Monday, September 28, 2009

Realism, Romance, and Censhorship: Girl 15, Charming, but Insane.

Bibliographic Data
Limb, Sue. Girl 15, Charming but Insane. New York: Delacorte Press, 2004. ISBN 0385732147.

Plot Summary
Jordan's best friend, Flora, is beautiful, smart, everything Jordan wishes she could be. But when Flora tries to become a singer in her boyfriend's band, Jordan learns that looks and intelligence aren't everything. Sometimes, what you've really wanted has been there all along...

Critical Analysis
The plot of Girl, 15, Charming But Insane, is about a normal (?) 15 year old, Jess Jordan, who is trying to reconnoiter the whys and wherefores of growing up. First crush, first love, parents’ odd foibles, best friends who don’t know they’re perfect, trying to figure out who she is, they’re all in here. The story is told from the limited omniscient point of view, so the reader is privy to Jess’s view of her slightly crazed world. One of the funniest moments in the story is when Jess goes to a party after having stuffed her bra with minestrone soup in sandwich bags. During the party, a particularly obnoxious boy squeezes her breast and the bags burst all over the boy and Jess. Jess goes to the bathroom to clean herself up, removing her top and bra. She later finds out that somebody had placed a hidden video camera in the bathroom, and the video was going to be seen by everybody who was anybody among Jess‘s circle of acquaintances.

          ”She didn’t have to worry about being sick on CCTV. What she had
     done was much, much worse. She had stripped to the waist. She had
     thrown her homemade bra inserts down the loo. And she had washed
     minestrone off her boobs—-while talking to them and calling them
     Bonnie and Clyde! Jess wondered how far it was to the nearest
     nunnery, because her life was definitely over.” (65).

The book’s style flows like Jess’s life, in a series of ups and downs. One moment she’s in total despair, the next she’s elated. She has an argument with her mom about giving up her bedroom to her Granny, storms out and spends the night at a friend’s house. One the way home the next morning, she daydreams in the “they’ll be sorry” mode, until she reaches her house. “By the time she got home, her insides had screwed themselves up into a dreadful knot, and she wished she hadn’t eaten…”(43). Then she walks in and finds a note from her mom telling her Jess didn’t have to take the dreaded small bedroom after all. “Tears of joy ran down Jess’s cheeks. Her mum was so kind! Jess loved her so much!” (44) Within 5 minutes, Jess has gone from the pits of despair to the heights of ecstasy. For those of us who have already finished with the roller-coaster ride of adolescent hormones, this book is poignantly reminiscent. But for teens that are still deep in the throes of puberty, reading about the realistic mood swings of another ‘normal’ teen can be helpful – “Hey, other kids feel this way, too! I’m not so strange after all.”

Later in the story, Jess realizes that she is a very funny person. One of her teachers. Mr. fFthergill, encourages her to do a standup routine for the school show, but Jess is taken ill and unable to perform the routine. Mr. Fothergill, who has a copy of Jess’s standup routine, “Girl, 15, Charming but Insane,” gives it to Flora, Jess’s perfect, beautiful, gets-all-the-breaks friend. Sure enough, Flora steals the show.

          “The thought of Flora doing her stand-up routine was just
     absolute torture. It made it worse that the feeling was kind of
     selfish, and Jess felt ashamed of herself. It was all her own work,
      and though she had really loved writing it, she had been looking
     forward to getting up on the stage and performing it to a live
     audience more than she had ever looked forward to anything.
     She hated Flora for having stolen it. She couldn’t help it.
     She knew it wasn’t Flora’s fault. Mr. Fothergill had asked her
     to do it. But Jess simply hated her.“ (192).

Not only is it tough enough being an adolescent, but it’s even tougher when you have a wonderful, beautiful friend like Flora who can’t help being perfect. But learning who your real friends are and how to deal with their quirks is the theme of this book. For young adults who are trying on different aspects of the world to see how they fit, this novel shows them that no matter who you are or how you act, your real friends will always remain true to you.

Awards and Honors
Heartland Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, 2006; Finalist United States.

Review Excerpts
Frances Bradburn (Booklist, Sep. 15, 2004 (Vol. 101, No. 2))
...Limb's novel features Jess Jordan, big of bum and small of boob, who covets her best friend Flora's body, beauty, and popularity. Jess is ... friends with Fred, the class clown and nerd. After Flora confesses a crush on Fred, Jess suddenly realizes what everyone else has known for years: she and Fred are perfect together! Limb's characters are memorable. Jess is funny although occasionally over the top; her dad, whom we meet via his daily horoscopes, which delineate the chapters, is funny, too, but unreliable; and her peacenik librarian mother is a source of both embarrassment and security. Most endearing is Fred, whose wit, integrity, intelligence, and outward confidence earn him the love and respect of his peers and probably of readers, too. Full of bawdy humor, this is a charming, easy read that handles issues of body image, popularity, and adolescent insecurity with humor.

Donna Freedman (Children's Literature)
This book will no doubt be compared to Bridget Jones' Diary, and with good reason: it's written as the journal of a misfit-in-her-own-mind English gal who's at war with her own body and looking for love in all the wrong places. But Limb's story succeeds on its own as a hilariously droll and at times touching tale that hits all the usual teen-angst stops: parties, clothes, embarrassing parents and, of course, snogging.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2004 (Vol. 72, No. 14))
Plucky and mouthy, Jess Jordan manages to get herself in a variety of messes, mostly having to do with boys. Convinced that she is hopeless compared to her best friend, Flora, she relies on her humor and dry wit to stay afloat. She soon finds that while her mouth can get her in trouble, it can also get her the kind of attention she wants. Romance blooms in improbable places as Jess makes it through a long spring full of funny adventures and lucky mishaps. A tendency towards an easy laugh keeps the story rolling, but also keeps it from reaching any depth. Timely references to pop culture will cause this one to date quickly, but an occasional well-crafted scene and witty dialogue help it along.

