Black Box
Julie Schumacher
ISBN 978-0-385-73542-1
Delacorte, 2008
Grades 9 to 12
Realistic Fiction

Elena wishes she could access the black box inside her hospitalized older sister.

Summary:

Elena has always taken care of her big sister Dora. Her job is made more difficult by Dora’s hospitalization after a suicide attempt. Rather than getting better after her hospitalization, medication, and therapy, Dora’s mental state progressively declines. Elena is at a loss. Dora makes her swear her loyalty, forbidding Dora from telling their parents when she skips her meds or hordes pills. Dora’s condition continues to deteriorate and she attempts suicide again.

Crititique:

Elegant and moving. Schumacher employs metaphor beautifully.

Curriculum Ties:

Use in metaphor studies.

Controversy:

Suicide.

Have challengers read the entire book and refer them to the great number of accolades received by Black Box.

Selection Rationale:

“Schumacher beautifully conveys Elena’s loneliness and guilt as she tries to protect her sister without betraying her, as well as the emotional release she experiences upon finding someone to trust with her own feelings. The spare prose is loaded with small, revealing details of the relationships that surround Elena and how they change through Dora’s illness. This novel is a quick read, but it will leave a lasting and ultimately hopeful impression.” – Booklist

“Fittingly, the novel doesn’t resolve neatly; although it ends on a note of healing and hope, its strength is in the way it allows readers to see the messy, ugly complexities of mental illness and witness the collateral damage it wreaks on the entire family.” – Kirkus

About the Author:

Julie Schumacher is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. Her first short story was included in Best American Short Stories in 1983. She writes for both adults and younger readers.

The Compound
S.A. Bodeen
ISBN 0-312-37015-6
Feiwel and Friends, 2008
Grade 7 and up
Adventure/Survival/Science Fiction/Post-Apocalyptic

Eli has lived the past six years of his life underground after a nuclear attack on Washington State. The Compound was supposed to be a safe place for fifteen years after such an attack, but supplies are dwindling and Eli is starting to ask questions.

Summary:

When the United States is under nuclear attack the Takanaki family thinks they are lucky to have the Compound. Eli, Lexie, and Terese, along with their parents all make it into the underground shelter. Eddy, Eli’s twin, and their grandmother aren’t so lucky. It is six years later; Eli is now fifteen and still misses his twin. Things in the Compound have started to go wrong. The livestock has all died, the hydroponic lights are flickering, and supplies are dwindling all around. But Eli’s father thought of everything, he has a stockpile of Supplements to feed his family with, should the food run out. Bits of the truth of their situation begin to seep in when Eli discovers his twin’s never-used laptop and a mystifying internet connection near his father’s office. Eli successfully gets online and into Instant Messenger. His brother is there. After verifying that they are both who they say they are, Eddy lets Eli know that there was no nuclear attack, it was all a ruse. Eddy and their grandmother are safe and sound, all this time they thought the rest of the family was dead. The conversation is cut off when Eli’s father emerges from his office and discovers the laptop. At this point, the book undergoes a transformation from science fiction to a horrific psychological survival story. Eli and his family must go up against their father and wits to escape the underground prison—the father is the only one with the password to open the hatch, a secret is not willing to part with easily. Between Eli and his siblings the code is discovered and Eli opens the door. A final battle remains as Eli rescues his family from underground. The children and their mother do escape and begin a quiet life in Hawaii, but the threat of their missing father looms over them all.

Critique:

Excellent. A thrilling, unique, page-turner. Bodeen created a roller-coaster ride of a plot, as soon as I thought I had it all figured out, another twist appeared. Fabulous introduction of many ethical dilemmas. Boys and girls alike will love it. I think this would be a perfect pick for even the most reluctant reader.

Curriculum Ties:

Biomedical ethics or science classes. Could be integrated into discussion about the Cold War and nuclear arms testing.

Controversy:

Cannibalism, cloning.

Have challengers read the entire book and decide if the way in which these issues are presented are still objectionable. Present positive reviews.

Selection Rationale:

As reviewers note this would be a great novel to use as a class read, it is filled with topics for discussion. Although The Compound turns out to be about something other than a nuclear apocalypse, it is still a great representation of some of the best features of the genre: an ethical question, growing up fast, and survival. As an action-packed but introspective read, this book will appeal to a great variety of readers.

