Exposure by Mal Peet

Wow! Carnegie Medal winner Mal Peet has written a different book about fame, much more sophisticated than Claim to Fame (see below). Inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, this novel is focused, not so much on jealousy, but on the perils and tragedies of celebrity. Otello is a soccer star, a black man who’s just signed a contract with a team in the southern part of an unnamed South American country. Desmerelda is a white pop idol, and also the daughter of a powerful politician who happens to be one of the team’s owners. When Otello and Desmerelda fall in love, the spotlight of celebrity becomes so blindingly focused on every detail of their lives together that it becomes impossible for them to make any good decisions. And since, unbeknownst to either Dezi or Otello, the couple have an enemy who is willing to do whatever it takes to destroy them, well, it’s a tragedy of epic proportions.

A long time ago when I read Othello, I remember wondering why Iago was so intent on destroying Othello. Jealousy? Revenge against the world for slighting him? Monetary gain? I had the same question throughout this novel. As Otello’s evil enemy works his scheme to completely sabotage Dezi’s and Otello’s success and ruin their lives, he never tells us why he wants to destroy these superstars. Is it envy? Or money? Or has Otello done something to this man to make him angry and bitter? The ending of the book implies that the entire plot was a long con to gain more money for the evil Iago character, but it doesn’t make complete sense. “Iago” is already rich, and he seems to have some deeper motive for hating Dezi and Otello. I liked the fact that, just as in Shakepeare’s play, we never really know why this all had to happen.

In a tragedy the hero is supposed to have a “tragic flaw.” Shakepeare’s Othello is a jealous man, easily deluded by Iago’s lies. Otello in Exposure seems to be good man. He’s not jealous like his namesake or greedy and ambitious like Macbeth or imperious and full of pride like Lear. If anything, Peet’s Otello is a Hamlet, unable to decide what to do or whom to trust or to understand why he is caught in a web of deceit that will bring him to his ultimate disgrace and downfall.

It’s a sad, sort of hopeless, tragedy, and the parallel story about a trio of street kids whose lives become intertwined with those of Otello and Dezi is not much more hopeful. Bush, the street beggar, and his friend, Felicia, do have a bit of a happy ending, but it’s mixed with tragedy, too. Nevertheless, as much as I like to have a smidgen of optimism in my stories, this one feels right. It’s a jungle out there, and fame and celebrity are not a protection but rather an invitation to evil people to see what dirt they can find or manufacture to bring down the high and mighty. And great was the fall thereof.

If this one is eligible for the next round of the Cybils, I’m going to nominate it. It was published in Britain in 2008, but the U.S. edition came out in October, 2009, just on the cusp of the nomination period. It wasn’t nominated in 2008 or 2009. So I’ll have to see. But it would be a shame to have this one overlooked because it’s that good.

Other Shakespeare-inspired YA novels:
Hamlet, A Novel by John Marsden
Enter Three Witches by Caroline Cooney.
Ophelia by Lisa M. Klein.
Lady Macbeth’s Daughter by Lisa M. Klein.
The Third Witch: A Novel by Rebecca Reisert
Ophelia’s Revenge by Rebecca Reisert
Dating Hamlet: Ophelia’s Story by Lisa Fiedler
Romeo’s Ex: Rosaline’s Story by Lisa Fiedler.
Saving Juliet by Suzanne Selfors.
The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper.
Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston.

Any additions to the list?

Claim to Fame by Margaret Peterson Haddix

“This is my secret. I would call it a hidden talent, but talents are supposed to be happy possessions, something to rejoice over and nurture and maybe even gloat about. My secret skill has brought me nothing but pain. At any given moment I can hear anything anybody says about me., anywhere in the world.”

I like Margaret Peterson Haddix’s books. I enjoyed The Shadow Children series, The Missing series, and her stand alone novels such as Leaving Fishers or Double Identity. Claim to Fame is another good, solid entry into Ms. Haddix’s catalog of short but thoughtful YA fiction.

