Romeitte and Julio

Friday, January 1, 2010

According to an English professor in Michigan all stories come out of other stories…that there are no original ideas only original twists on old plots. Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio is a perfect example of a very original twist on Shakesphere’s star crossed lover’s tale. This book falls into the realistic fiction genre.

This is the first Sharon Draper book I have read, although I have her trilogy on my bookshelf and have had lots of students rave about Tears of A Tiger. Romiette and Julio turned out to be an extremely well written book in several different ways. First, I think Draper did an excellent job at putting an original twist on the Romeo and Juliet story. I liked the fact that she reversed the names making the female protagonist Romiette and the male protagonist Julio. Secondly, I like how she used Romiette being Black and Julio being Hispanic to set in motion the conflicts involved in the plot. However, what I think I liked most was Draper’s actually writing techniques. For instance, she uses figurative language to describe Romeitte “I am brown like the earth, tall and slim like a popular tree, and outspoken like the wind on a stormy day.” She also chose third person omniscient so the reader could get into both the main character’s heads, but also uses a journal technique so the reader feels a more personal connection to Romiette. Finally, Draper opens the story by foreshadowing what turns out to be the climax. The effect of the foreshadowing not only peaks interest, but makes the climax even more suspenseful because the reader sees the changes before the characters do. 

The book is set in present day urban Cincinnati and is quite important to the overall plot of the story. Julio is force to move from Austin, Texas because of the increased gang activity and his father’s inability to find a job. This immediately set up a major conflict for Julio because he hates everything about his new home. Ironically, his father’s concern about the gangs ends up being Julio’s major problem in the story. Julio’s new school has a black gang that resents Julio dating Romeitte because he is Hispanic and she is Black. This conflict comes to a head in a very exciting climax that also incorporates part of the urban setting. Draper interweaves the setting, plot and characters’ problem seamlessly.

If you like realistic fiction with a strong plot, action, and romance, then I highly recommend Romeitte and Julio by Sharon Draper.

Eva by Peter Dickinson

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

 Peter Dickinson’s, Eva, published in 1988 is a science fiction book I first read in 2005. I still recommend it to my students who like science fiction because it is thought provoking and has an extremely unsettling in its theme.

The setting of this book is quite important to the plot and theme. It takes place in the future on earth. Most of the earth is devoid of vegetation. Cities have taken over because of over population leaving very little space for trees or grasslands. Animals such as elephants, giraffes, gorillas, whales and dolphins no longer exist. In fact, the only animals that have survived are those who have been able to adapt such as rats, pigeons, and of course, many insects. The main character Eva is a 13-year-old teenager whose father works for a university and is the Director of Primate Zoology in charge of research. Since chimps are so much like humans, the world, after losing most of its animal population, decided to try and save the chimps from extinction. Consequently, Eva grew up with chimps as playmates, and her father even used her in his research on their behavior. Now, due to an accident, Eva’s father along with other university scientists, have managed to transplant Eva’s brain into the body of a chimp. The reason why the setting becomes important to the overall theme is that eventually Eva must decide how she wants to live …  as a human in a chimp’s body, or as a chimp with a human brain. Her decision makes for an extremely provocative ending that uses the setting as part of the resolution.

Dickinson’s book brings up a variety of moral questions that have to do with the theme. One, of course, is scientific ethics. How far does mankind allow science to advance, and where should that line be drawn?  Another is the humane treatment of animals and their use in advancing medical research. Finally, does medicine have the right to keep people alive, or are there times when saving a life (even if medicine has the ability to do so) is the wrong decision?  This of course, has to do with the concept between quantity and quality of life and whether or not euthanasia is ever justified? As you read this book it is impossible not to think about all these questions especially when Dickinson does such a terrific job at having the reader experience what his character is experiencing.  He does this by creating a strong intelligent character and by using first person point of view. His use of these two elements places the reader inside Eva’s head, and since that is all that remains of the real Eva, it creates the allusion that the reader is going through the same things that she is.

 It is because of the ethical questions, and Peter Dickinson extremely strong characterization that this science fiction is such a dramatic, and at times, horrifying story. I would highly recommend it for readers who like books that will make them think long after they have been re-shelved, which is why it remains one of my oldies but goodies pick

Code Orange by Caroline Cooney

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Caroline Cooney has written a lot of adolescent fiction books over the years. Many of my former students have enjoy The Face on the Milk Carton, and Whatever Happened to Janie . These became so popular that movies were made from them. Despite their popularity, my favorite Cooney book is Code Orange. Published in 2005 Code Orange pairs a realistic character with a typical teenage conflict. The conflict escalates into a very unusual  series of events, which makes for a very adventurous and suspenseful story. 

