Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Handbook for Dragon Slayers"

More often than I’d like to count, I’ll read a juvenile or YA fantasy book that features a “less-than-perfect” hero or heroine (more often the heroine), and by the book’s end, whatever it was that made them different has been “fixed”.  For example, in The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, an overweight heroine becomes svelte by the end of the story, and as such she is more qualified to succeed.  And so it is with pleasure whenever I discover a book wherein the main character has a flaw, and still has said flaw in the final pages.  One such book is Merrie Haskell’s involving tale, Handbook for Dragon Slayers. 

Princess Matilda, or simply Tilda, longs for a quiet, monastic life where she can read and copy books, and one day write her own, in peace.  But being the heir to a small principality, such peace is a luxury.  When a neighboring cousin takes Tilda’s mother hostage, and attempts to do the same to Tilda (it doesn’t last), she sees this as a chance to give up her responsibilities and the life she was born to, and run away.  Having been born with a splayed foot which has earned her the fear and revulsion of her people (some believe she had been touched by the devil), Tilda believes Adder Brook will be better off without its lame princess.  Her friends, her handmaiden Judith and squire-in-training Parz don’t know of Tilda’s plans to disappear, and engage her in a distracting quest to slay a dragon and restore Parz’s reputation.  Tilda resolves to write a book about slaying dragons, but along the way learns much more than she bargained for.

Tilda’s foot is a handicap, one that often slows her down on her journey.  And though a sisterhood of nuns treats her, her problem does not simply go away.  I appreciated this about Haskell’s writing.  Tilda did have to undergo a change, but one for her personality, an acceptance of her role in the community, her responsibility to her home and her people.  Tilda needed to learn that not all dragons are evil and need destroying.  In a magical twist late in the story, Tilda learns intimately what it means to be a dragon, and this knowledge changes her.  This is the kind of transformation that needed to occur for Tilda to become a hero, not having her foot magically fixed.

Tilda’s attitude is informed by many things, her handicap being just one influence.  She feels pressure from her role as princess of Adder Brook, and as such she has learned to internalize her feelings.  While those around her (except those who know her best like Judith) might see a stuck-up noble, Tilda herself feels as if she must keep a stiff upper lip, as it were.  Couple this with her splayed foot, and Tilda is convinced that the people of Adder Brook despise her.  “I could see people watching me, watching my foot and the way I walked.”  When Tilda learns there are rumors swirling about her (“One servant, a girl named Roswitha, made the sign against the evil eye as I passed.”), she tries to bury it deep inside, and “pretend[s] not to see.”

Kirkus Reviews calls Handbook for Dragon Slayers “A delightful middle-grade fantasy” which “falters only in its excess of exuberance.”  The review praises Tilda as a “splendid heroine: Wry, intelligent, sensitive and stronger than she thinks.”  Booklist calls it an “accessible medieval fantasy” which “features three likable young people, several imaginatively depicted magical animals, and a couple of dastardly villains.”  Handbook for Dragon Slayers was the Schneider Family Book Award winner for middle school in 2014.

Author Merrie Haskell has three times dipped her toe into the rich riverbed of fairy tales for her stories.  Her debut book, The Princess Curse and her most recent title The Castle Behind Thorns (a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”) were both well received, the latter earning two starred reviews.  Fans of Ms. Haskell’s writing could easily transition into the works of Gail Carson Levine, which include the Newbery honor book Ella Enchanted.  Master storyteller Jane Yolen also writes splendid fairy tale reimaginings such as Snow in Summer and Curse of the Thirteenth Fey.  For readers more interested in the masculine side of the fairy story, Christopher Healy has written a charming and hilarious series beginning with A Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, which features the male counterparts to famous female characters.

Haskell, Merrie.  Handbook for Dragon Slayers.  New York: Harper, 2013.  ISBN: 9780062008169

Class Post - Review - "Does My Head Look Big in This?"

