Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, illustrations by Brendan Shusterman. HarperCollins, 2015. 9780061134111.

As a book blogger, I hope I can bring you some value in my writing: helping you find a hidden gem or highlighting the best new stuff. So it feels weird to write about a book you probably already know is really good. The book, published three years ago, is widely-acclaimed, by a well-loved YA author, and won the National Book Award. It’s not new and it’s not hidden, but it is a gem. Challenger Deep ended up on my phone when I was taking screenshots of my library’s eBook platform for a presentation and needed to borrow a book. Before I knew it I was completely sucked in.

The chapters are short and propel you along quickly through two parallel stories. In one, fifteen-year-old Caden is beginning to suspect something might be wrong, but he can’t articulate what or why to his family. Strange ideas keep nagging at him, he feels connected in some profound way to everyone and everything, and he’s afraid that a kid at school wants to kill him. These thoughts become more persistent, the illusions and emotions become more heightened, and he develops physical symptoms: his artwork becomes abstract and uncontrolled (the art in the book is drawn by the author’s son, who is the inspiration for the book), he walks for hours and hours every day, and he never wants to eat. In the other story Caden is aboard a pirate ship crewed by teens with similar problems. Reality warps from moment to moment and analogy, metaphor, and even puns become real as the ship heads for the depths of the Marianas Trench.

The spoiler/not spoiler (the information is on the book jacket and in every review) is that Caden is struggling through the onset of schizophrenia. The chapters on the ship explore his experience through metaphor and may be the reality that Caden is living at his lowest points. The chapters set in real life show Caden’s perspective as he copes as best he can while his friends and family are frightened and bewildered by the changes in his behavior. The chapters begin to overlap as Caden responds to treatment, and the “real life” chapters show him regaining his perspective and sense of humor. My favorite character was the ship’s figurehead/fellow patient who forms a deep connection with Caden and gives him advice about his future. As Caden himself points out, people’s experiences with schizophrenia and its treatment are very individual: this is only one story and can only really show one experience. But I think it’s invaluable for humanizing this experience.

8-Bit Nostalgia

Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.

Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
Gene: Yeah.
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
Continue reading “8-Bit Nostalgia”

Mom Rom Com

Colonial Madness by Jo Whittemore. Aladdin, 2015. 9781481405089. Also published as Me & Mom vs. The World.

When I booktalk to middle school classrooms, I like to bring at least one squeaky-clean book for the kids who need one. (And as a palate-cleanser for all of the books about skeletons and bizarre animals that I bring.) Colonial Madness was a perfect fit. The plot is light and cute: an eccentric aunt has decided that her huge historic house will go to the relative who can best live like a colonial settler in an heir-on-heir reality-show-style competition. Throw in a cute boy (the son of the house’s caretakers) and you’ve got a screwball family romantic comedy. Tori and her mom, competing as a team to save her mom’s dress shop, have a warm and close relationship, even if mom is often silly and impractical. How so? She and Tori once made a massive ice cream sundae in the bathtub, played hide and seek in a graveyard, and decided to see how many stuffed animals they could velcro to their bodies. Tori loves her mom a lot, but still gets mad at her and hurts her feelings. And it’s all presented in a way that I think would be very reassuring to a kid, especially to one who doesn’t want to read anything mom might think is inappropriate.

How to Use Pink to Draw the North

How To Survive In The North by Luke Healy. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620069.

how-to-survive-in-the-northFor epic tales of icy climes that will make you feel the cold in your bones, read Leiber’s Whiteout or Bertozzi’s Shackleton. But for a beautifully rendered meditation on loneliness, bad choices, and survival, look no farther than How To Survive In The North.

There are three intertwined narratives. One begins in Nome, Alaska, in 1913 as explorer Robert Bartlett sets off on a scientific expedition to the arctic aboard The Karluk. (All does not go well.) The second begins in Nome in 1921 when young native Ada Blackjack signs on as seamstress for an expedition to claim Wrangel Island for Canada. (All does not go well.) The third, unlike the other two, is not based in fact. It involves a tenured professor in trouble with his school for having an inappropriate relationship with a student. On a forced sabbatical, he starts going through the papers of a former professor named Stefannson, learning about Bartlett and Ada Blackjack (via her diary) in the process. But he can’t get the student out of his mind. (All does not go well.)

