books and reading

Readalikes: “I Survived Series”

i-survived

Recently I had a patron come in and ask if I had any suggestions for readalikes for the “I Survived…” series for middle-grade readers. This series by Lauren Tarshis is fast-paced, plot-driven, and focuses each book on a narrator who survived a historical event, ranging from the eruption at Pompeii to the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th to Nazi occupation in World War II.  Because the fictionalized accounts are grounded in real historical events, they provide readers a compelling look at things that actually happened.

For readers who have devoured the entire series, here are some more books that might scratch the itch for adventure, historical fiction, and natural and man-made disasters:

  • Stolen Children by Peg Kehret: Amy’s babysitting class didn’t prepare her for getting kidnapped with her charges and held captive at a remote wooded cabin.  Amy has to strandedthink fast to save her and the baby she’s been caring for.  Fast-paced and featuring a spunky heroine, Kehret is an award-winner who has a compelling story guaranteed to rivet readers.
  • Stranded series by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts: Yes, Survivor’s Jeff Probst has
    written a series of middle grade novels, and they’re a good fit for readers who love the I Survived… series. A group of kids get stranded on a deserted island, and they have to rely on each other–and their wits–to survive.  Perfect for readers who love the idea of kids on their own in the wild without adults.
  • The Dive (and sequels) by Gordon Korman: Four kids on a summer diving expedition discover sunken treasure.  The resulting adventure
    includes a race against time, sharks, and competition.  This will work for readers looking for adventure and survival skills, especially if they’re interested in the depths of the sea.
  • Storm Runners series bystorm-runners Roland Smith: A boy and his father are “storm runners,” which means they travel the country in pursuit of tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, Chase learns while on the road, but when the storm of the century hits, he’s in real danger.  Put this series in the hands of bad weather junkies.
  • The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka: In this series that blends the fantastical with the historical, three boys use a magical book to hop around in time, visiting places like the knights of the round table and the Jolly Roger pirate ship. Scieszka is known for blending his humor with a fast-paced plot, and readers interested in the historical will gobble this series right up.

Feel free to let me know if there’s something major I’m missing–I’m always happy to add more titles to my list for the voracious readers.

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books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Believarexic by J.J. Johnson

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Jennifer’s family doesn’t believe her when she tells them she needs treatment for her eating disorder. Reluctantly, they sign her into inpatient, and it isn’t long before she thinks she’s made a terrible mistake.  The locked doors, tough nurses, and harsh rules aren’t exactly what she imagined.  But in order to be discharged, Jennifer must adhere to the rules and work on getting better, which means confronting some uncomfortable truths about herself–and her family.

Based on Johnson’s own life, this autobiographical novel offers an interesting and fresh take on eating disorders and treatment.  Most remarkable is Johnson’s ability to write with clarity about the disorder without delving into the aspects that might trigger readers; a thing that is very common in memoirs about eating disorders.  Johnson also chooses to set her novel in the 80s, when she was a teen herself, and the details are spot-on and help to add dimension to the story.

The setting and the characters are vivid and authentic.  Jennifer’s struggles with her family in particular feels achingly real, and readers will identify with her inability to communicate effectively with them.  It’s clear Johnson did a lot of soul-searching in the writing of this novel, and the payoff is great.  It’s a hell of a story about healing and growing up, and readers will be glued to the page.

There are a few missteps here: the novel abruptly changes from verse to prose as Jennifer enters the second stage of her treatment, and the narration also switches from third to first-person.  These stylistic choices won’t trip up most readers, though.  There are also a few story lines or plot points that seemingly appear and disappear at random, making for an at-times choppy read.  Again, these are minor quibbles with an overall compelling book.

On the whole, this is a powerful story about growing up and getting well.  A bit of unevenness doesn’t overshadow the impact of the story or its characters.  Once again, J.J. Johnson demonstrates her adept skill at writing for young people.  Recommended.

Believarexic by J.J. Johnson. Peachtree Publishers: 2015. Library copy.

 

books and reading

Waiting on Wednesday: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

25614492Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Expected Release Date: February 2, 2016

In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

(summary via Goodreads)

No one does historical fiction like Sepetys does, so this one looks like it’s going to be an in-demand title.  I’m excited to see what she does with this time period and geographical location.  It looks to be like an exciting read!

What are you waiting on this week?

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

This fictionalized version of real events follows Zlatka and Fania as they attempt to survive Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The two form a friendship and become like sisters as they face the horrors of the Holocaust. One year, for Fania’s birthday, Zlatka and some of the other prisoners make a tiny stitched paper heart full of birthday wishes and hope.  An act of love and rebellion, this paper heart helps the girls survive the unimaginable.

This novel in verse succeeds on many levels.  Painstakingly researched, this fictional take on true events will keep readers riveted to the page.  The verse works exceedingly well, trading off perspectives between the two girls.  While there are moments where it is hard to distinguish between the two voices, the verse is on the whole gorgeous, sparse, and haunting.

Because the paper heart is a real artifact, it helps tie the story together without feeling overly sentimental. The poems use real bits of the wishes transcribed on the paper, making the story all the more authentic and poignant.  This is a harrowing tale that is sure to bring forth the tears.  It is also a story of hope and the amazing power of the human spirit.

This is a great addition to library shelves and will lend itself well to social studies classrooms as well.  It’s an accessible novel with a lasting effect on its readers.  Recommended.

