A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

 The monster comes just after midnight for thirteen year old Connor O’Malley.  The yew tree in the church yard across from his house folds itself into the shape of a large man and lowers its eye to Connor’s window.  It demands his attention.

But that isn’t the scariest thing in Connor’s life right now: his mother is dying from cancer.  She scarcely has the strength to make it out of bed these days and the new treatments don’t seem to be working.  His grandmother, abrupt and not inclined towards sweetness, has begun visiting more frequently to help out and make Connor’s days more unbearable.  His father, who lives in America, has also made plans to come see him through this difficult time.

Things are also going terribly at school.  The local bullies, sensing his sorrow, have made a target of him.  But perhaps their attention is almost better than being ignored by the rest of his classmates.

And then there is the monster.  It says that it will tell him 3 tales.  And then Connor must tell it the 4th.  These stories, through their confusion and harsh realities, disrupt him even further and put him face to face with his most dreaded nightmare of all.

I loved this book, but felt that it was really an adult novel.  It wasn’t the language or content, but rather the theme of death and sorrow that makes it more inclined towards older readers.  This is a sad tale, but I found it cathartic.

Ages 13+ Young Adult Fiction

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Ten year old Sasha Zaichik’s greatest dream in life is to become a Young Soviet Pioneer.  His father works for the State Security and joining the Pioneers would make Sasha’s father proud and be an important step in following him in becoming a good Communist under Stalin.  The mother having passed away years before, Sasha and his father live in a komunalka, a communal living apartment.

Sasha’s life changes when police show up one night and arrest his father.  Their room is taken over and Sasha is thrown out in the snow.  Turned away by relatives that same night, Sasha looks forward to the next day at school when he will become a Young Soviet Pioneer in the initiation ceremony.

But Sasha’s luck does not improve at school.  While carrying the Soviet banner, he accidentally breaks the nose off of a Stalin statue.  Hiding the misdeed, Sasha’s actions set off a school wide emergency as the administration struggles to pin the blame on someone.

Yelchin does an excellent job capturing the fear, paranoia, and dark humor of the U.S.S.R during Stalin’s reign.  I found particularly compelling the anger and resiliency of Sasha’s classmates.  These children, so beyond their years in their concerns, do everything they can to baffle, in their own small way, Stalin’s system of terror.

An excellent choice for children interested in Soviet history.  I would also recommend to a parent or a teacher trying to show students what a society is like without freedoms and liberty.   A Newberry Honor for 2012.  Ages 9+

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell


This is a verse novel narrated by a young girl set in the 1950’s and 60’s in Hong Kong.   Written almost as a verse diary over several years, the reader gains a glimpse into the girl’s life.  Her family subsists mainly from her father’s tailoring business, but work ebbs and flows.  When the father is not working, he makes patchwork blankets that the girl calls ‘tofu quilts.’  Despite money being tight, her mother manages to send the girl to private school where she develops a love of books.  Her dream is to grow up someday to become a writer.

Family tensions are explored as the girl describes her father’s family becoming upset with the mother for sacrificing so much on the narrator’s education.  Gender is also touched on as relatives counsel the girl to respect her elders and to one day obey her husband.

Readers will appreciate the unique verse form of this novel.  I did not find this book to be particularly interesting, but I did appreciate the clean, elegant writing style.  For ages 8+

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Tree Ear is a boy who lives in a small village on the west coast of Korea in the middle of the 12th century.  He spends most of his time scavenging for scraps around local trash heaps and sleeps under a bridge at night.  His friend is Crane Man, an old man with a disabled leg who has taken care of Tree Ear since he was brought to the village years before by a monk.

Tree Ear’s life changes when he begs a local potter named Min to take him on as an assistant to pay off a debt.  His days are then spent in hard manual labor cutting down trees or digging out blocks of clay along the river bank.  Tree Ear one day hopes to learn how to make pottery on a wheel, but Min gruffly refuses to teach him.

When Min decides to show his pottery to the royal emissary in the capital, however, he must rely on Tree Ear to make this perilous journey.

I loved this book and could tell why it won the 2002 Newberry Honor Award.  The different setting truly lent to its appeal.  I found the characters fully human.  I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a good juvenile historical fiction book.