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.

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Cinder

Cinder

“Even in the Future the story begins with Once Upon a Time.” – Marissa Meyer

Fairy tales are the stories many children are raised on. They are the narratives that they fall asleep to and influence their dreams. They have also had a huge influence on stories and writers for hundreds of years. But over the years, these stories have been altered to make them more culturally acceptable and less terrifying for the children who hear the stories. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder is one such story based off of the fairy tale Cinderella, although this is not a story for children, but for teens. It is set in the near future after World War IV, where very large and unified empires exist, technology is advanced and androids are a regular part of life. The story focuses on the title character Cinder, a cyborg who is hated by her stepmother and shunned by her society. Her job as a mechanic is the only income her family receives, but she is forced to give it all to her stepmother. She meets the prince and future emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth, Kai, in her job and so begins anything but an ordinary fairy tale story of love. Throughout the book, Kai and Cinder keep running into each other and Kai expresses his interest in Cinder, but she neglects to inform him of her cyborg nature due to the fear of being shunned. She spends the entire story hiding her mechanical limbs and keeping secrets from Kai.  While she longs to be honest with Kai and connect with him, she continuously pushes him away.

The theme of prejudice runs strong throughout the story, especially when Cinder has her encounters with her stepmother Adri and stepsister Pearl. They show little care for Cinder and use her as more of a slave than a family member. Even the fellow shop owners at the market who know Cinder’s secret try to keep their distance. The prejudice that the culture shows towards cyborgs is even more ingrained because, when a disease begins ravaging the empire, a cyborg lottery is started where random cyborgs are brought in to scientists as guinea pigs to experiment on to find a cure. This prejudice is what keeps Cinder from revealing her secret to Kai and what creates a feeling of “otherness” in Cinder’s character. She feels like an outsider in her society and it is what drives her to try and escape from her family and start a new life with a rebuilt car she finds at the dump.

While the Cinderella adaptation is fairly well done, and Meyer mixes in the tropes of the Cinderella story fairly well into the story, in the end, it is a very predictable story. Meyer lays on the foreshadowing pretty thick and I knew what was going to happen in the story by the time Meyer revealed her first piece of foreshadowed story in the third chapter. Now that may be due to the fact that I often am analyzing stories and the fact that I read a lot of stories, so that may not be an issue for students. I think the heavy use of foreshadowing can be good for some students, as it provides them an opportunity to predict what is going to happen. Students who have inexperience with the concept of foreshadowing will be able to pick up on it well and have things to discuss in class and in their written responses.

While I did not overly enjoy Cinder, I think it definitely has its uses within Lit Circles. It has a strong theme about prejudice and the characters have enough depth to dig into them a bit. The foreshadowing is also helpful for students, although the story is quite predictable for more seasoned readers. I would recommend this book for grade 9 and higher, although strong younger readers could tackle the story as well. If I were to use this with Lit Circles, I would pair it with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies or Leviathan, or Ally Condie’s Matched, because these books all deal with some sort of prejudice and even covering up or lying to stay safe. Cinder is an adapted fairy tale for fans of futuristic fiction and unrequited love stories.

Eragon

Eragon cover

“It’s amazing that a man who is dead can talk to people through these pages. As long as this book survives, his ideas live.” – Eragon

One thing I think a lot of people dream of when they are children is having some sort of mythological creature as a pet. Whether it is a unicorn, griffin, or pegasus, many a child longs for a magical beast that could ferry them through the sky or protect them from their bullies. For me, that beast was a dragon. I mean come one, who wouldn’t want to be able to ride a dragon, with its powerful wings, intimidating jaws, and flaming breath. There is even a movie depicting children training dragons to be their pets. In Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, one lucky teen gets the chance to fulfill that dream. Eragon, the title character, is a 15 year old orphan, living with his uncle in a small town on the outskirts of Alagaësia. While hunting in the mountains, he finds a beautiful stone that in time he discovers to be a dragon egg. He makes a connection with the dragon, who is much more intelligent than most dragons portrayed in Hollywood films. Eragon names her Saphira and they form a deep bond as they struggle to hide Saphira’s presence from Eragon’s family and the local populace. In the end, the evil king Galbatorix’s minions, the Ra’zac, are sent to retrieve the egg, and in the process murder Eragon’s uncle. This leads to Eragon going on a quest for revenge, taking Brom, the local storyteller with an inordinate amount of knowledge of dragons, with him.

