Benji's Book Blog

an exploration of young adult literature

Unraveling by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman July 15, 2009

Baldini, Michelle, and Lynn Biederman. Unraveling.

New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. 230 p.

unravelingAmanda Himmelfarb is caught in the web adolescence. At 15, she just wants to fit in. She wants boys to like her and her mom, whom she calls The Captain, to leave her alone. Amanda is a normal teenager, right down to her lack of tact and off-kilter timing. Over the summer before her sophomore year, Amanda and her feuding family are travelling to Myrtle Beach for a short vacation. Normally Amanda would not want to spend this quality time together, but Paul is waiting for her. Paul is the guy she kissed last summer and she has been texting and emailing all year. Amanda cannot wait to see him and hook up with him. Amanda is a virgin but she thinks she is ready to give it up for Paul. When she sneaks out to meet him, he immediately takes her up to a lifeguard platform on the beach. Paul has been thinking on the same lines as Amanda, although in a more one track fashion. Readers know where this is going. The story of the guy who just wants sex and the girl who wants someone to like her is age old and totally truthful. On the lifeguard platform Amanda is on her period but does not want to tell Paul. He gets mad at her and, desperate to please him, gives her first blowjob. The descriptions used throughout the novel are forward and in your face, but I never found the writing to be gratuitous or false. When The Captain catches Amanda on the beach with Paul, she flips and Amanda does not hear from Paul again. She had her chance and he did not get everything he wanted. Back at school the nagging from the Captain continues. Amanda and her mother are at that stage where they cannot find any common ground to communicate. Amanda’s Aunt Jen and The Captain’s best friend Marion feel for Amanda, and offer her their ear when they can. Amanda’s sexual dysfunction continues when she begins hooking up with the hot Rick Hayes. Hayes is dating Amanda’s enemy on the swim team which makes it sweeter. Things will not progress with Rick. They go to his car after school and make out, sometimes more, but he will not acknowledge her in public. She wants a boyfriend. He wants her virginity. They make The Deal. Amanda’ virginity for Rick’s hand at homecoming. The book may seem like it is becoming a singular ‘issues’ novel but I pleasantly surprised at the evolving storyline between Amanda and her mother and Amanda’s overall journey.

Amanda’s poetry included in the novel is thoughtful and another way to understand her experience. Amanda’s self-defeating behavior is a common symptom of low self-esteem and those of us who have been there are rooting for her to make better choices. Baldini and Biederman’s use of poetry, fortunes, and emails help break up the reading experience and importantly everything furthers the story. This novel quickly transform from gritty to touching over only 230 pages. I will look for a follow up from the author team.

3Q 4P

14 and up

The cover model fits the description of Amanda perfectly, right down to the dress. The bold image on the white background jumps out at readers, as well as the model’s interesting expression. This cover fits the novel very well.


Twisted by Laurie Halse Andersen

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Twisted.

New York: Viking, 2007. 272 p.

TwistedLaurie Halse Andersen is a terrific writer. She understands the human psyche and the teen experience so well. Twisted is a high school drama about a young man struggling with his low self esteem. Tyler Miller was always a nerd boy, at least in his own mind. But after spray painting the school near the end of his junior year, things changed. The summer of community service and manual labor has turned Tyler from nerd boy into something of a stud. He has also returned to school with that dangerous quality of someone who has been busted. If Tyler used to be anonymous, now all eyes follow him. The students still are not really friendly, but more wary of Tyler. His senior year starts poorly after a mishap at the Milbury’s posh summer party. The Miller’s were not even invited. Tyler’s Dad works for Mr. Milbury’s company and Tyler is despised by classmate Chip Milbury, possibly because his sister, Bethany, is Tyler’s dream girl. When Chip nearly loses an arm wrestling match to Tyler he retaliates by pushing Tyler into the swarm of waiters, champagne glasses held high. The glass shatters everywhere, including into Bethany’s foot. Tyler is embarrassed. Mr. Miller is ashamed. And the Milbury’s have to take a trip to the hospital. Not a great start to a new year for Tyler. His bad luck continues when his classes are too hard, he is trying to balance work with school, his best friend wants to date his sister, and his dad will not leave him alone. The only thing that is holding Tyler’s interest is that Bethany has started talking to him, even touching him. The flirting is too much for Tyler who still is thinking any moment now she is going to yell, “just kidding!” and the whole school will laugh at him. Bethany seems to really like Tyler though and even asks him to join her at the football game and huge high school keg party after. Tyler does not have a car, as a result to the previous year’s bad deed, so his walk to the party causes him to be more than fashionably late. When he gets there Bethany is wasted. She drags him up to an empty bedroom where his dreams may come true. But before he makes that move, his conscious attacks him. Tyler likes Bethany and would rather not take advantage of her in the middle of a huge drunken party. When he turns her down she flips on him and spews all the hateful words he has feared she has been harboring. To top off the night, he later finds Bethany passed out and drives her and a puking Chip home safely. After the party a series of naked pictures of Bethany are posted online and Tyler is major suspect. The fallout from the accusations and the abuse that follows teach Tyler his most important lessons. He nearly has to hit rock bottom to find his way out of the depths of despair. Andersen’s brilliant storytelling takes the reader on a runaway emotional journey to the brilliant ending.

