Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Liesel Meminger. The story focuses on a family struggling through WWII Germany and the power of words to unite people. Liesel, having just lost her brother, finds a small book near his grave and finds comfort in its pages. There’s one problem- she can’t read. She struggles to learn with the help of her new adoptive father, Hans Hubermann. Before long, as she tries to adapt to her new life and family, Liesel begins to steal books from wherever she can find them. At a time when the Nazis burned books to eliminate resistance, Liesel learns the power of knowledge and empathy for others through protecting their stories.
This story is unlike any other historical fiction I have read. It is witty and funny without sacrificing the tense atmosphere that was present in Nazi Germany. It is not really a war story, nor is it depressing. Zusak chooses to focus on Liesel’s love of reading and her choice to disobey societal norms as a way of illustrating the sacrifices the ordinary people of Germany had to make. He focuses on the importance of love and trust during a time when trusting the wrong person could result in death. The story highlights moral resilience and childhood innocence.
Zusak’s choice of having Death as the narrator is unique and adds a new dimension of sympathy. The story portrays the brutality of human suffering while contrasting it with the beauty of Liesel’s resistance to conformity and the playfulness of her childhood. She is a character you cannot help but root for. Readers of Markus Zusak will recognize his consistent use of intense emotional connections between the characters, which is transfixing and all-encompassing ( My favorite being that between Liesel and Hans Hubermann). The story is eye-opening and puts you in the shoes of a small girl whose situation most 21st-century readers will never truly be able to understand. But this book is a glimpse into the struggles of a war-torn people, and Zusak proves through Liesel that empathy and love can overcome all evil.
-Emily, grade 12
Author: Katherine Howe
When girls at an elite Boston-area private school start falling victim to a wide range of physical and mental ailments, senior Colleen Rowley doesn’t pay much attention at first. It quickly becomes apparent that school administrators and local health officials are at a loss for what is causing the crisis, and when the media catches wind of the situation, chaos descends on the suburban town of Danvers, Massachusetts. Colleen and her friends are busy obsessing over college admissions, last-minute interviews, and so on, but when she gets anonymous texts urging her to look closer, she does.
Conversion was published a couple of years ago. I had heard lots of buzz at the time, but didn’t get around to reading it until now, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s smart and sophisticated. Howe tells two stories simultaneously. The main story is told from Colleen’s point of view, which lends itself to a certain sense of claustrophobia and confusion. After all, as a teen she’s not privvy to official meetings, reports, etc. Interspersed throughout the book are sections of a story narrated by Ann Putnam in 1706, recounting her role in the events that led to the Salem Witch Trials years earlier.
As people speculate about the mystery disease – environmental? reaction to a vaccine? academics-induced hysteria? – Colleen begins to notice parallels between the present and the events of 300 years earlier. After all, Danvers used to be called Salem Village. About halfway through, I wasn’t sure if I was reading a horror novel, a medical mystery, or an indictment of the contemporary college arms-race. It’s all of the above and more, deliciously creepy and compulsive reading at its best.
–Lisa, Teen Librarian
Title: Once Was a Time
Author: Leila Sales
It’s 1940 in Britain, and ten-year-old Kitty and Lottie are best friends. Kitty is somewhat smothered by her protective parents, and Lottie is left to her own devices after her mother leaves. Her scientist father is consumed by his work for the government, and he pays no attention to his children at home – not that he’s ever home in the first place. So the girls have each other, and as far as they’re concerned, that’s perfect. But the Germans are after Lottie’s father’s project, which has to do with time travel, and through a terrible twist of fate Lottie winds up in Wisconsin in 2013 – leaving Kitty behind.
Lottie is stranded and alone, and over the next several years she manages to make a new life with her foster family in small-town America, but her one goal in life is to return to Kitty.
The book is roughly divided into three sections: Before, in 1940s England, where the stage is set. Then there’s Lottie’s immediate arrival in Wisconsin and getting her settled. And finally, the story picks up again as she is finishing up high school.
I was a little confused when I started reading and the girls were ten because I know (and love) Leila Sales as a YA author. I suppose this is technically a middle grade novel; however, there’s nothing to say older kids wouldn’t enjoy the story, particularly since Lottie grows up over the course of the book.