Eragon does a very good job of creating setting in the story. Reminiscent of Tolkien or even Steinbeck, Paolini spends plenty of words describing the setting of the book. With vast landscapes and varied cities and villages, Paolini does a good job of painting a picture of Alagaësia for the reader. This can be very useful for students who struggle to create the images in their minds, or those who love a well-developed setting. Again, much like Tolkien, Paolini invested a huge amount of time in creating the cultures and languages of the peoples of Alagaësia. Using old languages and myth to help him, he created languages for the elves, dwarves, and even an ancient magical language for Eragon to learn while wielding magic. The story is filled with a history that is slowly doled out to the reader as Eragon discovers it himself, making lovers of fantasy history turn the page to find out what they will learn next.

The problem with Eragon is that it lacks substance. While Paolini is very good at painting a picture and creating a backstory for his world, he is not as strong in creating a deep meaning behind his character’s actions. Eragon seems to be driven by a basic need for revenge, not necessarily the most heroic endeavor. And while he does try to show his hatred for the evils in his world, such as slavery or poverty, the motivations he shows lack conviction. There are no big topics tackled, and no great changes come to those who read it, but it is an engaging novel that was fairly entertaining throughout.

I would have a hard time suggesting that this book be used in a Lit Circles setting. With so little substance, students would find it hard to write responses that carried depth. However, I do think this is a great novel for students who enjoy fantasy stories for silent reading. Paolini has a strong vocabulary and will engage students who enjoy reading, but the over-descriptive nature of the prose will probably ward of struggling readers. I would recommend it for grade 10 and higher, although strong younger readers could tackle the story as well. If I were to use this with Lit Circles, I would pair it with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice Series, mostly for the descriptive similarities and fantasy-based content. Eragon is a fantastical story of a young man and a dragon on an adventure to change their world and is a great story for fans of the fantasy genre.

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone

“When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” – Ishmael Beah

One of the most frustrating things about being a teacher in North America is the amount of entitlement I see in my students on a daily basis. I see it in the uproar they create when I confiscate their phones, the malaise they show when they are reprimanded for handing an item in late, or the outright expectation that in the end their work ethic, or lack thereof, will not affect whether or not they are successful at completing school. As both a Social Studies and English teacher, I like to challenge my students’ world view and prod at the comfortable little bubble they reside in. Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone, is an extremely effective tool in bursting the comfortable bubble that some students live in. Beah’s book is a powerful memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, the struggle to survive the civil war and avoid capture, the internal battle over remorse when performing his “military duties”, and the recovery process he underwent to become normalized again. It is heart wrenching, and eye opening. It gives a very personal glimpse into what is going on outside of this sheltered continent called North America.

It is a fantastic bubble-burster because students read the book and see first-hand the struggles that people in the developing world must endure. The book highlights the resiliency of children to overcome great odds when faced with challenges, and shows that the grit we try to instill in them is not a lost cause, but training for the challenges they will face in life. This is not to say that our students will endure similar hardships to Ishmael, but that perhaps they will face those challenges with more optimism and a stronger work ethic, because, if a boy like Ishmael can overcome what life threw in his path, should not any human be able to take on the problems they may face with courage?

The theme that was impressed upon me the most while reading Beah’s story was the brittle nature of humanity. Early in the story, Ishmael’s innocence is taken from him because of turmoil in his country. Instead of enjoying his adolescences, he is forced to run for his life, lose contact with family members, and generally have his life turned upside down.  Once he is picked up by the government’s army at the age of 13, he is forced to commit terrible acts and his humanity increases to deteriorate. His life in the army breaks him down, and once he is rescued, it takes significant help to try and fix what his experiences ruined. A Long Way Gone highlights the tenuousness of our humanity and how extreme situations can debase it and cause us to succumb to our baser instincts. It is even more powerful because it is not some fictional interpretation of the story, but Beah’s actual account of events he had to endure.

