All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (YA)

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven (Young Adult Fiction)

“Is today a good day to die?”  Theodore Finch asks himself this question in the morning, during third period, and at supper.  He also counts the days that he is Awake.  Awake is good and safe and where he needs to be.  Violet Markey counts the days until graduation.  When she can begin a new life away from Bartlett, Indiana and the pain she feels every day since her sister died.  Both Finch and Violet are counting, but what they didn’t count on was meeting on the ledge at the top of the high school bell tower.  They didn’t count on wandering around their state discovering out-of-the-way landmarks and attractions.  Most of all, they didn’t count on falling in love.

All the Bright Places gives readers a gritty and honest look into bipolar disorder.  Told in alternating narratives by Finch and Violet, we experience bullying, loss, domestic abuse, suicide, and mental illness.  With so many disturbing and difficult topics, it is a testament to Niven that readers are given a story filled with laughter, love, and hope.  Through two fractured and flawed main characters, we see teenagers struggling to understand their place in the world and determined—despite all odds—to make their mark within it.

Young Adult Me liked the star-crossed relationship between Finch and Violet.  He was the Yin to her Yang and the two complemented one another well.  Finch’s fearlessness in approaching Violet about her loss enabled her to break free from her psychological prison and regain her independence.  Violet, in turn, acted as a compass giving Finch direction and much-needed stability.  However, Adult Me really had a problem with Finch’s family and how they chose to deal with his manic depression.  It seemed too easy and convenient to chalk up his behavior as quirky and weird and, “Oh, that’s just Finch.”  When he disappears for days, they dismiss it as, “He does that sometimes.”  This cavalier attitude seems a bit apathetic for a family already put through the wringer with divorce…and a nasty one at that.  During weekly visits with the Finch patriarch, it’s obvious that Finch’s condition is hereditary and one would think that his mother would be hesitant to turn a blind eye a second time around.  But in the end, Young Adult Me just told Adult Me to stop overthinking things and enjoy the story…so I did.

Niven gives us a raw and poignant story about two teens drowning in their own pools of mental anguish and personal guilt.  Whether by luck or fate, they find each other and extend the healing lifelines of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to each other.  Through them, we see that it is possible for life to go on no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem at the time.  Throughout their story, Finch and Violet express their need to feel relevant, their desire to matter, and their wish to be remembered.  By seeking out the hidden treasures within their own state (a backyard roller coaster, a shoe tree, or a book mobile park), the two begin to uncover their own self-worth that eventually allows a violet to bloom and a finch to fly.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (J)

Hoot

Hoot

Carl Hiaasen (Juvenile Fiction)

It’s tough always being “the new kid”.  It’s even tougher when there is a bully involved, but the day that Dana Matherson mashed Roy Eberhardt’s face against the school bus window was perhaps the greatest stroke of luck since Alexander Graham Bell spilled acid on his leg.  For it was at that exact moment that Roy saw the mysterious running boy bolting past the bus.  He was wearing no shoes and carrying no backpack or books.  What was he running from?  Where was he going?  And why wasn’t he wearing any shoes?  Turns out, that wasn’t the only mystery in the sleepy little town of Coconut Cove, Florida.  Someone is trying to prevent the newest Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House from being built.  Between burrowing owls, alligators, sparkly-tailed snakes, fake farts, and nightly pranks, perhaps Coconut Cove isn’t so sleepy after all.

Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2003.  He gives us two mysteries in one: a strange running boy and a vandal thwarting the efforts of a big-time corporation.  The story is witty, fast-paced, and full of heart.  Our hero, Roy, is likeable and full of moxie.  For a kid who just wants to get through the school day unnoticed, he makes it a point to stand out from the crowd.  From taking on the school bully to striking up an unusual friendship with Beatrice Leep, an elite soccer star, Roy quickly makes a name for himself and becomes the unlikeliest of heroes.

Hoot is more than just a story about friendship and courage.  It is a David-versus-Goliath story as environmentalism goes head-to-head with capitalism.  It’s burrowing owls against big bucks and a group of average kids willing to go to great lengths in order to protect something far more valuable than a building or a brand.  In addition, we are introduced to a rather unseemly group of adults: an opportunistic officer, a nasty vice-principal, crooked politicians, a vile stepmother, greedy corporate heads, and so on.  Luckily, there are a few adults in the book who haven’t sold their soul to the devil, but the spotlight is really on Roy, Beatrice, and our mysterious running boy, which proves that good things do come in small packages.

