Walden Award 2014 Finalists: Reviews

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Today, we are excited to review the three Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award finalists, and tomorrow, we can’t wait to review the winner! Please join us in the celebration of these three extraordinary texts which are very deserving of this recognition. We’ll see you tomorrow for our review of the winner!

 

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Published February 21st, 2012 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summary: Aristotle is an angry teen who doesn’t have friends until he meets Dante. Through Dante, he learns about friendship, life, and loyalty. These two boys develop an unbreakable bond that helps them discover themselves.

Kellee’s Review: So beautifully written. This is one of those books that you want to tell everyone to read because it is so literary and lyrical. While reading, I felt I had to keep stopping to take notes because I had so much I wanted to share with you all; Aristotle & Dante reminded me of John Green’s characters in that way. His characters are so intelligent, the voice so pure and mesmerizing, and the story so enthralling- all aspects of a literary young adult novel. I am not surprised at all of the awards that Aristotle & Dante took home from the ALA Awards as it deserved each and every one of them (Stonewall Book Award, Printz Honor, Pura Belpre Author Award). I know this seems mighty gushy, but I really fell in love with this novel.

There were so many passages throughout that could be used for exemplar pieces of writing (specifically while reading I picked up on the literary devices, characterization, and voice) and can be used to practice reading strategies.  The book might not automatically be popular because I could see students thinking it was pretty slow because it is more character-driven than plot-driven. It is about Aristotle & Dante growing up and finding themselves (once again, reminds me a bit of a John Green Novel). Though I can see students who give it a chance being as touched by the book as I am.

Ricki’s Review: This beautiful, quiet book is well-deserving of all of the awards it has received. The characters are very special and will stick with readers long after the last page. Adolescents will identify with the boys’ feelings of loneliness and longing, and will be carried away by the magic of their friendship. Saenz’s lyrical language is strong and powerful, delivering undeniable messages to the readers. Readers will grow with Aristotle and Dante and learn what it means to be accepted, to be loyal, and to be a good person.

When I read this book for the first time, I wondered if it would appeal to all types of readers as the beautiful language takes precedent over an action-filled plot. We chose it for our school’s book club before it won the awards, so I was unsure about the students’ reaction. They absolutely adored the characters, and it was one of the most well-received books we’ve done in book club. This text would make for a great choice for literature circles, book clubs, and close analysis, as the language is remarkable.

Discussion Questions: Aristotle and Dante love to make up stories about the people on the bus (see p. 21); go and sit outside where you can people watch and spontaneously write short stories about a handful of them.; What does it mean to be alone? Can another person cure loneliness, or is it something that must be healed from within?; What makes a good friend? What makes a good person?; How do your family dynamics influence who you are as a person?

We Flagged:  “I felt alone, but not in a bad way. I really liked being alone. Maybe I liked it too much. Maybe my father was like that too. I thought of Dante and wondered about him.  And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without darkness. Wow, a world without darkness. How beautiful was that?” (p. 56)

Read This If You Loved: Personal Effects by EM Kokie, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Shine by Lauren Myracle, Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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Endangered
Author: Eliot Schrefer
Published October 1st, 2013 by Scholastic Press

Summary: Sophie is a normal teenager who travels between her divorced parents who live in completely different cultural situations–her father has an office job in America and her mother runs a bonobo sanctuary in Congo. Though she was born in the Congo, the last few years have been spent in America with her father and return trips to her mother’s sanctuary. The book begins with Sophie waiting in a check point, where she spots a baby bonobo who is not being treated well and, against everyone’s wishes, she buys him.

Kellee’s Review: With Sophie’s purchase, Otto enters into her life and ours. He becomes the co-star of the book and begins to change Sophie’s feelings about being at the sanctuary. But then, right before she is about to leave, chaos at the hand of revolutionaries envelopes Congo and Sophie finds herself in a completely type of situation.