There’s an old-fashioned feel to the story – time travel! orphans having adventures! – but there are contemporary issues too, most notably Lottie’s detour into Mean Girl land and a potential romance. The main theme, though, is love and the power of friendship. Lottie never stops looking for a way back to her best friend, and if someone was crying by the end of the book, well, I guess my allergies were just terrible that day…..
–Lisa, Teen Librarian
Title: Silver in the Blood
Author: Jessica Day George
Dacia and Lou are cousins and best friends. Dacia is bold and outgoing, while Lou is more cautious and not remotely a thrill-seeker. The two are very close, though, and depend on each other for love and support. The book begins as they are traveling separately from Gilded Age Manhattan to their mothers’ ancestral home in Romania. Dacia and her chaperone arrive in Bucharest under a certain cloud of scandal because of her shenanigans in England, and Lou arrives soon after with her mother, father, and twin brothers.
All sorts of mystery surrounds the family’s plans for introducing the girls to their shared heritage, and the girls quickly realize that All Is Not As It Seems with their Romanian relatives.
The narrative switches perspective between the two young women, and there are letters, diary entries, and telegrams interspersed throughout the text. The girls start out as pawns in a larger story, but wind up taking control of their shared destiny. This is a sprawling story with loads of characters to keep track of, but everything ties together so neatly. Mystery! Magic! Romance! Yum!
I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything Jessica Day George has written. I’d be surprised if there’s a book of hers that has escaped me, whether YA or middle grade. This one steps out of the retold fairytales trope (Twelve Dancing Princesses, Cinderella, etc) that she has used in her previous YA books and shifts sideways into retold fantasy trope. I’m being cagey to avoid spoilers, but All Shall Be Revealed should you choose to read Silver in the Blood.
P.S. I love this cover! It’s a real throwback to the gothic romances of the sixties and early seventies.
–Lisa, Teen Librarian
Title: Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
Author: Steve Sheinkin
Before Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, there was Daniel Ellsberg.
Ellsberg was a Harvard grad, ex-Marine, and staunch cold warrior. He spent seven years as a Washington insider at think tanks and the Pentagon, analyzing the Vietnam War.
Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin tells how Ellsberg grew to realize that the U.S. presence in Vietnam was built on a breath-taking series of lies and omissions; how he secretly and illegally copied the Pentagon Papers and gave them to the media; and how this eventually led to Watergate, Richard Nixon’s resignation, and the end of the war.
It’s an action-packed page-turner, and it’s all real!
Title: The Notorious Pagan Jones
Author: Nina Berry
Pagan was a child star who’s grown into a beautiful Hollywood starlet. But a few years ago, Pagan’s mother committed suicide and Pagan started drinking to cope. One horrible night, she crashes her car while driving drunk and kills her father and little sister. Pagan has spent the last year in reform school until she’s offered a shot at redemption – she’s offered a job as a last-minute replacement on a movie shooting in Europe. But what Pagan doesn’t know is that she’s a pawn in a much bigger scheme. Pagan’s no fool, though. She’s clever and resourceful. It’s the summer of 1961 in Berlin. Pagan knows something is going on, and she’s determined to find out.
You’ll find action, adventure, history, and romance all wrapped up in The Notorious Pagan Jones by Nina Berry.
–Lisa, Teen Librarian
Title: Keeping the Castle
Author: Patrice Kindl
Ten years is waaaay too long to wait for a new book from Patrice Kindl. I can’t believe it’s really been that long. Anyhow, Keeping the Castle was well worth the wait. In a nutshell, it’s a cross between Pride and Prejudice and I Capture the Castle.
Althea is 17 years old, and the financial future of her family rests on her slim, elegant shoulders. In order to provide for her sweetly ineffective mother and maintain the crumbling family home for her four-year-old brother, not to mention her selfish and miserly stepsisters, Althea must marry – and marry quite well. Fortunately, she is considered to be an exceptional beauty; unfortunately, marital prospects are slim in their remote corner of England. The future brightens quickly when Lord Boring and his entourage arrive in the neighborhood, but Althea’s campaign does not go exactly as planned.
If you’ve read as many Regency romances as I have, you won’t find the plot to be terribly innovative. However, Althea is a charming and witty protagonist. Her observations on the pragmatic business of marriage and her increasingly desperate efforts to bring Lord Boring up to scratch are thoroughly entertaining. Despite the fact that Althea’s original plans do not succeed, the story ends happily for everyone – well, almost everyone – and it kept me smiling the whole way through.
-Lisa, Teen Librarian