Solo by Kwame Alexander

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)

Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.

Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.

Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.

A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.

When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost

When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost

When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost (9780374303037, Amazon)

Sisters Claire and Abi have been going to their family’s lake house since they were born. After their mother died, her things were kept just the way she had left them at the lake house: her chair at the window, books on the shelves and a painting on the easel. Now everything is different. Their father has married Pam and their mother’s things have been moved from the house. Pam is pregnant and the baby should come during their time at the lake. Claire discovers that Abi is changing too. Abi is interested in boys and starts to sneak off to meet them, involving Claire in her lies. Claire finds herself alone on the lake often, trying to figure out what all of this change means for her family.

Frost is a master of the verse novel, and this book is a great example of her skill and heart. She plays with formats for her poetry, using different types of poems and different structures for the various voices. The book is told not only by Claire and Abi but by the lake itself, and those poems are my favorites. They have embedded sentences using the bolded letters either at the beginning or ends of the poetic lines. It turns reading them into a puzzle that leads to discovery, rather like Claire’s summer.

The two sisters are dynamic characters. Abi’s interest in boys is seen as natural and normal, and so is her pushing the boundaries. Organic progression is made in Claire’s relationship with Pam, positivity slowly moving in to replace the wariness. Claire is a girl who is brave and wonderfully written. She has fears but overcomes them and never stops trying.

A beautiful verse novel that captures summer days on a lake and a family becoming stronger. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Review: Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin

breaking stalins nose

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin

Released September 27, 2011.

Sasha Zaichek has always wanted to be a Young Pioneer and demonstrate his dedication to Communism and Stalin himself.  At age ten, he has known the laws of the Pioneers for 4 years.  So when his father is suddenly arrested, Sasha has to decide what to do.  He knows that there has been some mistake, that his father has done nothing wrong and that an error was made.  Thrown out of his home, he tries to find a place to spend the night with his aunt, but his uncle will not let him stay.  The next day at school, he pretends all is normal.  But as his day progresses, more and more of the truths behind Stalin Russia are revealed to him and his own truths are tested.

Velchin, who was born and educated in Russia, writes with a simple voice here that belies the darkness hidden just below the surface.  He has created a very naïve protagonist in Sasha, a boy who truly believes in Communism and Stalin.  Told in two days, the story shows how quickly naiveté can crack, crumble and fall away.  Velchin captures the fear that people lived in under the Stalin regime, yet he also shows the resiliency of the human spirit at the same time.

Velchin manages to create a book about a violent regime where the cruelty and fear is foremost, but the violence that would not be appropriate for young readers happens off the page.  This is a book that allows young readers to understand a situation in an intimate way without flinching away from the darkness that is so much a part of it.

This is a powerful book about freedom, Russia, and one young boy’s path to knowledge.  Appropriate for ages 10-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Company.

Book Review: Addie on the Inside by James Howe

addie on the inside

Addie on the Inside by James Howe

Addie Carle, the only girl in The Gang of Five, is the center of this third story in The Misfits series.  Addie is an outspoken and opinionated person, but the verse here shows her to have many more doubts and concerns than she might show on the outside.  As her year of seventh grade continues, Addie has to deal with some big issues: the death of one of her cats, the breakup of her first relationship, teasing by other girls in school, and finding her own voice, even though she is talking all the time.  Addie shows herself to be thoughtful, caring, involved, and much more than others see on the outside, she just has to find the confidence to let her real self show.

Howe’s verse works on several levels.  First, it tells the story of Addie and her growth.  Second, it is poetry that truly functions as individual poems as well.  He plays with rhyme inside his lines at times, while other poems are more narrative and still others are haiku.  It is a fresh look at a verse novel that shifts from lighter to deeper tones easily.

Addie is a fascinating character, a girl who is smart, involved, vocal and entirely human.  While I’m not sure everyone will have this response, she was like listening to my own middle-school inner voice.  Addie’s point of view is uniquely her own, yet she spoke to me completely.  I finished the book with tears rolling down my face, just because of the understanding for my younger self I had found.

A beautifully written book featuring a strong yet human protagonist, this is one amazing read.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.

Okay for Now: A Brilliant, Amazing Read


Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Released April 18, 2011.

Let me make this simple – READ THIS BOOK!  If you are a fan of the book this is a companion book to The Wednesday Wars, you will fall head-over-heels for this one.  If you never read that book, it doesn’t matter, still read this one.  It stands on its own fantastically well.  In this book, a small character from The Wednesday Wars is given his own book.  Doug Swieteck is a boy who has just moved to a new town with a brother who gets into plenty of trouble, a mother who smiles far too rarely, and a father whose hands are fast when he is angry, which is most of the time.  But Doug is more than the “skinny thug” that people assume he is, much more.  This coming of age story set in 1968 is about how a entire town can be wrong and how that same town can help raise a boy to be the man he is capable of being. 

This is my favorite Schmidt book yet, and that is saying something!  The characterizations here are so well rendered.  The people are real, tangible and each and every person in the book is human and complex.  Yet the book remains fresh, easily read, easily related to, and vibrant.  It is a book with space inside it for the reader to make realizations, come to conclusions, and bring their own perspective. 

Told in first person by Doug, the voice of the book is entirely his own.  It never stumbles, never becomes an adult looking at the situation, never lectures.  Instead it learns as it speaks, realizes as it voices and sometimes doesn’t figure out what the reader has come to understand.  It is raw, beautiful and heartrending.  

I’m afraid I cannot capture in my review what this book is.  To say that it should be a contender for an award this year is to lessen it.  Instead, this book is one that can honestly change the way a child sees themselves.  Not through anything didactic, but instead just allowing an honesty to pervade the book, a realization to happen, art and words to flow and reveal.

An unforgettable book that is sure to be a classic in years to come, this is a book that defies categorization and summary.  Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from NetGalley digital galley.


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