Where I Belong

When I first became an elementary school librarian, I figured out pretty quickly that Mary Downing Hahn was the go-to author for scary stories. I guess that’s why the book I finished last night surprised me a bit. While parts of Where I Belong are horrific, it’s not the scary book I typically expect from this author. Oddly enough, some of my students who have no problem with ghosts, gore, or stuff like that find a few of the situations in this book a little too disturbing. It kind of makes me evaluate what really frightens people.

Brendan Doyle expects people to be mean to him. It’s pretty much all he’s known. Abandoned by his mother when he was little, Brendan has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. His current foster mom, Mrs. Clancy, doesn’t know what to do with him, and his teachers seem to feel the same way. Brendan doesn’t care much about school, so he doesn’t see why he should even try to pass the sixth grade. He doesn’t want to go to middle school anyway.

As for relating to other kids, he doesn’t. Brendan hasn’t a friend in the world, and he spends much of his time alone. He’s bullied by other kids and by a trio of ruffians who delight in terrorizing everyone they meet.

Brendan finds some measure of peace in his books, art, and visiting the forest nearby (which he’s sure is enchanted). One day, after building a private treehouse in the woods, Brendan meets an old man. He’s convinced this guy is the Green Man, the protector of the forest. Brendan looks to the Green Man as an ideal, someone to aspire to. Maybe he can escape real life and live in the forest someday, too.

Back in the real world, sixth grade is over, and Brendan is now attending summer school. He’s not enthused, even with a decent teacher and a possible friend, a girl named Shea. Shea follows him around–even when he tells her to get lost–and just will not allow him to ignore her. Almost against his will, the two become friends, and they find common ground in their love of fantasy, the forest, and family lives that aren’t so great. Shea even convinces Brendan to try a little harder at school so that she’ll have a friend in middle school. Maybe things are beginning to up for Brendan.

Unfortunately, things don’t stay so great for long. Once again, Brendan becomes the victim of the three hooligans who have given him a hard time before. This time, though, they take things a step or two further. Brendan wonders why the Green Man, guardian of the forest, doesn’t come to help him. He feels lost, broken, and alone, and he doesn’t know what to do.

But Brendan is not alone. He has Shea. He has the Green Man (who has a story all his own). He has his summer school teacher. He even has Mrs. Clancy. With their help, maybe he can find some hope. He may even find the courage to stand up to his tormentors and see justice done.

Soon, Brendan will discover that hope and friendship can overcome even the darkest times, and he’ll finally find out where he belongs.


I think I’ve made this book sound pretty good (not to pat myself on the back or anything). It is good, but I didn’t like as much as I wanted to–as much as I usually like Mary Downing Hahn books. I did cry at the end, so I was invested emotionally. I guess that’s something, but I much prefer Hahn’s spooky stories. I’m betting my students will feel the same.

Some of the situations Brendan finds himself in are, in my view, a bit too gritty for most elementary school kids. I’m thinking specifically of his run-ins with the three ruffians mentioned in my synopsis above. I think the book as a whole is fine for mature 4th/5th graders or middle school students, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a lot of my younger or less mature students. I just don’t think they’re developmentally ready for some of what Brendan encounters. (Feel free to disagree in the comments.)

For more information on Where I Belong and other books by Mary Downing Hahn, visit the author’s website.

 

Bone Gap

I finished reading Bone Gap by Laura Ruby a couple of days ago, and I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. It was beautifully written, kind of creepy, and kept me guessing, but I don’t know that it was one of my favorite books. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I’m writing this post.

The people of Bone Gap don’t know what happened to Roza, a young woman who left the town as mysteriously as she entered it. Maybe she went back to Poland. Maybe she left for greener pastures. Maybe she just had enough of living with the O’Sullivan brothers. Or maybe the younger brother, Finn, had something to do with her disappearance. No one knows the truth, but they’re not really looking for Roza, either.

Well, no one except Finn.

Finn O’Sullivan knows that Roza was taken by a strange man, but nobody believes him. Finn can’t recall what the man looks like, just how he moves. Finn looks for the man everywhere he goes, and he catches glimpses of him a couple of times, but the people of Bone Gap continue to think that he’s making up a crazy story.

Even Finn’s big brother Sean, the guy who was probably closest to Roza, refuses to believe Finn, and the situation is driving the brothers apart. Only Petey, a girl with her own experiences with Bone Gap’s rumor mill, seems to believe Finn. She eventually comes to realize that maybe there’s a reason why Finn can’t remember what Roza’s abductor looks like.

As for Roza, she is being held captive by a man who wants to make her his. This man has been obsessed with Roza for a long time, and he gives her everything she could possibly need…except her freedom. Roza wonders if anyone is looking for her or even cares what happened to her. She searches for ways to escape her situation, but all seems lost…

…or is it?

