Lord of the Flies by William Golding

61jpccsraxlLord of the Flies

by William Golding

Believe it or not, I never read this book until now, and the only reason I did finally read it is that my son is currently in his high school’s production of Lord of the Flies.

Set during some fictional wartime in the mid-twentieth century, this classic novel is about a group of British school boys who end up on an uninhabited, remote island when the plane that is evacuating them from home crashes.  That a plane happened to crash so conveniently close to an island, that no adults survived the crash but a significant number of boys did, and that none of those surviving boys seem to have suffered any injuries from the crash all require a degree of suspension of disbelief, but this passes quickly as the novel unfolds.

The story opens after the plane crash has already happened, and the surviving boys have made it safely onto the island.  As they converge on the beach, they quickly choose a boy to be in charge, or “chief,” by a show of hands.  A sensible, fun loving boy named Ralph, who is prone to spontaneous handstands is chosen.  However, another boy, Jack, sees himself as chief, and his resentment at not being chosen manifests in a bitter rivalry with Ralph soon after.  As a consolation, Ralph appoints Jack and the rest of the school choir to which Jack belongs hunters; it will be their job to hunt the wild pigs on the island to feed the crash survivors until they are rescued.  Ralph also determines very quickly that their only hope of rescue is to start a fire and keep it going night and day so that any passing ship or plane might see the smoke.

Everything starts out pretty orderly and cooperative.  The boys agree to certain rules to maintain civility.  One of the central rules is that meetings are called by Ralph by blowing into a conch shell found on the beach.  The conch has a significant role in the story; it represents a certain amount of power, for not only is it used to call meetings, it’s also agreed that whoever holds the conch gets to speak while everyone else listens.

Gradually, civility disintegrates and the rivalry between Jack and his gang and Ralph and his more underdog group, which includes an asthmatic, obese outcast of a boy cruelly called Piggy grows until the two groups are basically at war with one another.

It’s a pretty grim, and even gruesome story, and a fascinating exploration of human nature as these young boys descend into savagery.

A good read.

To Be a Slave by Julius Lester

51C1asDyjoL To Be a Slave

by Julius Lester

I was led to this book as I searched for a book to possibly read with my daughters, whom I homeschool, as part of our exploration of U.S. History.  I’ve been reading A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zimmerman with them (an excellent book), and detouring to other books when we want to delve more deeply into certain aspects of the history we’re reading about.  Slavery in America is one of those aspects.  I want to somehow convey to my kids the depth of horror of slavery, and to really try to imagine what it must have been like to be owned as a piece of property, like a table or a dog or an iPad, by another human being, to have no rights, and to spend one’s entire life doing the bidding of another person or people.  It’s hard even for me to imagine, obviously, being a white woman.

In any case, my query online for books for youth regarding slavery led me to Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, which was originally published in 1968.  It opens thus:

“It was the late forties.  I was not yet ten years old.  One day there came in the mail a letter addressed to my father in which a company promised – in big and bold letters – to research the Lester family tree and send us a copy of our family coat of arms.  I was excited, but when I saw my father fold the letter as if to discard it, I asked anxiously, ‘Don’t you want to know our family history?’

“He laughed dryly.  ‘I don’t need to pay anybody to tell me about where we came from.  Our family tree ends in a bill of sale.  Lester is the name of the family that owned us.'”

I was chilled by this stark, but obvious information.  I had never thought about it before – but of course nearly every black American’s family tree would end in a bill of sale.

Many years later, Lester began delving into black history, and he came upon a book by B.A. Botkin called Lay My Burden Down, which was a compilation of interviews with the last living former slaves undertaken by the Federal Writer’s Project of the Depression.  The book angered Lester, who says, “The slaves depicted there were too reminiscent of the stereotyped blacks of the movies of the forties and fifties – happy, laughing, filled with love for while people.”  Believing that the interviews with former slaves were cherry-picked in order to produce a record of slavery that (white) people could feel good about, Lester went to the Library of Congress and spend weeks pouring through all of the interviews undertaken by the Federal Writer’s Project himself, gleaning from them exactly what he had gone there to find: true, emotional, harrowing, courageous, horrifying, heart wrenching firsthand accounts of slavery from those who were slaves themselves and lived to tell about it.  To Be a Slave is Lester’s compilation of those interviews, along with his notes.

