One-Minute Book Reviews

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 5, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s ‘Chains’ — Tomorrow

Coming tomorrow: A review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which involves a 13-year-old slave who lives in New York during the Revolutionary War and devises a dangerous plan to escape from her cruel Loyalist owners. The review is the latest in the “Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Medals” series on this site, which looks at possible candidates for the American Library Association prizes to be handed out on Jan. 26.

November 19, 2008

Judy Blundell Wins 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Her YA Novel, ‘What I Saw and How I Lied’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:04 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Judy Blundell has won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for What I Saw and How I Lied. The award carries a $10,000 cash prize and is sponsored by the nonprofit National Book Foundation. The winner in each of the four National Book Awards categories is chosen by a different panel of five judges. Check back in a few minutes for the other three names.

An interview with Blundell and an excerpt from her young adult novel appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight. In the meantime the site Librarian by Day has thoughts on the finalists in the young people’s literature category and good historical context for these prizes. librarianbyday.blogspot.com/2008/11/thoughts-national-book-awards.html

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2008

The ‘How I Survived Middle School’ Series – Nancy Krulick’s Fiction for Preteens, ‘Can You Get an F in Lunch?’ and ‘Madame President’

The first novels in a popular series tell fourth-graders how to apply eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys

Can You Get an F in Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

Madame President (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

The advance reading copies of these novels included publicity material that recommended them for 8-to-12-year-olds – a surprising age range for books that offer a full page of makeup tips and a quiz called “What Kind of Girl Are You?” that begins, “There’s a new boy in school and you think he’s really hot …”

Did Scholastic think that third-graders needed to read about how to put on eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys? I went to its Web site and found that that the answer was “No”: Scholastic thinks fourth-graders need to read about them. It apparently raised the lowest recommended age for the books by a year after printing the advance reading copies.

This change was hardly reassuring. Tips on makeup and boys may be fine for girls at the upper end of the age range for these books, the first in a popular series. But their heroine is 11 and ½ when her story begins, and children generally prefer to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. So most readers of these early books are apt to be 10 or younger. What will a 9-year-old fourth grader find it in them? Tips like these from Can You Get an F in Lunch?:

“BLUE-EYED BABES: Brown and rose eye shadows were made for you. Apply the shadow from lash lines to creases in your eyelids. Then top it with some dark brown or black mascara.”

Any publisher who tried to sell 9-year-olds a nonfiction book of makeup tips might face parental anger and resistance from school libraries. But Scholastic has found a way around the problem by incorporating the advice into novels and a companion Web site that its heroine consults and young readers may also visit.

You can read this marketing ploy as either as a) a harmless sign of the times and a logical extension of girls’ interest in toys like Bratz dolls or b) another sick example of premature sexualization and a publisher’s hope that people have forgotten the horror of seeing pictures of JonBenét Ramsey in full makeup. Either way, girls are finding their way to the novels. Jenny McAfee, the main character, has a blog on the series Web site that drew more than 700 comments for one post alone. And you wish that the books repaid that interest with more literary merit.

Jenny is kind and wholesome — her worst word is “Yikes” — and tells her story through down-to-earth first-person narration. She recovers quickly from her early setbacks in middle school (in Can You Get an F in Lunch?). And she wages a clean campaign against the odds when she runs for sixth-grade class president against her nasty ex-best friend, Addie, who has dropped her for a popular clique (in Madame President). Both novels spell out their themes plainly: Difficult situations get easier, hard work pays off, and true friends like you for who you are, not for what you own.

But this is standard tween series fare, built not on character development but on a fast pace and familiar anxieties – homework, new teachers, bad cafeteria food, taunts from older students, and off-again, on-again plans for trips to the mall. The “How I Survived Middle School” novels differ from others mainly in the women’s-magazine-style tips and pop quizzes scattered throughout the books and their Web site. And the advice raises its own problems.

Some of the tips in the series might help younger middle school students. But even the best raise the question of whether girls benefit from such an early indoctrination into the idea that they need advice on beauty, popularity and similar topics from people besides their parents, teachers and others who know them.

This series makes you wonder: Is anybody giving such advice to 9-year-old boys? You might argue, correctly, that boys tend to read other kinds of books. But to the degree that that’s true, this series reinforces stereotypes of girls no matter how much interest Jenny may have in playing basketball and running for class president.

If I had a 9- or 10-year old daughter, I wouldn’t refuse to buy these books for her. But I would offer her many other things to read, too – classics, good contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and, yes, the novels her brothers like. If she wanted advice on dealing with cliques and the other topics covered in the series, I would encourage her to visit the appropriate pages (“Kids” or “Teens”) of the award-winning Web site, KidsHeath, including kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/friend/clique.html. And in gentle way, I would suggest a potential drawback to those recommended “rose eye shadows”: Instead of turning her into” blue-eyed babe,” they could make her look as though she got a chronic eyelid disease at sleepaway camp.

