Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Hunger Games-- Suzanne Collins

Few books warrant a re-read. After I've read a book once, usually I send it back to the library immediately having thoroughly enjoyed it or thoroughly hated it, but every once in a while I find that gem, the lone shining star that sticks with me continually shining it's light on my mind. I know when I catch one of these that I will re-read it some day. Usually, it's those lingering characters or twisting plot that causes me to actually go out and buy the book. Being a former English teacher, one would think that my shelves are full of books--and they are-- but I only have one shelf... and it's small.  It's used for my gems.

As you've probably figured, The Hunger Games is a re-read; though, I don't technically own it yet.  So, any of you who'd like to buy it for my gem shelf, feel free.

Honestly, I don't know where to begin with this one. The characters are well developed and unforgettable, the plot gives so many twists and turns, you never know what is coming next.  Let me tell you, Collins is a master of giving the reader the unexpected at just the right moment. Even the setting commands attention.

It's a future America called Panem. But this future isn't so bright. After the thirteen districts rebelled against the  government and lost, the leaders of the nation though fit to implement a annual reminder to the people proving again and again that they are the ones in charge. Hence, the Hunger Games.  Each year, everyone is required to attend the reaping during which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each of the twelve districts are chosen to play in the Hunger Games. Reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, this is not a prize you want to win. Definitely not. You see, it's a fight to the death.

Now, just saying that may turn many of you off.  You don't want to read about teens fighting.  It's too grotesque or violent.  That's what's so amazing about this book.  It's the reason I had to read it. How could Collins make this appropriate and still have the kids kill each other?  The question had to be answered, and I refuse to answer it here in this blog. Read it.  Just know that it was not at all what I had expected.  I figured it had to be horribly violent, but Collins is amazing at capturing the story without turning off the reader. (Though I'm sure many a teenage boy would love more gore filled details.) Which brings me to another point: this is a fantastic book for boys and girls alike.  Yes, the protagonist is female, but the elements of hunting, survival and fighting could easily suck boys into the story.

The characters are incredibly believable. I had no problem thinking that Katniss was a hunter or that her talent lay in her bow and arrow.  Even the little bit of a love story (No, that's not the focus, thank goodness.) wove itself intricately into the rest of the story. From the strange people who live in the capital who don't understand what life is really like outside, to the avoxes--captured rebels maimed for their rebellion.-- to Greasy Sae down at the Hob-- a local underground trading center, to the other children chosen to fight, Collins's characters jump off the page. We feel for them.  We don't want them to be punished for hunting outside the perimeter. We love when Katniss forms and alliance with Rue, a twelve year old from District eleven.  We hate The Careers-- kids from those districts who have the resources to train their children for the games-- kids who usually win because of their prowess and strength. We even pity Haymitch, the drunk former games winner and Katniss's mentor.

There's so much more I could say.  I could go on about the story line, but then you wouldn't have to read it, and I don't want that to happen.  I could speak of it's ties to governmental control books like Orwell's 1984.  Big Brother is always watching!  I could talk of sacrifice for family, young people taking responsibility before their time, unrequited love, or brewing rebellion, but these are all themes you will see when you pick up a copy for yourself.

Don't forget, don't just buy The Hunger Games.  It's Sequel, Catching Fire is out as well and the third, Mockingjay, comes out this summer.  You can bet you'll see them on my gem shelf eventually.

I think I'll end today with a question or two:  What parts of the book made you the most angry? Which character did you identify with most? And lastly, what would be your strategy to win the games if you were chosen? (Note, you can have no special training other than the skills you possess at this very moment.)-- Me?  I'd die for sure.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stuck in Neutral

At long last... one of the most unique voices in YA literature comes from Terry Trueman's Shawn McDaniel of Stuck in Neutral. Never have I believed the thoughts and ideas of a character more than Shawn's. To make this even more unusual, Shawn has cerebral palsy and no motor control whatsoever. He can't speak to even tell his story, which is why Mr. Trueman does it for him, and beautifully, I might add. These are the voices we need to hear, the ones who can't speak for themselves, the ones who give us insight into all aspects of the human character. Perhaps if young men and women pick up a copy of Stuck in Neutral, their eyes will be opened in a way that will make them more compassionate to those  inflicted with conditions like Shawn's. Need I say how books like this could possibly impact the lives of young people?  All it takes is an exceptional perspective just like the one Mr. Trueman created.

