Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Danny, a quiet, half-Mexican-half-white baseball prodigy, goes to stay with his absent father’s family for the summer, where he meets new friends, masters his pitching skills, and comes to term with his father’s absence and his own racial identity.

My Favorite Quotes

“He’s Mexican, because his family’s Mexican, but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like his grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.”

“I came here because sometimes I feel like a fake Mexican. And I don’t want to be a fake. I wanna be real.”

mex white boy.jpg

What I Loved About It

I haven’t read very many sports-related books and have always had to look up books to recommend to my students who only want to read books about sports. I guess I always thought those athletic-teen-boy-protagonist, sports-focused books would be hard for me to relate to (as the least athletic person ever), but after reading this book, I can at least say I was very wrong about Matt de la Peña’s books. The dude is a genius. Mexican Whiteboy is phenomenal. It transcends the sports genre and even the coming of age genre to provide social commentary on race and poverty and identity and how these things are entwined, teaching teen readers so many important lessons and asking them so many important questions.

de la Peña has created an unusually relatable protagonist in Danny Lopez. Danny’s anxiety, loneliness, and confused sense of self are so typical to all teenagers and is, therefore, extremely relatable. But then it’s compounded by his biracial identity, which he struggles with because he feels like he doesn’t truly belong to either race. And de la Peña does such a good job in writing about that internal conflict and creating such a realistic teen character (and in such poignant prose too!).

What My Students Could Learn From It

I already mentioned that all of my students (regardless of their ethnic or racial makeup) could certainly relate to Danny’s struggle to understand his own identity. Many of my students could also relate to the poverty depicted in the book and the trouble each character has with understanding and being understood by their parents. Kids have got to read books they relate to or they won’t want to read, and I think Mexican Whiteboy, with its real characters and exciting baseball scenes and relatable conflicts would definitely capture their attention.

My students also desperately need to read books that give perspectives that are different from their own, racially, religiously, sexually, etc. Mexican Whiteboy is not only told from the perspective of a half-white, half-Mexican teen in Danny, but also in Uno, a half-black, half-Mexican teen. Mexican Whiteboy would certainly serve as a much needed window into these other experiences for my students and for yours too.

 

Advertisements
The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins

Guest blogger Savannah Mansour here! Thanks, Mara, for letting me steal your platform for a second. I was just too excited about this Young Adult novel; I had to share it with your readers! Enjoy France!

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 4.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days (~6 hours)

A 1 Sentence Summary

Throughout her grandparents’ visit in the United States from India, Sunita Sen becomes aware of differences between the “Euro-Americans” and herself in her middle school which stir her to navigate social tensions and family dynamics so she can reconcile her Indian heritage and American upbringing and therein discover and accept her mosaic identity.

My Favorite Quotes

The winding dirt path leads through the mango trees. Soft shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees have dried some of the flatter parts of the ground. The boy’s cycle speeds easily over the path, avoiding holes and muddy puddles as though it doesn’t need his help. It stops obediently when he spots a ripe mango lying on the side of the path. He peels its thin skin off with his teeth and lets the sweet juice fill his mouth.

“Don’t get disillusioned, kid. Frances Burnett was a product of her time. India was under British rule for years, you know. You can still appreciate the story.”

“I forget you’re not a little girl anymore,” she said. “Someday you may wish you had made different choices. But I suppose, in a way, you’re right. You need to find your own balance, and I need to find mine.”

“That was all he said, but Sunita wrote the gist of it in her journal later. She might need to explain it to her grandchildren someday.”

417+YKbXYZL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

What I Loved About It

First, I just have to say how much I enjoyed reading this book meant for children. I don’t mean to start some sort of controversy – clearly young adult novels can be read an enjoyed by all. This book was straight up my alley.

A Search for Identity                            Family Drama

Strong, Honest  BFF                             Multicultural

The best thing about this book is the perspective author Perkins lends readers through Sunita’s multicultural awakening. The emotions of this eighth grader are so genuine and relatable. (I remember, and still often find myself, navigating the mother-daughter dynamic Sunita and her mother go through in the story.)

Although I rated the prose low (and that means a lot to me personally), the quick-moving storyline and interest in Sunita’s development kept me hooked. That being said, I have genuine interest in the immigrant- and 2nd generation-American experience. This may be the case for some students with personal ties, but most of my students probably couldn’t care less.