Now if you follow me here or on Twitter, you know that I am a sucker for ape books and I have been lucky that many people who care a lot about apes write some amazing ape books – this is a book to add to that list. It left me with even more of a passion for saving these animals who are our closest relative. I. Love. This. Book. It quickly moved into my favorites list even while I was only half way through with it. It is such a journey that you take with this young lady and the growth you see in her (and Otto) is incredible. On top of that, Eliot Schrefer is an author who not only can tell a good story, but he can help you become part of the story and visualize and feel everything that is happening. And I am not alone in this love. Endangered was a finalist for The National Book Award and Walden Award, Eliot Schrefer was a hit at the Scholastic Brunch at NCTE, and it is being gushed about on Twitter.

On top of all of this, I read it with my 8th graders this year and they adored it! Check out my End of (School) Year Reflection to see my reflections on teaching the novel as well as Skyping with Eliot.

Ricki’s Review: This is a beautifully crafted novel, one which will stick with me. I learned a lot about the horrors that exist within the war-torn country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place which I had limited knowledge about—but it also gave me a look into the life of bonobos. Each year, I give very few books a 5-star rating on GoodReads, but this one is well deserving. I wish I could give it more than five stars, to be frank. Eliot Schrefer does a brilliant job describing the powerful bond between humans and animals. There are so many elements of this text that teachers can use in the classroom that it feels like a gold mine. I’ve recommended it to adults and teens again and again—and with the confidence that I know they will appreciate the intricate beautiful of this novel. Endangered will always rank as one of the best books I have ever read. When my student returned this book, she handed it to me and paused. I waited in anticipation of her response, as she reads over a hundred books a year and is very critical. She chose her words slowly and carefully. “I don’t like animals, so I didn’t want to read this. You kept talking about it, so I finally decided to just go for it. This isn’t a book about animals, and really, it isn’t a book about war. It is a book that is about being human.”

Discussion Questions: Sophie makes many decisions throughout the book that many people, specifically her parents, would not have agreed with. Would you have made the same decisions as her? Were there any you would have done differently? Do you think her decisions were worth it? Use textual evidence to back your answers.; What does this book teach us about being human?; In what ways do the bonobos reflect humanity?; How does the war-torn setting add to this story?

We Flagged: “The man released the bonobo. The little ape sat down tiredly in the dirt and lowered his arms, wincing as his sore muscles relaxed. I kneeled and reached out to him. The bonobo glanced at his master before working up the energy to stand and toddle over to me. He leaned against my shin for a moment, then extended his arms to be picked up. I lift him easily and hugged himself to me, his fragile arms as light as a necklace. I could make out his individual ribs under my figures, could feel his heart flutter against my throat. He pressed his lips against my check , I guess to get as close as possible to my skin, and only then did I hear his faint cries; he’d been making them for so long that his voice was gone.” (p. 3-4)

Read This If You Loved: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, The Chimpanzees I Love by Jane Goodall, Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya, Non-fiction books about bonobos or the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Ask the Passengers
Author: A.S. King
Published October 23rd, 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary: Astrid is very cerebral–she can get lost in philosophical theories and questions about the world. Her favorite pastime is laying on the bench in her backyard so she can send her love to the passengers on the airplanes that fly overhead. At her catering job, Astrid meets Dee, and she falls in love. She isn’t sure if this makes her a lesbian, as she has never loved another girl, and society wants to fit her in a box that she isn’t quite sure describes her.

Kellee’s Review: I am fascinated with the setting of this book. It seems like a perfect place to live, but really everyone is living a lie. It reminds me a bit of “Stepford Wives.” What a sad existence. Maybe I am (the opposite of) sheltered because my parents and my friends always supported me to be who I am. However, because of King’s perfect depiction of Astrid’s experiences, it transplants me right into Astrid’s shoes.

