Week 6 – The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

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“Ava Lavender comes from a long line of men and women unlucky in love and surrounded by the strange. Ava herself was born with wings, but this magic-realism novel is as much about the generations that came before her, each blessed or cursed with unique abilities. The gentle voice of Campbell suits and sets the mood perfectly, bringing her own magical qualities to an already enchanting read. Campbell is especially adept at the French names and phrases, as well as with the few other foreign words scattered throughout. Though beautiful, the incidental music at the beginning and end of each disc occasionally clashes with the emotional quality of a scene, drawing the reader out of the story. Despite this, Campbell and Walton together have created a charming and captivating listening experience for teens and adults alike” (Layman, 2015).

While I’d like to think of myself as a connoisseur of fantasy young adult literature, this was perhaps the most unique and beautifully written work of fantasy I have ever read. The story follows young Ava Lavender, a girl who was born with wings on her back. The novel chronicles her family’s tragic, troubled past as Ava struggles to find her place in the world, expertly mixing realism and fantasy. While it’s hard to define the concrete theme of this novel, I believe it is about the tragic nature of love and finding hope even in the darkest of circumstances.

Perhaps the most powerful quote in the entire novel comes a little over halfway through, when Ava decided to venture out of her house for the first time, accompanying her friends Rowe and Cardigan. After Ava admits her fear of the “normal” teenagers she is about to meet, Rowe responds with: “…[T]hat might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings” (Walton, 2014, p. 177). This quote, to me, goes much deeper than simply discussing a fictional girl with wings; this quote can be used to describe our society as  a whole, as we tend to fear that which is different from us. Whether it is someone of a different faith, skin color, or sexual orientation, we tend to fear the things we don’t know or do not agree with. Even though this book is, essentially, a fantasy, there are many elements within it that hit uncomfortably close to home.

As a long-standing fan of fantasy, I can definitely see the appeal of this novel. I was first drawn to it because it was about a girl with wings. Being a bird lover (as well as being obsessed with the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson), I knew I had to give this novel a try, and I was not disappointed. I expected the fantasy elements, but I did not expect to see them in such a unique way. If the few fantasy elements within this novel did not exist, it would read very much like a work of historical fiction. Many historical events are mentioned throughout the book, including the sinking of the Titanic and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, the book is written in an extremely descriptive, almost poetic style, giving it a vivid sense of realism. In every scene, you feel as if you are experiencing what the characters experience, as every setting and facial expression are explained in meticulous detail. While this might not be the style for everyone, fans of realistic fiction looking to break into the fantasy genre will really appreciate the realism in this novel.

Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the mystery. Throughout the book, I kept asking myself if what I’d just read actually happened, or if it was meant to be a metaphor for something deeper. For example, Ava’s grandmother continually sees the ghosts of her dead siblings and husband, and it is never explicitly explained whether they are actually there or only in her head. Ava’s ancestor, Pierette, may or may not have actually turned into a canary; it is a fleeting moment that is mentioned but never fully explained. While frustrating at times, I began to appreciate these little elements of fantasy, as they seemed to be a large part of the book’s overall charm.

Again, this might be a difficult book for new or reluctant readers, as the language is complicated and the plot is not always straightforward. If I were to recommend this book in a library setting, I would recommend it to fans of either fantasy or realism, or to any teen looking for a challenging read. I would also recommend it to anyone currently going through a difficult time, as this book shows that happiness and hope can be found even in the most desperate situations. It is a beautifully tragic book, full of sadness, wonder, hope, and just a little dash of pure magic.

References:

Layman, J. (2015). The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. The Booklist, 111(16), 64.

Walton, L. (2014). The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Berryville, VA: Candlewick Press.

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Week 5 – El Deafo by Cece Bell

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“When cartoonist Bell was four years old, a case of meningitis left her severely deaf. In this graphic memoir, she tells readers about the friends and family who help her adjust, the frustration she feels when learning to communicate, and the devices she uses to assist her hearing, most notably the Phonic Ear, a large machine that connects to a microphone her teachers wear and amplifies sounds in her hearing aids. Aside from making school easier, the Phonic Ear gives Bell a superpower: when her teachers forget to doff the microphone, she can still hear them anywhere in the school (including the bathroom!). She keeps her newfound superpower a secret and daydreams about being El Deafo, a super alter ego whose deafness makes her powerful. Bell’s bold and blocky full-color cartoons perfectly complement her childhood stories-she often struggles to fit in and sometimes experiences bullying, but the cheerful illustrations promise a sunny future” (Hunter, 2014).

