Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I think that I am probably the very last young adult literature fan to read The Hate U Give. This book made a lot waves when it came out in 2017 and it won several awards. There was a movie adaptation made as well that's sitting at a 97% Freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Everyone loved it, everyone was talking about it, and somehow, I never picked it up. I definitely meant to, though. I bought it pretty close to when it first came out, stuck it on my bookshelf, and then never managed to actually read it. That's why this book is the very first one on my Finally in 2019 Challenge. After reading my customary Jules Verne novel to kick off the year, I decided to make The Hate U Give my second read.

 The novel follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, who at the start of the novel, explains that she feels like she's living two different lives. One life is her home life with her family. She lives in Garden Heights, a tough, inner-city neighborhood plagued by drug dealers and gangs. Despite the problems of the area, this is home for Starr. She lives with her father, an ex-gang leader that runs a small store in the neighborhood, her mother, who is a nurse at a local clinic, and her little brother, Sekani. Her second life is her school life with her friends. Her parents work hard to send her to an expensive prep-school in the suburbs, where she is one of only two black students. She feels like she has to act differently there, to avoid seeming "too black." She changes the way she speaks to fit in with her friends and teachers. She feels more comfortable with her boyfriend, Chris, but he is another white kid, and she still holds a bit of herself and her struggles back from him.

The action in the novel kicks off when Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the end of her spring break. After some violence breaks out at the party, she accepts a ride home from an old childhood friend named Khalil. She's always had a bit of a thing for him, but they've grown apart since she started attending her private school. On the way home, a policeman pulls them over for a broken taillight. During the traffic stop, the situation escalates. Khalil gives the police officer some attitude, and the officer orders him out of the car. When he ducks his head back in the car to see if Starr is okay, the officer shoots and kills him.

Khalil's death irrevocably changes Starr's life. She is devastated at his loss, angry at the actions of the police officer, and terrified to speak out about what happened. She is forced to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about racism, police violence, and the problems in her community. Tired of the injustices she is seeing, Starr decides to stand up and speak out for Khalil, and her actions set of a chain of events that lead to a lot of changes for her friends and family. The Hate U Give is an honest look at how police brutality affects the black community and how persistence and activism are necessary to affect social change.

I was completely blown away by this book. What I first noticed when I started reading was how genuine it felt. This is author Angie Thomas's first novel, and it's a completely triumph. Starr's voice feels like a real teenager, and her feelings and pain leap right off the page. The language did take me a while to get used to. Starr speaks using Black English Vernacular, and getting into the rhythm of her words was a little bit difficult. There were a few terms I didn't understand too. Perhaps the whitest things I've ever done was look up what the phrase "gives me dap" meant (a handshake or fist bump, as it turns out). As I went deeper into the novel, however, I got used to the style and it wasn't an issue. In fact, it made the story feel more authentic.

The discussion around police violence was similarly well done. The feelings of Starr and her community are very well-articulated. The novel succeeds here in two ways; it is a mirror for young, black readers to be able to see a true discussion of this painful topic reflected in print, and it helps to explain some of the feelings behind movements like Black Lives Matter to readers that don't understand why movements like this are necessary. White readers might feel a bit uncomfortable with some of the discussion, but it is a necessary kind of discomfort. Thomas tells the truth in this novel, and she doesn't pull any punches. I felt like I came away from my reading with a better understanding of people like Starr and her family, who have to deal with injustices, big and small, every day.

Aside from its social importance, The Hate U Give is a great story as well. The pacing is good, the plot is consistently interesting, and there are quite a few exciting, suspenseful moments in its pages to keep readers engaged.The last third of the book is especially action-packed, as Khalil's murder becomes a major news headline and protests and riots start occurring in the streets of Starr's neighborhood. At 444 pages, this is a fairly long read, but it doesn't feel like it. I finished in just a few days and I know this story will be sticking with me for a long time. The closing paragraphs, in particular, are exceptional, and very memorable.

With quite a bit of language and violence, this is definitely a book for older teens, but I feel like everyone should pick it up. The Hate U Give is one of those books that everyone can learn from and benefit from. Part of the magic of reading is that it can teach us about the world and connect us with others, and this novel is one of the best vehicles for that that I have come across in a long time. I wish that it hadn't taken me so long to pick it up!