Best line: From Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “If Addie and Dana and the rest of their clique were supposed to be so popular, how come there were so few of them? Didn’t being ‘popular’ mean that you were liked by everyone?”

Worst line: Also from Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “Soon, Addie, Dana, and Claire were exchanging pots of eye shadow and blush with the older girls, bonding over their collections of Cover Girl, Hard Candy, and Jessica Simpson Dessert makeup.”

Caveat lector: In this series, middle school begins with the sixth grade — not with the fifth as at many schools – and Jenny McAfee is 11 ½ years old in its first book. The upper age limit for these novels would probably be 10 or 11 in places where middle school begins in fifth grade. But there’s a weird disconnect: At least in the first two books, the series doesn’t deal with topics that would naturally interest girls who are old enough to wear makeup, including menstruation and breast development. This review was based on an advance reading copy, and some material in the finished books may differ.

Read an excerpt from the series at www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=10789.

Published: June 2007 www.middleschoolsurvival.com The latest novel in the “How I Survived Middle School” series is Who’s Got Spirit?.

Better choices: A few that are available in most bookstores and libraries: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and perhaps the year’s biggest hit among 9-year-olds; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, which may appeal to 10-year-olds; and Russell Freedman’s fine biographies for ages 9-12 Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery and Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

Furthermore: Nancy Krulik has written many popular books for children and teens.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday on this site, often in more depth than publications such as School Library Journal do. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 18, 2008

Good Sports Stories for Children and Teenagers – Alan Durant’s ‘Score!’

UPDATE on Dec. 3, 2009: Online booksellers in the US have sold out of this one, but it is available under its original title of Sports Stories from UK booksellers including the Book Depository, which offers free shipping to the US.

Score!: Sports Stories. By Alan Durant. Roaring Brook, 264 pp., $6.95, paperback. First published as Sports Stories. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Score! is an answer to the prayers of many adults who are looking for a gift for a child who likes sports. This outstanding book has 21 stories about young male and female athletes, written by authors from Homer and Matt Christopher. And it covers many popular sports, including soccer, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, bicycling, ice hockey, horseback riding, and track and field.

That breadth alone might set Score! apart from other anthologies. But the book also contains an appealing variety of writing styles – formal and informal, serious and humorous, realistic and futuristic. An overconfident White Sox rookie writes hilariously inane and ungrammatical letters to a friend in Ring Lardner’s classic You Know Me Al. A young swimmer tries to qualify for the Rome Olympics after the death of her boyfriend in an excerpt from In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder, a former world-class swimmer for New Zealand. And a soccer contest 200 years in the future has undertones of wii and other digital games in Malorie Blackman’s “Contact.”

Alan Durant provides helpful introductions for some of his selections, including an excerpt from National Velvet. He writes that Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel is “the most famous horse racing story in fiction” and inspired a movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the teenage horsewoman who disguises herself as a male jockey to enter the Grand National. Then he mentions an unusual aspect of the excerpt: “What makes this description of the race so memorable is the way it is viewed not from the perspective of the competitor, Violet, but from that of the horse’s trainer, Mi, who struggles to follow the race among the crowds of spectators.”

Most of the stories in Score! have a strong plot and would lend themselves to reading aloud. This virtue adds to their appeal in an age when fiction for children, as for adults, is becoming more fragmented and elliptical. Before television, the great radio broadcasters knew that had to use words to draw pictures of games for their listeners, and the best writers in this book do that and more for their young readers.

Best line: In The Iliad Ulysses asks Athena to help him in a foot race, and the goddess obliges by tripping his rival Ajax: “He fell headfirst into a pile of cattle dung, while Ulysses ran on to win the race.” What a brilliant way to get kids interested in Homer: Choose a scene that has somebody falling head first into a dung heap.

Worst line: A couple of stories deal with English sports in a way that may baffle some children. I love P.G. Wodehouse but have no idea what he means in a line about cricket match from his Mike at Wrykyn: “Burgess’s yorker was nearly too much for the latter in the first over, but he contrived to shop it away, and the pair gradually settled down.”

Recommendation? The publisher recommends Score! for ages 9–12. But some of the tales may also appeal to teenagers. The Lardner story, for example, was written for adults and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the hardcover edition, which has illustrations by David Kearney.

Publisher: 2008 (Roaring Brook paperback), 2000 (Kingfisher hardcover entitled Sports Stories).