The premise is good: child actress Lindsay Scott finds that she can suddenly “hear” anything anyone says about her anywhere in the world. She’s about to go crazy from all the babble and gossip, good, bad and indifferent, when she finds a place where she can escape into silence. But now after five years as a recluse, things are changing again. Lindsay must find a way to deal with her “gift” as an adult and not a self-absorbed teenager.

Of course, that’s the key. Don’t we all have to find a way to use the gifts and cope with the disabilities we have without being self-centered, attention-seeking narcissists? It’s a part of growing up, and at 52, sometimes I’m still working on it.

One of the urchins says she wants to be famous. (She plans to achieve this fame on Broadway.) I told her earlier today that fame as a goal wasn’t really worth the effort. She asked if I would be ashamed of her if she became famous, and I told her that I’d rather she had a goal to become excellent. If she becomes an excellent artist or actress or engineer or sales clerk and becomes famous as a by-product, I’d be proud of her. But fame by itself is rather empty. Ask Lindsay Scott, fictional celebrity, who hears all about herself every time she leaves her house in an echo chamber that points out all of her failings, insecurities, and vulnerabilities incessantly. Fame ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Margaret Peterson Haddix on the inspiration behind Claim to Fame.

Willow by Julia Hoban

Willow is a book about self-injury, cutting, but it’s also about how something like cutting doesn’t really define a person. Willow, the heroine of the book, is much more than just a cutter. She’s a beautiful girl, who blushes easily. She’s an imaginative girl who loves Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. She’s capable of sacrificially someone else, even though she’s in such pain herself that it is all she can do to survive each day, sometimes hour by hour, even minute by minute.

On a rainy March night, Willow’s parent asked her to drive them home after they had a little too much wine at dinner. Willow tried, but she lost control of the car in the driving rain, and her parents, both of them, died in the ensuing accident. Willow survived, but her pain was too much to bear. So she began cutting to relieve the pain. The principle is that physical pain cancels out emotional pain, and Willow doesn’t know how to stop.

Enter Guy (yes, his name is Guy). Guy accidentally finds out Willow’s secret, and he considers himself responsible for Willow after she convinces him that telling her older brother/guardian about the cutting would destroy him. Slowly, Willow and Guy begin to trust one another, and then fall in love in spite of the barrier stands between them—Willow’s inability to allow herself to feel and her love-hate relationship with self-injury.

The book mostly eschews easy answers (just quit! why hurt yourself like that?) and goes for the power of love and patience to heal all wounds, even deep trauma like Willow’s. I was quite impressed with the author’s ability to get inside the head of deeply hurting seventeen year old like Willow and find not only the emotional pain hidden there, but also the personality and strength that it takes to overcome that pain and live through it. This book would be an excellent read for teens dealing with this issue in their own life or in that of a friend or relative.

Unfortunately, the author felt it necessary to have the teen couple in the book engage in premarital sex, an act that brings healing in the book, but that I think would be more confusing and unsettling to a teen who’s already dealing with serious emotional problems. I’m also not sure that telling teens that all it takes to overcome a serious addiction like cutting is the persistent love of a good man is quite the right message. Even though the patience part is emphasized, it still comes across as redemption by true love within 300 pages.

Some other resources for reading about and coping with self-injury and depression:

To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.

Blade Silver: Color Me Scarred by Melody Carlson.

Forest Born by Shannon Hale

Forest Born is the fourth in Shannon Hale’s Books of Bayern series, a series that began with The Goose Girl, Ms. Hale’s debut novel and the one that made a name for her, winning all kinds of awards and accolades. The Goose Girl tells the story of crown princess Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee of Kildenree, aka Isi, who has the gift of being able to hear and speak to animals and to birds.

The next book in the series is about Isi’s friend Enna who has the more perilous gift of fire-speaking, hence the title Enna Burning. And the third book called River Secrets is about Razo and Dasha, two more Bayern characters whose lives become intertwined with that of Isis and Enna and the kingdom of Bayern and its neighboring kingdoms.

Forest Born tells the story of Razo’s little sister, Rin, who harbors deep within herself a gift and a secret. It’s a coming-of-age tale with elements of adventure and even a bit of romance. Rin is an intriguing character with depth, and she’s different enough from Isi, Enna, and Dasha that she seems real and provides a new slant on the culture and mythical world of Bayern.