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 1/6 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 2

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

For the past three years, I have kicked off my reading in the month of January with a Jules Verne novel. I never really intended to establish this as a tradition. I wasn't even a big Jules Verne fan when I started doing it. I just happened to start off my reading in 2016 with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and I thought it would be kind of fun to do Journey to the Center of the Earth as my first read in 2017. When 2018 rolled around, I figured that I might as well keep it going and tackle Around the World in Eighty Days for my first read. That novel ended up becoming a favorite for me, and I started to really appreciate the creativity and science in Verne's writing. Now that it's 2019, I can't imagine starting off the year any other way than with another classic Jules Verne adventure.

When it comes to Verne novels, most people have only heard of the three that I already read (myself included). Accordingly, I had to do a little digging around on Amazon to find another one. One title that kept popping up in my search was The Mysterious Island, so I went ahead and ordered it. Once it actually arrived, I was very surprised at the length. At nearly 600 pages, this would be the longest Verne novel I had read by far. I was more than a little concerned that his trademark scientific prose might run on and on and get a bit boring. Those lengthy scientific passages filled with Latin names and detailed theories are always my least favorite part of his books. However, as I was soon to find out, this is a very different novel to the ones I had read in the past. I didn't need to be worried about this science. I didn't need to worry about the length. I didn't need to worry about anything at all, because, as I soon found out, The Mysterious Island is amazing.

The story starts off in the midst of a disaster that could only come from the mind of Jules Verne. Five men and a dog are attempting a daring hot air balloon escape from a Confederate prison camp in the midst of a hurricane. Things are not going well. There is a tear in the balloon that they cannot repair, the storm is raging wildly around them, and they are slowly but surely sinking lower and lower towards an endless stretch of ocean. They ditch all the supplies they have with them in an attempt to lighten the balloon's load, but eventually they crash into the ocean. Luckily for them, they wash up on the shores of a deserted (and mysterious, of course) island. They have no idea where they are and have nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. They appear to be completely alone.

From that moment on, the group is engaged in a constant struggle to survive. The island is composed of a variety of challenging terrains and dangerous wildlife, and the climate is harsh and unforgiving. Luckily, the men are well-equipped to handle it. Each member of the party has unique skills and knowledge that combine to keep everyone safe. Cyrus Harding, the group's leader, brings his engineering skills, Neb, a freed slave, brings culinary talents, Gideon Spilett, a reporter, brings his investigative know-how, Bonadventure Pencroft, a sailor, brings his nautical expertise, and Herbert Brown, a fifteen year old orphan, brings a vast knowledge of plant and animal species. Everyone takes an equal share in the work of establishing a homestead and through their ingenuity and persistence, they accomplish some pretty incredible things.

The Mysterious Island is a true survival story, similar to The Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe.  It's also a fun adventure, full of exciting action sequences, surprising plot twists, and a very intriguing mystery to solve. While this isn't Verne's flashiest novel, it has a lot of charm. The writing is lighthearted, the science isn't overwhelming, and the characters are lovable. There is even an orangutan butler eventually, and let's be honest, not much can beat that.

I think, perhaps, that what I enjoyed the most of all in the novel were the four simple words, "nothing could be easier." These words were uttered many times by many characters in response to all sorts of difficulties. We need to forge our own steel? Nothing could be easier! We need to make our own explosives? Nothing could be easier! We need to build a working telegraph? Nothing could be easier!  We need to reckon our latitude and longitude using sticks and shadows? Nothing could be easier! The castaways were so relentlessly optimistic and resourceful that their accomplishments became a satisfying mix of amazing and hilarious. I couldn't wait to see what incredibly difficult thing they would find easy next.

Another neat aspect of the novel was the inclusion of characters from Verne's other stories. Two figures from his other books show up in The Mysterious Island, one of which is one of his most famous and beloved characters. To say more would spoil a major plot point, so all I will say is that I was so pleased to meet this character again and see what he was up to.

The Mysterious Island  was an immensely enjoyable reading experience. The pages were full of adventure after adventure, and the science, rather than bog the story down, imbued it with a sense of wonder. It made me feel like anything is possible, as long as you have enough brains and optimism. This was a fantastically clever little story and a wonderful way to kick off 2019. Out of the Verne novels I have read so far, this one is my second favorite, just behind Around the World in 80 Days. I can't wait to give another one of his books a shot next year. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (a classic in translation): 1/12 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 1

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Finally in 2019 Challenge

As I discussed in my previous post, I am challenging myself to read a small list of books that I keep pushing off in favor of completing other reading challenges in 2019. I figure that if I make those books into a challenge themselves, I will finally get to them. Here is my list: 

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - Completed in January 2019
2. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
3. Becoming by Michelle Obama
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
5. The Power by Naomi Alderman
6. Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

I'm going to keep updating this post with review links as I read. If I finish them all early, I will start adding bonus books to this list within this post. I'm hoping to read a whole lot of novels I've been meaning to get to this year!

