by Libba Bray
When a plane full of beauty queens headed for the final leg of the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant crashes on an island in the Atlantic, all but 13 of the contestants perish. All of the stranded girls have their own priorities: Miss New Hampshire wants to figure out how to survive on the island, Miss Texas wants to continue to practice for the competition, Miss Rhode Island needs to find her medication, and Miss New Mexico has to figure out a new hairstyle that will distract from the airline tray stuck in her forehead. Surviving the elements is the first challenge, but the girls will have to learn to love and respect themselves and each other in order to make it through the trials that await them on the island. While the beginning of the story focuses on the skeptical Miss New Hampshire (Adina Greenberg), we get to see each of the contestants’ thoughts and backstories as the book goes on. The story is occasionally interrupted by commercial breaks, and includes product placement footnotes from our sponsor, The Corporation.
I was pleasantly surprised that this book was actually overtly feminist. It’s a satire, so it gets a lot of flak for having characters who are just stereotypes, but Bray turns a lot of the stereotypes on their heads. There are a lot of characters who never get a name beyond Miss [state], but even this gets some tongue-in-cheek attention near the end of the book. For a story with such overt political messages, it is shockingly funny! Even though the characters discuss some complex political issues, the book avoids a didactic after-school special directness by staging these conversations in settings that would be either realistically appropriate for such conversations or hilariously inappropriate for them. Of course a group of beauty pageant contestants would discuss Feminism 101 over campfire. And a backstory about colonialism is totally pillow talk material before oral sex! But, race politics while sinking in quicksand? Well, that’s just awesome. While the book sort of spirals out of logical control in the last quarter, none of the messages are lost in the chaos, and it’s still pretty funny. There are some glaring plot holes, of course, but I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief for what I got in return: a socially responsible survival satire starring a group of kick-ass ladies.
Recommended for mature teens who are comfortable enough with reading non-descriptive sex scenes. Ideal for teens who are interested in social issues, but funny enough to be enjoyed by teens looking for something silly.
by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman tells his story and his father’s story about the Holocaust and its reverberating effect in this Pulitzer Prize winning comic. Spiegelman wants to tell his father’s account of living through the Holocaust accurately, but acknowledges that his experience as a child of Holocaust survivors has a role in the telling of the story. The book mostly focuses on his father’s survival during the Holocaust but also includes the damaging emotional after-effects of the Holocaust on Spiegelman’s family. Although a work of non-fiction, the comic depicts people with faces of animals representing their nationality: Jewish people are mice, Germans are cats, Polish people are pigs, and so on.
I grew up in an area of Canada that was home to many Holocaust deniers. One of the Social Studies teachers at my high school assigned Maus every spring, and every spring his car was vandalized. So he kept assigning Maus. I wasn’t in his class, but I sought Maus out as an adult because a book that contentious ought to be read. I’d read about the Holocaust and I’d read Holocaust fiction before–even fiction about the children of survivors–but I’d never read anything like Maus. Definitely one of the best comics I’ve read and one of the best non-fiction books too. The drawings are clear and the story is well told. Spiegelman’s choice of depicting people as animals makes the book simultaneously less horrific–when you see dead bodies of mice instead of Jewish people–and more horrific–when you take a moment to realize that each mouse is a stand-in for a real human being. I could say a lot more about the representation choices and the drawing style and the design layout of the book, but that gets into essay territory and I want to actually motivate people to read this! Without getting into the meaning of it all, I think it’s a respectful way of showing the horrors of the Holocaust without overly desensitizing or traumatizing the reader. What I really appreciate about this book above all the great things I could say about it is that it doesn’t treat the Holocaust as a singular event in history, but as an individual-by-individual trauma that has echoed into the present. I’m glad that the teacher in my school continued to assign Maus throughout his career, because I think it is an accessible way for teens (and adults) to understand the legacy of the Holocaust and empathize with its victims.
Recommended as a teaching aide in history units, but generally a great read for anyone who likes historical comics, comic memoirs, memoirs in general, Holocaust stories, or contemporary Jewish stories. I consider it required reading for comics aficionados.
by Patrick Ness
Todd is about to become a man. He will be the last of the citizens of Prentisstown to cross over into adulthood, since he was the last to be born before all the women died. In the war before he was born, the native Spackle of New World attacked the settlers with a germ that killed all the women and made everyone’s thoughts heard and seen out loud. Even the animals talk, though Todd’s unwanted dog Manchee usually only has poo on his mind. Todd hates all the Noise men and animals make, but a quiet spot he senses in the swamp one day disturbs him even more. When he tells his guardians Ben and Cillian about the quiet spot, they start to panic and tell Todd that he has to leave Prentisstown. In fact, they have been planning for this day his whole life and already have a bag packed for him. Bewildered, Todd escapes with Manchee back into the swamp as Mayor Prentiss’s police force storms his house looking for him. Todd is unsure of what he’s supposed to do when he finds the quiet spot again, a confusion that is only made worse when he tracks it down and discovers that it is a girl. With the whole town on their tracks, Todd, Manchee, and this mysterious girl with no Noise must trek into the unknown world beyond Prentisstown.
