LCPS Battle of the Books – High School edition

I did the most fun thing earlier this month. I was a judge for the Loudoun County Public School’s Battle of the Bands. This county-wideprogram has groups from each high school challenging one another to facts found in ten books. I had to read the books prior to the Battle so I would be able to defend an answer in the event of a challenge from one of the teams. Here is my name plate (note the corected spelling):


Reading ten books was nothing compared to the work some of these groups put in. The captains from the winning team at Briar Woods High School had been reading the books and writing their own questions (to challenge themselves and their teammates) since May 2013. That’s right. They had spent 11 months preparing.

Being a judge was really fun because it made me read the 10 titles closer than I’d read a book in a while. However, the questions asked were so specific even I needed to consult the answer key. How the teams knew so much about each title was beyond me. For those of you interested in the titles, they were:

Each of these were first-time reads to me, save The Fault in Our Stars. I, once again, loved it and cried at multiple points, and cannot wait to see the movie. June. Come faster.

Full Body Burden scared the living hell out of me. Click above to read my review.

Back to the Battle…

I attended a semi-final battle at John Champe High School, whose post-Battle reception was TFIOS themed. They had a cool photo-booth area, quotes from the movie printed and hung around the room, and other Amsterdam- and travel-themed decorations. The final battle was at Briar Woods High School who chose the theme Rocketboys. The rocket ship decorations were cute, and they even had marzipan rockets atop their cupcakes. Super adorable! A big “THANK YOU” to the host librarian who bought us judges a gift and supplied us with coffee and snacks. How nice of her!!

I hope to judge again next year, or otherwise be a part of the event. It was a lot of fun, and the passion the teens had was really amazing to see. Their knowledge of the books was so much more than memorization. One teen – a teen from my days at the Rust Library, in fact – challenged us on an answer and totally owned it and we told him such. I was quite proud of him, as I was of all who participated.

Now…if only they had something like this for adults. Because otherwise, spouting out book facts makes me look like a pretentious lit nerd.


review: Noggin’ by John Corey Whaley


Noggin’ by John Corey Whaley is a dystopic- no, no that’s not right. It’s realistic fiction that- wait, no. That’s not right, either.

Okay, so I don’t quite know how to categorize a novel about a teen boy who is dying of cancer so he is cryogenically  frozen then given a new, non-cancerous body, via a head transplant. If that isn’t dystopic-science fiction-fantasy-romance then I don’t know what is. I mean, Whaley must really dislike genre stickers that librarians put on novels – or he was going for some kind of record number of stickers on the spine. Either way, the book is un-categorizable. (Yes, I know that isn’t a word. Just like head transplants aren’t real medical procedures. But I did it anyway, all in the name of fiction! HA!)

So I’ve told you the premise of the novel…but what fills the other 300 pages? Oh, right…teen romance. See, Travis feels like he just took a nap. Meanwhile, five years have passed and everyone has moved on. Everyone. Including his girlfriend Cate. In fact, she’s engaged. This, coupled with his parents odd behavior and the stares from his classmates (who were in elementary school when he was put under five years earlier) make for some very weird, mixed-up emotions in Travis that he can’t get a handle on.

I read an advanced reader copy (ARC) of this book laying by the pool at the Vdara resort in Las Vegas. Except for re-applying sunscreen so my pale, freckled skin would stay as perfect as Scarlet O’Hara’s, I didn’t put the book down. (I took sips of my pina colada one-handed. Huzzah!) Although I found Travis to be super whiny and incredibly selfish, I get why Whaley made him such – he is a teen boy (read: pubescent) who just went through a traumatic experience. He is allowed to be a little whiny and selfish. But it’s when his selfishness begins to hurt others that his friends call him out.

This is a fantastic YA novel written by a fantastic author. I don’t think Noggin’ went as deep as his 2012 Printz Award winning Where Things Come Back but that’s just fine. It’s still great. Still worth reading and recommending.

Recommended for: 
Teen boys AND girls. Girls will like the “feels” and boys will appreciate the boy behavior.

There are just too many head-transplant books to choose from, so I’ll recommend books that have other, similar themes. Such as The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider and Winger by Andrew Smith.

review: The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

beginngThe Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider is your typical YA contemporary fiction. Relationships, bullying, involved-but-not-overly-smothering parents, a gay minor character, etc. The exception to this novel is that it contains moments of brilliance that readers will find heartbreakingly poignant.

