Golden Boy

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Golden Boy (Photo: Simon & Schuster)This is a very long-overdue post. August sort of got away from me – I took on some exciting freelance writing assignments (including some for Avenue magazine, a well-regarded local Calgary publication, that I’m quite thrilled about) and unfortunately, one of the downsides of getting paid for my writing (well really, the only downside) is that blogging sort of takes a backseat. Classes started up again this week too, which has meant a few days of chaos and stress. Don’t worry though – I haven’t stopped reading. You can expect reviews for Jane Christmas’s excellent travel book What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim, the beautiful book of poetry by Cynthia Rylant called God Got a Dog and the other books I muddled through in August shortly.

Today though, I want to tell you about Golden Boy, which is one of the most gripping novels I’ve ever read. I can’t believe that Abigail Tartellin is only 26 (or that she was waitressing when she got called by a publisher for the rights to this book). She’s amazing, and she’s only going to get better – and quite frankly, she puts small-time writers like me to shame. She has a real gift and her book is brilliant.

I gave up my bookstore job this fall in favour of a different opportunity with slightly better pay and more sociable hours, but I’m sticking around once a month to run a book club for teenagers there in the fall. So I attended the Fall Gala at Indigo Signal Hill on Saturday night to promote my new venture, and my friend Meg couldn’t recommend Golden Boy highly enough. Convinced by her enthusiasm and glowing review, I had a look and I was intrigued.

Max is the 16-year-old intersex son of a high-profile golden couple in a satellite town of Oxford in Britain. Max is well-adjusted, funny, compassionate and everything a 16-year-old should be, until a shocking betrayal forces him to re-examine everything he thinks he knows about himself.

I won’t give anything else away, except that it’s twisty and brilliant and poignant and sad and very, very well done. I have barely been able to put it down since Sunday, and have been reading it in fits and starts around my ethics and law readings for my education classes. I just finished it ten minutes ago and my face is streaky from mascara and I feel like I need to hold everyone in my world just a little bit tighter.

Please read Golden Boy. I think I may have found my new favourite novel of the year. Thank you again, Meg, for recommending it!

Popular

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Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner (Photo: Random House)I knew it. I knew that eventually in 2014, I would stumble across a book I did not like. It’s bound to happen eventually, but I was hoping that with a streak of 10 really excellent reads in January and February, March would continue to be awesome.

Enter The Maze Runner, which I actually finished last week but am just getting around to posting about now. Next Wednesday is my last day of classes before a long-ish field placement that will take up most of the month of April, so it’s deadlines galore round these parts.

A couple of weeks ago, my English specialization class (I’m a pre-service secondary English language arts teacher) spent some time at the University of Calgary’s Doucette Library of Teacher Resources, which is a fantastic place full of knowledgeable staff who love talking about books for children and young adults. I had heard The Maze Runner was a popular read for kids who liked The Hunger Games series, and with a male protagonist, boys seem quite drawn to this series. So at the end of the seminar, I signed it out.

Maybe the problem is that I’m not a teenage boy, but of all the teenage dystopian fiction out there, I’d say this one is comparatively pretty weak. Yes, we’ve got the familiar theme of teenagers being thrust into uncomfortable situations of leadership as they are manipulated by corrupt adults, and yes, we have lots of pacey, semi-violent combat and strategizing, but that’s about where the similarities end.

The basic premise of The Maze Runner is that 16-ish-year-old Thomas (nobody is really sure how old he is) wakes up in an elevator, which deposits him at a place called the Glade. The Glade is home to several other teenage boys – no girls. Like all the boys, he has no memory of the past. The Glade is surrounded by a maze that is populated at night by creatures called Grievers, which are basically cow-sized slugs covered in saw blades that sting you and/or kill you, depending on their mood. Oh, and the walls close in on the Glade every night, while the walls of the maze outside rearrange themselves into repeating patterns. The boys have been living in the Glade, trying to solve the puzzle of the maze, for two years.

So far, so good, right? Except that where Thomas falls flat is his complete lack of personality. The thing that makes The Hunger Games a bestseller and draws teenagers (and adults) in like moths to a flame is Katniss’s complex range of emotions as she handles truly appalling situations. Katniss is a sharp tack who plays her cards close to her chest. She’s loyal and selfless, but also selfish. She’s confused about love. She’s brave and scared and pragmatic and resourceful and funny and beautiful and complicated. She makes considered decisions sometimes and rash ones at other times. In short, Katniss is human. (This is why the first movie in The Hunger Games series was met with some criticism by fans, because you don’t see a lot of what is going on inside Katniss’s head. However, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did a really, really good job of capturing the spirit of the book.)

By contrast, Thomas tends to feel one emotion – frustration. Thomas is frustrated when he can’t remember anything, frustrated when he can’t do the jobs he likes to do, frustrated when nobody will listen to him when he is new. He isn’t lonely, he’s sort of passively protective, he’s brave out of necessity, and he’s kind of a jerk, taking on a leadership role that nobody wants him to have after two days when all the other kids have been there for two years. When a girl shows up, she’s described rather flatly as black-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful. Oddly, she’s telepathic, too. (Perhaps James Dashner  was watching Star Trek: TNG reruns when he wrote this, because she’s kind of the equivalent of an early Counselor Troi before they gave her actual stuff to do.) Descriptions of the girl, Teresa, never move beyond how beautiful she is, how Thomas feels protective of her, and a couple of times, how she is ‘smart’ (without getting into any specifics about how she is smart, like she might be really good at reading maps or doing math or something). It actually really bothers me that some teachers use this book in junior highs and high schools, because it confirms all kinds of gender stereotypes that I don’t think are fair.