The author uses the text to show the depth of Tyler’s low self esteem. He is abused emotionally by his father and in turns abuses himself. His mind cannot help from wandering to death, blood, and gore. The levels of torment he must go through may remind teens of their own high school experience and will hopefully show that everyone can count on themselves and there is a way out of the cycle. Tyler’s conscious in the bedroom, written as dialogue between his hormones and his brain, is a brilliant telling of a very realistic experience. There is the theme of Tyler’s manhood. Everyone tells him, or shows him, how to be a man, but ultimately he has to figure out what that means for himself. I highly recommend this work of realistic fiction and anything else Laurie Halse Andersen has ever touched. After this whirlwind tour of YA literature, it is clear she is the shining star.

4Q 4P

14 and up

I really think this cover art is appealing. This is a darker story and the twisted pencil is a good representation of how Tyler feels. The image also telegraphs the story is school based drama, which teens also like.


Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth Century American Art edited by Jan Greenberg

Greenberg, Jan. Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art.

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. 80 p.

heart to heartHeart to Heart is a poetry collection that ties a poem with a 20th century work of art. Editor Greenberg groups the poetry/art combinations into four motifs. When people look at a piece of art and try to interpret it, often they try to determine what the artists was trying to convey. In my opinion, anything a viewer sees in a work of art is there and each interpretation is valid. This collection helps show students different ways of examining and thinking about art and poetry. When reading the poetry alongside the masterpieces I noticed details in the works that had always been there, but were inaccessible to me due to my point of view. The collection helps the reader step out of the box and be a great supplement to a museum visit or a poetry unit.

One of my favorite combinations was Dan Masterson’s poem about Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning. Masterson created an entire story set in the 1930’s. The kids speaking live in the three windows with the shades drawn. They spend their summer playing stick and cracking the fire hydrant (which still happens in the summer on my block.) I loved how Masterson named the storefronts, which have been always been an abstract blur to me. Masterson also uses Sunday morning as central topic. I had never imagined this image to be as urban as Masterson sees it, but it makes sense. Hopper’s New York was not as developed as my New York.

XJ Kennedy’s poem finally uncovers an interpretation of Stuart Davis’ Premiere.Kennedy is able to use the abstraction of the words to create his storyline. After reading his poem, I could take see a work of art I had always glossed over.

As usual, Ron Koertge’s piece is very funny. His character is an observant, sensitive kid who understands art, especially the George Bellows boxing works. He studied the works so much that when he gets bullied he can knock a guy out like Dempsey does in the paintings. There is a reason to study art!

Another standout was Marvin Bell’s poem on Red Grooms’ work, French Bread. Bell’s interpretation is that the tall man is not really that tall, but his height is manifested by how he feels. He enjoys his job picking up the bread every morning so he feels like the tallest man on the street. The poem talks of the other figures in the composition also performing their ‘assigned’ tasks. If the painting were from their points of view, perhaps they would feel as tall as the big man. In the work of art we are seeing the perception of the man, not his actual size.

This collection may be hard to push to teenagers. The poetry was enlightening and these works of art of true masterpieces. Teens with special interests will find this book very eye opening, and may lead to their own art or poetry.

4Q 1P

12 and up

The cover art perfectly conveys the subject of the book, which is a start. I am not sure the Stuart Davis work was the right one to draw teens’ attention.


Robot Dreams by Sara Varon

Varon, Sara. Robot Dreams.

New York: First Second, 2007. 208 p.

robotdreamsSara Varon’s seemingly simple graphic novel Robot Dreams is well of deeper meaning. Her cartoonish illustrations of fresh faced animals spanning these wordless pages grab children of all ages. This story of an unlikely friendship quickly becomes much more.

Dog wants a friend so he orders a mail order robot, some assembly required. Robot fits right into Dog’s life. They travel together to the library, watch movies, and go to the beach. Robot makes the mistake of playing in the water then lying in the hot sun all day. When it is time to go home, Robot is immobile. Dog feels bad but it is getting dark and he must go home without his friend. Robot has a dream during his first night alone. His dream is a realistic account of the day’s events except he does not play in the water. After Dog has fun swimming, Robot and Dog gather their belongings and go home together. Robot’s first dream focuses on regret. If he would have made one different choice his entire life would be different. Dog dreams that night too. He recalls leaving Robot alone and is stricken with grief. The following day Dog will return and repair Robot’s ailments. The beach has been closed for the season and Robot is stuck inside, rusted within the prison of his own shell. A few rabbits find Robot on the beach and he quickly daydreams that they will save him and he can triumphantly return home. The rabbits only vandalize him and take one of his legs to plug a leak in their canoe. Another of Robot’s dreams has proven futile. In the meantime, Dog has tried to make new friends as the season change. The Duck family is nice, until the fly south. The Anteaters play with Dog in the snow, until they return home for a meal…of ants. The meal does not sit well with Dog. A Snowman friend is very reliable, until spring. Buried beneath snow Robot’s dreams have a hopeless quality. He envisions escaping his fate only to find Dog has moved on to new friends. In the dead of winter, Robot no longer dreams of his past mistakes or future hopelessness. He finds solace in complete fantasy, choosing to frolic in a temperate zone with a life sized flower as his companion. When spring arrives, Robot melts and is collected by a scrap seeker. Thrown in the junk yard, Robot is undone. Dog has a faint hope that he can rescue Robot come summer, but he can only find a piece of his broken leg. Dog finally gives in and orders a new robot. Dog’s new friend is delivered, as Robot is delivered himself. A mechanical raccoon thinks Robot is a gem and uses his pieces to perfect a radio he is building. Robot can now once again move, dance, play music, and most importantly has a friend. Dog learns from his mistakes too. His new robot friend will not be swimming. Robot and Dog finally have an encounter at the end of the book. Robot sees Dog and his new friend on the street. When Robot’s worst nightmare becomes real he acts with maturity. He turns on his music and sends it Dog’s way. Dog does not see Robot, but he hears his tune, and finds it is stuck in his head.

Varon uses this tale to touch on the nature of friendship and what give and take means from the people we love. It was easy to gloss over the surface of this novel as many kids may do and only understand the first layer. At least it is a story about cute animals that act like people. But the more I read the book the more I interpreted Varon’s work. The music scene at the end is so touching. Not the music, but Dog’s enjoyment of the music is the unconscious memory of those who have affected us in a positive way. Varon’s story shows that we cannot predict the course our lives will take, or regret our mistakes. Life will run its course and in most cases, positive outcomes will appear from negative situations. This is a book suitable for all ages, but one that will just get better over time.

5Q 4P

6 and up.

 The cover art sets the tone for the illustration style and introduces the two main characters. I like this cover because Dog and Robot never ride in a boat together, but if they had the story would have had a different outcome. It is an appealing cover, but does not hint that there is a deeper story inside.


Into the Volcano by Don Wood

Wood, Don. Into the Volcano: A Graphic Novel.

New York, N.Y.: The Blue Sky Press, 2008. 176 p.

