Thursday, February 28, 2013

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park
Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
$18.99, Hardcover

Genre: Realistic, School Story, Romance
Age: 14+
Description: It is 1986—a year of great music (the Smiths) and awesome comic books (Watchman, Dark Knight). Park is the only half-Asian kid in Omaha and he’s not super popular but is accepted by the popular crowd, especially since the king of them all is his next door neighbor. The most embarrassing things he has to put up with are his mom who still can’t speak proper English and his dad who thinks he’s not manly enough and won’t let him get his license until he proves he can drive a stick shift. He doesn’t know his life will change the day that Eleanor, with her wild red hair and wacky outfits (ties at ponytail holders? Men’s shirts?) walks on the school bus and no one offers her a seat. Eleanor has just moved back in with her mom and her new stepfather, along with four younger siblings. Her stepfather kicked her out of the house more than a year ago and she’s been living with a neighbor ever since. However, they now have moved into a cramped little house where the bathroom is in the kitchen and it doesn’t even have a door on it. She’s forced to share a small room with only two bunk beds in it with her younger siblings and listen to her mother and stepfather arguing day and night. Eleanor hopes that she can just remain quiet and enter and leave the house when he’s not there as he seems to have it out for her. For days, she and Park sit on the bus in silence on their way to and from school. Eventually, Park feels bad for how rude he was on the first day she showed up and he notices her reading his comics over her shoulder. As an offer of silent peace, he scoots closer to her and allows her to read the comics with him. This small gesture eventually turns into letting her borrow stacks of comics and the making of mixed tapes. Before they know it their relationship—which at first seems to have nothing in common—grows as they begin to love each other. However, they have a lot to deal with. Park’s mother who, at first, thinks Eleanor is basically white trash. Eleanor’s low self-esteem which causes her to easily get angry at Park. Her stepfather who, if he finds out she’s seeing Park, will call her a whore and probably kick her out of the house again. When Eleanor discovers who is writing nasty sexual comments about her on her school textbooks, she knows she has to make a run for it to her uncle in Minnesota. Will she and Park ever be together?
Opinion: This is a moving story. The chapters are short and split the point of view between both Park and Eleanor. I will admit that I didn’t see the ending coming (though I probably should have). This is one of those realistic fiction books that really doesn’t have anything happen for most of it. We are just observers in the lives of two very different teens who come together to discover a mutual love for each other. While nothing really happens for most of the book the pacing is fast. Everyone knows someone like Eleanor or Park. The only downside is that the book takes place in Omaha (which is where I live) and it really isn’t clearly stated so some of the references other teens who have never even heard of Omaha will have no idea what is being talked about. The fact that the book is also set in the 1980s means a number of dated pop culture references occur which might also confuse readers who aren’t familiar with comics or music of the decade. Overall, this is an excellent love story about the excitement of first love and how no matter how much you want it to last those first loves rarely ever do. 

Here is what some of my teens had to say:

Katie, 14, says, “Everyone remembers their first love. In Eleanor & Park, readers will meet two teens who have nothing in common but music, comic books, and feeling left out, all which leads to a swoon-over romantic tale. I think the cover is perfect. It is simple but I think it really wraps up the whole story. Seriously I can’t find one most compelling thing about the book because EVERYTHING about the book was compelling. So, obviously, if everything was compelling, there was nothing I was disappointed with. I even demanded that my friend, Becca, read this book as her next YA Galley choice.”