American writer and poet Suzy Kassem wrote, “Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone.”  Carl Hiaasen gives readers a story about defending the weakest among us—the helpless and vulnerable who either lack the voice to speak up or the courage to stand up.  He provides instances showing people doing good in order to curry favor or to get ahead, but it’s the instances where good is done simply because it is the right thing to do that proves to be the truest measure of a person.  Hiaasen illustrates this through a new kid, a mysterious running boy, and a soccer star—three unlikely friends who wouldn’t give up despite the odds and showed that every life is precious and worth preserving.  That, dear friends, is something we should all give a hoot about.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell (YA)

Dovey Coe

Dovey Coe

Frances O’Roark Dowell (Young Adult Fiction)

“My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him.”

The youngest of the three Coe children, twelve-year-old Dovey would just as soon carry around a pocketknife than a pocketbook.  She’s wasn’t a skilled tracker like her brother Amos and she certainly wasn’t pretty and charming like her sister Caroline, but Dovey was loyal and honest and had a mind of her own.  You never had to guess what Dovey Coe was thinking because she would tell you exactly what was on her mind…whether you cared to hear it or not.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a few awkward situations and quite a number of bruised egos.  Such was the case with Parnell Caraway.  Son to the richest family in town, Parnell always got whatever he set his eyes on and at the present moment, his eyes were set on Caroline Coe.  No other girl in Indian Creek, NC deserved his arm more, but Caroline was set on going to college in Boone.  Covey was certainly not going to let the likes of Parnell Caraway tear her family apart, but would she resort to murder to keep her family together?

I am an absolute and unashamed pushover for plucky and feisty heroines: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Matilda Wormwood (Matilda), and Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) to name a few.  Dovey Coe handily earns a spot among these lovable, irrepressible, undaunted, and spirited young ladies.  Whether she’s confronting a school bully or the son of the man who owns half the town, Dovey is righteous in her convictions and uncowering in the face of injustice, unfairness, or just plain meanness.  No matter how few nickels she had to rub together, Dovey never considered herself or her family poor.  Her life was simple and satisfying and when something got her down, it wasn’t anything that a slice of her MeMaw’s chocolate cake or hammering a few nails into a two by four wouldn’t make right again.  Failure was not only not an option for Dovey, it simply wasn’t in her vocabulary.

Dovey Coe was shelved under the Young Adult section in my local library; however, the book is listed for ages nine to twelve and I highly recommend younger readers seizing the opportunity to meet Dovey and her entire family.  Older readers may feel the writing style is a bit simplistic, but the lessons Frances O’Roark Dowell lays out for her readers are ageless.  Loving who you are, standing up for what is right, defending the weakest among you, and finding joy in life’s smallest pleasures are things we should all aspire to do.  I think Dovey summed it up best when she said, “The way I seen things, us Coes had everything we needed in this world.  Some might see us as poor, but that was their problem.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Tangerine by Edward Bloor (YA)

Tangerine

Tangerine

Edward Bloor (Young Adult Fiction)

The Fisher family—Dad, Mom, and sons Erik and Paul—are moving from Texas to Florida.  Their new home is in the prestigious Lake Windsor Downs subdivision located in Tangerine County.  Despite their new location, the family continues to move forward with the Erik Fisher Football Dream…dad’s favorite topic.  However, no such dream exists for Paul whose IEP lists him as legally blind.  But you don’t have to be blind to see all the strange things happening in Tangerine: the never-ending muck fires, disappearing koi, a giant school-swallowing sink hole, and lightning that strikes at the same time every day.  Things are definitely different in Tangerine and they’re about to get even more strange as Paul begins to piece together memories about a dark, family secret as fuzzy as his own eyesight.

I’m having a difficult time writing this review as the adult in me desperately wants to rip the title of “parent” from both Mr. and Mrs. Fisher.  In 1670, John Ray cited as a proverb, “Hell is paved with good intentions” and the Fisher parents embody this beautifully.  They have failed both of their sons dismally, and I can only hope that the audience this book was written for (young adults) realize this and understand the difference between parenting and passivity.  With that said, I shall cast aside my adultness and say that Tangerine does provide teens with some spot-on insights into the messy, harsh, and unforgiving world of middle and high school.  Edward Bloor gives us a story about the Haves and the Have Nots, where opportunity seems to favor those with money over those with moxie.  He shows us how a bunch of ragtag soccer players can be more of a family than your own kin.  And, he warns us of the danger of placing glory above goodness and confusing apathy with care.

