Costa Reading

One girl with too many books.


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Historical Fiction

I absolutely love reading historical fiction. I love it when an author can take me back in time, to a place I will never be able to visit outside of a book. I especially love it when the author teaches me something while telling me a story. I enjoy books from every time period and I’ve read many good books about World War II. I feel as though this was a deeply depressing time period for many people from all over the world but there is much that can be learned from it. Authors are able to retell the stories of times past through historical fiction. They are able to draw readers into a horrendous moment in history by giving them a character to empathize with.

Ruta Supetys does this in Between Shades of Gray. She puts the reader into the world of fifteen-year-old Lina, the daughter of a provost at a Lithuanian university. The Soviet police have taken her and her family away in the night for no reason that they could tell. Lina, her brother, Jonas, and her mother have been separated from Lina’s father. They are put on a train for weeks and finally end up in Siberia. They are put through much heartache, sickness, and pain. However, there are a few rays of light that shine through. Lina develops a friendship with Andrius, a boy about her age who has also lost his father. There is a Soviet guard who shows kindness when he can. And Lina finds joy in her drawing.

Lina’s story brings to light a part of World War II that is not commonly seen in teen literature. Most fiction set during this time take place in the concentration camps that Hitler created. While it is important to learn about these camps and what people lived through there, it is just as important to know what went on in the rest of the world during this time. It’s important for our future to realize that the horrible dictators of the past weren’t just preoccupied with their victims’ nationalities, they were also afraid of their intellects. Supetys states in her Author’s Note, “Doctors, lawyers, teachers, military servicemen, writers, business owners, musicians, artists, and even librarians were all considered anti-Soviet and were added to the growing list slated for wholesale genocide.” Stalin needed to wipe out any individual who might speak out against him. He killed millions of people but there isn’t near the same amount of awareness of his atrocities as there is about Hitler.

It’s important to have books like Between Shades of Gray to bring history to life for the teens of today. They need to be aware of the sordid past in order to help make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Teens also learn about kindness, empathy, and love through books like this. They get to see that no matter how bleak life might seem, there is always hope.

Additional Information:

To find out more about the book and to see an interview with the author click here.

Learn more about Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic States by clicking here.

Learn about the Soviet deportations from Lithuania by clicking here.

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The Giver

What would it be like to live in a world with no crime, no racism, no discontent? How would it feel to get along with everyone and have everyone get along with you? What if there were no poverty, sickness, or uncertainty? Would all of this be worth it if no one felt desire, love, or joy? What if the cost of peace was absolute numbness?

That is the kind of world that Jonas lives in. The Giver is set in a community that wants to control everything. And when I say everything I mean everything. Jonas is about to turn 12 and knows that things are going to change because he is going to find out what his occupation will be for the rest of his life. He understands that changes happen for the good of the community but these changes are expected and normal. However Jonas is starting to notice something new, something intriguing and confusing, but he has no words to describe what is happening.

Then the Ceremony day finally arrives when Jonas receives his assignment and he forgets all about the odd things he’s been noticing when he’s announced to be the Receiver of Memories. This is an occupation Jonas isn’t familiar with but he accepts the assignment as is expected of him. Little does he know that this is the moment that will change the course of his life.

It’s only logical that a receiver would need someone to give to them. This is where the Giver comes in. He is an elderly man who has been carrying around the memories of the distant past in order to retain the Sameness of the community they live in. He now starts to give Jonas these memories and Jonas starts to realize that the confusing and intriguing thing he’s been noticing is color. It is also through these memories that he realizes he’s never experienced true joy, sorrow, pain, and love before. He also understands that his family and friends have never felt these things either. In fact, he realizes that they will never experience true emotion while the memories of the past are kept from them. During one particularly disturbing scene Jonas understands that they are capable of murder with no remorse. Jonas and the Giver decide they must put an end to the dangerous Sameness of the community. They are willing to sacrifice themselves to make this so.

The Giver is an excellent book that has fostered many discussions on right and wrong. It raises the question of what price should we pay for peace? Should we sacrifice all emotion and beauty for the sake of never being hurt? And can we truly feel joy and pleasure if we never feel sorrow and pain? If it would mean the end to all crime and war, would we give up our individual rights to make our own decisions?

