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Janet's Literature Reviews
Fiction, Fantasy, & YA

On this page I review the following books: HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, MAKE LEMONADE, THE GIVER, THE FIRST PART LAST, and NINJAS,PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone 
 
     By J. K. Rowling

Rowling, J. K. 1997. HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE. Illustrated by Mary GrandPre. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN: 0590353403.

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE is the first book in this high fantasy series by J. K. Rowling.  The protagonist in the story is Harry Potter, an eleven-year-old boy, who after living most of his life with his non-magic human (Muggles) Aunt, Uncle, and Cousin discovers that he is a wizard and he is to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Harry also learn that his parents were killed by the evil sorcerer Voldemort who attempted to kill Harry also, but having failed, disappears.  Harry is left with a lightning bolt shaped scar on his forehead that makes him recognizable to others as the only survivor of an  attack by Voldemort.  At Hogwarts, Harry meets his friends Ron and Hermione and together they learn magic from the wizard professors as well as solve the mystery of the sorcerer's stone.  In an exciting race against time, Harry must again face Voldemort to prevent him from getting the sorcerer's stone and to finally find out why Voldemort wants Harry dead.

 

The author makes this book an example of high fantasy by weaving the story into the magical setting of Hogwarts school where ogres, trolls, and talking unicorns live.  The students and professors perform magic with their wands and fly around on magic brooms.  There is also the theme of good versus evil when Harry is challenged by fellow student Draco Malfor and Professor Snape and then must later fight the sorcerer Voldemort.  Rowling also eloquently shows the power of love in the battle of good vs. evil when she writes, "Your mother died to save you.  If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.  …to have been loved so deeply, …will give us some protection forever.  It is in your very skin.  Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason.  It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good" (p. 299).   Harry's character follows the classic "hero's round" (Jacobs & Tunnell, p. 90-1) where he must face many trials while he is at Hogwarts school all the while being protected by Professor Dumbledore.        

 

 J. K. Rowling adds reality to the story by having the children do normal children's activities, but within the setting of a school for witches and wizards.  There are games of Quidditch (p. 167) which is like soccer but played high above the ground while flying on brooms and games of chess played with chess pieces that talk.  The boys also collect cards that come with their favorite candy only they are wizard cards instead of baseball cards.  In a review for Booklist, Michael Cart writes, "… Rowling's wonderful ability to put a fantastic spin on sports, student rivalry, and eccentric faculty contributes to the humor, charm, and, well, delight of her utterly captivating story."  The school where the story is set is an exciting and enchanted place for Harry and his friends to live.  The author writes with great detail about the stairs, "There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump" (p. 131).  Harry and his friends go from one adventure to another, but they all fit well into the fast moving plot of the story.  Michael Cart also writes, "Rowling's first novel … is a brilliantly imagined and beautifully written fantasy that incorporates elements of traditional British school stories without once violating the magical underpinnings of the plot."

 

Cart, Michael. Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone (book). BOOKLIST. Available from http://amazon.com . Accessed 27 July 04. 

 
 

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Make Lemonade 
 
     By Virginia Euwer Wolff

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. 1993. MAKE LEMONADE. New York: Scholastic Inc. ISBN: 059048141X.

Virginia E. Wolff's Young Adult novel, MAKE LEMONADE, is about 14-year-old Verna LaVaughn who is usually called LaVaughn, even by her mother. LaVaughn answers an add for babysitting because she needs to save money for college.  Jolly, a 17-year-old unwed mother, needs a babysitter for her two children, Jeremy and Jilly, while she is working evenings.  LaVaughn is allowed by her mom to take the job as long as her homework gets done and her grades do not suffer.  LaVaughn does not tell her mom that Jolly is 17-years-old.  LaVaughn baby sits for Jolly even after she looses her job and has to look for a new job.  LaVaughn encourages Jolly to go back to school through the Moms Up program at LaVaughn's school that also offers child care for her two children.  This means LaVaughn is out of a job until the school offers to pay her for watching Jolly's children again, but only one hour a day so Jolly can study.  Jolly learns many new skills at the school including CPR which she uses to save her daughter Jilly from choking.  The story ends on a hopeful note with the idea that Jeremy and Jilly may be able to escape the poverty they live in now because of the encouragement that LaVaughn gives Jolly and because of Jolly's own determination to see humor in her situation and make lemonade out of the lemons she has been given in life.

 

The author develops all the characters through the first-person voice of LaVaughn as she relates the story to the reader in a "stream-of-consciousness fashion, with the lines laid out on the page as if they were the verses of a poem…" (Zvirin).  We learn the most about LaVaughn because the story is written from her perspective.   We see her thoughts as she realizes she does not want to be like Jolly, but at the same time, she is determined to help Jolly in a way for her to retain her self-respect.  Through dialogue the author allows the reader to see Jolly as a very independent young woman that refuses to go on welfare because she is afraid the "state" will take her children, but at the same time she realizes that she "can't do it alone" (p. 7).  The characters of LaVaughn's mother and the two children become real and an integral part of the story.     

 

Wolff uses the technique of foreshadowing to show that the babysitting job that LaVaughn is interested in may not be what she is looking for.  Everything about the advertisement is childish and unsophisticated.  The add reads, "BABYSITTER NEEDED BAD" and is smudged and wrinkled with all the pull off tabs still attached.  Jolly also makes fun of LaVaughn's name when she calls about the job and of course the children are screaming in the background.  The author uses contrast to emphasize the differences between the girls.  LaVaughn is studious and wants to attend college while Jolly is a high school drop out.  LaVaughn has three conversations with her mother a day, "1 in the morning before she goes to work and before I go to school. 1 while dinner is getting made. 1 while we eat dinner.  This is sometimes a continued conversation" (p. 13).  Jolly only had a foster mother she called Gram that died and she lived in a cardboard box when she was 12-years-old.  Despite these differences, the girls can laugh together, learn from each other, and they both love the two children Jeremy and Jilly.

 

Stephanie Zvirin writes in a review for BOOKLIST, "Rooted not in a particular culture, but in the community of poverty, the story offers a penetrating view of the conditions that foster our ignorance, destroy our self-esteem, and challenge our strength.  That education is the bridge to a better life is the unapologetic, unmistakable theme … At once disturbing and uplifting, this finely nuanced, touching portrait proudly affirms our ability to reach beyond ourselves and reach out to one another" (Zyirin).

 

Zvirin, Stephanie. 1993. Make lemonade (book). BOOKLIST. Available from Books in Print (database online). Accessed 27 July 04. 

 

 

 
 

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The Giver
 
     By Lois Lowry

Lowry, Lois. 1993. THE GIVER. New York: Laurel-Leaf Books. ISBN: 0440219078.

Lois Lowry's fantasy novel, THE GIVER,  takes place in an imaginary futuristic world that is free from pain, poverty, and unhappiness.  Jonas, an Eleven and soon to be a Twelve, is apprehensive because he will soon receive his assignment for his life's work at the Ceremony of Twelve.  Jonas does not feel suited for any particular job; he only knows which jobs he is not interested in performing for the rest of his life.  Peculiar things are happening to him also, but he does not have the words to describe what he is experiencing or seeing.  At the Ceremony of Twelve Jonas is selected to be the Receiver of Memories, a great honor that allows him to receive and keep the memories of the whole world.  Jonas's whole life begins to change, from his relationships with his family and friends to his perception of the community he live in, when he begins to receive the memories, pleasurable and painful, from The Giver.  The Amazon.com review writes, "Gradually Jonas learns just how costly this ordered and pain-free society can be, and boldly decides he cannot pay the price."

 

The author hides the complete setting from the readers until Jonas begins to receive the memories from The Giver.  Up until this point, the reader knows that this community is highly structured and organized, but it is not evident how stark and without color the community really is.  This technique of slowly revealing the setting is effective because the reader is shocked when the true setting becomes evident.  The reader's first clue that the community that Jonas lives in is even stranger than first thought is that Jonas does not have an understanding of snow, hills, or sleds (p. 81).  This could easily be explained away, but then Lois Lowry reveals that Jonas does not understand the concept of color.  The Giver explains, "There were a lot of colors, and one of them was called red.  That's the one you are starting to see.  Your friend Fiona has red hair – quite distinctive … When you mentioned Fiona's hair, it was the clue that told me you were probably beginning to see the color red" (p. 94).                    