“Bodeen’s straightforward, action-packed writing

conveys through apt detail the Compound environment—physical and emotional—and its subtly debilitative effects. As the plot builds from unease to intrigue to outright peril, Eli believably and satisfyingly grows from a spoiled, disturbed bully to the persuasive and empathetic (if still disturbed) man of the family. Taking full advantage of a unique premise, this tense portrait of a family in crisis probes the psychological and moral costs of survival.” – The Horn Book Magazine

“The novel becomes full of tension and suspense and turns into a true edge-of-the-seat thriller. There are numerous social issues addressed that could lead to great classroom discussions.” – School Library Journal

Booktalking:

Why doesn’t Eli want to be touched?

About the Author:

This is S.A. Bodeen’s first book.

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
ISBN 0-439-02348-3
Scholastic, 2008
Grades 7 to 10
Science Fiction/Adventure/Dystopia

Katniss refuses to let her sister enter a battle she has no chance of winning. But will she have the resources to survive this fight to the death?

Summary:

In a dystopian future North America is now a collection of thirteen colonies called Panem. Supplies are short and many aspects of society have reverted back to those in past ages. The government hosts annual televised games in which each colony sends a representative boy and girl to participate in a fight to the death. The winner is the last one alive and brings fame and food to his or her community. Katniss’ young sister is one of those selected. Of course, Katniss cannot stand to watch her sister enter this battle and volunteers to take her place. Katniss leaves behind her sister, mother, and best friend (Gale, also a burgeoning love interest). The boy selected from her town is Peeta, with whom she has had a bond since they were children. As a marketing ploy, Katniss and Peeta’s handlers/agents direct them to feign a romance. The ploy works only too well and Katniss and Peeta both find themselves developing complicated feelings for one another. The two manage to survive until the end, both together and apart. They face starvation and suffer serious injuries and exhaustion, but their mental and physical strength gives them the upperhand. However, only one contestant can survive. The pair decides to pull one over on the game organizers, and dose themselves with poison. They anticipate that an official will step in before it is too late. Katniss and Peeta are prevented from taking the poison and both declared winners. Katniss acts like a jerk and lets Peeta know that she was only pretending to love him for the ratings. When Katniss and Peeta arrive at the Capitol for an awards ceremony, they are let known that the government is very unhappy with their decisions at the end of the game. Katniss and Peeta are in trouble, the government is watching them. Katniss must choose between Peeta and Gale in the next book.

Critique:

Having read a great deal of hype before finally getting around to The Hunger Games, I am happy to say I was only minorly disappointed. I should say that my disappointment came from the book’s focus on adventure rather than the dystopian society. I’m just not as into adventure. That said, this was an excellent read and I cannot wait for the sequel. Both fast-paced and meditative, solid characters, a suspenseful ending, action, romance, friendship, and family, with a sci-fi element make this a book that both male and female readers of all ages will love.

Curriculum Ties:

Collins cites mythology (Theseus) as inspiration for The Hunger Games; inclusion within such units in English and History courses would be appropriate.

Challenge Issues:

Violence committed by teens against other teens.

Ask challengers to read the whole book and refer them to its outstanding reviews and popularity.

Selection Rationale:

The Hunger Games is an easy sell; from the cover to the final page, this is a story that will appeal to boys and girls alike. Despite the complications of romance, there is enough adventure and action to create immense appeal for readers not looking for a relationship story.

“What Collins has done here is set up a series that will sink its teeth into readers. The future of this book will go one of two ways. Either it will remain an unappreciated cult classic for years to come or it will be fully appreciated right from the start and lauded. My money lies with the latter. A contender in its own right.” – School Library Journal

ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2009

Booktalking:

What does Gale feel when Katniss volunteers to take Primrose’s place?

About the Author:

Suzanne Collins is also the author of the best selling series The Underland Chronicles. Prior to writing novels for children and young adults, Collins wrote for children’s television.

Additional Information:

Part of a planned trilogy, the sequel, Catching Fire will be released early this fall.

Tyrell by Coe Booth

August 7, 2009

Tyrell
Coe Booth
ISBN 978-0-439-83880-1
Push/Scholastic, 2007
Grade 9 and up
Urban Fiction

Will homelessness destroy all that Tyrell values?

Summary:

Tyrell is the story of one teen’s fight to survive with no support from his family. When Tyrell’s dad lands in jail, his family is shortly evicted from their apartment. They wind up in shelter housing, broke, hungry, and surrounded by roaches, he struggles to survive as a homeless teen. Tyrell’s girlfriend Noveesha is his opposite in many ways. Her mom pays the bills and puts food on the table. Noveesha is a good girl, with plans for college. At the shelter, Tyrell meets Jasmine, a girl who seems to be more on his page. Scrounging for money isn’t working for Tyrell anymore, a giant party is the answer to all his problems. Tyrell enlists the help of his father’s friends to plan his first party. Held in an illegal space, with pimps selling sex, Tyrell’s friend selling drugs, the threat of police is real. But Tyrell pulls off his party with nary a hitch. With his money problems resolved for the moment, Tyrell must focus on his girl problems and his return to school.

