Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2016.

In this appealing William C. Morris award winner, three friends go through their senior year at school in mostly blue collar dead-end Forrestville, Tennessee. All three are social outcasts. Dill is the son of a jailed Pentecostal preacher who was imprisoned for possessing child pornography. Lydia is the creative fashionista behind the Dollywould blog, and her middle class family and creative sensibilities set her apart. Travis, the burly and gentle son of an abusive father and compliant mother, escapes into the Bloodfall fantasy novels and insists on wearing a dragon necklace and carrying around a staff. Their friendship may be unlikely, but Zentner makes it work.

I loved these characters, so vivid and genuine. Shifting between the three narrators, the first two-thirds is at a relaxed pace as we get to know them all. We understand the layers that make them up: their families, their ambitions, their limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. Through their eyes we see their possible futures: Lydia is the only one planning to escape the bounds of Forrestville by heading up to NYU, whereas Dill’s family are deep in debt from his father’s legal bills and can’t afford for him not to work, and Travis has no ambition beyond working at his father’s lumberyard.

Zentner lost me on a couple of points. There is a dramatic plot twist that sets the final third on its head and I felt the novel then shifted into a more conventional fraught YA romance. Secondly, I didn’t like that it’s the middle class family that are so wonderfully supportive and loving, whereas both working class families are wretched and dysfunctional.

Nonetheless, Zentner has clearly got a talent for deep and rich characters and settings, and I look forward to future novels. Recommended for fans of Jandy Nelson and Jennifer Niven.

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Prom: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge

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promProm: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge
Twenty-First Century, 2017.

Psychotherapist Zimmerman Rutledge looks at one of the American teen’s rites of passage: the prom. Starting with traditional proms from their beginning as middle-class versions of the debutante ball, the book then briefly examines changing cultural attitudes since then, and how this has affected prom.

However, the author’s intent is also to show that prom is not stuck in the unenlightened 1950’s, and there are chapters about how proms are now integrated and (mostly) welcoming to LGBTQ couples, and photographs to reflect this.

Prom fashion is a central theme, though there is a scarcity of photographs of many of the dresses described, including in a section on how fabulous dresses need not cost a fortune.

The author tries hard to moderate the perception of prom’s weighty significance with a rather-longwinded chapter of tips and not always rosy reflections from twenty-somethings; and there is advice on dealing with the pressures that can lead to a challenging experience, along with helpful resources.

Though there are few nonfiction books on this topic, a mismatch between the style of the book (chatty tone, large font) and the age of the intended audience make this a discretionary purchase for libraries but it may be of interest to some teens.

The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick

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plot-to-kill-hitlerThe Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the youngest son in a large, wealthy, brilliant German family. Born in 1906, he lived through the First World War (in which one of his brothers was killed) and then went into theology, becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime at a time when the Church was, at best, keeping quiet and, at worst, actively supporting Hitler and his decidedly unChristian policies.

Dietrich, along with his one of his brothers and two brothers-in-law plus members of the military all became involved in a failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. Most of them were captured and executed before the end of the war.

After a 1943 prologue in which Bonhoeffer is quietly awaiting the imminent arrival of the Gestapo to arrest him, the subsequent chapters are laid out chronologically, mixing both the events in Germany and Bonhoeffer’s activities and thought processes. This allows the reader to see how he progresses from a brilliant theology student to outspoken opposition, as the Nazis unleash their “Final Solution” and shows his justification for plotting to commit murder.

McCormick does a terrific job of showing how Bonhoeffer’s position was solidified by both his internal threshing through of the issues and by external discussion with members of the Church outside Germany, notably in New York. He had many opportunities to stay out of Germany but his conscience would not let him: “It was not enough to simply “bandage the victim under the wheel” of the government, he said. The church had a duty to jam a stick in the wheel itself.” (Hey – notice any similarities to the present day in the US?).

Throughout the book, the author inserts snippets of a timeline, so the reader can understand the context of what they’re reading, and there are also boxed off inserts which further explain some of the events.

Back matter includes an author’s note explaining how Bonhoeffer’s writings have resonated with oppressed people across the world.

(Note: there is a quotation on the back of the book “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” which is attributed to Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately this appears to be an incorrect attribution.)

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

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bandits-taleA Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2016.

Taking stylistic and plot arc cues from the picaresque novels of the 18th and 19th century (what? You don’t know what those are? Neither did I until I read the author’s note), this charming tale manages to squeeze in social commentary as well as a heartwarming tale of an early American immigrant.

11 year-old Rocco Zaccaro is brought to America in 1887 by a padrone who has promised to send money back to Rocco’s impoverished family in Southern Italy. But the padrone makes money by sending boys out to be street musicians – then takes the money they earn while keeping them on the border of starvation.

Rocco has got a bit more gumption than many of the boys and, while getting himself into scrapes, many illicit, along the way, ultimately ends up as a boy his father would be proud of.

Though Hopkinson has a great time with Rocco’s romp through the seedy side of late 19th century Manhattan, she also has a serious purpose as well. Through weaving in real life people, she looks at the press exposure of child exploitation by Max Fischel and photographer Jacob Riis, as well as the first inkling of animal rights through “meddlers” Mike and Mary Hallahan. These characters are completely embedded in the story and the author does a great job of not making their roles and issues stand out.

Ideal for any middle schooler who has enjoyed Oliver!

Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

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factory-girlFactory Girl by Josanne La Valley
Clarion, 2017.

Inspired by the author’s experiences while traveling in northern China, the author uses the fictional story of Roshen to shed light on the young Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) women who are transported thousands of miles to work in Chinese factories. As the Chinese suppress Uyghur culture and traditions, the oppressed families are coerced into signing over their teenage daughters under the Transferring Surplus Labor Force to Inner China policy with threats of losing their land and livelihoods by the Chinese cadres who rule the provinces.

Roshen, along with several other Uyghurs, is assigned to the Hubei Work Wear Company as, effectively, indentured labor. They are forced to work long hours in harsh conditions, poorly fed, tricked out of their pay, and kept isolated from their families and the outside world. Despised and discriminated against by the Chinese, both for their ethnicity and for being Muslim, the young women have different coping mechanisms: Roshen is outwardly “sweet” but inwardly recalls traditional poetry; Mikray rebels and tries to escape; and Hawa cozies up to the factory owner. Though the young women are preyed upon and exploited by the bosses, there are a few kind locals who try and alleviate their situation as best they can.

Roshen holds close the poetic command to “wake up!” but she lacks agency, and it’s there that the novel falls down a bit. Of course, in real life, simply surviving this ordeal would be an achievement, but in a novel like this, the protagonist really needs to be less passive.

Other than Roshen, the other Uyghurs are a little thinly developed. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of them and only a handful emerge with any clarity. However, the strength of the protective kinship between the young women is beautifully drawn and contrasts sharply with the utter hopelessness of their situation. The author does not pull her punches about the casual and relentless cruelty and indifference of their bosses.

There are some context notes at the end, and a few sources for further reading, but it does appear that the deliberate persecution of the Uyghurs and the elimination of their culture is mostly undocumented.

Ideal for teens interested in novels about social justice.

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