Sunday, May 6, 2012

Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief Audio Book Cover. From

Zusak, Markus. 2006. THE BOOK THIEF. Narrated by Allan Corduner. ISBN 978-0739337271

1939 is a busy year for Death and a pivotal one for young Liesel Meminger. Three events that concern Liesel Meminger in 1939: She watches her six year old brother die, she goes to live with her new foster parents, and she steals her first book. Narrated from the unique perspective of war-weary Death, this book follows Liesel’s coming-of-age in the German town of Molching as she discovers the power of books and words. She is nurtured by her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, who teaches her to read. Her education is continued by Max Vandenburg, the Jew that the Hubermann’s shelter in their basement, who teaches her the value of combining words into a story. As World War II progresses and Hitler tightens his grasp on the German people, Liesel is supported and loved by her best friend and neighbor, Rudy Steiner. Zusak masterfully crafts words to create a story that is by turns beautiful, humorous, ironic, and tragic, with evocative imagery and unforgettable characters.

For this review I listened to the unabridged eleven CD audio book narrated by Allan Corduner and produced by Listening Library. This book blends genres and could be called a low historical fantasy. The setting, Germany in 1939, is historically specific, yet the story is narrated from Death’s perspective. It is this fantasy element that allows Zusak to emphasize universal themes, such as the inhumanity of the human race.

The power of words and stories is a major theme in the book. Hitler’s power comes from the words of his book, MEIN KAMPF, and the manipulating words of his speeches. But Liesel also learns that words can be used to give comfort, show compassion, love, and forgiveness. Corduner, who clearly relishes the texture and sound of each word, emphasizes this theme quite well in the audio book version. Pronunciation is crisp and clear. In the book, German words are italicized, but it was helpful to hear Corduner pronounce these words, as well as German names, such as “Pfiffikus”, “Saumensch”, and “Verzeihung.”

The organization of the book is creative and illuminating. Sections and chapters are introduced with Brecht-like headings, which tell of elements to come. Similarly, facts about characters and events are inserted throughout the narrative. These headings and facts not only alert the reader to pay attention for certain items and events, but also color the way the following text is interpreted. 

Zusak uses vivid imagery to describe the world of Himmel Street from two perspectives, the book thief’s and Death. Although Liesel’s story is full of heartbreaking tragedy and loss, it is nevertheless a story filled with beauty and great love. It is this love and beauty in the face of injustice of war and politics, that makes the book thief’s story so compelling. After reading the book, it is easy to understand why Death would hold these words close to him to give him hope for the human race in the face of war and destruction.

The figurative language is evocative and visceral. For instance, Liesel and Death use words in a painterly manner to describe the weather and the color of the sky. “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole…” “Yes, the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red.” 

Foreshadowing is used to propel the story and the reader forward. Frequently Death will step out of the story to tell about a future incident that is a result of the current behavior, actions, or words of a particular character. At times Zusak uses this device to bring levity to a seemingly insignificant event or to provide a breather from a particularly emotionally wrenching scene.

Zusak’s characters are complex and nuanced and Corduner capably changes his voice to portray each character with great understanding and subtlety. Zusak has carefully structured the story to alternate between Death’s narrative of Liesel’s story, death thoughts on the human race, and scenes with dialogue from Liesel’s life. Corduner not only excels at bringing out the humor and irony in the text, but he is able deftly handle highly emotional scenes, most notably when Liesel deals with the aftermath of the Himmel Street bombing.

This book is best read with some knowledge of the history of Germany during World War II, Hitler’s tyranny, and the holocaust. The plot is enmeshed in historically, culturally, and regionally specific circumstances, without knowledge of historical events and figures some nuances, especially foreshadowing, could go unnoticed. The reader may find themselves fighting with their own conscience, knowing that the ideals and practices of Nazi Germany were atrocious, and yet hoping for the German citizens in this book to survive. Even as you dare to hope that Liesel’s story will be a happy one, you know heartbreak is on the horizon because this of the historical setting.