Even though this book is relatively short and easy to read, this book’s heavy topics lend itself to deep philosophical discussions. I think that is why it is an award winner and still assigned reading at school. However, I do think it belongs in the upper middle to lower high school classrooms, not in the elementary classrooms like I usually see.

Additional Information:

To watch a book trailer for The Giver click here.

Watch an interview with Lois Lowry about The Giver here.


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Identity

Teens are constantly struggling with finding their unique identity. Most of them don’t quite know yet who they are and who they want to be. Every day brings up new questions as to how they will respond to situations. Adults must also make these decisions but it does get easier as time goes on. It gets easier not to succumb to peer pressure or take the easy way out, even if that means hurting somebody. That doesn’t mean that adults don’t ever make decisions that hurt others just that it happens less often, if they’ve chosen to be the type of person that would rather be kind. This is the type of situation that Wonder comes from. The author, R. J. Palaccio, told an NPR interviewer that the idea of the book comes from a situation where she didn’t act with the kindness she wishes she had.

Wonder is about a boy who is born with a severe facial deformity that has prevented him from attending public school. August has always known that he’s different from other kids but he still feels like a normal kid. He plays video games, loves Star Wars, his dog, his family, and hanging out with his friends. He feels normal but is terrified at the thought of attending public school. But, with encouragement from his parents, he attends school for the first time in fifth grade. This has to be one of the hardest times in a child’s life without having a very prominent physical difference and I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have the appearance of August.

The strength that is shown by August and by those who choose to be kind and to be his friend is what makes me love this book so much. I completely understand why this book is on so many teachers’ reading lists. This book shows kids what it means to be a good person, what it means to choose to rise above appearances and to be kind because it is the absolutely right thing to do. There was one particular teacher who tried to teach this to the fifth graders in August’s English class, Mr. Browne. Mr. Browne had a precept for every month of the year that the students discussed and wrote essays on. His very first precept was: “When given the choice between right or being kind, choose kind” (page 48). This precept definitely spoke to me on a personal level as I’m sure it did many other readers. I know that it spoke to the characters in the book because of the precepts they write themselves at the end of the book.

Another reason Wonder will appeal to many different readers is because it isn’t just told from the point of view of August. The reader is put in the place of his friends, Summer and Jack, his sister, Via, and his sister’s boyfriend, Justin, and his sister’s estranged friend. Miranda. We’re introduced to imperfect people who feel uncertainty, jealousy, and a bit of resentment but they are all good people. The characters are so real that you feel what they’re feeling and you hope that you would be able to rise to the occasion of being kind. However, not everyone is good. The world is full of people who will be cruel and that’s just reality. August, along with his friends, goes through some tough situations but it’s how he reacts that makes the true impression on the reader.

Additional Information:

Send your own precepts to the author here.

Hear the author’s story of Wonder here.


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The Teen Classic Novel #2

The second classic teen novel I read this semester was Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. This was yet another teen book I kept hearing about and seeing but didn’t pick it up until it showed up on this Young Adult Lit class book list. I can see why it might be considered a teen classic; it has characters that almost anyone can relate to, a message that many need to hear, and is pretty timeless.

Stargirl is not told from a girl’s point of view. Rather the main protagonist is Leo, a high school boy who is intrigued by the new girl, Stargirl Caraway. At first, the whole school shys away from this odd addition to their high school lives. She wears strange clothes, smiles at everyone, and sings “Happy Birthday” to students in the cafeteria while playing her ukulele. Somewhere along the way she wins everyone over. People start keeping pet rats like hers, Cinnamon, and they start to dress uniquely as well. The students start to discover their individuality. As Leo says, “Girls like her. Boys liked her. And-most remarkable-the attention came from all kinds of kids: shy mice and princesses, jocks and eggheads” (page 38). He compares what occurred as “a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves” (page 40).

