Posted in Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Science Fiction, Teen

Ann Brashares The Here and Now gives us time travel and dystopia.

cover35542-mediumThere Here and Now, by Ann Brashares. Random House Children’s (2014), $18.99, ISBN: 9780385736800

Recommended for ages 14+

Ann Brashares, author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, gives us a well-constructed story with dypstopian elements, time travel, and a race through the past, present and future to stop a terrifying future.

Prenna is a 17 year-old Traveler – she, her mother, and a group of her people came to our present time to escape a future where a blood plague ravaged the population. The Travelers live under a restrictive list of rules that appear to exist more for their power-hungry leaders rather than the actual good of the people (or the Natives – people in the right timeline – that the rules are supposed to protect). When Prenna finds herself growing closer to her friend Ethan, she starts questioning not only the rules, but the entire structure their society was built on – and she and Ethan find themselves drawn into a race against time to put a stop to the dismal future from which Prenna came, all the while pursued by the leaders who want to silence Prenna, possibly for good.

The Here and Now has elements of The Giver – the post-apocalyptic society governed by rules really spoke to me – and is one of those books that I couldn’t put down. I needed to know what was going to happen next; Ms. Brashares constructed a compelling narrative with enough mystery to keep me going for that famous “one page more”. Within the overall story structure, there are mini-mysteries that the two teens have to unravel to get the next piece of the puzzle; add to that the internal conflict Prenna feels at duty to her family and the love she and Ethan feel for one another, and you have a great read for teens that can spawn interesting conversations about the implications of time travel: what would happen if you went back in time and changed things, even if they were for the better? What kind of society would develop if a blood-borne plague spiraled out of control? More than a teen romance, The Here and Now offers the opportunity to draw teens into complex conversations about the world around them.

Posted in Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Teen

Book Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (Random House, 2009)

the-forest-of-hands-and-teethRecommended for ages 14+

Mary and her brother Jed live in a post-apocalyptic world, in a small village overseen by the Sisterhood and the Guardians. The Sisterhood is the reunion of church and state, a governing body that rules through their faith. The Guardians keep them safe from the Forest of Hands and Teeth, always outside their gates.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth refer to the zombies that wander, ever-present, just outside of the settlement. When the settlement fences are breached, Mary, her brother and a small group of survivors escape and seek the ocean, where Mary believes they will be able to start over. But they have to make it through the forest first.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is one of those books that has layer upon layer of complex storytelling, all centered around the main character, Mary. Ms. Ryan explores her relationships – with her mother, her brother, her best friend, fiance, and his brother, her true love – against the backdrop of the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. She is an obsessive character, driven by her drive to question. What lies beyond the settlement? Are there more settlements, more people, out there? What secrets does the Sisterhood keep from everyone? Where is the ocean, that her mother raised her on stories about? At times, the character appears cold and self-serving; she is single-minded in her purpose.

As the first in a post-apocalyptic series (The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places are the sequels), the book is bleak but compelling. It doesn’t focus on the zombie horror, but it’s an ever-present threat that crawls down the reader’s spine and makes one’s heart beat with a sense of urgency at key points.

Author Carrie Ryan writes for middle grade and young adult readers, and has a full list of work available on her website, where readers can also follow her blog, follow her on social media, find out about appearances and news, and download icons, buttons, banners, and bookmarks.

Posted in Horror, Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Teen

Book Review: Ex-Heroes, by Peter Clines (2012, Crown)

exheroesRecommended for ages 16+

Peter Clines’ Ex series, beginning with Ex-Heroes, is one of those series created for adults but easily crosses over into the teen readers’ market. It provides an interesting new take on the zombie apocalypse, with this universe offering superheroes who continue protecting humanity by creating a haven in an abandoned Hollywood movie lot for survivors.