With the exception of accordion music at the beginning of the first chapter and during the last chapter, the audiobook does not use sound effects or music. The haunting accordion music at the beginning of the book helps to establish an old-world atmosphere. When it is repeated at the close of the book, the sound of the accordion brings with it thoughts of Hans Hubermann and his love for his foster daughter.

The audiobook does not include an introduction and or closing comments, just a short ad for other Listening Library titles. The paperback edition includes a reader’s guide with discussion questions, a Q&A with Zusak, and suggestions for further reading. I found the Q&A to be especially intriguing because Zusak explains why he wrote the book, his favorite characters, and his writing process.

The only element that the audiobook lacks is descriptions of the black and white drawings that appear in the print version of the book. The overall plot does not suffer and any text that accompanies the sketches is included, however the subtle details and insights into Max’s mind and his relationship with Liesel are absent. Taking this visual element into account, I think this would be a great title to have students listen and follow along with the book.

National Jewish Book Award Winner
Book Sense Book of the Year Award Winner
Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year
Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books of the Year
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Michael L. Printz Honor Book

Review in HORN BOOK: “Audiobook narrator Corduner confidingly draws listeners in before Liesel steals a single book; and each character is sharply delineated, from the deep-thinking, compassionate Death to Liesel’s hectoring foster mother. Corduner effortlessly handles the book’s distinctively expansive yet intimate nature in a tour de force performance.”

Review in BOOKLIST: “More than the overt message about the power of words, it's Liesl's confrontation with horrifying cruelty and her discovery of kindness in unexpected places that tell the heartbreaking truth.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Narrator Allan Corduner defines each character with perfect timing. With richly evocative imagery and compelling characters, Zusak depicts the day-to-day heroism of ordinary people.”

Review in BOOKLIST: “Through British actor Corduner’s moving interpretation, the impact of the Hitler era is palpable.”

*Discussion question: Why do you think Liesel thinks of herself as the Book Thief? Why doesn’t she think of herself as the Book Reader or the Foster Daughter? If you chose a name for yourself, what would it be and why?

*Writing activity: Liesel brings a daily weather report to Max while he’s living in the basement, but she doesn’t just say, “it’s sunny” or “it’s raining now.” Use figurative language to create a weather report as Liesel would for Max.

*Non-Fiction books about the holocaust and Nazi Germany:
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2005. HITLER YOUTH: GROWING UP IN HITLER’S SHADOW. ISBN 9780439353793
Zullo, Allan, & Bovsun, Mara. 2005. SUVIVORS: TRUE STORIES OF CHILDREN IN THE HOLOCAUST. ISBN 978-0439669962

*Novels and graphic novels about the holocaust and Nazi Germany for older teens:
Foer, Jonathan Safran. 2003. EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. ISBN 978-0060529703
Spiegelman, Art. 1986. MAUS I: A SURVIVOR’S TALE: MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY. ISBN 978-0394747231
Spiegelman, 1992. Art. MAUS II: A SUVIVOR’S TALE: AND HERE MY TROUBLES BEGAN. ISBN 978-0679729778

*Novels about the holocaust and Nazi Germany for younger teens:
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2008. THE BOY WHO DARED. ISBN 978-0439680134
Boyne, John. 2007. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. ISBN 978-0385751537
Lowry, Lois. 1990. NUMBER THE STARS. ISBN 978-0547577098
Spinelli, Jerry. 2003. MILKWEED. ISBN 978-0375861475
Yolen, Jane. 2000. THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC. ISBN 978-0590965781

*Other books by Markus Zusak:
2001. WHEN DOGS CRY. ISBN 978-0330363099
2002. FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE. ISBN 978-0439241878
2004. GETTING THE GIRL. ISBN 978-0439389501
2006. I AM THE MESSANGER. ISBN 978-0375836671
2011. UNDERDOGS. ISBN 978-0545354424

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Stead, Rebecca. 2009. When You Reach Me Cover. Cover art by Sophie Blackall. From

