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Bri Meets Books

Children's and YA literature reviews.

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(Be forewarned, there are spoilers in this review)

Like his namesake, Shakespeare Shapiro is a writer. His notebooks, however, are more full of the sordid, hilarious, and sometimes downright unpleasant details of his life, rather than the trials of star-crossed lovers. Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner features the titular character’s memoirs, an obligatory assignment for all seniors at his high school.

Shakespeare holds nothing back in his memoirs as he lays bare his thoughts about life, life, sex, pornography, etc – all things that are denizens of any young man’s brain. I found Spanking Shakspeare a quick and funny read, but there were times when it was just too extreme for me. An overwhelming number of teen novels (and movies) embrace the quirky character. Along with the requisite edgy friends Katie (with a passion for swearing and drinking) and Neil (who keeps a record of his bowel movements), we have Shakespeare’s parents – their quirkyness defined by the names they bestow upon sons Ghandi and Shakespeare.

However, it’s the humor of Spanking Shakespeare that redeems the novel from an overload of quirk – from the seemingly innocous posters Shakespeare and his friends put up in the halls, with Fear Factoresuque scenarios hidden within them: (“Would you rather watch a kitten be dissected or your parents having sex?” in a poster advertising Science Club meetings). From Shakespeare’s epic poem detailing the hidden lives of the greatest writers, to his account of a Lord of the Flies camp where an aptly named “coma game” reigns supreme among the impressionable campers, and finally to a trip to a sex film with his grandmother, all the ncidents within are told with a sharp wit and clever tongue. There were parts I could not stop laughing, honestly, over lunch at work.

Purchased recently by Paramount, Spanking Shakespeare should eventually make it to the big screen, and rightly so. Here, in between the ribald humor of a teen dealing with the complexities of life during high school, lies the search of a young man carving out an identity the best way he knows how. And it makes for a really funny story.

Title: Spanking Shakespeare
Date: October 2008 (reprint)
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 304
Format: Paperback

Other reviews
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When participating in a storytime session, as I now do weekly, I like to choose picture books with bright images and related to nature, as the sessions are held in a children’s museum with a strong ecological emphasis. I chose Surprising Sharks by Nicola Davies for last week’s story, because here in Florida, we are quite familiar with sharks. But a reader is in for a – you-guessed-it! surprise with this book as it shares the wonders and intrigue of sharks in easy-to-read text and appealing pictures.

Written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by James Croft, the work is a science text, storybook and environmental lesson all-in-one. Davies doesn’t shy around the fact sharks are killers and humans are sometimes their prey but instead, turns this into a lesson about how we can educate ourselves about sharks. Any words too terrifying for little ones, such as “killer” or “bone-crunching” can easily be skipped.

The pages’ fonts vary in size, and the illustrations are bright and colorful, making it extremely attractive to children. The overall effect is fun and light, not scary. The facts contained within are interesting, with charts of shark anatomy and tidbits about not-so-common sharks, like the Wobbegong, whose mottled skin resembles a carpet on the sea floor. Also detailed is how sharks are born, their feeding habits, and humans use sharks in every day products.

Title: Surprising Sharks
Date: 2003
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 29
Format: Hardback

At work, when I merchandise the teen section, I notice we’re always getting a deluge of books with darker themes. As my family is currently mourning somebody, I don’t necessarily want to read about unpleasant themes. So I was eager to get Swim the Fly by Don Calame. Because it is, in a word, hilarious. But being an English major, I can not be concise and therefore must use words to describe this novel: uproarious, rollicking, fun, and side-splitting come to mind.

Matt’s about to spend the summer the way he and his friends, Coop and Sean, always do: competing against each other to be the first to reach a goal. This summer’s goal? To be the first to see a real live naked girl. Soon Matt’s got another goal to reach: swimming the 100 yard butterfly on his swim team to impress his crush Kelly and the new girl on the swim team. To accomplish this, Matt seeks the help of a eccentric and nearly-sadistic swim instructor, Ulf, who tortures Matt with his unorthodox training methods. Meanwhile, the race to reach the guys’ goal continues with hilarious results.

Calame’s background as a screenwriter (Employee of the Month and the Disney Channel original movie Hounded) shines throughout the novel, as each page is perfectly paced, beat by beat. Here the laughs really are a mile a minute. As each plan fails – some the fodder of popular teen shows, such as nude beaches, hiding in the locker room – they get more wild and ridiculous, but always hilarious. Whether it’s the mishaps due to a powerful new laxative or an ill-fated trip to a nude beach, Matt and his friends never fail to bring the laughs. Although slightly crude, like films of the Jude Apatow ilk, Swim the Fly still packs a lot of heart. The rest of the novel is rounded out with great moments by his family, including a grandfather sweet on a widowed neighbor. Not just a boy book, it’s a great summer read and one that’ll be packed in my beach bag this summer!

Copy for review provided by the publisher.

Title: Swim the Fly
Date: April 14, 2009
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 352
Format: Hardback

Visit the author’s website for a chapter excerpt, the book trailer, and more.

Jo Knowles’ Lessons from a Dead Girl is heartbreaking, terrifying, and compelling all at once. The story of the intense friendship between Leah Greene and her off-and-on best friend, Laine McCarthy, Lessons from a Dead Girl opens with the death of Leah Greene. What follows grips the reader to the end.

Charismatic, beautiful, popular, and rich, Leah has it all, according to Laine. She’s taken aback when Leah declares them best friends for life, and soon their friendship takes a dark turn. Troubled Leah begins sexually abusing Laine, and manipulating her, for reasons that become sadly clear too late. Laine learns Leah’s life is consumed with secrets and hidden demons that soon send Leah spiraling beyond Laine’s grasp.

An incredible debut novel, Jo Knowles’ prose captures each visceral emotion between Leah and Laine, and as Laine watches Leah self-destruct, so do we, with each turn. Lessons from a Dead Girl‘s depth is almost at times, too much, and Knowles handles this well, for each dark incident is juxtaposed with lighter times for Laine. This allows the reader to emotionally connect with the book, both with Leah and Laine, so our emotions are not adhered to one character, but rather the situation and what caused Leah’s secrets, and what lessons she bestows onto Laine, in the aftermath.

I would recommend this book for any individual working with troubled youth, as a way of illustrating the importance of sharing secrets that may harm.

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles is available in hardback now from Candlewick Press.

Copy for review graciously provided by the publisher.

The Summer issue of The Edge of the Forest is up! is a children’s literature monthly. The next issue will come out on September 10th. I contributed to reviews. One for the adorable picture book, The Police Cloud and one for the YA novel Lemonade Mouth.

Soon I’ll have an interview with the author of Lemonade Mouth, Mark Peter Hughes. In the meantime, check out the brimming-with-content The Edge of the Forest and Mark Peter Hughes’ website.