Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Whirligig / by Paul Flieschmann

Humiliated after being jilted by a girl at a party, 17-year-old Brent decides life's not worth living and promptly steers his car into oncoming traffic, little realizing that his life isn't the only one at stake. In fact the accident leaves Brent relatively unscathed, soon allowing him back into the realm of consciousness only to learn how his rash behavior's involuntarily killed another person. The fatal victim is a first generation American girl named Lea, who at 18, was a senior in high school already accepted to a prestigious four-year university on scholarship. She would have been the first in her family ever to attend college.

Sentenced to indefinite probation and countless hours of community service, to say nothing of the permanent anguish and guilt, Brent's still not prepared for what confronts him immediately after the hearing. Lea's mother meets with Brent to discuss a court-approved 'trip' she wants him to take to honor Lea's memory. Brent is to ride a greyhound bus to all four corners of the lower United States, spending enough time in each region--Miami, San Diego, Washington and Maine--to construct a whirligig (hand-crafted object spun by wind) solely with his own hands, tools and resources. The four whirligigs are to be given as a gift to someone special at each locale in remembrance of Lea.

The book's non-linear sequence of events really allows the reader inside Brent's character. Once a self-seeking teen only interested in upward-mobility, Brent's post-accident demeanor remains absent of everything he once was, his mindset now one of quiet repose and contemplation as he meets with the opportunity for at least some restitution. Intermittent descriptions of the four individuals destined to be the gift-bearers provide a good balance to Brent's narrative, each interpreted as someone able to understand the whirligig's brevity of meaning.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Chocolate War / by Robert Cormier

Despite being new student and freshman at an all-boys high school, Jerry Reinault knows better than to mess with the well-known—but unofficial—student power structure, The Vigils. Everyone’s aware that it’s this “organization”, headed by wise-guy Archie Costello, which begets hierarchy, maintains “order” and doles out responsibilities, essentially relegating underclassmen and outsiders to otherwise thankless tasks of school fundraisers. Now that the annual chocolate sale has essentially doubled its quota, everyone has to work just a little extra, everyone except the stubbornly obstinate Jerry that is. While Jerry’s stern refusal to participate is only uncomfortable at first, his sustained defiance in the face of increasingly hazardous circumstances soon culminates in an all-out war, one in which it seems Jerry has no other choice but to surrender his will to The Vigils' or suffer the brutal consequences.
Cormier’s publication of Chocolate War in 1974 had an immediate and lasting impact, firmly setting him up as one of YA’s capstone authors. Though the premise of the novel may seem outdated or overblown, the focus of the story's not so much about what’s going on as it is about the internal motivations of the characters and the impending potential for disaster. Still mourning his mother's death from cancer, Jerry’s nonconformist resolution stems from a need to know his actions have meaning, that power and authority (to at least some degree) is possible by his own initiative. Conversely Archie, though driven by an obvious lust for power, also seeks fulfillment through personal enterprise, a manifestation of broader events sprung by his own influence of control. Those unfamiliar with how serious things can get at an all male school may be a little off put by the scenario, but readers won’t have a problem gravitating towards Cormier’s mastery of characterization and accurate depiction of mob-rule mentality.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Homecoming / by Cynthia Voight

After being evicted from their home in Massachusetts, a single mom parks a car containing her four kids at a mall and disappears into the night. Now the four abandoned siblings--Dicey(13), James(10), Maybeth(9) and Sammy(5) Tillerman--are left to ponder what to do next with no money, no caretaker and no place to go. Knowing a confrontation with authorities will only lead to the family's being split up, Dicey resolves to set out for the family's only other relative's known whereabouts--their never-before-seen Grandmother's home in Maryland. With no available means of transportation other than a token bus ride only taking them 20 miles or so, the foursome largely encounters the journey on foot, Dicey doing everything she can to keep everyone together and out of harm's way. Meeting with trouble, hardship and more than a few prying eyes becomes pretty routine as the Tillermans tread through mostly off road territory routinely coping with illness, hunger and bickering as they make their way to an uncertain destination amid an indeterminate future.

This is Voight's first novel in her Tillerman saga about four kids striving to stay a family amidst thwarted odds. With the the situation seen primarily through Dicey's eyes, the reader can't help but be drawn into an already pitiable situation only compounded by neglectful and indifferent adults. Voight manages to keep things in-bounds though, not overdoing any sentimentality or sympathy aspects of what, on the surface, might look like another sappy tear-jerker. The Tillermans are kids, plain and simple. And while they're rigorously challenged by largely adverse circumstances, it's not hard to interpret each as a child with like problems and issues rather than some Huck Finn or Johnny Tremain type elevated above the status of normal vulnerabilities.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher has been on the YA radar since his first stories and novels came out in the late Seventies. Combining rigorous athletic scenarios with emotionally charged characters confronting real life issues, Crutcher's books are widely accessible to all readers even if a more immediate audience may be found among junior high and high schoolers. Any reader can't miss with these three sure-to-entertain books, some of his most vividly dramatic works.

Staying Fat for Sarah Barnes
A senior star on his high school's swim team, Eric Calhoune still carries around emotional scars from his days as the fat kid; 'morbidly obese' to be precise, which is why he's still called "Moby" by almost everyone. Even with all that's going for him now, the experiences of scorn and derision seem destined to abide within him, constantly reminding him of past abuse and perpetually taunting his still frail well-being. Eric's never had to bear it alone, though; his life-long friend Sarah Byrnes has her own scars, albeit of a more externalized nature. Burned in an accident years ago Sarah bears wounds that can never be hidden or removed, a condition making her and Eric virtual by-proxy soulmates from childhood on. Now with Sarah back in the hospital for what could be the last time, Eric is left to confront--alone--the issues within himself, his relationship with Sarah and the truth about the "accident" which stole their innocence so long ago.

Walker Dupree and three of his closest friends and teammates take up the challenge offered by their swim coach to undergo a week of extreme training in preparation for their upcoming season. By the end they're bodies, not to mention they're mental stamina, will have sustained the utmost in physical exertion, each worthy to assume the title of "Stotan"--cross between stoic and spartan. Candidly, Walker narrates not only the undeniably grueling workouts each day (full 24 hrs) entails, but the mutual camaraderie and loyalty achieved amidst the near-torture-level experience. More than just bodily limitations and a winning season are at stake, however, as the power of this friendship must endure not only a brutal training regimen, but the impending fate of one among them who's currently battling leukemia.

Chinese Handcuffs
Nearly a year after his brother Preston's suicide, eighteen-year-old Dillon still can't come to grips with the absence, not to mention the details surrounding the incident in question. To cope with his grief and outlet other frustrations, he trains year round for triathlons, periodically entering competitions held near his isolated home in the Pacific northwest. Sweat can only vanquish so much though, which is why its good that Dillon can rely on girlfriend Jennifer, herself a star on the basketball court, to stand beside him in spirit if not uphold him with attitude. Ultimately resolving to seek answers regarding his brother's death, Dillon must fight through the obstinacy of his parents and apathy of authorities in finding out the real reason for Preston's "suicide". Simultaneously, he must support Jennifer as she confronts her own repressed trauma in the form of her father's abuse.