Tag Archives: National Book Award

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Author: Kimberly Willis Holt

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Nothing much ever happens in the sleepy Texas town of Antler. Or so Toby Wilson thinks until the summer of 1971 blows into town like an ill wind, bringing challenges and change aplenty.  His best friend Cal’s brother is in Vietnam fighting, and Cal can’t seem to bring himself to even write him back. Toby’s mom went to Nashville for a country music competition, and now Toby isn’t sure she’s ever coming home. And then Zachary Beaver rolls into town in a trailer with red letters proclaiming him the fattest boy in the world. That sure brings some excitement to the town as folks line up to pay their two dollars and gawk (Toby and Cal included). But then Zachary’s guardian leaves town . . . without Zachary, and as they begin to spend more time with him, Toby gradually discovers there’s more to Zachary than a stuck-up, overly hygienic, overweight kid.

Why does this book not get more love?! I’d never even heard of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town until I happened to stumble across it in the middle of a book sale, where I picked it up on whim. It’s fabulous. The tone is simple and captures small-town thirteen-year-old boy remarkably well. There are a lot of coming-of-age elements as Toby and his friends deal with loss, loneliness, love, family, and learning to understand those who are different from themselves. And all of this is expressed in a simple yet moving way that I really enjoyed reading. I valued the flaws that were present even in the most likable of the characters, the humanity of them, and the way these flaws influenced their choices. It was also interesting to read something Vietnam War era that wasn’t focused on big cities, university campuses, and peace protests; you get a much better picture here of how the war affected everyday life for the majority of the country, I think, and just a better picture of what life was like at that time. I would certainly recommend When Zachary Beaver Came to Town both for middle-grade readers (the intended audience) and for older readers as well. It’s excellent.



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Challenger Deep

Author: Neal Shustermanchallenger deep

My rating: 5 of 5

“Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior. Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence, to document the journey with images. Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head. Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny. Caden Bosch is torn.” (I’m using the Goodreads summary here, because it’s perfect and I don’t want to change anything.)

I was absolutely blown away by Challenger Deep. I mean, I always enjoy Neal Shusterman’s writing, but this particular volume is something special even for him. It clearly comes from a very personal place, as he mentions in the afterword that a lot of the ideas come from his son’s own experiences with mental illness. And that personal connection really shows, inviting the reader into the world as it appears to someone struggling with a brain chemistry that isn’t working normally. I still can’t say I understand . . . I don’t think anyone who hasn’t actually lived there can really understand. But I can definitely be more accepting and willing to try to understand for having read this book (which is really helpful since I’m dealing with mental illness of a different sort with my Grandfather who has Alzheimer’s). I loved the was Shusterman wove together Caden’s “real world” experiences with life on the “ship” on its way to Challenger Deep. As you go, it becomes more and more clear that the “ship” is just another way in which he sees the world, you begin to see parallels between actually people, events, and choices. But because it’s presented in that way, you get this additional, interesting story that not only increases the reader’s understanding but is also really engaging in its own surreal sort of way. The writing, in Caden’s first-person view, is brilliant and easy to read in a strange, surreal way, even though the events are constantly flipping between “realities” sometimes even within the chapter. A nice plus also is that the chapters are really short, so it feels like a quicker read–and it’s easy to read a chapter or two between other things, even if you don’t have much time. I think I would highly recommend Challenger Deep to anyone, and particularly to anyone who has someone in their life who is dealing with mental illness.


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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Illustrator: Ellen Forney

Junior has spent his first fourteen years on the Spokane reservation, the son of parents who drink away their problems and don’t try, in a community of people who drink away their problems and don’t try. But even though he’s had some health problems and is a bit weird, Junior is smart, talented, and still able to dream of something better than living dirt poor on the rez and never making anything of himself. At the urging of one of his teachers, he makes a decision that will change the course of his life forever–and make him a target of resentment from everyone else on the rez. He decides to go to the school in the nearby farm town where the academics are better, because he wants to change his life. . . . Even if he’s the only non-white kid in the school. Even if all his neighbors think he betrayed them. Even if his best friend Rowdy ends up hating him.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was an incredible story: poignant, painful, funny, heartwarming, awkward, and moving. Sometimes all within a few pages. The character of Junior is remarkably authentic–too honest at some points, but that’s just who he is. Although most of us will never be in the situations he is (I certainly haven’t), at heart the struggles he faces are ones we can relate to: how we fit into our community, deal with family problems, manage financial limitations, stumble through adolescence, discover romance, gain and work through friendships, and try to find ways to excel and pursue our dreams. Those sorts of things are universal human problems, and Alexie provides a unique perspective on these in this story. I love that even though Junior is super-awkward, seemingly disadvantaged, and generally discouraged by those around him, he is stubborn enough to keep trying. Also, I think the cartoon illustrations (allegedly drawn by Junior, who is a budding cartoonist) add a lot to the story, particularly as they are usually inserted directly into to plot and are an actual part of the storytelling. For those who are brave enough to deal with the awkwardness (and I would only recommend this for an older audience, 16+ at least), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great, challenging, and definitely funny story.

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The Canning Season

Author: Polly Horvath

When Ratchet’s mom sends her to stay with distant relatives Tilly and Penpen Menuto for the summer, Ratchet is well aware that she’s being gotten rid of. What she doesn’t know is that the visit will change her life. As she spends time with these two eccentric elderly ladies, hearing their stories of the past, Ratchet begins to discover herself and grow into a young lady–someone who might one day be as unusual and strong-willed an individual as the Menuto sisters.

The Canning Season is a moving story, full of heartache but also of inspiration and strength. It parades as a children’s book, but I would consider the themes (and occasionally the language) to be more suited to an adult audience. The story is full of regional flavor, mild hyperbole, and rich, colorful characters. In particular, I though the stories the Menutos told were fascinating and fun (if a bit hard to believe at times). I found The Canning Season to be worthwhile to read, if not what I expected when I first picked it up. Good books are like that sometimes.

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Goblin Secrets

goblin secretsAuthor: William Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5

Zombay, vol. 1

Rownie is one of many orphan children who call the witch Graba’s roaming house their home. Although, he spends his hungry days running errands for Graba and scrounging up enough to eat, his life has a certain comfortable pattern to it. That is, until his brother disappears and a troupe of goblin performers come to town and change Rownie’s life forever.

Goblin Secrets is an interesting read. For most of the story, you don’t really know what’s happening, as the author reveals one interlocking piece after another. Even though the plot elements are concealed a good bit of the time, the story is never tedious or boring. The world and the characters both are well imagined even though, again, less is revealed about either initially that you would expect. Actually, the whole book’s rather like a good poem: deft, expressive, and minimal. It’s definitely a story I would recommend.

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