Little Brother

Little-Brother

“I can’t go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.” – Marcus Yallow

As a teacher, I see the current teen culture close up on a daily basis, like an anthropologist studying an aboriginal tribe in the middle of South America. One of the things that I keep seeing, in my daily excursion into the deep dense jungle that is middle school, is a strong sense of apathy, of laziness, a real sense of kids thinking “Who cares?”. This is a problem because these teens are being trained to accept the world around them without analysis, without skepticism. They hear that their clothes come from a sweatshop in Indonesia, oh well…They see that the chicken they eat is injected with so many hormones that they can’t even walk like normal animals and they say, oh I love them with honey mustard…or they find out that the government is tapping their phones and logging their search histories online and they just shrug and say, I don’t care if they know what I look at. The world around them slowly drifts closer and closer to a Orwellian society and, because of their malaise, they just look up from their screens with a blank stare and continue texting their friends. Social activism is dying and the world of rebellion, the world of sit-ins and protests is falling by the way side. So when I find a book like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a book about social activism, a book about standing up for your freedom in the face of an unjust government, I don’t put that book down easily.

Marcus Yallow and his friends are a group tech savvy gamers who chose to skip school on the wrong day. A terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco leads to them being captured and detained by the Department of Homeland Security. Marcus refuses to cooperate with the DHS and so they decide to inflict him to prison intimidation tactics to get information from him, as they think he may know something about the terrorist attacks. Once he is finally released, Marcus is so infuriated that he becomes hell-bent on getting revenge on the DHS for treating him so unfairly and for not releasing his best friend, Darryl, who had been stabbed just before they were picked up by the DHS.

The story revolves around the theme of social activism as Marcus begins a cyber-guerrilla war against the DHS and the security checkpoints they begin installing throughout the city. He begins an online movement through a protected internet called XNet, where he teaches other teens how to scramble DHS trackers, protect their information, and generally make life for the DHS harder. Doctorow shows the dangers of social activism under a police state, but also the reward of knowing your beliefs and fighting for you right to speak your mind and be free. Marcus ends up butting heads with police, with his vice principal, and with the DHS on numerous occasions, as he fights to maintain his freedom in a city with an ever-growing police presence.

The book also has a lot of computer tech references that sometimes bog down the prose for a less than tech savvy plebeian like myself. The book is also set in the very near future and references some technology that I have never heard of, so I assumed it was fictitious, which was also slightly confusing. Marcus spews computer hacking terms and encryption techniques like he is teaching a class on computer science, which I found to draw me out of the narrative. But for a student that is into coding, this jargon may be exactly what will keep them hooked in the story.

I definitely enjoyed Little Brother, and there were moments where I struggled to put the book down. The story was very engaging and I often found myself needing to know what happened next when Doctorow left me with a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. But it is a thick book, which may scare away some students who are interested in technology and computer sciences, but are not avid readers. I would use this as part of a lit circle, but I would recommend using it with grade 9 or higher, as there is some language and sexual content in the story. I would pair this book with Rae Mariz’s The Unidentified, Feed by M.T. Anderson, or James Dashner’s The Eye of Minds, as they all deal with a tech world and the fight against an oppressive system and the activism it takes to rid yourself of their control. Little Brother is a fantastic story for lovers of computer science, social activism, or just plain bringing down the man.

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Speak

Speak Cover

“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.” – Mr. Freeman

Fear, it is something that can control our lives. It can infect our daily routine and cause us to feel a constant unease that can ruin the most basic of activities. Now ramp that fear up to a traumatic experience and it begins to envelop every aspect of us. Something as basic as looking in the mirror or eating breakfast can be ruined by memories of that experience, and the fear often flows back into our minds again and again. It is this type of fear that Melinda faces in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel, Speak. The book is a first-person journal of Melinda’s life as she enters high school, as a freshman with no friends. They have all rejected her because she accidentally called the cops to a party in the summer. But they don’t understand that the reason she was calling the police was because she had been raped by a senior in her future school, so she called the police and didn’t know what to say. She remained silent on the line. It is this silence that encapsulates Melinda’s journey throughout the novel, and why it is called Speak.

