Monday, November 27, 2006

Heavy Metal and You

Book: Heavy Metal and You
Author: Christopher Kovatin
Published: 2005

Metalhead Sam and preppy Melissa are this year’s Least Likely Couple. But try telling them that. To the doubts and concerns of their respective groups of friends, they fall deeper and deeper in love. And while Sam’s friends aren’t thrilled at the way Melissa is making him go straightedge, he doesn’t care, telling himself that love is worth it.

But as their romance progresses, Sam finds himself making more and more changes for her and feeling less and less good about it. He loves Melissa, of course he does . . . but is it enough?

I surprised myself by picking up this book. I’m probably the last person on Earth to enjoy heavy metal, but this book, and Sam’s genuine and passionate obsession with the music, gives me a window into that world. It was also nice for me that Sam is no metalhead stereotype (probably because Kovatin himself is a heavy-metal fan and therefore knows there’s more to the group than spiked wristbands). Sure, he drinks, drugs, and moshes, but Sam also discusses literature and participates in a local drama club.

It’s a quick read, but one that will stay with you because of the questions that Sam faces about friendship, love, and identity. In the end, it’s not even necessary to understand who Deicide or Slayer are to understand Sam (well, okay, give me credit, I have at least heard of Slayer). This is a story about how much we change ourselves for love . . . and how much we should.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hidden Talents

Book: Hidden Talents
Author: David Lubar
Published: 1999

Edgeview Alternative School is where they send the dregs: the bullies, the misfits, and the hopeless. It’s filled with students and teachers who have nowhere else to go. Edgeview is Martin Anderson’s last chance to fix his life. But he just can’t help himself, and soon he’s fallen back into the habits of a lifetime, mouthing off to all the teachers, somehow managing to say the one thing that will make them angriest. So much for that.

Watching the other students, Martin slowly comes to realize that some of them aren’t just square pegs in a world of round holes, they’re lightning bolts. From Flinch, who always seems to know just what’s coming up, to Torchie, who manages to start fires without match or lighter, to Lucky, who is just that, his new friends each have a hidden talent that finds its way out in surprising and often destructive ways. Martin pushes them to refine and control their talents, because it may be the only thing that will ever get them out of Edgeview. He also tries not to resent their special gifts, knowing that he’s just your run-of-the-mill punk kid who’s already halfway down the drain.

But what if some talents are way more hidden than others?

Just like Holes, this tale of kids at the bottom and heading further down doesn’t make the mistake of valorizing or demonizing, but instead humanizes them. They’re likable, if flawed (there were a few times I was surprised Martin didn’t get smacked), and their reluctance to believe in their own gifts until they need them rings true. This story about discovering value in the valueless is something a lot of kids need to hear.

For some reason, I was expecting a lighter, goofier story than I got, maybe because of the cartoony cover of the edition I read. That’s okay; I loved what I got, and will definitely pick up the sequel (True Talents).

Monday, November 13, 2006

Chicken Boy

Book: Chicken Boy
Author: Frances O’Roark Dowell
Published: 2005

Tobin McCauley has a lot to live down to. From his granny, who gets taken off by the police for driving on the sidewalk while dropping him off on his first day of school, to his hell-raising older brothers, to his father, who works and watches NASCAR, nobody expects anything of him. Then he meets Henry, who is on a mission to prove chickens have souls, and recruits Tobin as a co-researcher. Before he knows it, his entire life is changing, and all because of those chickens.

Who knew?

There have been a lot of books about grief, about parent death, about friendship, about broken families, about changing your life, and maybe even a few about chickens. But Frances O’Roark Dowell reassembles all these elements in a fresh new way, through the voice of world-weary Tobin. Through his matter-of-fact observances of his world, you see the wreckage left behind by his mother’s death due to cancer five years before, and the way that sheer inertia has the entire family in a stranglehold. That is, until Tobin makes a few tiny changes.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of this book is Dowell’s portrayal of these changes. While most authors write life-changes as a domino effect--one leading directly to the next--Dowell writes more as if they are jackstraws. One “straw” gets shifted, and all the others are subtly affected until suddenly the whole pile collapses and changes position. In other words, it’s not only Tobin’s life he’s changing; it’s everyone else’s, and their reactions to the changes in turn affect Tobin. By the end, his old world is left behind, but he doesn’t miss it.

And anyway, the chickens are still around.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Better Late Than Never

This article from the Guardian on celebrity children's books was actually published a week ago. Shows you how up to date I am. Still, if you haven't checked it out already, have a look.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean

Book: Utterly Me, Clarice Bean
Author: Lauren Child
Published: 2003

Clarice Bean’s life has gotten Utterly Odd lately. Her best friend took off for parts unknown, and now she has to do a class project with the Loathsome Karl, for the hideous dragon-teacher. Not to mention the Evil Grace, her Utterly Arch-Enemy and Nemesis, is sure to win the prize cup for best project.

Woe is Clarice! At least she’s got her stellar collection of books about Ruby Redfort, girl super-detective, to keep her afloat. And when the prize cup suddenly disappears, Clarice gets the chance to put the really very quite useful skills she’s learned from Ruby to good use.

In the hands of another author, you might discover that the hideous dragon-teacher, the loathsome Karl, and the Evil Grace are really not that bad. Child only gives us one out of three (Karl, in case you’re interested; turns out the ability to make a volcano is really very useful when you’re doing a project on girl-spy novels). The real joy of this novel is Clarice’s Utterly Quite Individual Voice. With all the angst and drama of your everyday nine-year-old who’s just discovered adjectives, you just can’t imagine Clarice being anyone but herself--just like the title promises.

Not only does Lauren Child’s narrative sparkle with energy, so does the actual text. Playing with enlarged or shrunken font that will sometimes twine around the page, even integrating them into the lively illustrations, Child shows off the approach to visuals that make her picture books must-reads. Fans of those will adore this as they move into middle elementary years.