Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

I read Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl in one sitting. Zarr’s realistic look at high school and small-town politics hit home for me and I was so happy to see her win a National Book Award this past year. When I saw the cover for her newest novel, Sweethearts, besides having a sudden craving for sugar cookies, I immediately knew I had to read it.

I finished Sweethearts this evening and Sara Zarr has done it again!  I could go on and on about how awesome it is, but you need to go buy this book.

After years of hardship, Jenna Vaughn is finally the person she always wanted to be.  She has left behind Jennifer Harris- the fat, lisping, poor, crybaby her elementary school classmates cruelly ridiculed.  Now seventeen, she is thin and pretty.  She is popular at school and is dating the boy everyone else wishes they were dating.  Her mother has remarried and she has a loving stepfather.  She should be the happiest girl in the world.

She should be.

If only she could forget.

Jenna hates her birthday.  It only serves as a reminder of what happened on that awful day when she turned nine.  Back when life was lonely.  Back when she was still Jennifer Harris.  Then, her best friend was Cameron Quick.  Both outcasts, they clung to each other like lifeboats in a raging storm.  All of that changed on the day Jennifer turned nine.  The day Cameron’s father…….

Soon after, Cameron doesn’t come to school.  He isn’t in school the next day, either.  It is then that Jennifer finds out he is gone.  He is dead.  Jennifer only has herself.

Now, at seventeen, Jennifer has become Jenna.  She has buried Jennifer, Cameron, and their memories together.  The hole in heart, left when her soul mate and best friend disappeared from her life, still tries to drown her, sometimes.  But she is Jenna Vaughn now.  Happy, funny, grounded Jenna Vaughn.  Until the day that Cameron Quick comes back.   The day her “perfect” world is turned on its side.

I loved this book.  The characters are realistic and multi-dimensional, as are their relationships.  Jenna is a perceptive observer of both her peers and teenage life in general.  For the majority of the book you don’t know what exactly happened on that fateful afternoon when Jenna turned nine, and that kept me turning the pages.  Sara Zarr weaves a gorgeous story!

I already have 8-9 girls begging me to read this next.  I’m going to have to pull a name out of a hat to decide who gets it next.  They are begging just from my description, after seeing me reading during our reading time today.  How great is that???

Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt

A few days ago, Susan over at Wizards Wireless was kind enough to loan me her ARC of Gary D. Schmidt’s newest novel, Trouble. Schmidt’s Newbery Honor-winning The Wednesday Wars was one of my favorite novels of 2007 so I was looking forward to this one!

I was very excited when I received it and began reading immediately.Trouble is very different from The Wednesday Wars. Where “Wednesday Wars” was funny, poignant, and sometimes even gut-busting, “Trouble” is poignant, full of sorrow and pain, and haunting at times.

Throughout his life, Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.  This mantra guides Henry’s life – along with his mother, father, sister Louisa, and older brother Franklin.  However, you can’t avoid Trouble forever, and one night it comes crashing down into Henry’s world in the form of Cambodian immigrant, Chay Chouan. When Chouan’s truck strikes Franklin one night, the resulting racial tensions tear apart quaint Blythebury-by-the-Sea and Henry’s family.

Henry is caught between anger and grief.  Is his brother the All-American hero that the town views him as?  Or is he flawed, maybe even more flawed than most human beings?  How did Trouble find the Smith’s?  Unsure of what to do, he sets out to do the only thing he can- climb Mt.  Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, which he and Franklin were going to climb together.  Henry, Black Dog (whom he rescued from drowning), and his friend Sanborn set out for Mt. Katahdin without telling their parents.  The journey teaches them more than they ever could have imagined and Henry slowly begins to understand himself, his family, his ancestry, his town, and the world around him.

I loved this book.  “Trouble” had tears in my eyes at some points and made me angry at other points.  Chay Chouan’s family history is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking.  Henry struggles with the possibility that his revered older brother may not deserve the adoration he always so readily accepted (and that Henry so readily offered).  It’s a magnificent picture of one boy’s coming-of-age in a world plagued by Trouble.

Even though I loved “Troub;e”, I don’t think this is a novel many of my students will pick up.  While “The Wednesday Wars” had a voice that attracted 12-13 year olds, I don’t think Henry’s voice will resonate with my students.  I would recommend this to an older audience.  The story is beautiful and I couldn’t put the book down! I wouldn’t be surprised to see this novel on most shortlists for the Newbery in 2009.