Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier


Jerry Renault is an unremarkable freshman at Trinity, a Catholic school which is home to a secret society of upperclassmen known as the Vigils.  These seniors are known for bullying younger students into performing outrageous pranks, such as loosening all the screws in classroom furniture to make it collapse.  When the school’s acting headmaster takes over the annual chocolate sale fundraiser, each boy is expected to sell a record fifty boxes apiece.  Except for Jerry Renault, that is, because the Vigils have ordered him to cause a stir by refusing to sell the chocolates for ten straight days.

This minor act of rebellion escalates out of control as Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, even after the Vigils’ order has expired.  He’s quickly marked as an outcast, and it becomes clear that this fundraiser isn’t so much about money as it is power, and whether it’s the teachers or the Vigils who really control the school.  I never really liked this type of “man vs. society” conflict when I was younger since it seemed so unfair that the entire world was ganging up on one person.  As an adult, though, I’ve since learned that life isn’t always fair.  This hard fact is especially true when it comes to people who have the guts to be different or to take an opposing viewpoint.

Why do you think that some people choose to take a stand on a certain issue, even when it means they could potentially be embarrassed or humiliated?  After all, wouldn’t it be easier to just go along with the program and not make any waves?  Do you think that there might be some kind of breaking point that makes people want to stand up and rebel, even if it’s over an issue that might seem trivial to others?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis


“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is a fantasy novel about the four Pevensie children:  Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  The children are sent to live in the countryside to escape the aerial bombings of London during World War II, and they end up staying at a professor’s huge, mysterious home.  During a game of hide-and-seek, Lucy runs away to a beautiful old wooden wardrobe…which just happens to contain a secret entrance to a magical world called Narnia!  The other children soon come with her, and they discover that the evil White Witch has cast a spell which made it winter in Narnia forever.

The Pevensie children are befriended by a series of talking animals, and they quickly begin plotting to overthrow the White Witch and her army of monsters!  With the help of a lion named Aslan, the children put their bravery to the test in a struggle to save the world of Narnia.  Let me warn you now, though, if you start in on this book then I guarantee you’ll end up reading all six of the other books in the Narnia series.  The books are all interconnected, and I love the way that all of them follow the Pevensie children as they grow up in both the world of Narnia and back home in England. 

I’ve read this book several times throughout my life, and as I got older I learned that C.S. Lewis was actually using these stories to pass along different ideas from his Christian faith.  How cool is that, having a hidden message within the books!  Also, I heard that Mr. Lewis was inspired to write about the winter forest setting when he was a professor at Magdalen College.  He would spend his afternoons staring out the window of his office and watching the snow collect around a solitary lamppost, which he later used as the first major landmark the children see upon entering the world of Narnia! 

Take a moment to look around your own neighborhood.  Are there any particular objects near your home or school that you’re particularly attached to?  Do you think it’d be possible to build a story, or maybe even an entire world, around them?  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Then Again, Maybe I Won't, by Judy Blume


Tony Miglione lives in Newark City, New Jersey, where he has a happy home life and a group of good friends.  Everything is about to change for him, though, when one of his father’s inventions becomes wildly successful.  The family becomes rich overnight, and suddenly moves to upper-class Rosemont, New York!  Tony is forced to adjust to a new school, new friends, and a new life, and he ends up suffering from massive stomach cramps as a result of the stress. 

One thing you should know about this book is that it deals with quite a few mature topics such as puberty, mental illness, and alcohol abuse.  This book would be classified as “young adult” today, and aimed mainly towards teenage readers.  Judy Blume is well-known for her straightforward writing on tough subjects, so prepare yourself in advance.  If you don’t feel like you’d be comfortable reading about these topics just yet, it’s perfectly okay to choose another book.  A classic like “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” isn’t going anywhere, and it’ll still be around for you to enjoy a couple of years from now.

The book seems to be all about change, whether it’s with Tony’s body, his friends, or his family.  The stress that comes with becoming an uncle, for example, or moving to a new town, causes Tony to physically suffer until he learns how to express his feelings and ask for help.  The story carries an important lesson with it since our lives, like Tony’s, will be constantly changing.  Much of what goes on might be out of our control, but what we can control is how we choose to cope with these changes.  “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” is a must read for all young men….when you’re ready for it!   

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman


This is the story of Nobody Owens, a baby who becomes an orphan when his family is murdered by a secret society of evildoers.  “Bod” narrowly escapes the attack by hiding in a nearby graveyard, where thousands of ghosts extend their protection to him.  Seeing that he has no one else to support him, the ghosts decide to shelter and care for Bod themselves.  He grows up to become a mostly normal boy…one who just happens to live in a graveyard, surrounded by restless spirits and hunted by ruthless evildoers!