How can Roza flee from a man so powerful that even the dead obey his commands? Can Finn find a way to save Roza even though everyone around him thinks he’s crazy…or worse? Whatever happens, what will it mean for the O’Sullivan brothers, Roza, Petey, and the people of Bone Gap?

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I don’t know if I’ve made it clear here, but Bone Gap has a bit of magical realism in it. It’s rather subtle in the beginning, but it’s more and more evident the longer you read. I guess maybe I wasn’t expecting the mystical elements of the book, and that’s why I’m not sure how I feel about it. Truthfully, even though I love books with magic in them, I would have liked this book more if there had been a more realistic explanation of Roza’s disappearance and several other occurrences in Bone Gap. (I know I’m probably in the minority on this. That’s fine with me.)

Bone Gap is a good addition to libraries that serve young adult and adult readers. I think it may be a little too deep for younger readers (and some older readers, to be honest). There’s also some mature content that could keep it out of middle school collections.

Bone Gap was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, so that might tell you a little about the quality of this book. (If you’re curious, the winner of this year’s prize went to Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to get to it eventually.)

If you’d like more information about Bone Gap and other works by Laura Ruby, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Tumblr. I also found a book trailer for Bone Gap on YouTube. It captures the mood of the book fairly well.

 

The Fall

It seems fitting that a book like The Fall should be released during National Suicide Prevention Month. This latest book from James Preller is out today, and it takes a look at one boy’s reaction to a classmate’s suicide.

While The Fall is a quick read, I think it forces readers to examine their own actions and reactions to things that are happening in schools, on social media, and everywhere in between. If this book can help just one person to be a little kinder, then it’s done its job.

When Morgan Mallen jumped off the town water tower, Sam was forced to take a long, hard look at himself and his actions (or inactions, as the case may be). Everyone knew that Morgan had been bullied relentlessly at school and online. Even Sam participated. What everyone didn’t realize was that Sam knew Morgan. He was perhaps one of her only friends.

Why, then, did Sam take part in tormenting Morgan even though he knew it was wrong? Why didn’t he want anyone to know they hung out? Was he partly to blame for her suicide, and could he have done anything to prevent it?

Sam explores his friendship with Morgan and the aftermath of her suicide through writing in a journal. He’s brutally honest with himself about his relationship with Morgan, his own weaknesses, and his part in this tragedy.

Sam knows that he wasn’t the only one making Morgan unhappy–and on some level, he realizes that Morgan’s decision was her own–but he’s struggling with all of the events that led up to that fateful day. Why was she bullied in the first place? Could anything have stopped Morgan from ending her life? Why did she feel she had no other option?

As Sam works through his feelings and all of the questions plaguing him, he comes to understand that, even though he can’t change what happened with Morgan, he can change his own behavior. He can do whatever possible to somehow make amends. He can confront those who were the worst offenders and own up to his own mistakes. And he can try to be kinder to everyone around him. After all, no one really knows what demons someone is battling. A little bit of kindness could make all the difference in the world.

_______________

I think The Fall and other books on the subjects of suicide and bullying are vitally important to young people (and even adults). These books make us examine what we say and how we act toward others. We really never know how one cruel or kind word can impact the people around us.

I would pair The Fall with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why to give a gritty glimpse at the aftermath of a person’s suicide. Some parents may not be entirely comfortable with the subject matter, but it’s something that will likely touch their children in some way. I’d much rather a young person explore this topic through fiction than have to face the horrible reality. (A friend of mine committed suicide when I was in the 8th grade. It would have been nice if I’d had a book that let me know that I was not alone.) For that reason, I would recommend this book for libraries that serve both middle grade and teen readers.

For those who’d like to learn more about The Fall, visit author James Preller’s website. And if you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help. Talk to someone–a parent, a friend, a guidance couselor, a librarian, a religious leader, someone. Go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or It Get’s Better. You are not alone, and things will get better.

 

Butter

I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life, so it’s often difficult for me to read what I’ve dubbed “fat kid fiction.” Usually, these books are about overweight girls who are desperate to lose the pounds to please some guy, and, miracle of miracles, they do it. They make it look easy. (It’s not.) Well, that’s where Butter, a 14-15 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominee by Erin Jade Lange, changes things up a bit.

First of all, Butter is about a guy. He receives the nickname Butter in the cruelest of circumstances, but he kind of takes it on as his own personal banner. Secondly, he’s not all that eager to change his ways. Food is his comfort in a world that would like to pretend he doesn’t exist. Sure, he’d love to win the heart of the prettiest girl in school, but losing the weight to do it just isn’t possible. Finally, when Butter actually makes a plan to shake things up, losing weight isn’t part of the equation. Losing his life, however, is.

