Ellen Jennings

Ellen Jennings

 


Ellen Jennings works at Cook Library as a Readers’ Advisor and the Teen Services Coordinator. When she’s not working she can be found reading, researching her genealogy,  walking at Independence Grove or taking care of her family. Of the many  jobs she's had, working at Cook Library is definitely her favorite because every day she gets to learn something new.

 

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For adults who are interested in reading some great Young Adult books, I have put together a list of some of the best books by the best authors writing YA. I know that some people’s favorite books and authors may not be on this list, but I had to draw the line somewhere. I tried to select a list which included several different  titles in several genres, and have intentionally left out anything with sparkly vampires or zombies.Click on the title to check our catalog.

 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_johngreen_20140613-181938_1.jpgRecently, Slate columnist Ruth Graham suggested that we adults who read young adult literature ought to be embarrassed for doing so. She shamed us grown-ups who enjoyed John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for stooping to read this simplistic, immature and maudlin piece of escapist tripe. And, apparently because she didn’t enjoy TFIOS, she extends her condemnation to include any adult who reads any YA. According to Graham, YA “books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple ... These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.” Wow.

Ms. Graham does not mention any other YA titles she might have read recently, so I have to assume that her actual experience reading YA literature is limited to what her own adult friends are talking about. To Graham’s annoyance, many of them are enjoying YA books and she thought we all needed to be scolded and set right.  I am going to suggest that there are several very good reasons for adults to read YA literature these days -- including Ms. Graham.

b2ap3_thumbnail_judyblumesm_20140613-182348_1.jpgFirst, a definition and a clarification. YA literature is comprised of those books written specifically for teens between the ages of 12 and 17 and is a relatively new marketing category. Judy Blume is the acknowledged godmother of this form and her groundbreaking novel Forever, which deals openly with teen sexuality and pregnancy, was first published in 1975. YA is NOT a genre, like mystery, romance or science fiction are genres. YA contains all genres, including sci fi, fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror and romance. YA literature has become widely known since Harry Potter and even more popular since the Twilight and Divergent series. Recently TFIOS has taken off and there will be more to come as many adult authors jump on the YA bandwagon.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_elockhart.jpgCady, Johnny, Mirren and Gat -- the Liars -- were four inseparable teens who spent every idyllic summer together since they were 8 on Grandpa Sinclair’s private island off Cape Cod. Each family had a separate home and dinners were served every evening after cocktails by their grandparents’ cook at the big house. Cady is the beloved granddaughter of the proud and wealthy patriarch and she is reminded regularly to maintain a stiff upper lip because she is one of ‘the’ Sinclairs, whose ancestors were some of the first settlers in New England. World travel and the Ivy League are assumed to follow high school. Life was good.

Yet, two summers earlier, known to the family as Summer 15, Cady had been found one evening
b2ap3_thumbnail_wewereliarsbig.jpgfloating in her underwear on one of the island’s private beaches, and is still unable to remember why she had been there in the first place. A traumatic brain injury is the cause of her memory loss and of her debilitating migraine headaches, according to the myriad of  doctors Cady has seen since. As much as she tries, Cady cannot remember anything about Summer 15 or what had caused her accident. Now it’s Summer 17 and Cady will be going back to the island, hoping that being there again with the rest of the Liars will help her
remember her accident and perhaps help her heal.

The story of Cady and her family is full of twists and turns, unreliable narrators and is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Cady is a strong yet wounded character and the reader goes along for the ride as she describes the summers her family spent together and feels Cady’s frustrations as she tries so hard to remember what caused her accident. She tries to get answers from others who were there, but her extended family is having serious problems of their own, and so she withdraws into her pain and continues to puzzle over the events of Summer 15. As Cady begins to remember bits and pieces, the reader also begins to realize what really happened that night.

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This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. John Green with Heather Thompson, Heather Beverley and Ellen Jennings.

Don’t be too jealous … last week two of my colleagues and I were lucky enough to snag tickets to hear John Green deliver the Zena Sutherland Lecture entitled “Does YA Mean Anything Anymore? Genre in a Digitized World” at Chicago Public Library. Sound boring? Then, you don’t know John Green very well.

Who’s John Green, you ask?? Only the hottest YA author right now and he’s only going to get more famous in the next few weeks. Just ask any teen about The Fault in Our Stars. Quick background for newbies: John Green has been writing books for young adults since 2006 when Looking for Alaska was published. That book was read by just a few, according to Green,  until it won the ALA’s  Printz Award for “exemplifying literary excellence in young adult fiction.” His next three books sold well enough and won some awards, but with the 2012 publication of The Fault in Our Stars and its movie which will be released in June, John Green has become a YA god and we cannot keep any of his books on our shelves at Cook Park or Aspen Drive Libraries. Even adults are discovering his magic.