Leo has already fallen for Stargirl and they begin to date. Then things start to change. Through a series of events, Stargirl is no longer beloved by the whole school. But she doesn’t see the changes like Leo does. She was never caught up in the idea of being popular; rather she was just happy that everyone was happy. Then, when people start to treat her differently, she doesn’t seem to even notice. But Leo does. He starts to get irritated with the quirky things that Stargirl does. He finally entreats her to be “normal”. No one’s lives are the same once Stargirl decides to turn her back on how she is for the sake of being “normal”.

Spinelli is definitely trying to impart the message that everyone deserves to be treated kindly with this book. He’s showing that there is a place in the world for all sorts of different people and we should all strive just to be kind and happy. Many have latched onto this message and are actively living it by creating their own Stargirl Societies. They are striving to rid schools of bullying and to teach acceptance. This is very admirable and is something that needs to happen today.

However, there were a few things that bothered me with this book. I never felt a connection to Stargirl, but I did feel a connection to Leo. I could understand his feelings of being torn between love for Stargirl and the need to be accepted by his peers. But Stargirl never felt real to me. She felt like an extremely naïve and silly girl. She had absolutely no preservation instincts and was a person who could be completely taken advantage of in the real world. There were moments when I felt her kindness to be a weird type of stalking. I really spent the whole time wanting to shake her to wake her up to what the real world is like. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should be able to be unique and happy without being bullied or picked on. However, I know that we all need to be wary and realize that there are bad people out there will take advantage of those unsuspecting.

In conclusion, I feel that Stargirl has a place in the classroom and on the reading lists for middle and high school students. It will be the center of much discussion on acceptance and awareness. It will help teach young people empathy, which is much needed in our society.

Additional Information:

To find out more about Stargirl Societies click here.

To learn how to become a stargirl click here.

To learn more about Jerry Spinelli click here.


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The Teen Classic Novel #1

We were asked to read a couple of classic teen novels for this class. According to Oxford Dictionary Online classic is defined as “Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind“. And so a classic novel is a novel that will stand the test of time. It’s not just a fad, it truly resonates with many people and will do so over the course of many years. A teen classic novel will do just this but is written just for teens. I chose to read Looking for Alaska by John Green for this section of reading. It’s one I’ve heard a lot about over the years but I’d never picked it up for some reason.

Looking for Alaska is about Miles. He’s a teenage boy obsessed with the last words of famous people. He reads their biographies and loves it when their last words are included. When his parents ask him why he chose to go to boarding school, thinking it was because he didn’t have many (if any) friends, and he tells them that it’s because of Francois Robelais’ last words: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”. This is what really grabbed my attention when I was reading the book. It got me wondering, do teens really think this way? Is John Green making teens appear more deep and philosophical than they truly are? And, if so, does that matter?

Miles ends up going to this boarding school and meets the first true friends he’s ever had. His roommate, The Colonel, gives him the nickname, Pudge, and that’s what we get to know him as. Pudge becomes infatuated with this girl, Alaska. She’s moody, attractive, bold, smart, and has a boyfriend. Takumi is the funny one of the group and he also loves to rap. Much of the book is taken over by the witty and smart dialogue between this group of friends and their escapades on school grounds. They mess around a lot but they each seem to take their lives seriously. They seriously ponder the BIG questions about life and share their thoughts with each other. Adults are around but not immediately present. Pudge’s parents are supportive and trust him. They don’t hover but they’re there if Pudge ever needs them. The teachers seem to care but they’re mainly in the background. One does stand out as the protector of the students. They’ve nicknamed him The Eagle and at first he just seems like a disciplinarian but you start to realize that he truly cares about the kids who go to the school.

However, this novel does revolve around a tragedy. It is broken up into two parts, a Before and an After. Pudge starts to truly ponder what The Great Perhaps is in the After portion. He struggles with the reasons why certain choices are made and why such horrible things can happen to the people he loves. He and The Colonel must choose how to move on after such a life changing event happens.

John Green writes his teen characters as real as he can. They make stupid decisions, drink, do drugs, and have sex. But they’re also smart, funny, emotionally vulnerable, strong, and fragile. He seems to write his characters in a way to draw real teens into a story. He really wants to connect with teens and help them feel as though they are not alone in anything that they go through. Sometimes his characters can be irritating and selfish but that’s just how people (not just teens) can be sometimes.

