Sunday, November 29, 2009


By Carolyn Mackler

Ages 16-18

Jena is a bubbly, curvy, effusive girl who collects quotations and desperately hopes that she will find a guy that likes her despite what she sees as her physical imperfections.

Dakota is a jock. On the baseball team and the wrestling squad, this gorgeous teen can do no wrong. But he can’t seem to get along with either of his divorced parents or his nerdy little brother. Dakota has suffered an intense personal loss, and the way he responds to his grief can be destructive to those around him.

Skye is a stunning half Brazilian, half Caucasian actress who seems to have it all. But now all the things that once were important to her no longer matter. She is hiding something ugly beneath her beautiful exterior.

Owen is a shy computer geek—much more at home composing entries for his blog, “Loser With a Laptop,” than interacting with other people. Plus his overprotective mother can’t seem to let go.

Jena, Dakota, Skye, and Owen seem to have nothing in common, except for the fact that they are all trapped together in Paradise, a five-star resort in the Caribbean. Their interaction on the island sets forth a chain of events that forces the teens into self-examination and leaves none of them unchanged. Told from the point of view of each of the four characters, Mackler’s insightful novel is thought provoking and well written and presents an honest account of what it’s like to be a teenager today.

Discussion points: suicide, relationships, Internet relationships vs. “real” relationships, body image, sex

Caveats: semi-explicit sex scenes, bad language

Discussion questions to get you started:

    1. In Jena’s story, we get a distinct idea of what kind of people Skye and Dakota are. How does this picture change once we hear their sides of the story? How does it stay the same? Are Dakota and Skye more sympathetic or less sympathetic characters once you hear the story from their point of view?

    2. Jena expresses a negative body image and she is self-conscious about her personality. How is this different from the way the other three characters see her? What does this say about how we might see ourselves as opposed to the way others see us?

    3. Owen’s mother wishes him to experience the “real world” as opposed to a virtual world of blogging and Internet relationships. Does she have a valid concern? Is there a difference between online friendships and real-life friendships? Is one better than the other?

    4. Skye seems to have it all: looks, an awesome career, money. But she’s not happy. What does that say about what makes us happy in this world?

    5. This story is written from the point of view of all four characters. Why might the author have made that choice? What do you think are some of the benefits of this format? Some of the weaknesses?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Anne Brashares, Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go

By Patrick Ness

Ages 15-18

In thirty days Todd Hewett will be a man. On that day—his thirteenth birthday—there will be no more boys in Prentisstown. In fact, there will be no more children because Todd Hewett was the last boy born, and there are no women or girls left alive. Despite the school being shut down and history deemed irrelevant, everyone in Prentisstown knows the story of how when the settlers came to this new planet they encountered the alien inhabitants who infected them with a germ that killed all the women. But the germ that killed the women had a very different affect upon the men: it caused them to be able to hear one another’s thoughts…all their thoughts. There is nothing private, nothing secret, just constant, invasive Noise.

Then Todd encounters a hole in the Noise—a place where there is nothing, just silence. This discovery will put him in more danger than he has ever experienced in his life. Todd flees Prentisstown with his loyal talking dog, Manchee, as well as an unexpected companion he meets on his journey. The more distance he puts between himself and Prentisstown, the more he discovers he has been lied to his whole life about the history and nature of his community. He will soon discover the truth about the nature of power and what it means to be a man.

Full of violence and heartbreak, The Knife of Never Letting Go will grab hold of you and take you on a painful, emotional, amazing journey of a boy trying to navigate his way to adulthood. Todd, unsure of himself and unsure of his place in the world, is denied a proper man-making ceremony. So, is he a man? How does he determine who his friends are? How can he know who he is when everyone else’s thoughts are constantly seeping into his brain? And what does a person do when he has no place left to run?

Full of breathtaking action, this is a bildungsroman like we’ve never seen before, and the cliffhanger ending will leave the reader trembling with anticipation for the sequel.

Discussion points: gender roles, omnipresence of technology, coming-of-age

Caveats: violence, bad language, sexual references, the villain is a pastor/priest, cruelty to animals

Questions to get you started:
    1. Patrick Ness said of The Knife of Never Letting Go, “Information is absolutely everywhere today—texts and e-mails and messaging—so much it feels like you can’t get away from it. I began to wonder what it would be like to be in a town where you really couldn’t get away.” Is this true for you? Do you feel like all the information, social networking, and technological communication options are Noise?

    2. What does it mean that men are Noisy and women are silent? Why do you think Ness chose these roles for the genders? How would you feel if someone could hear everything you though, but you couldn’t hear anything they thought. How would you respond?

    3. Todd struggles with what it means to be a man? What do you think this book says about a person’s journey to adulthood? Given this, do you think Todd is a man at the end of this book or not?

    4. This community is a group of settlers from a planet presumed to be Earth. Does the fact the characters come from our culture (in the future, of course) add or detract from the believability of the story? Would it have been better if Ness had made the setting an undefined fantasy setting? Or does the connection to Earth help us understand their plight better?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: Feed by M.T. Anderson, Wine of the Dreamers by John D. McDonald, Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Magician's Elephant

By Kate DiCamillo

Ages 8-12

“But perhaps you do not understand, I was crippled by an elephant! Crippled by an elephant that came through the roof.”

