Book Reviews: The Alternative Series

book review: The Alternatives by Patrick Jones

Darby Creek/Lerner Books 2014






Based upon information on his website, I can tell you that Patrick Jones is a white male, a former teen librarian turned author who is extremely passionate about reluctant teen readers, for whom he’s written over 20 books. He’s received lifetime achievement awards from both the Catholic Library Association, and the American Library Association. He released the Alternatives series mid 2014. Each book features a different teen who transfers to Rondo Alternative High School. Outburst feels like the first book in the series because it does the most to introduce the school and its staff, but the books really can be read in any order. Characters flow in and out of the separate books, bringing readers a sense of familiarity to the story.

FC9781467744843Outburst features Jada, an African American female who has anger issues. She punched her mother after she told Jada that she (Jada) never changes. To stay out of the court system, Jada has to change her habits, her friends and her thoughts.

Rachel provides the narrative voice in Controlled. She’s an upper middle class white female on the track to college and suddenly, in the middle of her senior year, her cousin shows up on her family’s doorstep. They take

Misty in, FC9781467744836and all the turmoil that comes with her. Misty attends Rondo.

Bridge is the story of José, an undocumented immigrant who works two jobs and does all the translating for his family. (I’m just realizing I didn’t read this one!)

Frankie belongs to the Dakota Nation and just moved from the Riverwood
FC9781467744829Reservation to Minneapolis. His cousins, members of the First Nation Mafia, find Frankie as quickly as trouble finds him at school. He transfers to Rondo and his story is Target.

Jessica is a biracial teen with social anxiety disorder. The staff at Rondo can help her special needs better than other schools. Jessica transfers so that she can develop skills necessary to communicate with others. Barrier is her book.

FC9781467744850These books average just over 100 pages in length and are fairly quick, smooth reads. They have just enough grit to appeal to teens with challenging lives, yet the stories are pat and perfect. Teens from lower income families leave their homes and go to Rondo, listen to the cast of sage adults and their lives are made better. Yes, it is necessary to give teens hope, and adults will often have answers, simple answers to help teens live easier lives. But the adults providing the answers here fit just one

FC9781467744812more stereotype that abound in these books: the noble sage.

Jessica’s story is a unique to YA lit: a biracial teen with an emotional disorder. Yet, the crux of her biracial identity hinges upon her “nightmare” hair (and we don’t see out of control hair on the cover!). Frankie, Indian name Brave Eagle, is struggling to live a good life but he’s continually confronted by both his cousins and his father to give into the gang life. When it gets particularly tough, he goes home to his wise old grandfather where he visits sweat lodges while local women pray to Ojibwan ancestors to guide their children. Why didn’t other teens go to their faith for strength?

Of course Jada is an angry black female. Here, she’s sizing up the girls at her school.

Jada buried her smile. She’d wanted to hit somebody up for a phone since she had started at Rondo, but she couldn’t get a read on most people. Like at all schools, there were cliques, and none of them seemed open to her. The Hispanic girls went their own way. The other black girls talked too much and too loud for Jada’s taste, but the queen bee, Yvette, was the worst. Every morning at breakfast, she jumped to the front of the line. Today Jada had pushed back – and pushed herself out of any chance of joining up with Yvette’s group. Some of the white girls seems okay, but Jada could tell most were troubled – and trouble- except maybe Jessica. No doubt she was troubled too, but it seemed like she meant no harm to anyone else. Like me, Jada thought. (Outburst, p. 38)

Jones explains his research process in most of the books. He admits Outburst is not meant to be a single story of African American females teens and that he had three African American female teens proofread his manuscript. He conducted his own research for Target (I’m not sure what that means) and talked with Brent Chartier with whom he has previously co-authored books. Chartier’s expertise on Native American ceremonies comes from his “time working at an American Indian health clinic in Michigan.” (Target, p.118)

Jones delivered cohesive stories, but failed in their cultural delivery. They failed to honor from where these young people came both in terms or race, nationality and class. If he’d gotten that right, these could have been very powerful books.




Book Reviews: Non-fiction

I’ve recently read two nonfiction books that are completely unrelated in topic, location and even the time period in which they’re set yet, they’re very similar in that they’re well written books that address the intellect of young adults.


The Compassionate Warrior: abd El Kader of Algeria by Elsa Marston (Wisdom Tales, 2013)

FC9781937786106summary: A brilliant military strategist, superb horseman, statesman, philosopher, Muslim hero . . . Emir Abdel Kader (1808-1883) was an international celebrity in his own time, known for his generosity and kindness even towards enemies. Today he is recognized as one of the noblest leaders of the 19th century and a pioneer in interfaith dialogue. This fascinating biography of the heroic Arab who led the resistance to the French conquest of Algeria, endured betrayal and imprisonment, and in 1860, in Syria, saved thousands of innocent people from mob violence brings a vital message for our times.

Marston combines her love of scholarship and of young adult literature as she writes about Emir Abdel Kader. At times, she speaks directly to her audience in a tone that guides them as they learn more, not only about this brilliant and compassionate leader but, also about Algeria. France’s relationship with the country was just beginning as Algeria struggled to eventually become a unified nation. Their relationship was complex and interpreted differently through the lens of each of the cultures. Marston provides only what she could document, resulting in a book that is a rare historical document. I think young adults would be more engaged in a story that included more about the Emir’s personal and family life, however this books focuses more on his political accomplishments along with the country’s development. Readers gain insights not only into a country we here tend to ignore, but also into the complex arena of international relations. Nothing is as simple as it seems!


Up for Sale: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery by Alison Marie Behnke (21st Century Books; August 2014)

+-+805560493_140summary: Up for Sale takes a hard look at human trafficking, identifying perpetrators and telling the stories of victims through their own words. You’ll discover why some people become vulnerable to trafficking and you’ll read about what their lives are like on a daily basis. You’ll also meet some of the courageous individuals and organizations working to free people from lives in bondage so that, in the words of US president Barack Obama, each person can “forge a life equal to [their] talents and worthy of [their] dreams.

I enjoyed this book. I appreciated its effective use of color, images and layout in telling a multidimensional story. Yes, multidimensional. Human trafficking has no single definition, no single place or location. At its core, it is an horrendous abuse of those with no power: children, women, the poor, the uneducated, homeless… Up for Sale brings to light many of the ways this crime against our humanity is perpetrated today. I liked that the book made sure readers understood this global crime isn’t just committed ‘over there’, but that it happens here in America everyday. The author treats the young adult readers as if they’re aware enough to need to know about human trafficking and without being exceptionally graphic, she provides a dose of reality. Teen readers will appreciate the numerous examples of how this crime is committed over and over again. As the faces and situations change, readers develop a heightened sense of compassion, a greater sense of social justice.



review: The knife and the butterfly

“An unflinching portrait with an ending that begs for another reading.” ~Kirkus

title: The knife and the butterfy

author: Ashley Hope Perez

date: 2012, Carolrhoda Lab Books

main character: Martin Azael Arevalo

The plot seems simple: where is Azael? He walks us through his own memories of how he got wherever he is, what his life has been like and some of his most recent memories with quite vivid descriptions of the places and people that surround him. As a tagger, Azeal is used to paying attention to visual details.

Azael spends his time observing Lexi, a girl he’s certain he doesn’t know. Yet, she holds the key to knowing where he is.

Azael and his brother raised themselves after their mother died and father was deported. They took to the streets and joined MS-13, a notorious gang. Alexi and her mother have lived in 19 homes in 10 years. She, like Azael turns to the streets for some stability. They both live lives that are easier to judge than to understand. Rather than describing the world to us, author Ashley Perez carries us into it. I know Perez doesn’t believe in glossaries but,  non Spanish speakers would benefit from one with this book that doesn’t always provide context for clear meaning.

Perez recreates the past through Azael’s flashbacks and Lexi’s observation sessions. Azael uses his street smarts to provide an immediate evaluation of Lexi but he doesn’t totally discount her based upon his findings; he want’s, needs to know more. Perez manages to develop two very strong characters in this process even though she’s giving us Lexi through Azeael’s perceptions. She gives us a message there on judging people without really knowing them and this message in pronounced in what we find out about Theo.

Throughout the story there is a light-handed presence of faith. From the use of names to the religious imagery, Perez seems to say we’re more than our emotions and our humanity. In her Author’s Note, she states “…The Knife and the Butterfly is not a story of courtroom drama; the trials that interest me most take place in the human heart.”

I couldn’t help but wonder about the names in the story, and particularly what they mean. I think they mean Perez layers story and meaning quite well.

