Smiles To Go Before I Weep

 Smiles to Go  by Jerry Spinelli.

 The big scientific news about the death of a proton really has Will stressed out.  Nothing will ever be the same.  Since a proton can just combust this means nothing really lasts forever.

 This is how Jerry begins our tale of Will, his annoying little sister Tabby and his best friends Mi-Su and B.T.  Every weekend Will and his two friends get together for pizza and Monopoly.  B.T. ‘s strategy is to buy everything he lands on, especially the railroads.  He always loses, but he doesn’t care.  He laughs and says “I’m wheeling and dealing.”  Will and Mi-Su think he is a total buffoon.  He is also famous for riding his skateboard down Dead Man’s Hill (another reason they think he is a buffoon.) 

Mi-Su is a girl.  Will is starting to notice she’s a girl.  One day in class he notices how beautiful her neck is.  He freaks out and wonders if anyone else has noticed her neck.   

Spinelli is great at describing the ways siblings can annoy each other.  Tabby wants Will to notice her so much.  She takes black jelly beans, (his favorite) and plunks them into a waste basket to get his attention.  When he yells she squeals and runs away.  Tabby, tragically, will do something extreme later in the story to get his attention.

 Some discussion question ideas for teens:

 1.  What is their strategy when they play monopoly?  What does that say about them as a person?

 2.  When a boy and girl have been friends since they were little should they become boyfriend and girlfriend or will that ruin everything?

 3.  You can read the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods” and discuss it.

 4.  Do they have a younger sibling?  How do they annoy them?  Or are they the younger sibling?  How do they try and get their older brother and sister’s attention?

 5.  Look up some information about proton death.  Why do they think this is significant?

 What I love most about this story is the character development.  B.T. is my favorite character.  He breezes through life and has fun.  The title from the book comes from his goofy recitation of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods.  Instead of “And miles to go before I sleep.”  B.T. says “And smiles to go before I weep.”  

 Isn’t that what we do?  We smile. And then we weep.  This is the theme of this book.  Enjoying relationships.  Not taking each other for granted.  Nothing lasts forever, even a proton.   Because bad things happen and the times when we smile help us survive the times when we weep.

City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende


I am a big fan of Allende’s books Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia.  I was excited to see she has written a series for young adults.  This first book, City of the Beasts does not disappoint.  The story centers around 15-year-old Alex.  His mother is dying and he is sent to live with his grandmother, Kate, while his mother seeks treatment.  Kate is a journalists for a magazine called International Geographic.  She is going to the Amazon to find a sloth like creature known as the beast. 

Kate is not your average grandmother.  She has smoked cigars with Alex, forgets to pick him up at the airport and risks his life on this journey into the deepest part of the Amazon Rain forest.  She believes tough love with make him stronger. 

Alex makes a new friend in Nadia.  But Nadia is nothing like the girls he knows back home.  She has a magical connection to the Amazon and it’s indigenous people.  She introduces Alex to his totemic animal, the jaguar.  The story follows the group as they take a boat down the amazon.  The party is full of interesting characters:  the pompous explorer, beautiful doctor who wants to vaccinate the natives, greedy land men and a local guide and his daughter, Nadia.   One member of the party will betray them all.

The story really picks up speed when Alex and Nadia are kidnapped by a tribe that has never seen civilization called the People of the Mist.  The people have the ability to become invisible and blend into nature.  During his time with the People of the Mist Alex undergoes many changes.  He goes on a quest that will introduce him to the beasts, who are not at all what he expected.  He and Nadia receive help from a shaman called Walimai.

Allende does a beautiful job of describing the Amazon and the magical quality of the people and how they interact with nature and the spiritual world.  She does not diminish her talent of well written work as she writes for a younger audience.  Here are several book discussion questions:

1. Kate is not the typical grandmother.  Should she treat Alex differently?  Is she like your grandmother?

2. Alex’s totemic animal is a jaguar.  What do you think your totemic animal would be?

3.  On page 267, Alex asks this question to Walimai about the beasts.  “Are they human or animal?”.  Walimai does not answer.  To him there is no difference.  What do you think of that?

4.  Are the beasts anything like they characters or you imagined?

5.  What did Alex and Nadia have to give up to attain the crystal eggs and the water of health?  Was it worth it?

6.  How do you think someone like Dr. Torres could become so corrupt?

7.  Should the People of the Mist be left alone?

The other two books in the series are Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies.


I am going through Twilight withdrawl! I need more vampire books!