For a moment, I let myself imagine what it would be like to go East, where leaves turned golden and snow coated the rooftops, where libraries looked like castles and dining halls were straight out of Harry Potter films. But…I realized that there’s a big difference between deciding to leave and knowing where to go.

Ezra is at the top of his class – in terms of popularity, athletic standing, and grades. It all comes naturally to him, everything from his effortless musculature and wit, to his backhand and straight As. Until he runs from a party after he catches his girlfriend in a lewd act with another tennis player. He is struck by a car thereby ending his tennis dreams. No friend or teammate visits him in the hospital, leaving him lonely and lost. Who is he without his title of Prom King, his varsity letter, or his lunch table in the quad?

Steinback wrote about tide pools and how profoundly they illustrate the interconnectedness of all things folded together in an ever-expanding universe that’s bound by the elastic string of time. He said that one should look from the tide pool to the stars, and then back again in wonder. And maybe things would have been different if I’d heeded his advice….but I didn’t. Instead…the only stars I saw were wearing varsity jackets.

His loneliness abates with the arrival of new girl Cassidy Thorpe, and the re-emergence of his childhood best friend Toby (who’d actually never gone anywhere). Budding friendships with his new group of friends draws Ezra out little by little, and the high school experience begins to feel a bit tired. Just as readers are wondering if something is going to come next, something comes next. And it’s not far-fetched, and it doesn’t make you gasp…it just…is. And isn’t that high school? Isn’t that life? Not everything is dramatic and life-changing, but it something that makes you take pause and start again and move forward. I liked that about The Beginning of Everything. 

Recommended for:
Teen and adult readers who enjoy contemporary YA fiction. Teen boys, because the male perspective is a unique one.  (Well, at least for this lady reader.) It’s not as crass as Winger, but along the same lines.

You won’t walk away from this feeling as distressed or worn out as when you end a Rainbow Rowell novel, but you will feel a little more prepared to take on unexpected events, because they just might be the beginning of something better than what was.

Review: How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirstin Miller


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I judge books by their covers.* This book drew me in on cover alone. Then I read the front flap:

“Meth dealer. Prostitute. Serial killer.
Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies.”

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller is the story of teenage runaway Flick, who finds himself enrolled in the Mandel Academy. The academy is led by heir of the Mandel fortune, Lucian Mandel, a man who has a not-so-ethical interest in the school’s students. Flick, in his attempt to unveil his (alumni) father’s dark past, becomes top student, and therefore top victim. But rising to the top of his class has nothing to do with English an arithmetic. No, Flick and his classmates are lectured about assassination techniques, cyber surveillance, an chemistry (the art of drug-making). An excerpt from the course catalog:

Waste Management: Polluting for Profit

The world’s companies produce over 400 metric tons of hazardous waste every year. Environmentally safe disposal of these materials can be costly. Fortunately there are much cheaper alternatives. This course will teach you how, when, an where to dump everything from radioactive substances to use batteries.

Flick uses cunning wit to get him out of life-threatening situations, and his quips are hilarious. Miller created a multi-layered character out of Flick; a cut-throat, violent boy who the reader just has to root for. Her other characters are just as engrossing and quixotic – Flick (and readers) are unsure of how he should feel about them. A couple of them come into their own a bit late in the book, which I felt wrapped up a bit too quickly and neat. I wish Miller had dedicated more pages to the high-impact conclusion, though it fit the rest of the book well in that it kept moving and moving. The plot never stopped, which I found surprising in a 434 page novel.

I cannot wait to recommend this book to teenage male readers, and girls that like fast-paced thrillers. Young boys will like the grit. There is an element of romance, but it never overtakes the main theme: revenge. Don’t let the size of the brick (er, I mean book) deter you from picking it up or recommending it. The story is well worth staying up late to finish.

Read Alikes:

I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells has similar gore and action, but with a solo character, where Miller’s has a whole cast.

Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen would be a fantastic non-fiction follow-up read to How to Lead a Life of Crime. Larsen’s detailed descriptions of H.H. Holmes’ criminal exploits is an appropriate jump from the fictional blue-collar crime described in the Mandel Academy Course Catalog.

[…and I just realized that at no point did the students mention a library. With all of the great crime fiction out there – not to mention the memoirs and biographies of criminals – I highly doubt that the Mandel Academy, were it a real place, wouldn’t have had a library.]

*I encourage readers of all ages to do so (with new materials…classics don’t count), because if a publisher doesn’t put any thought or care into the cover, I assume they likely didn’t put much care into what went inside of the cover.