After some particularly upsetting comments on an online forum, Butter decides that it’s time to do something to really get everyone’s attention. He vows to eat himself to death on New Year’s Eve. He doesn’t know exactly how things will play out, but Butter doesn’t expect his classmates to cheer him on. All of a sudden, he’s Mister Popular, and everyone wants to know what his “last meal” will be.

Butter isn’t prepared for his new-found popularity, and he wonders if these people–many of whom made fun of him in the past–are really his friends and how they’ll react if he decides not to go through with his plan. Do any of them really care that he’s essentially planning his suicide while they watch?

Butter is at war with himself. Should he go through with his morbid plans, end his suffering, and become a local legend? Or should he finally seek out help? Will anyone speak up for him when things begin to snowball out of control, or is Butter truly on a collision course with death?

_______________

So, I finished this book on Saturday, and I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about it. In many ways, it hit too close to home. (No, I’m not going to end it all because I’m fat…but I can see where Butter is coming from.) It’s not easy to live in a world where people either stare or pretend you’re invisible solely because of your size. It’s not easy to hear the taunts or loud-enough-to-hear whispers that you should just stay home or do something about your weight. News flash: It takes a long time to put on weight. It can take even longer to take it off. These things don’t happen in an instant…no matter what other books may want people to believe.

Aside from Butter’s struggles, I’m also unsure how I feel about his so-called “friends.” These people were basically cheering for him to die. I understand morbid curiosity. All of us have rubber-necked at the scene of a car accident. But to place bets on a guy’s last meal or if he’ll go through with killing himself? I like to think most teens–most people–are above that. (Having worked with people of all ages, though, I know that’s not always the case.) It was hard to read these scenes with Butter and the popular kids knowing that they were only interested in him as long as he was planning to commit suicide. Butter knew what was going on, but the starvation for some kind of connection–with someone or something other than food–was so keen that he just couldn’t back out of his foolish plan and really get some help.

I don’t want to say too much more for fear that I’ll give away what happens in this book. I will say, though, that Butter is definitely a book that makes the reader think. What would you do if you were Butter? What would you do if you saw his plan plastered on a website? Were there signs of trouble that people–mainly adults–around Butter missed? Why is it still acceptable in our society for people to be judged based solely on their size? If you know the answer to that last question, I’m all ears…

For more information on Butter and author Erin Jade Lange, you can go to the author’s website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Facebook. You may also want to check out the book trailer from Bloomsbury Kids below.

Brutal Youth

Brutal Youth. The title of this book could not be more fitting. It just about cured me of any desire to ever work in a high school again. This intense story by Anthony Breznican paints a vivid picture of some of the most horrible teenagers, teachers, and parents to ever step foot in a school. Yeah…it’s that bad.

Brutal Youth is by no means a bad book. It’s actually a stellar piece of work, but it is often very upsetting…which is why it took me nearly two months to read it. I started reading it in July–when I was trying to gear up for another school year–and it started to color my feelings about going back to work, even though I work in an elementary school. For that reason, I had to put it aside until I felt prepared to handle what I was reading. Finally, this past weekend, I was ready, and I quickly reentered the disturbing world of St. Michael the Archangel High School.

Peter Davidek didn’t exactly want to attend St. Mike’s, especially after the incident on the roof during his introductory tour. A kid who’d been bullied relentlessly snapped and unleashed his wrath on the entire school. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the school.

Somehow, Peter ended up at St. Michael the Archangel High School even after the horrible event he witnessed in the spring. Now, he’s a freshman, and it doesn’t take long for him to realize that this school is much worse than he ever could have envisioned.

Most of the teachers simply don’t care. The guidance counselor is a hateful woman who seems to delight in others’ misery. The parish priest would like nothing more than for the school to close (and he’s got his own shameful reasons for that). Even the few adults who aren’t totally wretched seem to be hiding something.

If the teachers are bad at St. Mike’s, the students are worse. Hazing runs rampant, and the adults turn a blind eye for the sake of “tradition.” Freshmen are tortured, humiliated, and abused daily…all for the sake of the enjoyment of the upperclassmen (and some of the faculty), and some kids are willing to do just about anything to keep from becoming targets.

Peter sees all of this going on around him, and he tries to avoid trouble, but it usually seems to find him. It doesn’t really help that his best friend, Noah Stein, does his level best to antagonize everyone around him…making him a target that most of the school would like to take out. Peter has also unknowingly befriended the school’s most notorious pariah…and that puts Peter in a spotlight he never wanted.

This year at St. Mike’s will show Peter Davidek the absolute worst of humanity. He’ll see friends driven mad by the actions of sadistic bullies. He’ll see a girl he once liked become someone he’d do anything to avoid. He’ll see the appeal in getting revenge on those who oppress others. Peter will learn so much about himself and the world around him…and some of those lessons will be horrid and eye-opening.

