Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

This month my book club discussed The Boy In the Striped Pajamas by Irish author John Boyne.

I was quite stunned by this book, a book meant for children but one that carries very adult themes.   I’ve read other books about the Holocaust but never one like this.

Bruno is a 9 year old boy, the son of a Nazi commandant living in Berlin in 1942.  After the “Fury” comes to dinner, his dad takes an ‘important’ job and the family has to move far away to a smaller home outside “Out-with”.  Bruno is really unhappy about this because there is no one to play with and nothing to do at the new house.  He is lonely and bored until one day he looks out his bedroom window and sees dozens of men and children, oddly all wearing striped pajamas.  The curious Bruno decides to do some exploring to find out what those people are doing there.

I worried about this innocent boy going too far with his exploring, and then it occurred to me that I was worrying more about the child of a Nazi than I was about all the people in the book wearing the pajamas.  They were all innocent, of course.  Did I believe that boy’s life was more important than the others?  I really had to question myself about why I was so concerned for him.  Perhaps because I already knew the fate of the others- I knew they were doomed.  That knowledge allowed me to put those feelings aside and put all my worrying into Bruno.

It was an odd experience reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because the reader knows more about what’s going on than the sheltered young Bruno, and can understand what’s happening while he cannot.  And, because you’re reading about the Holocaust, you know it can’t end well, but the ending of this book was like a punch in the face.  I’m not kidding- I never saw it coming.  I have no desire to spoil it for you here so I won’t comment further- just know it’s shocking.  I’m glad I didn’t know more about the book before I picked it up because I like being surprised like that.

Parts of this book were a little hard to swallow (a child of a Nazi commandant would be that clueless?) but I got past that and didn’t let it spoil the book for me.  Kids are self absorbed, so perhaps he really wouldn’t have known anything about what was going on.

My 12 year old read the book too but I had to explain the ending to her as she hasn’t learned very much about the Holocaust or concentration camps yet.  She was quite horrified (by what I told her, not by the book) and asked a lot of questions.  I’d recommend the book for mature 12 years olds, on up.  It opened the door to a good introductory conversation on the topic between my daughter and me.

For our book club meeting we watched the movie.  For the most part it was true to the book, however the ending was a bit different.  In the book, the parents are left wondering what happened and eventually figure it out.  In the movie, they know immediately.  I thought the movie was good but (as usual) I preferred the book.

You can find book club discussion questions for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at ReadingGroupGuides.com.

The Boy In the Striped Pajamas is different, well written, heartbreaking, and tender.  And shocking.

Very highly recommended.

For the FTC:  I bought this book with my hard earned cash.

Waiting my turn for Catching Fire

scollins-330-Catching_fire_cI read The Hunger Games in August.  LOVED it.  I was totally engrossed and could not put it down.  My 11 year old read it after me.  Also loved it.  So we were thrilled to see that they had the sequel at the Scholastic Book Fair that I chaired at the junior high a couple weeks ago.

Catching Fire was literally flying off the shelves, even in hardback, even at $17.99.  I had to place a restock order twice during the one week fair.  Teachers were buying it, kids were begging their parents for it, and the librarian got 6 copies.  Scholastic also sent 25 copies of The Hunger Games in paperback at $8.99 and I sold out of them within two hours on the first day of the fair.  I ordered 50 more and sold them all.

My daughter’s eyes lit up when she saw all those copies of Catching Fire, that beautiful stack of crimson books.  “Please, Mom, can we get it?”  What she didn’t know was that I was way ahead of her.. I had already purchased it!!

I planned to read it first, but she got to it before I did.  She was reading it at dinner last night when she actually gasped, covered her mouth and looked at me with these huge eyes.  “Don’t tell me!  Seriously, do NOT tell me!” I said sternly.  “I have to, Mom!!  You are not going to believe it!  Katniss..” she began, but I stuck my fingers in my ears and said, “la la la la la” until she finally backed down and said, “OK! OK!  I’ll keep it to myself!  But PROMISE ME you’ll read this as soon as I’m done!”

She won’t have to twist my arm.

Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

35621937.JPGWintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson explores the darkest recesses of the troubled mind of a teenage anorexic coping with the death of her best friend.  For a mother of young girls, this was a most terrifying reading experience.

Lia and Cassie were best friends growing up, making a dangerous pact to stay thin and always support each other’s habits.  But after 9 years of best friendship, they stop talking.

When Lia’s parents put her in a treatment center for eating disorders, Cassie’s parents warn her to stay away from Lia, who they perceive as a bad influence.  But what Cassie’s parents don’t know is that Cassie is a bulimic and in very serious trouble physically.  At the time of her death, Lia and Cassie hadn’t spoken in several months, but for some reason Cassie tried to call her 33 times the night she died.

Lia is haunted by obsessive thoughts of her friend, and visual and auditory hallucinations of Cassie encouraging her to stay strong, eat less, and join her.  She can even smell Cassie’s presence.

Obsessive thoughts rule Lia’s existence.  Thoughts of Cassie and thoughts of food.  Everything has a number.  Apple (75) half a bagel (185) 10 raisins (16).  The book is written in a stream of consciousness style that is compelling and painful.  I felt like I was witnessing this girl, this character I cared about, slowly killing herself, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Her family is desperate to help her but Lia is critical of all their efforts.  Lia believes they are clueless and that they don’t care, but it’s clear they love her and will do anything to make her well.

A starving girl does not make the most reliable narrator.  She is deeply disturbed and in so much pain.  She calls herself names and has such horrible self-talk that it was very hard (as a mom) to read:

::stupid/ugly/stupid/bitch/stupid/fat/

stupid/baby/stupid/loser/stupid/lost::

Her brain is at war with itself throughout the book as she tries to convince herself that she doesn’t need food.  Anderson shows the reader how conflicted she is by using a strike-out technique with great effectiveness.  Here’s an example:

My traitor fingers want that fudge.  No, they don’t.  They want a seven layer bar and some weird muffins and those pretzels.  No, they do not.  They want to squish the marshmallows and stuff them into my mouth.  They will not.”

This is a fabulously written, intensely compelling book.  I love how it doesn’t solve the problem or give any easy answers, because there aren’t any.  It’s such a complicated issue.  Laurie Halse Anderson is an amazing YA novelist who takes on the most difficult subjects.  I’d highly recommend Wintergirls to anyone looking for a book to take over their lives for a couple of days, but most especially to those who deal with teenage girls on a regular basis or who want a better understanding of eating disorders.

This one is excellent.

UPDATE:  I forgot about the ‘full disclosure’ issue on blogs.. about where books come from.  I bought this book on vacation in August when I ran out of books to read. I read Speak by LHA last spring and loved it, and had seen Wintergirls reviewed positively on a number of blogs.  So that’s how I came to own this book, if anyone cares about that stuff!

Review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

20484041Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a compelling YA novella that opens on Melinda’s first day of high school. That’s typically an anxiety filled day for anybody, but it’s excruciating for the girl who called the cops at an end of summer party, getting a lot of kids in trouble. Shunned by her friends and taunted by everyone, Melinda goes through the day and the entire school year mostly alone inside her own head.

Something has happened that has traumatized Melinda and transformed her from a good student with close friends into a withdrawn selective mute- she speaks only when absolutely necessary. Melinda keeps everything inside and it eats her alive. Harassed and tormented by her classmates and mostly ignored by her busy parents, she falls deeper into a depression; cutting class, forgetting to wash her hair, spacing out, gnawing on her lips until they are cracked and bleeding. Even her one friend, a cheery transplant from another school who is desperate to fit in somewhere, finally gives up on her, saying she is always negative and calling her a freak. But no one knows the torment Melinda is going through. As her grades slip and her social status plummets, she finds solace in art class. Her year-long art project is something she can get lost in and ultimately something that helps her heal.

Speak is an excellent portrayal of high school alienation – nothing is sugar coated here. This is an intimate look into teenage depression; emotional, painful, honest, raw. I’d heard the book was great and yet I wasn’t prepared for all the emotions I would go through while reading it. The mom in me was so frustrated with Melinda’s situation and just wanted to hold her and help her. I worried that the book would end with a suicide (it did not) and was grateful when Melinda began to show signs of getting better, becoming empowered through a confrontation with another classmate, and ultimately finding her voice.