 Shawn describes his own condition on pg 6 and 7 of the text, "I can't control any of my muscles: not my fingers, my hands, my left foot, my stomach, my tongue, my dick, my throat, my butt, my eyelids, none of them.  Not a one.  So when the psychologist says, 'Who was George Washington?' I can't tell him what I know, from the dollar bill to the cherry tree, from the revolution of the colonists against the British to the father of our country, from his wooden teeth to him knowing Thomas Jefferson to-- anything.  When I'm asked about the old, dead first prez, all I can do is sit there and drool if my drool function is running, or whiz in my pants if the pants-whizzing gear is engaged, or go 'ahhhhh' if my vocalizing program has clicked in."

Shawn, a closet genius with a photographic memory, is a fourteen year old boy stuck in a non-functioning body. To complicate things even more, his father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet who wrote a poem about Shawn's condition, might be planning to "put Shawn out of his misery." The problem with that is, Shawn isn't miserable! He loves life; he loves the way his brother slips him treats like potato chips or hamburger; he loves when his sister brings friends over for a sleepover and the girls dance around in their pajamas with their newly developing bodies.  He can even read!  His sister taught him by playing Special Ed teacher.

Just like any other fourteen year old, he's interested in the female body.  One of my favorite passages that made me laugh until I nearly choked is on pages 39 through 41.  Here he is describing the aides in his classroom.

" Becky is great too.  She has red hair, long and soft. She's only about twenty years old and her body's gorgeous and she's super nice.  I love when Becky works with me especially when she wears a low-cut top and has to bend over to load and unload me from this special standing contraption they put me in a couple hours every day.  Her breasts are perfect: round and smooth and big.  If I could be William (the other aide.), I'd spend every hour of every workday trying to figure out how to score with Becky.  Hell, I'm me and I do that already, but you'd have to figure William would at least have a chance.  I mean, he speaks the same language as Becky and can walk around and smile and do all of those necessary prerequisites to scoring.  You'd figure the guy would at least have a chance....

The zoo is not like any other schoolroom you've ever seen.... First of all, remember that we students are all retards.

We moan, we drool, we takes dumps in our pants.  We smack ourselves upside our own heads.  We take headlong swan dives into the floor.  We eat dirt and eraser dust and hunks of old crayons and chalk, anything, actually, that we can get into our mouths.  Those of us who can walk, walk into walls and doors and one another; those of us who can't walk just sit around "ahhhhhhhhhhhhing" all day long....

I actually enjoy the weird irony of the fact that I'm considered the dumbest kid in my retard class.  Most of the others can talk a little, some walk a little.  All but me communicate at least a little bit.  One guy, Jimmy, walks around saying "honey" all the time.... Another guy, Alan, constantly grabs his crotch and says, "Winky" over and over...."

Shawn's dad comes to his classroom to create a documentary type program on kids like Shawn.  It's during the taping that the usual classroom stuff happens.

(Pg 44) Sydney McDaniel speaks. "'We've come to visit my son and honestly examine just what your money is buying.'

I sat listening to and remembering Dad's words; in the background I could hear 'winky, winky, winky' and 'ahhhhhhh,' and 'honey...honey...honey.'"

Now, I laughed at this book numerous times because of the personality that is demonstrated throughout, but never once did I lose sight of how real this could be.  Perhaps those who are stricken with conditions like CP, really are geniuses.  Maybe they look at the world and their lives and think that life really is still worth living.

Perhaps it was not the writer's intention, but this book made me think about all the times that life has been hard, all the times I've complained about not being able to do something I wanted to do. When I read a book like this, it puts life back into perspective. I may not have a big mansion overlooking the sea, I may not be rich or famous, or infamous for that matter, but I can look at life and enjoy every bit, every bite of hamburger, every book I read, every sight I see, or cool breeze I feel on my skin. I can be thankful for my speech, for the fact that my fingers move in ways that I can type this blog or my novel, my eyes can focus when I need them too.  I can sit, stand, walk, jump, dance, wiggle, scratch and swallow at will. Most of all, I can communicate. I can tell those close to me that I love them, something Shawn couldn't do.

Most intriguing to me was Mr. Trueman's personal experience with this story. His son, Henry Sheehan Trueman, has CP. It is not his personal story, but his insight as a parent of a child with CP comes through in every word. Thank you, Mr. Trueman for this amazing, funny, unique look into what could be the mind of those many of us would consider "retarded."

One last thing.  When I met Mr. Trueman at the Rochester Teen Book Festival, I had the privilege of hearing a few chapters of the yet unpublished next book in the Shawn McDaniel story.  I'll keep you all informed as to when it comes out.  It will definitely be on my shelves!