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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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

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“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.

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.

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.

I Am Number Four

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“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.