Fantastic historic fiction and point of view characters in Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s The Smell Of Other People’s Houses


I fell in love with the title and the cover of this incredible book.  The story inside does not disappoint.  It is the story of four people who are connected in ways you don’t understand right away.  I love a book that gives me a strong sense of place.  With The Smell Of Other People’s Houses, I learned a great deal about Alaska and its different landscapes and cultures.  It takes place in the 1970s so readers will experience another time as well as another place.  I couldn’t put it down.  I can’t wait to read her next book.
Some ideas for discussing with teens:
Discuss what makes Ruth, Alyce, Dora and Hank similar or different.  How does this tell the story of Alaska.
Discuss when Dumpling says this about the hair ribbons made of the red slip. “Sometimes you just have to hold on to whatever you can.” pg. 81
Discuss this passage from Hank, “Remember when my mother said, You wait until your whole world falls out from under you”? It turns out the world has many bottoms.” pg. 108
Discuss when Hank says, “I’ll never understand how certain things that happen to us can climb under our skin and makes us someone new.” pg. 168
Discuss “We don’t have to be blood to be family.” pg. 185
Discuss when Dora thinks, “[Dumpling’s house] smells like a place where people like each other, and the Lawrence house smells like it’s judging you the minute you walk inside.” pg. 190

A Story Of Teen Friendship In the Age Before Cell Phones And Facebook

Dreams of Significant Girls

An Iranian Princess, A Cuban exile rich girl and a German bad girl become roommates at a posh, Swiss boarding school in the 1970s.  This is a story beautifully told by one of my favorite authors, Cristina Garcia.  Dreams of Significant Girls follows three very different girls for three summers.  Ingrid is a wild girl who is always looking for trouble and men.  Vivien is the daughter of a Cuban Exile family who had to leave Miami after her father’s trip to Cuba made him a pariah.  Shirin is an Iranian princess who comes from extreme wealth and is brilliant in math and science.  The three are roommates for the summer.  It does not start off well.  The girls are dealing with their issues on their own.  Things get really tense when Shirin decides to show up at the dance with the boy’s school, only to get assaulted and then witnesses Ingrid in a compromising position.  When Ingrid is kicked out for something Shirin did, Shirin feels guilt that causes her to change over the summer.  She comes back with Arabian stallions for the girls to ride together and a whole barrage of expensive gifts.  Their friendship grows and their adventures together begin.  I very much enjoyed this story.  The richness of the characters will draw readers in.  I loved the setting of the Swiss boarding school with the different cultures and affluence.  It will be interesting for teens to read this and understand what it was like to get a hold of a boy without texting and Facebook.  I also found it interesting to read about the impact World War II had on the families.  I am a huge fan of Cristina Garcia and it is a pleasure to read everything she writes.

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

Discuss when Ingrid said, “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Shirin’s Arabian stallions saved my life.” (pg. 135)

Discuss how Shirin changed after the first summer.

Discuss the hypnosis.

Why do you think Shirin broke into the sweet shop and pharmacy?

Discuss how Vivien’s relationship with her father changed.

If you could go to a Swiss boarding school for the summer, what classes would you want to take?

Which are you most like, Vivien, Shirin or Ingrid.

Talk about Ingrid’s wild ways.

Discuss Omar’s relationship with Vivien.  What would you do in her shoes when he came with the poetry?

Discuss the girl’s decision to pose nude for Ingrid’s art show.

Discuss Ingrid’s behavior at the garden party and swimming that made her notorious.

This story took place back in the 1970’s before cell phones and social media.  What would you life be like if you were a teen back then?

Gang Bangers and Zombies, You Will Find Them Both In 2013’s Powerful Printz Winner


