Review: Maggot Moon

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Standish Treadwell, fifteen, is dyslexic. He has different colored eyes, one blue, one brown. He lives with his grandfather; his parents are gone. He had one friend, Hector, and Hector is also gone.

Standish’s world is one of fear and lies, of hiding and barely surviving. The red and black flag of the Motherland hangs on the classroom wall. People who are different, people who question, people who have something wrong with them, disappear, either to be maggot meat or to be reeducated.

The Motherland is about to prove its world superiority by putting a man on the moon.

Hector discovered a secret behind the wall of Zone Seven. A secret that may place Standish in danger. Should he run? Or is it possible to fight back?

The Good: While I had heard of Maggot Moon before it got a Printz Honor, I hadn’t paid much attention to what it was about. Which means that when I began reading, I had no idea. “What the heck is going on?” is pretty close to what I was thinking in the first twenty-odd pages.

What is going on? It’s a bit of a puzzle for the reader to put together. There is the Motherland, it’s red and black flag. A war lost. A wall topped with glass. Mothers for Purity. Rewards for large families. And, finally, a date is given: Thursday, 19th July 1956.

Maggot Moon is set in an alternate universe, in an alternate history, a timeline a wee bit different from our own. Standish’s country lost a war years and years ago; and now Standish lives in dystopian world. Standish is telling the story, in his own way, which means that it’s simply his story. There is little explanation or exposition. Instead, the reader can fill in the pieces, try to connect the dots, attempt to understand. Just from that, from how the story is told, is enough to see why this got a Printz nod.

And the language, Standish’s turn of phrase! “The what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which describes not just life but also the chain of history that creates Standish’s world. Later, he describes “my heart an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.

The setting and Standish’s world is another element. His school is harsh and demanding, with bullies among both students and teachers. A brutal death half way through illustrates just how precarious and dangerous Standish’s world is. It also shows some surprising sides of people Standish knows. It’s not a simple place or time.

In some ways, Standish seems young. He dreams of escape, of the land of Croca-Cola and Cadillacs. Since the Motherland will soon land on the moon, he dreams of a better planet, Juniper, to escape to, He builds a small spaceship out of odds and ends, half believing it will work. What he describes is far from young: the circumstances surrounding his parents disappearances. People becoming maggot meat. A brutal death. And the end . . . what Standish ends up doing, and the results, are quite serious. This is a perfect example of how a book can be about serious, dark things, yet does so in a way that it takes a while to realize just how dark it is.

I wonder at what age the readers will fully appreciate the clues as to what Standish’s world is, and isn’t. While “Nazis” and “Soviets” are never terms that are used, it seems that his world is one where a country such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia conquered England and controls most of Europe.  (Personally, I only considered a Nazi occupied England; reading other reviews is what made me also think it could be the Soviets, or any dictatorship.) Croca-Cola reminds one of another, very American beverage, as does the references to Cadillacs and a TV show starring a woman having a ball. (If you get that last one, that’s exactly what I mean by what is needed to fully understand the time and place and alternate history of Standish’s world.)

What, you may be asking, did Hector discover? It’s a stunning secret, and it not only brings about Hector and his family disappearing but also forces Standish to take a stand.

Other reviews: Someday My Printz Will Come; CrossReferencing (Mark and Sarah); Pretty Books.




Review: Aristotle and Dante

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR. 2012. Copy from library. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Summer, 1987. Angel Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is fifteen, and it’s the start of another lonely, hot summer in El Paso. Bored, he goes to the local swimming even though he can’t swim.

“I can teach you how to swim.”

With those words, Ari meets Dante Quintana, also fifteen. And makes a friend. In some ways they are opposites — Ari is quiet, Dante talkative and confident. But they make each other laugh.

Through ups and downs, good times and bad, even long distance, their friendship endures and grows. Ari still feels alone, though; and when Dante tells Ari that Dante prefers kissing boys, Ari isn’t sure what to do. Or how he feels. Or what he wants.