It’s also kind of fascinating that central to the plot of Forest Born is something called “people-speaking,” the ability to hear whether or not others are telling the truth and the ability to influence others with words. Kristin Cashore’s Fire and her previous book Graceling also play with this idea, the possibility that some people have a gift of being able to speak to other people and make them believe what they’re hearing and act upon it. In both Fire and in Forest Born this skill of being able to practically control others’ thoughts and actions through the use of words is a perilous gift, possibly helpful in defeating evil but also possibly soul-destroying to the gifted one. Perhaps each author is trying to say something about the power of words even in our world and the care with which we need to choose our words. There’s also a shared Spiderman-type message: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Forest Born is a worthy sequel to the other Bayern books and worth your reading, especially if you’re a Goose Girl fan.

School UNFriendly

Maybe it’s my own personal homeschool bias, but a lot of the books I read for the Cybils (Middle Grade Fiction), didn’t feel very school-friendly.

I’ve already discussed the confusing mixed messages from and about school in Barbara Dee’s Solving Zoe, and how the protagonist, Zoe, learns and thrives much better outside of school than she does in classes.

In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Calpurnia has this conversation with her grandfather:

“What are you studying in school? You do go to school, don’t you?
“Of course I do. We’re studying Reading, Spelling, Arithmetic, and Penmanship. Oh, and Deportment. I got an “acceptable” for Posture but an “unsatisfactory” for Use of Hankie and Thimble. Mother was kind of unhappy about that.”
“Good G–,” he said. “It’s worse than I thought.”
This was an intriguing statement, though I didn’t understand it.
“And is there no science? No physics?” he said.
“We did have botany one day. What’s physics?”
“Have you never heard of Sir Isaac Newton? Sir Francis Bacon?”
“No.” . . .
“And I suppose they teach you that the world is flat and that there are dragons gobbling up the ships that fall over the edge.” He peered at me. “There are many things to talk about. I hope it’s not too late. Let us find a place to sit.”

Not exactly a plug for schools, even if the schools that are being criticized are turn of the century, c.1899.

In several of the books, the protagonist is flunking out of school even though he/she is capable of doing the work:
In Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams, Cam O’Mara is learning a lot more at home dealing with his injured brother, working on the family’s ranch, and practicing his skateboarding and bull riding skills than he does at school.
Author Andrew Clements is known for his “school stories”, and Extra Credit is not an exception to the genre. However, Abby learns more from her extra credit assignment of writing to a pen pal in Afghanistan, completed outside of school time, than she does from her work at school, even though she spends a great deal of time trying to “catch up” so that she can be promoted and go on to seventh grade with her classmates.
In Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, Lonnie loses his motivation to study anything at all when an insensitive teacher tells him he’s too young to be a real poet. He gets his math instruction from his older foster brother at home.

The Homeschool Liberation League by Lucy Frank was actually more school-friendly than many of the other books that were not about homeschooling. The message I got from Frank’s book was that many different kinds of schooling situations work for different children and young adults at different times.

Which is what I believe. Different strokes for different folks, and let’s live and let live. I have a child in a nontraditional public high school, four young adults who have graduated from my homeschool and who have never been to a public or private school, a young daughter who is trying out an online virtual academy (public school) this semester, and two children who are still homeschooling. There are advantages and disadvantages to each situation. It takes time and energy to find the best educational setting for each child each year. And some times you just hope it’s not too late.

Let us find a place to sit.

Links and Thinks

Melissa at Book Nut has an interview with Roseanne Parry, author of one of my favorite Middle Grade Fiction books of 2009.

This movie sounds good. Has anyone seen it?
Actually, Brown Bear Daughter went to see it with some friends from church and she said it was pretty good. She didn’t rave about it; however, she wants me to see it so that we can discuss.

Haitian author Edwidge Danticat: “My cousin Maxo has died. The house that I called home during my visits to Haiti collapsed on top of him.”