Ok… I’ll admit that I thought John Green would be a shoe in for this year’s Printz award with Fault In Our Stars and I was momentarily bitter when he didn’t win.  But that bitterness was fleeting because In Darkness by Nick Lake is an incredible read and worthy of this great honor.  I hadn’t read the last two Printz winners so I was determined to read this one.  I couldn’t put it down.  It is raw, painful and at the same time fascinating.  We meet Shorty just after the hospital he is in collapses during the earthquake that devastated Haiti several years ago.  While Shorty is a fictional character, the events and several of the other characters are very real.  Shorty is the only one alive in the rubble.  He is surrounded by dead people.  While he waits to either die or be rescued, he recounts the events in his life that brought him to this point.  Shorty is a gang banger.  He is in the hospital with a gunshot wound.  His experiences bring him in close contact with the infamous Dread Wilme, a real drug lord and leader in the poorest section of Port-Au-Prince.  Shorty has a twin sister who is lost to him, but the two had a mystical bond that made them special in their neighborhood.  When Dread is killed while trying to protect Shorty, he gives Shorty a stone that legend says is home to a Vodou god.  This stone will protect him.  While Shorty sleeps we hear another story from a different character named Toussaint l’Ouverture.  Toussaint is also a real man who lived long ago and helped free the slaves of Haiti during the revolution.  Somehow the stone connects him with Shorty and Dread Wilme.  This is a brilliant mix of historic fiction and modern day gang life.  This will attract both teens who are interested in gang culture and history.  Lake draws these two elements together with chapters listed “Then” and “Now.”  Readers also get a look at Haitian Vodou and how it is still often used in Haiti today.  The Zombi element is also interesting when you learn how the Vodou priests would turn people in real Vodou Zombis.  I highly recommend this book and believe when sold in the right way it may appeal to reluctant readers.  “Gang banger shot and then buried alive when his hospital collapses on top of him.  Oh… and by the way there are real zombies.”

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

What do you think Shorty means when he says “I was in darkness, but now I am in light?”

What do you think Shorty will do with his life after this story ends?

Discuss Haiti history and Toussaint.

Talk about gang life and why Shorty would want to be part of it.

Why do you think people would allow themselves to become Vodou Zombi?

Discuss this passage: “I am in darkness, in a small space, and my mind is a small dark place too, he thought.  We are all trapped in a cave, and that cave is ourselves.  The shape of its walls moves like water; this barrier disturbs what little light gets in and makes everything we see unique to us.”

Discuss Dread Wilme.  What do you think “the site” would be like without men like him?

How would you react if you heard the news about Biggie and your father?

Talk about the relationship between Biggie and Stephanie.  What do you think attracted her to him?

Libba Bray’s New Book Is Full Of Creepy Goodness!

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)

17-year-old Evie is a handful.  She is too much for small town Ohio.  She is also hiding a strange ability.  When she holds something belonging to another person she can see things about them.  So when her drunken party trick tells the truth about the town’s favorite son and a chambermaid, her parents ship her off to her Uncle Will in New York City.  Uncle Will is an expert on the occult and operates a museum on all things creepy.  When a strange occult serial killer starts a murder spree, Will is brought in as an expert.  He had no idea how much Evie’s gift could help him.  The killings remind me of the last season of Dexter, which was awesome! Bray creates a cast of characters, each with a strange ability and fascinating history.  My favorite characters are Theta, a Ziegfeld Follies girl and the quiet and mysterious Jericho who has a surprising secret of his own.  Memphis and his brother Isaiah have powers too, that bring them closer to danger.  Bray takes us back in time with her detailed descriptions of the roaring 20s with flappers and prohibition.  I love hearing all the dialogue full of flapper slang.  This book is a fun and fast moving read.  It has a satisfying ending but also sets up the next installment in the series so you don’t feel strung along like some other series tend to do.

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

Talk about each characters special abilities.  Which one would you want to have?

Talk about flapper culture and the slang the girls used.  Talk about prohibition.

Theta has feelings for Memphis.  At that time a mixed race relationship was taboo.  Discuss.

Talk about Evie and Theta’s fashion.

Have you ever played with a Ouija Board?  What was it like?

Discuss the Brethren.  Why do you think they believe that way?

Talk about New York City.  Have you ever been there?  If not, what do you think it would be like?  What would you do in New York if you were Evie?

Sultry Historic Fiction About Cleopatra’s Daughter

Vicky Alvear Shecter wrote Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen. Now she writes a fictional story about her daughter, Cleopatra VIII Selene . Cleopatra and her three brothers are the royal children of the Great Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother Alexandros Helios and their baby brother Ptolemy Philadelphos are the children of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius. Egypt is about to be invaded by the Romans. After both of her parents commit suicide, Cleopatra Selene and her brothers are taken captive by Octavianus, the nephew of Julius Caesar. They face many dangers while being reared in Caesar’s house. The wife of Caesar is rumored to be a brewer of deadly poisons and the slaves are everywhere as spies. Cleopatra tries to follow what her mother would have wanted and desperately wants to return to Egypt as the queen she was destined to be. A love triangle springs up between Cleopatra, Juba, who was taken captive as a baby when his royal family was killed, and Marcellus the nephew of Caesar. Which will get her back to Egypt? There is rich detail in describing her home in Egypt and Rome. While this is historic fiction (with many facts at the end), it reads like the novel Luxe. I enjoyed this book very much. It is fascinating to wonder what it would be like to be the only daughter of such an historic icon.

