High school

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia

Jacket-6• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Narrative nonfiction
• Author: Candace Fleming
• Title: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
• Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books
• 2014
• 292 pages.
• ISBN: 9780375867828
• Awards: Sibert Honor,YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist
• Author’s website: http://www.candacefleming.com/

 

Book trailer for The Family Romanov

Nicholas the second was born into a role of absolute power. He controlled the fate of a sixth of the world’s landmass, had 130 million subjects and was the richest man in the world.

He was a very ordinary man, lonely as a boy, fond of his family, secure in his right to rule who through his sins and omissions caused streets to run with blood, destroyed a thousand years of tradition and, arguably, caused the death of those he most loved.

Candace Fleming does a brilliant job weaving together private letters, historic documents and first person accounts to make intelligible and riveting the unbelievably tragic history of the fall of the Russian Empire. To her credit Fleming covers much more than the lurid side of the story: the lecherous monk, the massacre of innocent children, the astonishing wealth. She delves into the political and economic reasons behind the revolution and provides cultural context. Page-turning revelations about the depth of the Tsar’s anti-semitism, his catastrophic mismanagement of the war effort and the sweet banality of his domestic arrangements form a riveting and chilling whole. This is an unforgettable tour de force and a superb read for anyone age 12 to adult.

Zero Fade

Jacket• Grade Range: 7th-adult
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Chris L. Terry
• Title: Zero Fade
• Publisher: Curbside Splendor Publishing
• 2013
• 295 pages.
• ISBN: 9780988480438
• Awards: In the Margins top 25, Best of 2013 lists-Kirkus & Slate.com
• Author’s website: http://www.chrislterry.com/

 

It is the mid 90’s in inner city Richmond and Kevin is in 7th grade. For nine days in April so are we. It’s Saturday morning and Kevin is getting a haircut in the basement from his Mama when what he really wants is a sick fade and a chance to spend Saturday with someone fine, like orange-haired Aisha. While his dad is no longer around, Kevin has a tight family, a mom going to school and holding a job, an older sister Laura and an admired uncle Paul: his mom’s baby brother. While Kevin narrates most chapters, Paul gets a turn too. He’s gay and he knows it’s time to tell his nephew; problem is his nephew: pining to be cool, desperate to get with a girl and a fan of Eddie Murphy’s gay bashing humor, doesn’t seem ready to hear what he has to say. Add into the mix Kevin’s inability to control his smart mouth, getting grounded, a classic bully, the nastiness of his mother getting a date before he does and an ill-advised adventure with his sister, and Kevin has a full week.

There are a ton of fabulous 2014 books I plan to add to this blog, but as I peruse the best of 2014 lists I can’t forget some of my favorites from last year. Every once in awhile I come across a book I just adore that doesn’t seem to get traction in the press. In many ways those are the books I most want to feature here-genuinely fantastic books you might miss and which deserve to be widely read

In Zero Fade Terry has written a hilariously funny, honest, warm and believable YA novel that easily crosses over with adults. It is a rare book that manages to make the YouthLibraries.org In the Margins award list of “the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody – or a cycle of all three” and win over a diverse range of folk on Goodreads: from self identified ‘old ladies’ to those who don’t even like YA. The novel comes across as genuine, surprising and very recognizable, which is fabulous for kids who share Kevin’s ethnicity and or background, but equally fabulous for those who don’t.  Consider this apt perspective from 13 year-old Kevin: “crying in school is like peeing yourself. It feels good to get it out, but you wind up with a bigger problem.”

Thank heavens Kevin is a winningly imperfect teen, with virtually nothing figured out. He fantasizes about being a stand up comic and wonders “[w]hat about my life would be funny later? Not getting any? No cable?” The book is packed with vernacular language, fresh observation and a complete lack of didacticism. When his uncle Paul gives him some good advice: “I mean, just keep doing your thing. There’s always gonna be someone wanna say something, so just do you.” Kevin rightly thinks “[b]ut I’ve been doing me and it ain’t working.” What teen hasn’t had this response to a well meaning adult advising them to “be yourself.”

