RIPL Teen Book Reviews

"The Boy on the Wooden Box" by Leon Leyson, with Marilyn J. Harran & Elisabeth B. Leyson (Audiobook Narrated by Danny Burstein)
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(Grade 5 and up) Leib Lezjon (Leon Leyson as an adult) grew up in Poland in the 1930s, and in this haunting memoir, he talks about his experiences during that tumultuous time. The families Leyson knew as a child, including his own, had to work hard just to survive, and religion was a great source of strength in his small hometown, though there were divisions between Christians and Jews. Leyson describes how his family thought that the Germans who came to Poland during WWII would be like those who came in WWI. Those Germans were relatively courteous to the people whose country they were occupying; but the Nazis were different.

As the Nazis took over Poland, families like Leyson’s couldn’t afford to leave the country, and in any case, they didn’t have anywhere else to go. The Nazis gradually escalated their attacks against Jews, and their discriminatory tactics were as violent as they were senseless. Instead of killing Jews outright, many were starved or succumbed to disease in the ghetto, and the only way to stay alive was by working: by the time Leyson was 12, he was working full-time in a brush factory. After Leyson and what remained of his family were forcibly evicted from the ghetto and taken to a camp called Płaszów, he felt certain that he would never leave the hellish place alive. But thanks to a man named Oskar Schindler, Leyson’s life became something he never could have expected.
I listened to this book, and the narrator, Danny Burstein, did a great job of conveying the author’s feelings of nostalgia, frustration, fear, cautious optimism, and everything in between. Leyson acknowledges the less heroic aspects of Oskar Schindler’s character, but it’s clear that for all his flaws, Schindler is the main reason that Leyson and most of his family survived the war to find a future in America and Israel. (That, and a combination of technical skill and good fortune.) Leon Leyson’s story is an incredible account of survival, sorrow, and hope. (4.5 out of 5 stars)
  • Listening Length: 4 hours and 17 minutes
  • Program Type: Audiobook
  • Version: Unabridged
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Audible.com Release Date: August 27, 2013
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00EFDNX4S (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
"Will and Whit" by Laura Lee Gulledge
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(Grade 7 and up) Wilhelmina Huckstep has a unique name and an equally unconventional hobby: she makes lamps. Since her parents died about a year ago, she’s lived with her aunt and helped run the family antiques business. Will’s best friends are Autumn and Noel, and during the summer before their senior year of high school, their friendship is tested in unexpected ways when Will meets Desmond (who she knew in elementary school), and decides to help out with the Penny Farthing Carnival. That’s how Autumn meets Blake, and then Hurricane Whitney rolls through town, knocking out power for days. With no electricity, Noel can’t bake, his sister Reese can’t text, and Will is forced to face the fear and sadness she’s tried to keep inside… 

This book is a lovely, quirky treat. It’ll especially be a joy to read if you’re a teen (or adult) who shares Will’s interests in art, quoting fictional characters (“I love old things. They make me feel sad. It’s happy for deep people.” [Sally Sparrow, Doctor Who]), and esoteric slang (“horse-feathers!”). Also, things that will make you sad in this book include tombstones: namely, those of Rory Arthur Williams and his loving wife Amelia Williams, and Hoban Washburn. Thank you, Laura Lee Gulledge, for reminding me of things to be sad about. You know, in addition to the fact that the main character here is an orphan…
Will and her friends are all delightfully unconventional people: in fact, their quirkiness can strain credulity a bit at times. This can happen in books with teens who have atypical interests—it’s nice that they’re not stock characters, but by the same token, their uniqueness can sometimes seem too charming and articulate to be true. But this satisfying graphic novel doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief: if you like to make things and hang out with people who do too, then you’ll enjoy reading about Will and her wonderful supporting cast. (4 out of 5 stars)
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Amulet Paperbacks (May 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1419705466
  • ISBN-13: 978-1419705465 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
Graphic Picks #20

Hi everyone! This week’s second graphic pick is another hilarious (but also informative) tome, this time by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (with Jane Austen). It’s called How to Survive a Horror Movie, and it’s full of exactly the kind of advice you’d expect from a book with that title. This book contains some violence and mature humor, so I’d say if you’re old enough to watch an R-rated horror movie, you’re old enough to read this. (Of course, many of us watched R-rated movies far too young, but there it is. If you’ve been scarred for life by scary movies, all the more reason to read this.)

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(The author.)