In an imprudent display of real power a magician conjures an elephant instead of a bouquet of lilies. The pachyderm lands in the lap of Madam Bettine LaVaughn, throwing the city of Baltese into an uproar. She inspires the bakers to make pastries called Elephant Ears and the people to dance a lumbering dance called The Elephant. Her presence is the subject of conversation all across town. Where did she come from? What should be done about the magician who conjured her? Is he a criminal? Can she be sent back? And should she? The only person who is sure of anything is twelve-year-old Peter Augustus Duchene. A fortuneteller told him an elephant would lead him to his sister—and an elephant has appeared. That means that Peter’s guardian, Vilna Lutz, lied, and his baby sister is alive. Peter intends to find her with the help of the elephant. What he does not realize is that the elephant needs his help as well.

The Magician’s Elephant is a compact story about family, forgiveness, and home. Lovely writing, lovely story, lovely pictures, lovely themes. Just lovely.

Caveats: discussion of war and soldiers dying on the battlefield, reference to a stillborn child, reference to magic

Possible topics for discussion: war, family, forgiveness, significance of home

Questions to get you started:

  1. The elephant seems to be many different things to all the characters: for the magician she is his one display of power as well as his downfall, for Madame Bettine LaVaughn she is the instrument of her disability. For the countess Quintet she is a means to establish herself in society. For Peter she is the hope that his sister lives, and for Adele she is the hope that someone will come to claim her. But is the elephant really any of these things? Is she a symbol? Or is she just an elephant?

  1. Hans Ickman says to the magician and to Madam LaVaughn, “It is important that you say what you mean to say. Time is too short. You must speak words that matter.” What does he mean by this? Are there things you should say?

  1. Laughter is important to two of the characters in this book: Madame LaVaughn and Bartok Whynn. Bartok laughs constantly after his horrible accident leaves him disfigured and then stops when the small group of people comes to get the elephant. And after the elephant leaves, Madame LaVaughn laughs aloud and hugs Adele. What does laughter mean for each of these characters?

  1. Dreams play an important part of this book. Bartok, Peter, and Adele all dream. What does each of their dreams mean and how are they connected to one another?

  1. What does the snow symbolize? Why might DiCamillo have used this symbol?

  1. When Hans Ickman says to Madam LaVaughn, “Everyone has gone a little mad, her response is, “Oh, very well. I see.” Why does “madness” make everything ok? And what signs of madness are around?

If you liked this you might like: Clockwork by Philip Pullman, The Wild Hunt by Jane Yolen, Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, Skellig by David Almond, and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Creature of the Night

By Kate Thompson

Ages 15-18

Bobby is a despicable human being…but the reader will still want to see him to find redemption and success. Therein lies the contradictory beauty of this brief novel by Kate Thompson. Thompson has created a story that offers a masterful juxtaposition of the story of a troubled teen and the fading mythology of fairies in Ireland.

14-year-old Bobby is on a one-way street that will inevitably end with him in jail or a grave. He lives with his volatile 28-year-old mother and his sensitive baby brother, Dennis. The novel begins as the three of them have just left Dublin to live in the country. Bobby’s mother claims that the move is to get him away from “bad influence friends,” but she also has demons she is trying to escape. Bobby is not pleased to leave the city. He is a part of his older cousin’s gang, and he loves everything they do: stealing cars, doing drugs, vandalizing…anything that defies authority. Life in the country is simpler: people trust one another, family is all-important, and people laugh more. But there is darkness below the surface. The cottage Bobby’s family rents has a mysterious history: the original couple who lived there supposedly had a changeling child. No one ever saw this girl, but people heard her shrieking in the night. It is commonly believed that the girl’s parents murdered her in the end; they were both put in prison. And now the man who previously rented the cottage has disappeared, leaving behind his car and all of his belongings. When Bobby’s family arrives they are encouraged to put out milk for the fairy folk, but Bobby and his mother believe that to be a silly superstition and they refuse. Bobby’s little brother, Dennis, begins to behave strangely: He puts out the milk his mother and brother refuse to put out, and he speaks of a little old woman who comes in through the dog door. Despite the eeriness of this claim, Bobby can’t be bothered to think about supernatural goings on; he is on a mission to hotwire the car left behind by the previous tenant and hightail it back to Dublin. But the people he thinks are waiting for him back in Dublin don’t really care whether or not he returns, and he discovers in this little community people who are willing to trust him and want to see him succeed despite himself. He discovers a love for something besides the debauchery that is pulling him toward the country. But will horror of the creature of the night keep Bobby from staying in a place where he has the opportunity for a real future? And who is the creature of the night?

This thin book doesn’t have in-your-face bone-chilling horror, nor does it offer an unrealistic portrayal of miraculous turnaround in Bobby’s character. What it does demonstrate is subtle old-world creepiness and real-life redemption of a broken person—not perfect, but full of hope. Slightly shivery, beautifully written, and incredibly insightful, The Creature of the Night will make readers hope for the best in people and will encourage them to continue to believe in fairies.

Discussion points: choices, folklore, the nature of grace

Caveats: language, drugs, violence, allusions to teen sex

Questions to get you started:

  1. Bobby is a very unlikable character. Despite that, did you enjoy the book? Do you need to like a character in order to like a book? Were there things about Bobby you liked? Were there things about Bobby you could relate to?

  1. This is a book of juxtapositions: new world/old world, nature/technology, country/city. Is Thompson saying one way of life is better than another?

  1. At the end of the book Bobby reveals a bit about his life and how he is doing. Do you find this ending believable? Is it a happy ending? Would you have preferred the book end another way?

  1. Who or what do you think “the creature of the night” is? Is it the little woman? And if so, who or what do you think she is? If you don’t think the title refers to her, who or what else could it refer to?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Skellig by David Almond, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones.