Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA Fiction)

Speak

Laurie Halse Anderson (YA Fiction)

It’s Melinda Sordino’s first year at Merryweather High. A time of change and cliques, of fitting in or being left out, and lots of ups and downs and possibly even a few sideways. But for Melinda, her year is already beginning with a dark cloud hanging over her. While other teens are covering up their acne, Melinda is covering up her shame of being raped…and it’s not easy. Every fiber in her being wants to scream out and tell the world what happened to her, but why speak when nobody—not even your best friend—wants to listen?

Speak is the very reason why I immediately have to get my hands on a book as soon as it’s been challenged or banned. It’s like a bat signal that drones over and over again read me read me read me. Published in 1999, Speak was ranked 60th on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Book for 2000-2009 and 25th for 2010-2019 for its inclusion of rape and profanity, deemed biased against male students, and blasted for containing a political viewpoint. I am shaking my head so furiously right now that I’m awaiting our local meteorologist to report a 6.5 magnitude tremor for my area any minute now. The profanity is mild, a fellow student stands up to a teacher who is trying to stifle a class debate, the girls in the book come off WAY harsher than the boys, and the rape scene is as follows: …he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up and zips his jeans and smiles. Feel that? I think that tremor may have hit 6.8 by now.

This is a gritty, raw, painful, and ultimately inspiring book about a young girl desperately trying to piece her life and sanity back together after it was gutlessly and maliciously ripped apart—her innocence robbed one summer night on the wet, dark ground. Told from Melinda’s point of view adds another layer to this complex and haunting story that shouldn’t be banned, but instead handed out to every teenager on the planet. By banning this book, the “powers that be” are truly no different than Melinda’s friends who choose to excommunicate her as she brings light to an unfortunate truth…that some individuals are just bad, no matter how attractive the packaging might be. Anderson’s message is far too important to ban to a dark corner. They say light is the best disinfectant and this book needs to be on every bookshelf and in every hand and hopefully there is a teacher or parent or trusted advisor there to read alongside to offer insight, context, and comfort.

I’ve never pored through a book so quickly before and that’s simply because Anderson ensnares you from the very first page with her poem “Make Some Noise”. More chills await as you slowly understand the significance of the cover design as Melinda’s story begins to stretch and her truth desperately reaches upward toward the sun so that it may live rather than die in darkness. I hope this book finds the right hands and that any Melinda out there finds someone like Melinda’s art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who says, “You’re a good kid. I think you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it” because then, maybe, that would open up the door for someone to speak.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick (YA Fiction)

Freak the Mighty

Rodman Philbrick (YA Fiction)

They were known as Freak and Kicker. Kevin Avery and Maxwell Kane had known each other since daycare and you’d think that given Kevin’s abnormal smallness, he would have been a pretty kickable target for Kicker. But maybe it was Kevin’s crutches or perhaps it was the shiny braces holding up his crooked legs. Whatever it was, he quickly captured Maxwell’s imagination…and possibly even his respect. When Kevin suddenly re-enters Maxwell’s life during the summer before eighth grade, the two form an unlikely friendship. Separately, they are Midget and Butthead, but together they’re Freak the Mighty and soon everyone would realize that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

Rodman Philbrick warms your heart and then breaks it with this story of friendship, acceptance, and courage. Told from Maxwell’s point of view, Freak the Mighty shows us how two fractured halves come together to form one implausibly wonderful whole. Kevin is the yin to Maxwell’s yang and they prove that opposites not only attract, but they bond and strengthen. Through Kevin, Maxwell begins to realize his academic potential and starts to free himself from past ties that hold him back. In turn, Maxwell gives Kevin the ability to look for castles, hunt for buried treasure, help damsels in distress, and realize his dream of having a seat at the roundtable.

There seems to be a lot of disparity online regarding the appropriate reader age for this book. Freak the Mighty is recommended for sixth graders and up—although some websites suggest a reader age as young as ten. While it is an easy and fast read—which would clearly appeal to younger readers—there are many instances of violence and disturbing behavior throughout the book, not to mention that Maxwell’s father is far from Father-of-the-Year material. And while the themes of anti-bullying and pro-acceptance are important, there are more age-appropriate options available for younger readers (R. J. Palacio’s Wonder is just one example). All in all, I really loved this story, but it fell just a little short of completely winning me over. With the two main characters being such polar opposites, I feel the story could have benefitted from having alternating narrators—switching between Maxwell and Kevin. Having the opportunity to learn more about Kevin and being able to see the world through his eyes would have added another layer of depth and emotion to this story. Having Mighty without the Freak seems like a sadly missed opportunity.