Sarah, 15, says, “This book is a heartwarming love story about two high schoolers who fall in love. They learn to love each other despite people making fun of them for various reasons (Park being the only Asian in his town and Eleanor for not being a stick figure thin girl). Eleanor is back living at home after being kicked out more than a year ago by her stepfather. As she adjusts to a new school, Park befriends her despite everyone else taking an instant dislike toward her weight and her personal style and the two find themselves falling in love. I like how the cover has Eleanor and Park’s backs to the reader and their headphones are intertwined (since shared music was a big thing that brought them together in the story). I love that Eleanor’s hair is long, red, and curly just like in the book. I feel it reflected the contents well. The most compelling aspect was when Eleanor finds out that it is her stepdad, Richie, and not the mean popular girl, who has been writing crude and inappropriate sexual comments on her school textbooks and she decides to run away to her family in Minnesota. While part of me loved the ending, there was also a part of me who felt kind of betrayed by the author when she didn’t tell me what became of Eleanor and Park. Did they end up together? I figure that it is implied that Eleanor finally opened all the packages from Park when she was ready and sent him the postcard. I do have to admit that when it said it was just “three words” I was like, “What? He sent her all that stuff and all she sends him was a postcard?” My advisor read the book along with me so we could talk about it and I asked her what those three words could have been and she said, “I assume they were ‘I love you’.” I was like, “Doh! I am such a dork. How did I not see that!” So that made the ending better once I realized I am clearly clueless and need to pay better attention! I am glad that Eleanor finally told Park she loved him. That’s why part of me likes the ending—because one hopes that Eleanor and Park will end up together. I also enjoyed that the setting was in Omaha. I clearly didn’t read the back of the book (I thought it was all quotes from other authors and missed the tiny book blurb) and failed to realize that the book was taking place in 1986. After I realized that it made much more sense as I was like man their music tastes are old and about Park’s car having a huge backseat (I was like I’ve never seen a car that you can lie down in!). Since I live in Omaha, I have half a mind to hunt Rainbow Rowell down and find out what became of Eleanor and Park! I will find out! : )

Becca, 13, says, “Eleanor and Park is a great book about young love and overcoming troubles and some very adult problems. I could hardly put it down! I like the headphones on the cover, but I don’t think Eleanor’s hair is red enough. Other than that I think the cover was simple and reflected the contents inside really well. The most compelling part of this story was how music brought them together. I was most disappointed by the fact that we didn’t get to know which three words Eleanor finally sent to Park. That is kind of disappointing but I can guess (“I love you”). I loved this book!”

Kayla, 13, says, “Rowell has written a fantastic, real, flawed romance novel in Eleanor & Park. It isn’t the typical teen romance with a girl trapped between the attention of two boys (with or without supernatural powers). Instead it is an honest portrayal at a real love that readers will have trouble putting down! I believe the cover fit the book amazingly! It revealed and gave us a better feel for the already well-explained characters and fit the aspect of the book perfectly. The most compelling part would have to be the lives the characters endured. How they still found love despite the touch, scary, and disappointing events in their lives. I am not a romantic junkie. In fact, I don’t like romance at all and hardly read anything that could be considered a romantic book. But this novel really got to me and I really enjoyed it. The characters weren’t predictable like in most romances. Rowell made them lively and smart, beautiful yet nerdy at the same time. I also found multiple references to fandoms that I am in myself and because of this I know many other teens will enjoy it too. I highly recommend this book for everyone!”
*Thanks to Talia Sherer at St. Martin’s Griffin for providing an ARC of this title for the YA Galley Group project!*

Openly Straight

Openly Straight
Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013
$17.99, Hardcover

