Politics for teens?

For the more politically-minded kids, there are books out there.  More kids than one might think are into this kind of thing.  A friend of mine in high school ran for Student Council President ran as a Marxist-Leninist, and actually knew what it meant.  There is a certain amount of interest therefore in politically themed books.  So with the US election ramping up, much hay has been made about Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's admiration of Ayn Rand (yawn!).  What other options are there?

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein is a favorite of mine.  A colony on the moon has been providing resource to Earth for years with little support in return for the residents on Luna.  When the computer that runs most of the systems gains consciousness, it becomes the rallying point of the Lunar citizen to revolt and declare themselves and independent nation.  The story has a lot of political discussion and examines the structure of underground resistance groups.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry is set in a world where corporate interests have dominated responsible government, leaving little power left for the former authorities.  In this world, people take the name of their employers as their last names, and companies can literally get away with murder.

Of course, you can also go with the obvious: Animal Farm, 1984, The Giver.  There's a lot out there.

Any other suggestions?  Let us know in the comments!

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Interview with Scot Gardner

We recently participated in a blog tour for the book The Dead I Know, and we had a chance to chat with the author Scot Gardner.

Scot Gardner has written several critically acclaimed novels for young adults. His debut novel, One Dead Seagull, was followed by White Ute Dreaming, a powerful story of first love, mates, and a yellow dog. His third novel, Burning Eddy, was shortlisted for the CBC Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adults. Gravity was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2007. The Dead I Know was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia in 2011; it is the first Scot Gardner novel to be published in Canada.
(Updated, August 23) The Dead I Know has just won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year 2012, in the Older Readers category. Congratulations, Scot!

Was there an inspiration for the story of alienation in The Dead I Know

I had a job as a youth worker for a number of years before becoming a writer. The story—Aaron’s story—was based on the life of a young man I knew during that period. He’d lost everything—parents, siblings, uncles and aunts: the lot. His courage to face the abject alienation life had handed him was the inspiration for The Dead I Know.

How did you come up with the title? 

The working title was The Swing. It played on the idea that Aaron was stuck oscillating between a past that threatened to eat him alive and a future with promise. My Australian publishers thought the title was a bit abstract for the nature of the work, and I agreed. The Dead I Know was one of a dozen or so alternatives I wrote.

Aaron has had a pretty unfortunate life, current circumstances notwithstanding.  Do you get attached to your characters to the point where you feel guilty about what you've done to them?

Part of the job is being prepared, nay, compelled to take our characters to hell (and hopefully, back again). It’s not always a pleasant journey for the writer and I did suffer for my craft alongside Aaron—there were times I had to come up for air, soak up the summer and remember that the darkness was all make-believe.

Do you have any experience with the dead?

My godparents, Kevin and Annette, are funeral directors and they let me behind the velvet curtains at their establishment, allowed me to work with other people’s dead and get a feel for the industry. I realised how much grace there was with a good death and how much of a body blow it is when a life is cut short. I couldn’t have written the book without their stories and honesty.

Who was your favourite character to write in this book? 

John Barton’s pre-teen daughter Skye was my favourite character to write. She had attitude as soon as she hit the page and her feistiness propels Aaron’s self-discovery. Much of her spunk is bravado, covering her own wounds and confusion. I like that in real people, too.

If you sleepwalked, where do you think you'll end up?

I live in the mountains and I know if I sleepwalked I’d end up wedged in a wombat’s burrow or knee-deep in the creek.

It seems like every book and movie has a sequel these days. What would you do if you'd to write one to The Dead I Know?

I think a sequel to The Dead I Know would take Aaron deeper into the human experience. He’s so fragile, even at the end of the book, and I think his story would explore friendships with people his own age, bungled romances and death close to home.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you write, or do you just go with whatever story you feel like?

I write what I’m drawn to write and at this stage of my career it’s realist fiction featuring young adults as the main protagonists—the publishers call it ‘Young Adult Literature’. Many of my adult friends are drawn to read YA for the same reasons I am; the writing is clean and ambitious and the stories often compact and dark. I’m still fifteen in so many ways (does anyone ever grow out of fireworks??) and I love the sense of wonder at the world that comes with it.

What did you read when you were a teenager?

Not much. I read Asterix and Obelix and Tintin. I liked the Gerald Durrell books about collecting animals for zoos (it was the 80’s and that stuff was still acceptable). I didn’t read a novel of my own volition until I was 17. I got bored and read one the school librarian had recommended for me: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. It was a story about a boy who ran away from home and subsisted in a hollow tree with his pet falcon. I’d found a glorified northern-hemispherical version of my summers. I fell in love and haven’t stopped reading since.

Our blog tries to gather teen and adult fiction and non-fiction that may appeal particularly to boys.  Any recommendations?