Sarah Palin on Rahm Emmanuel’s hate speech: “His recent tirade against participants in a strategy session was such a strong slap in many American faces that our president is doing himself a disservice by seeming to condone Rahm’s recent sick and offensive tactic.”
I tend to not agree that people should be fired from their jobs because of the words they use, no matter how crude, rude or socially unacceptable. However, Mr. Emmanuel really doesn’t get it, does he?

What Karate Kid Read: January 2010

Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French.
Julian’s uncle decides to chop down all the redwoods around Big Tree, which is a large redwood next to the farm of Robin Elder. Julian and Robin try to save the trees.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as others, to tell the truth. But it was still pretty interesting. I thought the characters were very funny. I think that this is a good book for really any age, as long as you can read.

Other blog reviews and interviews: Cynsations interview with author S. Terrell French, The Reading Zone, A Patchwork of Books, Into the Wardrobe interviews S. Terrell French.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.
Maniac’s parents hate each other. Maniac hates his parents. So he runs away from home and meets up with a black family who take him in and let him live with them.
Definitely a great book! It was funny, creative, and kept you on the edge of your seat. I think that the ending could have been a little better, but all in all, this book is awesome.

(Maniac Magee won the Newbery Medal in 1991, and a movie version of the book was released in 2003.)

Jerry Spinelli’s homepage.

Mathematical Puzzles by Martin Gardner.
This book is full of math puzzles. Some were easy, some were hard, but they were all great. I challenged my parents to few of them. This book strains your brain, but is still lots of fun. Don’t be deceived by the fact that it has math, it has some puzzles that can be solved by pure logic. A fun book, and a good one too.
(I think KK read an older edition of the book pictured to the right. His book was a hardback, and it had a different cover. But the author is the same. Martin Gardner is “an American mathematics and science writer specializing in recreational mathematics, but with interests encompassing micromagic, stage magic, pseudoscience, literature (especially the writings of Lewis Carroll), philosophy, scientific skepticism, and religion. He wrote the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American from 1956 to 1981, and he has published over 70 books.” See Wikipedia for more information)

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko.
Moose lives on Alacatraz Island where the most dangerous criminals are kept. His father is a prison guard.
This book was just a little confusing, but still my favorite for the month. The characters were interesting, and the plot was great. This book has many twists and turns in the story. Betrayals, roses, flies, criminals, shoes, babies, you name it, this book has it. I was confused by the ending, though.

What Betsy-Bee (age almost 11) Read: January 2010

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass. The book was about a girl and a boy. Since they were born on the same day, a lady thought that they should spend every birthday together, and they did–until their tenth birthday when the boy said something that made the girl mad, and they didn’t talk to each other for a whole year. Then, on their 11th birthday strange things started happening to them, but I won’t tell you what they were because you have to read the story.

The story reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day, and my mom says it also reminds her of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. However, I don’t think it’s like Sleeping Beauty much.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis wasn’t my favorite, but it was interesting. We talked about the book in my online book club. We talked about how Byron was kind of a bad influence and didn’t exactly follow the rules. He liked playing with matches, and he almost started a fire. It was good book.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale was my favorite book of the month. It was about a goose girl named
Ani, and you always wondered what would happen next and if people were going to catch her. It was very adventurous, and Ani gets almost captured so many times, but she always escapes. Ani also knows how to hear animals and talk to them and to the wind. I wouldn’t like to be in her situation, but I would like to talk to animals and to the wind. And Ani was a princess, and that’s always awesomeness.

(Betsy-Bee actually listened to the audio version of this book and followed along sometimes in the book. I think she could read the book herself if she wanted, but I’m not sure she’s quite ready for the other books in the series.)

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Practicing Piano by Peggy Gifford. I’ve read other Moxy Maxwell books, and she is funny and very determined. In this book, she doesn’t like to practice the piano. Her mom wants her to just play the piece Heart and Soul all the way through with her little sister Pansy, but she won’t because she’s busy making fur-trimmed capes with cut-up towels and a black marker, and getting ready to get on stage, and be applauded. And while she’s doing that, her father is trying to figure out a word that rhymes with “spear” because he’s a poet. And her aunt is sleeping, after falling off of a ladder where she was feeding a giraffe. But her mom is frustrated that Moxy won’t play the piano. Moxy is just crazy.