volcaInto the Volcano is a whirlwind of action and adventure. The reader, like Sumo and Duffy, barely has time to process the gravity of the situation the boys’ find themselves in. Pulled out of school one day, the two brothers are told they are going to stay with their Auntie, whom they have never met, on the island of Kocalaha. Their mother is in Borneo on an expedition and their father is travelling to Norway. What seems like may be a nice island vacation quickly becomes mysteriously murky. The boys’ Auntie is a ghastly creature living in a mobile home. Their native guide, Come-and-Go, looks like a bouncer and lives up to his name sake. He tends to disappear at inopportune times. From the start Sumo is hesitant, as is his nature, and Duffy is more gung-ho. Duffy is the athlete and natural adventurer. Sumo would be happier at home with a nice hot meal. The boys learn they will join Com-and-Go, the beautiful surfer Pulina, and her boyfriend Kaleo, on a three day expedition. Sumo is wary. Duffy is excited. It does not take long for the boys to both realize they are in over their heads. When Kaleo drives their speedboat directly into a molten lava flow trying to get the boat into the mountain, the entire crew almost perishes. Once they make it inside a rock fall blocks off their entrance and seemingly kills Kaleo. The tragic beginning of this trip foreshadows the intensity to follow. A shortage of respirators puts the crew in danger. While climbing through the volcano’s veins, noxious air is common. Not only do the boys feel the danger of the expedition, they also begin to feel they have been lured on this trip under false pretenses. By the time they reach an abandoned underground city the boys are alert for a way out. This is no vacation trip. Come-and-Go and Pulina are looking for something, or someone. In the city the boys find a lived-in shack with pictures of their whole family. Perhaps their mother has not been in Borneo these past two years. When the crew stops for a quick nap, the boys escape down a hole with the only two respirators and they seem to be on their way to solving the mystery when Duffy falls into a crevice. Alone and fighting to save his brother, Sumo finds his strength. Sumo follows Duffy down the crevice on the rope and eventually has to take plunge into the unknown depths of an underground river. Sumo finds his brother alive, but with a broken collar bone. The boys have reached a dead end, except for a faint light shining through a lagoon. Sumo swims for it and barely makes it to the other side where he finds his mother standing guard. Finally there is some hope for escape for the brothers. The mother explains what she has been guarding; a valuable element that promises to end the earth’s energy crisis and make the world a better place for sweet tooths. Regardless, each little glowing sphere is priceless. Sumo knows why they boys were dragged into the exploding volcano and his original guides do not seem so friendly anymore. The mother leads the boy to a spot where she hopes a boat is waiting and they find Kaleo, who is very much alive, and desperately trying to fix the smashed engine. They wing it by beginning to row out when they find the rest of the crew swimming behind. Sumo is protective of his mother but they allow the swimmers on board and paddle their way to safety. During the quick denouement we find the relationship between Auntie and Mrs. Pugg is heated, but everyone is happy the boys got out alive. As Duffy heals the locals take Sumo out to learn how to surf. His favorite thing is still eating but he does not seem to mind a little adventure.

Telling this story in the graphic novel format works very well because the world of the volcano is so visually stunning. Some of Wood’s art really stood out. The blurry panels used during earthquakes told the story far better than using an explanation every time. Like some other graphic novels I have seen he uses focus very well. When the reader is supposed to pay attention to a visual detail he makes it clear, and when the story is clipping along at a quick pace sometimes the scene is simpler or drawn from a higher perspective liked the bits of geology that he managed to include. Besides looking at his fantastically drawn igneous rock flows, the explanation of geological hot spots Sumo had with Kaleo on the boat was the perfect inclusion of educational material that helped bring the reader into the story. I have heard the Hawaiian geological explanation before but I have never thought about the rising and falling mountains in a cyclical way before. I had to stop and ponder that amazing thought for awhile. The story did move very quickly with some of it seeming nearly surreal. The one moment that was surreal, Sumo’s conversation with Death, was well placed and well written/drawn. Death with a clown nose was a nice touch. I liked that moment though because it was a turning point for Sumo and an interesting scene. Sometimes though I felt the story was choppy, especially at the beginnings and endings of chapters. It seemed at times like Wood had made cuts without filling in the missing story. I also felt a little cool about the climax and ending. The adventure was tied up a little too neatly for me. Come-and-Go, Pulina, and even Kaleo had to have gone into this thinking they might all die, especially with two young kids who had never been on such an excursion. I did not expect everyone to escape as one big happy crew. I read that Wood worked for five years on this book but I wouldn’t have minded if it were a bit longer. Overall, I thought it was a very exciting adventure story and the graphic format makes much of it something special. This story can lead young teens into more literary adventure stories.

3Q 4P

10 and up

The three paneled cover art does bring you into the world of the story. From one look you get adventure, ocean, and lava. Not a bad start. This will draw a reader’s eye and cause them to open the book. If a reader gets to chapter two, they are probably hooked.


Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle

Lisle, Janet Taylor. Black Duck.