The big theme that is spread throughout the novel is Melinda’s search for a voice. She struggles to cope with trying to tell someone what happened, which leads her to a state of depression. Her parents don’t help any, as they are both preoccupied with their own lives. Her only friend, Heather, ends up ditching her for a group of more popular girls, and her silence ends up making her a target for some of her teachers in school. The only person that seems to be okay with her silence is her Art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who just tries to nurture Melinda with art, to try and convince her to create something and express herself through her art. It is this nurturing voice and soft guidance that helps Melinda to discover her method of expressing her anxiety, her pain, and, ultimately, her fear. Her ability to find her voice also comes from her will to protect her former best friend Rachel, who began dating Melinda’s rapist not long after the traumatic incident. Melinda wishes to keep her safe, and it is this fear for Rachel that allows Melinda to speak up about being raped and be free of the burden she has carried around for so long.

While I know of a few teachers that have used Speak in their classroom, I was not enthralled with the book. One of my issues with it came from the fact that I did not really connect with Melinda as a character. I feel as though this may be because I have never really felt fear and I have never had a traumatic experience that I have had to work through. I am also a fairly loud individual and rarely feel at a loss for words or feel the need to be reserved in the way I speak. So I was not a fan of the novel; however, unlike my last review, I did feel as though Anderson’s characters were fully fleshed out and were well crafted. I was just unable to connect and struggled to dig into the story. I definitely think it is a viable novel for lit circles, but it has some strong content that I would suggest needs to be used with grade 9 students or higher. For Lit Circles, I would use it with Anderson’s own Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall. Each of these books also deals with a traumatic experience that leads the protagonist to look for their voice to express what they had seen or experienced. Speak is a frustratingly good novel that I just didn’t connect with, but will connect with many who have struggled to find their own voice.

Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear

“What you focus on becomes reality. Everybody carries anger inside. But also happiness.” – Edwin

I am not an outdoorsy person. I am not much of a camper and I have never been all that good with my hands. If I was to be stranded on a deserted island, I would probably have a pretty rough time staying alive. In Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear, Cole, a teenager potentially on his way to jail for assaulting a fellow student, has his sentence commuted to be a one year wilderness experience, alone on a deserted island on the southeast coast of Alaska. This is meant to be a time of reflection and rebirth for Cole, which is a major theme throughout the novel, but he quickly derails the entire incident. First, he burns down the small cabin that was built for him, including all of the provisions provided for him. Then he decides to try and swim across a large channel of terribly cold water to try and escape, which he fails miserably at. And finally, he attacks a giant white bear, just to prove that he is tougher than the bear. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go well for Cole and he is left mauled, starving, and lying on a beach in Alaska. The story becomes all about Cole’s deathbed-like experience when he realizes why he has acted out so much over the years and how he can attempt to change.

This theme of rediscovery and healing drives the narrative forward. As Cole spends time on the island, acting brashly, the chapters are mixed with flashbacks of the meetings and experiences Cole went through which landed him on the island, such as his act of violence towards his schoolmate, Peter, his experience with the Circle Justice group in which he lied constantly to try and avoid jail time, and even his retelling of the abuse his father had doled out throughout his childhood. Cole’s epiphany that he has while lying near death on the beach allows him to come to the realization that he acts out because of his need to be in control and to be feared, because that is how he always viewed his father. His realization leads him to seek more help and earns him a second trip to the island, after six months of physical therapy. This is where his real process of rebirth occurs. He learns to channel his anger. Not squelch it, but control it. His growth over time allows him to seek forgiveness, which is the second major theme in the story.

As Cole reaches the end of his one year sentence, he has learned to channel his anger and he has adopted the natural world as a place for him to connect and learn. But, the target of his earlier assault, Peter, has taken a turn for the worse psychologically, and attempts suicide. It becomes Cole’s responsibility to try and convince Peter that his life has value and meaning, and through this, he will hopefully find Peter’s forgiveness for his act of violence. This second journey of redemption and forgiveness is where Cole is truly tested, and it is an interesting journey that he takes to try and help Peter overcome his psychological issues.

In the end, I wasn’t a huge fan of Touching Spirit Bear. I felt the characters were too unbelievable, Cole specifically, and his reactions to things and choices early in the novel left me more frustrated than engaged. I think there are some students that would definitely connect with the broken anti-hero who seeks redemption concept, but it just did not work for me. While the story is one that would be great for many students to read, because it leads them to think outside of themselves and be less selfish, it was not a book that kept me up at night, wanting to read more. If I were to use this story in a Lit Circle setting, I would use it for grade 9 and above and pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, as they all deal with a troubled past, a challenging experience, or a neglectful parent. Touching Spirit Bear might lead some to find peace and rebirth in nature, but, for an indoorsman like me, it fell flat.