Furthermore: Durant lives in England and wrote the “Leggs United” soccer series for children.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 4, 2008

A Good Sports Book for Middle-School and Older Students

Good news for anyone who is looking for a well-written sports book for middle-school and older students: Phillip Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me (Walker, 176 pp., $10.95, paperback, ages 10 and up) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/ has come out in paperback. In this lively memoir Hoose www.philliphoose.com remembers when he was in the fourth grade and his cousin once removed, Don Larsen, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Walker Books www.walkerbooks.com/books/catalog.php?key=614 is rightly cross-marketing this book to adults and adolescents, both of whom may especially enjoy its moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game. The bright new cover art for the paperback edition, shown here, should heighten its appeal for young readers. Perfect, Once Removed was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2007 by Bill Ott for the American Library Association’s Booklist.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 18, 2008

A Summer Reading List From the Country’s Leading Children’s Literature Journal — Books for Children From Preschoolers Through Adolescents

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:27 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Horn Book has posted a list of recommended summer reading for children — from preschoolers through adolescents — at www.hbook.com/resources/books/summer.asp. One of the books on its list is Pale Male, which I reviewed on May 10 and also recommend, so if that one sounded good to you, you might want to take a look full list from the magazine, the country’s leading children’s literature journal.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 28, 2008

Coming Tomorrow — John Gunther’s Classic Memoir of His Son’s Death From a Brain Tumor, ‘Death Be Not Pround’

Many school reading lists include John Gunther‘s classic memoir of his 17-year-old son’s fight to survive a deadly brain tumor, Death Be Not Proud. And perhaps for that reason, some people have come to see it as a book for teenagers. But the book was an adult bestseller in its day and popular among many ages. What does it offer to readers today? One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the reasons for the enduring appeal of the book tomorrow.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 16, 2008

Books Give You ‘a Metaphorical Boner,’ Says Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

[Warning: This review quotes lines from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that may offend some people. I am quoting them partly because many librarians and others expected Alexie to win one of the awards that the American Library Association handed out on Monday, and these words may help to explain why he didn't. Stop reading here to avoid the potentially offensive language.]

Alexie’s first young-adult novel won a National Book Award, but a character uses a racial slur that caused some high school students to walk out when he spoke about it at an Illinois high school

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrations by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 230 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is as a subtle as an old television Western – say, the episode of Bonanza where Hoss has to explain to a fugitive from an Indian reservation why he can’t live on Cartwright land. Sherman Alexie has mostly avoided criticism for this and has, on the contrary, been rewarded for it with the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

It isn’t hard to imagine why: Alexie tries to fight some of the stereotypes fostered by the Westerns in this story told by an intelligent and self-mocking 14-year-old boy who transfers to a good high school in town instead of sticking with the wretched educational system on his reservation. Arnold “Junior” Spirit tells us that “in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity.” That includes homosexuality: “Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!” Alas, the goodwill didn’t last: “Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance,” although a few clung to “that old-time Indian spirit.” Arnold believes his grandmother was good in part because she “had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.”

Alexie is giving you the perspective of a teenager here, not that of a historian. But it’s fair to ask: Isn’t he replacing one stereotype with others by saying that Indians used accept eccentricity and admire gay people but lost “all their tolerance” when white people crashed the party? Don’t such passages romanticize Indians even as other parts of the book show the bleakness of life on a reservation where Arnold had attended 42 funerals by the age of 14?

Critics have praised Alexie for creating a character with a distinctive voice. But it would be more accurate to say that he describes experiences unfamiliar to many teenagers in the sort of voice that has become all too familiar through characters who range from Homer Simpson to Junie B. Jones, the in-your-face heroine of a series of early readers.

Arnold and his friends call others “dickwad,” “faggot,” “pussy,” “retarded fag” and “major-league assholes.” A character tells a gratuitous racial joke that includes the “n” word and “f” word and that caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave in at an Illinois high school. Alexie has stood by his use of the joke with a variation on the but-it-really-happened-that-way defense, although whether it “really happened” is irrelevant in fiction: what matters is whether it works in context. And the literary impact of this book is as muddled as its politics.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian reads less like a novel than a sitcom or screenplay called “The Rez.” Alexie describes life-shattering tragedies in the same breezy tone as a date for the Winter Formal, so that the events have the same emotional weight. He leaves subplots dangling.

Many teenagers love this bestseller, anyway. Some may be responding to Ellen Forney’s amusing illustrations, and others may be titillated by its sexual references, such as the 12 uses of the word “boner.” At his new school Arnold befriends a boy who tells him that he should read and draw “because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.” Arnold plays dumb, so Gordy goes on: “Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense. I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.” Arnold doesn’t ask an obvious follow-up question: What if a book pulls a boner instead of giving you one?

Best line: “If the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Worst line: The gratuitous racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word (which appears the bottom of page 64 in the novel). Apart from that: The last line quoted in the review above. Would any 14-year-old boy say “erect penis” instead of “hard on” when talking with a male friend? Or even have to explain what a boner is?

Published: September 2007.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature www.nationalbook.org. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janicehaarayda.com

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