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

Talk about the differences between Juba & Marcellus. Which would they choose? What did she have to give up to choose either one?

Talk the Goddess Isis and the mummification process.

Who did you think was more dangerous, Octavia or Livia?

Talk about Cleopatra’s bravery.

Read some of the facts out loud from the back of the book and discuss.

Discuss the propaganda used to discredit Cleopatra’s mother Cleopatra VII.

Powerful Read About September 11th by David Levithan

love higher law

 The first few chapters are a very realistic and emotional retelling of the events of September 11th through the eyes of three teens, Claire, Peter and Jasper. I won’t lie to you, these pages are tough to read. They brought back a lot of emotion of the day. This is a good opportunity for teens who may have been too young to remember much of the details. They can see the events through the eyes of characters their own age. Claire is in school and rushes to find her little brother while they wait for their mother to get them. Peter is waiting outside for a record store to open and bares witness to the attack. Jasper sleeps through the most of the attack. The three characters were at a party together just the night before. Jasper and Peter flirted, but a connection is not made until much later. Claire meets Jasper on a nighttime walk to ground zero where they find they are kindred spirits, searching for answers. The three become a source of hope and deep friendship as they navigate through the year after the attacks.

David Levithan’s description of the day’s events is very authentic both in detail and emotion. He forces us to ask difficult questions. He portrays the important politics of the time without evoking fear. He reminds us we share humanity with the entire world, and the post 9/11 events should bring us together instead of tearing us apart. I love how he portrays homosexual teens. They are just like any other teen, searching for love and acceptance. They are friends with straight teens like it is no big deal. And it shouldn’t be a big deal. I read through chapters of this book with tears in my eyes. I am so thankful David Levithan had the courage to write this important book!

 Ideas for discussing with teens:

Many teens may be too young to remember details about the September 11th attacks.  Talk about what they do remember.  As an adult facilitator, add your personal recollections.

If they do remember, talk about how their world changed that day.

Music, specifically U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind album, helps Peter and Claire cope.  Talk about how music helps you cope with difficult times in your life. 

Have the lyrics to U2’s song “One” on hand to discuss.  Take turns reading it out loud.    The title of the book comes from the lyrics.

How does tragedy bring people closer together?

Claire says she feels survivors must breathe in the dust of the dead, and do things the dust cannot do.  Discuss.

Talk about when Clarire says, “The hitch is you can’t find a common humanity just because you have a common enemy.  You have to find a common humanity because you believe that it’s true.”

The characters talk about the different between “drowning” & “the swim of things”.  Discuss.

What I Saw And How I Lied by Judy Blundell

I get the sense this is the current “it” book to be passed around youth librarians. what-i-saw-and-how-i-lied A number of youth librarians I know have read this and loved it.  I really liked it too.  It is part mystery, coming of age and historic fiction. 

Evie has a gorgeous mother who turns heads and invites a lot of gossip.  Her step-father, Joe,  recently returned from fighting in World War II.  He decides to take Evie and her mom on a vacation to Palm Beach in the off-season.  There she meets Peter, a beautiful man who is not what he seems.  She falls in love and into a web of lies that keep the reader guessing until the final chapters.  The story takes twists into murder, anti-semitism and first love.

The thing I really loved about this book is that it really sets the tone of an authentic post World War II America.  The girls use chocolate cigarettes to practice smoking.  They don’t wear pants.  People are enjoying the boom of a rising economy (ironic to be reading this book at this time.)  They get to have sugar again and the victory gardens are growing weeds.

You get a real sense of Evie’s struggle to figure out what is going on with her parents and Peter.  Is it a chance meeting with Peter, or did he follow them to Florida?  Why does Joe hate him so much.  Is her puppy love for Peter real?

In What I Saw and How I Lied, Evie must figure out when does the lie become reality.