Sunday, June 12, 2016

Challenger Deep, by Neal Schusterman


Caden Bosch is a young man suffering from mental illness.  In one world, he’s a brilliant high school student and a natural athlete who’s starting to display some unusual behavior.  In his mind, he’s actually an artist-in-residence on an exploration ship heading towards the deepest point on Earth.  As Caden quickly descends into his illusions, his mind becomes split between worlds, unable to tell which is real.

As I read this book I noticed that a lot of the “Challenger Deep” narratives didn’t seem to make sense to me, which was probably the author’s intention.  For people suffering from mental illness, their hallucinations or visions would probably only seem reasonable to themselves.  Even though it was a struggle to follow everything that went on in this alternate reality, I greatly appreciated having the chance to peek inside Caden’s mind.  By the end of the book I was actually rooting for him, hoping he could overcome the struggle of his split worlds.

One of my favorite parts, though, was the way that Mr. Shusterman seemed to humanize those with mental illness.  By having Caden stay in a home with others in the same condition, he changed from a mentally ill kid to just one of many mentally ill kids.  I think it’s important to remember that even though we might not personally know someone in this condition, there’s a small but significant slice of the population who battle with mental illness.  This book is sensitive yet powerful, and it will cause you to take another look at the world around you.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Maus, by Art Spiegelman


I’ll start this review by saying that “Maus” is definitely not a book for boys, but it may be a hit with young men who’re ready for something different.   This is a graphic novel created by cartoonist Art Speigelman, which tells the story of his father Vladek’s experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust.  Although the story jumps back and forth from the present to the buildup of World War II, the interview format makes it very easy for the reader to identify with Vladek.  It’s hard for us to comprehend how over six million Jews died during the holocaust, because so many individual lives quickly become nothing more than a statistic.  By writing “Maus” as a graphic novel, however, Spiegelman allows the reader more insight into the lives which were lost, and also a look at the many survivors who were tragically scarred.

One unique method that Spiegelman used was to depict his characters as animals.  The Jewish victims are seen as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the American GIs are shown as dogs.  By using cartoonish animals as the actors in this human tragedy, Spiegelman lightens the weight of mass murder enough to keep the reader from feeling overwhelmed.  Even though this book is technically considered a graphic novel, it’s actually a powerful memoir that will leave the reader changed by the end of Volume 2.

I absolutely loved Maus, and it’s one of those classics that I keep at the front of my own bookshelf at home.  Again, it’s probably not the best choice for younger boys due to the mature themes, but it’s an absolute must-read for anyone old enough to study the Holocaust.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bagels from Benny, by Aubrey Davis


Benny loves to help out at his Grandpa’s bakery, and the customers love the crusty bagels with their soft insides.  When Grandpa explains to Benny that God, not him, should be thanked for the wonderful bagels, Benny decides to do just that.  After some thought, he leaves God a bagful of bagels in the synagogue each week.  Miraculously, it appears that God is actually eating the bagels…or is He?

This picture book is an awesome story of gratitude and sharing.  It’s hard to review a book so short without giving away the ending, but I’ll do my best since it’s such a powerful story.  I loved the way that both Benny and his Grandpa discovered a way to help others through their work, and I think it’s important to remember just how much a simple thing like food can mean to someone in need.    

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers


Sixteen year-old Steve Harmon is a young man who loves making films, and he’s actually starring in his latest production.  It’s the story of how he became involved in a robbery plot that went bad, and resulted in the death of an innocent shopkeeper.  Steve is now sitting in the courtroom, on trial and facing a possible life sentence.  The scariest part of Steve’s movie?  The story is all happening in real life.

One of the best things about this book is the creative format.  By presenting the story as a screenplay rather than as a traditional novel, we get a much better insight into how Steve views the world.  It’s almost as if the stress of being on trial for his life has caused Steve to step out of his body, and now he analyzes the proceedings with all the excitement of a dispassionate bystander. 


SPOILER:  Another thing that I appreciated was the fact that Mr. Myers never really told us whether or not Steve was truly innocent.  That was a very interesting plot device, since I found myself feeling sympathy for a young man who may very well have played a crucial role in this murder.  “Monster” is a highly-charged but thoughtful read, and I’d be very happy to recommend it.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Fat Boy Chronicles, by Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan


Jimmy Winterpock always gets teased by the football team for being fat.  He’s not just a little overweight, mind you, but just plain fat.  Thanks to a writing journal kept for his English class, we get to follow along over the course of the school year as Jimmy works to slim down with healthy lifestyle changes.  Jimmy is thrilled to see the changes in his body, and along the way he discovers that nearly all of his school friends have some kind of personal problems as well.


Even though this book seems to be focused on Jimmy’s personal struggle with obesity, I found myself even more sympathetic to the other kids at his school.  Adolescence is hard enough by itself, but you’re really creating a recipe for disaster when you add in other risks like abusive parents, depression or learning disabilities.  Although this book is clearly categorized as “young adult” due to its mature themes, I’d actually recommend it for parents as well.  Jimmy’s journal provides a window into the mind of a teenager, and the issues they could be silently struggling with.   

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor


Paul Fisher is a visually impaired young man best known for his unique goggles.  Despite his impairment, he’s a natural athlete and a great soccer goalie.  When he moves to Florida and a sinkhole destroys half of his new school, the students are given the choice of busing to the town’s other public school, Tangerine Middle.  Paul sees this as his chance to finally make the starting team, so he starts all over again as the new kid…twice in the same year!

Even though Tangerine Middle seemed like a rough place, this book didn’t contain any graphic descriptions of violence so I’d say it’s fine for middle grade readers.  In fact, I’d think that it would be a very helpful book for anyone who’s feeling anxious about an upcoming change in schools.  After everything that Paul goes through, the challenge of starting all over would seem small in comparison!


One of the best things about this book is the way that Mr. Bloor peels back the shiny veneer of the state of Florida, a place most of us associate with theme parks and holiday destinations, to show that there are real people with real problems here as well.  “Tangerine” was the first book I’ve read from this talented writer, but it will definitely not be my last.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt


Doug Swieteck is a fourteen-year old who just moved to a new town.  With no friends and a lousy family, it seems as if the entire world is stacked up against him, at least until he meets Lil Spicer.  Lil is a fiery young lady who turns Doug on to his local library, a place of solitude of Doug’s otherwise stormy life.  As Doug discovers the joy of drawing, he works to integrate himself into the social web of small-town New York.

Even though Doug has his share of challenges to overcome, including a dysfunctional family, an abusive father, brushes with the law and a brother deployed to Vietnam, this is hardly an “issue” book.  Rather, Mr. Schmidt focuses more on Doug’s passion for drawing, and how having a creative outlet helps him manage all these stressors.  Drawing initially helps Doug escape from his troubled world, but later he uses his talents to begin healing it. 

This is a particularly raw, real story, and I appreciate the no-nonsense manner in which Mr. Schmidt told it.  I wouldn’t recommend the book for any young men under 14 or 15, but it’s a must-read for anyone old enough to handle to mature themes.