The Eye of Minds

the eye of minds cover

“For the first time in his life, Michael understood why real soldiers coming back from real wars often had a hard time getting over the things they’d seen and done. And had done to them. If Michael had a soul, it was starting to leak out of his hopes.” – James Dashner

When I was growing up, I loved video games. And when I say I loved video games, I mean I spent a lot of my time playing them, researching them, and dreaming about them. At one point in my life, my uncle jokingly asked me if I was building bombs in my basement because of how much time I spent down there playing video games. I love the immersive quality of video games, being able to do fantastic, otherworldly things and embody totally different roles from my real life. Once, on a family trip to Disney World, I tried a virtual reality game, where I put on a visor and had a bunch of wires attached to my arms and legs and I got to stand on this circular tube and run around in a virtual world. I loved it, at least the two minutes I was allowed to play on it. This immersion and need for out of body experiences is what James Dashner plays on in his newest book, The Eye of Minds. In it, Dashner creates a futuristic world where people can enter the Sleep and play in the VirtNet, a virtual world that would put any current video game to shame. In the Sleep, people can live their lives and do things they never thought possible without many consequences for their actions in the real world.

This is the world of Michael, a teenage boy who lives to escape into the VirtNet. His days are spent mostly within the confines of his “coffin” where he is plugged into the VirtNet for hours at a time. While in the Sleep, Michael still feels normal human needs, such as hunger, exhaustion, or even pain, but when he eats within the VirtNet, his coffin feeds his actual body nutrients to help him survive, and when he is injured in the VirtNet, his body actually feels the pain. Michael and his friends are talented hackers, who sometimes break the rules within the games to make them more entertaining or to get ahead. But when one hacker starts to manipulate the system to mess with people’s minds back in the real world, the authorities get involved, and task Michael and his friends to root out the intentions of this evil hacker.

As one could imagine, in a virtual reality setting the pace is often intense and the reader will feel the adrenaline of the characters pumping throughout the story. Much like Dashner’s Maze Runner, Eye of Minds is a thrill ride, with cliffhangers at every turn, making the reader want to delve deeper into the story. The plot is shrouded in enough mystery to keep the reader engaged as well, and when the stakes are raised late in the story, with actual lives on the line, it was hard for me to put the book down.

The most fascinating part for me, as a teacher, was seeing that the book seemed to highlight two skills that Michael needed to survive his ordeal. He needed to be able to collaborate with his friends to be able to hack their way through the trail the hacker, Kaine, had left for them. And he needed to think critically, to problem solve under pressure with, sometimes, severe consequences to his choices. These are skills that we are training our students to develop, and to see a virtual reality themed book focusing on these two skills just shows that we are hitting the right mark with our goals of training our students to have 21st Century Skills. I am not saying we are training our students to become hackers who will try and save the world, but it is encouraging to see a book highlighting those skills in a semi-tangible way for students to understand.

Overall, The Eye of Minds is an engaging read that would draw in students who are fans of video games or technology. It isn’t the deepest book, which makes it a bit difficult to use within Lit Circles, but the book is not overly challenging to read and could be engaging enough for some struggling readers if it is a theme they would enjoy. There is some violence and traumatic psychological experiences in the story, so I would recommend this for a grade 9 level or higher. For Lit Circles, I would pair this book with M.T. Anderson’s Feed, as it deals with a connection to a constant online presence, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Dashner’s own Maze Runner, as they are both thrill rides that allow struggling readers to feel engaged in the pacing of the narrative. The Eye of Minds gives the reader an interesting glimpse into a possible future where teens are more engaged by a virtual reality world than the real life one they live in.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

parttimeindian-jacketpb

“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.
You can do it.” – Arnold Spirit Jr.