What My Students Could Learn From It

So basically, Mara and I are besties and we just talk about our kiddos all the time. We love ‘em and want the best for ‘em and the way we know to take care of them, like many of you reading teachers, is education through reading. Contemplating the myopia that plagues many people/youth today, I realized I had learned about different people and situations by fictional experience through the pages of childhood novels. As a kid, my favorite books were the American Girl series and the Magic Treehouse series. Each book transported me to another time and place and I didn’t just read about a Swedish girl’s arrival to American who tragically lost her best friend from Cholera, but within those pages, and often my ship-shaped playground, I became that little Swedish girl.

Another difference we all like to blame for lack of empathy is the rise of (yes, social media, but punnier…) the selfie. So less reading and more taking selfies/social media/self-absorption lends to a more short-sighted perspective of the world. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but really all I’m trying to say is ultimately:

The cure for myopia is… READING!

Okay, yeah, so that was a huge tangent. I got blog happy and felt the need to explain my obsession with flooding our schools and private libraries with multicultural literature. Here’s a quote that helps me understand my feelings:

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” – Tim Keller, author of The Meaning of Marriage

To love people, or even just extend them some empathy, we must have some level of knowledge of them. Through such perspective shaping experiences, we learn truth, humility, and hope. In fact, knowing and empathizing with other people helps us know and love ourselves. I know a classroom full of students who could use more empathy, hope, truth, and humility.

So back to Sunita Sen

I would love for anyone trying to reconcile two identities within his/herself to read this book. Students experiencing that situation will feel validated rather than other-ed by this text. Students not in a similar situation will get to experience what it might be like to feel caught between two cultures. No matter your situation, there is a lot to gain from reading the story of Sunita Sen’s experience.

Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 3/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Adam Petrazelli, a teenager suffering from schizophrenia and the loneliness that comes with having a mental illness other people don’t understand, begins participating in a clinical trial for a medicine he hopes will change his life, starts his junior year at a new school, makes new friends, and tries his best to keep his illness from them.

My Favorite Quotes

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling, when I learned what someone would say if they knew my secret. What they really thought about people with my condition. Not the fake comforting words they’d give that other people would hear. The real words in their heart. If they knew I was a threat, they’d tell me to kill myself. They’d think I was a monster.”

“It’s hard to let someone find you in all the dark and twisty places inside, but eventually, you have to hope that they do, because that’s the beginning of everything.”

“Cancer Kid has the Make-A-Wish Foundation because Cancer Kid will eventually die, and that’s sad. Schizophrenia Kid will also eventually die, but before he does, he will be overmedicated with a plethora of drugs, he will alienate everyone he’s ever really cared about, and he will most likely wind up on the street, living with a cat that will eat him when he dies. That is also sad, but nobody gives him a wish, because he isn’t actively dying. It is abundantly clear that we only care about sick people who are dying tragic, time-sensitive deaths.”

words on bathroom walls

What I Loved About It

I loved that this book gave me, and all its other readers, a brief glimpse into what it’s like to live with a stigmatized and feared mental illness as a teenager. There are a ton of YA books out there about suicide and depression that focus on what life is like for those who loved or knew the person who took their life (and those books are very important), but I haven’t found many YA books out there about protagonists who are living and currently suffering from a mental illness.

Though the main character, Adam, falls in love, this book is not at all a romance or even a traditional coming-of-age book really. It simply tells the story of a teenaged boy suffering from a disease that other people fear, while still dealing with all the normal reasons for teenage angst like family problems, friendships, and relationships.  Life is hard enough as a healthy teenager, but to add in serious mental illness and the fear that people will discover that you have that mental illness, it’s almost unbearable. And Julia Walton expertly conveys that in this novel. She has created a very likable and very troubled protagonist in Adam.  I didn’t care a ton about any of the other characters in the novel (like Adam’s girlfriend Maya or the mean guy at school), but I think Adam, his therapist, and his mother and step-father and the dynamics Adam has with each of those characters are really interesting and well-written parts of the story.