I’ve read numerous books about slavery, both fiction and non-fiction, and this book has touched a deeper never probably than any other I’ve read, mainly for its raw and unvarnished truthfulness.  It’s actually aimed at young people – probably no younger than middle school, but something adults would benefit from reading, too.  This should be required reading; highly recommend.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Absolutely-True-Story-of-a-Part-time-Indian The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie

I originally bought this book because it was mentioned somewhere as a banned book.  That always piques my interest.

This National Book Award winner is the story of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a fourteen-year old Spokane Indian living with his family on a reservation in Washington.  Born with hydrocephalus which resulted in numerous medical and physical problems, Junior is an outcast even among his own people.  He becomes even more so when he decides to leave the “rez” – at least partially – to attend an all white school in a neighboring town, where he hopes to receive a better education and more opportunities.  There, he finds himself in a strange in-between – seen as a traitor by the Indians on the rez (where he still lives with his family), and as an outcast at the all-white high school (where racism is rampant and the school mascot is – wait for it … an Indian).  Over time, however, he makes a place for himself in his new school and earns the respect and friendship of his fellow students.

I have such mixed feelings about this book.  I can definitely see the appeal it holds for teens.  The story, which includes entertaining artwork, boldly touches on masturbation, bulimia, and taking a crap at school, among many other things.  It sheds a harsh light on the poverty, alcoholism, and tragedy rampant on Indian reservations, and frankly, serves as one more example that makes me feel ashamed to be a white American.  On the other hand, I had a hard time sympathizing with Junior because he really is pretty obnoxious.  I would have hoped that his disabilities would serve to make him more compassionate, but he unapologetically ridicules other people for their looks or intelligence.  There is also a passage in the early part of the story that stung:

” … you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.

“After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.

“And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you’ve become the biggest retard in the world.

“Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day.  They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.”

I don’t know.  I’m really unsure if this was meant to convey disdain for bullies, or for “retards.”  Again, a person can be a lot of things, but the line is drawn at being “retarded.”  Nobody likes a retard, yo.


I really don’t know if Alexie means to make some social statement, or just entertain.  I do know that his stories have stirred up negative reactions among Indians, many of whom call him a sell-out.  This novel is apparently a faithfully rendered but somewhat fictionalized account of Alexie’s own upbringing on the Spokane Reservation.

Read it and decide for yourself.

The Fourth Wall by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

Unknown The Fourth Wall
by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

In this YA novel, dreams and reality collide.  Fifteen-year old Marin exists under a grief so heavy after her mother’s death in a terrible car accident, that it threatens to crush her, although by all outward appearances she seems fine – or at least she thinks she does.  She has to hold it together – her father depends on her to help care for her baby brother, Michael, who has special needs.  Officially diagnosed with severe regressive autism, he remains a mystery to his grieving father and sister, as well as the parade of therapists who make their way in and out of the family’s apartment.  Neither Marin nor her father really believe that Michael is autistic, however – his regression occurred suddenly and quickly, and almost immediately after his mother’s untimely death.  There must be a connection to her death . . . if they can only figure it out, they can bring Michael back, or so they wish.

However well Marin believes she is holding it together, a school counselor seeks her out nonetheless, and Marin finds herself part of a group of misfit kids, each with his or her own problems which they are having trouble coping with.  Skittish and resentful of the group at first, Marin eventually finds kindred souls and comes to the realization that as much as she is suffering, everyone else suffers, as well.  This realization begins to help her heal from the grief of losing her mother.

