America today. While that may or may not be true (do I know that many writers personally to make that statement?), one thing he confirms with Symphony for the City of the Dead is that he believes young adults are intelligent people capable of understanding and eager to read challenging, complex, intelligent books. In an age where those words are often considered an immediate turnoff, Anderson keeps writing books that get people to fall in love with reading, and thinking.
There are many "culturally important" books that adults think young adults should read, but Anderson proves in this riveting account that any subject, told as magnificently as an author at the top of his/her game does, becomes an important book. There are a multitude of important issues in the world, and what Anderson continually reminds us, is that when the storytelling is masterful, the issues will get their due. Music, which is being cut from so many educational programs around the country, is essential to our human existence, and this book is one of those that confirms that fact.
In 1941, the Germans began a campaign to lay absolute waste to the Russian city of Leningrad. A million deaths and almost three years later, the city was overwhelmed with more corpses than people to bury them. Food was nonexistent and people turned to anything—anything!—to combat literal starvation. What could a composer—Dmitri Shostakovich— do in the face of such absolute misery? If I told you the answer was write a symphony, you might argue that that was at best a foolhardy act, at worst a waste of time. But in Anderson’s masterful hands, the Shostakovich story gets its due. Mother Theresa once said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” Traveling through several continents and spies with microfilm, against great odds, Shostakovich's small act has great effects on the future of the war. Dare I say, this is a page-turner? (Go ahead, look through all my reviews, I rarely use the phrase. It's best saved for books like Anderson's.)
Anyone who loves a true story, a layered mystery, a wartime thriller, an underdog victory, or believes in the power of an individual to change the world will love the effort of diving into this Pulitzer Prize-worthy account. Man, can M.T. Anderson write!
January Boy Book of the Month
Sophomores and Other Oxymorons
by David Lubar
remember the last time I read a book as slowly as I have been reading David Lubar’s long-awaited followup to the hilarious (and also somehow sad) Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie. I
haven't even finished yet!
I know, that sounds like a bad thing, but bear with me. You see, I loved Scott Hudson as a somewhat bumbling freshman, that somewhat smart kid who liked learning but had trouble finding his place in an era where liking learning is sure to get you ostracized. And he was. But he survived, and I think he didn’t a pretty darned good job of it at that.
So, why is this one such a slow read? By choice. I like Scott. I mean, I really like him. And I like to take my time hearing him relate his class-by-class discussions of his day. Sometimes I cringe at those moments when he seems like he knows what this high school thing is all about. Why? Because we readers know there’s no safe haven for such an earnest kid—not with Lee, the truly unique individual who is his best-friend and would-be-girlfriend (bravo, Mr. Lubar, for painting a girl that stands on her own two feet so confidently!)—and not with Jeremy, the freshman he meets on the first day of school who is so frighteningly similar to the person he was last year. Life, Scott learns, goes on, and even while he is more capable as a sophomore than as a freshman, life is a little more difficult for sophomores than it is freshmen.
Lubar made his well-deserved reputation on sci-fi/fantasy stories, but continues to exhibit that he can relate to real teenagers. As such, you want to take in Scott’s funny, sad, hopeful and heartbreaking stories, with him, one day at a time.
December Boy Book of the Month
by Steve Watkins
Shane is a high school football star with a crush on his big brother Jeremy’s wife Annie, and a father complex toward their two young daughters. He’s always idolized Jeremy, but Jeremy’s service in Afghanistan have left him a shell of the person Shane used to know. Jeremy spends much of his freetime drunk and angry, while Shane spends most of his time substituting for Jeremy as husband and father. That relationship has already cost him one potential girlfriend in Hannah, but when Jeremy shows up after Shane’s lowest football moment, and the pair escape to the woods, much more is at stake.
After a devastating scene where Jeremy slaughters a herd of wild pigs with his M16, Shane discovers that Jeremy is AWOL from Quantico. Throughout the novel, Shane tries to keep things together: his team, his family, his brother’s family, and now his brother as they journey downriver. Whether they are moving toward something or away, all Shane knows is that the longer the trek continues, the less likely there will be a way out. Watkins’ portrayal of Shane as a real, flawed teenager who has no answers and little power to change the world beyond small acts of love and concern takes the book far beyond the clichés of the PTSD veteran genre. It also makes it that much more heartbreaking.—
November Boy Book of the Month
by Andrew Smith
I no longer believe that Andrew Smith intentionally breaks the rules of literature. Instead, I think he just writes the books he wants to write, conventions be damned.
