Sunday, November 29, 2015

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray

Cameron Smith is a high school slacker who suddenly begins to suffer from hallucinations.  Over time, he learns that he’s come down with Creutzfeldt-Jakob variant BSE, more commonly known as the deadly “mad cow disease”.  Fearing that he may be dying, Cameron escapes from the hospital with help from his dwarf friend Gonzo, an honest-to-goodness angel named Dulcie, and a Norse god named Balder who’s been cursed with the appearance of a lawn gnome.  These unlikely friends set off on one last wild Spring Break adventure that’s almost too insane to be real!

Even though this book has a couple of mature themes, I’d feel comfortable recommending it to most high schoolers.  The tough issues that Cameron faces are dealt with in a very respectful manner, and Ms. Bray’s writing presents a raw, unvarnished picture of a less-than-perfect kid.  With all the drama involved, this book might have become a real downer if it wasn’t so absolutely hilarious!  The situations that Cameron and his crew encounter are completely over-the-top, and there were some points when I felt like I was dreaming this story instead of simply reading it! 

One of my favorite parts about “Going Bovine” was that it made me wonder if Cameron was actually dying, or if the whole story was simply a sickness-induced hallucination.  Either way, it made for a fun experience since everyone has considered the possibility of their own death at some point.  And if you’re ever stuck for ideas on a writing project, you couldn’t ask for a better prompt than imagining what you might do if you only had a few weeks left to live.  If Ms. Bray could create this amazing story from that one simple idea, just imagine the story you could write!  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Crash, by Jerry Spinelli

John “Crash” Coogan is a seventh-grade football star, and I’ll go out on a limb and call him kind of a bully as well.  Crash enjoys the fast-paced, macho world of sports, and he lives every other part of his life with the same intense passion.  His head-long behavior continues when he meets a new neighbor, Penn Webb, who’s basically the exact opposite.  Penn is a quiet, thoughtful boy whose Quaker family doesn’t condone violence, eat meat, or seek out material things.  When Crash strikes up a reluctant friendship with Penn, he’s forced to re-think many of his own behaviors.

I loves the way that this book unfolded over the course of the entire school year, so it gives the reader a chance to get to know Crash while organizes his life priorities.  The year holds a lot of surprises for Crash, including changes in his parents’ employment, his little sister’s growing social activism, and new friends at school.  The most serious concern is his grandfather Scooter’s sudden illness, which serves to remind Crash that having a healthy family and supportive friends is much more important than having nice clothes, toys, or even being popular.  At the end of the book, I really appreciated the way that Mr. Spinelli intentionally left the conclusion kind of open and unresolved, almost as if he realized that Crash wasn’t a perfect person but he still wanted to give him more time to improve.  It was a very cool and thought-provoking way to close out a fun book!

This book would hold a lot of appeal with any upper-middle-grade readers, especially young men who consider themselves to be sports fans.  The hilarious circumstances and quick pacing make “Crash” a fast read, even though it’s not necessarily a short book.  Pass a copy along to the jock in your life and I guarantee, this is one book that they won’t be embarrassed to be seen reading in public!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

Alec Ramsay is a young boy returning from visiting his uncle in India.  While his steamship is stopped at an Arabian port, Alec witnesses the crew struggling to bring an untamed black horse aboard.  Days later, after a terrible storm at sea, the ship goes down with the only survivors being the horse and Alec!  Alec soon learns that his new horse is built for speed, but any dreams of the racetrack will have to wait until after they can be rescued!

I enjoyed this book because it’s a story that’s half adventure and half sports.  Also, even though the book was a contemporary novel when it was published in 1941, it reads more like a well-researched historical novel today.  When Alec eventually gets rescued by a passing freighter, his parents send him a telegram with instructions to book a ticket on the next ship bound for New York.  I thought that was hilarious, compared to the availability of instant messaging and jet travel that we take for granted nowadays!

Even though this book is nearly seventy years old, it’s still just as exciting to read today.  “The Black Stallion” is pure escapist fantasy about a boy and his horse, the two of them alone against the wild world.  Whenever you mix together ocean travel, deserted islands, wild animals and athletic championships, that recipe is sure to be a success with boys who love to read!       

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

Billy Miller is nervous about going back to school.  After suffering a concussion over summer vacation, he’s worried that he may not be smart enough for the second grade!  On top of the stress that comes from meeting a new teacher, Billy’s struggling to get along with his little sister, his parents, and his friends.  It seems like there’s always something going on at the Miller household, and Billy’s usually right in the middle of the action!

One thing I liked about this chapter book was how the reader gets the chance to follow Billy through the entire school year.  It’s not a minute-by-minute, day-by-day account, but rather an in-depth look at some of the more memorable events as Billy sees them.  Mr. Henkes gives a lot of attention to the simple things, like Billy’s diorama project and his class’ poetry recital.  These might not be major societal issues that we’re talking about, but they’re certainly huge milestones for a second grade student!