Reading Resolutions: 2019

Happy 2019! I'm sitting here this morning full of optimism and motivation. Isn't it funny how the start of a new year does that to you? Nothing today is any different from the day before, but my outlook has totally brightened. I hope it sticks!

Since I was unhappy with the amount I was able to read last year, I'm determined to do better and get back to my normal levels of reading this year. I'm trying to set moderate goals since I'm still going through a period of great change in my life, but I feel like I'm finally back in the driver's seat and ready to act more like myself again.

My Goodreads goal will be the same as last year. I want to read at least 50 books in 2019.

Once again, I will be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge. The goal is to read 12 classic novels fitting different categories over the course of the year. My sign up post is here.

This is the challenge that I really need to focus on fixing. The Classics Club Challenge is a five year challenge. To finish my list, I need to read 20 books for it each year. I only read 13 books in 2018 from this list. That means that for this year, I need to read my 20 books and then try to make up as many of the missing seven from 2018 as I can. If I can read 27, that would be amazing, but I'm aiming for 24.

Lastly, I created my own little challenge for 2019, which I'm calling "Finally in 2019." The goal of the challenge is to read a list of six books that have been sitting on my shelves for a while that I really, really want to get to, but keep putting off in favor of other challenges. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in my reading goals and forget about the books I really want to read outside of  those. Here's my list:

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
2. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
3. Becoming by Michelle Obama
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
5. The Power by Naomi Alderman
6. Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

I'll start adding bonus books to this list if I finish the original six early in the year. 

So, that's my complete set of reading goals! I'm about to sit down now and indulge in my favorite tradition - starting the year with a Jules Verne novel. I'm excited to leave last year behind and embark on some new adventures.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading Reflection: 2018

2018 is at an end, and I can honestly say that this has been a difficult year for me. I left a job I was quite comfortable in and all of my family and friends to move across the country. The goodbyes were intensely painful and my new home, while fine, has been an adjustment to get used to. All of these changes has meant that my reading this year wasn't as prolific as I'd hoped. I fell short of many of my goals. However, with everything I've had to navigate through, I think I did okay overall. Here's the breakdown:

My Goodreads challenge was to read 50 books this year. I only made it to 44. This is the lowest amount of books read in a year for me since 2012. I attribute this to all of the stress of moving and I hope to get to a better number in 2019.

I was supposed to read 20 more books off my Classics Club list this year. I only read 13. I still have three years to finish my list. I need to use this coming year to catch up!

I did actually finish my Back to the Classics Challenge in 2018! I read a total of 12 classic novels from different categories. My wrap up post for that is here.

I wanted to donate some of the books off my shelves this year. I ended up donating a total of 21 books to either book donation boxes or to my classroom library. Not too bad!

I had a goal to read more nonfiction books this year. I didn't end up reading all of the ones I owned (which was my initial goal), but I did read 10 of them, which is definitely the most nonfiction I've ever read in a calendar year. So I partially accomplished my mission. I want to continue reading more nonfiction in the future, as several of these books became new favorites!

I have to admit that I'm a bit sad I didn't get through all of the books I planned to in 2018, but as I said, it was a difficult year. The times when I let stress get the better of me and I wasn't reading were very hard. If I have learned anything through this experience, it is that I need to read more when things get rough, not less! I'm hoping that 2019 brings with it more books, more fun, and the discovery of my new normal.

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

The Bitter Side of Sweet was the last book from my school's book fair that I read while home for the holidays in Florida. I picked it up based on the summary on the back, which showed it was about modern day slavery in Africa. Later on, I realized that one of my students had been reading it too and showed it to me once, so it's been getting a bit of traction among my kids. It ended up being excellent, so I'm glad I chose it!

The story follows two Malawian children, Amadou and his younger brother, Seydou. Both were unwittingly sold into slavery in the Ivory Coast when they left their drought-stricken home to look for work to support their family. They were sold to a cacao plantation and spend their days harvesting cacao pods for the farmers. They are beaten regularly, work under extremely dangerous conditions, and given barely enough food and water to stay alive. The brothers have been working on the farm for two miserable years when the story begins. After an early, failed escape attempt. both are broken and resigned to their fate. The best Amadou can do each day is try to protect Seydou and keep him alive.