Azael: “whom God strengthens”

Lexi: “defender of men”

Gab, Gabriel: “God is my might”

Rebecca: “to tie”

Jason: “a healing”

Shauna: God is gracious

Theo: “gift of God”

Martin: from the God Mars (God of War)

As for the meaning of the knife and the butterfly, you’ll have to read the book.

Additional reviews












book review: The whole story of half a girl

title: The whole story of half a girl

author: Veera Hiranandani

date:Delacorte Press; 2012

main character: Sonia Nadhamuni

reading level: 4.2

Being ‘half a girl’ doesn’t matter much until Sonia has to change schools. She was accepted by everyone in her small private school, but she has to find new friends in her new school and this requires her to fit in somewhere. Will she hang with the Blacks or Whites? Cheerleaders or nerds? Why can’t these people all hang together?! She has to explain her name and that she’s not half American Indian, but half Indian from India.

Sonia makes friends with Alisha, a black girl who is bussed to the school. She also makes friends with Kate, a very popular white girl who develops a very controlling friendship with Kate. It’s really hard to determine Kate’s motives and whether she’s being a true friend to Sonia or not, just as it would be in real life. I wanted Sonia to be a stronger character and to better assert herself but the truth of the matter is, kids have to learn how to maneuver the world around them just as Sonia was doing in the story.

Sonya’s parents wanted her to change schools both because of their concern for her education and because her dad lost his job. As with many MG books, Sonia’s characters are not fully developed, so I found it difficult to even care when her father suddenly has a rather severe episode. This is probably the only fault I found in the book that gives an otherwise believable portrayal of a young girl who just wants to fit in.

book review: DJ Rising

"Meet Marley, an unassuming high school junior who breathes in music like oxygen." ~Serious Insanity Blogspot

title: D J Rising

author: Love Maia

date: Little Brown and Company, February 2012

main character: Marley Johnnywas Diego-Dylan aka DJ Ice

  “…Try not to get into too much trouble with the ladies. Any questions? I hate questions by the way.”

 “No question,” I tell him, even though I didn’t understand hardly anything he said.

 “Great. You’ll do great, guy. I gotta go and you’ve got everything. There’s nothing to it. Go make something of yourself out there.” Donnie flashes a set of super-white teeth before turning and slipping away towards the back of the club.

 Go make something of yourself. It’s the only thing he said that sticks. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Make something of yourself, Marly. You can do this.

Marley says the first thing he heard when he was born was music and music is always the first thing that he hears. After his father died some years before, his mother took to drugs. She brings a steady stream of low life boyfriends through their home while Marley watches and waits for her to be the mother she once was. Marley, at 15, works a full time job and attends a local private school on a scholarship where he is made to feel like an outsider because of his lower economic status. He has two of the best friends ever written in YA but they have absolutely no clue what their friend’s life is really like.  Of course he has eyes for one of the most attractive girls in the school. As if this isn’t enough for him, he accepts a weekly gig working as a DJ at an over 21 club and this is where Marley’s passion truly lies. He wants to be a DJ, like his dad.

Maia gives us a story of a young man who is essentially making it on his own, but she fails to develop his struggle. Everything comes just too easy with little to no conflict. I couldn’t understand why Marley made the effort to attend this private school when college was not on his agenda.

While I could definitely feel Marley’s love for music when he described his DJ sessions, I found the author to be uncomfortable in describing technical details relating to the craft. I can’t say I was sold on her writing in a male voice, either.

I read an advanced copy of the book and hope that several issues in grammar were corrected before final release.

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Anna Reads

Pass the Chiclets






review: Panther Baby A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention

“This spirited, well-honed account of cutting his teeth as a member of the Black Panthers brings Joseph back to his youth, a painful time in late-1960s America.” Publishers Weekly

title: Panther Baby
author: Jamal Joseph
date: Algonquin Books; February, 2012
reading level: 6.0

Honestly, I didn’t want to read Panther Baby when Doret first suggested it. But since I trust her judgment of books, I read the book and I’m so glad I did! I’ve wanted to put Panther Baby into the hands of every young man and every teacher of young men that I’ve seen since finishing it.