Some of my favourites for boys include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Doug Macleod’s hilarious Confessions of a Teenage Body Snatcher, Gary Paulson’s Hatchet books, John Marsden’s ├╝ber-gritty Dear Miffy and Phillip Gwynne’s Deadly, Unna and Nukkin Ya. I loved Markus Zusak’s The Messenger (or I am the Messenger in the USA) and his earlier books about Cameron Wolfe are classics (The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry).

Thanks again to Scot and Penguin Canada for arranging the interview!
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Blog Tour: The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner

Thanks for dropping by our blog for The Dead I Know blog tour.

The Dead I Know reminds me a bit of I Am Not a Serial Killer.  Both are young men working in a mortuary with the dead.  Both are lonely, troubled youth, though with different problems.  Both have peculiar home lives.  Neither was what I expected, and for both books that's where the problem lies.  I expected a bit of supernatural story in this one.

Aaron feels like he doesn't quite fit in the world.  He lives in a trailer park with Mam, but wakes up in random places.  He has terrible, recurring nightmares.  And now, he has a job in a mortuary. But with the owner and caretaker John showing him the ropes and helping him get through the stress of dealing with mourning families, Aaron gradually finds that he likes the work, and even comes to discover that maybe he doesn't have to bury his personal life so deeply.

Ultimately, it's hard to tell what this book is about.  For me, it was a story about overcoming your past and finding your place in the world despite that past.  Aaron suffered terribly, and never really had a chance to deal with it emotionally.  The nature of his early experiences are really terrible, though, and that's what confused me about the story.  For the sake of the story being told, did it need to be so rough?

Having said all that, the nature of working with the dead as a funeral director is a good draw.  There's the potential for gruesome imagery and the possibility of some morbid humor.  Whether it actually happens or not is irrelevant; the mere possibility is a selling point, especially for young guys who might otherwise avoid a story like this one about emotional self-discovery.

The Dead I Know is well-suited for book reports.  It's not too long, has a troubled character, and a dark secret that stays secret to the even the reader deep into the story.

Thank you Penguin Canada for providing us with the preview copy of The Dead I Know.
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Preteen Reads: The Daemon Parallel by Roy Gill

(We're going to take a reader's suggestion (thanks!) and start reviewing books for the preteen crowd too. Here's our first review.) 

"It was over coffee and biscuits that Grandma Ives offered to return Cameron’s father from the dead."
Okay, who can resist and is not be intrigued by a first line like that?

When his dad was found dead by the beach, Cameron went to live with his grandma, whom he's met maybe once or twice. Before they get to know each other, she offers to resurrect his dad.
Grandma Ives is not your ordinary grandmother type. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about her, but she does know about The Daemon Parallel, a hidden world that co-exists with Edinburgh, and she knows spells that can raise the dead. That's just what Cameron needs. He misses his dad, and he wants to figure out the cause of his mysterious death, but first, we'll have to see if Cameron has inherited the special powers that will enable him to travel back and forth between the two worlds, to deal with the daemons, and to help his grandma get the right ingredients to complete the resurrection spell.

This impressive debut novel has just the right blend of action, mystery, adventure, magic, supernatural, humour and character development.  Most of all, I was surprised at how "right sounding" the voice of Cameron is. The things he said are exactly the kinds of stuff I'd expect a kid to say. Despite the title and perhaps the cover, the book doesn't rely on just grossness or goriness to carry the story, even though you will encounter many daemons in the book, and underneath all the fantastical elements is a boy who is trying to figure out if he's doing the right thing or not. And what a gutsy ending! Not going to spoil it for you, but throughout the book, I was thinking, is the author really going to do that? No way. It's just a red herring I'm sure. No, wait, he's really going there. Nice.
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Pale by Chris Wooding and My Problem with High Interest/Low Reading Level Books

On NetGalley the other day, I found a listing for a new book by Chris Wooding called Pale.  Many of you will recognize Wooding's name from Malice or The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. He's written some of the best and more original fiction out there in my opinion, so I knew I had to read this new book.
Pale is a 67-page book designed for reluctant teen readers, and I thought, okay, I haven't really read any impressive Hi/Lo (High Interest / Low Reading Level) books yet, but this is Chris Wooding, so I'm sure it'll be different.

The story is set in a world where people can be brought back to life with a special serum, as long as their bodies are compatible. The only thing different when you come back is that you will look visibly different. The serum turns your whole body white, hence the term "Pale". People are not fond of the Pales at all. They are shunned for life and banished to live in The Graveyard.  Just ask Jed and Kyle. If they see a Pale coming towards them, they'll go over and beat him up. Just because.
Then one day, Jed got hit by a car. When the paramedics asked his girlfriend Sadie if they should use the serum on Jed, she panicked and said yes because she didn't want to lose him. Jed was now a Pale. He hated the idea at first and was really mad that he got changed, but he knew that he was still Jed, even if he looked different. No one else understood that though and accepted him. Not his parents, not his best friend, not even Sadie. Sadie who turned him into a Pale in the first place!

