Little Brother (2008), by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother plays to one of my worst fears, even a phobia: the abuse of power by petty officials. Border crossings are particularly troubling for me, as for years I was exactly the sort of person into whose backpack less-reputable individuals might slip something, to be reclaimed on the other side. I am not usually paranoid, but I must admit to repeated anxiety every time we approached a border or airport security in our years travelling around Europe and Asia.  So imagine my response to the opening scenes of Little Brother, in which Marcus and his friends are arrested as terrorists, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cory Doctorow’s intent of causing the reader to question the balance of power in post-9/11 America was thus particularly effective for me. I almost put the book down, so worried was I of where the novel might take me. Then I remembered I have read all of Robert Cormier’s novels (one after another—do that and try to avoid depression and trauma), how bad could it get? I am so glad I persevered, as Doctorow’s protagonist is a brilliantly constructed example of my favourite type of teen geek, one who understands his own ability with technology—the power of the future—and yet is young and naïve enough not to understand fully the political powers that control his reality. He is a combination of so many real teens and the rarer breed: young hot-shot techno-geeks. His type—and thus his character—fascinates me.

Marcus (aka M1K3Y in 1337-speak) takes on the American Department of Homeland Security and wins: a situation that should not be possible and in most narrative instances would not be plausible. Doctorow, however, constructs his plot carefully, and we believe in Marcus’s ability to orchestrate the pranks he does, as well as the governmental responses to them. Power in the novel shifts back and forth between the teen rebels and the DHS until finally Marcus realizes the severity of what he has started, the degree to which others are suffering for his cause. The ideological aspects of his decisions are not glossed over; he has to seriously consider his own motivations, what he is asking of those around him as well as supporters he has never met. In the end, he does what I always want teen protagonists to do at such times, but so few: he goes to sympathetic adults for advice and assistance. Little Brother is thus not merely about teenaged power wielded against the adult world, as so many YA novels are, but about the conscious activism of individuals with integrity against corruption and the abuse of power. By making Marcus’s situation a part of a greater ideological battle, Doctorow raised the bar for YA literature. I’m not saying Little Brother is unique in this—Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, and Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted spring to mind—but it seems that YA literature tends toward the self-absorbed teen perspective in a way that is both present and yet transcended in Little Brother.

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I Owe You One (2011), by Natalie Hyde

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults. It appears in volume 17.2.

I Own You One

“How does a guy go about paying back a life debt anyway? And what if it involves a transmission tower, an ice-cream truck, and a few sticks of dynamite?”  How could any young reader resist a book whose back cover asks this question?  I Owe You One lives up to expectations, providing a fun-filled “house-that-jack-built” story of connections, both logistical and emotional.  Wes, the protagonist, builds on his dead father’s lessons of respect and honour, and learns the value of community and giving. The sacrifice he makes to help the old woman—once an adventurous ski-racer—who saved his life, and to whom he feels he owes a “life debt,” ultimately is about love and respect, not the “one” he feels he “owes” her.
It is seldom that a text written simply, for younger readers, makes me both giggle and tear up.  Natalie Hyde has created characters with humourous traits, realistic flaws, and yet a sense of integrity and community that restore one’s faith in people.  There is sufficient suspense, and juvenile pranks, to grip young readers’ imaginations, yet the ethical and moral code that Wes is striving to adhere to does not come across as didactic or incongruous. The balance is effective, resulting in a text that is as rewarding to give to a child as it will be for the child to read.