Critique:

I really wanted Tyrell to succeed. He is a sympathetic, if imperfect character. After getting knocked down again and again, Tyrell is still caring and struggling to do right and survive. The relief I felt went Tyrell’s party goes off without an arrest was immense. Readers will root for Tyrell and his little brother. I enjoyed the characters in Tyrell, they are diverse and compelling. There is no tidy conclusion to Tyrell’s story, a sequel would be welcome.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. Criminal activity, teen sex, violence, language.

Ask challengers to read the entire book and focus on Tyrell’s views of many of the activities going on around him.

Selection Rationale:

An easy, engrossing read.

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007

“Despite the grim setting evoked by the sensory prose, this isn’t a story of street violence and drugs; rather, it concerns the more intimate deprivations (and moments of connection, like Tyrell’s play in the snow with little Troy) of  living poor.” – Horn Book Magazine
“Booth, a writing consultant for the NYC Housing Authority, clearly understands how teens living on the edge–in shelters, in projects, on the street–live, talk and survive. It’s the slick street language of these tough but lovable characters and her gritty landscapes that will capture the interests of urban fiction fans.” – Kirkus

Booktalking:

Booktalk by Dr. Joni Bodart available at http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=1494_type=Book_typeId=4462

Write a diary entry about Tyrell from Novisha’s point of view. Contrast this with something from Jasmine’s point of view.

About the Author:

Coe Booth grew up in the Bronx. After graduating from college in 1996, Booth worked with families in crisis. Tyrell is her first novel; her second, Kendra is available now.

Bang by Sharon Flake

August 7, 2009

Bang
Sharon G. Flake
ISBN 078681844-1
Hyperion Books for Children, 2005
Grade 8 and up
Urban Fiction

BANG! It seems like everyday the count gets higher on Mann and Kee-Lee’s running tally of neighborhood deaths. In an attempt to save the boys when the odds are stacked against them, Mann’s father sends the two alone into the “jungle”, emulating an African tradition.

Summary:

Mann’s younger brother was killed two years ago, an innocent bystander in a shooting. The family is having a difficult time healing from the loss; the process isn’t made any easier by the constant threat of violence and death in their neighborhood. Mann  is a good kid who enjoys riding horses at a rundown stable and painting, but Mann and Kee-Lee’s innocence is threatened more and more every day.

As a last resort to save his son and his friend from the dangers that surround them, Mann’s father sends the boys on a survival quest of a sort, abandoning them in the woods to find their way home. After days of thirst, hunger, humiliation, frustration, anger and sadness, the boys make their way back to the city. Unwelcome in their own homes, the pair finds a place at Kee-Lee’s aunt’s house. There, they find themselves even more wrapped up in illicit dealings, as they become the aunt’s errand boys and are rented out as house painters to earn their keep. Through their trials art keeps them sane. Ultimately, Mann and Kee-Lee become victims of their environment when Kee-Lee is shot in a devastating moment. Mann flees the scene. He has a decision to make: continue on his downward spiral or learn the meaning of his name and reclaim his life.

Critique:

Bang caught me off guard. Significant elements of this book confounded me: a stable in ‘hood or a father sending his son on a quest to become a man with no warning? I didn’t buy these plot devices, more the stable than anything else. Mann’s father is so broken by his son’s death that his seriously insane act of desperation is almost plausible. Despite the odd decisions about the plot, Flake’s writing style and characters really shine through. Bang was heartbreaking, I had to put this one down. Flake beautifully conveys the torment that Mann’s family daily experiences as a result of their family member’s death.
Curriculum Ties:
Bang would be an interesting inclusion in a World Culture’s unit exploring various traditions where boys and girls are initiated into adulthood.

Controversy:

Child abuse, violence, illegal activity, language.

Ask challengers to read the entire book if they have not already, refer them to reviews and awards won by the author.

Selection Rationale:

This is a very unique story in which everything is not tied up neatly, a realistic quality that many readers will appreciate.

ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2006

“This disturbing, thought-provoking novel will leave readers with plenty of food for thought and should fuel lively discussions.” – School Library Journal

Booktalking:

Page 291, Mann begins his “Last Supper” painting of all the men lost to the streets.
In Mann’s voice, reflect on the quest your father sent you on.

About the Author:

Sharon Flake has written six books for young adults, has a degree in English and has lived in Pittsburgh for thirty years. Her books have received two Coretta Scott Kind Awards.