How will this brutal year change Peter? Will he retreat into his own mind, or will he use what happens to grow stronger? I’ll leave that for you to discover…

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I’m the first to admit that my own high school experiences were sometimes not great. If it hadn’t been for the band, I would have done my level best to graduate early. (I was the nerdy, fat girl who wore braces, glasses, and played the tuba. It’s something of an understatement to say that I was the target of bullies.) My experiences now seem like nothing after reading Brutal Youth.

The people in this book were absolutely awful, and very few of the characters had redeeming value. Even the characters I sort of liked did things that made me shake my head. The bullying scenarios in this book take torture to a whole new level and exhibit cruelty that I hope to never see. And I’m not just talking about kid-on-kid violence here, although that was bad enough. Teachers bullied teachers, the priest bullied everybody, and parents bullied their kids. No one escaped torment.

With a title like Brutal Youth, one might think that this is most definitely a YA book. I would have to disagree. In my opinion, this is an adult book with young adult characters. Quite frankly, some teens won’t be able to handle this book. (Profanity, while true to the story, is abundant, there’s quite a bit of violence, and the book contains pretty frank talk of sexual situations. It’s an upsetting, disturbing book that could contain some triggers for those who have been severely bullied or abused.)

Other teen readers, though, will find kindred spirits in Peter Davidek, Noah Stein, and other “poor, unfortunate souls.” Sadly, they’ll identify with those who are bullied the worst, and Brutal Youth may give them a voice for expressing their feelings (though not in the way some people expressed themselves in the book, I hope).

Adults who read this book may find themselves reflecting–either positively or negatively–on their own high school experiences, and this could lead them to examine how “tradition” often fuels oppressive or aggressive behaviors.

Speaking (or writing) as an adult reader, I have to say that, while I was horrified by the actions of the kids in Brutal Youth, I was even more perturbed by what I saw of the adults. Which is worse: bullying someone to the point of violence, or turning a blind eye when it happens in front of you? Most of the adults in this book were guilty of the latter, and that can be viewed more harshly than the actual act of bullying. Kids at least have an excuse. They’re stupid sometimes, and their brains aren’t fully developed. What excuse do the adults have? Spite, jealousy, self-preservation? Is any excuse even valid here? I honestly don’t think so.

Well, I think I’ve said enough for one post. (Bullying is kind of a hot-button issue with me, so we’re lucky I’ve limited myself so much.)

If you’re looking for an intense, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking read, I suggest you give Brutal Youth a try. It’s not exactly an easy read, but it’s worth the time you put into it.

For more information about Brutal Youth and author Anthony Breznican, click here. You can also connect with the author on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter.

*I received a free review copy of Brutal Youth through Goodreads First Reads.*

Jumped

As most people probably know, there are few books that I really despise.  I can say, with all honesty, that I hate most works by Charles Dickens (except A Christmas Carol).  I didn’t like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would rather cut grass than read It by Stephen King, and I find most westerns to be mind-numbingly boring.  Well, now I can add another book to the list of those which make me cringe:  Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia.

When I read the reviews and flap-copy for Jumped, I was interested in the premise:  Three girls with intertwined stories, and how one small action can balloon to impact lives forever.  The story revolves around an upcoming girl fight and whether or not one of the main characters should say anything to stop it.  When I actually sat down to read the book, however, I was less than interested.  It took me forever to get through it.  The book is only 168 pages, but it took me weeks to actually find the will to finish it.

None of the three main characters have redeeming qualities.  None of them learned anything from the eventual outcome of the book.  I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” several times throughout this book.  Now, some may think I’m being overly harsh, but Jumped definitely didn’t meet my standards for quality young adult fiction.

Burn

In Suzanne Phillips’ Burn, Cameron Grady endures the torture that is high school.  He is a freshman and small for his age.  This makes him a target for Rich Patterson and his henchmen.  Cameron endures vicious bullying, and no one steps in to stop anything.  He feels like he can’t talk to anyone about it.  He is angry all the time, and the only thing that gives him a moment’s peace is fire.

After a particularly violent attack by Rich and his friend, where pictures of a naked Cameron end up on the Internet, Cameron snaps.   He does things that he knows are wrong, but he can’t seem to stop himself.  All he wants is a world where Rich is not there, and none of the bad things from the past year ever happened.  Will Cameron get his second chance, or will his actions burn his future to cinders?  Read Burn to find out.

If you haven’t figured it out already, this is not a happy book.  It’s dark, scary, and thought-provoking.  As someone who was bullied in middle and high school, I really related to the character of Cameron, and that in itself was difficult for me.  I know what it’s like to be scared to go to school or angry at the people who bullied me and others who stood by and let it happen.  I didn’t go to the lengths Cameron did, but I could have if I had not had the love and support of my family.  Burn is a great book for starting conversations about the consequences of bullying.  It happens more than people think, and everyone has to take steps to stop it.