I’ll be honest, the unique setting is what drew me into this awesome book.  Everyone grows up thinking that their home life is normal, but I had never even imagined what it must be like to live in a graveyard!  At first glance, the plot reminded me a little of “Harry Potter”--- an orphaned boy is hunted by evildoers and things kind of go on from there.  I couldn’t have been more wrong, though, and let that be a lesson to me not a judge any book by its (back) cover!  I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the great thing about books is that you can take a single basic idea and then run with it in any direction.  If you gave the same idea to a hundred different authors, you’d probably come up with a hundred stories that were completely different.

Can you think of any particular places that you find interesting, even if they’re not necessarily one of your favorite spots?  Maybe a shopping mall, a train station, or even one of your classrooms at school?  Which of these places could be turned into a fascinating setting for one of your own stories?  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hard Gold, by AVI


Early Whitcomb comes from the state of Iowa, where he’s never traveled very far from his family’s farm.  That all changes during the droughts of 1859, when his father falls behind on the mortgage and the local bank threatens to foreclose on their land.  Left with no other choice, Early heads out west to track down his cousin Jesse, who had set off to Colorado in search of gold.  Along the way he discovers that Jesse is actually wanted for robbery, and that law and order have a completely different look in the Wild West!

Although Early’s story only concerns his family and friends, it takes place at a very busy time in our country’s history.  John Brown’s raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry served to spark a heated discussion about slavery, and southern states were seriously considering secession.  I thought that the author did an awesome job of painting these historical events into the background, while still keeping the focus on Early.  I also appreciated all the details that were included in this adventure.  It’s one thing to know that covered wagons traveled for months at a time, but when you start to think about what these settlers ate and where they slept, you almost start to feel as if you’re right there alongside them!

I love reading about this period in American history since it seems like adventure was around every corner, for better or for worse!  It still amazes me to think of how settlers could take such a huge risk in search of a better life with absolutely no guarantee of success.  If you had everything you own piled into a covered wagon and were traveling to someplace new, do you think that you might be just a little worried about what lay ahead?  What might you do if things didn’t work out? 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Last Newspaper Boy in America, by Sue Corbett


On his twelfth birthday, Wil David is anxious to take over his new paper route.  The route has been handed down through his family for generations, and he’s spent years training for this moment.  What should be a moment of glory is ruined, however, when his paper announces that they plan to stop home delivery to Wil’s town!  Will’s letter to the editor goes unanswered, at least until he starts spreading the bad news to his subscribers.  Their reaction shows him just how much the town depends on their newspaper…and on him.

One thing I noticed is that at the beginning of this book, Wil didn’t really seem to know his neighbors.  He knew their names, addresses, and how they liked to get their papers, but he didn’t really interact with them.  As his campaign to keep home delivery went forward, though, his meetings with his neighbors became more frequent when he got to know them personally.  I don’t want to ruin the awesome ending, but I will drop a hint about how Wil’s neighbors come to his aid.  One lesson to take away from this book is that an organized group of people will always accomplish much more than just one person can.


“The Last Newspaper Boy in America” is actually more about community organizing than it is about a newspaper route.  Still, I felt that it was an awesome book, and one with a good message.  But that leads me to ask if you’ve ever felt that something happening to you was unfair?  What was it, and what did you do about it?  Do you think that writing a complaint letter could have made a difference?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Soldier's Heart, by Gary Paulsen


“Soldier’s Heart” is the story of Charley Goddard, a fifteen-year old boy from Minnesota.  This excellent book follows Charley from the beginning of the Civil War, when he lies about his age in order to join his state’s militia and fight the Confederacy.  The reader follows Charley through his training and several major battles, until the odds eventually catch up with him and he sustains life-threatening wounds.

These days it seems like authors consciously try to tone down the amount of graphic violence in their work, and I have to give Mr. Paulsen a lot credit for going in the opposite direction.  Reading this book, along with its realistic (but not TOO traumatic) descriptions of the casualties and the horrors of war, a person is able to get a much better idea of what combat might have been like.  The continual deaths of Charley’s fellow soldiers help to remind us exactly what war is, even though it might have seemed like nothing more than an exciting adventure when Charley first joined up.

In an afterword, we learn that a young man named Charley Goddard actually did exist, and that he was present at almost all of the battles described in this novel.  When you consider the fact that at least 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, the idea of telling a single person’s story through fiction seems like a great way to give some perspective to that staggering statistic.  If every soldier that died in the Civil War was represented by a book, most libraries simply wouldn’t be large enough to hold all of their stories…