Besides the setting, the characters are what makes this book a star. Astrid is a character that every reader will connect with in one way or another: she doesn’t exactly fit in though she doesn’t stick out, she has a secret she feels like she can’t tell anyone, and as a teenager she doesn’t exactly get along with her family. While Astrid is strong, so are the secondary characters. You know that if you want to jump into a book and just go off on a character that the author has done their job (UGH! The mom will drive you crazy too!).  This book would not move without its secondary characters; although Astrid is our protagonist, it is the secondary characters that drive much of the story. It is amazing how all of the characters are so fleshed out.

Finally, like all King novels, the way it is written just adds that element that pushes this book to being an award winner. King’s ability to give her characters a voice is phenomenal. Each of her novels have such a unique personality and she is able to give them each a unique voice. She also adds humor and intelligence to each of her books.

Ricki’s Review: Astrid’s character felt very real to me. Despite the heartache and lack of love in her own life, she manages to send all of her love to people she doesn’t even know–strangers in the sky. I can’t help but peer up at airplanes now and send my love to the passengers. Astrid is not a typical high school student. She lives by her principles and stays true to herself amidst the pressures that teens face. She is an unbelievable role model for both adolescents and adults.

Astrid teaches us to give our love away when we aren’t feeling any ourselves. She connects herself with complete strangers when those who are closest to her are emotionally failing her. Teens will learn to reach out and grasp love in the most unconventional places. The warmth that emanates from this book makes it incredibly special.

Discussion Questions: How do the passengers’ stories add to the richness of this text?; How does the setting influence aspects of the book?; Does society expect us to fit into neat boxes with labels?; What complications exist in Astrid’s life? Which coping mechanisms does she use to relieve her pain? Which other coping mechanisms might she use?

We Flagged: “I mean to say: Everybody’s always looking for the person they’re better than.” (page 231)

Read This If You Loved: Please Ignore Vera Deitz by A.S. King, Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Luna by Julie Anne Peters, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

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Which of these finalists have you read? What did you think of them?
We’re so excited to review the winner tomorrow!

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Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

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Zebra Forest
Author: Adina Rishe Gewirtz
Published April 9th, 2013 by Candlewick Press

Summary: Annie and Rew have only vague memories of their father who died triumphantly and don’t remember their mother at all who decided she didn’t want to be a mom. They now live with their grandmother who suffers with an agoraphobia-type disorder. Some days she rarely leaves her room leaving Annie to be in charge of the household, her brother, and any tough decisions including lying to her social worker. This has lead to Annie having to grow up faster than other 11-year-olds. Most of her days, she spends time with her brother near the zebra forest telling stories and reminiscing about their father and the adventures that he would have taken if he was still alive. Though, like in all of our lives, one moment can change everything and with a rattling, stuck backdoor Annie and Rew’s lives will never be the same.

My Review: Sometimes you come across quiet novels that aren’t being talked about in the mainstream that  are very entertaining and well done. This is one of those books.  It starts out quietly with amazing stories being told between Annie and Rew and great character development. Then the plot twist changes everything! And the suspense, emotion, and background story really starts to build.

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: The most specific aspect of this book that I see to use in the classroom as a mentor text is the creative storytelling talents that she displays throughout the book. She tells amazing stories that include extensions from Treasure Island and adventures of her father (ex. p. 21-26). Also, this book is contemporary fiction and takes place during the Iranian Hostage Crisis which would be a way to teach this important part of history that many students may not be aware of. Mostly, I see this book being used as a read aloud or lit circle to lead to discussion of the plot and characters.

Discussion Questions: After reading Treasure Island, do you agree with Annie and Rew’s favorite characters (p. 70-71)?; Have you ever lied in a situation because you felt that it was necessary? Explain.; Research the Iran Hostage Situation. From Annie we learned the basics about the crisis; what did you learn from research about it?

