BookTalk: Rites of Passage

by Joan Knickerbocker

rites of passageAn adolescent girl with an absent father and a disinterested mother attempts to integrate into an all-male military academy that contains a secret society determined to keep out the first female cadets. The potential for Rites of Passage (2014), by Joy Hensley, to sink into a series of clichés and to read like a script for a made-for-television movie is often very close to the surface, but it never takes over the story. Some of the antagonists appear to be stock characters, but the true nature of many of the characters, especially the perceived enemies, isn’t revealed until the end of the novel.

The plot is fast-paced, and Hensley is deft at revealing essential bits of information at the exact moment the reader is wondering about a particular character or event. The writing style is straight forward and the vocabulary accessible. Sam McKenna is the daughter of a career officer and the sister of two military brothers. Her determination to attend the Virginia-based Denmark Military Academy and to succeed with a military career began with a dare from her now dead brother—she never could say no to a dare. However, the verbal and physical abuse Sam endures at the academy is intense.

“Turning worms into warriors” translates into constant physical and mental training for all the cadets, but Sam is singled out for extensive demeaning and abusive treatment. The hatred toward her, at first covert and whispered, intensifies as her excellent physical and mental abilities help her surpass several of her male counterparts. The attempts to force her to quit escalate to assault and attempted murder. She discovers that her enemies are situated in powerful positions, both in and beyond the academy. A coveted position in the secret and powerful Pandora Society is being offered to cadets who are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep DMA an all-male institution.

Sam comes to trust her assigned mentor, Reverend Cook, a long-time friend of her father, and she discovers she has allies in town: Jax, a girl who had been accepted at the DMA but chose not to attend, and Tim, a former close friend of her deceased brother. A brief romance begins between Sam and Tim’s younger brother, Drill, a cadet who wants to protect her. They both realize that a personal relationship would jeopardize their success at military school and their future careers. “Rank and duty would always get in the way.” The climax of the story is exciting; the resolution neatly answers remaining questions about the cadets and Sam’s family.

Rites of Passage touches on complex issues such as women and gays in the military, suicide, the abuse of power, and personal sacrifice. It is also about friendship and trust, courage and fear, and being strong. Hensley dedicated her novel “to our servicemen and women, and to all those who protect―because everyone deserves a fighting chance . . .” Rites of Passage is exciting, and at times intense.


Appropriate for high school and beyond

BookTalk: Seeing Red

by Joan Knickerbocker

seeing_red_coverSeeing Red (2013), by Kathryn Erskine, is set in Stony Gap, Virginia, 1972. Twelve-year-old Red, the narrator, explains that no one can understand unless it happens to them. When your daddy dies, everything changes. Red, his younger brother, J, and their mother are grieving, each in a personal and almost palpable way. J has reverted to acting like a baby, whining and demanding. His mom has turned into a kind of a zombie, wandering around the house. Red carries the burden of being the man of the house. He must not let his daddy down.

The Porters have always been the kind of people that other people count on. Red’s sense of himself and his heritage is based on the belief that his family, beginning with his great-great-granddaddy, Frederick Stewart Porter, for whom he is named, have always been good people, good neighbors, and honest businessmen. His people did what was right because it was right, and not because it was popular or easy. The sign above their car repair shop says “PORTER’S: WE FIX IT RIGHT!” As a mystery about his family’s past unfolds, the sign takes on a very different meaning for Red.

Red’s mama does not believe they can maintain their repair shop, convenience store, and house. The property is put on sale and the family is scheduled to move to Ohio to be near her relatives. Red is determined, almost obsessed, to stop the sale and in his attempts to thwart change, he makes several bad choices that result in actions that are illegal, immoral, and destructive. The novel takes place between late summer and Thanksgiving.

The story has many challenging. Their neighbor, Ray Dunlop, abuses his family. His son, Darrell, involves Red in a horrible act of brutality and racism. Rosie, the daughter, is a friend of Red’s and a recipient of Dunlop’s wrath. Miss Georgia is a 93-year-old African American who is a friend of Red’s and had been a friend of his father. Rosie knows the answer to the mystery Red is trying to solve. Beau, a loyal, 300-pound employee, considered mentally challenged by the townspeople, is often the voice of wisdom. Red’s life is changed by a new, politically liberal, history teacher, and her boyfriend, a big-city lawyer. Additional characters include a bigoted preacher, the local sheriff, a steadfast African American janitor, and Thomas, a former friend.

