Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a beautifully written historical novel set in the winter of 1945.
It’s told from the perspective of four young people all being evacuated from East Prussia at the end of World War II ahead of the advancing Soviet army: Joana, a guilt-ridden Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a Prussian deserter with a secret; Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl; and Alfred, a delusional German sailor.
Joana, Florian, and Emilia join with an unlikely band of refugees on the dangerous road to the port in Gotenhafen. There, they secure passage on a German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Just when they seem safe, though, the ship is struck by torpedoes from a Soviet submarine and begins to sink.
I have read many novels and works of non-fiction about World War II, but I had never heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in which more than 9,000 people lost their lives. One reason I like historical fiction is that it can bring to light events that might otherwise be forgotten.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is an excellent book for the upcoming holiday weekend. It’s an absorbing YA fantasy about six outcasts tasked with a seemingly impossible rescue mission.
I always love a good heist story and this one has all the elements: a diverse team with complementary talents, a complicated and ingenious plan, and a bunch of unforeseen obstacles.
Six of Crows is darker than the books I usually review on Imaginary Friends, but I didn’t hesitate to give it to Blaine. He’s always had a bloodthirsty imagination for his age, though. I’d recommend it for teens and adults, not for younger kids.
This book has multiple viewpoint characters and a complex setting. If you find yourself a little confused at the beginning, keep reading. Once you get into it, you won’t be able to put it down. Best of all, if you finish it before the long weekend is over, the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, is equally captivating.
If you like spy novels and movies as much as Blaine and I do, then you’ll enjoy Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz. It’s the first book in a series featuring 14-year-old Alex Rider, pressed into service by MI6 after the death of his uncle.
An Egyptian millionaire has promised to give tens of thousands of his company’s revolutionary new computer to schools across England. The Prime Minister is thrilled, but the offer may be too good to be true. MI6 sent Alex’s uncle to investigate, but he was killed before he could report his findings. Now Alex must go under cover to complete his uncle’s mission.
Stormbreaker is a fast-paced story and a quick read. Like a James Bond movie, though, it requires the willful suspension of disbelief. Alex’s incredible bravery, the villains’ incredible dastardliness, and the outlandish action sequences are all part of the fun. Another part of the fun is trying to figure out how Alex will use his cool teen spy gadgets (such as a Game Boy that is also a fax/photocopier, x-ray device, bug finder, and smoke bomb). And I’ve written about Chekhov’s gun before, but this book has the first Chekhov’s Portuguese man-of-war that I’ve ever seen. Pretty cool.
There are ten books in the series so far, and the 11th book is due out in October.
We have just one week of summer vacation left. Time for a few more late nights reading scary stories under a blanket…
This summer, Larrabee has discovered the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. They’re horror/thriller stories for kids ranging from the mildly creepy to the downright terrifying.
There are 62 books in the original series published in the 90s and dozens more in the later spinoff series. Some are still in bookstores, and you can find the rest in libraries, used bookstores, and on your brother’s shelves.
Larrabee says both The Haunted School and Ghost Beach will make you break out in cold shivers. And I think It Came From Beneath the Sink! still gives Blaine nightmares. Do you have a favorite Goosebumps book? Or another scary story that keeps your kids up at night?
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac is the story of a Navajo boy who serves in the Marine Corps during World War II, sending messages in an unbreakable code based on his native language.
The narrator and protagonist, Ned Begay, is fictional, but the main events in the book really happened. Blaine and I both enjoyed learning more about this little-known piece of history.
The book is presented as a story told by Ned as an old man: “Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war.”
He then goes back to his childhood. He left home at age six to attend a state-run boarding school where he was forced to cut his hair and required to speak only English. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was fourteen years old and too young to fight, but two years later, he joined the Marines. After boot camp, he was sent to code school to learn a code based on the Navajo language. He and his fellow Navajo code talkers played a key role in many battles in the Pacific theater, including on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. After the war, he returned home and became a teacher, but for many years, he was not allowed to tell anyone about his work as a code talker.
Bruchac says in the Author’s Note that the book “can be read as a parable about the importance of respecting other languages and cultures.” Some of the most interesting parts of the book are its explorations of the differences between Navajo, white American, and Japanese cultures.
The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon is a coming-of-age story set in Chicago in 1968. Thirteen-year-old Sam Childs is caught in the middle. His father is a civil rights leader and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His older brother is a member of the Black Panthers.
“You can’t be the rock and the river,” his brother tells him.
Blaine and I both enjoyed this book. It raises complex issues for discussion—both societal (race, class, police violence) and personal (family dynamics, relationships, growing up). And like the best historical fiction, it teaches the reader a lot about the time period in the context of a compelling story.
What could be more idyllic than curling up on a late summer evening with an adventure story set in a dystopian future?
Blaine and I recently finished Legend, the first book in Marie Lu’s dystopian trilogy. It’s set in a future Los Angeles, part of the war-torn Republic. It’s told from the viewpoint of two fifteen-year-olds from different sides of the tracks: June, a top student at an elite military academy, and Day, a wanted criminal hiding out in the slums. When June’s older brother is murdered, Day is the prime suspect and June goes undercover to track him down.
Blaine and I both enjoyed the book. Occasionally we quibbled with some of the amazing leaps (deductive and otherwise) made by the characters. And Blaine, in particular, noted the characters’ overuse of the word “wound.” Although this book has not replaced The Hunger Games as our favorite dystopian novel, we’re eager to read the next two books in the series.
So why are we drawn to these books? Several years ago, in “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction,” the New York Times asked authors and other experts why post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular. I’m inclined to agree with Maggie Stiefvater, author of Shiver, that dystopian novels are more an escapist pleasure than an exploration of real fears about the future. Stiefvater suggests that in a world of complex, nuanced choices, “the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.”
We’d love to hear your recommendations. What is your favorite dystopian young adult novel?