Forged by Fire
Sharon Draper
ISBN 0-689-81851-3
Simon Pulse, 1998
Grade  7 and up
Urban Fiction

Gerald knows fire. A fire saved him from a terrible life once, how will he free himself and his sister this time?

Summary:

Gerald accidentally sets a fire when left home alone as a young child. He is taken away from his drug addict mother, finally finding safety and stability in his aunt’s home. Gerald’s aunt dies suddenly and his mother, half-sister, and her father re-enter his life. Jordan is dangerous and abusive; he beats up Gerald and molests Angel, (Gerald’s half-sister and Jordan’s daughter).

Gerald tries endlessly to protect Angel, even getting Jordan sent to jail. After he’s released, Jordan’s ire is even worse. Gerald and Angel’s parents tumble deeper into drug and alcohol addiction. A car hits Monique, the kids’ mother, and life takes a turn for the worse. Monique is a shell of her former self – she forms an addiction to painkillers. Then Gerald’s best friend dies in a car crash. Angel is nearly raped by Jordan. Luckily, a fire starts in the apartment. Gerald gets home just in time to rescue Angel, but Jordan meets his end. The two feel a glimmer of hope as they ride away from the flames in an ambulance.

Critique:

This short, quick read is accessible in language but deals with many harsh realities. Draper is direct and unflinching in her dealings with abuse, addiction, co-dependency, death, friendship, and family. Gerald’s mother and step father are not the most complex characters, but the issues they face are real and many readers will be able to identify with Gerald and Angel’s experiences.

Curriculum Ties:

Examine the first chapter of Forged by Fire (initially submitted as a short story) when studying short stories in an English class.

Selection Rationale:

This is a moving account of a young teen’s experience of abuse and his attempts to salvage his family. Young adults will find many issues to identify with in Forged by Fire.

ALA Popular Paper Backs for Young Adults, 2002
“…Forged by Fire is a grim look at an inner-city home where abuse and addiction are a way of life and the children are the victims. There’s no all’s-well ending, but readers will have hope for Gerald and Angel, who have survived a number of gut-wrenching ordeals by relying on their constant love and caring for one another.” – School Library Journal
“…Draper faces some big issues (abuse, death, drugs) and provides concrete options and a positive African American role model in Gerald.” – Booklist

Booktalking:

Contrast life with Aunt Queen and life with Mom and Jordan.

About the Author:

Sharon Draper, and educator as well as author, has been honored as the National Teacher of the Year and is the recipient of five Coretta Scott King Awards.

Additional Information:

Forged by Fire is the sequel to Tears of a Tiger.

Bluford High: Summer of Secrets
Paul Langan
Scholastic, 2008
Grade 6 and up (Summer of Secrets is written for 5th or 6th grade reading levels, but has content sophisticated enough for high school students)
Urban Fiction

Darcy Wills is being eaten up by her secret; but when everyone else seems to have a secret too, the load becomes too much.

Summary:

It seems like this summer is definitely the summer of secrets to Darcy Wills. Darcy has her own secret, but it seems like everyone else is keeping secrets, too. Darcy is still dealing with a sexual assault that only her parents know about. The near rape happened with a boy she’d been warned about by her former friend. After losing her good friend and boyfriend, Hakeem, when he moves away, Darcy starts dating another boy. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a predator. This secret is getting in the way of Darcy’s relationships and prohibiting her from moving on after her break up with Hakeem. She is finding it difficult to heal, developing a lot of rage and suspicion as a result. Darcy sees danger signs everywhere, sometimes in the right places. When her old friend starts dating a questionable new guy, Darcy gives her a heads up about the situation and it turns out she was right. Summer of Secrets ties up relatively neatly, Darcy takes steps toward recovery and rebuilding the relationships she lost, her parents let her in on their secret: they’re pregnant, and learns to stand up for her friends and her beliefs even when its difficult.

Critique:

This is an excellent hi-lo read, although I suspect it would have been more enjoyable had I read the book that precludes this story (Until We Meet Again). Summer of Secrets addresses the complicated emotions of rape in a competent manner, in particular stigma that can generate secrecy. I really appreciated the way that female friendship and looking out for each other was highlighted in this story.

Curriculum Ties:

None.

Controversy:

Addresses rape, teen sex, and domestic violence.

Highlight to challengers the manner in which these issues are addressed in the book. Point out the popularity amongst students and librarians.

Selection Rationale:

The Bluford High series is a perfect example of Hi-Lo readers; these will engage students who may have a difficult time with fiction.