Genre: Realistic, School Story, Humor
Age: 14+
Description: Sophomore Rafe is a pretty normal teen living in Boulder, Colorado. He likes soccer and skiing and writing. However, ever since eighth grade he’s been known more so for one particular thing—being the gay guy. That was the year that he decided to come out to his parents and luckily for him they accepted him and so did everyone else in town. The problem is his mom accepted him a bit too much and suddenly made Rafe the gay spokesman of the state. He’s decided he needs a change and is headed to New England to an all boys’ boarding school where, unbeknownst to his parents, he will became “openly straight” as, for once, he’d just like to be one of the guys and not the gay guy. He has a whole plan for how he is going to keep his sexuality a secret. He’s not going back in the closet; he’s just going to not mention that there ever was a closet he came out of. He’d like the chance to make friends with guys his own age without the gay moniker attached to his name. However, he does have to deal with confessing his plan to his parents when they visit for family night, to his best friend who all his new friends think is his girlfriend-girlfriend, and an English teacher who knows his secret because his mother contacted him about their local GSA group. Luckily for him, his teacher promises not to expose him as long as he writes about his decision for his long-term English project. What Rafe doesn’t expect is the fact that he gets roped into the sporty crowd—all of whom don’t seem open to homosexuality. He soon finds himself happier to hang out with his weird roommate and his (gay) best friend and Ben, a sensitive jock, who just might or might not be gay himself and who Rafe might or might not be falling in love with.
Opinion: While I felt that Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom was one of the best GLBT books of 2012, I think Openly Straight is going to be one of the best of 2013. First of all, this book is hilarious. Secondly, I think it is a realistic portrayal of teenage love. When Ben discovers that Rafe wasn’t discovering his potential bi-sexuality alongside himself, he gets angry at Rafe for lying. At first, Rafe can’t really see what he has done wrong and all of his friends seem to condemn him for his plan to not be openly gay. I really felt for Rafe because I could understand where he was coming from—I think his friends where being too harsh. Yes, he probably should have told Ben before things went too far that he may have been interested in some boys before if he didn’t want to be completely open but at the same time I feel for how Rafe really just wanted to start over. He didn’t really see what could have gone wrong and he certainly didn’t set out to hurt anyone A note for those with conservative readers—Rafe isn’t a virgin (we learn in his essay for English how he lost his virginity to another boy in Boulder) and Rafe and Ben eventually engage in sexual activity culminating in sex. While it’s not graphic there isn’t much innuendo either (for example, we are there in a scene where Rafe gives Ben a hand job, gets excited, and prematurely comes). However, for readers who are open and accepting of GLBT people the scenes are done tastefully and lovingly. Overall, it is a very funny and heartwarming tale about a boy just trying to find love.  

Here's what one of my teens had to say:

Katie, 14, says, “Honestly, I don’t get the cover. I really liked all the different life lessons hidden between the lines of the story. It really helps make the book. I didn’t really enjoy the little writings to the teacher in between the flow of the story. Other than that, it was a pretty good book. I was pleasantly surprised. It was also really, really funny.”

*Thanks to Candace Greene at Scholastic for providing an ARC of this title for the YA Galley Group project!*

Kitchen Princess, Omnibus 1

Kitchen Princess, Omnibus 1
Miyuki Kobayashi (story), Natsumi Ando (art)
Kodansha, 2012
$14.99, Softcover

Genre: Graphic Novels, Realistic, Romance, School Story
Age: 10+
Description: Najika is a natural cook. She was orphaned when both of her parents, also good cooks, died in an accident. Since then she has practiced her cooking skills and is accepted to the prestigious Seika Academy. One reason why she wanted to study there is because when she was a young child she met a boy who shared his meal with her and left her a special spoon with the academy’s symbol on it. He touched her heart so much she became determined to cook him just as good a meal and she hopes to find him at the school. However, attending Seika will be a challenge for her because everyone has a special talent and most of her classmates (who at first don’t realize her talent is cooking and being able to smell and taste singular ingredients) think she doesn’t deserve to be there. Luckily for her she runs into Sora and Daichi, two popular brothers (who hate each other) but who recognize Najika’s rare talent. Could one of these boys be her mystery guy?
Opinion: I love how a lot of manga publishers are re-releasing series in nice omnibus editions. I picked Kitchen Princess to read since I am obsessed with Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen reality shows. So I thought, “A cooking manga? That might be fun!” The book is a quick read and follows a pretty common manga storyline—the mysterious person from your past who you hope to find by attending a special school. Najika is a great character because even though she gets down when the other classmates dismiss her as talentless she always tries to make the best of a situation. When a mean girl who happens to have a talent for modeling acts like her friend and then treats her cruelly Najika takes the situations and makes them work for her. When she’s told to go to a “popular” on campus restaurant for a job she shows up in a place that is deserted and, with a few recipes, turns it into the hot spot on campus. When she is given a dress and asked to bake a cake for the holiday program and is embarrassed when she sees a huge commissioned cake and hears the model say she stole the dress, Najika spends the whole evening baking gingerbread cookies to hang on the large Christmas tree for everyone to eat. Clearly, one of the boys (Soja or Daichi) is her mysterious boy but we will see Najika in a lot of funny predicaments before we discover which boy is which. The manga is broken into chapters with a specific food theme and whatever that item is the end of the volume includes recipes with manga illustrations for aspiring chefs to try at home. My only complaint—Najika is supposedly an eighth grader. She doesn’t look 12/13 years old.