Either way, he continues to rewrite the definitions of 21st century Young Adult literature, and the world's readers (there's a reason he's translated into so many languages, you know?) are all the richer for it.
Case in point: Stand-Off, a sequel to Smith's magnificent, hilarious and heartbreaking tour-de-force, Winger.
Without giving too much away (because if ever there were a book you wanted to unfurl a chapter at a time, it's that one), Winger was a stunner of a novel--a seeming teen sex-and-humor genre piece at first, then subtly but increasingly insightful, occasionally maddening, realistically romantic, obsessively biological, then absolutely hilarious before finally being--well, what it really was all about in the first place, though you didn't realize it the first time you read it. Winger was, in being a somewhat schizophrenic book, a perfect model of 21st century life. It didn't try to be a single consistent narrative (let's not forget the intertextual comic panels and letters throughout), but a stirring example of indeterminacy, mutability, morality and accident. It also left the reader, when its climactic scene occurs (or rather doesn't occur: it happened outside the narrative of the protagonist, Ryan Dean West) without the climax that English teachers like myself have been trained to teach students to identify in stories. It left readers, to use a cliche that this time works, breathless.
Winger's ending also left the reader certain that, if any book didn't need a sequel--in fact, couldn't sustain a sequel--this would be it.
So, naturally, Andrew Smith produced this, Stand-Off, a sequel. Ryan's Dean West returns with girlfriend Annie Altman, and pursuing their relationship might be the traditional, expected course of a sequel. But what do you do with a relationship once you've achieved boy-gets-girl? Lesser writers would indulge in misunderstandings, the required breakup and finally reunion. Ho-hum.
Remarkably, Ryan Dean and Annie stay together as maturing young lovers--against all convention, expectation be damned--and for the rest of the book! No, that’s not a spoiler, so that’s why I didn’t alert you.
But where's the drama in a reasonably successful relationship, right? Lesser writers, again, wouldn't care, because once boy and girl find each other, it's either Happily Ever After or You Don't Understand Me. No novel has ever had to endure actually showing two teenagers dealing with what life would otherwise tell us is a normal relationship. But for Ryan Dean and Annie, life does go on after their eventful junior year of high school, just as it does in--dare I say it?-- real life.
So, now it is senior year of high school at Pine Mountain High, and, since Andrew Smith continued to write about him, Ryan Dean is forced to continue living, learning and loving (I know, it sounds corny, but perhaps the hardest thing to learn is how to live once the best and worst things you can imagine have already happened to you). How to make everyday life compelling in a novel, well, that's Smith's challenge with Stand-Off.
In his senior year, Ryan Dean is finally in the unique position of no longer being one of the youngest kids in the school (for newcomers, he had skipped two grades earlier in his education). Being a fourth year player on the rugby team, however, he is now looked upon as a leader, so he has quickly jumped from being a new teenager who had to prove himself on every level to a team leader... in fact, captain. And as a leader, he also must do what is best for the team, which means leaving his position as winger and taking on the role of Stand Off (don't worry, Smith explains it sufficiently).
Also as a leader, and the only student at Pine Mountain HS who could possibly identify, he is forced to room with newcomer Sam Abernathy, a 12-year-old freshman. That's right, Sam is the Ryan Dean of three years ago. The difference between the two is, Sam has in Ryan Dean a role model that he, Ryan Dean, never had.
But Ryan Dean never asked to be team captain, or role model to a neurotic 12-year-old. He'd been through a lot last year, and all he wanted to a little continuity and a smooth, easy senior year. Like it or not, however, growing up means you can't easily blend into the background.
In Winger, we were introduced to a Ryan Dean we immediately felt sorry for (he had his head in a toilet bowl, after all), wanted to like, and even rooted for, but as an immature young teenager, he made some choices that frustrated us (and the delightfully limbed Joey Cosentino). To some degree, because Joey liked Ryan Dean, and because he made some wonderful choices, too, we stood by Ryan Dean as he pursued Annie, and new friendships, and a sense of self that he himself didn’t despise. By the end, Ryan Dean rewarded our faith in him, and he felt a little less like a loser.