The Good: Another terrific selection by this year’s Printz committee!

Ari tells the story, and oh, Ari is so — alone. He has such barriers up. Why? He has parents who love him, yes, but his father, a Vietnam Vet, is not a talker and Ari craves communication. Perhaps that explains part of the reason he likes Dante, because Dante and his family are talkers and huggers.

Ari’s family holds secrets, secrets that are danced around. His father’s nightmares from Vietnam. Ari’s older brother, now in prison, whose name and crime are never mentioned. Other secrets are ones that Ari doesn’t even guess at, but the secrecy colors his life and is part of the reason Ari isolates himself.

Aristotle and Dante is not just about the friendship between young men; it’s also about family. And love. And acceptance. And connections. And good people trying to do the right thing. And it’s the power of meeting someone, and being known, and kissing, and holding hands.

I also loved the diversity in Aristotle and Dante; both boys are second or third generation Mexican American. Dante talks about not being as Mexican as Ari, because Dante’s skin isn’t as dark. Mentions are made about the amount of Spanish that is (or isn’t) spoken at home, food that is eaten. Dante is the only child of a college professor and a psychologist; Ari’s parents are a high school teacher and mailman, and Ari is the youngest of four with several nieces and nephews. So there is diversity in terms of the main characters being Mexican American, but also in terms of what being a “Mexican American” means.

Dante likes boys; this is shown gradually, over the course of the book, as Dante himself comes to realize it. I don’t want to get spoilery here, but — well, here’s the thing. Sometimes, I watch movies with my mother and she turns to me and she asks, “I don’t want to know how it happens, but will this have a good ending? Will it be OK for that character?” And so I won’t tell the details, and I won’t say it’s easy, but I’ll say — it’ll be OK for Ari. It’ll be OK for Dante. It’ll be more than OK. And when I cried at the end of this book, it was in part happy tears.

The secondary characters are also so fully drawn that even when they are on the page for only a short time, I feel like I know them. That they are as real as Ari and Dante; but of course, it is Ari and Dante, and especially Ari, that is known best. And oh, the quotes! Because this is Ari’s story, all are him talking. “But love was something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.” “When do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?” “Maybe I wanted too much.” How could I not love Ari?

One last thing. As the story of Ari’s older brother was gradually revealed, as well as the depth of the impact of his crime and loss on the family, I had some “well what about thoughts” about Bernardo. In book print in my reading journal, I have “BUT WHAT ABOUT BERNARDO??” written down. I sternly told myself, this is Ari’s story, don’t be so demanding as a reader. And then — and then — what Aristotle and Dante delivered to me. It was perfect.

The combination of language; Ari; Ari’s beautiful family; Dante; and the warmth and goodness and compassion, even in the presence of hate; for all of these, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Teach Mentor Texts; Librarian of Snark; SLJ author interview.

Review: The White Bicycle

The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna. Red Deer Press. 2012. Printz Honor Book. Library copy.

The Plot: Taylor Jane Simon, 19, is in France for her summer job, being a personal care assistant for her friend Luke Phoenix’s younger brother, Martin Phoenix.

Unfortunately, Taylor Jane’s mother has tagged along. It only makes sense; Penny Simon’s mother just passed away, leaving some money, so why not spend it on traveling? All the better because Penny is dating Alan Phoenix, father to Luke Phoenix and Martin Phoenix.

A summer job in France is something anyone would want! For Taylor Jane, though, it means even more. It means the chance to add something to her resume, to make more money than she would in her part time job at the bookstore, to possibly get a better job, which means independence.

Independence is what any 19 year old wants, right? And isn’t her mother’s coming along on Taylor Jane’s trip evidence enough that her mother is too involved?

The White Bicycle is the third and final book about Taylor Jane Simon, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The Good: First things first: while The White Bicycle is part of a trilogy, you do not have to read the other two books in order to read and enjoy and understand this book. The proof of that statement is that I have never read the other two books, and I simply adored The White Bicycle.