Meanwhile, the lucid dreams she has when she sleeps have always been a sanctuary for her, but suddenly her dreams have taken on a sinister air.  Still, if only she can understand what these dreams mean, she believes she might find the key to unlocking the mystery of her baby brother.

While this isn’t a genre I typically read, I did enjoy it and definitely see the appeal for the teen crowd.  Naranjo is a talented writer and spins a vivid story that speaks well to her intended audience.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

61OX2ZRLqYL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Signature Performance by Elijah Wood
by Mark Twain

I attempted reading Huckleberry Finn probably fifteen years ago, and what I remember is that I had so much trouble stumbling over the dialect that I abandoned it.  I’ve wanted to pick it up again for years, but never did until recently when I received an Audible newsletter announcing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn read by Elijah Wood.  “That’s the ticket,” I thought.  “If I listen to someone else read it, I won’t have any trouble with the dialect.”  Plus, we were headed out on a family road trip, so it seemed like the perfect driving companion.

I wasn’t disappointed.  I am vastly underqualified to offer any analysis or critique of a classic great work such as this, so I’ll just say that I loved it.  If you haven’t ever read it yourself (and I know it’s required reading for many a high school student; my own son will be reading it for his high school senior English class this year.  I was required to read Tom Sawyer in school, but not Huckleberry Finn), it tells the story, as narrated by Huck Finn himself, of his adventures escaping his abusive, drunken, no good “Pap” and hooking up with a runaway slave by the name of Jim.  Full of danger, high adventure, and colorful characters, it’s a story for the ages.

Elijah Wood does a fabulous job performing the story.  His reading of it is fluid and seamless, and he does the backwoods, southern dialect beautifully.  I discovered after I finished it that he had actually played Huck Finn in a Disney production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1993, and I wonder if this allowed him an intimacy with the story that he might otherwise not have had.

I really loved this story and am sorry I waited so long to read it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Kkhp7-lg Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
by J.K. Rowling

You’ll have to excuse me; I’m in mourning.  You see, I finished the final installment of the Harry Potter series last night.  With tissues in hand and tears streaming down my face, I turned the final page.

In this, the seventh installment, Harry and company are seventeen and should be entering their final year at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.  But there will be no seventh year at Hogwarts, because the wizarding world is at war with Voldemort and his Death Eaters.  The Ministry of Magic has been infiltrated and taken over by the Dark Lord’s soldiers, and Harry is on the run – frantically trying to fulfill the mission left to him by Dumbledore, after a surprisingly somewhat touching parting with the Dursleys.  All Harry has left in the world is what he has learned at Hogwarts and through his own trial and error, ingenuity, and perseverance – and the love and loyalty of his friends.  Is it enough to see him through to a victorious end?  Well, I won’t give it away.  I will say that, with six books behind me, I couldn’t imagine any more twists or turns to Harry’s odyssey, but I was left with my jaw hanging once again.  The final battle scene is intense, and although in the end, the story wraps up neatly, I felt a little emotionally drained – in a good way.

I am left with a number of questions, which, I’m sure, either don’t have answers, or whose answers probably could be found with a little digging:

  • What ever happened to Harry’s grandparents – why didn’t they raise him rather than his aunt and uncle?
  • Who pays Muggle-born students’ tuition to Hogwarts?  It’s not as if Muggle parents budget for the possibility of their children being witches or wizards and therefore requiring magical education at a unique and prestigious magical boarding school.
  • For that matter, how did the Weasleys afford tuition for SEVEN children at Hogwarts?  I mean, they barely made ends meet.
  • How in the heck do the powers-that-be convince Muggle parents that their child is, in fact, a wizard or witch, and needs to be taken away by strangers to go be educated at a far off magical boarding school?
  • Who pays the salaries of the teaching staff at Hogwarts?
  • Why are none of the professors at Hogwarts married, and why do none of them appear to have children of their own?
  • How is it that once witches and wizards reach eleven years old, they are immersed in magical education but cease “traditional” education – no more math, literature, geography, spelling, etc.