Book Hook
  • Sue Limb has also written a prequel and two sequels to this book:
    1. Girl, Barely 15: Flirting for England,
    2. Girl, (Nearly) 16, Absolute Torture, and
    3. Girl, Going on 17, Pants on Fire.
  • If you liked this book about teen-aged English schoolgirls, try Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison.
Online Connections
Sue Limb's website.

Realism, Romance, and Censorship: Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle

Bibliographic Data
Korman, Gordon. Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle. New York: Hyperion, 2004. ISBN 0786809183.

Plot Summary
In this hilarious sequel to Son of the Mob, Vince has escaped his New York mobster family roots and taken off for his freshman college year in California. But when his older brother shows up with homemade ziti and some 'Uncles," Vince is quickly and unwillingly drawn back into "the family business." Throw in a gorgeous undercover FBI agent, a roommate who is the son of a popular but secretly corrupt Congressman, and the foibles of film school, and Vince wonders if he'll even make it through his first semester. At the end of the book, though, he is left with a new understanding of how much his father really does care for him, despite his Godfather persona.

Critical Analysis
Vince Luca has escaped his Mafioso roots back in New York to come to California, only to find his past coming after him. Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle is filled with “cardboard exaggerations” (Vardell, 2003) such as Mafia thugs with hearts of gold, a California beauty of the stunning starlet variety, and assorted clueless college students. The movie-making industry is based on illusions and making things seem larger than real life. Vince wants to make movies. But his life IS a movie. When he despairs of ever completing his film class project, Vince turns in a film of an actual crime taking place, courtesy of some of his “Uncles” from New York. While this desperate ploy wins him accolades from his film professor, the Uncles later steal the tape back –- after all, it’s “evidence.” Meanwhile, Vince’s girlfriend is caught up making her own movie debut, his best friend has made a new, very suspicious (to Vince, at least) friend in Las Vegas, and Vince’s roommate is spiraling downward into Vince isn’t sure what kind of mental state. Sounds like a B movie from the 1950s.

Even though both the plot and characters seem over the top, these exaggerations work on a visceral level. How many teens have ever wished they belonged to any family but their own? Vince has this same desire, except when he talks about family, he’s talking about the Family, with a capital F. Reading about Vince and his Family problems shows other teens that their own families maybe aren’t as bad as they could be. At the end of the story, Vince is left with a new understanding of how much his father loves him.

          “Crowded out by so many other revelations, the real top story of
     tonight is just beginning to sink in.

          My father was willing to take a bullet for me.” (240)

This story is told in the first person point of view by Vince. His laidback approach to life is obvious in the narration. He’s probably seen things other people can only imagine, so nothing should phase him, right? Well… Let’s let Vince tell the story of when his girlfriend came to dinner at their house in New York for the first and only time.

          “And then the meal is seasoned with a little dash of the vending
     machine business.

          There’s a pounding at the door, and in staggers Benny the Zit, who
     sometimes does odd jobs for Tommy. He looks like something out of
     Dawn of the Dead-—covered from head to toe in blood, with a
     stainless-steel corkscrew buried in his neck up to the third spiral.

          My father, who just turned sixty and claims to be slowing down,
     leaps out of his chair, charges across the foyer, and leaves his feet
     like an NFL linebacker. He hits Benny right between the numbers,
     driving him back outside. The door slams shut behind them.

          “Old family friend.” Mom tells Kendra confidentially. “Poor boy
     cut himself shaving.”

          From our front stoop comes an earsplitting scream as Dad yanks
     the corkscrew from Benny’s flesh.

          Mom has an explanation for this, too. “Owls. They‘re all over the

          For the rest of the meal, we pretend to concentrate on our food,
     and not the howls of agony that come as my father, who includes
     amateur surgery on his list of talents, stitches up Benny the Zit in
     our not-very-sterile garage. Kendra hangs tough, but at one point,
     I look over, and she’s gone so pale that she appears to have no

          She’s still a little shaky when I drop her at home. “Is your house
     like that every night?”

          “No,” I deadpan.; “Mom only makes gnocchi on special occasions.”
     And we crack up laughing.

          Mom hands down her judgment that night. “A beautiful girl—a
     lovely person. Don’t bring her here no more. Do her a favor.” (19-20)

And other teens think their families are strange? Maybe not as much as they first thought after reading this book. Between the hilarious episodes and farce, there’s a definite message in this story, that family is family, whether it’s spelled with a capital F or not.

Awards and Honors
M. Jerry Weiss Book Award, 2007; Winner Grades 7-12 New Jersey.

Review Excerpts
Todd Morning (Booklist, Oct. 1, 2004 (Vol. 101, No. 3))
The complicated plot involves the kidnapping of a union boss, the unmasking of a seemingly high-minded congressman, and Vince's brief fling with a beautiful FBI informant. By the end, Vince has managed to sort through the thickets of corruption, thievery, and colossal misunderstandings, finding that his first semester of college has been much more lively than the average freshman's. Korman delivers many funny lines throughout as he deftly balances satirical elements with an action-packed story.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2004 (Vol. 72, No. 17))
Korman's cleverly conceived and plotted followup to Son of the Mob (2002) will keep fans in stitches as hero Vince Luca, the son of a Long Island-based mafia boss, again tries unsuccessfully to extricate himself from "The Life." Determined to leave all things mob behind him, Vince crosses the continent to study film in California but soon finds himself up to his camera lens in dirty doings. Worse, the love of his life, who also happens to be the daughter of the FBI agent investigating his father, is starring in a pretentious classmate's film project and no longer has time for him. Although the focus is on funny, to his credit Korman doesn't ignore the harsher realities of the underworld nor the uneasy alliance between powerful fathers and their struggling-to-define-themselves sons.