What My Students Could Learn From It

In Words on Bathroom Walls, the protagonist allows readers to walk in the shoes of someone with a misunderstood and feared mental illness. This is something all of my students could benefit from–those who suffer from mental illnesses themselves can certainly relate (and could use a novel with a protagonist they can relate to!) and those who don’t could really use some empathy and understanding with regards to mental health.

The main thing I love about this book is that Walton explores so many common misconceptions and fears people have about mental health through it. By setting the novel in 2012, Walton was able to discuss the Sandy Hook shooting and the hatred, distrust, and fear people around the country who had schizophrenia were faced with after that shooting. Adam’s school almost kicks him out after the shooting because the shooter at Sandy Hook also had schizophrenia, and they didn’t want Adam to do something like that at his school. The pain Adam feels at being viewed this way truly effected me and my own views on mental health and school shootings. Reading this book would make my students think about these things differently too.

I’ve said over and over again on this blog that the main thing I want to teach my students is empathy. In our society today, too many people are without empathy when it comes to mental illness. This book can change that.

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Eight months after she gave up music entirely after her grandmother’s death, former pianist prodigy, Lucy Beck-Moreau, attempts to play again, without being pressured or controlled by her mother and grandfather and the musical legacy of her family.

My Favorite Quotes

“The world was full of beauty. She wanted to grab hold of it and take it all down into her bones. Yet always it seemed beyond her grasp. Sometimes only by a little, like now. The thinnest membrane. Usually, though, by miles. You couldn’t expect to be that kind of happy all the time. She knew that. But sometimes, you could. Sometimes, you should be allowed a tiny bit of joy that would stay with you for more than five minutes. That wasn’t too much to ask. To have a moment like this, and be able to hold onto it. To cross that membrane, and feel alive.”

“They listened and stayed face to face, and the moment was a window, inching up, and she went through it, his eyes pulling her along, seeing her, and seeing her, and seeing her.”

lucy

What I Loved About It

I always love books with musician protagonists. There’s always a musicality to the prose and a depth to the story that I always always love. The Lucy Variations is no exception to this rule.

It is a great and unique coming of age story. True, there are all of the typical coming of age tropes. But Zarr puts a spin on each of them. There’s a first love in this story, but it’s delicate and innocent and inappropriate and more similar to a crush or an infatuation than to actual love. There’s a main character struggling with who she is and what she wants for herself and her life, but the realizations she comes to and the lessons she learns over the course of the novel are not really what you’d expect.

I love Sara Zarr. I discovered her earlier this year when I read Gem & Dixie and it broke my heart and made me full-on weep on an airplane. This is only the second of her books I have read, but it certainly did not disappoint. She has a unique ability to pull on my heartstrings and make me invested in her characters. I also love that she focuses a lot more on family and friend relationships in her coming of age stories than she does on romantic relationships. Her books are definitely a fresh take on YA Coming of Age.

What My Students Could Learn From It

To be fair, there isn’t a ton in this book for kids to learn other than to be themselves and not always bow to the expectations of their parents, to figure out who they want to be and what they want for their own life independent of what their parents or grandparents want for them. This book also does an amazing job of portraying a teen who learns to love life and the world around her, and I think a lot of my students could do with a reminder that life is worth living.

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

After a car crash that ruined his chances at the tennis scholarship he had always counted on, Ezra Faulkner begins his senior year, falls in love, and tries to figure out who he really is.

My Favorite Quotes

“And so we sat there in the sickening sillage of the truth, neither of us angry, or upset, just muddling through this shared sorrow, this collective pity. And as much as I wanted to sound my tragic wail over the rooftops, and let go of the day, and crawl back toward that safe harbor, and give in to the dying of the light, and to do all of those unheroically injured things that people never write poems about, I didn’t.”

“She tasted like buried treasure and swing sets and coffee. She tasted the way fireworks felt, like something you could get close to but never really have just for yourself.”

“I read somewhere that the hair and fingernails on dead bodies don’t actually grow, it just looks like they do because the skin contracts as the body dries out. So it’s possible to lie even in death, to deceive people from beyond the grave. I wondered if that’s what this was. If I was staring at the rotting corpse of what Cassidy and I had once had, wrongly convinced there was still life in it, grasping onto an uninformed lie.”

