Friday, June 27, 2014

Personal Effects and PTSD

I recently read two books that I felt deserved to be written about together: E.M. Kokie's Personal Effects and Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory.

I'd never heard of Personal Effects, but it caught my attention on the shelf of "What Teens Are Reading" at Barnes & Noble. I know that it's hard to find a book with a male protagonist, so I knew I had to get this for my students. The main character, Matt Foster, lives with his dad, and he can't quite seem to do the right things. He often gets into trouble at school, and his dad has these very strict ideas of masculinity: if someone hits you, you beat them up; you don't show your weaknesses; and you certainly never talk about your feelings.

This makes it difficult for Matt to deal with life, as his brother, T.J., was recently killed in Iraq. Matt's dad essentially shuts down any conversation about T.J., and he has also hidden all traces of T.J. in the hopes of preventing any conversation about him. This takes a toll on Matt because it seems like no one wants to talk about the pain that is so evident.

This book is a real page-turner. When Matt and his dad receive his brother's personal effects (I can admit that I did not know this term until this book!), Matt decides to go on an adventure to understand the missing aspects of T.J.'s life that he never knew.

I didn't know what The Impossible Knife of Memory was about before I bought it--I just trusted that Laurie Halse Anderson, one of my favorite young-adult authors,  produced yet another book that I would fall in love with. And I have to say that this is, by far, my favorite of her works.

The main character, Hayley, is sort of in a similar situation to Kokie's Matt Foster. She lives at home with her dad, an ex-trucker and veteran from the war in Iraq, and she, like Matt, is the emotional fulcrum. Her dad doesn't talk about his experiences, but Hayley often hears her father's nightmares in the middle of the night and has to cope with his, at times, erratic behavior during the day.

This story takes place during Hayley's senior year of high school, when she and her dad attempt a year of life off the road. But things get emotional and deep really quickly in this novel. Hayley endures and copes with her father's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in ways that I could never imagine. She is brave, strong, and more mature than anyone her age should have to be as things worsen with her father's illness. Her lies to cover up his behavior and her frustrations at school all build up to make this story intense and one you won't want to put down.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Doing the Right Thing

As I sit at the Parsons Center in Lake Ann, Michigan, I just finished reading April Henry's The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die. It probably wasn't my best choice to read while I was in a cabin in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night. Needless to say, it was a spooky trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder.

I bought this book during the school year for a student that was struggling to find something she wanted to read, and I'm proud that she was able to finish it on the very last day we had Sacred Reading Time. It's the second book that I've ready by April Henry, and if you want a good young-adult thriller, I encourage you to read this or The Night She Disappeared.

Cady, or Cadence, is the protagonist of this story. All you need to know is that the book begins and you find her captive in a cabin in the woods. There are two men about to kill her, and she manages to escape. The book moves quickly and, before you know it, she is searching for the rest of her family (her mom, dad, and little brother, Max), all while evading two men and an abundance of others trying to kill her for something that she can't remember.

This book is a good reminder that sometimes things are more sinister and complicated than they seem. It also offers a glimpse into contrasting motives of those around us. Will we do what is right, or will we do what best suits our interests?

Better than "A Child Called It"

The only reason I discovered Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival was because I bought it for a student that was struggling to find a book he enjoyed, and it appeared on

This book reminded me a lot of Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It. While fictional, the story is the retelling of three siblings' experiences with their mother. The main character, Matthew, is recounting the tragic events of their lives for his youngest sister, Emmy, who was too young to remember all of what happened. I'm still not quite sure what exactly was wrong with Nikki Walsh, but cruel and inhumane treatment toward Dave in A Child Called It appears in Werlin's book, too.

This book stands out to me because it highlights dark moments where people feel hopeless, and then it shows small moments of success. It's a trying story, where I found myself feeling angry for Matthew, Callie, and Emmy and wishing that I could intervene.

And at the same time, it's also a story of acting, as readers find out how Matthew and Callie learn to adopt roles of the children their mother wants them to be. Emmy, the youngest of the children, however, persists in defying her mother, and Matthew and Callie sometimes have to pay the price. This book leaves you thinking about relationships and what matters. Could you love someone so much that you are willing to endure physical and mental pain to ensure their survival? Would you be willing to risk your own life for the possibility of a better one?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Every Teen Should Read This Book

There aren't many books that I think every teen would benefit from reading, but Ned Vizzini's honest story about Craig Gilner, a teen that admits himself to a psychiatric unit after contemplating suicide, provides so much insight into the pressure that all people face every day.

As a teacher, I see the stigma surrounding the complexity of mental health issues--and I think Vizzini acutely raises questions about people's reactions. From Craig's supportive, yet unsure, parents to his friends, whose actions reveal the strength and lack of empathy within their friendships, Vizzini explores how people perceive those who seek help or admit to enduring mental hardship.

Gilner's story is touching. He's a fifteen-year-old boy that faces what he considers to be insurmountable pressure. Where all the talk of schools is of the importance of numerous extra curricular activities, higher and higher test scores, and being sure that every student is well-rounded, I can see how students buckle under the pressure.

Much like Craig's anchors, which you will have to read to find out about, I began thinking about how every student's brain is a different map. Did I mention I think the cover art was a perfect choice? We can never understand the layout, but we can take directions if we listen to others.

I plan on watching the film next. I've heard mixed reviews, but I look forward to someone else's adaptation of Vizzini's story. If you want to read more about Ned Vizzini, check out this link. He unfortunately took his own life in December 2013.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Power of the Truth

I just finished E. Lockhart's We Were Liars--and I now know why it seems like everyone is raving about this book.

The entire time reading this novel, I couldn't make sense of the title. I don't want to spoil it for you, but when you get it to the end, it all makes sense. Well, as much sense as it could to Cadence, the main character. What seems like just a group of wealthy teenagers and one outsider all comes together to explore some pretty deep issues about life, friendships, relationships, and family. I found myself rooting for Cadence's, the first-born grandchild and heir to the family's wealth, and Gat's, viewed as an outsider by Cadence's grandfather, relationship and hoping that things would just work out.

When reading this, I began making connections to The Great GatsbyKing Lear, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, and every other novel that I remembered exploring patriarchy and wealth. But this novel is so much more than that.

Lockhart's book gets to issues of truths. 

It makes me think of Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," questioning who or what we take for granted. And Cadence explores this idea as she tries to recover her memory of a night that changed her life and her family's lives forever.

This book will make you question what's in front of you, and it will make you question your memories and the memories of others. Because of that, I can't wait to add it to my classroom library in September.