Leslie McCombs (VOYA, December 2004 (Vol. 27, No. 5))
Vincent Luca is off to college at last… Unfortunately for Vince, one cannot escape the mob that easily. In no time at all, his oldest brother, Tommy, and a flood of "uncles" start appearing at his dorm, armed with trouble and his mother's famous five-cheese baked ziti. Vince is certain that they are not there for a vacation to Disneyland. But Vince has his own problems when his roommate's goddess of a girlfriend starts chasing after the son of the mob. Vince spends his first semester away from home tying to retain his own girlfriend, avoid his roommate's girlfriend, and figure out what his father is up to….The complicated plot is neatly bound together by one-liners and awkward situations that Vince cannot seem to avoid, no matter how hard he tries. Each character is portrayed with deft touches of reality that mix perfectly with the clever comedy of errors. It is easy to relate to Vince's problems with his father, friends, and girlfriend. Korman's latest offering is a wonderful sauce filled with brilliant characterization, sneaky plot twists, and humor that will make teens fall off their chairs with laughter.

Book Hook
  • If you enjoyed this book, try its prequel, Son of the Mob (2002).
  • Korman has also written many other books for middle and high school, among them, One False Note in the "39 Clues" series and "on the Run," a series of books about teen siblings Aidan and Meg Falconer who get involved with the FBI when their parents are imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit.
Online Connections
Gordon Korman's official website, including his brand new blog.

Vardell, Sylvia. 2003. Texas Woman's University. LS 5623 Adv. Lit for Young Adults. Online Lectures > Module 2: Realism, Romance & Censorship > Evaluation Criteria. Accessed 9/22/2009.

Realism, Romance, & Censorship: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Bibliographic Data
Lyga, Barry. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. ISBN 0618723927.

Plot Summary
Fanboy is a geek and more intelligent than even most of his teachers, which makes him an easy target for bullies. He's kept a "List" of students, teachers and other people who have made his life miserable since 6th grade. He fantasizes about the school being taken over in a Columbine like incident and all the members of the List being struck down in the resultant gunfire. When he first meets Goth Girl aka Kyra, they initially bond over their similar fantasies of the school being violently taken over. But Kyra doesn't have a List, though. She wants everybody in the school to die. This is the story of how the two teens help each other, but in the end, just as in real life, both Fanboy and the readers of this story are left wondering if it's enough.

Critical Analysis
The plot of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl is very realistic in today's world of Columbine and similar incidents. A Google search for "Columbine wannabes" turned up about 576,000 hits. And almost everybody over the age of 18 can remember at least one incident of feeling alienated and different in high school. In this novel, feelings of wanting to actually destroy those who are making them feel that way are crucial to the plot. Donnie, nicknamed Fanboy by Kyra, fantasizes about somebody else taking over the school and himself being the hero of the day, while Kyra, the Goth Girl, has even stronger fantasies about doing the shootings herself. The problem that these 2 main characters have to deal with is that they both know, on some level, that these feelings are 'wrong.' How each of them deal with those feelings and their awareness of this 'wrongness' is the main storyline. There are also minor storylines about how Fanboy copes with his mother's pregnancy and new husband (the step-fascist), two-faced friends, clueless teachers, and adults who refuse to see him as anything more than a child.

The climax of the book takes place when Brian Michael Bendis, a real-life graphic novelist, refuses to read Fanboy's graphic novel. Feeling hurt and stunned by the rejection of his idol, Fanboy's feelings change. He now steps over the line and wants to hurt somebody himself instead of relying on faceless others to do the shooting for him.

           "I want to kill them all. No, better yet, I want to die, No, even better
     than that: I want to kill them and then die. I thought high school was the
     end of it, the end of the bullshit cliques and the groups and kewl kids.
     But it's not. It's just the beginning. It's just the beginning and it only gets
     worse from here. College won't be any better and after college won't be
     any better and I might as well finish it. Finish it now. There's no point.
     I'll always be a loser. I'll never have friends, real friends, friends I can
     keep." (242-3).

Only after Fanboy realizes that Kyra has stolen his talisman, his "totem," the bullet he's been carrying around since 6th grade, does he snap out of this dangerous line of thought. He realizes that rough as he may have it, maybe Kyra has it rougher. He goes looking for her to prevent what he's worried she'll do. But he can't get any adults to listen to his concerns for Kyra. Not even Kyra's father seems to believe him. When he finally finds Kyra and confronts her with his worries for her, she strikes back at him both physically and verbally.

          "Go away," she whispers, and stands up.

          "I'm trying to help you." I scramble to my feet, the moment lost.
     So close. "I'm just trying to help."

          "I don't need your help, fanboy."

          "You need someone's help, and I'm the only one around you haven't
     managed to scare off."

          "Bite me. Here." She flips the bullet into the air and I reach out
     for it as my lower gut explodes in pain and a familiar agony. I
     swallow the air, claw for breath and collapse to the ground. She
     got me right between the legs while I was distracted by the bullet....

          And she's gone" (306).

Fanboy finally manages to get home after Kyra's attack. Once there, he finds a text message from Kyra. She's still alive. He greets his mother and at the very end of the book, he finally asks his mother for the very first time if he can feel the baby in her belly. This is a very important passage in the book because the first time Lyga writes a scene showing interaction between Fanboy and his mother, Fanboy rejects the baby and his mom's attempts to bring peace between her son and husband. Fanboy has come a long way from who he was at the beginning of the book. Bendis's rejection, the interactions with Kyra, even finding out that his step-father isn't as bad as he always thought - all of these incidents have led him to the moment when he can finally accept himself.