First, I have to say that I loved Manchee from the moment he said “poo.” Second, I loved almost everything else about this book. The world is described well enough to start, and its backstory is continuously revealed in a natural way. The characters are all individuals–even the ones you only meet once–and their relationships are realistic. The dialogue is natural–even the thought dialogue, which the first person narration is cleverly a part of. I get frustrated at reveals that should come earlier, like Todd not reading the note or the journal Ben packed for him, but this one was a little bit understandable and there are at least consequences (outside of reader frustration) for Todd waiting so long to get Viola to read them. I also get irritated when characters who are being hunted won’t kill to protect themselves, but this book dealt with the brutal reality of killing someone really well, and has some good morality twists. If Patrick Ness isn’t a fan of Joss Whedon’s work I would be very surprised. He absolutely refuses to give his readers more than a fleeting moment of triumph before plunging his characters into an even more desperate situation. Plus, Aaron the preacher is basically Caleb from season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, indestructibility and all. I loved the ending of this book. Definitely a cliff-hanger, but one I actually respect. All I really love in this world is a story that promises me happiness then yanks it away in the cruelest manner possible. Can’t wait to read the rest of this series!
Definitely dark stuff. Recommended for older teens and adults who like dystopian settings and/or the work of Joss Whedon.
by Greg van Eekhout
Fisher becomes born by accident. His body was in a pod, already aged to about 12 or so, equipped with basic information about the world and a full vocabulary. His first word is a profanity and is used when the Ark where he became born starts to crash down around him as he hurriedly tries to sever his plastic umbilical cord. He is the only survivor. Along with Click, a humanity-helping robot, and a woolly mammoth Fisher names Protein (just in case he gets hungry), he journeys across a post-apocalyptic America in search of other surviving humans. When he finds another ark with its own helper robot, it seems almost too good to be true….
Like post-apocalyptic Hatchet, but with darker implications about humanity as a species. It’s also really funny. I love that Fisher names the mammoth “Protein”, and Click’s bossiness allows for a lot of comedy. The way things are phrased is quirky, like how Fisher “became born” and wants to avoid “failing to survive”.
This is a really thoughtful, funny, action-packed book for fans of survival books, dystopian settings, and sci-fi robot stuff. The thickness and font size of this book made me think it was for much younger kids, but it’s actually pretty dark and disturbing, so I’d reserve it for older kids who like thin books with lots of action.
by Eric Walters
It’s January of 2010. Joshua is 15, and has just had a falling out with God. His relationship with his dad isn’t great either, mostly because his dad moved him and his younger sister across Toronto to a new neighbourhood, school, and church right after their mom died. Worse still, his dad is a preacher, and there seems to be no end to the prayers and the Christian truisms he spouts, even though God clearly isn’t listening—if he was, Josh’s mom would still be alive. Now, on top of all that, Josh has to go with his dad and his sister on a mission to Haiti to help build an orphanage. He doesn’t want to make friends on this trip, but he has no choice but to band together with Philippe, a Haitian orphan, and a fellow missionary named Naomi after the earthquake hits and they have to journey to Port au Prince to find insulin for Naomi, who is diabetic. His father and sister were supposed to return with the insulin earlier, but a quarter of a million people perished in the quake, and they may be among them.
Walters tends to write in a genre I like to call “disaster capitalism”, exploiting the world’s tragedies for a story teachers will assign to high school students. Most irritatingly, the heroes and everyone they love always survive, and they learn an important first world lesson, which I think misrepresents how horrible it actually is for people in the real world who are affected by these things.
However, this book is a decent read. It has a pretty wide appeal, since it deals with a lot of Josh’s personal baggage—his relationship with his dad and his God—while focusing on disaster and heroic feats. It’s topical, but it isn’t so topical that it won’t be a good read years from now. It’s also Canadian, with references to Timmy’s, mediocre French education, and other little details.
A recommended resource for teachers who want to address current events, although the religious aspect may make it inappropriate in public schools.