I also have to say that with everything Harry went through – with all the terrible losses he sustained, the torture and injuries, there is just no way he wouldn’t be completely and utterly tweaked, am I right?  But I know, it’s just a kid’s story, and we prefer our heroes resilient and well-balanced.  Also, after seven years of high adventure and danger, I don’t think there is any way Harry Potter could have gone on to live a sedate, steady life with a wife and kids.  I can’t picture it.  At the very least, he would have become Minister of Magic . . . or Headmaster of Hogwarts.

But we, the readers, are left to imagine Harry’s future for ourselves, I suppose.

In any case, I grew far more attached to the characters populating these books than I ever imagined possible – and I truly loved the adventures and the story from beginning to end.  I am serious when I say that I feel a sense of loss to have finished the series; it feels like saying goodbye to old friends.  Part of me wants to take up the first book again, just to bring it all back.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)
by J.K. Rowling

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, but for years I steered clear of the Harry Potter series.  My oldest son, now 17, started the series when he was in second grade and has since read the series in its entirety probably a dozen times, and for years he urged me to read it, and I resisted.  I resisted even when all of my grown-up friends were reading it and raving about it.  I had ZERO interest in a children’s fantasy series, and honestly couldn’t understand why everyone and their brother seemed to be so enamored with a kids’ book series which I vaguely understood to be about wizards.  It wasn’t until I read J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy last summer (and loved) that I decided that reading Rowling’s other work might be worth a shot.  And even then, when I finally picked up the first book in the Harry Potter series, I could not have imagined how invested I would become in the characters and story of Harry Potter.  I get it now.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince takes us back to Hogwarts once again.  Harry, tortured but ever resilient, is sixteen years old now, and Voldemort and his Death Eaters are on the loose.  Something fishy is going on with Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape, and Harry is determined to find out what, exactly, they are up to – but nobody, not even Dumbledore, will take Harry’s suspicions seriously.  Quite by happenstance, an old, marked-up textbook lands in Harry’s hands that allows Harry to excel at Potions; this old textbook claims ownership by a mysterious self-proclaimed “Half-Blood Prince.”  Who was the Half-Blood Prince, and how and why did he create the secret spells and potions contained in the margins of this old school book?

In the midst of learning to apparate, trying to solve the mystery of the Half-Blood Prince and Malfoy’s suspicious activities, and meeting with Professor Dumbledore for private trips into the past via the Pensieve to learn everything he can about Voldemort, Harry is also very much a typical teenager who is feeling the first stirrings of romantic love.  Can he betray his best friend to go after the girl he wants?

Rowling does a fabulous job of taking the story line down more mature paths as the characters mature.  The story has become darker and more sinister, more grown-up, and more adventurous.  The end of this book left me reeling – and bawling my eyes out.

Harry Potter And the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

harry-potter-order-of-the-phoenix-kazu-kibuishi-coverHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)
by J.K. Rowling

This, the fifth book of the Harry Potter series (which I was never going to read), might be the best so far.

Harry and his cohorts are fifteen now, and full of teenaged piss and vinegar.  I am very much appreciating the character development as the series progresses, with the characters growing and maturing along with the original readers of the series.  I’m also appreciating the fact that for a hero, Harry is in most ways a typical, angsty teen prone to fits of temper and acts of rebellion.

The Dark Lord is back, but the Ministry of Magic is in complete denial about it.  Instead, Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, is convinced that Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of WizardryIMG_3455 and Witchcraft, is conspiring to push Fudge out and take the position of Minister of Magic himself.  Fudge installs one Dolores Umbridge at Hogwarts to ensure that the school is being run up to snuff in the eyes of the Ministry, and under her direction, Hogwarts goes to hell in a handbasket.

The power struggle between Fudge and Dumbledore – purely a product of Fudge’s imagination – is, unfortunately, a terrible distraction from the real problem at hand – the return of Voldemort.