What I love about Zero Fade is it’s strong sense of ethnicity and place. It deals with substantive issues. It is frank. It is also very, very funny, very human and very relatable. If I can get a single seventh grader to read it I am convinced I’ll get half the class. Likely this won’t be without controversy as there is occasional talk of titties and masturbation and lots of language inappropriate to school. I wonder if this is why this first novel by Terry didn’t win the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe award for new talent. Never the less I am convinced this exactly the kind of multicultural literature we need for kids, both for those who see Kevin in their reflection and for those who see Kevin in themselves on reflection.

Sons of the 613

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 7th-high school
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Michael Rubens
• Title: Sons of the 613
• Publisher: Clarion
• 2012
• 320 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0547612164
• Awards: selected by Kirkus, YALSA and VOYA as one of the best books of the year.
• Author’s website:http://www.michaelrubens.com

 

Sons of the 613 opens with a Bar Mitzvah-fail of epic proportions. Isaac, aghast in the audience and three weeks away from his own Bar Mitzvah, knows he’s in “terrible, terrible, terrible trouble.’ He has concealed the fact that for the past many months his Hebrew tutor has never shown up. His determination to come clean to his parents is stymied when they leave town and put his brother Josh in charge. Six foot three, 245 pounds of muscle, sporting a skull and crossbones yarmulke and a tattoo that testifies to his obedience to the 613 commandments in the Tanakh, twenty-year old Josh has his own ideas about what Isaac needs to learn to become a man. So begins an epic, hilarious and touching quest.

Isaac’s rite of passage is filled with outrageous comedy, boatloads of adolescent shame and angst, bar fights, strip clubs, double-dares and growing maturity. There is much that might offend, but Rubens, in his YA debut, uses the comic skills he employed producing the Daily Show to keep the plot moving and Isaac self-deprecatingly aware of his mistakes. Isaac’s maturation process is messy, painful, decidedly not parent-approved, occasionally too cinematic, and sure to delight teen readers. This book is rarely on the shelves of the library and it is one of the titles that frequently walks, precisely because it appeals to the kids who are not the typical, compliant library users; there in lies it’s charm and power. Kids are constantly looking for the information they know they need as they hurtle through adolescence. While there are many fabulous books in our K-8 library, there are not a lot-maybe no others- that speak so directly to the actual concerns of teen-age boys.

 

 

Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein

Jacket-4• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Horror/Graphic Novel
• Author: Mary Shelley-edited and illustrated by Gris Grimly
• Title: Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein
• Publisher: Balzar + Bray
• 2013
• 208 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0061862977
• Awards: None known.
• Author’s website & blogs: http://www.madcreator.com http://grisgrimlysfrankenstein.blogspot.com/ http://grisgrimly.blogspot.com/

 

 

A philosopher’s stone, an elixir of life, visions of immortality and power: Victor Frankenstein had wildly unrealistic dreams. When studying at University he acquires the tools to penetrate the mysteries of the human body and becomes obsessed. Toiling among the unhallowed damps of the grave he attempts to create a living being: a filthy creation spawned by the charnel house and the dissecting room. His success plunges him into a nightmare of sublime torment and tragedy he struggles to escape.

Gris Grimly’s witty, dark, romantic, illustrations create a gateway into Marry Shelley’s odd tale, which she wrote at eighteen, on a bet, almost two hundred years ago. Grimly has always felt that monster fans are divided into two teams: Team Dracula and Team Frankenstein. Grimly, rebellious and misunderstood has always been on Team Frankenstein.

The ink and watercolor illustrations, in a dour and subtle palette, channel a Gothic sensibility. Grimly’s characteristic style combines both steam-punk and organic monstrosities, resulting in images that are horrifying, humorous and beautiful. His renderings imbue Frankenstein-never a sympathetic character-with a quirky pathos. Grimly has abridged Shelley’s text but preserved her original language. His graphic novel adaptation re-envisions Frankenstein, making it accessible to a new generation.

A graphic novel book group I teach read Grimly’s Frankenstein last year. The illustrations were admired, but it was only this year that the story really seemed to grab them. Several of the boys, now in eighth grade, have read and re-read it and two went so far as to create an excellent book trailer-see above. I continue to be impressed with how excellent illustrations can leverage the power of text, propelling a book from good to great and allowing readers to connect to ideas on multiple levels.

