Monday, February 24, 2014

Book talk: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

"We all fight our own private wars." Ari -- real name Angel Aristotle Mendoza -- said this, and he's right. We all fight our own private wars. But what kind of a private war can a teenager fight? Ari is fighting his family, for one. His dad, a former Marine, was traumatized by something in the Vietnam war and is a complete mystery to Ari. Ari's brother is in jail, and there's no trace of him -- no pictures, no mementos, nothing -- of him in the house. Ari's siblings are much older than he is, and so he considers himself a "pseudo only child." A loner by nature, Ari is often uncomfortable or unhappy with himself, and his journals speak to this. Ari doesn't want your friendship, your help, or your opinion. He's more likely to get into a fight than seek out a friend.

That's why his only friend -- Dante Quintana -- sought him out. Dante noticed a clueless Ari trying to teach himself how to swim at the local pool and offered to teach him how. That's the only reason Ari can swim. Dante knows how to put up with Ari's moods, his sullen silences, and his negativity.

But back to Ari's private war. Ari admits he's always had bad dreams. He's never really felt at home in his own skin, and now that he's growing up, he feels as if he's inhabiting the body of a stranger. But a person at war with himself can still surprise himself and others, too. Ari did something so crazy and so heroic and so amazingly cool that he woke up in a hospital, with a lot of serious physical damage. But he's still at war with himself.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Printz Award, 2013. 359 p. 2012: Simon & Schuster. Booktalk to high school.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book talk: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

High school is hard, but if you're Arnold Spirit -- "Junior," to everyone -- you're the only Native American at a high school full of mostly white kids. Smart, beautiful white kids who have money and nice clothes and cars and parents with jobs.

Junior is poor. Junior was born with a big head and should've died at birth because he had problems with his brain. He has a lisp, a stutter, ugly clothes, an alcoholic dad, and a best friend - Rowdy - who will not speak to him. Junior lives on a reservation -- called "the rez" -- and he knows that being poor and Indian really, really sucks. Forgive my language. I'm just quoting him.

From the time he was born, Junior has had to struggle for his survival. Everything he has, he has had to fight for, whether literally or physically fist-fight for. On the first day of high school on the rez, Junior picked up a textbook. When he saw the name inside, he realized the textbook was over 30 years old. That's what the Indian kids get: not even second-best. The dregs. It angered Junior so much that he threw the textbook, and it hit his teacher right in the face, resulting in a suspension for Junior.

Every cloud has a silver lining -- sometimes even for Indians -- and the teacher convinced Junior to attend a better school, named Rearden, twenty-two miles away from the reservation. You know how poor Junior is? He often has to hitchhike those 22 miles to and from school. A few times he walked the whole way, and he got blisters. It was awful. You try being the only Indian in a school full of whites. See how long YOU last.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 230 p.
2008 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction. 2010 Young Readers' Choice Award.
Booktalk to high school.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book talk: Jane, the Fox, and Me

This is Helene. She has a defeated, hunted look about her. Her shoulders are often slumped.

The best part of Helene's day is reading Jane Eyre which she loves. She gets lost in it, and she loves Jane Eyre's strength and resilience.

The worst part of Helene's day is being around Genevieve, a snob and a bully. Genevieve and her friends write mean things on the walls about Helene's weight. They lie and say that Helene smells. They used to be nice to Helene.

But there are hints that things may change for Helene.
 She makes a brief -- but amazing -- connection with a shy fox, and there's a girl with equally bright eyes who rescues Helene from a lonely, harsh experience. Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault.

Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. Graphic novel. 2012: Groundwood books. 101 pages. Booktalk to upper elementary, middle school.