With so much to be able to dig into, I would highly recommend this book to be used for Lit Circles. It will give students so many things to think critically about, challenge their world view, and force them to dig into a wolrd outside of their comfort zone. The prose is not overly challenging, although the content can be fairly sad and brutal, so I would say this is a book for grade 10 and up. Much like my last review, World War Z, one of the strongest themes in A Long Way Gone is humanity and the human reaction to challenge. I would pair this book with Max Brooks’ World War Z or Pat Barker’s Regeneration, as they again all deal with the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war, or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner because of the brokenness of childhood and the recovery process involved. A Long Way Gone is a brokenly fantastic story of overcoming extreme hardships, and the resiliency of humanity.

World War Z

World War Z Cover

“The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. “Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” [Effin’] A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells.”

Historical fiction is often an interesting genre for literature. Basing a story in a past and playing with the history a bit, perhaps manipulating it to fit the story, an author can create a beautiful story that the reader can relate to. These books may bring accounts of real life situations into the story and can be told from the perspective of those in the heat of the battle. In my opinion, Max Brooks’ World War Z is a piece of historical fiction, albeit a fictitious history. World War Z is an oral history of the zombie apocalypse on earth, told from the perspective of survivors from around the world. It is a very intriguing book, as it details the story of the outbreak of a zombie plague that surrounds the world and how each area of the world dealt with each phase of the plague’s spreading and ultimate defeat.

Using multiple perspectives on similar events makes a fantastic story weaved together with elegance. Brooks uses several different voices that each present haunting stories that reveal government cover ups, issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and lost loved ones. But Brooks also includes the beauty in humanity, with stories of collaboration, grit in the face of adversity, and hope for the future. It is a story with many themes and many angles that provides several different ways a teacher could employ it in their classroom. And the way that Brooks weaves it all together from an oral-historical perspective, makes World War Z a unique story of survival.

The unique way in which World War Z is told makes in an extremely engaging story. The interviewer/interviewee style makes it feel like the stories coming from the people are real, instead of just some fictitious story. However, there is some strong language and some haunting scenes  in this book and I would only recommend this book for grade 12 students. The most apparent theme, humanity and the human reaction to challenge, is very compelling and harkens back to books like Lord of the Flies or 1984. It is a book with many different themes and ideas so it leaves many opportunities for students to provide written responses. I would pair this book with Pat Barker’s Regeneration, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or Timothy Findley’s The Wars, as they all deal with PTSD, the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war. World War Z is one of the most creative zombie apocalypse books I have ever read and it is an extremely engaging read.

I Am Number Four

I-Am-Number-Four

“I am an alien, I have extraordinary powers, with more to come, and I can do things that no human would dream of, but I still look like a fool.”– John Smith

Super heroes, they are a staple of American pop culture. The last ten years or so have seen an explosion of super hero enthusiasm, with the relaunching of comic book series, several super hero Hollywood films, and the veritable slew of products that come from these films. Most people love the idea of super heroes, people gifted with amazing abilities that allow them to do incredible acts of bravery. These extraordinary powers are what James Frey & Jobie Hughes, who write the I Am Number Four series under the pseudonym Pittacus Lore, use to develop their lead character John Smith, or Number Four. John is a young alien from a planet called Lorien that was ravaged by another alien race known as the Mogadorians. John and eight other Lorics are chosen to continue their heritage and save their race by fleeing to earth. They are enchanted so that the Mogadorians, who have followed them to earth, must kill each Loric in order from One to Nine. These nine have been gifted with powers, known as Legacies, which do not manifest until around the age of puberty for humans. Each Loric must train so that one day they will be able to fight the Mogadorians and reclaim their planet.

