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The Study of Poetry and Literature for Children & Young Adults

Fiction/Fantasy & YA

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowlings
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff


Johnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0689849222


A coming of age novel by Angela Johnson poignantly illustrates the heartache and trials of a 16 year old boy in New York City trying to raise his infant daughter instead of giving her up for adoption.


Told from Bobby’s perspective, strong emotions of bewilderment, joy and sorrow are on the surface of every page as the reader travels with him when he discovers he is going to be a father on 16th birthday, then loses his sweetheart, Nia, to preeclampsia during pregnancy. Nia, in a comatose state is placed in a nursing home and against the advice of the adults; Bobby chooses to take Feather home instead of placing her up for adoption.


As Bobby attempts to navigate the frighteningly lightening fast journey from carefree teen to responsible parent all the while attending high school and dealing with the loss of Nia, the reader feels for him. Bobby’s love for Feather is so strong but the difficulties in the pressures of both school and parenthood are glaringly obvious. While Bobby’s family is supportive, it is clear that this is his choice and he must be the one to forgo sleep when little Feather is awake all night.


Francisca Goldsmith, reviewer for School Library Journal, states, “Bobby is both boy and man, responsible and overwhelmed, near panic and able to plan an intelligent and loving future Feather, the daughter he adores and nurtures.”


Recommended for children age 12 and up, this novel speaks of hope and pain in the rush to grow up quickly.


Johnson, is also author of Toning the Sweep, a Coretta Scott King Award winner, a School Library Journal Best Book, and a Booklist Editor's Choice. Her first novel, Heaven, was also a recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award.


Johnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0689849222


Goldsmith, Francisca. 20033. The First Part Last (book review). School Library Journal. July 1, 2003.


Website, available at


Website, available at


 Rowlings, J.K. 1999. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN: 0439136350. Read by Jim Dale.


J.K. Rowlings scores another hit with her third book in her Harry Potter series. This audiobook is narrated by accomplished English actor and singer Jim Dale. Dale is exceptional as the narrator, in order to successfully create the 134 different voices; he incorporates English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents.


School Library Journal reviewer, Lori Craft states, “Adding Dale’s vocal talents to Rowling’s already well-written and engaging story makes this a quality audiobook worthy of inclusion in all audio collections.”


Unabridged on ten compact discs, the sound quality is clear without static or background noises. Dale’s use of multiple voices is consistent and believable. Each character is lucid and distinguishable. The female characters even sound womanly. The twelve hours of recordings pass quickly.


In this book, Harry is once again in danger, this time from Sirius Black, a feared and possibly mad wizard convicted of multiple murders. Black escapes from the Prison of Azkaban and is heading toward Hogwarts to seek retribution against Harry for causing Voldemort’s downfall. Sirius Black is also accused of betraying Harry’s parents to the evil Voldemort.


The characters are extremely well developed, new ones are introduced and Harry develops and matures as he faces the reality of his parents’ deaths. Exciting battles and turmoil exist on and off the Quidditch field. The Hogwarts classes are ingenious and the new characters interesting and creepy such as the new teacher, Professor Lupin who also happens to be a werewolf.


Mysteries abound including the dementors, guards hired to protect Harry, chill him to the bone with apprehension without affecting the others around them.  


This installment seems to serve a transitional role in the seven book series bringing to life small details mentioned in the first two books. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ends with a gripping finale ensuring more amazing adventures are sure to follow in the next books.


The final paragraph of the book guarantees that the reader will be first in line to buy or borrow the next book, “And grinning broadly at the look of horror on Uncle Vernon’s face, Harry sets off toward the station exit, Hedwig rattling along in front of him, for what looked like a much better summer than the last.”


Rowlings, J.K. 1999. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN: 0439136350


Craft, Lori. 1999.Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (book review). School Library Journal. May 1, 2000.


Website, available at


Website, available at




In a fictional journey of self discovery, Nancy Farmer has a hit in The House of the Scorpion. Young Matteo (Matt) D’Alacran; grows up favored, yet despised and alone as the clone of a wealthy evil man. The setting is a large ranch called Opium on the Mexican-American border.