In addition to death and grief, and the inevitable change that comes after the loss of a loved one, Seeing Red is about familial abuse, hatred, bigotry, vigilantism, bullying, racism, the relationship of bullying and racism, women’s rights, the Vietnam War, the right to vote, the right to an education, and censorship. It is about the social issues and social change of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is probable that these important ideas would emerge from the plot, the interactions of the characters and from the limitations imposed by the small town, Southern setting. Unfortunately, Erskine occasionally takes a heavy hand with these matters. Several specific laws are explained and numerous individuals involved with civil rights are referred to and quoted. Change, both personal and historical, is mentioned frequently, to the point that the writing at times takes on a didactic tone and a reader may wonder if the author thought her middle-grade audience incapable of “getting it.” The novel begins with the epigraph: “Discover the past, understand the present, change the future.” In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, the author challenges readers, no matter their age, to change the wrongs of the world: “Be brave; be strong; be leaders….”

BookTalk: Rose Under Fire

by Joan Knickerbocker

rose_under_fire_coverIn Rose Under Fire (2013), Elizabeth Wein continues the chronicle of women, in particular, pilots and prisoners, portrayed in her World War II novel, Code Name Verity(2012) (reviewed here August, 2013). It isn’t necessary to read Code Name Verity before reading this companion piece; however, reconnecting with newlywed Maddie, an indomitable flyer and loyal friend, creates an immediate affinity for the narrator, Rose Justice. Rose, an eighteen-year-old American of German heritage, works as a transport pilot for the British.

The first part of the novel, “Southampton,” set in post D-Day England, begins following the funeral of Celia Forrester, the pilot of an unarmed Tempest. Forrester crashed as a result of intentionally hitting an oncoming pilotless bomb in order to ram it off its trajectory. The Allied Invasion is moving forward. Paris is free. Brussels is free. Rose’s next flight should have been relatively routine and it would have been, if she hadn’t encountered a “doodlebug” and if she hadn’t pushed her Spitfire to follow Celia’s example. Rose succeeds with her tartan and hits the bomb out of the air. Low on fuel, off course, and  spinning or circling in large ovals, Rose suddenly is aware that she has been intercepted by German planes.

Part 2, “Ravensbrück,” chronicles Rose’s imprisonment at the notorious German women’s concentration camp. There are inmates from many German-occupied countries; however, the majority of the women are Polish. The cruel treatment of the inmates is depicted honestly. They face starvation, disease, forced labor, brutality, filth, and constant and barbaric acts of murder. Ravensbrück was a center for medical experimentation. Few of these victims survived, and those who did most often suffered permanent damage. Several “Rabbits,” the victims of these procedures, are central characters in the novel. Rose’s fate is revealed early and although she suffers greatly, she is not subject to these medical atrocities.

Part 3 is titled “Nuremberg.” Following the war, Rose is asked to testify at the Ravensbrück Trial. Her fear of directly participating in someone’s death sentence keeps her from accepting. She decides a better way to tell her story is as a journalist for the magazine that published some of her poems. Several of the Rabbits are present and their individual accounts provide public exposure to their horrific stories and evidence of the war crimes committed against them.

The final page of Rose’s story is dated December 31, 1946. The author’s afterward, “Declaration of Causes” is an emotional explanation of the fact and the fiction of this story. Wein includes a bibliography of survivor accounts and a list of online sources that will be appreciated by readers and teachers. The real names of the women experimented on at Ravensbrück are written on the title and author pages. Rose Under Fire received the ALA 2013 Schneider Family Book Award in recognition of “artistic expression of the disability experience.”

The horrific stark reality of the historical setting and the compelling characters create a consuming story. Rose Under Firewill undoubtedly become part of the canon of young adult “holocaust literature.” Nonetheless, the writing style (a mix of journals, letters, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, camp songs, Rose’s original poetry—replete with explanations of rhyme scheme—and an ending framed around the metaphor of “Kite-Flying: Four Principles of Flight” written by Rose Justice) can be challenging and at times off-putting. Teacher guidance may be needed for many adolescents if they are to fully appreciate this work.

BookTalk: Maggot Moon

by Joan Knickerbocker

maggotmoon_coverBritish author Sally Gardner was awarded her homeland’s prestigious Costa Children’s Prize and The Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature for Maggot Moon. In the United States, Maggot Moon, published by Candlewick Press, was recognized as a 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book.

Standish Treadwell, the narrator, is a 15-year-old boy who has a learning disability. To him, words on the blackboard are “just circus horses dancing up and down.” Standish lives with his grandfather in Zone Seven, a place where chances of surviving could be ticked off, minute-by-minute, if anyone still had a watch. The short chapters, occasionally less than a page in length, punctuate the swiftness with which lives are forever changed. The narrative order is a bit chaotic, mimicking the abrupt jumps in Standish’s thoughts.