“Oscar Wilde once said that to live is the rarest thing in the world, because most people just exist, and that’s all. I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that I spent a long time existing, and now, I intend to live.”

beginning

What I Loved About It

While reading the first half of this book, I was completely certain it would be a pleasant but ultimately forgettable high school romance (because, let’s be real, that’s kind of what it’s marketed as), but right around the halfway marker I realized this book was so much more than that. In fact, I wouldn’t classify it as a romance at all–but instead a classic coming of age story. There’s a first heartbreak sure (which most coming of age stories tend to have), but also a main character who is struggling with who he is in the wake of a major life change and as he prepares to enter the real world, and this makes this book so much more interesting and more important than a simple YA romance.

A quote from the end of the book that perfectly encapsulates this is when Ezra, the protagonist, is discussing whether it was falling in love with Cassidy Thorpe that made him grow into the person he is at the close of the novel and says, “I never should have given her so much credit. It all got tangled together, her appearance and Toby coming back into my life and the first time I ever read a book that spoke to me, and the question of who I wanted to be in the aftermath of my personal tragedy. Because I made a decision that year, to start mattering in a way that had nothing to do with sports teams or plastic crowns, and the reality is, I might have made that decision without her.” This book isn’t really about a love story, but really a teenage boy on a journey of self-discovery.

And what an amazing journey it is to watch. I mean, seriously. The biggest thing that impresses me about Schneider’s writing in this novel is the character growth Ezra undergoes. Though you get hints throughout the whole book that Ezra is smart (little scientific metaphors he makes or when he talks about the Great Gatsby–which is literally all the time), he also comes right out and says that he’s no star student, that he could/would never consider going to a university any more prestigious than a state school. And yet, as the book progresses, he embraces his own intelligence more and more and makes bigger plans for his future. It is truly incredible to see him at the end of the book investing in his own intellectual future. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved watching a character grow as much as I loved watching Ezra in this novel.

And though I am not a teenaged male former jock, ladies’ man, and homecoming king, I can relate to Ezra’s journey of finding himself and having that finding being tangled up in falling in love for the first time and not being able at first to determine how much of his new self is him and how much is a result of loving that person he loved. I can also relate to the discovery that high school popularity and the expectations of others don’t matter at all. This book is able to capture and verbalize that ridiculous notion everyone has in high school that they have to hide their true selves from literally everyone or they’ll be shunned and made fun of forever. I’ve never read a book that conveys that feeling as well as this book does. It really brought me back to my high school days (and not in a bittersweet-nostalgia kind of way and more in a man-high-school-is-so-dumb kind of way.)

What My Students Could Learn From It

By reading this book, I think my students could all learn that they shouldn’t hide themselves or dumb themselves down or hold back to seem cool, and that one day (namely, college) the people who are original and never hold back will be the coolest people out there. I also just think my kiddos would relate to it and enjoy watching Ezra’s coming of age journey as much as I did.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 5 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Math nerd and high school senior Lex struggles to come to terms with her brother’s recent suicide.

My Favorite Quotes

“Forgiveness is tricky, Alexis, because in the end it’s more about you than it is about the person who’s being forgiven.”

“Everything changes, I think. That is the only constant. We all grow up.”

“Brave isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. It comes from action. I appreciate that.”

last time

What I Loved About It

This book is a serious book. When reading it, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a young adult book at all; The Last Time We Say Goodbye feels like an adult book with a young adult protagonist. That is refreshing. It’s a nice change reading a book that feels more serious, that lacks many of the common young adult book tropes and cliches. This book isn’t centered on a romance (though there is one deep in the background) and isn’t a typical coming of age story (though the protagonist learns many lessons and prepares for college over the course of the book). Though centered on teen suicide (like many other popular YA books) and how the people left behind by suicide cope  (see I Was Here and All the Bright Places), this book lacks the compelling qualities of many other YA books (and YA books about suicide). And while that meant this book took me far longer to read than I Was Here or All the Bright Places did, it is, in many ways, a positive statement about the book.

I wasn’t drawn in to this book by a angst-filled romance or by a protagonist that is so relatable she basically is me. With this book, a couple times I had to take breaks from reading because it was a bit too heavy for me to read for hours at a time. With this book, I had to, at times, force myself to read.