In this auto-biographical graphic novel, Cece Bell recounts her experiences growing up deaf in a world full of peers who can hear. This colorful memoir chronicles her journey as she learns to lip-read, adjusts to her Phonic Ear (a device that helps her hear her teachers better in school), and tries to navigate the tricky world of friendship. Through it all, she imagines herself as “El Deafo,” a superhero whose Phonic Ear gives her super hearing abilities. El Deafo is funny, touching, and inspiring, and is an anthem for children everywhere who might feel just a little bit different.

While I would consider myself a fan of manga (which is a form of Japanese comic book that is read from back to front), I’ve never found an American graphic novel that has really captured my interest. My issue with graphic novels, in general (manga included), is that they’re often very pricey and too quick to end (I can usually get through them in an hour or two). I can certainly appreciate the artistry and work that goes into them, but it’s hard for them to keep my interest because of their quick, easy-to-read nature. That being said, I did enjoy El Deafo, mostly because I found it to be a cute, touching story. If you’ll remember, my last post was a review of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir that made me re-evaluate my opinion of non-fiction. While this book was obviously written for a much younger audience (and features stylized cartoon illustrations of Bell and her friends), El Deafo presented another interesting memoir that made me realize how much I enjoy this genre.

Young fans of graphic novels are sure to love this book, as it’s full of fun illustrations and is really easy to read. The story is nice and simple, perfect for reluctant readers who prefer graphic novels over long novels with no pictures. I would also use this book in either a library or classroom setting to initiate a discussion about bullying, as it is a perfect example of how being understanding (instead of judgmental) can entirely change someone’s worldview. One of the most wonderful things about it, in my opinion, is that it teaches children to be tolerant of those who are different without sounding preachy; it’s simply told from the point-of-view of someone who happens to have a disability. This is the second book I’ve ever read told from the point-of-view of a child with a disability (the first being Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, in which the main character has dyslexia and ADHD), and I thought it was refreshing to see a unique heroine presented in such a fun medium. Throughout the book, I found myself really rooting for Cece, and I could feel her frustration at not being able to understand her peers (the speech bubbles are often filled with gibberish to simulate what Cece is hearing). In presenting Bell’s story this way, she is allowing children to “walk a mile in her shoes,” so to speak, and it garners understanding and empathy for a disability that children might not know much about.

One of my absolute favorite things about this book is the fact that it presents differences (whether it is a disability or simply a quirk or interest) as being something that makes us special; in fact, Bell herself says, “Our differences are our superpowers” in the author’s note at the end of the book (Bell, 2014). At the very beginning of the novel, Cece points out that her friend Emma and her “have always looked different from each other, but in ways that didn’t matter” (Bell, 2014, p. 23). Again, Bell is subtly teaching children that it is perfectly okay to look or feel different; that our differences are what make us unique. This not only helps children reading the book to develop empathy for others, but tells children who might be different themselves that it’s totally okay to not be exactly like their classmates. I distinctly remember being Cece’s age and feeling as if I was all alone (“being different feels a lot like being alone,” as Cece says), simply because I was shy and had to wear enormous glasses in order to see properly (Bell, 2014, p. 46).

While I have never struggled with deafness or a loss in hearing, I found myself relating to Cece as I read, and rejoicing when she finally found a “true friend” to spend time with. There were times growing up when I would have given anything to have a friend like Martha (Cece’s best friend in the book), and I remember feeling a lot less alone once I found my group of “true friends.” This book, much like Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, reminds kids that they aren’t alone, and that they can find their differences to be empowering instead of embarrassing. Once Cece discovers that her classmates think her Phonic Ear is cool, she is much more empowered to share her unique ability to hear with them instead of being ashamed of her disability. I personally feel that the Newbery Honor awarded to this book is well-deserved, as it has the rare ability to teach children a valuable lesson without being obvious that it is trying to teach a lesson. If you’re at all interested in graphic novels, or if you just want a book that will make you smile and give you “warm fuzzies” for days to come, I would most definitely give this book a try.

References:

Bell, C., Lasky, D., & Amulet Books,. (2014). El Deafo.

Hunter, S. (2014). El Deafo. The Booklist, 110(22), 57.