Their story changes, however, when a young girl named Khadija is brought to the farm to work. She has the spirit of a wildcat, and constantly tries to escape the farm. She is continually caught and beaten, but she refuses to give in. Before long, she befriends Amadou and begins to make him think about trying to escape again. When Seydou is grievously injured one afternoon, he decides that the time is right to take his brother and attempt an escape once more. With Khadija there to help, the three embark on a terrifying and dangerous journey to freedom.

This novel was amazingly compelling. The writing was smooth and the action was well-paced. I was completely engaged in Amadou's journey and raced through the pages to see how everything turned out. What made the reading experience even more powerful was the fact that the story is based on the truth of what happens on cacao farms in Africa. I had no idea that child slave labor was regularly used to make chocolate. The author, Tara Sullivan, includes some information in the back of the book about this issue and it was equal parts disturbing and educational to read about. The fact that child slaves are used to produce a sweet for more privileged children across the world is awful to contemplate. It made me think a lot harder about all that Christmas candy I got over the holidays. Buying those fancy chocolate bars labeled "fair trade chocolate" is something I will try to do from now on.

This was my favorite book out of the three I read during my trip. It was well-written and alerted me to an issue that I didn't know anything about. This is definitely a high-interest book that I will place in my classroom library and recommend to my kiddos.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2018: 21 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 44

That's Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger

That's Not What Happened was the second young adult book that I read while I was home in Florida for the holidays. I found this one at my school's book fair and was intrigued by the description on the back, so I picked it up.

The story follows a high school senior named Lee, who is dealing with some significant emotional trauma. When she was a freshman, she was involved in a school shooting. During the shooting, she was hiding in a bathroom stall with her best friend Sarah. Both girls were shot at, but the gunman missed Lee. Sarah was killed instantly. In the days after the shooting happened, a lot of stories about the victims began circulating in the inevitable media frenzy that followed. One of the stories was that Sarah died bravely defending her Christian faith to the shooter. This story, circulated by another surviving student listening from outside the bathroom, has become a legend in Lee's small town. Sarah is regarded as a hero and her story is an inspiration to the community.

The problem with this is, that the story is completely untrue. Lee knows that Sarah didn't say anything before she died. They were huddled together silently in that bathroom stall, scared out of their minds. Lee doesn't know what anyone else may have said to the shooter, but she knows for sure that Sarah did not speak to him at all. When the story was first circulating, Lee didn't say anything to stop it. She believed it was more helpful to Sarah's parents to let them believe the lie. However, now it's three years later, and Sarah's parents are now going to write a book about the incident. Lee can't stand the misinformation that will result when the book is published and believes that it's time for all the survivors of that terrible day to share their stories about what it was really like. Dismantling the myth around Sarah's death won't be easy though, and could turn the whole town against Lee. Many people have made significant life changes around this story and won't let it go easily. She must decide if it will be worth it to speak up or if she should just stay silent.

I found this story to be very interesting, and, sadly, very timely. School shootings are a disturbing reality that kids have to think about today and it was interesting to explore the fallout and trauma of such a terrible event. Lee and her friends struggle with survivor's guilt and PTSD, as well as a lot of the modern difficulties of being involved in a high-profile crime, including the agony of being accused of being "crisis actors," becoming figures in a political debate about gun control, and being hounded by the press for details of what happened. Lee's struggle with what to do in the aftermath was compelling and multifaceted. I could see reasons for her to stay silent and reasons for her to speak out. Her struggle was portrayed sensitively and realistically in a way that younger readers will be able to understand.

Mixed in with the sections about Lee's story are letters written about the students and teachers that died in the shooting. These letters help to give readers a sense of all those who lost their lives in the event. The point is stressed that even if someone wasn't particularly heroic during the incident or if they weren't a particularly good person before the incident happened, they still deserve to be remembered and mourned. No attention is paid to the shooter himself or his possible motives for his crime. He isn't even named in the book. All of the focus is saved for those impacted by what he did, and how the ripples of his crime spread across an entire town. No gory details or graphic descriptions are given; the focus here is on how people tried to pick up the pieces in the wake of the tragedy. In this way, the story is able to deal with a difficult topic without being exploitative or disrespectful.

I definitely enjoyed this novel and thought it portrayed school shootings in a realistic and sensitive way. I think young adult readers will be completely engaged in the story and come away from the novel with a better understanding of the power of stories and the impact of violence on students and communities. While the serious subject matter may not be appropriate for all readers, for the right kids, That's Not What Happened will be a deeply moving read.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2018: 20 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 43