Monday, April 25, 2011

Kick by Walter Dean Myers and Ross Workman

Walter Dean Myers has been a best-selling author for years. You can find his work filling award lists including the National Book Award, the Michael Printz award, and multiple American Library Association(ALA) awards to name a few. He is well read by teens and well respected by adult readers. So it was no surprise to me that he turned his most recent book into an opportunity that would expand the idea of serving teen readers: he actually invited a high-school student to write with him.

The back cover of the edition I got from the library shows the email that Ross Workman sent to Walter Dean Myers that started the whole idea cooking. My mind's eye kept me returning that email and the back cover photo time and again as I read. And one question kept coming up: how could Walter Dean Myers be so brilliant? To mentor one teen reader in this way could affect tons of teen writers.

I know how key a thoughtful, engaged mentor can be when it comes to writing. I experienced the gentle, persistent, compelling, knowledgeable guidance when I co-wrote a book with a mentor a few years ago. That experience convinced me I was a writer. I can't imagine how Ross Workman's life has changed now. Even within a You Tube video post from HarperTeen, Myers comments on how Workman is a writer. Powerful stance that Myers holds.

The storyline in Kick works: a young teen gets in trouble with the law and goes into emotional isolation. A cop assigned to work with the teen finds his own growing desire to mentor the youth through his trials in life and ends up finding his role as a healthy, caring adult male important and life changing. As you can imagine from the title, soccer plays a central role in this book. I found myself wondering over and again what position Ross, the co-author, plays in his real-life soccer experiences. I also wondered how many truths this story represented for both of the authors and what the writing process was like for them as they emailed pieces back and forth. As I read, I imagined their voices and the bunches of dialogues throughout the writing process but I couldn't tell who had written which part. The story flows well, and I read it quickly because of the multiple hooks the authors included.

This story would be a great read for both teen girls and boys, and I particularly think folks who like soccer would appreciate the frequent importance of soccer in the growing friendship between the primary character and his mentor. I would have loved reading this book as a teenager. For those of us with writing futures hiding inside of us just waiting for someone to ask us to write with them, I imagine it a close-to-perfect read!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness

I am a selfish reader, often searching for ways to connect what authors write about with my own life. Through Joel ben Izzy's exploration of his experience with thyroid cancer and losing his way for expression, I found ancient stories overlapping with personal truths and moments of celebrating the secrets of sweet silence.

I came to know of this author through an interview on NPR. Joel ben Izzy was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the mid-90's. Soon after surgery, he completely lost his ability to speak. Without a voice, he had no way to continue with his storytelling profession as well as his way of living. It is important to note ben Izzy's intentional threading of ancient stories from many different cultures with ben Izzy's own story of dying and living. At first the stories interfered with my reading process but as time went on, I found myself seeking the stories of the ages, hoping the author would unearth light within his own silent life journey through these masterful tales. Of course, ben Izzy finds his way to informed living and through his enforced silence, he discovers the "secret of happiness."

While I enjoyed many parts of this biography, I found myself most drawn to ben Izzy's time in his mother's hospital room as she moves closer to the end of her life. My father's life has been dramatically reduced by Alzheimer's disease, and I am keenly aware of what he can no longer share with me: history. His story is literally lost now, and when I talk with him, I often notice my own wistful desire to again hear one of his stories from his life. While immersing myself in ben Izzy's story, I was reminded of ways to listen to the stories around me now as I maneuver the trials of life and death.

I will continue to listen to my father as I listened into the wisdom written in The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness. Near the end of the book, ben Izzy explores the thought of how things happen for a reason. He finally shares his own belief: "...sometimes the reason comes only after they happen. It is not a reason we find, but one we carve, sculpted from our own pain and loss, bound together with love and compassion. As hard as we may search, we can only see it when we stop to wonder, looking back to see where we've been and what we've learned." (page 211) ben Izzy found his own way to tell stories through loss and listening.

Gotta run and talk to my dad. Uh, I mean listen. And my mom too. And.....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


I was a little skeptical about this book at first. The trade book industry continues to market YA and teen books to the girly- white crowd they think reads. I don't know the statistics but anytime I see covers like this one on Orchards, I hesitate. The cover of the book I have shows a white- skinned teen girl's lower face, long straight brown hair, an index finger twirling said straight brown hair and her neck. Confusing for me: what could this book be about? But the book cover designers got something right: they put Ellen Hopkins' powerful recommendation for the book right on the front. I know Hopkins' books are edgy and often gruesome, and when I want a raw book, I seek hers out. The quote suggested however that this would be a rich read.

True that.

Holly Thompson's Orchards offers a glimpse into a teen's life after a classmate commits suicide. The main character, Kana, searches for her own answers after her family sends her to Japan to work in the orange groves, tending the crops and creating relationships with her once- distant Japanese relatives. Struggling Kana is mostly disconnected from her friends and family in the U.S., relying on e-mail and the occasional phone call. She endures the distance and on the surface, turns to her relatives, all the while struggling to find her footing in her grieving inner world.

By writing in poetic form, Thompson changed the way the story reads dramatically for me. Surprises emerged genuinely and regularly for me. Ask Alysa: I can be a huge skimmer in books that don't catch me. This one caught me and reeled me in. I found myself stopping to listen into the few words on each page carefully. I believed in Kana's struggle, and I appreciated how Thompson chose to keep the hovering parents so distant from her as she found her way to letting go and living again. Maybe the cover of the book is spot on after all: maybe Kara is finding her way between how she faces the world and how she feels it.