Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Printz Award Winner: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff, Meg. (2004). How I Live Now. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.    
Plot Summary: Getting away from her life in New York seemed easy for fifteen-year-old Daisy.  All she needed to do was agree to fly half-way around the world to England to live with her aunt and four cousins.  But, after a few weeks of living in the English country-side a war breaks out that leaves no life untouched.  Despite the chaos and horrors of war, Daisy must find the courage and strength to stay alive or risk losing everything and everyone she has come to love.

Critical Analysis: With a starred review from Booklist, Rosoff’s novel, How I Live Now  is “the ominous prognostication of what a third world war might look like, and the opportunity it provides for teens to imagine themselves, like Daisy, exhibiting courage and resilience in roles traditionally occupied by earlier generations.”  A review by Kirkus, described the novel as “a very relatable contemporary story, told in honest, raw first-person and filled with humor, love, pathos, and carnage.” In addition to its realistic approach to a third world war, Publisher’s Weekly noted that, "Readers will emerge from the rubble much shaken, a little wiser, and with perhaps a greater sense of humanity."  More rave reviews come from readers, such as “Carrie” from Amazon who found that “Daisy's voice comes to you right as if she is talking and thinking, true and real and heartbreaking.” Told through the voice (and ramblings) of an American teenager, life has never really been normal for fifteen-year-old Elizabeth or “Daisy” as she likes to be called. After learning that her mother died giving birth to her, Daisy has never been able to forgive herself and her father hasn’t been much help.  After her uncaring stepmother gets pregnant, Daisy’s father agrees to send her away to live with her mother’s sister and four cousins – unable to deal with Daisy’s eating disorder and the demands of his new wife.  Eager to get away from her troubles in New York, Daisy discovers a new way of simple living in the English country-side.   But, as a third world war erupts everything changes and Daisy’s life is suddenly thrown into chaos. Torn away from an improper relationship with her cousin Edmond, it takes everything in Daisy’s power to keep from falling apart.  A new-found courage is all Daisy has to keep going, but it’s her determination to find Edmond again that gives her the strength to survive.  Rosoff does an amazing job of bringing the reader into Daisy’s mind and the revealing the thoughts and emotions of a young teenage girl who is horrified of losing almost all the people she has come to adore in her short stay in England.  How I Live Now takes you to war and brings you face-to-face with all the horrors and tragedies that come along with it.  It also reveals the power of hope in the midst of total chaos and despair. 

The plot of the story is emotionally driven from beginning to end.  When the war begins, Daisy’s Aunt Penn becomes stranded in Oslo, leaving Daisy and her four cousins, Piper, Edmond, Osbert, and Isaac alone for several weeks.  However, the children don’t panic at all. They are quite comfortable being their own bosses and waiting for their mom to return.  This is when Daisy and Edmond start to develop feelings for each other.  Rosoff does a good job of bringing the reader into the mind of a teenager girl coming to grips with feelings for a cousin she should see as a brother.  This is apparent when she said, “after a few minutes he lay back and let his knee rest against my knee and I got another one of those feelings you’re not supposed to get from your cousin and I wondered very quietly to myself What Was Happening Here…” (p44).  Their relationship builds slowly, but once their feelings are clear to each other they begin a relationship and although it’s not a healthy one you feel sorry for their situation.  Even after the bombing in other cities, life is still rather normal for the children until the soldiers come and “occupy” the house.  That is when everything changes and the children are separated.  Daisy and Piper are sent off to another house occupied by soldiers, while Edmond and Isaac are sent farther north to a different location. As the war worsens, the reader is taken on a journey through Daisy’s eyes that is shocking, terrifying and utterly tragic.  This is heartbreakingly displayed when Daisy and Piper finally reach the place where Edmond and Isaac are supposed to be and all they find is death.  Daisy gives the raw truth of it when she says, “when you hear people say something smells like death trust them because that’s the only way to describe what it smells like, putrid and rotting and so foul your stomach tries to vault out through your throat and if your brain has any sense it wants to jump out of your skill and run away as fast as possible with or without the rest of you so it doesn’t have to find out what’s making that smell” (p. 140-141).  

The character development of Daisy is beautifully displayed.  At the beginning of the war she was still the same self-centered teenager that didn’t care too much about what was going on outside of her little world.  This is apparent when she says, “No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed…the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that WE REALLY DIDN’T CARE.” (p 43-42).  This can be true for anyone, as most people do not come to grips with the tragedies of war unless it touches them or someone they care about.  However, as the novel progresses and Daisy’s circumstances become more and more desperate she mentally and emotionally has to deal with everything falling apart around her.  It was a coping mechanism for Daisy, which was the only way for her to maintain her sanity.  This is evident when she comes into contact with her first real scene of death and says, “…I could see that some of the bodies were human and then a kind of coldness came over me and no matter what I discovered I wasn’t going to scream or cry or anything. I was ice.” (p.141).