Highly recommended by many librarians and teachers as a hi-lo read to get reluctant and low-level readers into fiction.

Booktalking:

Reflect on the dangers of keeping secrets from Darcy’s point of view.

About the Author:

Paul Langan was born in Philadelphia in 1972, he studied creative writing in college. After working as an Assistant Editor at Townsend Press for awhile, he began writing and editing for the Bluford series.

The Coldest Winter Ever
Sister Souljah
ISBN 0-7432-7010-X
Washington Square Press, 1999
Adult
Urban Fiction

Winter learned to hustle from the best, will it be enough to keep her alive?

Summary:

Winter Santiaga has it all: the looks, the money, the power, and the home. These are the things that matter to Winter. Winter’s father, Ricky, is a successful gangster in New York, who taught his wife and children the art of hustling. But the the Santiagas’ world is quickly turned upside down beginning with a shooting where the mother is shot in the face.  Mrs. Santiaga is destroyed by wound; her beauty is ruined and she forms an addiction to painkillers. Santiaga is arrested along with most of his street army. With no one to turn to and limited reserves of money and resources the Santiaga family implodes. Winter’s sisters, Mercedes, Porsche, and Lexus, are snapped up by child welfare and sent to foster homes, but Winter evades the system, ever a hustler. She lives with an older man for a while, followed by a stint with an aunt. At her aunt’s she is reported to child welfare and placed in the House of Success, a group home for girls.

She continues hustling at the home, employing Simone, a friend from Brooklyn to steal items that she re-sells to the House of Success residents. Simone, pregnant, is arrested and Winter refuses to put up bail. Simone is released and brings a crew of girls to the House of Success to beat Winter up. Winter escapes and runs away, but Simone falls and eventually miscarries. Another resident of the House of Success advises winter to stay away and takes her to a “friend’s” house for refuge.

It turns out this friend is Sister Souljah, a political activist whose message Winter despises. Even with an opportunity to grow and perhaps change her destructive path, Winter continues on the road to self destruction. She hustles those who want to help her. Unfortunately, Winter’s hustle at Souljah’s fails when Souljah’s sister switches their bags, leaving Winter with nothing. Forced to leave Souljah’s house, Winter runs into Bullet, a man she dated previously. They rekindle, after all, Winter needs a place to go. Bullet arranges a big, final hustle that will allow he and Winter to set out on their own. The deal is a bust, Winter lands in jail and Bullet walks free.

Prison. This had to be where Winter was headed all her life. She is joined by friends and family from Brooklyn, everybody she knows is there. Released on a pass to attend her mother’s funeral, Winter reunites with her sisters, the eldest of whom is just like Winter. It is not until the very end of The Coldest Winter Ever that Winter realizes her mistakes and learns a lesson or two.

Critique:

The Coldest Winter Ever was kind of like a relentless tapping on your shoulder. Not painful, but definitely annoying. Winter is awful, but you still root for her as she makes bad choices again and again. Witnessing her downward spiral is painful and emotional. She has no respect for herself and thus gains little from others. Sister Souljah effectively illustrates the problems of crime and the cycle of crime, abuse, and beliefs that the Santiaga family is absorbed by.

Curriculum Ties:

An interesting English class assignment would be to pair this novel with another epic family tale, something more conventional such as 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez.

Controversy:

Explicit sex, language, violence, crime.

This is an adult novel, so challenges to it might be rare. I would not shelve it in a YA section. Should a challenge arise from a teen reading the novel, (or any other reason), ask the challenger to read the entire novel and think about the message that Souljah is trying to communicate. Highlight the important place that The Coldest Winter Ever holds in the urban fiction genre and the role that this genre can play in the reading lives of urban youth.

Selection Rationale:

The Coldest Winter Ever is cited again and again as a groundbreaking novel. It is a classic in the urban lit genre.

“Although the novels writing is amateurish, the message is sincere.” – Library Journal

The Coldest Winter Ever is a fast-moving, impeccably brilliant account of choices and consequences within the urban hip-hop culture. Sister Souljah writes eloquently with expressive insights and language of youth. Amidst the crisis and cruelty of inner city poverty and seemingly insurmountable struggles, Sister Souljah’s voice is one of grace and unmistakable clarity in one young woman’s coming-of-age story.” – Magill Book Reviews

Booktalking:

Read the final paragraph, Winter on her sister, page 284.

Construct an opinion of Winter from Midnight’s point of view.

About the Author:

Sister Souljah, born in the Bronx, is an activist, musician, author, performer, and film producer. She is the author of three books. Souljah lectures on many topics about relationships, self-esteem, and rights in the African-American community, as well as diversity and coalition building.