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Those of us who grew up during the Cold War learned of a dark and dangerous Soviet Empire led by power-hungry and slightly crazy rulers who had their fingers poised above the red button threatening to unleash nuclear missiles at the slightest provocation. They were the ‘other’ superpower in world politics who beat us in the race to space and in school we practiced what to do in case they attacked us with a nuclear bomb by hiding under our desks.
 
Therefore, when I visited Russia in March of 1989 as a chaperone to a group of high school students, I was shocked at what I saw and learned about the people of Russia. While the Soviet government was threatening the US with mutually assured destruction in the 1960s, the people of Russia were still trying to recover from their brutal experiences at the Eastern front of WWII where they lost almost 25 million people, mostly civilians. It felt to me like a Third World country in many ways, not the threatening superpower of the American Cold War propaganda. Ever since that 1989 visit, I have been intrigued by Russia, her history and her people.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_houseofspecialpurpose.jpgThis past winter as  the Olympics were being held in Sochi, I revisited Russia in my reading. John Boyne’s novel, The House of Special Purpose, caught my attention because it featured the czar’s Winter Palace, now the world class art museum known as The Hermitage which we visited in 1989. In The House of Special Purpose, the reader experiences the contrast between the poverty-stricken lives of the Russian peasants and their powerful czars through the eyes of the main character, Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev, who is randomly plucked from his poor village to live and work for the czar’s family. As Georgy grows to manhood in the service of the Czar’s family, he and the reader get to know Rasputin and the family of Nicolas and Alexandra. This is also a heart-breaking love story spanning several decades, told in a series of flashbacks by Georgy as he contemplates a return visit to the Russia he and his beloved wife escaped during the Russian Revolution. This is a lovely  book for those interested a sweeping love story set in revolutionary Russia,  as long as they aren’t bothered by some serious artistic license taken by the author.
 
Another improbable love story set in war-torn Russia is The Madonnas of Leningrad  by Debra Dean. Also told in a series b2ap3_thumbnail_madonnasofleningrad.jpgof flashbacks, this book tells the story of the Marina who was a tour guide at the Hermitage when the Germans surrounded and attacked the city for over three years. Her job then was to remove and memorize where she stored  the invaluable Madonna paintings in the lower level of the museum for safekeeping, a dangerous job as bombs fell all around them and food supplies dwindled to nothing. When I visited St. Petersburg, we toured Piskaryov Memorial Cemetery, now a memorial to the 470,000 civilian and 100,000 soldiers, where the victims of the Seige are buried in mass graves. The Madonnas of Leningrad helped me begin to understand what life was like during the three-year long Siege for those who lived through it and made me think about the strength and courage of the Russian people who survived.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_annakarenina.jpgFinally this winter, I revisited Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, after first reading this book about 30 years earlier. The first time I read this book, I was swept up by Anna’s courageous attempt to claim love for herself outside a loveless marriage. This time, I was more interested in the politics and lifestyle of Anna and the other characters of the tsarist high society. For them, the recently freed peasants, were from another world completely and their interactions were proscribed by propriety. Tolstoy’s genius, for me anyway, is his ability to bring his characters to life. I felt Anna’s pain and understood in a way I couldn’t thirty years early, why hers was a doomed romance. If a reader is a bit leery of such a huge novel or intimidated by trying to remember those Russian names, I would recommend this book on audio.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_catherinethegreat.jpgSomeday, I would love to return to Russia and re-visit its beautiful museums and churches. In the meantime, reading about her remarkable people has been quite satisfying. Next I’m planning to listen to Robert Massie’s biography Catherine the Great---A Portrait of a Woman.
 
Ellen Jennings, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_fanny.jpgI grew up reading and loving poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew he'd written the books Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but I knew nothing about the man himself or the source of his wild adventure stories.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (author of Loving Frank)  is about the incredible relationship between R.L. Stevenson and his wife, Fanny de Grift Osbourne, an American divorcee who he met in France in 1875. He was in France to escape his Scottish family's pressures to become a lawyer and to drink with his young artist friends. She was in France, ostensibly to study art, but really to escape her philandering husband. Such travel was an acceptable form of marital separation in her San Francisco social class.

Despite their almost ten-year age difference and her marital status, they were drawn to each other and ultimately overcame the many obstacles which kept them apart and were married.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_signatureofallthings_20140218-171543_1.jpgBorn in 1800, brilliant and curious Alma Whittaker follows in her father’s footsteps into the field of botany, and along with her character, this reader was swept through Philadelphia, the Netherlands and Tahiti during a tumultuous period of history in which many old assumptions about God, nature and humanity were being questioned.

Her ambitious father, who had been born poor in London, educated his daughters with tutors and encouraged Alma to pursue her growing interest in the plants and herbs in the family’s greenhouses and his own substantial library. He also created a prosperous international business importing horticulture in Philadelphia and surrounded himself and his family with other wealthy businessmen who fueled Alma’s desire to learn as much as she could about her field and to one day, become an expert in her field. Had she been born male, Alma might have been recognized as a success.