There are two striking things about the way Healy drew this graphic novel. First, the colors — he uses a the washed out pink, yellow, and blue green that make up the aurora on the cover, along with white, to tell the stories. And somehow it totally works. Second, Healy creates the impression of maintaining a constant distance from is characters. Before taking another look just now, I could have sworn there were no drawings of them at a distance or close-up, that they were all framed as if seen from the same distance throughout. I would have been wrong, but somehow the work as a whole gives this impression — it feels like I’ve been watching an art film that I loved but that I can’t quite explain.

This is one of my favorite graphic novels from Nobrow, which is putting out some great books. Be sure to check out Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk books, Louis Roskosch’s Leeroy and Popo, and Marion Fayolle’s In Pieces.

Gross vs Reader, Everyone Wins

Dan Versus Nature by Don Calame. Candlewick Press, 2016. 9780763670719.

danvsnatureGene: Dan vs. Nature: the ultimate teen boy book!
Sarah: (laughs)
G: I would give this book to almost any normal, hormonal, insane teen boy that I know.
S: Yes. I gave it to an ELL student who said he liked Calame’s Swim the Fly. His tutor was there with him and didn’t know what the book was about. I said “it’s a nature book. It’s about nature.”
G: It’s like Hatchet, but everybody has a raging boner the entire time.
S: OK, the very first sentence of the book: “Charlie and I are getting our asses punched.” This is why I decided I had to read the entire book. There’s a lot of books where if it grabs me on line one, I’m in. “You had me at hello.”
G: So Dan and his friend Charlie are geeks.
S: Yes, and his mom, uh… hasn’t had the best luck with boyfriends. Continue reading “Gross vs Reader, Everyone Wins”

The Adventure of the Clashing Running Shoes

Running Girl by Simon Mason. Scholastic, 2016. 9781338036428.

runninggirl

What if a mixed-race, 15-year-old suburban British slacker had a mind like Sherlock Holmes’, with his photographic memory, knowledge, and analytical skills? Garvie Smith is bored out of his skull in school, gets terrible grades, refuses to apply himself, and hangs out with friends at the park smoking weed. The only thing he puts any effort into is avoiding another lecture from his mom. Then one of his classmates, Chloe Dow, goes missing. Garvie takes it upon himself to find out what happened to her even as the young and serious Detective Inspector Singh tells him to leave the investigation to the police.

The two brilliant investigators piece together conflicting stories and physical evidence on their own, only occasionally sharing their insights with one another. I rooted for each of them through heaps of twists and turns. This books is 432 pages long and never lags. I am someone who tunes out during chase scenes in pretty much any media, but the one in Running Girl had me gasping on the edge of my seat. I really hope this is the start of a series, or maybe even two: one for Garvie and one for DI Singh.

The Attack of the Night of the Living Dead

No one is happier to see another North American publisher putting out French graphic novels in translation. So when I found these two among the review books at December’s WASHYARG meeting, I was ecstatic.

The Attack by Loïc Dauvillier and Glen Chapron.  Adapted (into a graphic novel) from the novel by Yasmina Khadra.  Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Firefly, 2016. 9781770857612.  152 pp.

the-attackDr. Amin Jaafari and others at the Israeli hospital where he works feel the explosion when a bomb detonates in a nearby restaurant, then spend hours trying to save the victims. (Among them, one man who would rather die than be touched by an Arab. Dr. Jaafari helps him anyway.) He’s soon called back to the hospital for what he thinks is a medical emergency. But he is asked to identify his wife’s body.

Dr. Jaafari thought his wife had gone on a short trip to see her grandmother. Instead she became the latest suicide bomber in Israel. The police don’t believe that he didn’t know she’d been radicalized. Others attack him and vandalize his home. As an Israeli citizen of Arab descent he is distrusted by Jews and Arabs alike. After a colleague takes him in, Jaafari goes on a dangerous journey to find out who his wife was.

I particularly liked the view the story offers into life in different parts of Israel. (I’ve been corresponding with an Unshelved reader who lives there, so I couldn’t have found this at a better time.) The images in the book feel incredibly straightforward, and the colors are marvelous. Makes me want to read Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem again, though I’m going to read Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less first.

Continue reading “The Attack of the Night of the Living Dead”