Everyone deals with their insecurities in their own way. Some people lash out at others, becoming bullies to hurt others so they don’t feel their own pain. Some people compensate with material possessions, or vices, or busy-ness, something to keep their minds occupied. For Arnold Spirit Jr., or Junior as he is known to most, comedy and comics are the way to cope. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story of Junior, a fourteen year old boy who has a myriad of things to feel insecure about, such as his physical problems from being born with an excess of cerebrospinal fluid, or “water on the brain”, or his seizures, or his terrible eyesight requiring thick glasses, or his lisp, or his stutter, or the fact that he ends up leaving the reservation school to go to an all-white school of middle class kids where he doesn’t know anyone. With a list of insecurities that long, many would want to just curl up and cry, but Junior is a tenacious young man, and he doesn’t let his insecurities get in the way of his life, well at least he tries not to.

I will be honest with you, Absolutely True Diary is one of my all-time favourite Young Adult fiction books, so if you want to save yourself some time, just go buy it and read it and then use it in your classes…Are you still here? Okay, well, let me tell you why it is so fantastic. The coming-of-age bildungsroman story found within Alexie’s pages is so honest, realistically comical, and relatable that you can’t help but be drawn into the world of Reardan High School and the Wellpinit Spokane Reservation. Junior’s frankness is so fresh and awkward that fellow nerds, like myself, feel the connection that drives the continual turning of the page. The hope he shares within his “diary” shows a boy looking to the future, while being bogged down by a lack of hope living on the rez. The issues he faces and the almost-normalness of his life makes Junior so perfect as a protagonist that students can connect with.

The biggest theme in the book, for me, was the focus on race and the magnified differences between whites and First Nations. Throughout the story, Junior details the differences between life on the rez and life for the rich white kids he ends up going to school with. He talks about the lack of hope for the future on the rez and a life full of dreams and future prospects inside the white high school. He talks about the challenges of being the only aboriginal kid in a school where the only other First Nations person is the school’s mascot. And he describes the very heavy and heartbreaking issue of alcoholism on the rez, with some very sad results sprinkled throughout the story. Alexie deals with all these issues with great control and is able to show how damaging racism can be, but also how they can become non-issues with the right people.

Like I said, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the best YA books I have ever read. It provides a great balance of relatability and comedy, of heartbreak and hopefullness. I have used this book in my class for silent reading and most students have really enjoyed it. There is easily enough depth to this novel to dive deep into it for Lit Circles as well, and a fellow teacher used it last year in his First Peoples English class. This book is great for students in grade 9 or higher, due to some PG-13 situations and humour that Junior uses, but I plan on using it this year in my classes. For Lit Circles, I would pair this book with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, as they all deal with fitting in to a new culture or dealing with race or gender separation. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fantastic story of challenging the expectations of those around you and overcoming the obstacles that life throws in your way, all with an immense sense of humour.

Super Human

Super Human

“Right now, Roz Dalton despised the ‘one thing at a time’ limitation on her telekinesis. If she’d been able to control more than one object, she might have had a chance to get away. Instead, she’d been captured.” – Michael Carrol

A worldwide plague has begun spreading, endangering the existence of the human race. But it seems as though only adults are being hit by this flu that is slowly spreading around the world. A sinister group known as The Helotry is immune to this disease and attempting to use it to their advantage. Are they the culprits behind the outbreak? What is their plan? And, if all of the adult super humans are sick, who is going to stand against them? Michael Carrol’s Super Human is a superhero comic without the comic, a thrilling story of a patched together team of teens who try to find a cure for the sickness and stop The Helotry. They are underdogs, trying to prove themselves in a society that is surrounded by super heroes. Carrol borrows ideas from other stories, such as the threat of the end of humanity, the loss of all parents, and a nod to super heroes of old, to put together his fast-paced adventure that focuses on three super humans, Thunder, who manipulates sound waves, Abby, who has super speed and strength when using metal, Roz Dalton, a professional super hero who has telekinesis, and Lance, a regular teen human who is a bit of a thief and con artist. It is their story that the reader follows, with occasional snippets of story from the villains’ perspective.

While Super Human is a super hero story, it is not as shallow as some would assume. The idea of prejudice is quite strong in the story, with the teens being underestimated by adults early in the story, and some infighting between Lance and Thunder based on class, race, and human/super human issues. The way that Carrol uses these themes is not heavy-handed, but he uses it to develop his characters’ motivation. However, there is nothing new in these concepts either. I guess it is just good to have teens thinking about these issues on a regular basis, so the more they encounter them in literature, the more they will keep it in their minds. This isn’t that new for the super hero world though, as many graphic novels and comics are dealing with deeper issues more and more as they become more culturally relevant. There are many Marvel and DC stories that have dealt with big issues like these, such as the prejudice constantly seen in the X-Men comics.