They say that a friend is someone who looks beyond your broken fence and instead admires the flowers in your garden. Maxwell and Kevin certainly exemplify this through their quirky and unlikely friendship and demonstrate how brains and brawn are not competitors, but rather a wonderful symbiosis. Maxwell gave Kevin legs and Kevin gave Maxwell heart—their own mental and physical challenges replaced by adventure, possibility, and hope. Rare is the friendship that not only opens the door to life’s opportunities, but also lifts you up so that you won’t miss them when they finally arrive.

Rating: 4/5

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

The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh (YA Fiction)

The Silver Pencil

Alice Dalgliesh (YA Fiction Newbery Honor)

The silver pencil was a miracle. It was handsome to look at, delightful to use because it never needed sharpening. One had only to change the lead. Janet was sure that she could write almost anything with it. Confidently she sat down at her small table, with clean sheets of paper in front of her and the shining pencil in her hand. To her surprise, exactly nothing happened.

Nine-year-old Janet Laidlaw was a British citizen living on the tropical island of Trinidad. She loved her life in the House on the Hill, but things quickly changed following the sudden death of her beloved father. At thirteen—when most Colonials went off to school—Janet traveled to her mother’s birthplace of England where her world suddenly got a lot bigger. With the promise of new friends and adventures, perhaps her silver pencil wouldn’t be silent for much longer.

Newbery books have always been my “go to” reads. Whether I’m looking for an excellent story for myself or I need a solid recommendation for a young reader, that silver- or gold-foiled sticker always let me know that I had picked out a winner. Unfortunately for me, The Silver Pencil fell short of this assumption. Awarded the Newbery Honor Book distinction in 1945, Alice Dalgliesh’s coming-of-age (and semi-autobiographical) book is about a young girl who travels from Trinidad to England and then to New York while pursuing a career in teaching before ultimately stumbling upon success as a children’s author. This book is meant to mirror Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which was Janet’s first introduction to America. Unfortunately, Dalgliesh’s tale didn’t quite rise to the level of its literary inspiration and probably won’t have the same appeal with a young adult audience.

Published in 1944, the beginning of The Silver Pencil is full of racially insensitive and inappropriate cultural references. These obviously didn’t cause a ripple back then, but would clearly result in a tsunami today. Also, Janet’s favorite book is The Story of Little Black Sambo, which she shares repeatedly with youngsters that are in need of fast and effective entertainment. Although the story’s text and illustrations have undergone numerous revisions over the decades, its very title still conjures up negative feelings and emotions. With that being said, the remainder of the book is pretty safe although I felt no attachment to the story and had zero connection to its characters. Despite it being a beautifully written book, the words just hung there and felt lifeless—lacking any sense of warmth or feeling. Even when Janet was dealing with the death of her father, I didn’t feel her pain and loss although she was obviously experiencing it. Her experiences felt more like a list to be checked rather than a life that was lived.

Despite the low rating, I loved how Dalgliesh used stories and storytelling to bridge the gap between cultures and class, to calm the rowdy and connect the displaced, and to bring people together to make the world seem a little bit smaller. They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but Janet Laidlaw and Alice Dalgliesh showed us that a silver pencil could be just as mighty…if not more.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (YA)

It’s Kind of a Funny Story 

Ned Vizzini (Young Adult Fiction)

“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.” “And what is that nightmare, Craig?” “Life.” “Life is a nightmare.” “Yes.”

Fifteen-year-old Craig Gilner is living his best life. He has cool friends, a loving family, and he’s just been accepted into the coveted Executive Pre-Professional High School. This is where it all begins: a great high school leads to a prestigious college which allows for a lucrative job which paves the way for a big house, nice car, ideal family, and dream life. Or does it? Craig doesn’t realize that the happiest day of life would trigger a series of events that would ultimately lead him to voluntarily check himself into a psychiatric facility in Brooklyn. What can a bunch of “crazy” people teach Craig about life? Well…it’s kind of a funny story.

Ned Vizzini long struggled with severe clinical depression, which is why this book is so raw, real, and personal. We see Vizzini’s struggles, defeats, and triumphs through Craig and get a first-hand view of depression, the value of life, and the gift of hope. In a heartbreaking example of life imitating art, Vizzini succumbed to his own demons seven years after the publication of this book. While his untimely and premature death is unimaginably tragic, he left us with an unforgettable story full of hope, promise, and second chances. We see the incredible worth of friendship and the importance of a strong support system. 