As I’ve said in the past, much as I like reading a book before it gets an Award nod, I also like being able to read something new after it has that recognition. Here, to be able to read The White Bicycle asking “why a Printz Honor.” I suspected, going in, that part of it would be because the narrator, Taylor Jane, has Asperger’s Syndrome and that her way of telling the story would be unique and fresh. I was right; but Taylor Jane’s voice was so much more than that. It was funny; it was insightful; it revealed a different way of looking at the world; and it was full of yearning.

Here, from the first few pages. Taylor Jane has just recounted a dream about going someplace on a white bicycle, and it’s pretty symbolic of independence and life. She muses, “I do not know whether this is really a dream or a nightmare. My mother would say it is a nightmare because it has unhappy parts in it; but so does life, and life is closer to dreams than nightmares.”

Taylor Jane explain what being an adult is and is not: “I used to be waiting for boyfriends but now I know that I don’t need a boyfriend to be an adult. Then I waited for a job, but now I now that just having a job doesn’t make you independent.” This, then, is the second great thing about The White Bicycle: exploring what it means to be an adult and to be independent, and doing so without it being tied to a “thing” such as dating or a job or even knowing what one wants to do with the rest of one’s life.

The third thing that made me sit up and go, “yes,” was the way the story was told. You all may realize by now I love when stories aren’t linear in fashion. Taylor Jane is writing this all down, and yes, it’s about her summer in France, but she also shares various memories of her childhood. Several of them are from the time before she received a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome; which means it includes the years at school when Taylor Jane was seen by teachers as stupid or spoiled or a trouble maker. It’s insightful, to see her point of view for what caused meltdowns or other instances. It was also heartbreaking, because I recognized what her mother had to be going through in those years without an answer and only blame. Even if Taylor Jane doesn’t realize it, it’s easy for the reader to see just why her mother is now over protective. It’s also to see that her mother is not without reasons to still be involved in her daughter’s life. The trip to France has multiple plane changes and a few issues (missed connection, lost luggage) and I’m honestly not sure how Taylor Jane would have navigated them alone.

A final reason to love The White Bicycle: it shows how a mother’s over involvement can damage a relationship. Taylor Jane grows increasingly resentful over her mother telling her what to do and not do. At the same time, she misses the things she and her mother used to do together for fun, such as watching movies.

Oh, I said a final but there are many more reasons — such as the Phoenix family and their love, understanding, and acceptance of Taylor Jane. The setting of the south of France, and I want to go to there right this minute! The instances were people other than Taylor Jane are shown to have trouble with change: her mother’s concerns about driving in France, Luke Phoenix and his place in the family. So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.  Thank you, Printz Committee!

Other reviews: The Horn Book; Booklist; Bibliophile; Story Carnivores; Author Interview at By Word of Beth;



Review: In Darkness

In Darkness by Nick Lake. Bloomsbury. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: A young man is trapped in darkness: one minute he is in his hospital bed, the next the building is rubble around him and he is alive but there is no way out. He will tell you a story, his story, of how he came to this place, of the people he killed, of the things he’s done. Call him Shorty; it’s not his name, but it’s what his friends call him.

Shorty struggles, to find a way out, to not succumb to thirst or hunger or fear.

That is “now.” There is also “then,” the stories about another man of Haiti: not a young teen, not lost boy, but, instead, a grown man named Toussaint l’Ouverture, the slave who will free Haiti in the late eighteenth century.

The stories flip back and forth, between a teen surviving in modern-day Haiti and the man who led the Haitian Revolution.

The Good: Much as I love being able to cheer about a well-loved book getting recognized by the Printz Committee, I also love being able to read a book thinking, why this one? Why did the Printz Committee give this book an Award or an Honor?

In Darkness was awarded a Printz Award; and one of the first reasons I can see for this happening? The multiple meanings “In Darkness” has. Shorty is in literal darkness, trapped following the 2010 earthquake, but he is also trapped in the darkness of his life: the gangs, the violence, the lost friends and family, the death, the poverty. Likewise, Toussaint will face his own challenges, his own darkness, in his time, as he leads his country to freedom.