Despite the flagrant shortcomings of some of the adults in this book, Bloor does give readers a modern-day hero in the likes of Paul Fisher—an underdog who pursues his dreams with relentless courage and moral conviction.  Never one to fall victim to his impairment, Paul proves himself to be a loyal, fearless, and worthy friend and shows everyone in Tangerine—including his own family—that he is more than just the sum of his parts.  From an early age, Paul realizes that life is often unfair and cruel, but by living in Tangerine where lightning does in fact strike twice, he understands that anything is possible and that even a kid labeled as legally blind can still see the good in people.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (J)

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)

How did it all start?  Maddie wasn’t quite sure, but then she remembers.  It started with a girl, Wanda Petronski, who lives on Boggins Heights with her dad and brother.  Wanda comes to school every day in the same faded blue dress that doesn’t seem to hang right.  She’s quiet and sits in the far corner of the classroom.  Nobody seems to pay her much mind, except that her last name is silly and hard to pronounce.  She’s practically invisible until that one day when Wanda wanted so desperately to be a part of the group.  So hungry for companionship and inclusion.  That one day when the other girls were talking about dresses and Wanda said, “I got a hundred dresses home.”  Who knew that that one single sentence would have such an effect…not just on Wanda, but on so many more.

Oftentimes, a book or story acts as a balm—more for the author than the reader.  It is a last-ditch effort of making things right…of righting a wrong.  R.J. Palacio accomplished this through her wonderful and poignant book The Wonder, a novel about a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS) where bones and facial tissues develop abnormally.  She says that the inspiration for her book came after a chance encounter with a little girl in an ice cream store.  In “A Letter to Readers”, Estes’s daughter, Helena, says that her mother’s inspiration came from a classmate who was much like Wanda.  An immigrant shunned by her peers and longing to fit in and be liked.  Her mother, like Maddie, realized too late that complacency is just as bad as participation and that popularity should never be achieved at the expense of another.

The Hundred Dresses won a Newberry Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since.  There is a very good reason for this.  Although it is a mere 80 pages, Eleanor Estes makes every sentence reverberate within our very heart and soul and Louis Slobodkin’s beautiful illustrations give this heartfelt story a vibrant beauty and grace.  This is a story that should be shared and discussed with readers of all ages.  It reminds us of the power of words and the heart’s amazing capacity to find and offer forgiveness.  Children find it difficult to remove the target from someone else’s back for they know all too well that there is a very good chance that the target will find a new home upon their own.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for what is right.  Only later in life do we realize that sometimes the only thing worse than living with shame, is living with regret.  In this age of bullying and intolerance, the lessons learned from The Hundred Dresses are still as relevant and important today as they were in 1944.  Gratefully, we have Wanda and Maddie who remind us that it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry” and more importantly, “I forgive you.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County 

Tiffany Baker (Adult Fiction)

The day I laid Robert Morgan to rest was remarkable for two reasons.  First, even though it was August, the sky overhead was as rough and cold as a January lake; and second, it was the day I started to shrink.

Truly Plaice was destined to be a big girl.  During her mother’s pregnancy, the town began to take bets as to what her final weight would be upon delivery.  Turns out, nobody in that town won.  No one came close.  Her school teacher called her a “little giant” and Truly became known for her massive size and build.  Where her sister, Serena Jane, was wispy and beautiful, Truly countered with her girth and homeliness.  But with so many things, Truly simply accepted this genetic disparity as fact and actually said the difference between the two was quite easy, “The reason the two of us were as opposite as sewage and spring water, I thought, was that pretty can’t exist without ugly.”  So, through her own eyes, Truly shares her story of wickedness and witchcraft, of poverty and prosperity, of life and death, and of a very big woman in a very small town.

Throughout this book, I wasn’t sure whether to feel pity or pride for Truly.  Here is a woman who has wholly resigned herself to her situation and although she feels the occasional stab of pity, jealousy, or regret, her unconditional surrender to her circumstances is both admirable and heartbreaking.  Her friend Amelia may have summed up Truly’s attitude perfectly one day when they were both walking home from school, “Things are what they are.  You can’t change them.”  Perhaps Truly realized this early on in life and found that she’d be much happier by choosing resignation over resistance.