One interesting thing about this story is how Lyga uses two techniques to hook the reader into caring about Kyra, this deeply troubled and suicidal teen. The first one is that the story is told in the first person narrative by Fanboy. As a result, we don't learn enough about Goth Girl and her feelings, just what Fanboy guesses at with his limited knowledge of girls specifically and the world in general. The second technique Lyga uses is to write an open ending to the novel. The reader is left hanging, not knowing what will happen to Kyra, but caring very deeply. For those readers, Lyga has written Kyra's story, due to be published in October 2009 under the title Goth Girl Rising.

The adults in this story, with the exception of Fanboy's mother, are left very much to our imagination. This is an effective literary device since Fanboy narrates this story, and he sees them as weak, characterless, shallow stereotypes. Cal, Fanboy's best friend, is characterized in greater detail. He is pictured as a typical middle class teen around Fanboy who changes into somebody totally different around jocks and girls.

          "Well, that's life being Cal's friend. When the jocks call, he goes.
     On the mean streets of hick rural high schools, you have to keep up
     your popularity and your cool factor if you want to survive as a black
     kid. And being seen with me--especially talking comic books--is the
     best way to see your cool stock plummet.

          Cal doesn't even really know he's doing it. I can tell because
     he never refers to it, never acts as if he's done anything wrong. It's
     just survival. Just high school crap.. It doesn't bother me. Not
     anymore. Not really." (12)

The story takes place in a "hick rural" town (12). Most rural towns don't have public transportation, so Fanboy, being only 15, has to rely on the schoolbus and other drivers to get him around. Some of the most interesting interactions between Kyra and Fanboy take place when Fanboy is trying to deal with Kyra's erratic driving in yet another new vehicle. We later find out that Kyra has been lying about all these cars and they might even have been stolen. This realization on Fanboy's part just deepens the concern that both he and the reader feel over Kyra's future. In another crucial scene that takes place in a car, Fanboy is going with Cal to a party. When Fanboy gets into the car, he finds that some of the jocks he's despised for years are also in the car. On the way to the party, Fanboy realizes that the boys who have picked on him for years pick on each other too, not just nerds. This is a real revelation to Fanboy.

          "I can't believe it. I just sit there, silent, as three of my
     tormentors gang up on a fourth. It's like I'm a diver who's
     been saved from a shark by other sharks.

          "--smells so bad," Lorenz is saying, "that his zipper has
     a hazard alarm hooked up to it!"

          More howls. Wow. The pecking order doesnt' just peck me.
     Cool." (255)

The theme of this book is deep and troubling - violence and/or suicide is not the answer. While many teens today are emotionally troubled, the two protagonists in this story seem especially troubled. By the end of the story, Fanboy has grown emotionally, and we as the readers wonder very much about whether Kyra has grown enough to survive.

The style is consistent with what I imagine a teen boy's thought processes are like. He knows that the Senior Goddess, Dina, is out of his league but he wants to look at her anyway. He doesn't because he's afraid somebody will notice and pick on him about it. He notices a female acquaintance's underwear on a regular basis and is embarrassed that he tries to keep track of the colors. He is both incredulous and embarrassed when Kyra exposes himself to Bendis, but can't stop thinking about the parts of her body that he saw. He fantasizes over Dina, the Senior Goddess, but the fantasy Dina keeps getting mixed up with the reality Kyra. Add this to his concerns over Kyra and her emotional fragility, and he feels like he doesn't know what he's supposed to be doing next. All the time, we as readers, are privy to this jumble of thoughts that are Fanboy's narrative.

Even though I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, this book touched me on a level that I haven't considered for some time. It reminded me of how tough it was, and still is, to be a teenager, a child/adult; and feel frustrated, useless, ignored, and uncertain. This book will also appeal to teens who will relate to Fanboy. Seeing that other teens, even if they are fictional, have the same confused feelings that they do and there's no happily ever after is a very strong feature of young adult problem novels. This book leaves us hanging, wanting more. What happened to Kyra, What happened to Fanboy?

Awards and Honors
  • Best Books for Young Adults, 2008; Young Adult Services Divison of the American Library Association.

  • Best Books of the Year, 2006; School Library Journal; United States

  • Book Sense Children's Picks, Fall 2006; American Booksellers Association; United States

  • Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to Ninth Edition, 2007; H.W. Wilson Company; United States

  • School Library Journal Book Review Stars, November 2006; Cahners; United States

  • Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007; The H. W. Wilson Co.; United States

  • Teen Books, 2006; Bank Street College of Education; United States

  • Teen List, 2006; Bank Street College of Education; United States

  • Top 10 Art Books for Youth, 2006; American Library Association-Booklist; United States

Review Excerpts
Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Sep. 1, 2006 (Vol. 103, No. 1))
Fifteen-year-old Fanboy is miserable at school, where he is bullied, and at home, with his pregnant mother and her husband, the "step-fascist." His only relief is the late hours spent creating his own comic book. Then he receives an instant message from Kyra, an enigmatic Goth who seems to be the only witness to the violence he endures, and the two form a cagey, charged friendship…. Lyga's debut novel is a darkly comic, realistic, contemporary story of bullying and a teen's private escape in artistic pursuits. Fanboy entertains plenty of violent thoughts. He carries a bullet, keeps a tally of his abusers ("The List"), and lashes out with sometimes-cruel remarks, which feel sharply authentic…. Fanboy's whip-smart, often hilariously sarcastic voice skillfully captures a teenager's growing self-awareness, and adds a fresh, urgent perspective to age-old questions about how young people cope with bullying and their own feelings of helplessness, rage, and being misunderstood as they try to discover themselves.