The fact that John Green writes for teens in a way that isn’t condescending or dumbing things down for them might be the reason he has such a faithful following. His brother, Hank, and he started the nerdfighters campaign. They wanted teens to truly feel accepted in a group where they could be themselves. There is no criteria to be a nerdfighter, you just need to want to be one.

Additional Information:

To find out more about nerdfighters, watch a youtube video by Hank and Green here.

For more information from John Green’s website about Looking for Alaska click here.

For famous last words click here.

To find out how to help troubled teens click here.


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A Fractured Fairy Tales Reading Ladder

A fractured fairy tale takes a traditional fairy tale and changes the plot, setting, characters, and/or message to create a whole new kind of story. It is usually obvious which fairy tales these fractured stories are based on and it can be easy to pick out the points the author chose to change.

Lately it seems as though authors are using these usually misogynistic traditional tales and changing them to promote a different way of thinking about everyone’s role in society.

There are no longer helpless damsels in distress with a knight on a white horse coming to rescue her. And if she does need help, she doesn’t sit passively by and do nothing; she actively participates in her rescue.

On the other hand, all men are not the strong dashing type, they also need to be rescued sometimes and this isn’t emasculating in any way.

It’s important that children and teens understand that it’s okay to be strong, weak, happy, sad, angry, intelligent, and (sometimes) ignorant. Nobody is perfect and our literature needs to reflect this. Kids need to be taught that it’s okay for them to make mistakes and it’s what they do after they’ve made them that is important.

I think that these fractured fairy tales I’ve listed in my reading ladder do this very well. They are in leveling order, beginning with the upper elementary age/lower middle school and progressing to upper high school.

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

For grades 4-6

As next door neighbors Hazel and Jack have been best friends since they were six. They’ve been there for each other through each of their family’s difficulties. However, now that they’re eleven, others have started to question their friendship, thinking it’s abnormal for a boy and a girl to be friends. Hazel and Jack stay true to their friendship, not caring what other people think. Until one day when Jack’s whole personality seems to change. He freezes Hazel out of his life and then disappears. Hazel knows in her heart that something is desperately wrong and sets out to rescue him. She travels through a frozen forest to find the Snow Queen who has bewitched Jack. Will she be able to break through the enchantment to reach Jack’s heart and bring him home?

 

Tale Dark and GrimmA Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

For grades 5-7

This story of Hansel and Gretel is more true to the traditional Grimm Brother’s fairy tales. However, Gidwitz has the brother and sister traveling through the tales much as a reader would read through the stories in a book. He changes the tales in ways to make the story flow but keeps the original intention and feeling. Most importantly, the original gore of the Grimm’s tales is retained. Gidwitz doesn’t sugar coat any of the more sinister bits and this is what has appealed to all of the kids I’ve recommended the book to. However, this is the main reason I would say it’s for 5th-7th graders.

As brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel must help each other navigate their way through the many evils that surround them. They take turns being the logical rescuer of the other. I love the way this book makes the sibling’s relationship so very important. This is something we don’t see too much of. A lot of books for this age group are about being the sole hero.

 

Far Far AwayFar Far Away by Tom McNeal

For grades 6-8

Jeremy Johnson Johnson has been friends with the ghost of Jacob Grimm for the last few years. The ghost is a voice of reason for Jeremy until he becomes friends with Ginger, a spunky girl who challenges him to break out of his shell. Then they become involved in a series of dangerous events and their lives are put in danger.
This book felt very much like a fairy tale but I couldn’t pinpoint any one specific tale.
Far Far Away is definitely a coming of age tale for boys. Jeremy is trying to figure out how to save his house because his father is frozen into inaction by depression. He is also discovering who he is and how he can become the person he wants to be. Jacob is that external voice that would usually be the protagonist’s inner voice.
sisters redSisters Red by Jackson Pearce

For grades 8-10

Scarlett and Rosie march are the contemporary Little Red Riding Hoods. Their grandmother had been killed in their house by a Fenris, a werewolf like creature who attack young girls. The sisters aren’t helpless little girls anymore. Rather they take the fight to the Fenris by acting like victims and then killing as many Fenris as they possibly can. They don’t do this alone however, they are joined by a long family friend who also happens to be a huntsman. Things can’t stay the same however, they start to change as Rosie and Silas begin to have feelings for each other.
The question of the strength of a sister’s bonds are questioned and whether or not they’ll be able to survive the next challenges the three are going to face.