That, too, presents a typical sequel dilemma. We already appreciate Ryan Dean, so how can he earn our appreciation again? Answer: throw him into a new role. He perhaps earned our respect as a fourteen-year-old, but now he's a year older and presumably more than a year wiser. He can't remain where he was. We have new expectations of him, just as his rugby coach does, his friends and classmates do, and even Annie does. Oh, yes, and Sam Abernathy, too.
The problem is, and if I've stated the problem before, it's because Ryan Dean restates it too: he didn't ask for these expectations and responsibilities, and he certainly didn't ask for a claustrophobic prepubescent roommate to ruin any positive reputation he may have had coming into this year. Quickly, he learns to resent young Sam, and spends much of his time abandoning the kid as Sam totes around after him in search of guidance. The more Sam idolizes him, the more Ryan Dean resents Sam. And THAT's how Ryan Dean returns to the role of protagonist we adore but are repeatedly frustrated by. Once again, we return to repeatedly saying, "Why doesn't he..." And "Why can't he just..." And of course, we answer ourself with, "He's not yet ready." Ryan Dean is who he is, and will only become more than that when he becomes—well, more than that.
In Winger, Joey was there for him as father figure who taught him how to expect more from himself and how to act like a man. In Stand-Off, Smith remarkably has the 12-year-old Sam, as a wide-eyed idealist, act as much as Ryan Dean’s teacher as his pupil. Teenage life can be full of weighty melodrama, but Sam is a delightfully young kid who time and again steals the show with his extreme lack of sarcasm and irony. He alone makes this an even-funnier-than-Winger sequel. (By the way, it could never be as heartbreaking, so don’t expect it to be.)
Okay, so I know this has been more of an essay than a review, the kind of I thing you read after reading a book, to help identify why you liked it, rather than before it to get you to want to read it in the first place. And I know it seems like the book concerns so many "lessons" that are "learned." But Ryan Dean’s story is, in fact, so much about growth and self-awareness. Smith's talent--and frequently genius--is that a good review of Winger and/or Stand-Off would talk nothing of awareness and growth and maturity and still do a fine job of explaining the books. Such a review would go something like this:
Ryan Dean West is back for his senior year at Pine Mountain, and this time he's paired with a 12-year-old neurotic roommate named Sam, who needs his guidance as much as Ryan Dean needed it when he was a freshman. But Ryan Dean never had a role model to hold his hand. Why should he have to lead little Sam around with him wherever he goes?
Besides, Sam is so claustrophobic that the pair will have to sleep with their door or window open all through the winter. And whenever Sam has to use the bathroom, Ryan Dean has to step into the hallway. And his classmates have started teasing Ryan Dean about his constant companion, which is the last thing a senior trying to cement his reputation needs.
Annie Altman is still here, too, and now 15-year-old Ryan Dean doesn't exactly know how to take their relationship to the next level--yes, you know, sex. Of course, Annie might know a little more about that, being 17, but he's always had issues with being the younger partner in that relationship. Besides, at Pine Mountain, how could they ever find free time alone, anyway. That is, if Sam Abernathy would ever stop following him around like a puppy.
Last year's senior class cast of characters is gone, so the book brings us evolving returning characters like former best friend Sean Flaherty, and brand new ones like horny bisexual Swede Spotted John, who has the hots for Ryan Dean. Yes, you heard all those adjectives correctly. And Joey Cosentino's brother is here now, too, but he is as reserved and reticent as Joey was outgoing and approachable. But Ryan Dean needs to talk to him. He's not sure what he'd say, but so much seems to have been left unsaid with Joey. And then there's wide-eyed Sam again, popping up at every corner at the worst possible moment.
Throughout, Ryan Dean is sure the Next Accidental Terrible Experience is about to happen, and draws the personified NATE in all his latest comic strips. The fact that nothing terrible happens as time passes doesn't change Ryan Dean's attitude. He's clearly not over last year's calamities, and all he wants is to slide by his senior year—oh yeah, and to sleep with Annie. But there's Sam again, and, well, sometimes you can’t avoid your responsibilities, especially when you don't want them. Damn that Sam!
Stand-Off is an absolutely delightful book about an absolutely delightfully flawed fifteen-year-old whose struggles to accept his twelve-year-old roommate mirror his struggles to accept himself.
My rating: Four-and-a-half out of five pair of Wonder Woman boys’ underpants.