Amie Rose Rotruck (Children's Literature)
Fanboy's life consists of being abused in gym class every day, tortured by the very sight of a gorgeous girl named Dina, fighting with his mother and the stepfacist--stepfather, and working on a graphic novel that he hopes to show his idol, Brian Michael Bendis. Fanboy's only friend is Cal, who shares Fanboy's interest in comics and graphic novels but is also a jock. The only thing that keeps Fanboy sane is a bullet that he carries with him every day. One day Fanboy is e-mailed a picture of him being hit in gym class by “Promethea387” and asking “Why do you let them hit you?” This leads Fanboy to meeting Kyra, otherwise known as Goth Girl. The two of them begin a rather intense on-and-off friendship colored by their own issues and their feelings towards each other. Barry Lyga perfectly captures teen angst and ironic humor in this gritty portrayal of the life of a teenage geek. Fanboy's voice manages to be truly original and, at the same time, speaks to everyone who ever felt like a geek, even for a moment.

April Spisak (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December 2006 (Vol. 60, No. 4))
Fifteen-year-old Fanboy knows that he is an outsider: he is ignored or bullied at school, he feels misunderstood at home by his pregnant mother and her husband, whom Fanboy calls the “step-fascist,”…. Goth girl,” Kyra … sees Fanboy being bullied and decides to become his friend. Kyra won’t be ignored: she demands that Fanboy share his graphic novel with her and, though Fanboy doesn’t see this, she is clearly using their newfound relationship to avoid dealing with her own problems… Unfortunately, this Fanboy-centric narrative means that intriguing questions about Kyra’s behaviors go unanswered because Fanboy doesn’t think to ask them…. (The) characters strictly adhere to all-too-familiar stereotypes (of course the goth girl is a deeply troubled cutter and the comic-book geek has unrealistic expectations about the bodies of real women). Indeed, the most interesting and complex character in the novel is Fanboy’s stepfather, whose awareness that his wife “married down” is poignant, and whose patience with the years of unfriendliness from his stepson is never rewarded.

Book Hook
Goth Girl Rising (Fall 2009) is Kyra's story:
"After six months in the Maryland Mental Health Unit, Kyra Sellers, a.k.a. Goth Girl, is going home.

Unfortunately, she’s about to find out that while she was away, she lost track of more than time.... Kyra is back in black, feeling good, and ready to make up with the only person who’s ever appreciated her for who she really is.

But then she sees him. Fanboy. Transcended from everything he was into someone she barely recognizes.

And the anger and memories come rushing back.

Fanboy. The Spermling. Miss Powell. Roger.

Her mother.

There’s so much to do to people when you’re angry.

Kyra’s about to get very busy." (From "Goth Girl Rising" at Barry Lyga Dot Com)

Internet Connection
Barry Lyga's website

Lyga, Barry. Goth Girl Rising at Barry Lyga Dot Com. 2007 and Beyond. Accessed 9/26/2009 from

Monday, September 14, 2009

Printz Award winner: Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snooging: Confessions of Georgia Richardson

Bibliographic Data
Rennison, Louise. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. Harper Collins Publishers: New York, 2000. ISBN 006028871X.

Plot Summary
Georgia's life is taken up by boys she doesn't like kissing, boys she wishes she could kiss, a half-breed wildcat who won't stop stalking her neighbor's pets, friends in and out of love, suspicious teachers and clueless parents. In between all of that, she manages to write in her journal for a whole school year.

Critical Analysis
The main character in this book, Georgia, records her thoughts, actions, and dreams in her journal. She fantasizes about boys like Robbie, the Sex God working at the greengrocers in town (48). She deals with an unsympathetic mother who doesn’t tell her that her nose isn’t big. Instead she advises Georgia how to hide the bigness with makeup (45)!

Her father leaves for New Zealand to look for work and Georgia’s not sure she even misses him: “Watching TV Mum said, “Do you miss your dad?” and I said, “Who?” (148). Meanwhile, she’s sure her mother is having an affair with the remodeler, Georgia is stuck too often taking care of her little sister, Libby, and Robbie hates her. Her best friend is having an on again/off again relationship with Robbie’s brother Tom, and Georgia is forced to listen to every detail. That’s what best friends are for after all, right?

She hates Robbie, she loves him, she hates him, she loves him.

She tries to shave her legs for the first time and ends up bleeding all over her mom’s nightgown. When she tries to wash it, it shrinks to the size of a doll’s nightgown.

We’re not given physical descriptions of the girls in Georgia’s life, but we are given detailed information about the boys’ appearances. Rosie’s boyfriend Sven is “about eight feet tall” (122). Robbie is “very tall with long, black hair and really intense, dark-blue eyes, and a big mouth.” (48) Tom has sort of crinkly hair and great shoulders.” (47). Mark, a boy from the neighborhood looks like Mick Jagger (94). At the age of 14, Georgia looks at the boys much closer than she looks at her girlfriends.

The story takes place in England. The introduction announces to the reader that Georgia lives in England, and she’s aware that some of the American readers may not understand all the words she uses, so there’ll be a glossary at the end of the book. Since British schools all expect their students to wear uniforms, school uniforms, or the dislike of same, play a minor role in the story line.

The theme of this story is growing up and learning to be happy with yourself. Georgia doesn’t really know what she wants, but she’s willing to try just about anything to find out. No boyfriend? Maybe she’s destined to be a lesbian. Big nose? Disguise it behind a new haircut (that her Mum vetoes). Parents don’t understand you? That’s because they’re stuck in the 80s. This is a story of the day-to-day life and thoughts of a typical 14 year old girl. What makes this book appealing to YA readers is learning that Georgia and other girls feel the same confusion, mistrust, and joy at growing up as they do.

Awards and Honors
  • American Booksellers Book Sense Book of the Year (ABBY) Award 2002 Finalist Children's Literature United States
  • Garden State Teen Book Award 2003 Winner Gr. 9-12 (Fict.) New Jersey
  • Michael L. Printz Award 2001 Honor Book United States
  • Smarties Book Prize 1999 Bronze Award Winner Ages 9-11 United Kingdom
  • Soaring Eagle Book Award 2002 2nd Runner-up Grades 7-12 Wyoming
  • Virginia Young Readers Program 2003 Winner High School Virginia

Review Excerpts
Michael Cart (Booklist, July 2000 (Vol. 96, No. 21))
Although performer and comedy writer Rennison clearly owes a large debt to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (1998), her Georgia is a wonderful character whose misadventures are not only hysterically funny but universally recognizable. This "fabbity, fab, fab" novel will leave readers cheering, "Long live the teen!"