In this totalitarian regime, set in the 1950s, people are expected to click their heels together, arms out, shouting “Glory to the Motherland.” Mothers of Purity are rewarded for having large families and thereby populating the Motherland with pure and loyal citizens. Spies are everywhere. Standish’s parents have disappeared and his friend, Hector, has been gone three weeks. In Zone Seven there is no difference between disappearance and death. The horrific violence and insidious brutality of this totalitarian regime is explicitly described. Common forms of torture include cutting out tongues and chopping off fingers. A young boy laughs in class and is brutality beaten to death by a teacher. Julian Crouch’s flipbook-style illustrations of rats, flies, and maggots portray the ever present pestilence of the Motherland, vermin feeding off vermin.

Standish survives, in part because he is able to retreat to a world of imagination. Standish remembers from before the war, seeing the sun shine in Technicolor and people singing in the streets, even when it is raining. He and his friend Hector create a fantasy world on a planet he calls Juniper. The people who live there are kind, wise, and peaceful. On Juniper, it would be easy to tell who the aliens are. They would be the ubiquitous informers, the Greenflies, and the leather-coated men. If Standish could just get a message to Juniper they could be saved.

The Motherland is about to launch a rocket to the moon to demonstrate superiority and world domination. The fact that the science that would enable the manned rocket to successfully land on the moon does not yet exist, does not deter the Motherland. An elaborate hoax, a theatrical event of stupendous proportions, is put into play. The actors, scientists, construction workers, everyone involved in the fabricated event will be terminated upon completion of the broadcast. Standish knows of the lie that is about to be perpetrated on all of human kind–after all, the Moon Man is hiding in his basement.

Standish comments, “Such a cruel nation is the monstrous motherland. I’m amazed no one has risen up to throttle the bitch.” He remembers the ancient tale of a young boy confronting a giant with a stone. He considers it such a foolish idea that it might be foolproof. Armed only with the truth, Standish confronts the Goliath Motherland.

BookTalk: Navigating Early

by Joan Knickerbocker

navigatingearlyVanderpool, C. (2013). Navigating Early. New York: Delacorte Press, Random House.

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, is a deftly written adventure teeming with intriguing characters and exciting, often life-threatening action. It is also a tender portrayal of two boys coping with personal loss and feelings of abandonment. Intertwined with their story is the tale of Pi, an ancient navigator, who followed the stars to places yet to be discovered. Pi’s story foreshadows and guides the boys on their journey.

After the death of his mother, thirteen-year-old Jack Baker is placed in the boarding school closest to the Navy base in Maine where his father has been transferred, now that World War II is coming to an end. Jack meets Early Auden in his personal quarters, the custodian’s former workshop. Jack quickly realizes that Early is strange, but he can’t decide if he is “straightjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and put-bugs-in-your nose strange.” Early has specific rules that govern his life. Mozart is played only on Sundays. If it’s raining, and only when it is raining, he listens to Billie Holiday. Early sees numbers as shapes, colors, and textures. For him, the number one in pi (3.14…) is a mythological character, named Polaris. Polaris will be called Pi, his mother tells him, until he earns his full name.

Early informs Jack that during the next school break he is going on a quest to find the Great Appalachian Bear; to prove that there are timber rattlesnakes in Maine; and most important, to find Pi, who has lost his way. Jack decides to go along. As they travel through the forest, along rivers and trails, they encounter a one-eyed pirate, a self-exiled Norwegian, an aged woman alone in a cottage in the woods, a skeleton, a venomous snake, a large mother bear, and a soldier.

Jack explains in the epilogue that once he started to pay attention he noticed all kinds of crossings, intersections, and collisions. At well-chosen points in the story, flashbacks reveal Jack’s childhood in Kansas and the events that led to his strained relationship with his father. He often interprets what he is experiencing through his mother’s eyes and he quotes what she would have said in the situation. Early fills in missing pieces through his stories: the story of Pi, the stories behind the people they encounter, the story of his brother. A satisfying resolution is given for each character, including Jack and Early. As way of explaining the perhaps too-perfect happy endings, Jack remembers that his mother told him, “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload.”

Navigating Early will likely become a popular selection for middle grade classrooms. The characters are engaging, the plot fast paced, and the style worthy of close reading. Many older readers may also enjoy how the many characters and events, present and past, fit together. As Jack said, they just need to connect the dots.