In an interview with The Guardian, author Neil Gaiman said “a book is a little empathy machine,” and I couldn’t agree more.  As important as it is for readers of all stripes to see themselves in literature (and it is very, very important), it is just as important for readers to see others, and experience lives and cultures different from their own.  As Sal learns in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve been in their place.  Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? takes place around the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the message inside and the empathy it evokes are just as necessary today.

Teenager Amal, an Australian-Palestinian Muslim, has an epiphany one night watching a rerun of “Friends.”  As a show of her faith, she decides to wear the hijab, the headscarf, full time.  She does not make the decision lightly, and her parents counsel her to be very, very certain of her choice.  Amal attends a strict private school where her choice of expression would not be appreciated.  Throughout the year, Amal deals with prejudice (she is refused a job because of her hijab), teasing, an uncomfortable encounter with a crush, and pressure from her extended family, but Amal manages to find peace with her decision.

Abdel-Fattah describes Amal’s first school term as a “full-timer”: the sneers, the suspicions, the compromises and the benefits, and in doing so, presents the reader with well-rounded portrait of a teenager.  Amal is by turns confident, self-conscious, defensive, proud, embarrassed and curious, just like every other teenager on planet Earth (and probably Neptune).  Two of Amal’s best friends have issues of their own.  Curvy friend Simone struggles with her weight, even taking up smoking in order to curb her appetite.  Leila, a fellow hijab wearing Muslim, gets so fed up with her super-strict, super-conservative mother, who is constantly pressuring her to get married that she runs away, sending her family into a downward spiral.  These are serious issues, and Abdel-Fattah treats them so.  She never diminishes the importance of what her teenage characters are thinking or saying.  This is a book that gets teenagers.

For Amal, her culture is not something that can be put away when it is inconvenient.  Her decision to wear the hijab full-time affects all aspects of her life.  As such, she often finds herself as a spokesperson for Muslims in general.  She lectures her crush, Adam, about making excuses for others’ backwards opinions, saying, “I’ve got family friends who think all white people are drunk wife-bashers…Should I make an excuse for them?  Oh, they’re allowed to think that.  After all, they’ve never really had a conversation with a sober white person.” (Emphasis by the author.)  Within her own family, she recognizes with sadness how much importance her Aunt and Uncle put on assimilating to Australian culture.  “How can we be accepted and fit in if we’re still thinking about Palestine and speaking in Arabic?  Multiculturalism is a joke.”  Through these relationships and experiences, Amal realizes she is happier worrying about what she thinks of herself, her faith and her behavior, than she is about what others think of her.

Kirkus Reviews notes in a starred review how “[w]earing the hijab full-time shuts some doors, but opens others” and calls Amal “a bright, articulate heroine true to herself and her faith.”  In another starred review, Booklist says the “first-person present-tense narrative is hilarious about the diversity, and sometimes heartbreaking” and points out how religion and culture are a part of the narrative, “[w]ithout heavy preaching… from fasting at Ramadan to refusing sex before marriage.”  Does My Head Look Big in This? was a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year choice for 2008 and a nominee for the Young Reader’s Choice Award in 2010.

Readers who identified with Amal would also enjoy Abdel-Fattah’s Ten Things I Hate About Me, about a Muslim girl who tries to hide her culture by dying her hair, among other things.  For some historical context, Zeina Abirached’s autobiographical graphic novels A Game for Swallows and I Remember Beirut tell about the civil war in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims, and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis tells about her experience growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.   Both authors take intensely personal stories about their lives and cultures and make them accessible to many kinds of readers.  For readers who simply want to know more about Islam, there is a wonderful book by Sumbul Ali-Karamali for middle grade readers called Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam.

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  Does My Head Look Big in This?  New York: Orchard Books, 2005.  ISBN: 9780439919470

Class Post - Review - "Fix, Six, Seven, Nate!"

It’s not every boy that has dreams of starring on Broadway.  It’s not every boy that can belt out “Defying Gravity.”  And it’s really, really, really not every boy that lands a role in a Broadway musical on his first audition.  But that is just what Nate Foster did in Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle.  In the sequel, Fix, Six, Seven, Nate!, Federle takes his main character through rehearsals, crushes, learning lines, learning new lines, learning new, new lines and a surprising opening night.