To make matters worse, all the kids in the Glade speak in an absolutely hideous made-up slang-language, which they apparently developed after only two years of living in isolation from the rest of their society.

Because we don’t know anything about these characters, it’s very difficult to care about them. Like all good dystopian YA trilogies, this one ends on a cliffhanger, but unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, there’s no emotional connection to anyone. I hate to admit it, but I kind of don’t really care about what happens to Thomas or any of the other kids in this book. They’re really irritating and flat. After I read The Hunger Games and Divergent, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequels, but I think I’ll pass on The Scorch Trials.

I’ll also pass on the movie. Even these poor actors in the trailer hate all the slang they’ve been forced into saying. And Teresa isn’t blonde in the book. I feel like they’re likely to make a bad thing worse.

*UPDATE* Whoops, thanks to Mariana, who noticed that the trailer below is the book trailer, not the movie trailer (in which case, I’m still not sure why Theresa is blonde? Though it does explain the acting…). The movie trailer comes out next week, so that is something to look at!

I Am Malala

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I Am Malala (Photo Credit: Hachette Media Group)I Am Malala has been in the headlines a lot this week after promotional events to launch the book at Peshawar University were scrapped in late January. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about any of this until today, when I finished the book and did a bit of Googling to find out more abut this fascinating and well-spoken young woman.

I didn’t read I Am Malala because of the news headlines this week. Back in the fall, my educational psychology instructor played the Jon Stewart interview with Malala Yousafzai for my class as an end-of-year wrap-up and I added it to my reading list for the holidays. Then, Matt picked up a copy of I Am Malala over the Christmas break and left it with me. I’ve actually been reading it on and off for the better part of the last month. It’s not a difficult read in terms of language, but the subject matter is heavy – after all, she did get shot by the Taliban. I tried to read it before bed a couple of times, but it left me feeling restless and unable to sleep. I guess that’s kind of the point.

What can I say about this incredible, incredible book? At 16, Malala has experienced more than most people will go through in their whole lives, and she has handled incomprehensible adversity with grace, intelligence, confidence and plenty of brains. At 16, I could have written my entire life on a the front and back of a piece of lined looseleaf and there wouldn’t have been very much to say. Malala has enough for an entire book and then some.

At many points, I was moved to tears. “We human beings don’t realize how great God is,” Malala writes. “He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes with which to see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose  which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love.” What an incredible young lady. You can read more about her girls’ education charity, the Malala Fund, here.

In my opinion, there are also two ‘other heroes’ of this story. One is Ziaddin, her dad, who is a passionate advocate for education for girls in a culture where this is definitely not the norm. Malala tells the story of her family – and the history of Pakistan (which I’ll freely admit to being mostly in the dark about before I read this book) – with a graceful matter-of-fact approach and a little bit of sharp, observant humour.

The second ‘other hero’ here is Dr. Fiona Reynolds, who happened to be in Pakistan at the time Malala was shot and risked her own personal safety to travel to Peshawar because she wanted to help an advocate for women’s education. Later, Dr. Reynolds acted as Malala’s legal guardian when she was airlifted to Birmingham for further medical treatment. Around the time I Am Malala first arrived in bookstores, the Huffington Post ran this article on Dr. Reynolds, which I think is a testament to her bravery, quick thinking and huge heart.

The writing in I Am Malala is very raw. You can feel the fear that the Taliban instilled in Malala and her family – and the loneliness of her new life in Britain. That was the thing that struck me the most about this book. Even though Malala is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday (I was too chicken to try for my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, although I did have dinner on a restaurant patio with my friends sans parents, which seemed very grown-up. And very insignificant when compared with all this), really, she’s just a lonely 16-year-old kid who wants to go home and can’t. My heart would break for her, but Malala knows exactly what she is destined to do – inspire people all over the world to take up the cause of education.

“So let us wage our global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she told the United Nations in July last year. “Let us pick up – let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Malala’s message is too important to be kept quiet. I encourage everyone to read this beautiful book.

Night

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Night

Matt lent me Night back in November when he was teaching it to his grade 12 class. But with a stack of final papers to write in my last couple of weeks of the term, onto the shelf it went until I had more time to read. This one isn’t exactly a light undertaking.

Then, the high school student I tutor mentioned that she might like to write about Night for her final exam in English and wondered if we could go over it together. Presto! Motivation to read, and read quickly. So last night, I came home and read it all in one sitting.

Night isn’t a long book (it’s just over 100 pages), but it’s a very, very powerful first-person account of life in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – in 1944-45 when Elie Wiesel was just 15 years old. I’m glad they teach it in high schools, because it works really well around Remembrance Day time. Like all Holocaust books, it’s by no means an easy read. It’s really tough going, actually, because the prose is so distilled and the events are so horrific that you have to keep reading right until the end. It was probably a mistake to start it at 10:30 PM the night before the first day of a new semester, because I just had to stay up to finish it. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep.

But while it’s not a bedtime read, I think books like Night (which won the Nobel Peace Prize) are really important, especially for young people. It is a story of terror and hopelessness, and also of bravery and perseverance. This story is not comfortable, or happy or safe. But it is true, and I have always believed in the value of truth-telling.  There are important lessons to be learned from the past. And it offers up a much-needed reminder of the way all of us should treat each other in the present – with love, respect, tolerance and kindness.