 

Amy Kellman, in a review for SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, writes, "This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time."  The two characters that the author develops completely are Jonas and The Giver.  The rest of the characters in the story are flat, but they are necessary and complementary to the story as well as interesting in their relationship to Jonas. The author's style of writing is effective when she builds the tension in the story several times; in the month leading up to the Ceremony of Twelve when Jonas will learn his appointment, during the Ceremony of Twelve when Jonas is skipped, and then at the conclusion of the story with Jonas escaping from the community.  The author also uses foreshadowing to reveal that maybe this community is not as it seems.  When an individual does not live up to their potential, they are released from the community.  The author does not reveal the true meaning of "released" until the end of the novel, but the author uses foreshadowing to make the reader question this interesting term.  Lois Lowry writes, "There were only two occasions of release which were not punishment.  Release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived; and release of a newchild, which always brought a sense of what-could-we-have-done."  The two words that immediately came to my mind as the reader were euthanasia and abortion, so this quote gave me a sense of foreboding.  Early in the story, the author also uses foreshadowing to question what "Elsewhere" is and if there is really something  beyond Jonas's community.  She writes, "Again and again, as he slept, he had slid down that snow-covered hill.  Always, in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something – he could not grasp what – that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop.  He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance.  The feeling that it was good.  That it was welcoming.  That it was significant."  Lois Lowry's novel was the 1994 Newbery Medal winner and it is sure to lead to lively discussions in the classroom and home.

 

The giver (book). AMAZON.COM. Available from http://amazon.com . Accessed 27 July 04.

 

Kellman, Amy. 1993. The giver (book). SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. Available from http://amazon.com . Accessed 27 July 04.

 
 

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The First Part Last 
 
     By Angela Johnson

Johnson, Angela. 2003. THE FIRST PART LAST. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 0689849222.

Angela Johnson's Young Adult Fiction novel, THE FIRST PART LAST,  is about Bobby, a 16-year-old boy that must deal with raising a baby on his own.  Bobby's girlfriend Nia gets pregnant and tells him on his 16th birthday.  Together they must tell their parents that Nia is pregnant.  They eventually decide to put the baby up for adoption because they are just not ready to be parents and it is the right thing to do.  Bobby's life doesn’t change that much except that he goes to the doctor with Nia and helps her as much as possible, but the baby is too far in the future to be real and he still hangs out with his friends.  Most of the time, he is a typical 16-year-old boy.   Things change when Nia suffers from eclampsia and is now brain dead, but the baby is saved.  Bobby, after seeing the baby he calls Feather, decides to keep her because she looks like Nia.  Both parents agree that he can keep the baby, but emphasize that she is his responsibility.  Bobby absolutely falls in love with his little baby and is amazed that she needs and wants just him.  After a few false starts, Bobby realizes that the best place for him and Feather is away from the city and away from his parents.  He decides to go live in Heaven, Ohio where his brother lives and build a life there for himself and Feather.      

 

Johnson's style uses short chapters that alternately use the titles "now" for chapters that deal with Bobby's struggle raising his child Feather, and "then" for chapters dealing with Bobby in his relationship with his girlfriend Nia and his family and friends.  The author also uses first person narrative to help us see into the character of Bobby.  One quote from the book reveals Bobby as still a little boy needing his mother and also as a man trying to accept the responsibility that he has placed upon himself.  He says, "This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me.  And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing.  It's not going to happen, and my heart aches as I straighten out her hands and trace the delicate lines" (p. 15).     

 

The story is set in New York city with the teenagers from middle class to affluent families.  Nia's family sees to be more affluent than Bobby's family though Bobby's family has traveled extensively to other countries.  Both Bobby and Nia go to the same school, are studious and seem to have the goal of a college education in their future.  There does seem to be an underlying theme of stability to the story with Bobby having two supportive parents even though they are separated.  Bobby takes Feather to his pediatrician because he is still young enough to go to a pediatrician, and he also takes Feather to the same babysitter that watched him when he was a baby. 