New York: Sleuth/Philomel, 2006. 256 p.

black%20duckBlack Duck reels readers in and immerses them in the mysterious and stealth world of rum-running in the prohibition era. This was an interesting historical period that young adults may not understand. Janet Taylor Lisle helps readers understand the difficult moral circumstances many Americans had to wrestle with when balancing prohibition laws.

Best friends Ruben and Jeddy’s lives change when they find a dead body washed up on their Rhode Island beach. The boys had heard stories of the rum business infiltrating their town. The most infamous cargo carrier, the Black Duck, can outrun any coastguard vessel. Ruben and Jeddy’s friendship is strained as Ruben gets more involved in the burgeoning business and Jeddy, the son of the police chief, sticks with his father. The seamen piloting the Black Duck are looked at as heroes. Nearly everyone is connected to the rum business and these fellows are giving money back to the poor. When Ruben gets in over his head the captain of the Black Duck, Billy Brady, and Jeddy’s older sister, Marina, help save Ruben’s life. Lisle’s story is told from Ruben’s flashbacks to that dangerous summer during an interview with a zealous student reporter. The young reporter pieces together important parts of the story and for the first time, Ruben fills in the details.

The strength of this book is Lisle historical setting. Her dialogue helps set a pervasive mood and allows readers to feel the weight of Ruben’s decisions. In some ways, the young teen characters live more independently than teens today. Readers will revel in the mysterious events that build this story to its exciting climax. The readers, through Ruben’s memories, come to learn the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred by circumstance. This is another quick pick option for young teens, particularly boys.

3Q 3P

10 and up

The cover art is dark and mysterious, like the story. The image on the cover looks like an old newspaper clipping, giving away the historical quality of the novel. I thought the cover made sense in regards to the storyline but would not grab a reader immediately. The image is a little too dark and ambiguous.


An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Green, John. An Abundance of Katherines.

New York, NY: Dutton Books, 2006. 272 p.

katherineJohn Green’s Looking for Alaska proved he is a talented writer, but An Abundance of Katherines proves he is a risk taker as well. Green builds this entertaining and fast paced novel on a hilariously weird premise. His leading character, Colin Singleton has dated, and been dumped, by nineteen girls named Katherine. Colin, a former child prodigy, spends his free time anagramming and looking for his next Katherine. His greatest fear is that he has already peaked and will not find a way to matter in this world. Katherine XIX hits Colin the hardest so his wise cracking friend, Hassan, convinces Colin to join him on a road trip to ease his pain. Hassan and Colin dubiously follow directions to the grave of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wind up in Gutshot, Tennessee. Convenience store clerk, Lindsey Lee Wells and mother, Hollis, take the boys in and offer them work. Hassan needs the money and Colin is beginning to think he can devise a proof that will outline his past breakups and therefore predict future relationships. In Gutshot, Colin finds his Eureka moment does not involve a math theorem but the ability to find normalcy within himself. His crush on his first Lindsey helps Colin sees the error of his past obsessions. This funny, situational novel will hook readers with Colin’s idiosyncrasies and Hassan’s jokes.

Green proves his prowess as a writer in this book. Either Green is incredibly smart or is a glutton for punishment. Writers must truly live in the minds of their characters, so whenever fictional geniuses are created on the page, I know the author was up to the challenge. Green solves anagrams, completes theorems that supposedly work, and writes truly hilarious banter in the voice of Hassan. Green writes the boys’ dialogue very well and uses it to create his fully fleshed characters. Although few teens have the abilities of Colin, his learning experience mirrors that of many teens. Colin learns to fit in when he learns to be himself, not who his parents, or the Katherine thought he was. I found it odd that the boys refrained from cussing by substituting “Fug” until Colin and Hassan explained the reference to Norman Mailer. Not only is that a hilarious story about Mailer, but Green uses the tactic to his advantage as well. The boys curse up a storm but Lindsey is the only character to utter the real word. Green’s footnotes hold some of the best comic material in the book so read closely. There are aspects of these characters that resemble his Alaska characters but this novel has a much different tone and pace. This coming of age story, ripe with intellectual minutia, would be a good quick pick for readers.

4Q 4P

12 and up

The cover art is confusing because the book is a great choice for guys, but the cover does not present that. In its current form it is not as appealing as it could be. I like the design of the mathematic formula but the rainbow silhouettes ruin the effect. The paperback cover has a picture of a Katherine, with others behind her. Again this cover is unclear and does not promote the book for males.