Stead, Rebecca. 2009. WHEN YOU REACH ME. New York: Wendy Lamb Books. ISBN: 9780385737425

There’s a lot going on in twelve year old Miranda’s life. She’s helping her mother prepare to compete on the TV game show, THE $20,000 PYRAMID, her long-time best friend isn’t speaking to her, she’s trying to navigate the friendship waters of her classroom, and to top it all off she is receiving mysterious letters from a time traveler. As Miranda struggles to understand the complexities of friendship, as well as time travel, she constantly returns to her favorite book, L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME. Not only does Miranda feel a special kinship with Meg, but as the story progresses the reader begins to see how important time, both linear and non-linear, is to both of their stories. Set in New York City in 1979, Miranda’s story is part historical fiction, part time traveling fantasy, and part mind-challenging mystery. Miranda begins with a lot of questions: Why did Marcus punch Sal? Why does the homeless laughing man sleep with his head under the mail box? Who is the enigmatic letter writer and how does he/she know so much about Miranda? As Miranda tells her story in non-linear episodes, the seemingly unrelated pieces of the mystery begin to fall into place to create a complex interlocking puzzle.

Miranda’s story is almost entirely grounded in reality, however it is the added twist of time travel that pushes this story from contemporary realism/historical fiction into low fantasy. Time is an important theme in the book, from time travel to understanding that sometimes friends just need space and time. The story is written in first person from Miranda’s point of view, but the events are not presented chronologically. The chapters skip around in time, which adds to the suspense of the book. The more Miranda learns about time the more she realizes that her words and actions, however small and seemingly insignificant, can have a huge impact, like a drop of rain causing a giant ripple in a pond.

The multicultural cast of characters feel like a natural part of urban New York City in 1979. Miranda is a street-smart latchkey kid who knows her neighborhood very well and by the end of the book, so do the readers. Stead has created fully developed characters with distinctive personalities. For instance, Annemarie has dietary restrictions, an issue relevant to modern kids, but she also has a crush on Colin and a complex best-friendship with Julia. There is equal distribution of gender among the characters in the story.  Miranda has peers of both genders and the adults in her world range from her single-parent mother to Jimmy, the owner of the neighborhood sandwich shop.

The style of writing is conversational, filled with slang and occasional references that keep the book historically grounded. Dialogue is blended seamlessly into Miranda’s narrative, which pushes the story forward at a brisk pace. Although Miranda’s world is clearly New York City in 1979, the themes of the book are universal. The book follows Miranda’s journey to accepting that friendships are complex and ever evolving.  She learns what it means to be a good friend and that having more than one friend does not mean that any one friendship means less.

The book is heavily influenced by Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book, A WRINKLE IN TIME. Miranda carries her copy of the book with her at all times and has conversations about the book with several characters. Her love for the time traveling story of Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace creates a framework that makes conversation about time travel seem natural. When Miranda realizes that someone in her life is a time traveler, the idea has already been planted in the reader’s mind and is therefore easier to accept.

Although the ending has happy elements, such as Miranda’s mother winning the game show, the story ultimately ends with sobering acceptance on Miranda’s part. The final chapters of the book weave the seemingly unrelated pieces of Miranda’s story together into a mind and time-bending conclusion. Kids will want to reread the book to find and piece together the clues that Stead has planted along the way.

Book Sense Book of the Year
IRA Children’s Book Award
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner
Indies’ Choice Book Award Winner
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

Starred review in BOOKLIST: “The '70s New York setting is an honest reverberation of the era; the mental gymnastics required of readers are invigorating; and the characters, children and adults, are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Miranda's voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation. The story builds slowly, emerging naturally from a sturdy premise. As Miranda reminisces, the time sequencing is somewhat challenging, but in an intriguing way. The setting is consistently strong. The stores and even the streets-in Miranda's neighborhood act as physical entities and impact the plot in tangible ways.”