I was disappointed with the story. It feels unfinished and the characters don't seem natural to me. The changes in them are too abrupt and not very believable. It is also too much of an issue book sprinkled with a bit of sci-fi, which is what bugs me mostly about many teen Hi/Lo books. Haven't we moved past that in teen literature? We want a variety for anyone, not just books about taboo subjects that we adults for some reason think every teen loves. 

This is what the author said on his website about Pale.
"Now listen y’all. This book was written for a specialist market. It’s very short, and the language and story are much, much simpler than the books you’re used to reading from me. If you’re curious, or if you’re a completist, or if there’s someone you know who’s a struggling reader and might like this sorta thing, then by all means pick it up; it’s a creepy little sci-fi tale that may tickle your fancy. But if you’re expecting something in the vein of Malice or Alaizabel, you’ll be disappointed. I wouldn’t want anyone spending their hard-earned readies and then being gutted because of the content."

Okay, Mr. Wooding. I will still read every one of your books because I like your stuff too much, but your explanation/excuse is not good enough. Why do Hi/Lo books exist in the first place? To entice kids and teens who have difficulties reading to read of course. By giving them a book that is easier, kids will not have such adversity to books and they'll discover the joy of reading.  Which sounds fine in theory, but the problem with many of these books is that often, not only the language, but also the plot, is simplified. How are we supposed to convince a kid that reading is good stuff with mediocre stories?  The concepts in the books don't have to be dumbed down, and no, I'm no writer, but I'm sure a good one can tell an equally great story even if they're somewhat limited by the kind of words they can use, or the number of pages they have. If a story is crazy intriguing, wouldn't it motivate kids to try harder? I would like to think so.

I immigrated to Canada when I was 15. For the first couple years here, I had trouble understanding everyone around me, especially my classmates, who used words and slang I've never heard of from my minimum Hong Kong English classes. I still remember one of them asked me for a calculator one day, and when I asked her to repeat what she just said, she said it louder and slower, mimed the pressing-calculator motion, and explained what a calculator is. Duh, I know what a calculator is. I just didn't catch what you said. Just because I couldn't speak the language perfectly didn't mean I'm stupid, I remember thinking.

What is your experience with Hi/Lo books? What are some of the better ones you've come across?  Do share in the comments.
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How about a topical post?

Did you know that humans put another rover on Mars? One specifically designed to look for evidence that life exists or existed on Mars?  Or that it was also intended to pave the way for a potential visit by humans to the Red Planet?

There has been a lot written about that planet.  Here's just a tiny selection of Mars and  space related stuff.


Kim Stanley Robinson' s Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars) is an interconnected series of short stories about the settlement and development of a Martian colony.  It's a major cornerstone in science fiction and winner of numerous awards, though I will admit I was a bit bored by it.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is even more legendary.  Valentine Michael Smith, an orphaned child of the first human visitors to Mars, is adopted by Martians and raised in their culture.  When he returns to Earth as a young adult, he struggles to adapt to Earth and human culture.  This isn't a young adult novel, as Heinlein doesn't shy away from controversy regarding human sexuality and other mature topics.  Still, it a major piece in Heinlein greater body of work.

Edited to add: Also set on Mars is Black Hole Sun, which we've previously reviewed.


Packing for Mars by Mary Roach looks at all the preparations that are required even before we consider sending a human to Mars.  Like Roach's previous works, this isn't a hard-science examination; while it does have all the science in there somewhere, it's just as much about the people as the tech.  And to get a sense of the tone?  She watches a live video feed of herself pooping in a training exercise on how to use space toilets.

Solar System: A Visual Exploration of All the Planets, Moons and Other Heavenly Bodies That Orbit our Sun by Marcus Chown.  Like the previously recommended The Elements, Solar System is a beautiful book with fantastic photos and descriptions of the subject matter.  While it obviously covers more than Mars, it certain is a big motivator to look at the universe around us.

Video Game:

I can't resist.  While the game isn't a masterpiece, it is interesting: Red Faction: Guerilla is the story of a near-future mining colony on Mars that is in the midst of a miner's revolt.  You play as a recently joined revolutionary set out to demolish the infrastructure of the ruling corporate ownership.  Big draw? You can destroy pretty much everything with a sledgehammer.  Everything.
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R.L. Stine in Entertainment Weekly

From the August 3, 2012 print edition of Entertainment Week on the 20th anniversary of Goosebump, R.L. Stine concludes the interview with this quote (I can't find a link online):

I try not to put any messages in my books. Really, I Just want kids to say, "Gee, I can turn to a book for just entertainment.!"  The rule for children's books has always been that characters had to learn or grow in every book. I tried to break that rule.  The kids [in my books] never learn. The just run away.

I totally agree.  We want kids to love reading, but we also seem obsessed with learning something every second of every day.  All that learning must be exhausting.  It's nice to give them a break and just have let them have fun every now and then.  Imagine, kids not reading about empowerment and self-esteem and drugs for half an hour.  We don't want them to see sex, violence or drug use in movies and video games, but if that's not  in a book, the book isn't worth reading.
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