The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

starofkazanA good old fashioned fairy-tale featuring a kind-hearted orphan girl, the pair of gentle Swiss cooks who find and raise her, a trio of nutty professors, and a returning mother who may not be what she seems. Annika spends her days exploring Vienna with her friends, learning to cook exquisite dishes, and dreaming of her long-lost mother. Since she was abandoned in the Alps as a baby, Annika has imagined every possible scenario for her mother’s return. When it finally happens, she is overjoyed to find that her mother is a beautiful and rich landowner who has been desperately searching for her lost child. The only disappointment is that she must leave her dear friends, adopted family, and beloved city to join her mother in an unfamiliar, far-off home. When they arrive, some things about the new home strike Annika as very strange, but her devotion to her new mother make her ignore any misgivings. The reader will share the sense of unease, and will cheer for Annika and the mysteriously stable-boy as they uncover the mystery of what Annika’s mother is really after.

The good people of this story are dedicated and hard-working, and Annika is no exception. She is unable to understand her family’s desire to avoid hard work at all costs, and she shines when she has a difficult task to accomplish. Even when the action is taking place in her mother’s decrepit manor house in the north, Annika’s love for Vienna is central to the story, and the city is lovingly recreated in period detail and contrasted with the stark landscape of Annika’s new home. However, the story really picks up once Annika has uncovered the plot that’s at work and begins plotting her escape. While she unwinds the threads of her mother’s plan, Annika fights her way back to her home and her real family.

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Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

MonsterAt sixteen years old, Steve Harmon is facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. He is accused of acting as a lookout during a robbery of a drugstore. The robbery was botched, and the man behind the counter was shot and killed with his own gun. The book retells the murder trial of Steve and James King, who is accused of organizing the robbery and pulling the trigger. Steve is involved in filmmaking through his high school, and the reader sees the trial and the legal process through his filmmaker’s eyes. Not just a retelling of the trial, the novel also examines Steve’s experiences in jail and his internal reactions to both the murder and the trial.

This book’s format is noteworthy, alternating between diary entries and a screenplay of the trial both written by Steve. While the diaries are first-person and very emotional, really letting the reader inside of Steve’s head, the screenplay segments show Steve looking at his own situation from an outsider’s perspective. In those sections, it is almost like Steve is watching the proceedings of his own trial, and this gives him distance from the experience. It was a fantastically effective choice by Myers. Steve’s nuanced, detached screenplay stood in direct contrast to the bare emotion of his frantically insecure diary entries.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, by Barry Lyga

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Fanboy, and unnamed fifteen year old comic book geek, is just trying to make his way through high school unnoticed. His only passion in life is for comic books, both reading them and creating his own. His magnum opus is Schemata, a complicated and time-consuming graphic novel. At school he has one friend, Cal, who is a popular jock and cannot be seen talking to Fanboy regularly. So Fanboy walks through the halls anonymously, occasionally getting beat-up or verbally abused, and having violent day-dreams about the people who are on “The List.” One day he is contacted by Kyra, Goth Girl. Another social outcast at their high school, Kyra is a troubled teenager who lies compulsively and steals cars for joyrides, and is later found to be suffering from depression. However, she is the only person who helps Fanboy break through his self-imposed isolation. Their complex relationship leads Fanboy to finally stand up for himself.

Fanboy is a tough narrator, but one who will doubtless have great appeal to many teenage boys who can directly relate to his situation. He has constructed an image for himself that he must break out of in order to make any connections with other people, and the process of breaking out of that constructed self is not an easy one. In Fanboy’s relationships with Kyra, Cal, and his family, he is often hurtful and even cruel. However, his unhappiness in school and his home, his dedication to Schemata, and his intense insecurity keep the reader on his side.