As with the best post-apocalyptic/zombie tales, the interplay between people facing the end of the world is what makes Ex-Heroes compelling reading. You not only have survivors, The survivors are split into those inside the sanctuary and those outside – inside the sanctuary, we have the superheroes – metahumans – and “regular” people. Outside, there are predatory gangs that have turned the surrounding areas into their kingdom. They try to infiltrate or sabotage the heroes’ camp and supply runs, but have been largely unsuccessful until they find themselves with a terrifying advantage that could destroy everything the heroes have striven to build. Add in the fact that within the sanctuary, there’s dissension in the ranks as more and more people find themselves uneasy about being governed by superpowered individuals, and you have a the makings of a compelling post-apocalyptic saga.

The best zombie stories are not so much about the undead, but about the survivors and how people break down – or endure – life at the end of the world as they know it. Here, Ex-Heroes shines. The relationships between heroes is complex to begin with, and the stress of the situations around them, added to the fact that there are now superpowered undead to compound the situation, amp up the action and the desperation. We get origin stories and back stories for the major heroes: Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. and The Mighty Dragon, and the action shifts pretty seamlessly from past to present, giving us a full picture.

While written for adults, Ex-Heroes is an accessible book for teen audiences who enjoy horror/post-apocalypse fiction. The violence is not gratuitous and while there are allusions to sex and some language and overall content, I see no reason why a mature teen would not be able to read and enjoy this book.

Ex-Heroes is the first book in Peter Clines’ Ex series, which also includes Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, and Ex-Purgatory.

Posted in Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)

Recommended for ages 11-14

In the dystopian future, there is no more war, disease, or poverty. There are no choices, either – in 12-year old Jonas’s community, spouses are assigned to one another, children are assigned to families, and children’s milestones are pre-selected and celebrated once a year. At age seven, they receive jackets that button in the front. At the age of nine, they receive bicycles. At the age of 12, they attend the Ceremony of Twelve, where they are assigned their careers. Jonas, who has been experiencing feelings that has made him feel different from his peers, is assigned to be the Receiver of Memory – the sole repository for the collective memories of the community. He begins to work with the outgoing Receiver, now called The Giver, to receive the memories and learns disturbing truths through both the memories and the truths he begins to see in his daily life in the village.

The Giver is one of those books that sticks with you, changing the way you think about things. What price is a group willing to pay to live in a perfect, ordered society? Jonas, in receiving memories, plays the part of Adam in the Garden of Eden – he receives knowledge, and with knowledge comes confusion. Is his community right because they don’t know better? He begins to question everything around him and everything he’s ever known; when he sees his father commit an act in the course of his daily work that he finds unspeakable, the last vestiges of what he believes in are thrown into chaos.
The Giver is one of the most challenged books books in middle schools across America, usually for its portrayal of euthanasia (but also for what has been considered a sexual reference). Regardless of its challenges, it remains a popular and important middle-school book that speaks to the power of free will and choice. There are many lesson plans for this book on the Web, including this comprehensive one from the Mountain City Elementary School District in Tennessee. The book won the 1994 Newbery Medal and the 1996 William Allen White Children’s Book Award and has been designated an American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA Notable Children’s Book. The Giver is the first in a 3-book series that includes Gathering Blue and Messenger.
Lois Lowry is an award-winning YA author; she has received numerous awards, including two Newbery medals (for The Giver and Number the Stars). Her website lists all of the awards she’s won in addition to offering book information, a biography, her blog, her photos, and copies of her speeches.
Posted in Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau (Yearling, 2004)

Recommended for ages 9-12
A post-apocalyptic novel, The City of Ember begins with The Builders, who created an underground city that would save humankind from an assumed environmental catastrophe. The city was to last for 220 years, at which time they hoped it would be okay to return to the surface. They created Instructions to leave Ember, which they gave to the Mayor, to be passed down to every Mayor until it was time; the box containing the Instructions would then open.

The box was lost after the seventh Mayor tried to force the box open.

In the year 241, the City of Ember is failing. They are running out of food and supplies and there are rolling blackouts that last for longer stretches each time. There are whispers that the generator is failing. Because the population of Ember does not know their above-ground origins, they do not know that there is another choice. Lina and Doon, two 12-year old residents of Ember, learn about some of Ember’s secrets, like the stores of food available to those who know the “right people”. Lina also happens upon a document long hidden in her grandmother’s closet; torn into shreds by her baby sister, she tries to unravel the mystery and thinks she has happened upon a way to leave Ember. Will anyone other than Doon believe her, or will the Mayor and the police try to keep them quiet?