Vizzini could have focused this story on Craig’s illness and the havoc it wreaks on himself, his family, and his friends.  Instead, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a journey centered around healing, self-discovery, and re-discovery. It’s a lesson on re-evaluating the things that we surround ourselves with and not being afraid to redefine ourselves by letting go of possessions, people, or habits that no longer bring us happiness or offer fulfillment. It’s a story that reinforces the idea that sometimes we are bravest at our most vulnerable moment. Craig wasn’t afraid to live, he was afraid to fail and his journey back from the brink is enlightening, encouraging, inspiring, and…well…it really is kind of a funny story.

*Reviewer’s note: Ned Vizzini was a fervent advocate for mental health and suicide awareness.  Help is available through the National Hopeline Network for people contemplating suicide: 1-800-SUICIDE / 1-800-784-2433.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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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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Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (YA)

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising

Pam Muñoz Ryan (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Esperanza was the pride and joy of her papa.  The daughter of wealthy ranchers, Sixto and Ramona Ortega, she had everything a twelve-year old could possibly want.  But not far beyond the borders of El Rancho de las Rosas, trouble brewed in Aguascaliente, Mexico.  It was 1930 and the revolution in Mexico had happened over ten years ago, but there were still those who resented the wealth and circumstances of the local landowners.  Soon that hate would spill over into Esperanza’s idyllic and pampered world and would ultimately rob her of everything that she knows and holds dear.

Pam Muñoz Ryan gives us a heartwarming and often heartbreaking riches-to-rags story of a young, spoiled, and arrogant girl who learns the value of humility, empathy, generosity, and kindness.  Inspired by her own grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, Ryan shows us the lavishness and bounty of a prosperous Mexican ranch, as well as the poverty, squalor, and hardship endured by migrant workers living in company farm camps.  She also provides insight into the Mexican Repatriation, which included the deportations of thousands of legalized and native United States citizens to Mexico between 1929 and 1935.  Up until that time, it was the largest involuntary migration in the U.S. with numbers reaching almost a half million.  Ryan also describes the struggles of the workers to compete with cheaper labor from states like Oklahoma, as well as their efforts for a better wage and living conditions through unionization.

In addition to giving readers a story overflowing with moral lessons—Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes or Appreciate what you have before you lose it—Ryan also gives us a character who slowly begins to realize that life is more than fancy dresses and porcelain dolls.  Through humiliation, heartache, and despair, Esperanza understands how life is like her father’s beautiful and precious rose garden: “No hay rosa sin espinas.” There is no rose without thorns.  For despite the beauty and splendor that life often provides, there will also be some degree of pain and suffering.  But like her grandmother taught her as she undid Esperanza’s rows of uneven or bunched crochet, “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”  And when Esperanza did, she truly blossomed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green (YA)

Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier

Bette Greene (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It was the most exciting thing to have ever happened to Jenkinsville, Arkansas.  German POWs, maybe twenty in all, arrived by train and would be housed in a camp in the small southern town.  Twelve-year-old Patty Bergen was among the many townspeople there to witness the event.  Each hoping to do their patriotic part to make President Roosevelt proud during this summer of World War II.  During a chance encounter in her family’s store, Patty meets young Anton Reicker, a handsome, educated young man who is one of the POWs.  Although he is German and she is Jewish, they begin an unlikely friendship that will test Patty’s family bonds, as well as question her national loyalty.

Written in 1973, Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier was not only listed on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999, it also made the ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books for 2001.  According to the ALA’s website (www.ala.org), “The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information.”  To educate schools and libraries about censorship, they publish these lists which are compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).  With that said, this book (recommended for ages 11 and up) is full of racial slurs, derogatory language, sexual innuendoes, and many instances of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse.  It truly runs the gamut for a story written for fifth graders and up.  These issues alone are enough to give a reader pause, but these aren’t the only reasons that I found myself disappointed with this book.

First, Patty’s father and mother are inexplicably cruel and violent to her.  They fawn over her little sister, Sharon, while Patty endures taunts, intolerance, dismissiveness, and even physical beatings at the hands of her father.  I kept hoping for some enlightening backstory as to why these two people could possibly hate their own child so much, but Greene doesn’t even provide a hint to explain their savage and inhuman behavior.  Their treatment of Patty is repugnant and demoralizing, which serves as the ideal foundation for many of Patty’s choices—which are often hasty and incredibly unwise.  Here is a girl so desperate for acceptance and so eager for kindness that she would say or do anything in order to achieve some modicum of happiness.