Many young adult books these days (even ones that I absolutely LOVE like All the Bright Places) follow a YA formula, a formula that draws in the most teen readers and ensures a place on the Bestseller list. And while I obviously love the components of that formula (because I love many of those enticing YA books), sometimes it’s nice to read a book that doesn’t prescribe to that formula, that is a bit more original, a bit more fresh, and a bit more adult. And that’s what The Last Time We Say Goodbye is. It’s not a page turner. It’s not a steamy romance or an action-packed dystopian novel or a dark and angsty teen mystery. It’s an adult young adult book.

Hand also does a superb job with putting the reader in Lex’s guilt- and shock-ridden headspace (possibly because she herself lost her teen brother to suicide as a young person). My heart can’t handle many more teen suicide books. They tear me to pieces every time, and this book is definitely no exception.

What My Students Could Learn From It

I think it’s good for students to read more serious YA books. I also do not prescribe to the (unfortunately popular) idea that we shouldn’t discuss suicide with teens so as not to give them ideas. Suicide is something we need to discuss with our teens. To show them that it’s not the right choice, that it destroys many other people than just the one who committed suicide. And this book could certainly serve as a conversation starter.

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

Overall Rating: 4/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Three years after the love (or obsession) of Reena’s life, Sawyer LaGrande, abandoned her and left her pregnant and alone at 16, Sawyer returns to the town, girl, and family he left behind.

My Favorite Quotes

“I wasn’t shy, exactly…I just didn’t know how to do this, is all, the clang and chatter of high school. And, more than that, I didn’t particularly want to learn…I wasn’t unpopular, exactly. I was just…unequipped.”

“The hideous thing is this: I want to forgive him. Even after everything, I do. A baby before my 17th birthday and a future as lonely as the surface of the moon and still the sight of him feels like a homecoming, like a song I used to know but somehow forgot.”

“I am remembering so clearly how he looked when he was eight, when he was eleven, when he was seventeen. Sawyer and I were only together for a few months before he left, but he was my golden boy for so long before that he would have taken the guts of me with him even if we’d never been a couple at all.”

“My whole life a holding pattern, some variation on wait and see.”

how to love

What I Loved About It

I’m not gonna lie: I did not have very high expectations from this book. I got it for free at a book fair type thing at my school and had heard from a colleague that a lot of her students loved it. So I assumed it’d be one of those books teen girls who don’t like to read like but that lacks depth. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

Catugno’s prose is exactly the kind I like, poignant and beautiful. Her prose (and really the entire book itself) reminded me of Sarah Dessen (who, as you probably already know, is one of my favorite YA coming of age/romance authors). Both of her lead characters in this book are interesting but flawed, and the romance between them is electric and sweet, and yet so dang full of angst. (Again, just how I like my YA romances.)

I think what also made me really love this book was how much I related to the protagonist, Reena. While I can’t really relate to the whole falling-in-dangerous-love-with-the-bad-boy thing (though my sixteen year old self would have really wanted to) or the pregnant-at-sixteen thing, I can certainly relate to her loneliness, her high school-related social ineptitude, and her great desire to escape. I thought Catugno, like Queen Sarah Dessen, did a really good job depicting that kind of character.

My main hang-up with this book though is the lack of importance Reena and Sawyer’s baby Hannah had in the story. After his return, Sawyer was completely focused on getting Reena back. There never once was a conversation about him wanting to know his child or him despairing about missing the first two years of her life. While Reena seems to be a decent mother off-the-page, the book doesn’t actually give any evidence that she is a good mother on-the-page. The book is a love story. It focuses on Reena’s feelings about her abandonment and how trapped she feels, how much she feels like her life is over. It’s a coming of age story, with a teen pregnancy thrown in for extra drama, not a story about a mother. While I liked the book this way, I also felt like something was missing because of this.

What My Students Could Learn From It

There aren’t a ton of lessons students could learn from this novel. I do think, however, that it’s a good chronicle of the coming-of-age experience. It shows teen readers that life doesn’t always go the way you planned, that your decisions have consequences, and that you should never forget yourself because of a boy (or a girl, for that matter). And, of course, it’s a book that could teach kids that reading can be fun. And that is one of the most important lessons I want students in my care to learn.