Tiffany Baker does a nice job at keeping her story entertaining and engrossing by throwing in several plot turns and twists.  Although there is a lot going on with multiple characters and their individual story lines, Truly proves to be a capable storyteller and manages to keep everything orderly and fluid.  However, despite an engaging story and a unique main character, there was a big plot hole that kept my rating at a four versus a five.  I found that Truly’s need for a cure and her want of one were at constant odds.  The reasons she stated for not pursuing treatment are legitimate to her circumstances at the time save one…money.  You can’t claim poverty as an excuse when you constantly remind the reader that you have a suitcase full of money hidden under your bed.  This was clearly frustrating for me, but not enough to override the valuable lessons contained within The Little Giant of Aberdeen County:  love the skin you’re in, be courageous in accepting that which you cannot change, and never think that you are so full that there is not enough room to let anyone else in.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord (J)

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson   

Bette Bao Lord (Juvenile Fiction)

Bandit is confused.  What would make Mother smirk, Grandmother cry, and Grandfather angry?  The House of Wong is certainly unsettled, but why?  Bandit quickly learns that her father will not be returning to Chungking.  Instead, she and her mother will be going to him…to America.  But Bandit isn’t worried because no bad luck will come her way.  This is the year of the Boar and travel, adventure, and double happiness await her.  Soon, Bandit will begin her journey from China to San Francisco to her eventual home in Brooklyn, New York.  She will travel thousands of miles with a new name and new dreams.  But will America be all that Bandit hopes it will be?

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is a charming and humorous story largely based on Bette Bao Lord’s own experiences as a newcomer to America.  Bandit (who adopts an American name of Shirley Temple Wong) endures teasing, bullying, and rejection that often comes with simply being different.  Despite her difficulties with fitting in, she is constantly reminded by her mother of the importance of maintaining your self-respect despite struggling through ridicule: “Always be worthy, my daughter, of your good fortune.  Born to an illustrious clan from an ancient civilization of China, you now live in the land of plenty and opportunity.  By your conduct show that you deserve to enjoy the best of both worlds.”  Her mother’s words serve as a valuable reassurance to Bandit that her past life in China need not be forgotten or sacrificed for her present life in America.  She is much richer for having both.

Despite her trials and torments, Bandit makes friends through America’s favorite pastime—baseball—and its formidable hero, Jackie Robinson and realizes that things are not always what they appear to be.  On the day Bandit gains the unlikeliest of allies, she recalls something that her grandfather had told her many times: “Things are not what they seem.  Good can be bad.  Bad can be good.  Sadness can be happiness.  Joy, sorrow.”  In the year of the Boar, Bandit discovers the pride in being yourself and the value of friends who accept you just the way you are.  Double happiness.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.harpercollins.com

 

The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (J)

The House With a Clock in Its Walls

The House With a Clock in Its Walls  

John Bellairs (Juvenile Fiction)

It’s the summer of 1948.  Newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt is on a bus headed to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his Uncle Jonathan.  Lewis is only ten years old but lately, only questions seem to plague him.  Where am I going?  Who will I meet?  What will happen to me?   But rather than getting answers, only more questions await Lewis upon his arrival.  Questions like why does his uncle prowl the halls after midnight and listen to the walls?  How does the stained-glass window change its image?  Why are there so many clocks in the house?  Soon, all too soon, Lewis will discover the truth behind these questions and he just might not like the answers.

John Bellairs gives young readers a book full of magic, mystery, and mayhem.  At the heart of this story, the author introduces us to a young boy who is alone, unpopular, and an outcast.  Parentless, he yearns for a friend and is willing to do anything in order to acquire one.  In his pursuit for acceptance, Lewis has to make a choice between keeping a friend and keeping a trust.  His decision comes at a cost that proves to be more than Lewis can possibly pay.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a ghost story that is suspenseful without being too scary.  Perhaps the most frightening thing in this book is how our young hero is relentlessly bullied and disdainfully discarded by a neighborhood boy.  Any child who has been excluded from a group or made to feel inadequate because of his or her appearance will certainly relate to Lewis’s unfortunate predicament.  Because of this, Bellairs provides us with a lesson that makes this book well worth the read:  If you have to prove your value just to keep a friend, is that a friend that’s truly worth keeping?

Happy Halloween from The Dusty Jacket.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com