In Panther Baby, Jamal Joseph (born Eddie Joseph) relates personal and historic reasons that brought him to join the Black Panther Party. Quickly tracing developments from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights movement through the history of the family with whom he is living, we see how revolutionaries of the sixties were almost a natural development from previous generations. Joseph was an intelligent, keenly aware and angry  young Black man who through a series of circumstances decided to join the Black Panther Party.  In his anger, he sees the Panthers as a militant organization that will allow him to fight any and every person who crosses his purposeful path. He quickly learned  however, that the Panthers were more about doing right than being right; that their struggle was more a class struggle than a race struggle and that their aim was to overthrow the capitalist system that perpetuated inequality and injustice. Readers soon learn that Panthers were not anti-White. They were anti-establishment and anti-government.

Joseph details many community programs run by the Panthers as well as their training with firearms. When he ends up in prison the first time, I think I as a reader began to really see Jamal’s deep commitment to the organization. He never seemed to question how he was betrayed. Rather, he took what he had learned from the Panthers and used it to empower his fellow prisoners. He learned the ways of prison life just as he learned the ways of the street and the ways of the Panthers, all of this being a code of decency which when maneuvered correctly allowed one to give and receive respect through proper treatment of others. While interactions with women were somewhat limited in the book, Joseph even learned how to give proper respect to women through both implicit and explicit lessons.

Joseph managed to write a complex story in a voice that rings clear and true. Make no mistake: Joseph’s story is a controversial piece of history told from one perspective. While part of me wondered what the story would look like told from another perspective, this is Joseph’s story and as a biography, its merit is on the author’s ability to express his life’s story with honesty and integrity to that others will want

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not so desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. ~Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849

to read it.  I wanted to finish this book because of the story Joseph was telling about fighting for humanity.

Part of me wants to excuse myself for not knowing about this piece of history because I was in elementary school when much of it happened. However, Jamal Joseph was all of 15 when he first joined the Black Panthers. His activism began early and did nothing but grow from that point. I think Doret wanted me to read this book because much of it occurs during Joseph’s young adult years and we’re with him as he acquires important life lessons.

Although released as an adult book, Panther Baby belongs in every high school and public library collection.

I would suggest reading Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience prior to reading Panther Baby. I think reading this early American Revolutionary will accentuate the Panther’s cause and enhance the message.

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Joseph could have said this as easily as Thoreau.

 American Libraries interview with Jamal Joseph

edited 29 March 2016

review: Riot

"Another innovative work by an author constantly stretching the boundaries of what fiction can be, and a natural for readers’ theater in the classroom." ~Kirkus Review

title: Riot

author: Walter Dean Myers

date: Egmont; 2009

main character: Claire Johnson

In developing the history of this book, Myers states that the first Africans came to America as slaves in 1619. I have to correct this statement and please know that in doing so, I’m not discrediting Myers further historic details. I have not studied the New York Draft Riots and from reading the book, I believe the author did extensive research on this event.

To say the first Africans came as slaves in 1619 is a rather common misstatement. The first Africans came to the New World with the Spanish and Portuguese as explorers. They traveled with Columbus, Balboa and other explorers of the day. Free Blacks helped establish St. Augustine, FL in 1565 and were present in cities established by the Spanish throughout the Southwest. Africans were sold as indentured servants in Jamestown in 1619, just as poor Europeans were, with all expecting to buy their own freedom. It’s the racist mutation to enslaving the Africans as human chattel that changed everything and led to the events Myers describes in Riot.

In this book, written in screenplay form, Myers focuses on a mixed raced family to encapsulate the horrors of the Draft Riots. Irish were upset that they were being forced/drafted to fight in what they saw as a war that would free southern Blacks to compete with them for jobs. Wealthy Northerners could buy their way out of the war and most of the Irish were not wealthy. At the same time, conditions existed in large Northern cities that brought Irish and Blacks into close proximity, creating strong friendships and even marriages. ­­­­­­

John, a Black man, is married to Ellen, a White woman and their daughter, Claire who is light enough to be identified as White. The riots bring racism to Claire’s attention (who embodies the sentiment of society) to the forefront as never before. Why can’t she just be herself and not be Black Clair, she wonders. Myers takes us into the streets where we dwell in the fear, compassion, hatred and desperation of the characters.

I didn’t want to like the story because of it’s formatting. The book is written in screenplay form, as Monster was. These form can be quite limiting when developing a book but Myers is such a good writer! His dialogs did a wonderful job of taking me back to that era. I particularly liked when Walt Whitman appeared in the story.

I would pair this book with

A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott