Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Tales-From-Outer-Suburbia_ShaunTanBibliographic Info:
Tan, Shaun. 2009. Tales From Outer Suburbia. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 9780545055871.

Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia is a book sure to satisfy both graphic novel lovers and readers of short stories. Tan’s illustrations and his stories are whimsical and bizarre, eerie and beautiful. There are many influences here, but Library Journal puts it best: “Chris Van Allsburg meets The Outer Limits” (2009).

Fifteen different stories are presented with fantastic illustrations. Some illustations are in black and white while others are in the muted earth tones that Tan is known for, such as in his wordless book The Arrival. The book’s second story, “Eric”, is both a tale of a foreign exchange student. Or is it an alien visitor? The host family doesn’t quite know what to do with this tiny being who finds more interest and joy in candy wrappers, bottle caps, and the Fibonacci-like patterns present in everyday objects. The gift Eric leaves for his host family is both lovely and magical, yet also very odd.

The story “Undertow” features a dugong, a creature similar to a manatee, that mysteriously appears on someone’s front lawn. The couple who own the house seem to do nothing but fight, which temporarily stops when the neighborhood bands together to try and save the dugong. When the dugong is rescued, rather unremarkably, things appear to return to normal as the neighbors go back to their everyday lives and the couple returns to arguing. There is a poignant moment at the end. “Nobody saw the small boy clutching an encyclopedia of marine zoology leave the front door of that house, creep toward the dugong-shaped patch, and lie down in the middle of it, arms by his sides, looking at the clouds and stars, hoping it would be along time before his parents noticed that he wasn’t in his room and came out angry and yelling” (Tan 2009). The last two sentences, which I will omit here, are quiet and almost apologetically beautiful.

Tales From Outer Suburbia was a 2010 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children, and a 2009 Publishers Weekly Best Book for Children, among others. Each story reads like a snippet in a stranger’s life, but perhaps a stranger that reminds you of yourself or someone you remember from long ago. There is no trace of didacticism, although many stories could easily go that way. Instead, Tan leaves imagery, in both his illustrations and his words, to speak how they will to the reader. This book would work particularly well in a writing group of tweens or teens. Before reading any of the stories, have group members write a poem or story based on a single illustration from the book. Afterward, read the original, accompanying story aloud to the group and discuss how experiences and emotions can change interpretation.

Benedetti, Angelina. June 2009. Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|20183934|21534168&mc=USA#. Accessed December 2, 2013.


Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

ShipBreakerBibliographic Info:
Bacigalup, Paolo. 2010. Ship Breaker. New York: Little Brown. ISBN 9780316056212.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel Ship Breaker begins like a punch to the face. Nailer, our teenage protagonist who doesn’t know exactly how old he is, lives somewhere off the Gulf Coast of America in a future version of our world. The future is bleak. Oceans have risen, natural resources like oil and gas have been virtually depleted, and ship breakers like Nailer spend their days working to break down abandoned ships for parts that can be sold and recycled. The work is grueling and dangerous. Within the first few chapters, Nailer nearly dies in a scene that is sure to make the skin crawl on readers who are claustrophobic.

Several chapters into the novel, Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship that is full of goods worth more money than they can even imagine, they make big plans to sell their scavenge and live a better life. When they discover the body of a rich, young girl on the ship, Pima and Nailer argue about leaving her or, when they find out she is still alive, brokering a deal so that they all benefit. What ensues is a nail-biting race to avert the many dangers of this dystopian world and to find a way to live a better life.

Bacigalupi addresses issues of pollution, class differences, genetic engineering, slavery, child labor, greed, family, and religion. The world he constructs is both brutal and exquisitely beautiful in its detail. The characters are fully formed and easy to both love and hate. Surprising for myself was how, by the end of the novel, I had grown to enjoy the character of the half-man, Tool, who is initially introduced as blood-thirsty and incredibly frightening. Richard Lopez, Nailer’s father, is terrifying in his abject cruelty, his drug and alcohol addiction, and his absolute disregard for his son. In one scene in chapter five, Nailer barely escapes a violent confrontation with his father and, despite the many times his father has beaten him, he still has hope. “Nailer curled in on himself, glad to feel safe for the night. Tomorrow might be different, but this day had ended well. Tomorrow would handle itself” (Bacigaulpi 2009, 60).

There are many gorey and violent scenes in Ship Breaker, but none feel gratuitous. It is a horrifying world in which Nailer lives, but he still manages to find moments of compassion, of honesty, and of love. “At its core, the novel is an exploration of Nailer’s discovery of the nature of the world around him and his ability to transcend that world’s expectations” (Publishers Weekly 2010). Ship Breaker won the 2011 Printz Award and was nominated for a National Book Award in 2010. This is a novel for older or mature teens, but is also a fantastic springboard for discussion. Ask teen readers to compare aspects of Nailer’s world with present day. Compare Bright Sands beach, where the ship breakers live, to the modern day beach slums in Cambodia or Haiti. Don’t hesitate to share photographs. This is sure to be an eye-opening discussion for all involved.

Publishers Weekly. April 2010. Publishers Weekly.com. http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-316-05621-2. Accessed December 2, 2013.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WhenYouReachMe_SteadBibliographic Info:
Stead, Rebecca. 2009. When You Reach Me. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780385737425.

It is 1978 and Miranda is a sixth grader in New York City who lives with her single mom, an independent woman who never got the chance to finish law school. Miranda is surrounded by a unique cast of characters, including her ex-best-friend Sal, her mother’s kind-hearted boyfriend Richard, Sal’s mother Louisa, shop owners Belle and Jimmy, and classmates Annemarie, Colin, Julia, and Marcus. Each person plays a very important role, some large and some small, in the lives of each other.

The crux of the story is that Sal is randomly punched by another kid one day while walking home from school. He stops talking to Miranda from that day forward. Miranda is unsure if being attacked or perhaps something else spurred Sal’s behavior, and she is left feeling lonely and confused. A mystery is woven into the story in the form of strange letters that Miranda finds in places that no one but herself or her mother should be able to access. The letters prompt Miranda to tell her story from the beginning and that “they” are asking her to do this so that they can save a friend’s life. The letter Miranda writes is the actual novel, When You Reach Me. References to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time hint at science fiction elements at work, but never overwhelm the building of characters. “Stead’s novel is as much about character as story. Miranda’s voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation” (Augusta 2009).

When You Reach Me is a novel about a girl who comes of age during a stage of life when she and those around her are stuck in neutral. “Spaghetti again. We were kind of stuck, I realized. In a lot of ways” (Stead 2009). Miranda is a smart girl, but she is only able to move forward with her life by paying closer to attention to those around her. It does help, of course, that someone is sending her letters from the future.

Stead’s novel won the 2010 Newbery Medal, a 2009 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book, and a 2009 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Readers under the age of 12 may be a bit confused by some of the time travel references and conversations, but young fans of Madeline L’Engle will be delighted by the parallels in the two stories. The only moment in When You Reach Me that I did not like was when Stead reveals the ending of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Other than that spoiler, this is a fantastic coming of age novel. After reading it, ask young readers to write letters to an adult in their lives but specify that they must write the letter to the young version of that adult. Young readers may also enjoy writing letters to themselves that can be read at the end of the year or even further in the future.

Augusta, Caitlin. July 2009. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|25425359|23387850&mc=USA#. Accessed November 15, 2013.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

WednesdayWars_SchmidtBibliographic Info:
Schmidy, Gary D. 2007. The Wednesday Wars. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618724834.

It’s 1967 and Holling Hoodhood (yes, you read that correctly) is in seventh grade at Camillo Junior High on Long Island. Holling’s dad is an architect who only shows concern for his architectural firm, keeping his house perfect, watching Walter Cronkite on television, and making his opinions about politics and the Vietnam war well understood by the rest of the Hoodhood family. Holling’s mother pretends she doesn’t smoke when she’s worked up and mostly tries to keep things at home perfect for Mr. Hoodhood. Heather, Holling’s 16-year-old sister listens to Pete Seeger and the Beatles, paints flowers on her face like the hippies do, and just wants the war in Vietnam to end. And Holling himself? As the only Presbyterian kid in his class, he spends Wednesday afternoons trapped in Mrs. Baker’s classroom while his Jewish and Catholic classmates attend temple and mass. What tortures does Mrs. Baker have in store for Holling? He’s sure that Wednesday afternoons will be filled with horrors only a middle school teacher could think up.

The Wednesday Wars is one of those rare novels that alternates between hilarious, thought-provoking, dramatic, heart-breaking, and emotionally fulfilling. During his Wednesday afternoons with Mrs. Baker, Holling discovers a love for Shakespeare. He is convinced that Mrs. Baker has never read Shakespeare, or else why would she assign him to read plays full of so much treachery, violence, corruption, and, best of all, very creative cussing? The themes of each Shakespearean play that Holling reads is woven into the rest of The Wednesday Wars (and not just the cussing). Holling relates his experiences at home, with his classmates, to the Vietnam war, and even to baseball to the themes, events, and characters in Shakespeare’s works. “Seamlessly, he knits together the story’s themes: the cultural uproar of the ’60s, the internal uproar of early adolescence, and the timeless wisdom of Shakespeare’s words” (Engberg 2007).

Author Gary D. Schmidt tells a story with some laugh-out-loud scenes, but the cultural and historical significance of many parts makes this well worth having any teen read. Readers will feel sympathy for Mai Thi, Holling’s classmate from Vietnam who was brought to the United States with the help of a Catholic relief group, and both Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Bigio, whose husbands are soldiers in Vietnam. Young readers may not fully understand all the political references, but Schmidt does a wonderful job of tying in various events, such as the protests at Columbia University and the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. The first few chapters start slowly, but things only get better from there. Holling Hoodhood is often a reluctant hero, as well as an awkward middle schooler, and he ultimately learns a lot about himself by the end of the book. In one poignant scene, Holling tells the reader, “You don’t want fire to go out inside you twice” (Schmidt 2007).

The Wednesday Wars was nominated for a Newbery Medal in 2008, , was a 2008 ALA Notable Book for Children, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year 2007. Reading the book is wonderful, but the audiobook read by Joel Johnstone is great fun to listen to. I alternated between the two, but did find myself carrying my phone with me from place to place so that I could listen to the book at work, in the car, and at home. The Wednesday Wars would be an excellent novel for students studying Shakespeare to read. Encourage students or book club participants to think of novels they have read that mention other books or authors. Ask them to try and find connections between historical events and things happening today. This may give them a better idea of how everything is connected.

Engberg, Gillian. June 2007. Booklist. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|17118227|13676788&mc=USA#. Accessed November 9, 2013.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

DeadEndInNorvelt_GantosBibliographic Info:
Gantos, Jack. 2011. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. ISBN 9780374379933.


It’s the summer of 1962 and Jack Gantos is completely and utterly grounded. In his 2012 Newbery award-winning novel, Dead End in Norvelt, Gantos writes about himself and his real hometown during one very interesting and often bizarre summer. Recruited by elderly neighbor Miss Volker as her right-hand man, Jack learns to construct fantastically over-written yet historically important obituaries. He also helps his father dig a hole for a fake (or is it?) bomb shelter, narrowly avoids the wrath of a group of Hell’s Angels, and valiantly tries to become un-grounded, all while plagued by nosebleeds that occur at the most inopportune times.

Writer Gantos’s style is zany and the text is cleverly filled with historical facts that often lead to hilarious segues in main character Jack’s thoughts and actions. Despite the many historical references that have the potential to bog down the story, the action rapidly moves forward and propels the story into further strange and delightful directions. In one scene, Miss Volker suspects an olderly neighbor has died and quickly prompts Jack to look in on the neighbor. She tells Jack to wear a disguise, but the only one he has is a Grim Reaper costume from Halloween. In response, Miss Volker cackles and says, “‘Mrs Dubicki’s going to have to see the Grim Reaper sooner or later, so it might as well be sooner” (Gantos 2011). Miss Volker is a sharp-tongued woman with a brain like a sponge when it comes to history. She teaches Jack about the founding of Norvelt and, through the writing of the obituaries, that it is important to remember and understand history so that mistakes won’t be repeated. “Each quirky obituary is infused with a bit of Norvelt’s history, providing insightful postwar facts focusing on Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in founding the town on principles of sustainable farming and land ownership for the poor” (Reutter 2011).

However off-the-wall many of the events in Dead End in Norvelt appear, Gantos shares an important message with his readers; it is not only important to remember the past so that mistakes are not repeated, but understanding the past also helps you understand yourself and the world around you. This is demonstrated each time Miss Volker, Mr. Gantos, and Mrs. Gantos each voice their respective opinions about a topic. Gantos writes in a way that the reader can understand and sympathize with each individual’s point of view despite the differences of opinion they each have.

Dead End in Norvelt is great for children ages 10 and up. Considering main character Jack’s wacky adventures, this novel would be great fun to read aloud with a classroom or a book club. Encourage students or book club members to research and share an interesting piece of local history. The wackier, the better.

Reutter, Vicki. September 2011. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|33895753|33027420&mc=USA#. Accessed November 6, 2013.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

MidwifesApprentice_CushmanBibliographic Info:
Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife’s Apprentie. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 9780064406307.

In just over 120 pages, author Karen Cushman weaves a story about the life of a starving and homeless orphan girl in medieval England. When readers are first introduced to Alyce, who is initially known as Beetle, she seeks warmth from the bitter cold in a pile of warm manure. Details like this are what bring Cushman’s story to life and what convey the harsh reality of Alyce’s day-to-day life.  Cushman’s character-driven story gives readers a sense of what life might have been like for a poor girl in medieval England. Children may be surprised to learn that a child without a family was not necessarily sent to an orphanage or somewhere similar. Cushman is careful not to use modern slang and is generous, though not overly so, with descriptions of food, clothing, and tools of the time period. All of this helps to evoke a setting appropriate for the time period. “Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people’s occupations fill each page as Alyce comes of age and heart” (Miller 1995).

Particularly interesting are the descriptions of a midwife’s job. The Author’s Note at the end of the book gives further detail about the history of midwifery. Many details may surprise readers. An important aspect of the novel is how Cushman is able to include  themes of independence, education, self-discovery, and feminism. Alyce thinks she is less than a person. She considers herself stupid and useless. She perseveres in harsh conditions, both physically and emotionally, and begins to grow intellectually and spiritually as she pays attention to what others around her do, remembers those lessons, and applies them in her own life. A poignant moment in the story occurs when Alyce succeeds at something as she had not succeeded before.  “At that, Alyce felt so much pride and satisfaction that she had to let them out somehow, and so she smiled, which felt so good that she thought she might do it again.”

The Midwife’s Apprentice won the 1996 Newbery Medal and a 1998 Young Reader’s Choice Award. This short novel is a great starter book for children who are new to historical fiction. Try reading it aloud to a classroom or asking students to take turns reading it aloud. After each chapter, prompt students with a discussion. Alyce’s destitution is is an excellent discussion point for children. Ask children why Alyce sleeps in the dung heap and why she stayed with Jane, the midwife, despite how mean Jane is to Alyce.

Miller, Sue. May 1995. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|1220566|47089429&mc=USA#. Accessed November 3, 2013.

Walt Whitman: Words for America by Beverly Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Walt_Whitman_Words_for_AmericaBibliographic Info:
Kerley, Barbara. 2004. Walt Whitman: Words for America. Ill. Brian Selznick. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 9780439357913.

Nominated for a 2005 Sibert award and winner of an ALA Notable Book for Children award in the same year, Barbara Kerley’s Walt Whitman: Words for America presents an American legend, patriot, and staunch supporter of President Abraham Lincoln. Presented in a picture book format, this biography is written for kids in second to fifth grades, but is weighty enough for older kids, too.

Whitman’s early life is described in terms of his passion for writing and reading, and progress in a linear fashion through the end of his life. What the reader learns is how Whitman was connected to Lincoln, via his admiration for the president, as well as his connection to the soldiers of the Civil War. Readers can follow Whitman as he travels across America, writes about “the common people” he so admired, and spends much of his time caring for wounded soldiers. He is presented as a sympathetic figure who was passionate, kind, and proud to be American.

Peppered throughout the book are excerpts from Whitman’s poems. Kerley’s style is what some may refer to as “creative nonfiction.” She weaves facts with flowing, imagery-filled text. She makes many allusions to Whitman’s writings, such as the allusion to his poem, “Oh Captain! My Captain!” in the line, “He began to see Lincoln as a captain, guiding his ship through troubled waters” (Kerley 2004).

Not to be forgotten, the illustrations by Caldecott award-winning artist Brian Selznick deepen the sympathy the reader is likely to feel toward Whitman. Real people are presented in stunning detail and, in the case of Whitman, a remarkable likeness when compared to black and white photographs. “The brilliantly inventive paintings add vibrant testimonial to the nuanced text” (Taniguchi 2004). Each illustration is a singular moment in time that teases the reader to continue. In design, the illustrations take up most of the pages, but the text carries equal weight in importance. The two balance each other out to create a larger historical framework for understanding the connections between Whitman, Lincoln, and the Civil War.

The last few pages contain an author’s note and brief but important details about Whitman, Lincoln’s fondness for Whitman’s poetry, and what happened after the war. There is also a long note from the illustrator, as well as eight poems and a list of the author’s sources. Kids who take the time to read these sections will be richly rewarded. This book segues wonderfully into an exploration of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Drum-taps. If you host a creative writing group, encourage your students to write their own poems about America and the lives of Americans after learning about Walt Whitman. Combine the poems to create a book about America for the whole group to share.

Taniguchi, Marilyn. November 2004. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|13106048|9386762&mc=USA#. Accessed October 26, 2013.