Book 51: Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Karo

I read the laugh-out-loud Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Karo in less than 36 hours, and I suspect you will, too. The first sentence is a bit jarring – “In the past year I masturbated exactly 468 times,” – and will likely force some mothers into putting the book back on the shelf, instead of checking it out/buying it for their teenaged son, but that would be a HUGE mistake. The book is about high school senior Chuck Taylor (hence the “Cons” in the title) who is obsessive-compulsive about a few things. Namely, tallying his masturbation, checking the stove, the lock on his school locker (must be spun 14 times before he can walk away), and peeing 16 times before bed. Oh, and he is obsessively clean. No dust bunnies. No petting animals. And definitely no camping! (Even if the only thing that pulled him through four long years of high school – the Senior Trip – is camping.) Is the title of the book (Lexapro) starting to make sense now?

Chuck is smart, funny, and cute. And that is all according to the new girl, Amy, whom he tutors (in math, his least favorite subject). He falls in love with Amy, and is determined to keep from the beautiful angel who acknowledges his existence his OCD quirks. But that doesn’t quite work out the way he plans, and he is forced into damage control mode. What I like about the book is that although you can see where it’s going to lead, you still read on because you just have to see the good guy win in the end. The author does such a good job of writing a solid novel with loveable characters (and, alternately, quite hateful ones), and makes normal high school situations actually bearable to re-live (or, in the case of teen readers, experience for the first time). This novel would be an excellent introduction for teen boys into high school life, because it would give them a realistic expectation: bullies, unrequited love, loneliness, fears, and authentic friendships.

This story of facing your fears, friendships, and personal growth is absolutely charming, and an excellent read for any young man or verrrry accepting young woman (seriously, the excessive masturbation thing is a bit “eww!”, and I’m 26 years old; I wish the author had brought it up maybe once or twice, not throughout the whole novel).

Book 33: The Wave by Todd Strasser

I picked up The Wave by Todd Strasser as a reading assignment from the coordinators of the Loudoun County 1Book1Community, of which I am a committee member. I have never read this book, seen it in a library shelf, or heard about the real-life situation that led to the writing of this novel. Published in 1981 (the language and interpersonal relationships are appropriate to the genre), The Wave is the fictional account of the real-life classroom experiment at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California in 1967…an experiment that went further than expected.

A history teacher, in an attempt to help his students understand how easily the Nazis and Germans could fall under the spell of the group-mentality (killing innocent people at the direction of a superior officer; turning on friends and neighbors suspected of harboring Jews; foregoing personal values for those of the group, etc…), the teacher started The Wave, requiring students to salute, recruit other students, fulfill the mission of The Wave, and more. In the novel, members of The Wave beat up, threatened, and turned their backs on their peers who would not join. The teacher knows he should end the experiment, but even he is getting caught up in the power that his role as leader has given him.

The book is a quick read, and an important one for those interested in understanding how fear and peer pressure can create very dangerous situations. I would definitely recommend this to any teen who enjoys WWII literature. Even though it is not from that era, it directly discusses the mentality of one of history’s most violent and fascinating groups.

In 2008 The Wave was made into a movie…in Germany. I just put myself on hold for it here at my library, and I have heard that it is quite grim.

Book 23: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Why We Broke up by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), illustrated by Maira Kalman is exactly what the title denotes…a story of a break-up. Quite a painful one at that. The intensity, the pain, the regrets…it is a typical high school break-up, but written so perfectly you’d think Handler was a 16 year old girl and not the 40-something author.

The story of the “different” Min and the basketball team co-captain, jock, jerk-extraordinaire Ed is well-written, but rather odd at the same time. What I mean is…the dialogue is abrupt and jerky, and somewhat difficult to follow when the conversation is really heated or excited. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and the story is one that is worth sharing. I will definitely recommend it to teenaged girls and adult women who enjoy YA romance/break-up lit. I don’t really know any boys that would be interested in this…so I wonder if it will be known as something other than a Printz Honor Book.

It could be more than that, though, because the Why We Broke Up Project on Tumblr is really cool. Authors and celebrities submitted their break-up stories to Handler and he posted them on his Tumblr account. You can even share your own breakup for the rest of the world to read. Should I add my text-message break-up story? (Yup! I did! And it was really therapeutic and he totally deserved it!)

(Some of) the writing is truly exquisite. I’d like to share a couple lines with you:

“So it all went into the box and the box went into my closet with some shoes on top that I never wear. Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb,” -p.3

“I gave you an adventure, Ed, right in front of you but you never saw it until I showed you, and that’s why we broke up,” -p.31