The Signature of All Things really is a character study of Alma Whittaker, a woman born into wealth and gifted with intellectual prowess, who nevertheless was stymied by the mores of her day. It’s also a story ofb2ap3_thumbnail_elizabethgilbertsm_20140218-172046_1.jpg
a woman’s passionate and unrequited love who ultimately comes to terms with her life and finds the answers to the questions she’d been asking all her life.

What a book! I must admit, I was not a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier book, Eat, Pray, Love, and its self-indulgent navel-gazing and facile answers to big questions. This tome grapples with huge issues -- creationism vs evolution, the source of altruism, and the nature of love -- and guides the reader to think about these issues on a personal level through Alma Whittaker.

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After 8-year-old Vivian's Irish immigrant family died in the tenements of New York City in 1929, she is put on a trainload of other orphans by the Children's Aid Society and taken out West to Iowa, Minnesota and other western states. At various small town depots, the children were lined up and selected by farmers' and families who needed an extra pair of hands to help out.

In Christina Baker Kline's novel The Orphan Train, young Vivian bounced from orphantrainlarge.jpgone poor and desperate family to another, until one of the adults suggests she could provide him something more than her household labor. She escapes. In alternate chapters, the reader meets Molly Ayres, an unhappy teen living in a foster home, who must serve community service hours by cleaning out the attic of an elderly woman.

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"Who was it that said coincidence was just God's way of remaining anonymous?"

From the beginning of this book, when he survives a bombing in a New York art museum that kills his mother, Theo Decker is adrift in the world. He is anchored only by the one thing he took with him from the wreckage of the bombing, a small, yet world famous, painting of a goldfinch which he hides and protects almost religiously. The bombing and its aftermath haunt Theo for the rest of his life and the longer he keeps the painting, the more significance it has for him. After his mother's death, 16 year-old Theo bounces between the homes of old friends and new acquaintances until he lands in Las Vegas with his ne'er-do-well father and his sleazy girlfriend. As a mother, I was bothered by his reckless lifestyle during this part of the book, but Theo and his new sidekick Boris, managed to coast through in a drug and alcohol-induced stupor, with few serious consequences. When a debt collector comes looking for his father with a baseball bat, Theo rushes back to his safer friends in New York.
I kept waiting for Theo to grow up and take charge of his life, and he does eventually, but not quite soon enough for me. I enjoyed this book for Theo's journey and the caring people he met along the way. They might not have been traditional caregivers, but they helped guide lost Theo.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this book might have been a slog, but I was entirely emotionally engaged. I loved this book even though sometimes I wanted to yell at the main character to just grow up, already.
I would recommend this book to readers who aren't afraid of long books and those who appreciate exquisite writing and sophisticated character development. Although it's probably too long for most book clubs, there are plenty of ideas to talk about.     

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I remember being a teen in love and being told dismissively by the adults in my life, that these feelings were just 'puppy love'. Rainbow Rowell has written a book that perfectly captures the intense, almost exquisitely painful feelings of a teen's first true love and she doesn't patronize nor dismiss these very real feelings. Neither does she provide easy answers for Eleanor and Park, two teens who meet on the school bus and initially bond over comic books and music. Both are targets for the high school's bullies and struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of almost daily taunts,threats and attacks. Both have built emotional armor to protect themselves, yet as they slowly get to know and trust each other they gradually let down this guard and reveal their true selves. Eleanor's home situation is awful and as he realizes just how awful it is, Park wants to help. But the more he tries to help, the worse it becomes.
This is a powerful and empowering book. Most of the adults in Eleanor's life are unable, unwilling or just too scared to acknowledge let alone face, the trouble she is in. Rainbow Rowell recognizes that teens' emotions are quite real and that often they are able to act on those emotions to solve problems that adults pretend don't exist.
I highly recommend this book for teens and adults who like a realistic love story with a realistic and satisfying conclusion.

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I read The Golem and the Jinni in large part because the author grew up in Libertyville and went to Carleton College, my own alma mater. I was also intrigued by the premise and have always enjoyed historical fiction and fantasy.

Helene Wecker tells the story of two non-human creatures, a golem and a jinni who both look human, and who have inadvertently ended up in New York City at the turn of the last century. Their personal backstories and folk stories from their homelands are seamlessly intertwined with their struggles in their strange new world.

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In my two previous entries,  I’ve talked about two of Readers’ Advisor guru  Nancy Pearl’s Doorways into fiction,  Story and Character. Pearl believes that readers will often seek out books according to their preferred Doorway. Those who prefer story often look for fast-paced stories or books they  just cannot put down. Readers who are drawn to character as their Doorway like well-drawn characters who they feel as if they get to know them as they read the book.


 

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When someone comes to the FMM desk seeking out recommendations for a good book, we try to get an idea of what that reader is looking for by asking about other books he or she has enjoyed. With a few quick questions, we can get some clues about what sort of Doorway that reader prefers to use and sort of book the patron is in the mood that day to read.

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How to Find Your Next Favorite Book

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