CinderCinder
by Marissa Meyer
For grades 9-11
Cinder is a cyborg Cinderella who lives New Beijing. She is treated as a servant by her stepmother, Adri, and one of her stepsisters, Pearl, but she absolutely adores her stepsister, Peony. Cinder works as a mechanic to repair androids and this is how she meets Prince Kai. Of course she develops feelings for him (this is a Cinderella story after all) but she doesn’t become the damsel in distress. She fights for her freedoms and to improve her lot in life. She even makes it her mission to save Prince Kai for the evil Lunar Queen Levana.
This is definitely not the traditional Cinderella story and has many different levels of complexity. It takes on stereotypical gender roles while tweaking the traditional fairy tale. And as the series moves on to Scarlet, Cress, and Winter readers are introduced to many more versions of fractured fairy tales.


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The Living by Matt de la Pena

The Living by Matt de la Pena tackles many issues that teens deal with on a day-to-day basis. His characters are usually working class and are of mixed race. They deal with racism and unfair societal disadvantages that they must rise above. The books are contemporary and are for the multicultural teens that don’t see many books that are written for them specifically.

Matt de la Pena tackles these same issues in a completely new way. The main character in The Living is Shy. He’s working on a cruise ship for the summer to make some money. His family is struggling to make ends meet in Otay Mesa, a small neighborhood outside of San Diego. His grandmother recently died of a new disease that proves fatal and is sweeping through the poorer parts of California. Shy connects with another employee, Carmen, on the ship because of his grandmother’s death. He feels she’s the only one he can truly connect with because her father died of the same disease. Shy has feelings for her but she’s engaged to another guy. He also has some people investigating and interrogating because he was a witness to some rich guy’s suicide. The company the man worked for is very interested in what this man’s last words were to Shy. Shy can’t even imagine why. But these problems all seem so small and unimportant when the cruise ship receives word that most of California has been devastated by a disastrous earthquake. People are in shock that many of their loved ones are most likely dead. Then a tsunami bigger than any in recorded history sinks the ship. After a heart pumping series of events, Shy finds himself on a lifeboat with a teenage girl named Addie.

Shy has met Addie before and they did not get along. She’s a rich girl who was on a cruise with her rich father and girl friend. Now she’s no better off than Shy. Due to their circumstances the previous class lines are gone and now they both just need to survive. They are trying to get to the Hidden Island that her father works on as it is the nearest haven they can think of and they get to know each other in the process.

I really liked how Matt was able to combine so many different genres into one book. He has an adventure, contemporary fiction, disaster, romance, and coming of age. I like that it was so easy to get inside Shy’s head even though it was written in the third person. There were plenty of times when I was surprised to hear “Shy” instead of “I” or “me”. The narration flowed so well that I completely forgot that it wasn’t Shy who was actually talking. This is definitely a novel that will entertain all readers while connecting with the multicultural teens in a special way.

On a side note, there was one thing that did irritate me with The Living. It has a love triangle like so many teen novels today. I wonder if this is because Matt isn’t used to writing romance into his fiction and he’s just taking a cue from many of the popular teen novels of today, Hunger Games just for an example, or if this will come into play later in the series and couldn’t be avoided. Either way, I did roll my eyes a little when I realized Shy was going to be torn between Carmen and Addie. However, I really liked how Matt could portray a teenage male protagonist so realistically. Shy has the normal hormonal lusty feelings of a teenage boy but he also shows the depth of emotions and intelligence that most boys also have. He doesn’t always act like a sex crazed boy that we’re used to seeing. Shy has these feelings but he doesn’t always act on them. Matt de la Pena did a great job in not writing a stereotypical teenage boy.

Additional Information:

Follow what he’s doing on Matt de la Pena’s website.

Read/listen to an interview with Matt de la Pena on NPR’s website.

For a list of multicultural books written for kids and teens compiled by experts in the field click here.