Using the first-person narrative style, Frey & Hughes are able to get the reader inside the head of John Smith and have them follow the anxiety, fear, and lying that he must deal with on a daily basis. The reader quickly connects with John because of his loneliness and his inability to get close to teens his age and open up about his past. John and his Cepan, a father/guide figure, have constantly been on the run their whole lives, fearing discovery by the Mogs, so John has had a very stunted childhood. This is a very engaging aspect to the story, as the reader feels John’s pain, as many teens have dealt with the inability to fit in, to connect with others, or to open up to those around them. As John develops relationships with his friend Sam, a conspiracy theorist loner, and Sarah, John’s love interest, he begins to open up to them and trust humans for the first time. But this also leads to conflict between John and his Cepan, Henri, who does not trust easily. John goes through the familiar struggles of a teen, friction at home, rebellion, and the inevitable reconciliation, but it is this trope that helps make the story more engaging for teen readers.

Hope and trust are some of the significant themes that develop out of the story. It is the life of fear and lack of faith in those around them that lays the foundation for John and Henri to develop and change their attitudes over time, with John putting a lot of faith in those around him, including trusting his bully, Mark, from earlier in the story. The theme seems to say, you cannot trust everyone, but it is the friends in your life that are the ones you are meant to trust. It is the hope of someday making a difference for his planet that John continues to fight, and it is trust in his friends that allows him to survive the continued attacks of the Mogadorians.

I Am Number Four is a fast-paced, engaging story. The prose is not overly challenging, so struggling readers can follow the story fairly easily. I recommend it for grade 9 and up, and have used it with my students that are not overly excited about reading, and they have taken to the storyline. There is not a lot of deep content in the books, but there is good character development and enough meat to allow students to write meaningful responses. I would pair this book with Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or James Dashner’s Maze Runner, as all deal with the concept of the protagonist trusting those around them and developing that reliance on them to survive. It is a great book for those who love to live vicariously through the over-powered world of super heroes.

Ranger’s Apprentice Book One: The Ruins of Gorlan

Ranger's Apprentice Book 1

“People will think what they want to,” he said quietly. “Never take too much notice of it.”– Halt

When you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, you often hear similar responses, such as a policeman, a fireman, and, here in Canada especially, a hockey player. These children choose careers that are often idealized, jobs that are highly sought after, but very challenging. And over time, many of these children learn that the idealized careers of their childhood are not the ones they are best suited for. Will, the main character of John Flanagan’s first Ranger’s Apprentice novel, has a similar view of his impending career. He wishes to become a member of Battle school, to be trained as a warrior, but he is slight of stature and would struggle to survive the hardships of the school. However, Will is quick and agile, which allows him to move without being seen and climb to heights where no one seems to look. Although he longs to be a knight, he is not chosen to enter Battle school, but he does receive a warrior’s training as a Ranger’s apprentice, where he learns the art of stealth.

Will struggles with the realization that becoming a Ranger is a better fit for him. He had always seen himself as a warrior, and his constant battles with his fellow orphan and bully, Horace, had hardened his resolve to become one. But, as he develops under the tutelage of Halt, a Ranger with immense skill, he comes to understand why it is his destiny to become a Ranger, and why his skill set fits so perfectly in that role. His journey to that point, including the facing down of a charging wild boar, helped Will realize who he was and gave him the confidence to help Halt when they needed to stop a pair of monstrous beasts, known as the Kalkara, from assassinating members of the royal court.

Outside of Will’s bildungsroman development story, the issue of bullying is a strong component to the story, one that is great for teens to read about, even if they hear about it a lot in school. The interesting aspect to this story is that Horace, the bully for Will during his childhood, becomes the target of bullying once he enters Battle school. It is heartbreaking to witness the tortures that Horace must endure and the brokenness he feels inside from being rejected by his peers, but it is also so beautiful to see the redemption he receives when he and Will reconcile. Flanagan weaves an interesting story that allows for the reader to feel the pain of the former bully and see his emotional change over time.

This story is fairly accessible and I would easily offer it to grade 7 students and up. I have used it in my class this year with my grade 8s and have received fairly good feedback. In my personal opinion, I was not as engaged by the story as I have been by others recently, but I have also been told by some of my students that the series gets more engaging as the books move along. Thematically, I would pair it with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as they all deal with bullying and the need for the learning of a new career or skill. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy or medieval settings.