We Flagged: “Outside, I could smell the Zebra. Even if for some reason I stopped feeling cold or hot or rain or sun, I bet I could close my eyes and still tell which season I was in just by the smell of the tees and dirt there. Spring was sweet mud and flowers. Fall had a kind of moldy edge to it, and winter was all dust and bark. As for summer, the Zebra carried a mossy, thick aroma full of baking leaves and oozing sap, which I guess was its growing smell.” (p. 87)

“Most recently he [their father] was a secret agent, working to free those hostages in Iran. Rew loved to imagine the Middle Eastern desert, sandstorms and mullahs and veiled ladies, and our father somewhere among them, bartering for hostages in a dusty marketplace or smoking a hookah with a sheik.” (p. 22)

Read This If You Loved: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, Paperboy by Vince Vawter, My Mixed-up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari [Zebra Forest is a very unique book. I chose the books because they have similar tone or the characters and are for similar age levels.]

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What is a favorite book of yours that flies under the mainstream radar?

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**Thank you to Candlewick Press for providing a copy for review. Jen also reviewed this book at Teach Mentor Texts, so make sure to check out her review, too!**

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

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Eleanor and Park (Eleanor & Park)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Published February 26th, 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin

Summary: Eleanor and Park have read Romeo and Juliet. They know that young love fades and is unachievable, but yet they still can’t resist each other. Park is a quiet Asian boy who is trying to disappear to avoid the drama of high school. When Eleanor, a large, red-headed girl, steps onto his schoolbus, he is embarrassed for her and wonders why she wouldn’t just dress “normally.” Eleanor has nowhere to sit and as the kids make fun of her and she looks beaten down and broken, Park, disgustedly, angrily tells her to just sit down in his seat. What he doesn’t realize then is that Eleanor will change his life.

Kellee’s Review: I love how slowly this book happens. It is like a pot of boiling water. It started out cold and then got warmer before it began boiling. This book is not a Twilight romance of love at first site; it is a true romance about getting to know each other and realizing that first impressions aren’t always correct.

Told in Eleanor and Park’s point of views, you get a 360 degree picture of the intensity of feelings that are happening. It is also through both of these point of views that you get to know both characters quite well and not just one side of the romance. The only negative is that I felt that both sides were only partially explored because of the two points of view. I wanted to know more about Eleanor’s past and I wanted to understand more why Park’s dad was disappointed in him. However, I know that if the story was only told by one of them, the whole story would not have been told.

My only issue is the end. It is what kept me from gushing about the book like others. I cannot talk about it here as it is spoiler, but I wish it had slowed down and matched the pace and tone of the rest of the book. I know there are many that disagree with me. After finishing I had a couple discussions on Twitter with tweeps who had finished the book and they all disagreed with me. But, as @katsok pointed out to me, “Books belong to the reader”, so I am sticking with how I feel. I would, though, LOVE to talk to Rainbow about the ending because I am so intrigued to learn about her decision making.

Ricki’s Review: I loved the subtle nuances of this book. While some readers might find this book to be a bit cheesy, Rowell intentionally uses languages to show the minute details of life. The imagery is stunning–readers are easily able to imagine themselves in each of the scenes. Eleanor and Park are realistic teenagers. Eleanor doesn’t have long, flowy blond hair, and Park isn’t clad with giant biceps and shaggy hair that sweeps across his brow. Teens will see themselves in the insecurities and feelings of these two beautiful people.

I know some readers have discussed they are dissatisfied with the end of the book (like Kellee), but I found it to be perfect. It makes the reader think, and I love books that make me think critically. I loved how the story didn’t just focus on the romance between Eleanor and Park. Their families were powerful influences on all of their emotions and actions. Both Eleanor and Park have qualities that make them unlikeable, and the English teacher in me kept screaming, “YES! These are truly round characters! I have to show my students sample passages to prove that characters can be just like people.”