 

Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842

Jacket-6• Grade Range: upper high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Nathanial Philbrick
• Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842
• Publisher: New York, Viking
• 2003
• 452 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-67003-231-0
• Awards: Richie’s Picks
• Author’s website: http://nathanielphilbrick.com/

In 1838 a squadron of six sailing vessels set out for a four-year journey of exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) was one of the largest voyages of discovery ever undertaken. Led by Captain Wilkes, the Ex.Ex. redrew the map of the world; the 40 tons of specimens they brought back formed the foundation of the Smithsonian museum. Philbreck answers the question: ‘why have we never heard of Wilkes or the Ex. Ex?’

The story of the Ex.Ex. is filled with adventure and drama. There are many memorable moments: a snowball fight with Tierra del Fuego’s Yahgan natives: who apparently had flaps of skin that hung over their knees, some brutal encounters with Fijian cannibals: including eyeball munching, and an insanely close encounter with an active volcano. The expedition was charged with surveying Antarctica and determining if it were a continent. They were the first Americans to chart Puget Sound, the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, establishing the United States basis for claiming those territories. The origin of the theory of plate tectonics stands out among the many scientific discoveries the expedition advanced.

Yet, as Philbrick maintains, the Ex. Ex. is fascinating not because of its successes, but because of what went wrong. Despite the expedition’s scientific discoveries and astonishing adventures, it came to be viewed as a colossal embarrassment. Captain Wilkes was insecure and egotistical with a talent for creating discord and conflict; his morbid hunger for recognition ensured his expedition ended not in glory, but in an ugly court-martial. Wilkes was universally despised by his officers and it is even alleged that Melville based Captain Ahab on him.

Melville and Shakespeare represent that personal flaws are inextricably connected to qualities of greatness; they are not just intertwined: they are one and the same. In exhaustive detail, Philbrick examines whether Wilkes successes can be divorced from his failures. Relying extensively on primary sources, including sailors’ journals, Philbrick recreates the expedition in all its drama and drudgery. Political infighting and petty squabbles sap the energy of the men. This is a fascinating study but, at over 300 pages of text, one few teenagers are likely to have the stamina to wade through. Like the member’s of the expedition: the reader’s eagerness to journey on is worn down by hundreds of Wilkes’s awful decisions and unnecessary cruelties. That said, for those who love true tales of maritime disaster and have an interest in exploration and leadership, it is a memorable and intriguing story.

Sea of Glory also acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic journey seventy years later. Shackleton attempted to cross the continent Wilkes was the first to chart. Where Wilkes’ expedition succeed in its goals, lost scores of men and ended with the Captain despised and forgotten, Shackleton’s journey achieved opposite ends: he failed in his task, but due to determinedly optimistic and solicitous leadership, returned with his entire crew and is well-remembered a hundred years later.

Front matter: includes a Table of Contents, a brief author biography, and an extensive preface. Opening with Wilkes’ court-martial the preface establishes the context of the U.S. Ex.Ex. and raises the issues of leadership Philbrick addresses in the book. A modern rendering of the six ships of the Ex. Ex. Concludes the preface. Back matter: An extensive epilogue briefly explores the legacy of the discoveries of the Ex. Ex.: charts of islands in use through the second World War, the establishment of Antarctica as a continent, etc. The epilogue also discusses why Wilkes accomplishments were so quick to be forgotten, dismisses the idea that a cooler more capable Captain would have achieved more and lays the responsibility for the expeditions obscurity on Wilkes inability to partner with Reynolds, a talented officer Wilkes had severely alienated during the voyage. A notes section includes abbreviations for frequently consulted texts, several paragraphs outlining and annotating additional reading, followed by chapter by chapter acknowledgements and notes that discuss the origins of ideas and quotes. An extensive selected bibliography lists unpublished sources first, followed by published sources and dissertations and ending with a list of publications of the United States Exploring Expedition. The notes and suggestions for further reading are extremely impressive and let the reader understand the origins of information and argument. Acknowledgements thank experts and those who aided in the production of the book. An index completes the volume.