The subject matter is dark but it isn’t graphic in any way. Speak came out in 1999 and it is my understanding that it is taught in high schools throughout the country, which I think is great. Laurie Halse Anderson got Melinda’s voice just right- it does not sound like an adult trying to write like a kid. It’s a powerful read; one I would strongly recommend for teens, parents, and teachers alike.

I was fortunate enough to see Laurie Halse Anderson speak on a panel last weekend at the Festival of Books, and she said that many critics are calling her latest book, Wintergirls, her best novel since Speak, or better than Speak. She said it’s a challenge for an author when your first book is your best known work, and she said she was “Miss Crankypants” about that for a long time, but now she is grateful and feels so fortunate to be able to wake up and listen to the voices in her head each day and write down what they say. She is frequently asked what impact Speak has had on her life, and she said it changed everything- in writing Speak she found her voice and she found her “people”.

Thanks to Jill at Fizzy Thoughts for sharing this book with me! I loved it.

UPDATE:  Read my review of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson HERE.

A Kid’s Review: Slob by Ellen Potter

31ddxnovrxl_sl500_aa240_Slob by Ellen Potter

Product Description from Amazon.com:

Twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum is the fattest kid in school. But he’s also a genius who invents cool contraptions— like a TV that shows the past. Something happened two years ago that he needs to see. But genius or not, there is much Owen can’t outthink. Like his gym coach, who’s on a mission to humiliate him. Or the way his Oreos keep disappearing from his lunch. He’s sure that if he can only get the TV to work, things will start to make sense. But it will take a revelation for Owen, not science, to see the answer’s not in the past, but the present. That no matter how large he is on the outside, he doesn’t have to feel small on the inside.With her trademark humor, Ellen Potter has created a larger-than-life character and story whose weight is immense when measured in heart.

I received this ARC from Penguin and before I could even look it over, my 11 year old daughter snapped it up.  Maybe it was the Oreo cookie on the cover, or maybe it was the title, but she devoured the book in less than 2 days.   It’s a YA novel meant for kids 9-12 years old.  Rather than review it, my daughter wanted me to ask her questions about it, so here we go!

What is Slob about?  Who is the main character?

Slob is about a fat genius named Owen who tries to figure out a mystery about his parents.  Owen is 12 years old and goes to middle school. 

What challenges does Owen face?  

Owen is overweight, which presents a lot of problems for him, especially in gym class, where his coach is out to get him and embarrass him.  Someone suggests he get a ‘fat exemption’ from the doctor but he decides to tough it out.  Owen wants to solve the mystery about his parents so he builds Nemesis, a radio/television that can see the past and expand on what was caught on the security footage of a camera across the street from their deli.  It’s complicated.

How would you describe the book?  What was your favorite part?

I would describe it as suspenseful.  It has both serious and funny parts.  It’s mostly a mystery. The cover is really cool.  On the cookie, where it would say “Oreo”, it says “A Novel”.  The part I liked best were the parts at school, because he helps his arch-enemy recover from a seizure, and then they become friends.  

Were the characters believable?

I thought they were.  I liked Owen but the character I found most interesting was Mason Ragg.  He has one brown eye and one milky-blue eye and half his face is always sneering due to a medical condition.  It was rumored that Mason carried a switchblade in his sock, but it turned out it was just a key carrier.  There was another rumor that he was kicked out of his old school for being a handful.  It shows that people often make assumptions based on incorrect information. Mason knew about his reputation but didn’t let it bother him.

Did you like the ending?  Is there anything you’d change?

I did.  Owen learned a lot about himself by the end of the book.  He never did solve the mystery about his parents, but maybe some things are better left unsolved.

Who would you recommend this book to?  

I’d recommend this book to middle school kids, kids who’ve been bullied, kids who are friends with a bully, kids who are different, and kids who love to read.  It’s an easy read, and not too long (208 pages).  I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.  

 

Slob by Ellen Potter will be released on May 14th, 2009.