Clones are used strictly for the harvesting of body parts so that the rich may continue to live as their organs age. Clones normally are deliberately brain damaged at birth and kept as vegetables, Matt is not damaged, he is pampered and raised as a pet but loathed by all humans expect his evil older clone, El Patron, and his nurse and his bodyguard.


Matt’s nurse, Celia, and body guard, Tam Lin, serve as his surrogate parents, always gently leading him on the path of rightousness. He is told early on by Tam Lin, “I’ll tell you this: El Patron has his good side and his bad side. When he was young he made a choice, like a tree does when it decides to grow one way or the other. He grew large and green until he shadowed over the whole forest, but most of his branches are twisted.” 


As he grows Matt remembers this advice and realizes that although he was born the clone of a very evil man it is through choices not genes that one becomes evil.


The book is exciting with many surprising twists and turns as Matt discovers that El Patron achieved wealth through enslaving humans to harvest opium to sell to the rest of the world. The slaves, called eejits, have a chip planted in their brains to remove all free thought. Only capable of following direct commands, they will not even rest or eat if not told to do so.


Upon the death of El Patron, Matt makes a perilous escape only to land in an horrific orphanage. Here he learns the lessons of being a truly good human; teamwork, friendship and the strong should protect the weak. Matt and his friends outsmart the evil overseers and end up reporting the terrible orphanage situation to the proper authorities.


The theme of evil through dictatorship and domination is prevalent throughout the book. Free choice is like a tiny seed in Matt’s brain that grows as he discovers the good in humanity and the absolute corruptible evil of greed and selfishness.


The book climaxes with Matt, at great personal risk, choosing to go back to Opium and attempt to save the people he cares for and free the slaves.


The ending is wrapped up too quickly and much too easily, after risking his life to return, Matt slips easily into the role of new ruler of Opium; making plans to free the slaves, change the cash crop from opium and stop the cloning.


The Hornbook review states that, “Throughout the story she (Farmer) has raised questions about the meaning of life and death and about the nature of one’s responsibility for others, and in so doing, has created a thought-provoking piece of science fiction.”


Nancy Farmer’s, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, was named a Newbery Award Honor Book in 1995, and also honored as a Notable Book and a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and an Honor Book by the Golden Kite Awards, awarded by the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators. The House of the Scorpion won the 2002 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.


Recommended for middle and high school, this book would work will as a companion to Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and is sure to spark interesting discussions on the true meaning of being a responsible human.


Farmer, Nancy. 2002. House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0689852223


Hornbook. 2002. House of the Scorpion (book review). The Hornbook. November 1, 2002.


Website, available at


Website, available at


Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheum Books. ISBN: 0689856393


The cover of the book shows two Japanese-American girls, sisters Katie, 5 and Lynn 9. Lynn is wrapped in a beautiful blue afghan, her favorite color. Lynn, the ideal daughter, is almost too good to be true, she sees the kira-kira (glittering) in everything and shares her upbeat nature with her little sister. The story, told from the young voice of Katie, shares the courage, frustrations and loving moments of a family simply trying to better itself through hard work and commitment.


In 1956, because of the need for better employment, the family moves from a supportive Japanese community in Iowa to the rural town of Chesterfield, Georgia. The girls parents, Mr. and Mrs. Takeshima take jobs in local chicken hatcheries where shifts are long and work conditions are wretched. Workers are not even allowed bathroom breaks. There is no health insurance, sick days or funeral leave.


The children become latch key kids as their parents work double and triple shifts in their quest to save for a house of their own. The children contribute by saving their weekly nickel allowance.


 In addition to Lynn and Katie’s encounters with racial discrimination, the family struggles financially and  Mrs. Takeshima becomes pregnant. Sam, the new child becomes Katie’s responsibility as she was Lynn’s and she treats him with the same love and affection that Lynn showered on her.