This one is a little bit longer than the traditional chapter book, but it’s nicely broken down into shorter sections so that even the most methodical reader will be able to make steady progress.  Not only is this book a great story about a very cool kid, but it’s a strong choice to prepare young men for the longer novels that they’ll see in upper grades.  Keep a copy of this book on hand and I guarantee, it won’t be long until all the pages start looking dog-eared and worn!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Even though he’s a goofy-looking kid with a history of medical issues, socially awkward Arnold “Junior” Spirit still shows a lot of promise.  He’s one of the best students at his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he’s also a talented cartoonist and basketball player.  As Junior starts to become aware of the dead-end lives that his fellow Indians are living “on the rez”, he comes to realize that in order to have a future he’s going to have to get out.  Enrolling in the “white school” across town is an extremely unpopular decision with his friends and neighbors, but it’s a choice he has to make.  It’s tough to imagine how Junior’s life could get any harder…until, of course, it does.

This is a raw, honest book that doesn’t pull any punches.  I appreciated the way that Mr. Alexie was very blunt in discussing Junior’s struggles, both as an adolescent and as a Native American growing up in poverty.  I don’t know very much about the culture of American Indians, so it was awesome to get a sneak peek inside a modern-day reservation.  Mr. Alexie was brutally honest in his portrayal of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including descriptions of alcoholism and domestic violence.  “The Rez” came across as a sad, desperate kind of place, and it’s easy to see why Junior would work so hard to get out.

This novel seemed like a short read, but that might just be because it’s such a page-turner.  The outstanding illustrations by Ellen Fortney were both hilarious and heartfelt as well.  It’s important to note that several school districts have banned this book because of some graphic content, but I didn’t feel like it was anything that would be unfamiliar to today’s teenagers.  What really bothered me was that the supposed “objectionable content” involved normal issues from Junior’s adolescence, and hardly anyone seemed to be bothered by the tragic circumstances of everyday life on the reservation!  This is just my personal opinion here, but maybe people who haven’t actually read this book are getting upset about the wrong things!  In any case, this was one of the best modern young adult novels that I’ve read since starting this project, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any (older) boys!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Body Check, by Matt Christopher

Brent Mullen is a future hockey star!  At twelve years old, he’s already mastered the basics of ice hockey and he’s looking forward to competing at higher levels.  All of his plans change in an instant, however, when his team gains a new player whose father serves as an assistant coach.  Unlike Coach Maxwell, who emphasized fair play and sportsmanship, Coach Seabrook is all about doing what it takes to win.  When he begins teaching the boys that cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught, Brent seriously considers leaving the team.  Will Brent be able to express his concerns before the illegal moves get one of the players hurt?

This was a very cool book, and it was one of Mr. Christopher’s that I hadn’t read before.  In fact, I just went to my library and grabbed one of his books off the shelf at random.  Matt Christopher was a perennial favorite when I was growing up, and I’m confident that he’s probably the best sportswriter for children, hands down.  If you’ve got a favorite sport, I’ll bet money that Mr. Christopher has written an awesome book about it.  All of his stories feature a solid plot set into a background of authentic sports action, which really helps to keep his storylines flying along!

As much as I enjoyed reading “Body Check”, I’d say that any of Mr. Christopher’s books would be a good choice for a young man who’s more interested in playing sports than reading books.  But don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try this experiment for yourself!  Introduce one of these sports books to the young athlete in your life, and I guarantee you’ll create a ravenous reader.  In fact, the new Matt Christopher fan might be in danger of missing practice because he wants to read “just one more page”!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Last Mission, by Harry Mazer

At fifteen years old, Jack Raab is still too young to join the military.  As the Second World War is winding down in Europe, Jack fears that all of the fighting will be over before he gets his chance to see action.  After some consideration, he uses a fake ID card to lie about his age and enlist in the Army Air Corps.  Jack makes it through training and becomes a gunner on a B-17 “Flying Fortress”.  After twenty-four bombing missions and countless close calls, Jack’s luck finally runs out!  When his plane is shot down by the Germans, he escapes by parachute and comes down behind enemy lines… alone, and afraid.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is the realism.  Mr. Mazer served in the Army Air Corps himself, so it’s no wonder that he got all the details correct.  From all the descriptions of the bomber in flight, including the snap of freezing cold air temperatures and the smell of the exploding shrapnel, you’ll probably feel like you’re strapped in alongside young Jack.  Also, I really appreciated how honest the book was when it discussed Jack’s feelings.  During training he thought he was invincible, and that no harm could possibly ever come to him.  Eventually, after seeing some of his friends injured in battle, Jack’s demeanor became deadly serious.

Just like in real life, this story doesn’t end once Jack’s tour is over.  I really enjoyed following Jack’s return home, and I could identify with the difficulties that he faced when he tried to return to his old high school.  “The Last Mission” offers an outstanding view on what war really is, as opposed to what young men sometimes think it is.  Even though this book contains some depictions of violence and foul language, I would recommend it without reservation, particularly to young men who might be considering a career in the armed services.