Meanwhile, Harry is painted as a lying, attention-seeking, addle-brained adolescent by the Ministry and the Daily Prophet newspaper, and Harry suffers being treated more and more like an outcast by his peers at Hogwarts.

The bonds forged between the characters is a beautiful thing – between Harry, Ron and Hermione, between Hagrid and Harry, between Sirius and Harry, between Dumbledore and Harry.  Though more and more an outcast, Harry has some big supporters.  Still, he is a boy in adolescence, a boy in a suspended state of grief, a boy with no real place to call home.

I loved this book.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can get to the next one, although I’m already finding myself sad that there are only two more books left in the series.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

9780525478812_custom-7eb6cc16a8a3f2266865895e1718ac9e9d6232e0-s6-c30 The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

A friend of mine on Goodreads posted the following review of this book:


I have to agree.  Wow.

The Fault In Our Stars is a novel about cancer, and dying, and being young, and being in love.  It’s a novel about being young and in love while also dying of cancer.  Somehow, though, it manages to not be smarmy or sappy or overly sentimental, while still yanking on your heartstrings.

Narrated by sixteen-year old Hazel who has been hanging on for three years with terminal cancer, she tells of meeting seventeen-year old Augustus, amputee and in remission from his own cancer, at a youth cancer support group.  The two hit it off immediately and quickly become nearly inseparable.  At the heart of the story is their shared love of a (fictional) book entitled An Imperial Affliction – a novel about a teenage girl with terminal cancer.   As the book ends abruptly, leaving both Hazel and Augustus frustrated, they use a Genie wish (wishes granted to terminally ill kids, much like the real-life Make A Wish Foundation) to travel to Amsterdam to meet the author of AIA in the hopes of getting some answers.  While their meeting with the author turns out to be a huge disappointment, their trip to Amsterdam cements their romantic relationship.  But, of course, tragedy is right around the corner.

I loved, loved, loved this book.  Knowing that cancer plays a major role, I wasn’t sure I would like it despite the glowing reviews, if only because my husband is in remission from cancer (four and a half years now!), and reading or hearing about cancer still touches a raw spot for me.  The author does a fabulous job telling the story from a teenage girl’s point of view – I’m always impressed when writers are able to so believably write as the opposite sex.  Profound, witty, and yes, tragic, this book asks big questions, and ultimately is as much about being alive as it is about dying.

And it’s going to be a movie!

The Boy’s Body Book by Kelli Dunham and Steven Bjorkman

the-boys-body-book_1The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU (Boys World Books)
by Kelli Dunham and Steven Bjorkman

PUBERTY.  It’s a rare parent who can utter that word aloud without shuddering, or at least squirming a little.  Eventually, though, we all find ourselves face to face with people who resemble our sweet children, but who seem to have been taken over by cranky aliens.

I have found myself in just such a situation lately with my second son, age 10 1/2.  It’s not full-blown puberty yet, but it’s a-comin’; oh, the mood swings!  The tantrums!  The storming off!  And while I pride myself on being able to have frank conversations with my kids about most things under the sun, sometimes it helps to have a book at one’s disposal to get the conversation started, or to further the conversation.


I actually stumbled across this book on Amazon while I was searching for something of a similar nature geared towards girls, because my twins aren’t far behind.  I’m really glad I found this book for boys.  It covers all the important stuff – stuff, I’m pretty sure, that is covered in what used to be the Fifth Grade Growth and Development Film shown at school, but which is now, apparently the Sixth Grade Growth and Development Film (probably a year too late, since by sixth grade, most boys are knee-deep in a lot of these changes already) in our school district.  It covers everything from body odor to body hair to peer pressure, to feelings – all in straightforward, down-to-earth language.


I read it cover to cover in about an hour, and will be leaving it in my son’s room for him to read at his leisure.  I’m hopeful that it will ease his mind about what he’s experiencing, and provide a springboard for further conversation between him and me, him and his dad, or even him and his older brother.

Highly recommend.