A series of unfortunate events occur, Sam’s foot is caught in a trap and needs medical attention, Lynn begins ailing from a mysterious fatiguing illness and Katie must assume more and more responsibilities.


As the family is crushed under the medical bills, workers at the chicken plant push for reform. The Takeshima’s do not join in the labor movement until the end when after losing Lynn, Mrs. Takeshima realizes that the other families are in the same difficult straits.


Recommended for high school and up, this novel is both depressing and uplifting. As Katie journeys toward adulthood, she realizes that she must make sacrifices and can longer be the indulged little sister.


“In the end, she (Katie) tries to honor her sister’s memory through the valuable lessons that Lynn taught her and by always looking for the glitter, the kira-kira in life.” Eileen Kuhl, reviewer for Voice of Youth Advocates.


Kadohata earned the 2005 Newbery for Kira-Kira, this is her second novel. The first The Foating World was also about Japanese-Americans in the 1950s.


Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheum Books. ISBN: 0689856393


Kuhl, Eileen. 2004. Kira-Kira. (book review). Voice of Youth Advocates. August 1, 2004.


Website, available at


Wolff, Virginia Euwer. 1993. Make Lemonade. New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN: 0805022287


Virginia Euwer Wolff uses an unusual structure for her novel Make Lemonade, it is written in rhythmic prose arranged in open verse in the voice of 14 year old LaVaughn. This style of writing draws the reader into the nitty gritty of the story. The chapters are divided by a picture of a little sticky handprint and this is also featured on the back cover. The front cover simply has a pitcher of lemonade, a pot of dirt with lemons seeds and a lemon.


“The form invites readers to drop some preconceptions about novels, and they will find the plot and characters riveting. Make Lemonade is a triumphant, outstanding story,” states School Library Journal book reviewer Carolyn Noah.


The reader is right there in the filthy squalid apartment of Jolly, a 17 year old single mother who fiercely loves her two small children and is deathly afraid of “Welfare” because in her frightening past she has witnessed it taking children from their families. The setting could be any city and housing project, the girls any two teenagers. Focused more on the verse than description, the story tells the struggles of the teens to get out of poverty.


The barely literate Jolly is employed and enlists the services of 14 year old LaVaughn to babysit Jeremy and Jilly while she is at work. Fired from her job when she refuses to succumb to her boss’s sexual advances, life quickly gets more difficult as money runs out to pay for basics much less the babysitter. LaVaughn finds that this isn’t just a babysitting job; she really loves this family and wants to see them succeed.


Hearing her mother’s advice running through her head that Jolly needs to take hold of her bootstraps and pull herself up, she gently but firmly pushes Jolly to enroll in school in a mother’s program with childcare provided.


“Bootstraps go in 2 directions,

either up or down.

You choose

and you remember you chose.”


The theme of “make lemonade when life deals you lemons” runs through the book, Jolly discovers it when told a story in Self Esteem class in school about a poor blind widow woman who arrives home to her hungry children with a lemon instead of an orange. She makes lemonade.  This young mother, raised in foster homes and then homeless, finds hope in this story. Jolly begins to see that opportunity will visit but not always as in the guise requested and it is up to the recipient to “make lemonade.” Recommended for middle school and up, this book is an affirmation of human spirit and dignity.


Stephanie Zvirin, reviewer for Booklist sums up the book, “At once disturbing and uplifting, this finely nuanced, touching portrait proudly affirms our ability to reach beyond ourselves and out to one another.”


Virginia Euwer Wolff’s  first novel for teens, Probably Still Nick Sawansen, is regarded as one of the 100 Best of the Best Books for Young Adults published between 1967 and 1992.  The sequel to Make Lemonade, True Believer, won the National Book Award.


Wolff, Virginia Euwer. 1993. Make Lemonade. New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN: 0805022287


Noah, Caroylyn. 1993. Make Lemonade (book review). School Library Journal. July 1, 1993.


Zvirin, Stephanie. 1993. Make Lemonade (book review). Booklist. July 1, 1993.


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