 

The author uses flashbacks to explain the plot of the story that really starts in the middle with the baby being 11-days-old.  The next chapter has Nia telling Bobby that she is pregnant.  This can be a little difficult until the reader understands the author's intent.  The plot is believable, but the author adds a chapter that places the main characters in a fairy tale setting as she describes Bobby's idea of a perfect day.  This chapter seemed out of place in this book.  Miranda Doyle in a review for SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL felt that Bobby deciding to raise Feather on his own was a bit melodramatic.  She also described as melodramatic, "… a chapter in which Bobby snaps from the pressure and spends an entire day spray painting a picture on a brick wall, only to be arrested for vandalism.”  Spending all day in an arcade playing video games would have been more realistic. 

 

Johnson's writing is poetic and beautiful.  Miranda Doyle also writes, "Scenes in which Bobby expresses his love for his daughter are breathtaking."  Angela Johnson writes, "…I know now better than I ever did that I'm supposed to do this.  I'm supposed to be her daddy and stay up all night if I have to.  I'm supposed to suck it up and do all the right things if I can, even if I screw it up and have to do it over.  It's all right for now, 'cause for the first time I get to watch the coming of the soft morning light" (p. 126). 

 

Doyle, Miranda. 2003. The first part last (book). SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. Available from http://amazon.com . Accessed 27 July 04.   

 
 

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Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo 
 
     By Greg Leitich Smith

Smith, Greg Leitich. 2003. NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN: 0316778540.

NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO, a story about three friends Elias, Shohei, and Honoria, is an example of Contemporary Realistic Fiction as well as Young Adult Literature.  The story, involving a love triangle, is built around a science fair at the trio's exclusive private school, The Peshtigo School of Chicago.  Elias and Shohei enter the science fair only because their parents make them and Honoria enters because she wants to win.  The story has two plots that develop simultaneously through the story.  The first is the love triangle that has Honoria, a seventh-grade girl, liking Shohei more than a friend, and Elias liking Honoria.  The problem is that Honoria asks Elias to find out if Shohei likes her and Shohei, not being interested in Honoria as anything more than a friend, trying to get her to like Elias.  It gets complicated quickly and involves anonymous e-mails, mistaken identities, and hurt feelings.  The three friend finally work out their problems and Honoria decides that Elias, still her best friend, may have potential for being more than a friend.  The other plot involves the science fair where Elias is accused of copying his older brothers experiment.  Elias trying to prove that his experiment was valid breaks into the school and is charged with vandalism.  He has to appear before the school's student court with Honoria defending him.     

 

The author tells his story using short chapters and then further divides the chapters using a diary format with the three friends telling the story in first person from their own perspective.  This format made it difficult in the beginning for the reader to firmly grasp the personalities of the characters.  I had to keep flipping back to see which character was speaking, so this was a little frustrating.  Later in the story, the characters were developed enough that I could tell who was speaking. The story is set in the private school in Chicago and in the homes of the three characters.  These settings especially work and help to further develop the characters in the story.  An example is the fact that Shohei, a Japanese American, is adopted by Irish American parents that are helping him understand and appreciate his Japanese heritage.  Shohei's mother enthusiastically makes Japanese food every day, redecorates his room complete with tatami mats and Japanese screens, and makes a Zen rock garden on the patio.  With the exception of Shohei's parents who are very strange and off the wall,  the other parents seem to be busy and involved more in academia than their children's lives.

 

The theme of the story is that friends are very important and that true friends will make sacrifices when their friends are in trouble.  In this story Shohei must admit that he faked the results of his experiment to help get Shohei out of trouble.  Another theme is that friends do not keep secrets and must be honest with each other.  In the story Honoria asks Elias, "Why didn’t you feel you could tell me how you felt about me" (p. 166)?  The trio definitely learns that honesty is the best policy. 

 

I found a few things that did not fit with the student's ages.  I felt the scenario with the school's student court was a bit sophisticated for seventh graders and especially Honoria's expertise defense of Elias in the court was not realistic.  I also didn't think the blackmailing of the Science teacher was realistic even in a private school setting.  Donna Knott in a review for SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL writes, "A fresh, unusual story of friendship and honesty, riddled with wit, intelligence, and more than a few chuckles."  I did find the book entertaining and interesting once I got farther into the story, but it was confusing to me at the beginning because of the writers style.

 

Knott Donna. Ninjas, piranhas, and Galileo (book). SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. Available from http://amazon.com . Accessed 27 July 04.

 

 

 

 


These reviews were prepared in fulfillment of requirements for "Literature for Children and Young Adults", LS5603, Texas Woman's University, Summer 2004.