Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #1

The challenge before the challenge started a few weeks ago. I'm a little late to the party, but jumping in anyway. I can get through at least one of the lists before February 2, but I'm shooting for both. I love doing the YALSA Challenge every year because it helps me discover great books that I might otherwise miss. Thanks to a couple of snow days, it was a marvelous week to curl up and read.

Here is the Morris List:

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Here is the Nonfiction List:

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business--and Won! by Emily Arnold McCully
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin
Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen



This week's completed books:

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos 

Growing up is hard enough, even under ideal circumstances. After being horribly burned by a near-miss lightning strike, Harry Jones struggles to deal with the accident and to face himself. Thanks to a caring therapist and, eventually, some good friends, Harry learns to be an active participant in his own life.  There were many times as I read that I wanted to smack Harry upside his fat head. He isn't good at standing up for himself and he makes some dumb decisions. He also has a sly sense of humor that I loved and I rooted for him, even as he learned every lesson in the hardest possible way.

This is a well-done story about the power of music and friendship to help us transcend difficult times and to be better people. 

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi, a Mexican-American high school senior with a love for poetry and sopas, deals with all kinds of issues, as do her friends. Through her diary entries, which are fresh and funny, thoughtful and yearning, we join her as she and her peers deal with drug abuse, rape, teen pregnancy, self-esteem and body issues, homosexuality, faith and the lack of it, and sexism. Gabi struggles to come to terms with these issues in her life, and takes the reader along for the ride. The author is obviously trying to teach a few lessons here, but is never too heavy-handed. I love Gabi's sarcastic humor and her good heart. She is definitely a character who readers will care about and root for.

Some favorite quotes:

"Family. Familia. And while familia is the glue that keeps us crazy, it is also the glue that makes us who we are."

"Never ask the fat girl if she is hungry. She's always hungry. Even if she is not, she is, because food is safe and controllable and soothing and salty and sweet, and it doesn't scream at you or make you feel bad unless you are trying on clothes."

"Cinco de Mayo! Woo! Another holiday where people get to use sombreros and fake mustaches as proof of their understanding and commitment to learning about my heritage."

"...for a lot of people, high school is it--the best time of their life. Oh my God, if high school is supposed to be the best time of my life, I'm going to have the shittiest life ever." 

What kept this from being a five-star book for me was the awkward grammar and the way the Spanish was kind of unevenly integrated into the narrative. While I assume that the author used this style to make sure that Gabi's voice was authentic (and it did work) it brought me back to all the hours I have spent grading poorly edited student papers. I realize that other readers won't be as bothered by the grammar; I'm certainly glad that I read this book and will happily recommend it to teen readers.

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

Maya is an unpopular, nerdy middle schooler who is inspired by an old book, Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide, to spend her eighth grade year attempting to climb the social ladder.  Each month, Maya follows some of the tips in the book and writes about how her peers react. The results are all over the place--sometimes hilarious, sometimes thought-provoking, and sometimes utterly cringe-worthy. Regardless of the outcome, Maya handles herself with grace and kindness. She is wise beyond her years.  

This is a book that would have helped the shy, lonely teenager I used to be. I can't wait to share it with my students, and the other teens in my life. 

I'll leave you with Maya's final popularity tip: "Popularity is more than looks. It's not clothes, hair, or even possessions. When we let go go these labels, we see how flimsy and relative they actually are. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It is about who you are, and how you treat others.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin 

Though I knew a bit about how African American soldiers were treated during WWII before I read this book, I had never heard about the Port Chicago 50. Especially in light of recent events, this is a timely, engaging, and thought-provoking story. 

Without even basic safety training, African American soldiers were given the dangerous job of loading munitions from rail cars onto ships. When the inevitable accident finally occurred, hundreds of people were killed and injured. The navy officers blame the soldiers for the accident, but then expect them to get right back to the same work. The men refuse and are eventually told that if they continue to disobey orders, they will be charged with mutiny. Fifty men end up being charged and put on trial for mutiny. I won't give away the ending, but Thurgood Marshall gets involved. 

Though these men were instrumental in the Navy's decision to integrate, they have never received much recognition. This book left me better informed, but angry. The United States has certainly come a long way, but we're not there yet. 

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Russian history has never been all that interesting to me, and I must admit that I had very little background knowledge going into this book. I vaguely remembered reading about "Bloody Nicholas" in high school. Candace Fleming has done a stellar job researching and writing a book that brings  the Romanovs to vivid life. The intimate portrait of their private lives makes them seem much more human, and their ends that much more terrible. She also adds in snippets about the dreary lives of peasants from primary source documents. For them, it didn't matter much who was running the country--their lives were just hard. Finally, other figures who affected the complicated course of Russian history make an appearance--Lenin and Rasputin are highlights.

Even though I knew how the story was going to end, I was riveted nonetheless, a small part of me holding out the hope that Disney got it right about Anastasia after all.

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