Rebecca Joseph (Children's Literature)
In this diary- formatted novel, young Georgia details the ups and downs of her unique teenage English life. Complete with a helpful glossary, the novel comically covers a year in which Georgia's father moves to New Zealand (he wants the family to join him there), her cat Angus (of the title) launches an attack on the neighbor's poodle, and she falls in love with an older boy (leading to some snogging, that is, kissing for Georgia). As spunky Georgia describes her unusual exploits, she reveals the insecurity that plagues most teenagers.

Book Hook
  • For more adventures of Georgia Nicolson, read On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God: Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, also by Louise Rennison.
  • If you want to read other funny books about English girls in boarding schools, try one of the Calypso Chronicles books by Tyne O'Connell.

Online Connections
Louise Rennison's website

YA classic: The Chocolate War

Bibliographic Data
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Pantheon Books: 1974. ISBN 0394828054.

Plot Summary
Freshman Jerry Renault bucks the system by refusing to participate in his school's annual 'voluntary' chocolate fundraiser. Archie Costello, leader of a secret organization known as the Vigils, declares psychological war on Jerry, with the unspoken approval of the assistant headmaster.

Critical Analysis
Jerry Renault has a poster in his locker that reads, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" (123) His life has been recently turned upside down by the death of his mother, and now he wonders if has what it takes to change the universe. His universe, up to this point, hasn’t been very satisfactory. After his mom’s death, his dad retreated into himself. The only emotional moment they’ve shared in the last few months was at Mrs. Renault’s funeral (57-58). Now Jerry sees a chance to change the status quo, his own little universe, at Trinity Prep School by refusing to participate in the traditional chocolate fundraiser sale. Unfortunately, he comes up against an assistant headmaster, Brother Leon, who has more at stake during this chocolate sale than he’s caring to admit. Archie Costello, the unofficial leader of the secretive group known as the Vigils, is coerced by Brother Leon into ensuring that all the chocolate gets sold. Resenting Brother Leon’s assumption that the Vigils will help him, Archie decides to strike back at Brother Leon. He assigns the task to Jerry of refusing to sell chocolates for ten days (81, 110). But when the ten days are over, Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates. When he announces this decision on day 11 of the chocolate sale, the class is stunned. “Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence (112).

At first, the other boys at school think it’s a great idea. One after the other, they discuss the possibility of refusing to sell the chocolates, just like Jerry. But Archie’s also got a lot riding on this chocolate sale. He takes Jerry’s refusal to sell chocolate as a rejection of himself, the school, and the Vigils. Brother Leon is also on Archie’s back, wanting to know why Jerry won’t sell the chocolates that Brother Leon so desperately needs to get rid of. Archie, the master con artist, decides to exert peer pressure against Jerry by making chocolate selling the cool thing to do. But Jerry won’t be allowed to participate. He is beaten up, his locker is vandalized, and he is made to feel invisible. He enjoys the few hours of anonymity the invisibility offers him, but it’s over way too soon. Somebody tries to push him down the stairs at school. Boys start harassing him at home also, making threatening calls and standing outside at night calling his name. All this psychological harassment takes its toll on Jerry. He is persuaded by Archie to try and get his revenge against the school by fighting the school bully, Emile. But in the end, Archie is ultimately victorious. Mob mentality takes over the student body, and Jerry ends up being to the hospital in an ambulance after realizing that he has been reduced to no more than an animal performing for Archie and the other Vigils. And like the real world, sometimes, good doesn’t triumph over evil. Brother Leon, who was secretly watching the fight between Jerry and Emile, refuses to discipline Archie or even acknowledge that there is a problem at the school. A hard lesson to learn at the age of 15, one that Cormier’s readers are left wondering who besides Jerry learned anything.

The characters are true to life. Incidental characters are depicted as normal high school aged boys. My favorite character sketch is of Kevin Chartier in Chapter twenty-one. Kevin has developed the ability “to translate whatever [his mother] was saying into gibberish. She could talk her head off now and the words reached his ears without meaning. A wild trick” (131). The other boys talk about sports, girls, masturbate in their rooms at night, ignore their parents, and just want to fit in with the cool crowd. Even Emile, the ultimate bully, dreams of being accepted by Archie (49),

Brother Leon is the archetypical villain. He is the one responsible for loading the students down with double the amount of chocolate from previous years. He doubles the amount of chocolate for personal glory, i.e. to show he is worthy of being named headmaster after the current Headmaster is taken ill. He uses cunning psychological force to ensure that the sale goes as he wants it to, and when Jerry is punished at the end of the story, he smiles in sick pleasure from Jerry’s fate and awards Archie for doing his dirty work for him by letting Archie go unpunished for any wrongdoing (250). That’s part of the appeal of this self vs. society novel to young adult readers. The adults ostensibly in charge of the teenagers are either helpless, like Brother Jacques (250) or abuse their authority over the young people in their charge (Chapter 16). This book shows the YA readers that sometimes bullies win no matter if they’re your age or adults.

The theme of this tragic story is that even when we stand up for what we believe in, the world may sometimes beat us down. Jerry learns this lesson in a brutally traumatic fashion.

The setting, in a New England Catholic boys’ prep school, is important to the story. In today’s headlines, we read story after story of Catholic priests who have molested young men in their charge. While there is no allusion to sexual abuse in the story, the mental and physical abuse rings true to today’s headlines, contributing to this book’s reputation as one of the most challenged books for young adults.