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: The language and sentence structure would make this a a fantastic choice for close analysis. The stylistic choices would make for rich class discussions. Teachers might consider assigning different pages for groups of students to analyze and then jigsawing to discuss Rowell’s language and style. Teachers might consider asking students to compare and contrast this book with other romances. They might discover that this is a more realistic love story, while other romances are a bit more idealistic. A good discussion could be had by looking at how Eleanor and Park dealt/felt about a situation since you have both points of view. It would also be a lot of fun to take a scene from the book and have the students rewrite it as if it took place in the 21st century.

Discussion Questions: How does this text differ from other contemporary romances?; Will a romantic teen relationship inevitably fail? Are Eleanor and Park doomed?; How do the characters’ home lives affect who they are as people?; How does Rowell effectively use language to convey the story?; How might the story be different if it was set twenty years later, in the current time period?; What do you think the 3 words are?

We Flagged: “Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive. As soon as he touched her, he wondered how he’d gone this long without doing it.” (p. 71)

“‘I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together,’ she whispered. ‘Which means, when I see you on Monday morning, it’s been like sixty hours since I’ve taken a breath.'” (p. 111)

“Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel like something. Eleanor sitting next to him on the couch made Park feel like someone had opened a window in the middle of the room. Like someone had replaced all the air in the room with brand-new, improved air (now with twice the freshness). Eleanor made him feel like something was happening. Even when they were just sitting on the couch.” (p. 165)

Read This If You Loved: The Fault in our Stars  by John Green, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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We both loved this one. What did you think?

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The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey

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The 5th Wave
Author: Rick Yancey
Published May 7th, 2013 by Putnam Juvenile

Summary: Aliens (and not the green, one-eyed ones we see in movies) invade Earth in waves. When the novel begins, the fourth wave has happened, and only the unlucky remain. If they wish to survive, they can trust no one. Cassie is alone, and she believes she is destined to be alone forever until she encounters Evan Walker. He turns her world upside down, defying all beliefs she holds about the world since the fourth wave. Now, she isn’t sure what she believes anymore.

Review: If you buy one book for your classroom this summer, this is the one to buy. I foresee it becoming as popular as The Hunger Games series. It is extremely engaging and very well-written. There are many plot twists that caused me to gasp and look around the room to see if anyone else was just as shocked. (My husband was sleeping.) The plot twists make it very difficult to review this book without giving much away. This is one of those books that teachers can put in their classrooms and expect the students to do the work, recommending it to others.

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: The themes of this book are complex, which would make for fantastic conversations in the classroom. This is not an empty science fiction–adolescents will learn about trust, loyalty, and integrity. It would be a great novel to teach students about what it means to be human. Teachers might ask students what Yancey’s purpose for writing this novel might be. Is he trying to teach what it means to be human or might he be offering an opinion about other-worldly threats? It would be an excellent model to teach shifting narration, as the book often shifts points-of-view, allowing readers to see a different glimpse of Yancey’s world. Each point-of-view is complex with rich characterization, and what I liked most was that the chapters didn’t alternate. Rick Yancey was a bit unconventional, in that he seemed to switch points of views when it best served his purpose. Each character didn’t get an even number of pages or chapters–the story took precedent over the structure.

Discussion Questions: Are we, as humans, innately selfish?; Should we trust others if it might be a risk to ourselves?; Are there limits to the lengths you would go to in order to survive?; How does this book differ from other literature in its depiction of aliens?; What does it mean to be human?; What was Yancey’s purpose in writing this novel?

We Flagged: “But if I’m it, the last of my kind, the last page of human history, like hell I’m going to let the story end this way. I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing. I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway. I am the one not running but facing. Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity. And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.”

“How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.”

Read This If You Loved: The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Divergent series by Veronica Roth, The Monstrumologist series by Ricky Yancey, The Host by Stephanie Meyer, Legend by Marie Lu

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Happy 4th of July, everyone! This text is sure to set off fireworks in your classroom (insert cheesy grin here).

Have you read it yet? Please, please share your thoughts!

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