Need another vampire tale to get your fix? Try Peeps by Scott Westerfeld.

 Did you ever have a crazy boyfriend or girlfriend?  I can guarantee Cal has a much bigger problem than you can imagine!  Just one kiss turns his girlfriends into Peeps, a.k.a. vampires.  Scott Westerfeld has a new take on the traditional undead.  His vampires are not supernatural.  They are people infected with a disease, much like rabies.  Cal hooked up with the wrong person one night, got infected and has been paying for it ever since.  Even though Cal is not a vampire himself, he is a carrier of the parasite.  He does not have the usual symptoms, you know biting people.  No matter what, he has to stay celibate.

Westerfeld has a different answer to some vampire lore:

Traditional: Vampires are undead.  They don’t breathe.  

Peeps:  The parasite stores up oxygen so the peep does not always have to breathe.


Traditional:  Vampires drink blood.

Peeps:  They bite because they are insane.


Traditional: Vampires are repelled by crosses and religious items.

Peeps:  Because they are insane they run from things they used to love.  The peep hunters call this anathema.

 Cal is now part of a group that tracks down peeps and gets them help.  The book opens as Cal is tracking down Sarah, the girl he really loved, hiding in an old ferry terminal in New Jersey.  He is armed with posters and music of Elvis.  She just loved the king!  During the book Cal tries to find the person who infected him.  Oh, yeah there is a weird connection to his cat.  You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about parasites.

 Some ideas for discussion with teens:


       1.    What would your anathema be if you were a peep?

2.     Take another legend and try to make sense of it, just like turning vampirism into a disease    instead of magic.


3.      You could bring some science in by finding other information about parasites and how to avoid them.  There are several rules for avoiding parasites in the back of the book.


Huge Drama and Huge Laughs In Book About Weight Loss Camp by Sasha Paley

April wants nothing more than to escape the large tubs of peanut butter and Crisco that fill the pantry.  She and her mother are overweight and April has had enough.  She saves enough money to go to the posh fat camp called Wellness Canyon.  She’s determined to drastically change herself so she can fit in with the popular crowd at school.

Wil has the opposite issue.  She’s fat and proud of it.  Her parents are less than thrilled.  It is bad for business to have an overweight daughter.  They own Excalibur Gym in Malibu.  Wil is going to Wellness Canyon because her parents are making her.  They are even remodeling her room with a new closet for all her skinny clothes.  With her secret stash of goodies she just might gain weight instead of lose it.

The two girls end up as roommates. 

Huge is the funny story of finding out who you really are and that the ugliness inside can be harder to shed than the pounds. 

I am so glad Sasha Paley makes this story about more than weight loss.  When April gets close to her goal her social climbing bad habits don’t go away.  Although she feels better and has higher self esteem, she realizes she should have changed her insides along with her outsides.

Wil has a huge chip on her shoulder and who can really blame her with her overbearing parents.  They put so much pressure on her.  They are more concerned who Wil is on the outside rather than the inside. 

“When I lose 50 pounds my life will be better.”  How many times have you heard people say that, or said it yourself.  Both girls find out that is not so simple.

Some ideas when discussing this with teens:

1.       Which do they indentify with, Wil or April?

2.       Which would be harder, changing your appearance or your personality or attitude?

3.       Have you ever rebelled against your parents to the extent that Wil did?

4.       Would it be worth hurting yourself in the process?

You might want to offer healthy snacks with this book group.  Or those smores on the cover look pretty darn good!

Creepy Thriller Disposes of Unwanted Teens in Neal Shusterman’s Unwind

The pro-life and pro-choice factions raise their own armies and go to war, creating the United States Second Civil War.  As part of their peace deal, both sides agree to abolish abortion and instead parents can have their 13-18 year olds unwound.  Unwinding is a process where teens surgically dismembered and are used for their body parts. Because each body part is used, the teens are not considered dead, but in a “divided state.”  This is a world where doctors no longer exists, only surgeons.  If you have poor eyesight, you don’t get glasses, new eyes.  Have a bad knee joint?  Get a new one from one of the unwound teens.  Have asthma?  Get a new lung? 

Terrorists are called clappers, because they inject radioactive materials into their blood stream and a simple clap turns their bodies into suicide bombs.

This is such a creepy and well told story.  You will feel emotions when you read this book.  Moments will make you so angry and so sad. 

The story follows three teens who are to be unwound.   The first is Conor. His parents have had enough of  his fighting, bad attitude and poor grades.  Even though he tries to redeem himself, his parents still sign the order.