Review in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “Eventually and improbably, these strands converge to form a thought-provoking whole. Stead…accomplishes this by making every detail count, including Miranda's name, her hobby of knot tying and her favorite book, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “She [Stead] skillfully weaves written notes into each scene and repeats clues when necessary. The climax is full of drama and suspense. This story about the intricacies of friendship will be a hit with students.”

Review in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “With quick vocal strokes, Corduner paints vivid, provocative portraits of Germans and Jews under unfathomable duress and the ripple effect such circumstances have on their lives.”

*Read this book before or after reading A WRINKLE IN TIME. You could also read passages from the book aloud. Why do you think Miranda likes this book and its protagonist so much? Are there similarities between Miranda and Meg? How have these books changed the way you think about time?
L’Engle, Madeleine. 1962. A WRINKLE IN TIME. ISBN 978-1299700284

*Play your own version of THE $20,000 PYRAMID. Refer to page 12 and 39 for the basic rules. Make two sets of index cards: common words for the first round and categories for the Winner’s Circle round.

*Other novels that include time travel:
Bakke, Kit. 2011. DOT TO DOT. ISBN 978-1456368043
Buckley-Archer, Linda. 2007. THE TIME TRAVELERS. ISBN 978-1416915263
Gutman, Dan. 2010. ROBERTO AND ME. ISBN 978-0061234842
Jones, Diana Wynne. 1987. A TALE OF TIME CITY. ISBN 0-688-07315-8
Mass, Wendy. 2009. 11 BIRTHDAYS. ISBN 978-0545052399
Wells, Rosemary. 2010. ON THE BLUE COMET. ISBN 978-0763637224

*Other novels by Rebecca Stead:
2010. FIRST LIGHT. ISBN 978-0440422228
2012. LIAR AND SPY. ISBN 978-0385737432

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Yang, Gene Luen. 2006. American Born Chinese Cover. Cover art by Gene Luen Yang. Cover design by Danica Novgordoff. From

Yang, Gene Luen. 2006. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. New York: Square Fish. ISBN: 9780312384487

This story begins with three seemingly unrelated stories each featuring a protagonist who is experiencing identity confusion. First, there’s Jin Wang, an ABC (American Born Chinese) who is struggling to fit into a nearly all-white school. He yearns to be an all-American boy and to win the love of an all-American girl, but he feels he’s being held back by the new kid, Wei-Chen, an FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). Next, there’s Danny, the all-American, Caucasian high school student, who seems to have it all until his stereotypically offensive cousin, Chin-Kee, comes to visit. Framed as a TV sitcom, this storyline shows how Danny’s life is turned upside down as buck-toothed, yellow-skinned Chin-Kee invades his life. Finally, there is the legendary story of the Monkey King who is shunned by the other gods, goddesses, and deities for trespassing upon Heaven. Yang masterfully weaves these three stories together to create a commentary on cultural assimilation, pride, and identity. Through interactions with one another, each character finds the power in assuming their true identity.

In this sharply clever and humorous graphic novel Yang addresses the universal issues of identity and culture, as well as the hot topic of stereotypes.

The organization of the book is notable; it features three apparently unconnected stories that overlap and connect as the book progresses. Yang begins with the story of the Monkey King, which alerts readers that this story has its foundations in Chinese folklore, but with a modern twist. The Monkey King story incorporates many classic fantasy motifs, including a questing hero and the use of magic. Yang then introduces Jin Wang’s story, which begins as contemporary realism. Next, Danny and Chin-Kee’s story is presented as a TV sitcom, complete with accompanying laugh track.

One of the major themes is the power of being your true self, most obvious in the way the Monkey King escapes from under the pile of rocks, but also in the way Jin Wang chooses to forsake his alter-ego, Danny. The relationship between identity and transformation is examined as well, as each character tries to become something else in order to achieve his goal. By the end of the book the characters learn to overcome obstacles that they thought were external but actually lie within their own minds.

The tension between assimilation and cultural pride is a common thread throughout the book. Societal and cultural norms influence the characters to make decisions based on what they think the world wants them to be, rather than their true selves. Even before the three stories become obviously intertwined, the parallels between the characters are emphasized. For instance, both Jin and the Monkey King are willing to change their appearance to become, in their minds, more acceptable and attractive.

Yang uses the graphic novel format to address these complex themes in a visually cinematic fashion. He skillfully addresses Asian-American stereotypes and the ways people react, mock, resist, or support such stereotypes. These stereotypes are presented though orally and visually, most notably with the character of Chin-Kee, with his buck-teeth, yellow skin, and over the top accent, “Harro Amellica!” Yang’s slightly exaggerated style of writing and illustrating and frequent use of juxtaposition lends itself well to this topic. In many cases, the punch line of a joke or a scene is delivered not in words but in a panel of a character staring at the reader in confusion or anger.

The visual elements of the text are important as well, as Yang manipulates the words to convey deeper meaning. For instance, words that are translated from Mandarin Chinese are enclosed in arrows. In addition, some sounds are written as text, such as "click clack click," which creates a rich atmosphere. The size, font, and thickness of the words also change, making key words pop off the page.

The story will strike a chord not only with Asian-Americans, but with all teens that are going through the universal process of sorting out their identity and finding their place in the world. The illustrations make the story clearer and more accessible for kids who may not have encountered many Asian stereotypes in their lives. Although this graphic novel, targets a teen audience, it may also be attractive to many adults who are looking for graphic novels with substantial subject matter, as well as polished illustrations and clever humor.

School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Michael L. Printz Award Winner
National Book Award Finalist
Cybil Award Winner
Young Reader’s Choice Award Nominee
YALSA Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens

Review in BOOKLIST: “Each of the characters is flawed but familiar, and, in a clever postmodern twist, all share a deep, unforeseen connection. Yang helps the humor shine by using his art to exaggerate or contradict the words, creating a synthesis that marks an accomplished graphic storyteller. The stories have a simple, engaging sweep to them, but their weighty subjects--shame, racism, and friendship--receive thoughtful, powerful examination.”

Review in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he's depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you'll already have reached out to others.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Like Toni Morrison's THE BLUEST EYE and Laurence Yep's DRAGONWINGS, this novel explores the impact of the American dream on those outside the dominant culture in a finely wrought story that is an effective combination of humor and drama.”

Review in VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES: “This graphic novel could be especially cathartic for teens and adults of Asian descent, but people of any ethnicity would find themselves reflected in the universal themes of self-acceptance, peer pressure, and racial tensions.”

*Discussion questions (These can also be used as writing/journaling prompts):
-What is a stereotype? Name some types of stereotypes (jock, cheerleader, nerd, geek, etc.). What characters follow a stereotype and what are some examples from the book of that stereotype?
-This book is a graphic novel told in comic book form. How do the pictures enhance the story? Do you think this story could have been told without the pictures? Why or why not?
-Jin’s story begins with a parable (pages 23-24). Why does his mother tell him this story and what does it mean?

*The last page of the book includes an illustration of a screen shot of two Chinese boys singing. It seems to be based on this YouTube video of two Chinese boys lip-syncing to the Backstreet Boys song, I WANT IT THAT WAY:

After you watch the video, discuss the following questions:
-Why do you think Yang included this image?
-The video is humorous, but what does it say about identity?
-The boys in the video sometimes stop singing to speak to one another in Chinese, do you think they know the meaning of the song lyrics since they’re in English? Would this make a difference in how you perceive the video?

*The story of the Monkey King is a story is a classic Chinese folktale. Watch some videos of different dramatizations of the story. Discuss how the different versions compare/contrast. Discuss the ways that Yangs has modernized the story.

-A clip from the 1961-1964 animated film, THE MONKEY KING, produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio:
-A commercial for a Chinese opera presentation of THE MONKEY:

*Other graphic novels written by Gene Luen Yang:
2010. PRIME BABY. ISBN 978-1596436121
2011. LEVEL UP. Ill. by Thien Pham. ISBN 978-1596432352