 

 

Week 4 – The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

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“Walls, who spent years trying to hide her childhood experiences, allows the story to spill out in this remarkable recollection of growing up. From her current perspective as a contributor to MSNBC online, she remembers the poverty, hunger, jokes, and bullying she and her siblings endured, and she looks back at her parents: her flighty, self-indulgent mother, a Pollyanna unwilling to assume the responsibilities of parenting, and her father, troubled, brilliant Rex, whose ability to turn his family’s downward-spiraling circumstances into adventures allowed his children to excuse his imperfections until they grew old enough to understand what he had done to them-and to himself. His grand plans to build a home for the family never evolved: the hole for the foundation of the “The Glass Castle,” as the dream house was called, became the family garbage dump, and, of course, a metaphor for Rex Walls’ life. Shocking, sad, and occasionally bitter, this gracefully written account speaks candidly, yet with surprising affection, about parents and about the strength of family ties-for both good and ill”  (Zvirin, 2005).

In this captivating memoir, Jeannette Walls recalls her memories growing up in what can only be called an extremely dysfunctional family. In the very first memory she shares, Walls remembers suffering third degree burns from a cooking fire at just three years old; and it’s all downhill from there. Moving from place to place with an eccentric, absent-minded mother and an alcoholic father, Walls shares a story of poverty, perseverance, and the importance of fighting for your family. As her own mother explains of the Joshua tree near the beginning of the memoir, it is the struggles we face that give us the most beauty (Walls, 2005, p. 38).

I’ve never much been a fan of memoirs and autobiographies. In fact, I’m not a very big lover of non-fiction in general. Perhaps this is because I have not-so-fond memories of being forced to read boring non-fiction textbooks all throughout my grade school years. Whatever the case, I found myself really enjoying this memoir, which is set up much more like a narrative than it is a boring biographical account. At times, I forgot I was reading someone’s memoir; to me, it felt like I was reading a novel. I think a large part of me simply didn’t want to believe that all of this could actually happen to someone, and I was often shocked by what I was reading. For example, there are many times throughout the memoir where Walls recalls starving, looting through the trashcans in her school in order to find food. It amazed and frustrated me that her parents, while sitting on millions of dollars in land and heirlooms, would allow their children to go hungry out of sheer stubbornness. I found myself really rooting for Walls and her siblings throughout the narrative, hoping they would all be able to make it out on top (despite less than stellar circumstances).

While I’m sure there are a lot of teens who, like me, are not the biggest fans of non-fiction, I feel that this is a memoir that even the most reluctant reader can enjoy. As New York Newsday attests in their review of the work, “Some people are born storytellers. Some lives are worth telling. The best memoirs happen when these two conditions converge” (As cited in Walls, 2005). This is absolutely true of The Glass Castle, as Walls proves herself very early on to be a masterful storyteller with an incredibly moving, intriguing past. This memoir had the power to do something that most non-fiction does not; it sparked my interest in an entire genre I have yet to really explore. I would absolutely recommend this to either a teen who has fallen on hard times (as they can easily relate to Walls’s story), or to anyone who is a reluctant reader of non-fiction. Walls has the kind of story that really pulls you in, leaving you constantly hungry to know what happens next.

Throughout the class for which I’m writing this blog (LIS 614), we’ve talked a great deal about giving teenagers more credit than they’re usually afforded. All too often, adults try to ban or censor books in order to shelter young adults from the truth of the world, when in reality many of them are already facing these truths in their own lives. As Walls says near the end of The Glass Castle, “I wanted to let the world know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets” (2005, p. 270). This is the type of memoir that lets even the unluckiest, most unfortunate teen in the world know that he or she is not alone, and that anyone can improve their circumstances with enough drive and courage. This, to me, is such an important message, and one that I think everyone who is down on their luck deserves to hear.

While I cannot think of an instance in which this work could be used in a classroom, it lends itself very well to use in either a school or public library. Along with being a wonderful recommendation for reluctant readers, this book could also function very well as the focal point of a creative writing workshop or “interesting memoirs” display, as it is a testament to the power of excellent writing and storytelling. After reading The Glass Castle for myself, I do believe I’m going to explore more of this genre when I get the chance; I am never one to turn down an inspiring, interesting story.

References:

Walls, J. (2005). The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York: Scribner.

Zvirin, S. (2005). The Glass Castle. The Booklist, 101(11), 923.

Week 3 – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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“When Death tells a story, you pay attention. Liesel Meminger is a young girl growing up outside of Munich in Nazi Germany, and Death tells her story as “an attempt—a flying jump of an attempt—to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.” When her foster father helps her learn to read and she discovers the power of words, Liesel begins stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor’s wife’s library. As she becomes a better reader, she becomes a writer, writing a book about her life in such a miserable time. Liesel’s experiences move Death to say, “I am haunted by humans.” How could the human race be “so ugly and so glorious” at the same time? This big, expansive novel is a leisurely working out of fate, of seemingly chance encounters and events that ultimately touch, like dominoes as they collide. The writing is elegant, philosophical and moving. Even at its length, it’s a work to read slowly and savor. Beautiful and important” (Kirkus, 2006).

