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May 20, 2010 Edition

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, by Valerie Zenatti


Sixteen year-old Tal is woken from sleep by an explosion: a suicide bomb in her neighborhood? It is, and one of the victims is a young woman, killed the day before her wedding. The closeness of the bomb and the woman being so young (only three years older than Tal herself) tip Tal over into panicky depression, and to deal with it, she begins a journal. She also drops a bottle with a note in it in the Gaza Strip. She imagines a Palestinian girl her own age finding the bottle and emailing her back at the email address she’s thoughtfully included, but what she gets is a 20 year old man who points out that he’s one of the few Palestinians who speak and read Hebrew, mocks her for being a “pure, sensitive daddy’s girl,” and vows silence. Undaunted and intrigued, Tal badgers him through emails until he relents and responds and a friendship begins. They live in different worlds and their views and experiences are often contentious, but Naim and Tal are interested enough to really listen to what the other says. Until Tal is not just a neighbor, but an eyewitness to a bombing: will the bridge of understanding they’ve so carefully built break?

ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: a year in an American high school, by Elisha Cooper


Cooper follows Maya, Zef, Aisha, Daniel, Anthony, Diana, Emily, and Anais through their school year at Walton Payton High School in Chicago, where they sing and dance, hang out in the cafeteria and at the football field, flirt and chat, and, oh yeah, go to class, do homework, take tests, and worry about college. This is the minutia of daily life at school, from the fun and lighthearted things, like prom and the seasons’ influence on clothing, to the gritty, like the uncertain paternity of one student’s baby. Punctuated by Cooper’s agile sketches, this dances from student to student and location to location, and reads like fiction even though it’s really not. There’s big drama and small drama, huge decisions and little choices, friends, not-friends, and best friends, but mostly, though the details differ from teen to teen, this is life in high school the way it’s lived, not imagined.

Skinned, by Robin Wasserman


How can you tell if you’re really you? What does it mean to be human? When Lia Kahn wakes up in the hospital, she can’t move anything except her eyelids. She remembers smelling her skin burning, and the doctor tells her it’s been four weeks since a horrific car accident. And then he brings her a mirror. The face she sees isn’t the burned and blistered mass she’d expected, but it isn’t hers, either: she’s been downloaded into an artificial body. Lia is sure she’d rather have died - the skin of her new body gives her the creeps, she can’t control her expressions, and when she looks in the mirror, she sees how dead her eyes are. There are certainly advantages to her new body – she’ll never age, and though the body has a 50-year lifespan, it will be easy to download her into a new body when the time comes – but Lia can’t get around the fact that she’s a machine, and neither can her friends and family. Fans of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series will find similar thought-provoking philosophical questions in this, the first of a projected trilogy. (Books with similar themes include Mary Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Peter Dickinson’s Eva.)

Heroes of the Valley, by Jonathan Stroud


Halli Sveinsson is short, dark, and stubby and stands out like a sore thumb in his tall, graceful family. He’s got a great mind and uses it, much to his family’s chagrin (and sometimes disgust and anger) to play tricks and get into trouble. When one of his practical jokes sets events in motion that cause his uncle’s death, Halli dares his community’s strictures and ventures out of the Valley to seek revenge. Throughout, readers learn the mutable hero-stories of the Valley, whose champions change depending on who is doing the telling, and see that Halli is well on his way to becoming a hero of stories that will be told for generations to come.

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