Warp Speed (2011), by Lisa Yee

I must say, I almost put this one down… but there was a delightful inscription to a friend of mine from the author, whom he actually knows. So I persevered. Thank goodness.  What initially put me off was how successfully Lisa Yee manages to characterize her Grade 7 male characters Marley and “Ramen.” I thought to myself, I don’t really like these kids: they are rude, inconsiderate, self-centred, argue over inane things like the value of Star Wars over Star Trek, and have a rude sense of humour. Then I remembered that she was in fact expressing the world from their point of view. And I sought in the depths of my memory for the boys I knew in Grade 7, and thought about my Grade 7 daughter’s classmates, and realized how brilliantly Yee has depicted her boys.  And so I read on, and as I read, the story grew more and more interesting, and the characters’ actions and reactions became more complex and troubled as I began to see the world more fully through the eyes of relatively normal Grade 7 students.

Marley is a Trekkie; Ramen is a Star Wars fan; their new classmate and friend, Max (who turns out to be a girl, although neither initially realizes this, to their chagrin and her annoyance), likes Batman.  The three are members of an AV Club and about as geeky—and subsequently outcast—as that sounds. But Marley is also the target of systematic bullying by two different factions in the school, having stood up to “the Gorn” in defense of Ramen earlier in their school career. The bullying seems excessive, but what would I know, being a parent? The scene Yee creates of the PTA trying to come up with ways to actively curb bullying are both ludicrous and very real. Marley’s opinion—that there is nothing adults can do by talking to bullies—is for the most part borne out by both Yee’s novel and students’ reality. Yet in a pivotal scene towards the end of the novel, when Marley has had enough, and just refuses to take any more, it is his call to the bystanders to become involved, to act on the PTA’s slogan—“be a buddy, not a bully”—that finally tips the scales in Marley’s—and the other victims’—favour.

The plot itself is, well, almost non-existent… if you are expecting a quest, or a mystery, or any major event.  But the little happenings in Marley’s world are eventful enough for him, and the reader, and are carefully logged in his “Captain’s Log”; a (to the reader, humorous) synopsis of his day is included, using Star Trek-style language, at the end of each chapter. His life involves running from bullies, and the track coach notices that he is fast. Really fast. He eventually tries out for track, and makes the team, but at the expense of his relationship with his friends in geekdom. The choices he ultimately makes regarding track team, being popular versus being himself, and what to do with bullies will resonate strongly with Grade 7 students throughout North America.

Leviathan (2009), by Scott Westerfeld

In honour of my daughter’s 13th birthday today, I thought I should post a review of a book she loves. Then I read through my list and realized that I haven’t reviewed most of the books both she and I have read. Now I will have to go back and read them again to do them justice. In fact, I intend to reread Westerfeld’s “th” series—Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath—in order to present a more meaningful analysis of this series, which does so much for the steampunk sub-genre as well as presenting a brilliant alternative historical account of World War One. I know from talking to students (and Westerfeld himself) that the series is a fabulous introduction for students interested in world history. I firmly believe in the power of books not only to entertain and amaze, but also to entice young readers to question the world around them in important ways. Westerfeld’s text—all of them—do this admirably.

Leviathan

Westerfeld’s combination of steampunk and biological fantasy functions to create an interesting alternative history of World War I.  From the adult perspective, it will certainly engage young readers in European history; from a less pragmatic perspective it is one of the more gripping books for older child readers that I have encountered in a while.  It takes the archaic setting of Philip Reeve’s Larklight and increases the stakes.  Where Larklight is a romp, Leviathan—and Behemoth and Goliath that follow—concern life and death struggles; serious dilemmas concerning faithfulness, duty, friendship, and honour; questions of individual rights in the face of societal and national needs; and a perspicacious loris…
In terms of plot, Westerfeld pits the Darwinists (Britain and her allies) against the steampunk Clankers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  The protagonists are placed in a complicated relationship, Alek being the son of the murdered Archduke Ferdinand and Deryl being a commoner in the British Air Force: a girl, masquerading as a boy to fulfill her dream of flying in one of the Darwinist creations: the biological ecosystem that is the airship Leviathan.  In Leviathan, we meet the protagonists in their separate lives; as they move towards one another and we learn their personalities, Europe moves towards war and we learn the nuances of Westerfeld’s alternate historical setting.