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott. Simon & Schuster: 2015. Library copy.

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to integrate the all-white Jefferson High School in 1959 Virginia.  Although she was an honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes at this new high school, and she is tormented daily by the white students.  She meets Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the most vocal anti-integrationists and the editor of the local white paper.  She has been taught her whole life that “separate but equal” is the natural way of things.  When the two girls are forced to work together on a school project, they’re forced to confront truths about race and racism and their real feelings about each other.

Talley’s excellent debut novel is pretty much the epitome of required reading.  This knockout of a novel combines the complex issues of race, sexual orientation, and the politics of power and weaves a story that is both memorable and compelling.  With vivid characters, authentic attention to historical detail, and a message that never feels heavy-handed, Talley is an author to watch.

Credit is due to Talley’s ability as a writer to take a whole host of issues and never let them crowd or take over the story.  At its core, this is a story about two girls who are struggling with their respective situations.  Both girls have problems they must face and obstacles they have to overcome.  Despite the fact that at the onset of the story, they each feel they could never understand the other, this proves to be patently untrue.

Good characterization makes this novel work on multiple levels.  Both Sarah and Linda are given their own voices and each girl has real motivations for acting and thinking the way she does.  Neither girl is there to simply “teach” a lesson to the other one.  Their chemistry and their interactions with one another never feel forced.  This is an excellent example of how to allow characters grow and change.

Despite the fact that Talley’s novel is firmly rooted in the past, in the very true, very disturbing events of desegregation in the late 50s and 60s, there’s a timelessness to the issues her characters face.  Both girls are struggling with their sexual identities, with the politics of power and the systemic institutionalized racism they experience on a daily basis.  While we have made some progress in the fifty-odd years since schools were forced to desegregate, we still have a long way to go.  Talley’s book illustrates that, providing readers no easy answers but still allowing the book to have a hopeful, realistic conclusion.

This is a must-read, must-stock title.  It fits in nicely with lessons about integration and the “massive resistance” movement, but it also works as a piece of stellar, sometimes brutal fiction.  This is definitely one of the best books of 2014.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. Harlequin Teen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes

Anika Dragomir is growing up in 1980s Nebraska, and she feels like she’s living a double life.  On the outside, she’s one of the popular girls (the third most popular in school, to be exact), but on the inside?  She thinks she’s made of “spider soup.”  Possibly part vampire (because her father’s Romanian), she works hard to keep her real self invisible.  She toes the line to keep Becky Vilhauer (most popular girl at school) happy.  When misfit Logan McDonough shows up at school hotter than the previous year, Anika realizes she’s interested.  But then school hottie Jared Kline shows an interest, too.  But if Anika chooses either boy, she’ll piss of Becky in a serious way.  So who does she choose?

Andrea Portes’s novel about life in semi-rural Nebraska in the 1980s is full of dark humor and is at times deeply funny and deeply sad.  The unconventional Anika has a unique voice that will take readers a little getting used to, but it’s thoroughly authentic and never falters in its consistency.  Even when Anika makes some entirely immoral choices (drugging her boss at work), readers will root for her, because she’s not made of spider soup–she’s made of strong, good stuff.

While there is a bit of a love triangle in this story, it’s clear that Anika feels the most for loner Logan, who has a troubled family he’s constantly dealing with.  The novel focuses largely on Anika’s navigation of her own family and her friend situations, but the novel is interspersed with short chapters that feature Anika pedaling fast to some sort of event.  This helps ramp up the book’s tension, and it also clues readers into the fact that something pretty terrible is around the corner.

The foreshadowing helps readers to brace themselves for the book’s gut-punch of a climax, but it doesn’t come close to ruining it.  The novel’s end is sad and shocking, and no amount of warning will fully prepare readers who make it to the finish.  This is a strong novel, and worth it for readers who like their narrators off-kilter and their stories a bit grittier.

Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes. Harper Children’s: 2014. Electronic Galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Salva Dut is 11 years old in 1985 when the war in Sudan tears him from his family.  One of the “lost boys” of Sudan, Salva travails the African continent in search of his family and safety.  After spending years in a refugee camp, he finally gets the chance to move to America.  Nya is 11 years old in 2008 and travels with her family as the seasons change so they can be near water.  She makes multiple trips a day to a pond hours from her house so that they can survive.  These two children’s lives with intersect in ways they never dreamed possible.

Linda Sue Park’s sparse narration makes this beautiful, hopeful novel one to remember.  The bare minimum approach to the narration makes the novel’s dual stories move along at a fast pace, perfect for readers of all ages (and especially well-suited to readers who have short attention spans).  Both Salva and Nya are compelling characters,and Park does an admirable job of allowing them to have their own unique stories and motivations.

Interweaving true-life historical details (the character of Salva is based in part on the life of a real Sudanese lost boy) with fictional ones, Park creates a novel that is grounded in history but has a timeless feel to it.  By including the more modern story of Nya, Park helps readers bridge the gap between the war-torn Sudan that Salva experienced with a more contemporary perspective.  Readers of all ages should be moved and astonished by the resilience of these character’s and the novel’s realistic yet hopeful tone.

Surprising, moving, and definitely a book that should be in libraries and classrooms all over the place.  Although the novel occasionally treads the line of providing too much context, Park’s control over the prose and the narrative keep it from ever truly intruding into the story.  This is a gem of a book.  Highly recommended.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books: 2010. Borrowed from Oyster.