Risa is a ward of the state.  She is a talented pianist, but her funding was cut and the state decides it does not want to feed and clothe her anymore.

Lev is the most disturbing yet, he is a tithe.  As part of their religion, his parents had him specifically to donate him as an unwind.  He goes through many changes in this book.  He was not supposed to keep existing.  He must figure out who he is.

The three teens must follow and underground railroad of sorts to keep them save until their 18th birthdays.

I discussed this with several junior high age boys.  They loved this book.  It was being passed around their middle school and all their friends were excited about such a great story.

Here are some ideas when discussing this:

1.  Could something like this happen?  Do they understand how policies are made in government?

2.  Which character do they relate to the most?

3.  If each body part is used should they be considered dead or alive?

4.  Do they think the Admiral redeemed himself in the end?

The ending is brilliant and ironic.  This is truly an original, thought provoking, emotional read.

What Keeps You Up All Night?

This new book of short stories just might!  A little brother’s sick pet.  A creepy new step-dad.  A rock concert.  A poolside revelation.  Searching for the mother you never met.  A supernatural experience with a computer.  Six popular authors each wrote a short story that begins at sunset.

Libba Bray, who wrote A Great And Terrible Beauty, writes about a road trip, a rock concert, and finding out your parents are not who you think they are.

Peter Abraham who writes the Echo Falls Mystery series, writes about a family who’s dad is killed in Iraq.  The mother becomes obsessed with contacting the dead father, giving a psychic a bunch of money.  Her two sons try a trick of their own to stop this, and find their own link to the supernatural.

Gene Luen Yang, who wrote, American Born Chinese, creates a mini graphic novel about searching for just who we are.

The other three authors are Sarah Weeks, Patricia McCormack & David Levithan.

The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

Virginia Shreves is an outcast in her own family.  For starters she’s overweight while her parents and brother and sister are thin, health nuts.  Her mother is an adolescent psychologist who obsesses with her Virginia’s eating and exercise habits.  Virginia lives by the “Fat Girl Code of Conduct”, which basically are a set of rules for her interactions with boys.  For example:

3. Go further than skinny girls.

4. If you can’t sell him on your body, you’d better overcompensate with sexual perks.

The kiss of death comes when her best friend moves across the country.  To a teenager losing the one person you can safely hand out with is devastating.  Another blow happens when her seemingly perfect brother is accused of date rape at Columbia University.

I love the transformation of Virginia.  She stands up to her parents and discovers who she is at the same time.  I love that Carolyn Mackler did not make Virginia lose a bunch of weight to gain self esteem.  She does start exercising in a kick boxing class.  She finally says to her dad that her weight is not up for discussion, not now or ever!  I remember having a similar conversation with my own dad. 

Virginia turns a corner when she goes to visit her best friend.  As a whim, she gets an eyebrow piercing.  When she gets positive feedback about it from her friend’s family, she starts to take more chances.  After hiding in bagging clothes, Virginia starts buying outfits that flatter her curves. 

My favorite moment is when Virginia’s mom remarks that blonds don’t look good in purple.  Virginia dyes her hair purple to match the dress!  She then creates a webzine with her classmates and gains a new circle of friends.

My original booktalk:

“What do a fat girl and a moped have in common?  They’re both fun to ride, as long as your friends don’t see you!”  Nice Eh?  I’m a fat girl.  I’d have to agree with this joke because Froggy  ( I’m serious! That is his actual name) won’t talk to me in the light of day.  It is perfectly ok for him to make out with me every Monday before his trombone lesson.  (Hmmm, trombone… maybe that’s why he’s not a bad kisser.)  But he won’t talk to me at school.  I wouldn’t dare go up to him… I have to stick to my Fat Girl Code of Conduct which forbids it.  My life kinda sucks.  My best friend in the world, Shannon has moved across the country to Walla Walla of all places.  My perfectly sized parents want me on a diet.  I must be adopted.  And my supposedly perfect brother is now a criminal.  My name is Virginia.  If you can handle my world, read The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things.


Book Club Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever experienced other people talking about you when they thought you were not around, like Virginia in the girl’s room?
  2. Why do you think getting the eyebrow piercing changed Virginia. Would you do the same?
  3. We know why Virginia kept her make out sessions with Froggy a secret. Why do you think he did?
  4. Who would you rather be, Virginia, or the popular girls who dissed her?
  5. Have you ever rebelled against your parents? How did it change you?