As everyone who has ever watched a horror movie knows, many of the characters in these films are defined by the fact that they make terrible decisions. Of course, they’re mostly terrible because we, the audience, know that they are in a horror movie. In real life, their choices might not seem so awful. Take this house for example: 

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In real life, you would be justified in thinking that this is a very creepy house, but you could go inside and probably not encounter a serial killer. But in a horror movie, if six people enter this house, at least five of them are doomed. Doomed! Now, take a look at this amusement park:

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Honestly, whether in real life or a horror movie, your best bet is to probably not go into an abandoned amusement park. (Remember Zombieland? It was all fun and games until the place was swarming with zombies.) How to Survive a Horror Movie is full of helpful tips on how to identify dangerous situations if you suddenly find yourself in a fictional world, though to be honest, a lot of the advice you’ll find here can be applied to real life too:

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(Unless it’s Halloween, you might want to avoid people who look like this.)

Something else that you should know about this book is that some of the humor it contains is decidedly politically incorrect (see the caption above pointing to the guy with the pitchfork). But as the book itself points out, horror movies themselves are full of conventions that are often racist and sexist if you get right down to it. In horror movies, if you are a woman, minority, or a man who is not the main character’s boyfriend, I’m sorry, but you’re almost certainly going to die. Unless you’re really beautiful—but not sexually active! Beautiful, virginal women main characters survive horror movies, and sometimes their boyfriends do too, though not very often. But aside from those exceptions, the vast majority of people in horror movies die thanks to poor judgement, bad luck, or for the sake of thinning out the cast. (Look, just watch Scream if you want the long version of this analysis.)

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Seth Graham-Smith does a hilarious job here of dissecting horror movie tropes and giving advice on how to avoid the types of dangers that fictional characters are forever falling prey to. For example:

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See this cemetery? Make it your policy to not hang out in cemeteries at night. Even in real life, this is not a great idea. (Especially if there’s mist. Mist is never a good sign.) In real life, danger isn’t usually as obvious as it is in movies, but if you’re ever somehow trapped in a horror movie, the merits of your choices will be pretty clear:

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So, if you’re a fan of horror movies, check out this wildly entertaining book. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next week!

"Captain America: Allies and Enemies" by Various
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(Grade 8 and up) Captain America has been fighting tyranny for decades, and as such, he’s cultivated friends and foes all over the world. In this volume, you’ll get a glimpse into the lives of some of those heroes and villains, including the Falcon, Peggy Carter, Crossbones, Black Widow, Agent 13, and Batroc. And as it happens, all of these people have something in common: their experiences, and methods, are very different from Captain America’s…

This book is really interesting. It collects comics by several different authors and artists, and while some stories didn’t really land with me (in the one about Peggy Carter, Cap seemed a bit sexist, but maybe his dialogue was just accurate for the average man in the 1940s), others, like those by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Kieron GIllen, were excellent. DeConnick’s was particularly interesting, because the story was clever and funny, but the main theme of the art was cleavage. Lots and lots of cleavage. Maybe it’s because I’m a lady, so I’m familiar with what cleavage looks like, but it seemed a bit excessive to me. 

However, the aforementioned story succeeds in spite of the fact that the art doesn’t quite match its tone, and the final story, by Gillen, shows that there’s some really interesting depth to Batroc, who’s often more of a punchline character. (Same goes for the story about Crossbones.) So, if you’re looking for a Captain America book that offers insight into characters who are often a secondary part of his story, check out this entertaining collection. (4 out of 5 stars)
  • Series: Captain America
  • Paperback: 136 pages
  • Publisher: Marvel; First Edition edition (May 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0785155023
  • ISBN-13: 978-0785155027 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
Graphic Picks #19

Hi everyone! I ran out of time again last week, so this week, please enjoy two more Graphic Picks! The first is Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh. There is definitely some adult humor and language here, so I’d say this is suitable for high school students and older readers. (And by “suitable,” I mean a real treat.)

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This book started with Brosh’s blog, which looks a lot like this:

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(If you’ve never been there before, you should go now. Seriously. Click here.)

Hyperbole and a Half—both the book and the blog—is about a lot of things. It’s about Brosh’s dogs, the simple dog and the helper dog. (Try to guess which is which.)

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It’s also about the author’s experiences with depression:

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It’s also about that time she ate an entire cake. (Because she wanted to. And her mom wouldn’t let her. But she did it anyway.)

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It’s also about how the author sees herself versus the person she actually is, which is probably something that more of us should examine, except that doing so is uncomfortable, and if you’re not Allie Brosh, then your explorations might turn out to be more depressing than funny:

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Hyperbole and a Half is also the source of the following meme:
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This book is the funniest thing I’ve read in months. It made me laugh so hard that I cried, then almost dropped it in the bathtub. Read this book if you’re looking for a good laugh, or information on living with depression, how to tell how smart your dog really is, what to do if a goose gets into your house, and how to be an adult. (Especially if you’re like me, and only sort of good at being an adult.)

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And check out http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/ for more great stories and drawings, though Brosh hasn’t updated lately. Where are you, Allie Brosh? The internet needs you! (Also, thank you for your fine, hilarious work.)

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again on Friday!

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons From a Life in Comedy" by Carol Leifer
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(Grade 9 and up) Even if you’ve never heard of Carol Leifer before, it’s safe to say that you’re familiar with her work. She’s written for Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, Modern Family, and the Oscars, and she’s been acting and doing stand-up comedy for decades. Comedy, like any business, is competitive, and Carol’s experience has given her excellent insight into how to get ahead and stay on top in whatever business you’re in. A lot of her advice is deceptively simple—don’t be late for an interview, accept that just because you love what you’re doing doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy, and don’t steal a Diet Coke from a fridge in Aaron Spelling’s office—but it’s great advice just the same, mostly because it only seems obvious because Carol pointed in out. Whether you’re looking for a good laugh or a good job, this book is for you.

Quirk Books sent me a copy of this book to review, and let me start out by saying that it really is a great resource for anyone looking for advice on getting a job and keeping it. This book contains the kind of advice that I wish I’d been given before starting my career—it would have been nice to read it in a book instead of having to figure it out myself, but I think no matter where you are in your career, the tips you’ll find here can be extremely helpful reminders. Whether you’ve had your job for a long time or you’re still in high school trying to figure out what you want to do next, Leifer has some great tips for getting ahead and getting to do what you love—and getting paid. (4 out of 5 stars)
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Quirk Books (April 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159474677X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594746772 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
"Beautiful Music for Ugly Children" by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
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(Grade 9 and up) For as long as he can remember, Gabe has been a guy—but since everyone knows him as Liz, it can be hard for Gabe’s family and friends to get past the fact that he’s a boy in a girl’s body. Fortunately, Gabe has John, his friend and fellow music lover, who helps him get a local radio show. Gabe finds refuge in his passion for music, and his show even generates a following of fans, who call themselves the Ugly Children Brigade. But not everyone accepts Gabe, and being true to himself could cost Gabe more than he ever imagined…

I really enjoyed this book, in large part because Gabe and I have similar taste in music.This book thoroughly subverted my expectations: when I first read a description of the novel, I assumed that it would focus on Gabe’s transitioning from female to male, and the struggles inherent to such a journey. But though that’s part of the story, there’s a lot more to it than that. Gabe isn’t just transsexual or transgender: he’s a friend, and a son, and a music lover. Obviously, what Gabe experiences as a result of being transgender is important, but Cronn-Mills does a great job of making that just one aspect of Gabe’s story.
I think that a lot of novels that focus on particular issues sometimes suffer for the fact that they focus on the issue at the center of a character’s struggles, but then neglect other aspects of that character’s journey. In Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, Gabe’s family has depth, his best friends Paige and John are wonderfully developed, and Gabe himself is a fantastic character that, after reading this book, I wish I could hang out with. While Gabe’s assailants could have been developed more, that’s a small quibble. This is a novel that I’m sure will inspire more than a few epic playlists—with lots of Elvis tracks, of course. (4.5 out of 5 stars) 
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Flux; Original edition (October 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738732516
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738732510 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
"Written in Stone" by Rosanne Parry

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(Grade 5 and up) Pearl is part of the Makah tribe, who make their home on the coast in the Pacific Northwest, and in the early 20th century, she does all she can to remember her mother, a weaver, and her father, a whaler, after their deaths. But it’s hard to hold onto tradition when so many things are changing—adhering to the old ways can mean risking arrest, but forsaking the old ways could mean losing the whales. Pearl’s family can’t rely on the sale of whale oil to get them through the winter, so they’ll have to find new ways to make money. When a man comes from the east looking for Indian artifacts, it seems that his desire to buy Makah art is the solution—but Pearl soon discovers that the man has an ulterior motive. How can she protect her family’s land and keep their traditions alive when all she has at her disposal are words on a page?

This novel is a moving account of Native American life in the 1920’s. If you’ve studied American history, then you’re familiar with the fact that, since the arrival of Europeans on this continent, Native American lands have been seized and their inhabitants forced onto reservations. It’s a terrible part of our history—but so is the fact that even after Native Americans were made to live on reservations, they were forced to assimilate too: in the period when this book takes place, that meant ending or altering practices like the potlatch, or risk imprisonment. This book reminds readers that, sadly, racism and exploitation of native peoples and lands are a part of our history. But characters like Pearl exemplify the tenacity of people who have kept their traditions alive in spite of incredible obstacles.

Though the author is white, she began her career as a teacher on a Quinault reservation, and in the Author’s Note, she acknowledges the fact that, as an outsider, she only has the right to tell certain stories—others are for Makah people alone to tell. In the book, Pearl is told “to have the courage of your ideas,” and though the novel mostly takes place in 1923, Pearl’s story is book-ended by scenes based on a traditional whale hunt that took place in 1999, which demonstrate Pearl’s commitment to preserving her family’s way of life, even through unorthodox means. (The way that her great-granddaughter shares this commitment is really touching too.) For readers interested in the culture of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest (and who might be looking for a more informative account than The Twilight Saga :)), this book is a great place to start, and includes information on Quinault language plus resources for further reading. (4 out of 5 stars)

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (June 25, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375869719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375869716 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
"Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage" A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristlebots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith
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(Grade 4 and up) Nick and Tesla are spending the summer with their Uncle Newt, and though it’s fun living with a borderline mad scientist, Nick and Tesla both wonder why they haven’t had one message from their parents yet. But then a trip to the Wonder Hut, the local hobby shop, inspires a new project to distract the twins from their worries: robots! Soon though, Nick and Tesla aren’t just building robots for fun: they’ll need to use all their skills at building useful gadgets to catch a thief, save their friend Silas’s family comic book store from going bankrupt, and defeat an army of dangerous robots! But who is behind the sinister machines?

I really enjoyed this second entry in the Nick and Tesla series, which Quirk Books sent me to review. The characters are likeable, the story is fast-paced and entertaining, and I only wish that this series had been around when I was Nick and Tesla’s age, so I could have bugged my parents to help me build the gadgets here. (Since I’m an adult, I’m going to have to try building a hoverbot on my own.) Though I’m not sure that all of the illustrations are 100% accurate (the robo-bug directions have an illustration where the tape seems to be on the wrong side of the battery), overall, the instructions for the building projects are clear, and the illustrations are helpful. Though I’d bet these books would be enjoyable even without the projects, the creative gadgets that the authors explain how to build definitely put this satisfying series over the top. (4 out of 5 stars)
  • Series: Nick and Tesla
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Quirk Books (February 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594746494
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594746499 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
Graphic Picks #18

Hi again! This week’s second graphic pick is a book I reviewed last year: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher (based on the works of William Shakespeare and George Lucas). Though it might take younger readers a little while to get used to the Shakespearean style, I’d say that if you’re old enough to watch Star Wars, then you’re old enough to read this book. 

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The audio version of this book is part of the Hub Reading Challenge this year, and after listening to it this week, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for this story. Hearing it spoken in the voices of the characters just makes it that much more entertaining, which is saying something, since the original book was full of delightful illustrations like this:image

As you can probably guess even if you’ve never heard anything about this book, it’s what you get when you retell Star Wars: A New Hope in iambic pentameter with Shakespearean flourishes. And if you know anything about Star Wars or Shakespeare, then you can probably see how this is a match made it literary/dramatic heaven. 

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Star Wars has everything that Shakespeare’s best plays had: there’s romance, betrayal, family secrets, and epic battles (though those involving spaceships you’ll just have to imagine, since it’s a bit tricky to adapt those to a stage play—though if you’re thinking of staging your own production of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, I suggest making some spaceships out of cardboard or flash paper and occasionally crashing them, then putting the spotlight on your actors when they talk in the midst of the battle—seriously, I want to see this as an actual play).

And of course, since this is Star Wars, you get some truly excellent stage directions:

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The audiobook production of this play actually starts in what’s made to sound like an authentic Shakespearean era theater, complete with a raucous audience and a barker who announces the play with a hearty “Hear ye, hear ye!” And because this production is authorized by LucasFilms, you’ll hear a lot of authentic Star Wars sound effects, like those of blasters and lightsabers. You’ll also hear some of the music from the movie, including the cantina band in Mos Eisley (you know which song I mean, since they only play that one song), and both Jabba the Hutt and Greedo speak in their own languages without translation. (If you’re familiar with Star Wars, you get the gist of their various threats and speeches.)

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I just finished The Empire Striketh Back, and in a few months, The Jedi Doth Return will be released. (Come to think of it, the Shakespearean treatment could even render the prequels bearable…) One of the best things about William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (both the audiobook and the book) are the monologues that put you inside the characters’ heads. It’s fun to hear a soliloquy from Darth Vader on why he wants to kill our heroes, or one from Obi-Wan on how he knows his fate is sealed as soon as they reach the Death Star. This is a strange and wonderful book that fans of Shakespeare and Star Wars shouldn’t miss.

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Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next week!