Nate Foster snuck away from home to go to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical” and his gumption paid off when he earned a space in the ensemble and was even chosen to understudy for E.T.  But now rehearsals are starting for real, Nate’s Broadway dream gets grayer and grayer all the time.  Some of the other kids are mean, the director and the producer don’t get along, and it seems like no one can agree on anything!  Nate starts to work secretly with an actress named Asella who is also understudying for E.T., helping her learn her new lines in exchange for some hard earned backstage wisdom.  A twisted vine of events involving mistaken identity, bad first impressions and a poorly timed case of laryngitis land Nate in a once in a lifetime opportunity: playing Elliot, the human lead of the show.

With TV shows like “Glee” on the air, musical theater has been enjoying a boom of popularity in young people, at least from where I sit.   This is where first time author Tim Federle wins big, because his books about Nate Foster are a Broadway lover’s dream.  Nate and his best friend Libby are fanatics; when they swear, they substitute the names of notorious Broadway flops.  Federle name-drops all over the place, and gives fascinating insights into a life in greasepaint.  And Nate himself is such a lovable character, flaws and all.  He’s sarcastic, self-deprecating (he has concerns about his weight), a little na├»ve and generally good-hearted.  Federle puts Nate through the wringer, but ultimately lets his hero come out on top.

There are not a lot of books out there for middle grade readers that feature LGBTQ characters, and this is another reason why the Nate books are so valuable.  In Better Nate than Ever, Nate is ambiguous about his sexuality.  He doesn’t quite understand it himself.  In Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, things come more into focus when Nate develops a crush (which he later learns is reciprocated) on his co-star and rival, Jordan.  Federle’s use of first person narration make Nate’s feelings about his sexuality and his romantic prospects important, but no more important than learning the insane lyricists new chorus for the show-stopper, or figuring out how to become a star.  Nate’s sexual orientation both is, and is not a big deal.  It is, in so much as it would be a Big Deal in any story about a young teenager experiencing their first real crush, and is not, as neither narrator nor author define Nate’s preference as anything exceptional.  Nate describes in an almost bored tone how “last year somebody created a Nate Fagster page on Facebook.”  It’s obvious this is something that hurt him, but also that it’s not something upon which he dwells.  When Libby asks Nate is she has been replaced, Nate thinks, “Only in that a kiss with him felt like a real kiss.”  Nate’s emotions are a big deal.  Who is chooses to express those emotions with, isn’t.

Better Nate than Ever was a 2014 Stonewall Award honor book for youth literature.  Five, Six, Seven, Nate! was released in January of 2014, and as of this writing, has not won any major awards, though I would not be surprised to see it mentioned in the next few months.  Kirkus Reviews wrote that “[w]hile humor is clearly one of Federle's strengths, what sets this novel apart is how beautifully he explores Nate's vulnerabilities, particularly with regard to his sexuality, his family and his own self-esteem.”  Federle’s sensitivity to his characters feelings extend beyond Nate as well.  Nate’s crush/nemesis, Jordan says of his mother, “She’s go on and on about how a real leading man has to behave like…a real man.”  Publishers Weekly calls Nate! a “funny, tender coming-of-age story… that will appeal to every budding theater geek.”

Readers of Tim Federle’s Nate books would (and should) easily transition into Raina Telgemeier’s wonderful graphic novel, Drama, and a troupe of middle school theater fans, led by their stage manager Callie, attempting to put on a production of “Moon Over Mississippi.”  Callie works behind the scenes, but her relationships, both romantic and platonic, echo Nate’s trials.  Kieran Scott’s Geek Magnet: A Novel in Five Acts is another great teen title about the backstage geekery with relationship drama.  Finally, John Green’s YA novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson touches on sexuality, identity and, of course, theater!

Federle, Tim.  Five, Six, Seven, Nate!  New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014.  ISBN: 9781442446939