I found the pacing of Super Human to be quite good, although I wasn’t always feeling like I needed to keep turning the page. Carrol does a good job of leaving cliffhangers at the end of his chapters, but the jumping back and forth between characters that so many people are using now was a bit distracting and pulled me away from the action sometimes. One thing that Carrol did well was slowly leaking the answers to mysteries in the story. It kept me in the action and made me want to know more about how he was going to weave all of the different stories together. Most teens who enjoy comic books and superheroes would probably enjoy this one, as it does a good job of describing the action scenes and pushes the pace of the story well.

I have to say that Super Human is not my favourite superhero story, but it is better than some of the books from the I Am Number Four series. The story is fast and action-packed, but it is a bit violent, so I would suggest this be used for grade 8 students or above. I would also say that the lack of depth in the story would lead me to not suggest it as a Lit Circle book, but it would work just fine as a silent reading story. If I had to suggest some books to pair it for Lit Circles, I would use Michael Grant’s Gone, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, or Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin, as they either have super heroes, missing parents/adults, or teens forced to take on more responsibility than they normally would. Super Human is an interesting story that will draw in students who are drawn in by superheroes or fast-paced adventure.

Paper Towns

PaperTowns

“Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.” – Quentin Jacobsen

Everyone loves a good mystery. I don’t say that as merely an intro to draw you in, I mean that as an actual fact. Agatha Christie is the world’s best-selling author and what was her subject matter? Oh right, she wrote mystery novels. Like I said, mystery novels, everyone loves them. So when Quentin Jacobsen, the main character of Paper Towns, has his next door neighbor leave a mystery in his hands to try and track her down, he dives headlong into the search. Margo Roth Spiegelman was always a fascination for Quentin. Living next to each other their whole lives lead Quentin to fall head over heels in love with Margo and, even though she was unattainable for him, he always kept an eye on her. So when she shows up in his bedroom in the middle of the night to take him on an adventure full of risk and revenge, he is swept away, overcoming his nervous hesitation to follow the girl of his dreams. But, once Margo disappears and Quentin begins to search for her, he learns more and more about this girl he loved, seeing the true Margo Roth Spiegelman hidden underneath a suburban facade.

Paper Towns is a novel of discovery and John Green has crafted some very intriguing characters with depth. Instead of the usual bildungsroman story of the protagonist’s struggle to find self, Quentin actually spends more time trying to discover who Margo is than he does himself. Green has made Margo into an enigma, on the outside, she is a bubbly popular high school senior, but underneath that faux high school sheen is a complicated girl seeking attention. As Quentin discovers more about her, he learns the deeper hidden truths of who Margo Roth Spiegelman really is. This journey is quite interesting, because as he discovers more about her, he discovers more about himself. He begins to understand where he stands in the high school echelon of people, as well as where he stands as a risk taker and as a planner for the future.

In the end, Paper Towns is a story of relationships that touches on themes of parental neglect and a need for attention, the discovery of love and the strengthening of friendships. The cast of characters that are Quentin and his friends show their differences, but also show how they must rely on each other to survive. The comparison of Quentin’s healthy relationship with his parents and Margo’s broken one with hers highlights the need for a strong family connection that is based on trust and respect. Green has done a wonderful job of placing these characters in a story that allows them to each be unique, but remain vital to the telling of the story and the interconnectedness of the relationships.

If it was not clear yet, I really enjoyed Paper Towns. There were some laugh out loud moments and Green’s jokes fit my humor well, which means there were some somewhat childish jokes that Quentin and his friends rattled off. This is also one of the reasons why I would recommend it only for grades 11 and 12 because there is some string language and some silly, but inappropriate moments in the story. The coming-of-age story combined with the stories of relationships make it an engaging read that students could dig into. It may also spur students to explore new music and poetry, as older writers are mentioned in the story. As for Lit Circles, I would pair it with Laura Halse Andersen’s Twisted, Green’s own Looking for Alaska, or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as they all deal with the coming-of-age story but each follows a unique path to self-discovery. Paper Towns is one of John Green’s best novels and a great read for fans of mysteries.