The book tells an intelligent story with fairly well-drawn characters. Ms. DuPrau does not speak down to her audience, but I do wish she had fleshed out the characters a bit more; the Mayor, for instance, is the typical bloated, corrupt politician; Lina’s grandmother’s memory is slipping away, but she remembers that there is something lost that she must find before she dies; the police are one-dimensional, just-following-orders good/bad guys. The overall story, however, is solid and compelling – what happens to a society if their lights go out for good?

The City of Ember is the first in the Books of Ember series and was made into a movie in 2008. Designated as an American Library Association (ALA) Notable book, the book has received Kirkus Editors Choice status and was awarded the 2006 Mark Twain Readers Award. The author’s website offers information on all of Ms. DuPrau’s books, a biography, and an FAQ. The site also offers the chance for visitors to solve a puzzle similar to the document in City of Ember.

Posted in Middle School, Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg Van Eekhout (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

A preteen boy (we are led to guess), wakes up in a pod in a devastated shelter. Destruction lies all around him; he sees being similar to himself lying dead in pods similar to his. The only other functional being is a robot, who calls out to him. The boy runs, but the robot catches up to him and reveals the boy’s name, Fisher, to him. Fisher learns that he is the only survivor of the human race.

It’s the usual post-apocalyptic story: Humans ruined the earth and nature took back her planet. Humans genetically engineered animals and more humans, putting them in gel-filled pods, with robots to oversee their care, until the time when conditions allowed for them to awake and rebuild society. The humans were individually programmed with specific survival skills to help create communities. Fisher is programmed to be a fisherman. Click, the name he gives his robot companion, tells Fisher that he has been tasked with helping Fisher “continue existing”, and the two set off to search for more humans in another Ark – the facilities were humans and animals were engineered and kept in hibernation.

Born a blank slate, Fisher learns and adapts through the story’s progression, developing not only intelligence outside of his initial programming but emotional depth. The characters they meet are not cute and cuddly woodland creatures: they’re often chilling. There are groundhogs who blame humanity for the planet’s destruction and hold a grudge; there is a robot who takes his task of preserving the human race  permanently – these characters bring a new dimension to the story of a boy and his robot. This is a survivalist tale.

It is difficult to write a postapocalyptic tale without sounding like hundreds of similar books on the market, and the “humans and technology bad, nature good” call to action beats the reader over the head throughout the book. Humans bring the planet to the brink of environmental collapse, so they leave the rest of the planet to deal with it while they go into hiding until the coast is clear. The technology that humans created to save them ultimately turns on them and brings the race to the point of near-extinction, further painting us as hapless ne’er do wells.

That said, the YA market in post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t as saturated as the adult market is yet, so perhaps a younger audience will read this story through different eyes. That said, this is a generation that has been fed this storyline since they were babies: think of Happy Feet, a movie that deceptively sold us a cute story about a penguin who didn’t fit in, and gave us a Greenpeace horror movie halfway through the picture. Think of Wall-E, where we were drowning our society in junk, so we had to go into space to get away from it.

I don’t want it to sound like I didn’t like this book, because I did. I think older middle grade readers, starting with 10-11 year olds, will see Fisher as a hero they can identify with as a young boy who needs to learn to survive, and whose robot companion acts as a friend and parent. Kids can also relate to the marriage of technology and environmental awareness contained in the book’s message.

Greg Van Eekhout knows how to write for kids – he has a Masters in Education and spent ten years developing online curricula for K-12 and college students. He is kid- and teacher-accessible, offering teachers tips on having author events at schools (and libraries), and providing his e-mail address to be contacted about school visits. He offers two presentations that he follows in his appearances. His website is geared toward grownups who are interested in reading his reviews, about his books, and where he’ll be next.