Second, Greene gives us a story that seems devoid of any moral lessons.  The Bergen family’s black housekeeper, Ruth—who takes on the role of mother figure—is very religious and is often heard singing hymns while doing chores and encourages the children to pray at lunchtime.  Despite this being a story about a Jewish family, we get a healthy dose of Christianity and the glory that comes with salvation.  Even with this, there really isn’t a central theme tying the entire story together.  We understand the courage of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own and the virtues of seeing beyond religion, ethnicity, or skin color, but these platitudes fall by the wayside with an ending that is absent any sort of clarity, closure, or inspiration.  The reader is left feeling just as bewildered and discouraged as Patty whose only “real” friends are the housekeeper, a POW, and the town’s sheriff.

I read Greene’s Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. (which I rated 4/5) and was so hoping to find that same feeling of hope and triumph in this book.  Instead, Greene delivers a bleak look at family and life and gives us a girl so disillusioned and unsatisfied with her life, that the only thing she clings to is the day she turns eighteen.  Unfortunately for Patty, that’s still six very long summers away.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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We Were Here by Matt de la Peña (YA)

We Were Here

We Were Here     

Matt de la Peña (Young Adult Fiction)

I can sometimes make stuff happen just by thinking about it.  I try not to do it too much because my head mostly gets stuck on bad stuff, but this time something good actually happened: the judge only gave me a year in a group home.  Said I had to write in a journal so some counselor could try to figure out how I think.  Dude didn’t know I was probably gonna write a book anyways.  Or that it’s hard as hell bein’ at home these days, after what happened.  So when he gave out my sentence it was almost like he didn’t give me a sentence at all.

Miguel Castañeda had a plan for getting through his one-year sentence in a group home: write in his journal, keep to himself, pretend to call his mom every Sunday, and read every book on the home’s bookshelves.  Just be a ghost—invisible and non-existent.  That plan was changed when he was assigned to share his room with Rondell, a big black kid that was once his cellmate in Juvi.  And then there was Mong, a skinny, tough, and silent Chinese dude with scars on his cheeks and a psycho smile.  Suddenly a year seemed a whole lot longer.  And then one night, Mong asked Miguel to escape with him to Mexico.  Maybe a new start away from California is just what he needed.  Maybe it’s the clean start he so wanted.

We Were Here was one of those books that I kept checking out and returning—always meaning to read it but getting distracted by something else.  Shame on me for not giving de la Peña’s work the attention it deserved.  We Were Here is gritty, raw, candid, bleak, and insightful.  It’s also a stark reminder to never judge a book by its cover.  The author introduces us to kids like Miguel, Mong, Rondell, and others who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for one reason or another.  Each has their own story and shows us how one wrong decision or personal tragedy can set off a series of events that ultimately lands them in a group home, juvenile detention, or jail.  We get to meet these kids and understand that many are more than the sum of their parts and just need what Miguel so urgently desires—a second chance.

We Were Here is filled with heart, honesty, and hope.  The characters are realistically portrayed and de la Peña avoids simply making them ethnic caricatures by giving them depth, warmth, a deep vulnerability, and an underlying desire to make honorable and decent choices.  Narrated by Miguel through a series of personal journal entries, this story demonstrates just how far the bands of friendship can be stretched without breaking and the value of choosing loyalty over personal desire.

Matt de la Peña opened his book with an excerpt from Denis Johnson’s “From a Berkeley Notebook” and I thought it would be an appropriate way to close this review.  It beautifully depicts Miguel’s personal transformation and how events in our own lives can make each of us strangers to ourselves:  “One changes so much/ from moment to moment/ that when one hugs/ oneself against the chill/ air at the inception of spring, at night,/ knees drawn to chin,/ he finds himself in the arms/ of a total stranger,/ the arms of one he might move/ away from on the dark playground.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (YA)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas   

John Boyne (Young Adult Fiction)

Bruno slowed down when he saw the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.  Although there was a fence separating them, he knew that you could never be too careful with strangers and it was always best to approach them with caution.  So he continued to walk, and before long they were facing each other.

Bruno may have been just nine years old, but he knew something was wrong when he came home from school and found the family’s maid in his room packing up all of his belongings.  His father had received important military orders and the family was to leave their luxury home in Berlin to go someplace that Bruno had never heard of before.  When Bruno saw his new home, he didn’t like it all.  Theirs was the only house on the road.  And it was much smaller than their other home.  And behind it was a big yard with a spiky fence all around it.  A yard that contained small huts, several soldiers, and many, many men and boys all wearing identical striped pajamas with a matching cap.  It was all very strange.  Yes, Bruno didn’t like this place at all.