Texas Tuesday: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

What an inspiring and absorbing book! Ms. Smith writes about Ida Mae Jones, a self-identified “colored girl” who is light-skinned enough to pass for white. The book begins in late 1941, and of course, that means Pearl Harbor, and World War II. Ida Mae learned to fly airplanes from her daddy, who was a crop duster. So when she hears that the U.S. Army has formed a group called the WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots, Ida Mae Jones is determined to sign up, even though she lives in Louisiana and the training is to take place in Sweetwater, Texas, two places where the very idea of a young black woman serving alongside white women is sure to be anathema. So in order to get into the WASP’s, Ida Mae basically pretends to be white.

A lot of the book is about the training and the dangers these pioneering women pilots faced as they bravely gave themselves and their abilities to the war effort. I don’t know much about flying airplanes, so although I thought the parts of the book that described the training and the women’s heroics were wonderfully written, I don’t know how accurate they were. I assume Ms. Smith did her research since the book Flygirl started out as a master’s thesis.

Another aspect of the book is the discussion and treatment of race and skin color. I thought this was fascinating, especially in light of recent discussions in the kidlitosphere. What does it mean to be black or to be a person of color? How do POC themselves see the variations in skin color? Is it wrong to pretend to be white and leave your darker-skinned family and friends behind? Even for a good cause?

One of the scenes in the book reminded me of Esther in particular. Ida Mae, like Esther has hidden her heritage and her connection with her people, but she is asked by her mother to go to the military authorities and ask for help in finding her brother who is MIA. Ida Mae knows that if she asks about her brother, she may be discovered and sent home. Her story doesn’t exactly parallel Esther’s, but it is similar. And Ida Mae shows similar courage.

All the issues, discrimination against women and against people of color, the varied reasons that people have for volunteering to fight in a war, misunderstandings and rifts between family members and friends, the cost of following one’s dreams, are explored with both sensitivity and humor. I would recommend this book to all young women who are in the middle of deciding who they are and what they want to be. And as an older woman, I enjoyed reading about Ida Mae Jones and her adventures. I wanted her to be able to “have it all,” even as I knew that the time and place where the story was set wouldn’t allow for a completely happy ending.

Reading in Color: “Flygirl made me want to go out and learn how to fly an airplane (or at least fly in one so that I can sit in the front and observe the pilot). The way the characters describe their love of flying makes you want to try it.”

One Librarian’s Book Reviews: “The setting is absolutely perfect, with the details from the time period completely enhancing the whole feel of the book. I absolutely felt like every part of it seemed like it could be true.”

Liz at the YALSA blog: Flygirl examines universal questions of identity, family, and growing up, with flying being both what Ida Mae wants to do, as well as working as a metaphor for a young woman trying to escape the limitations her country places on her because of her race and her sex.

Interview with Sherri L. Smith at the YaYaYa’s

Semicolon’s 12 Best Middle Grade Fiction Books of 2009 plus Newbery Predictions

1. Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Semicolon review here.
2. Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma. Semicolon review here.
3. Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick.
4. Heart of a Shepherd by Roseanne Parry. Semicolon review here.
5. William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Semicolon review here.
6. Leaving the Bellweathers by Kristin Clark Venuti.
7. Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams. Semicolon review here.
8. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Semicolon review here.
9. Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder. Semicolon review here.
10. Black Angels by Linda Beatrice Brown. Semicolon review here.
11. Born to Fly by Michael Ferrari. Semicolon review here.
12. The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mich Cochrane. Semicolon review here.

What I Want to Win the Newbery (tba on Monday, January 18th):
Any of the above, but Heart of a Shepherd or Anything But Typical or Any Which Wall would please me to no end.

My Prediction for the Newbery Award and honor books:
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Semicolon review here.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
I predict that one of those three will win the Newbery with the other two as honor books.

I’m not very good at this predicting thing, though. Last year, I tried to read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman twice and never did make it through the entire book.