Awards and Honors
Best Books for Young Adults, 1974 Young Adult Services Divison of the American Library Association.
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Eighth Edition, 1982 National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Sixth Edition, 1976 National Council of Teachers of English; United States

Review Excerpts
"The characterizations of all the boys are superb... This novel [is] unique in its uncompromising portrait of human cruelty and conformity."-School Library Journal, starred review

"The novel is cleverly written with a good sense of the realistic and a good ear for dialouge, qualities which will attract any reader."-Bestsellers

"Robert Cormier has written a brilliant novel."-Children's Book Revie[sic] Service -- Review (

Discussion Questions
  1. There are no main female characters in this book, partly because Trinity is a boys' school. Yet the Trinity boys often discuss girls. Jerry wishes he could talk to the girl near the bus stop. Janza watches girls as they walk by, and Archie won't let anyone touch him except certain girls. What function(s) do you think girls play in the novel?
  2. Why do you think Archie is repulsed by human sweat? What do you think this says about Archie as a person?
  3. Archie's greatest strength is in exploiting other people's weaknesses. Why do you think Archie does this? Why do you think he needs to manipulate every situation?
  4. Discuss the significance of the title. Why is it a chocolate "war"?
  5. Why do you think Jerry decides not to sell the chocolates even after his assignment is over? Have you ever dared to "disturb the universe"? What happened?
  6. How do you feel about how Brother Leon treated Bailey? At the end of the class Brother Leon says that the students had allowed him to turn the class into Nazi Germany. Do you think this is a true statement?(Random House)
  7. Why did somebody cleanup Jerry's locker after it had been vandalized? What was this a precursor to?
  8. Why did the author have Jerry's mother die shortly before the book begins?
Sources The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier/Editorial Reviews. Accessed 9/14/2009 from
Random House, Inc. Teachers@Random. Copyright 1995-2009. Accessed 9/14/2009 from

YA award winning book: Copper Sun

Bibliographic Data
Draper, Sharon. Copper Sun. New York: Atheneum Books, 2006. ISBN 9780689821813

Plot Summary
Amari leads a typical fifteen year old's life. She has friends, a beau, a loving family, and doesn't listen to her mother often enough. When Amari is kidnapped from her village and her family brutally murdered, Amari begins a life of slavery in America. She escapes with Polly, a 15 year old indentured servant, and Tidbit, the 4 year old son of another slave. Along the way, she encounters various people, both free and slave, who help her keep alive the hope that her brutal slavery existence will not be her ultimate fate in life.

Critical Analysis
The main character in this book is Amari and to a lesser extent, Polly. Both girls are 15 years old. One is black, one is white. One is a slave fresh from Africa, the other is a newly indentured servant. Neither girl has ever known a girl of the other color before. Over their months of sharing a cabin and duties, they come to realize that their differences are only skin deep. A friendship begins to develop and as it does, it changes both girls. Amari grows to realize that even if her previous life is dead and gone, there’s hope for a new, free life in America. Polly grows to realize “that being a fine lady didn’t necessarily mean finding joy” (144).

Minor characters also encourage Amari to not give up her hope for freedom. Afi, a woman who Amari meets in Cape Coast, is a surrogate mother to Amari up to the point when Amari is sold to Mr. Derby. However, Afi refuses to be a nurturing mother. Instead, she sees strength in Amari and wants to prepare her for most likely what lies ahead for the young woman. Her advice to Amari is to “Find strength from within… You will know when it is time to use that strength as your shield from what they will do to you” (55).

Teenie is another woman who comes into Amari’s life. She is the cook on the Derby plantation, and entrusts her small son, Tidbit, to Amari when Amari and Polly finally escape. She teaches Amari and Polly that as long as you remember something or somebody, nothing will ever really be gone (113).

Mrs. Derby is also a sympathetic character. She is white but secretly in love with her slave, Noah. The two of them grew up together, and she is actually pregnant with Noah’s child, not Mr. Derby’s. When the child is born obviously black, Mrs. Derby enlists some of the slaves to help hide the obviously black child from Mr. Derby. They commit the cardinal sin of lying to the Massuh, telling him that the child was born deformed and was already buried by the time he returns with the doctor. However, the child is found in the slave quarters, and Mr. Derby kills both the child and Noah.

Dr. Hoskins is yet another sympathetic adult. Although he lets Mr. Derby get away with the murders, he shows his distaste for the turn of events and slavery in general by helping the two girls and Tidbit escape from his wagon as he drives them away from the plantation to sell down the river.

The story also has its evil characters. Mr. Derby is shown to be a cold, sadistic brute by his murder of Noah and the baby. He inadvertently trips Amari when she is serving at the dinner table but blames her for the resultant mess. He administers a whipping then and there that is so severe, it puts Amari into a feverish delirium. He at first seems to care for his wife, but when her child is revealed as another man’s, Mr. Derby tells her that he won’t kill her, instead, he “shall refuse to let you die” (183), and forces her to watch the murder of both her lover and child.

Clay Derby is as bad as his father. Amari was purchased as a birthday present for the 16 year old Clay, and he takes full advantage of his role as Master over Amari. He thinks that Amari likes him even though she has no choice in participating in sex with Clay at his beck and call. He’s even more sadistic than his father, using Tidbit one day as ‘gator’ bait by throwing him into the plantation’s river for sport. He is the one who finds the baby in the slave quarters and brings her to Mr. Derby because he has always hated his stepmother.