Bruno is innocent, naïve, and an unlikely protagonist who neither recognizes nor understands the horrors of the concentration camp located behind his new home.  Through his young and selfish lens, he only sees unfairness when he views the camp for why should there be so many boys on the other side of the fence who have one another to play with while he has no one?  Bruno is absolutely angered by this injustice.  Of course, the reader realizes what the true injustice is, which makes Bruno’s self-centeredness all the more unpalatable.  Boyne doesn’t introduce readers to the boy in the striped pajamas until halfway through the book, which allows readers ample time to become acquainted with Bruno.  During that period, we realize that Bruno’s “faults” are really just him being a small, sheltered, and unworldly boy of nine: he’s thoughtless, scared, self-indulgent, petulant, and irrational.  But Boyne also shows us a Bruno that is kindhearted, inquisitive, and who understands the value of maintaining a secret and the importance of keeping a promise.

I’ve read several books for both juvenile and young adult readers that deal with the Holocaust and concentration camps.  This one is unique in that Boyne shows us the horror through two young boys of the same age, height, and physical features—virtual mirror images of each other.  Bruno is essentially the “before” while Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas, is the “after”.  One is German, well fed, idealistic, and blissfully ignorant while the other is Polish, gaunt, hopeless, and worn down by hate, starvation, and fear.  It’s a stark contrast and Boyne is able to successfully illustrate the horrors of war and bigotry without having to delve into graphic detail.  Although this book is recommended for grades 9-12, its implied acts of violence (there is one brief mention of a dog being shot) and death make it suitable for younger readers although a knowledge of World War II would help put the subject matter into context.  The use of repetition and puns also help to successfully reinforce key points and ideas for readers.

Above its grisly subject matter, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a touching story about two lonely boys who find comfort and security through friendship.  American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Emanuel James “Jim” Rohn said, “For every promise, there is a price to pay.”  Bruno had to weigh the value of a promise he made and although he knew very little about politics or geography or just the world in general, he did know that there was value to be placed on life and that you always, always keep a promise…especially to your best friend.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen (YA Fiction)

Nightjohn

Nightjohn

Gary Paulsen (Young Adult Fiction)

“It was in the flower bed that I first heard about Nightjohn.  Not by name, but by happening.”  Sarny remembers that moment well.  That and other moments—both horrible and hopeful—that has happened on Master Clel Waller’s plantation:  the beatings, the constant humiliation, the rapes, but also the songs and stories that provide some comfort to her and her fellow slaves.  But most precious of all were the moments spent with Nightjohn for he brought with him freedom.  Freedom that only knowledge could bring, and Nightjohn was bringing it to Sarny and anyone brave enough to accept this unique and powerful gift.

Gary Paulsen notes that the events written in Nightjohn (with the exception for variations in time and character identification and placement) are true and actually happened.  Knowing the atrocities, brutality, and savagery that happened during the period in American history where slavery was practiced and largely accepted, the story of Sarny and what she witnessed and experienced should come as no shock.  Unfortunately, it does for Paulsen is relentless in his detail and spares no sensibilities when it comes to depicting the treatment of slaves and the punishment ravaged upon those attempting escape.  The book is recommended for ages 12 and up and although the message is important and the details written are accurate, I would suggest a slightly higher starting age due to several highly graphic scenes and some mature subject matter.

I appreciated the theme of this book and the heroism shown by Nightjohn who had successfully acquired freedom in the north, but chose to return south so that he could teach slaves to read and write.  During one pivotal scene, Sarny’s “adoptive” mother, Mammy, asked Nightjohn why teaching the slaves to read and write mattered.  “They have to be able to write,” Nightjohn responded.  “They have to read and write.  We all have to read and write so we can write about this—what they doing to us.  It has to be written.”  The singular problem I had with Paulsen’s book was the overuse of violence.  Paulsen describes what runaways endured when the dogs finally caught up with them and he did so not once, not twice, but three times.  The reader understands the gruesomeness of this action and the utter deprave satisfaction the master gets in seeing a man or woman being literally torn to shreds, but to restate it numerous times was borderline gratuitous.

Nightjohn is a quick read (the hardback edition is ninety-two pages with large typeface and a narrow page width), but its characters and their unfailing faith, their struggle for dignity, and their fight for a better life will have a long-lasting impact on you and will forever change how you view the everyday things that are often taken for granted.  In that respect, Nightjohn has given each of us a very valuable lesson.

(Reviewer’s Note: In 1997, Paulsen wrote Sarny: A Life Remembered, a sequel to Nightjohn, which follows Sarny after she fled the Waller plantation in the last days of the Civil War.)

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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