The structure of In Darkness is also terrific. There is the alternating between Shorty’s story Now and Toussaint’s Then, telling two stories at once. Not only are there sometimes parallels between the two; Lake makes a bold decision to have the two be aware of each other. Something happens (more on that below) and both are half-aware of the other. Toussaint, seeing the future, doesn’t understand all he sees but latches onto one thing: black men and women are free.

The language: Shorty’s and Toussaint’s stories are told differently, with the language indicating their different time periods, their knowledege, their worlds.

While “learning new things” is not a reason for a book to get a Printz nod, it is a reason for me to like a book. Here, I learned much more than I knew before about the history of Haiti, as well as Haiti today. It is clear that Shorty’s story is being told from his own, unique perspective and his own loyalties.

“Something happens”: part of what is explored in Haiti is vodou and the role of vodou in history and culture. I liked how vodou was treated not as some type of supernatural/magical/mystical force, but as a religion. As a religion, some people believe and others are skeptical.

Other reviews: The Happy Nappy Bookseller; The New York Times; Charlotte’s Library.

2011 Printz Award

The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature is awarded for “a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.”

This year’s winner is Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, reviewed by me here. From my review: “Ship Breaker is breathless, non stop action, with barely room to breathe. Getting lost in ships, hurricanes, deadly infections, knife battles, and that’s just the first third! The world-building is done so seamlessly that it’s not noticed. Along the way, much is given to the reader to think about. This is set in the future, but all the big questions are about our today: the divide between the haves and have nots, the ecological impact of actions, the use of child labor, as well as questions about loyalty, choice, and fate.”

I loved this book; the plotting, the characters, plus all the “big questions” to discuss. It’s a perfect pick! In addition, the world building is — well. In some books, even those I may enjoy, you get the feeling that the world only exists to the extent that the characters do. Open a door you’re not supposed to and you get a a blank room. A character leaves a room and they disappear. With Ship Breaker you know… you open that door. The world will be there. The characters live and breathe, whether or not they are on the page.

Four honor books were selected:

Stolen by Lucy Christopher, Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. 

Please Ignore Vera Dietz  by A.S. King,  Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, Roaring Book Press, an imprint of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

Nothing by Janne Teller, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.

Congratulations and a big thank you to the Printz Committee: (info from YALSA website): Chair Erin Downey Howerton, Johnson County Library, Overland Park, Kan.; Jan L. Chapman, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Strongsville, Ohio; Sarah Couri, New York Public Library; Melissa S. Rabey, Frederick County (Md.) Public Library; Janet P. Sarratt, Gaffney. S.C.; Brenna Shanks, King County Library System, Issaquah, Wash.; Eva Volin, Alameda (Calif.) Free Library; Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, Towson, Md.; Rollie Welch, Cleveland Public Library; Sophie Brookover, administrative assistant, Infolink: The Eastern New Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, Piscataway, N.J.; and Gillian Engberg, Booklist consultant, Chicago.

I am now playing catch up reading the Honor Books. Expect reviews soon.

I look forward to reading all the books, because it makes the speeches so much more enjoyable.

So, what do you think? How many have you read? Agree/ disagree?

Hey, That’s Me!

The Chicago Tribune covered the Youth Media Awards with a photo and an article in Newbery, Caldecott Medals Awarded.

And I am one of the people in the photo! Note to self for next year: yes, it’s early, but put on some makeup.

FuseEight and people in the comments have identified most of the people in the photo: first row: Monica Edinger, Cindy Dobrez, Lynn Rutan, Barry Goldblatt, Jennifer Richard Jacobson, Nancy WerlinWalter Mayes.

Second row: on the far left, Travis Jonker, then behind Walter, me, EM / Emily Reads, and Donna Spurlock.

Edited to add: Travis.