Although the lack of commas and frequent run-on sentences does distract the reader at times, Rosoff’s novel is an emotional story of the horrors of war, deep despair, shattered lives, and the power of hope.  This book is highly recommended for middle-school students and above.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Challenged Books: Forever by Judy Blume

Blume, Judy. (1975). Forever. New York, NY: Simon Pulse.          

Plot Summary: As a high school senior, Katherine wants her “first time” to be special.  Even though her friends have no qualms about sleeping with any boy they find interesting, Katherine wants love.  When she meets Michael everything she thought about boys changes instantly.  To both Katherine and Michael they can’t seem to get enough of each other and are convinced they are in love.  When Katherine finally sleeps with Michael their connection seems to grow stronger and they start making plans to be together even after high school.  But, when Katherine is forced to spend her summer as a tennis coach away from Michael, she meets someone that makes her question how long her “forever” with Michael will truly be.

Critical Analysis: Considered as “A convincing account of first love” by The New York Times, Judy Blume’s teen novel, Forever speaks very candidly about the teenage experience and perspective of first love. According to Children’s Literature review“…this book is as relevant for teens today as it was to teens in the seventies.” Although Forever was written in 1975, much of the insecurities and anxieties that teens faced during this time period are still present today.  Social expectations, peer pressure, along with many other common current teen issues never really go away.  Although controversial at the time for its explicitness, Blume is able to demonstrate the immediate connection and attraction of young adults who feel they are in love.  She also does a good job of showing how lack of experience, naiveté, and hormones can often lead teenagers into feeling and thinking in certain ways. 

Although the story did portray the connection between Katherine and Michael in an honest way, I found the character development throughout the story a little lacking.  I didn’t find myself cheering for Katherine or Michael.  Even for the time period, the lack of parental or family involvement/interference was not very realistic.  Her parents didn’t know Michael very well, and when they noticed that Katherine was serious about her relationship with him they didn’t care to find out more about Michael’s family background.  It seemed as if they were a little blasé about her relationship with Michael and only hinted that she should keep her options open. It wasn’t until the end when they finally tried to separate Katherine from Michael by sending her to coach tennis over the summer.  Katherine’s grandmother was a little more direct.  She sent her pamphlets from Planned Parenthood and told her in a letter that she “thought these might come in handy” (p.109).  However, the letter seemed awkward and an excuse to make grandma the one who’s realistic about her dating Michael.  You also don’t really understand why Katherine likes Michael so much.  Other than physical attraction, they don’t get to know each other enough before they admit to being in love.  Their relationship was not very deep and seemed to revolve around planning for sex - which is a little strange because Katherine broke up with her first boyfriend because all he wanted to do was sleep with her.  Michael isn't really that different other than the fact that he is a little more patient with her.  There was very little family background for Katherine or Michael. Their friends, Erica and Artie, had even less character development.  It’s hard to say if this was due to the first person narrative because you could only see from Katherine’s point of view; however, I think more could have been done to develop the side characters a little better.  One friend named Sybil was mentioned at the very beginning of the story, yet she is the one who is least present of all.  She is only randomly brought up again when she turns up pregnant in the middle of the story.  I actually had to go back and look for this character because I forgot who she was. 

The plot of the story fell flat for me.  It really didn’t go anywhere interesting.  The relationship between Katherine and Michael was not very dynamic or deep in any way, even though the characters themselves thought so.  There was a lot of stereotyping in this story as well.  The author impressed upon the reader that teenagers only cared about sex and very few cared about who it was with.  In addition, abortion is apparently the obvious choice (for everyone) when there is an unwanted pregnancy.  Katherine’s friend Sybil ended up pregnant in the middle of the story because of her philandering ways.  So, when her friend Erica says Sybil can’t keep the baby and will put it up for adoption, Katherine says, “Then why have it in the first place?” (p. 136).  Erica replied that Sybil thought an abortion was the best option; however, she wanted to give birth “for the experience.” It could have been an excuse to not have an abortion, but it’s hard to say.  Katherine was very clear that she would have had an abortion and even Erica said she would have chosen an abortion “In a minute." It makes these characters seem heartless because they don’t even have to think about it. 

Overall, the story does show and honest account of the ups, downs, and sometimes failures of first love.  It also does a good job of demonstrating how awkward, unsure, and self-conscious a teenage girl’s first time could be.  However, the lack of character development and likability of the characters themselves made this book a little boring.  There was no real plot to the story other than a teenage girl’s insecurities of her “first time,” and the inconsistent nature of the teenage heart. The book is intended for teenage and young adult readers; however, it is not something I would read again.  Therefore, I would probably not recommend it.