BookTalk: Far Far Away

by Joan Knickerbocker

farfaraway_coverFar Far Away (2013), by Tom McNeal, is set in the seemingly uneventful and safe village of Never Better, somewhere in rural western America. The narrator of this contemporary tale is the ghost of Jacob Grimm, brother of Wilhelm, and collector of traditional tales. Jacob cannot leave the earthly world until he has completed his Zwischenraum and finds the thing that remains undone. Jeremy Johnson Johnson is the only person who can hear Jacob. Jeremy was abandoned by his mother, who left Never Better to find her happy-ever-after ending far, far away. He is neglected by his father, who found refuge from the world by shutting himself in his bedroom, leaving Jeremy to assume the adult responsibilities of the household. Jacob’s advice provides Jeremy with the guidance and companionship he greatly misses, yet occasionally ignores, since the loss of his grandfather.

Although Jeremy doesn’t know it, Jacob is searching for the Finder of Occasions, someone who moves freely about the village, watches and waits, and seeks to do harm. Jeremy’s ability to hear voices, know things most adolescents don’t, and speak in German (whispered to him by Jacob), marks him as the strange kid, an easy target for bullies and town officials.

Every fairy tale must have a love interest and in Far Far Away it is Ginger, a bright, spunky and thrill-seeking girl. Every tale must also have a villain, and the antagonist, Sten the Baker, would rival the most accomplished serial killer in stealth, cunning, and evil. Although children have been vanishing from Never Better for years, the townspeople have not connected the disappearance of these children and the strange green smoke that signals the baker has made his most delicious Prinsesstarta cakes.Every fairy tale must also have a happy endingHoweverthe requisite resolution in Far Far Away does not come until after a harrowing kidnapping, imprisonment, torture, and unexpected rescue.

The plot is exciting and many of the characters are not who they seem, creating a story of unexpected and often frightening twists and turns. However, it is the style of Far Far Away that distinguishes it from other fast paced mysteries for young adults. The first person narration by Jacob Grimm creates a connection to the history of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and subsequently to the genre of folk literature. Jacob’s own tale, told through flashbacks, elevates his character beyond that of storyteller to a fully developed and dynamic character that the reader cares about. Numerous folktales foreshadow events and through the ongoing intertextuality, the motives and psychology of a killer are revealed. Tom McNeal has written a book deserving of its recognition as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

McNeal, T. (2013). Far far away. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

BookTalk: Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am

by Joan Knickerbocker

mazer coverThe cover design, by Laurent Linn, of the 2013 Schneider Family Book Award winning novel by Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis shows a close-up of a man’s chest, clad in a green jacket, tee shirt exposed and metallic dog tags displaying the title of the book, Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am. The idea that the book is about a soldier is immediately apparent, and the book’s opening scene appears to jump into the action. At the sight of a knife coming out of the shadows Ben springs back and knocks his weapon into the dark. However, Ben isn’t on the battle field; he is on a stage practicing his lead role in West Side Story.

In this “Before” section of the story, Ben is finishing his senior year of high school. He is bright, talented, has a great girlfriend, a loyal best friend, and a loving family. His future is full of possibilities. Unknown to anyone, Ben has enlisted in the reserves. He has convinced everyone that he will not be going to war, and then the email comes. Ben is headed for Iraq.

The fighting scene at the beginning of the “During” section takes place on a convoy into the desert. The last thing Ben sees before the explosion is a child’s toy on the road. The description of the effects of the detonation of a mortar shell packed with screws, nails and bolts is realistically horrific. Ben’s body is intact, but as a result of the assault, Ben is diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

In the “After,” Ben faces the biggest battle of his life. His recovery is painfully depicted through his scribbles, his guttural utterances, and the frustration he experiences when he finally is able to partially comprehend, but can’t respond. Several chapters focus on his loved ones and how their lives are impacted by his injury, especially his inability to remember them or his past. Parallels are drawn between his struggles and those of his brother, Chris, who has autism. The cost, both literally and figuratively, of Ben’s recovery is immense.Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am ends with a sense of hope. Ben remembers who he is.

Mazer, well known for his novels about war, and Lerangis, author of more than 140 books, have combined narration, emails, letters, indecipherable writing, poetry, instant messages, and hand written text to create a short (under 150 pages), yet powerful story about a young man who wanted to reach the end of his life and be able to say “I did something important. I saved lives.”

Mazer, H., & Lerangis, P. (2012). Somebody, please tell me who I am. NY: Simon & Schuster.