In what is perhaps John Green’s most widely read work, The Fault in Our Stars, there is a quote that has stuck with me since I first read the book. It happens after the main character, Hazel, has just finished reading what quickly becomes her favorite book: “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book” (Green, 2012, p. 33). While I certainly felt that way when I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars, I have never felt it stronger than I did after reading Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief.

The novel, narrated by the personified character of Death, follows the story of young Liesel Meminger, a little girl in Nazi Germany whose family has fallen on hard times. Unable to care for her and her younger brother, Liesel’s mother attempts to leave them in the care of foster parents. Unfortunately, however, Liesel’s younger brother does not survive the trip, leaving Liesel to enter a world of uncertainty alone with her new foster parents, the Hubermanns. What follows is a tale of love, family, and the joy and sorrow that words can bring.

What can I possibly say about this book that hasn’t likely been said already? It was absolutely, beautifully heart-wrenching, and it certainly gave me a new perspective on World War II and Nazi Germany. In this novel, we are presented not with a story of a Jewish person (though many novels have done this in a wonderful way), but with the story of a young, poor German girl. That is something I hadn’t experienced before reading The Book Thief, and it was a refreshingly unique perspective. The horrors of the Holocaust are still presented in this book, but they are presented through the eyes of an innocent young girl, one whose family just so happens to be harboring a Jewish man in the basement. We follow Liesel through life as she makes friends, gets to know and love her new family, and learns to both love and hate the written word. Every single chapter of this novel feels as if it was pain-stakingly written to give the biggest emotional punch at every turn, and I really appreciated the sheer creativity of Zusak’s writing style.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the novel (for me, at least), comes near the end, as Liesel is reading the book that Max (the Jewish man her family had been harboring in the basement) has left for her. Calling this fable “The Word Shaker,” Max goes on to describe Liesel as a young girl who has discovered the power of words. Instead of using them for evil as Adolf Hitler has, however, this girl has used them to extend a hand of friendship towards a man she is supposed to hate (Zusak, 2006, pp. 445-450). This is a truly powerful metaphor, as it carries a theme that is prevalent throughout the novel: that words can be both beautiful and terrible, causing as much harm as they do joy. In the end, Liesel can’t decide whether she loves the words she’s been taught to read, or whether she hates them for presenting the world as something it is not. As we watch her grow and mature, Liesel becomes more and more relatable, going from wide-eyed innocence to being hardened by the terrible things going on around her. Her love of literature, too, spoke to me, as I have often sought the refuge of the written word when trying to escape my own problems.

I would absolutely use this book in a history classroom, as I firmly believe that reading a novel like The Book Thief can make history that much more real and accessible to students who are learning about specific moments in history. For me, personally, books like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Elie Wiesel’s Night shaped my understanding of the Holocaust, and truly made me see what a horrific event it really was. The Book Thief not only brings some of these horrors to light, but does so in a new and interesting way; by presenting it from the point of view of an innocent young German girl rather than a Jewish person. It is incredibly unique, beautifully written, and will shatter your heart into a million pieces. I am by no means a lover of historical fiction, but this novel has completely changed my mind towards the entire genre. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is either a fan of historical fiction, or to someone who has never enjoyed historical fiction but is looking to break into the genre with a truly wonderful title.

In the end, I suppose Death himself says it best when he declares, “…I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race…I wanted to ask [Liesel] how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant… I am haunted by humans” (Zusak, 2006, p. 550). That, in essence, is the overall message of this work, and why I believe it’s an extremely important work of fiction. The best books are the ones that truly make us think about the world around us, and allow us to examine both the good and the evil within ourselves (and humanity as a whole). While reading The Book Thief, I experienced every emotion a person can possibly experience, and Zusak’s words carried me on a journey I will never forget. I believe even the most picky of readers can find something to gain from this book; if nothing else, it is a stark reminder of their own mortality. Given the current political climate in the United States, it is more important than ever that we remember the atrocities of the Holocaust, and why we spend so much time studying it in school. For, as it is often said, those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.

References:

Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. New York, NY: Dutton Books.

Kirkus. (2006). The Book Thief. Kirkus Reviews, (2).

Zusak, M. (2006). The Book Thief. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.