Draper uses the omniscient third person narrator in this story, alternating sections between Amari’s and Polly’s thoughts. It’s interesting to read the contrast between the protaganists’ thoughts and the few words they actually dare to speak out loud. This omniscient point of view serves a dual purpose. Not only does it serve to show us just how repressed the slaves were – they were not only physically enslaved, but discouraged from being intellectually and emotionally free to express their thoughts – but it also serves to highlight the few dialogues there are between characters. Clay and Mr. Derby have discussions about their property, including the slaves, while the slaves have discussions about how to maintain their emotional freedom and gain their physical freedom. One of the few dialogues that does take place between Master and slave in this story is one night when Clay has called Amari to his bed:

               He lifted his head off his pillow then and spoke directly in her
          face. His breath smelled of spoiled food, and Amari had to force
          herself not to gag. “You like me, don‘t you?” The question was
          sudden and abrupt.
               Shocked at the question, Amari swallowed hard. If she said no,
          he might get angry. If she said yes, he might manage to
          misunderstand her hatred of him. So she pretended she didn’t
          know what he meant.          
               “I asked you a question. I know you understand much more
          than you let on. You do like me, don’t you?” he implored quietly.
          To Amari, his voice sounded a little plaintive, almost as if he
          needed her to say she liked him.
               “Yassuh,” Amari whispered, cringing.
               Amari was amazed to hear him breathe a sigh of relief. “I had a
          feeling you cared about me,“ Clay said, assurance creeping back
          into his voice. (110-111)

Even indentured servant Polly is expected to speak only when spoken directly to, and never, never allowed to speak her own mind. This is evident from the very beginning, when Mr. Derby gets furious at Polly for reminding them that Amari probably already has a name, when he has just told Clay to name his new “acquisition” (85).

The setting symbolizes Amari’s journey. The story begins in Amari’s village in Africa. She is young, in love, her whole life ahead of her. This setting is “fragrant with hope and possibility” (6). As Amari arrives in Cape Coast after watching so many of her friends die on the arduous journey, Cape Coast “smelled of blood and death.” (25). Onboard the slave ship, Amari is chained below in the daytime and taken on deck at night to be raped by whichever sailor gets to her first each night. “The air in this place seemed to have been sucked out and replaced with the smells of sweat and vomit and urine” (43).

Once Amari reaches the Derby plantation, the setting emphasizes the difference between Master and slave. The Derbys live in satin rooms with carpets and heavy drapes to keep out the heat (138). The slaves live in one room shacks, “barely large enough to turn around in” (92). Mr Derby works in a room filled with leather bound books. The field slaves work in knee-deep muddy rice paddies with no shade. Snakes and gators are a constant concern. During Amari’s first visit to the rice fields, one of the slaves is bitten by a copperhead and left to die because the slaves can’t stop working “just because of a little snakebite” (135).

The overall conflict in this story is self vs. society, as Amari and Polly find themselves in roles that they had not chosen for themselves, but were socially acceptable at the time. The story is not in how the girls learn to cope with their situation, but how they gain the moral and physical strength to change their circumstances. Their meetings with different people along their path to freedom show them that not all of colonial American society supports slavery. These chance encounters give them the emotional strength to continue on their journey towards freedom. At the end of the story, when Amari is free but learns she is carrying Clay’s child, she lovingly remembers the people who helped her get to this point and vows her child will never forget Amari’s journey either. Home is where the heart is, and Amari has found her home once more.

Awards and Honors
Coretta Scott King Book Award 2007 Winner Author United States
Heartland Award for Excellence in Children's Literature 2007 Winner United States
Ohioana Book Awards 2007 Winner Juvenile Literature United States
Society of Midland Authors Book Awards 2007 Finalist Children's Fiction United States
South Dakota Teen Choice Award 2008 Winner High School South Dakota
Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth, 2006 - American Library Association-Booklis; United States
Best Books of the Year, 2006 - School Library Journal; United States
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2007 - Bank Street College of Education; United States
Notable Books for a Global Society, 2007 - Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association; United States
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2007 -; National Council for the Social Studies; United States

Review Excerpts
Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Feb. 1, 2006 (Vol. 102, No. 11))
Draper's latest novel… begins in Amari's Ashanti village, but the idyllic scene explodes in bloodshed when slavers arrive and murder her family….So begins the account of impossible horrors from the slave fort, the Middle Passage, and auction on American shores, where a rice plantation owner buys Amari for his 16-year-old son's sexual enjoyment. Draper builds the explosive tension to the last chapter, and the sheer power of the story, balanced between the overwhelmingly brutal facts of slavery and Amari's ferocious survivor's spirit, will leave readers breathless, even as they consider the story's larger questions about the infinite costs of slavery and how to reconcile history. A moving author's note discusses the real places and events on which the story is based.

Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children's Literature)
Draper's riveting tale weaves together Amari's desperate quest for freedom with the equally compelling narrative of Polly, a white indentured girl who initially scorns the black slaves who work beside her but comes to pity their sufferings as she grasps their fellow humanity. Draper succeeds in making Polly's initial racism understandable, given her deep and ignorant prejudice; Polly's transformation proceeds gradually in a way that helps readers to understand both how racism begins and how it can be overcome.

KaaVonia Hinton, Ph.D. (KLIATT Review, January 2006 (Vol. 40, No. 1))
Draper charters territory few traditional slave narratives dared when she explores a consenting sexual relationship between the Derby mistress and her "bodyguard" that results in the birth of a black daughter, depicts the cook as more than willing to poison her owners when they threaten to sell her only child, and troubles the assumption that all white women were "free." Already being compared to Roots, this novel is best suited for mature YA readers, and accompanied by discussions about early African culture and sensibility, acts of resistance executed by slaves (alone and in partnerships with indentured servants), and abolitionist efforts.

Book Hook
Pair this book with Elijah of Buxley by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Online Connections
Sharon Draper's resource website for Copper Sun
Africans in America Resource Bank, from PBS

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New semester

Well, it's a new school year and a new literature class. This semester, I'm taking Advanced Young Adult Literature, with Dr. Vardell once again. It should prove an interesting term as we explore YA classics and award winners; realism, romance and censorship; fantasy and science fiction; history, biography, and nonfiction; and finally, poetry, drama, film and graphic novels. Sounds like fun!

graphic downloaded from: Accessed 9/1/2009.