Mitty Blake is the protagonist in Code Orange. A true New Yorker, Mitty loves everything about his city. There is so much to do, and so many great places to go. Unfortunately, there is one problem that keeps him from spending  time in his beloved city ... school. Mitty is a total slacker when it comes to formalized education, and he is on the brink of being kicked out of his advance biology class at the private school he attends in Manhattan and totally disappointing his parents. Being the procrastinator he is, Mitty finds himself with a major dilemma one Friday. He must turn in 10 pages of notes for a research paper on an infectious disease complete with resources used to get those notes. Of course, that isn’t the worst of it; four of the resources for the notes must be books.  Regardless of Mitty’s slacking ways, he is resourceful, and thanks to his mother’s design business, finds four medical books and discovers variola major, a highly contagious disease. While Mitty’s main conflict is between himself, the conflict grows to include society in an awesome plot twist, which keep  the suspense high even after the climax.  

Mitty has a definite flaw when it comes to his work ethic and school, not unlike many students I know. This makes Mitty very realistic. Mitty also has many redeeming qualities. He is intelligent. This traits appears as he works through his paper on smallpox.  Mitty consciously tries not just to copy his research in order to finish his paper. Instead, he purposefully uses his own words and recognizes his own voice in the paper. This shows that despite his work ethic, Mitty does have some higher principles. Mitty’s development  through the story also shows qualities that prove him to be responsible and provides hope that once he matures his work ethic will change. The event that strongly illustrates this is  when he unselfishly realizes that he has to protect not only the people he cares most about, his parents and friends, but  New York City and possibly the world. Had he been a bit more mature, he probably would have made a better choice about how do accomplish this, but that would have blown the climax.  Mitty is definitely a dynamic and rounded character because the resolution of his problem clearly helps him changed from the immature slacker he was at the beginning of the book to one who recognizes his flaws. Along with this recognition comes better decisions.

Code Orange remains a good read that appeals to both male and female readers. Mitty’s character is well developed, and although the some of the events may seem far fetched, Cooney’s talent allows the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the adventure.

Alas Babylon

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

One of my favorite oldies is a book written by Pat Frank called Alas Babylon. Frank’s book was published in 1959 as science fiction: however, at the time I think that many people probably thought the book could be a very real possibility. The subject of this book occurred to the author after having a conversation with a man who ask Frank’s opinion on a question that many American during this era thought about, “What do you think would happen if the Russkies hit us when we went looking---you know like Pearl Harbor?” Frank had background writing about military subjects and had even recently talked about this same scenario with some British officers.  In his prologue Frank’s answer to the question was that perhaps “five or six million Americans would be killed, but we would win the war.”  This conversation got him thinking more about what it would be like for those that survived an atomic blast and thus Alas Babylon was hatched.

Two elements in Pat Frank’s book have made Alas Babylon one my favorite reads. The premise for the plot of course is one, but it is how Frank takes that premise and develops it that I find very amazing and very believable.  Remember the fear and shock of 9-11, multiply that by millions and the devastation present all over the United States not just New York or Washington DC, and you can begin to gain an understanding of what his characters are dealing with.  Unlike 9-11 though, Frank’s characters must deal with no local government and a federal government that is unable to communicate with the masses. Most daily conveniences such as electricity, running water, and fresh food delivered daily to your neighborhood grocery store, and radio, TV, and newspapers are a memory.  If this did happened, what would be the most important things to do right after the blast? Two weeks later, and several months after that? How would survivors obtain and store food? What would people do if they got sick? Where would they go to get medicine or fresh water? These are the issues Frank’s main character, Randy deals with and a whole lot more to boot.

            Perhaps the element I think Pat Frank does best in his book is creating and developing his main character. Randy starts off as a less than up standing sort of guy. He is an alcoholic and a bit of a Peeping Tom, who has wasted most of his life on the pursuit of just getting by and doing as little as he can.  By the end of the book, Randy goes through a complete transformation. The various stages that Randy goes through to get to this transformation makes Alas Babylon exciting and thought provoking even today.

While I would not recommend this book for younger readers (sixth or seventh grader), mainly because Randy’s character is quite raunchy in the beginning, I do still recommend it to many of my students who like science fiction because of the plot and the characterization.

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