Smart Teen Romances May 29, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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As I think back on YA romances that got lots of buzz in the past few years, three titles stand out as sharing some of the same book DNA. While each of these stories are definitely unique and distinct, I think their characters and relationships share some particular qualities that make them standouts in the crowded YA romance field. Each of these books could have been a cliche, but strong characters (especially the girls) and respectful relationships bring their stories to life beyond tired stereotypes.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Anna and the French Kiss is the closest to a conventional romance of these three titles. Set in a boarding school in Paris, the story is narrated by Anna, a new senior who falls in love with the handsome and charming Etienne St. Clair and endures a year of missed signals and awkward conversations along with moments of amazing connection. Always honest with herself about her feelings, Anna struggles to do the right thing, declaring that “I want to be his friend, not another stupid girl holding out for something that will never happen.” Unfortunately when you’re getting used to a new country, new school and new friends, there is plenty of room for things to get lost in translation. St. Clair, while charming, smart and good-looking, also makes bad choices and struggles to take risks, making him (slightly) more believable to the reader. More than anything, I think it is the pairing of Anna’s need to take risks and let St. Clair know of her feelings with her need to take risks and experience a new city and culture that truly bring this book to life.
As plenty of other reviewers have pointed out, this is a cancer book, but not, in the words of its narrator Hazel Grace “…a cancer book, because cancer books suck.” Still, the presence of terminal illness gives the story weight, even if the snark and sarcasm of the protagonists leaven it with humor. Throughout last year’s awards season, several people made the objection that the cancer parts of the book felt manipulative. Perhaps this is true. But without the illness, it is unlikely we would hear so many fierce, philosophical observations from Hazel Grace and Augustus, which would be a pity. It would just be a sappy story with a too-perfect guy who happens to have cancer. From Hazel’s initial advice to Augustus to avoid thinking about oblivion, to the Dutch author Van Houten’s rants about infinity, to the title’s reference to the shortcomings of Shakespeare it is their insights into life and love that set this YA couple apart.
If Anna and the French Kiss is the ‘could have been just a sappy love story’ and The Fault in Our Stars is the ‘could have been just a tear-jerker’ then Eleanor and Park is the ‘could have been just a problem book’. Plenty of its elements–abusive stepparent, school bullies, outsider protagonist–are staples of teen realism. Without ignoring the reality that all these problems contribute to, Rowell manages to focus our attention on the evolution of the relationship between Eleanor and Park. It’s not an easy evolution, with the usual awkwardness of physical boundaries, emotional anxieties and secrets too painful to share. Like Anna and Etienne, they both struggle to do the right thing. Like Hazel Grace and Augustus, both protagonists are confirmed nerds of their era, with the comic series’ X-men and Watchmen, as well as the bands Joy Division and the The Smiths all discussed and appreciated. “You’re not the Han Solo in this relationship you know” Park tells Eleanor at one point. Maybe not, but like all great anti-heroes, these two teenagers battle their unlucky circumstances and come out the stronger for it.
Ballet Books for Maria Tallchief May 25, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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It seems incredible that I have not written about ballet books yet on this blog. Along with dolls and mice, ballet was a major theme of my favorite reads as a kid (until I became a teen and turned to magic, swords and mythology). When I heard that ballerina Maria Tallchief had passed away, it seemed like a good moment to pay tribute by remembering some of the books where I first encountered her as one of my dance heroes, as well as other titles that fueled my dreams of becoming a ballerina.
To Dance, To Dream by Maxine Drury
I have no idea where I got this book; probably a yard sale or one of the Arlington library book sales. For at least a year around age 9, I kept it in my ballet bag to read in the car on the way to my classes as a motivation. I loved reading about the different dancers in different centuries and countries, including such luminaries as Marie Taglioni and Margot Fonteyn, as well as lesser-known figures such as Marie Salle, Ted Shawn and La Argentina. The format of each chapter, with a short imagined dialogue between characters at the beginning and then the biography of the dancer is engaging, with just enough detail to keep it exciting but not overwhelming. The only big weakness is that the historical time periods often blend together and the discussions between characters in the 1700’s don’t sound terribly different from those in the 1900’s, making it easy to forget the huge differences in the lives between dancers. This, however is a quibble. I would recommend this book to any ballet-obsessed elementary age kid.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
This book has come up in conversations between me and Ana on the blog already. Our mother introduced us to Streatfeild’s work early and my favorite book was always this first title, with the three sisters who have very different ambitions on and off the stage. Pauline, Petrova and Posy are orphans, and when their guardian disappears, leaving them without much money, they are sent to an Academy of Dancing to learn to earn a living. The descriptions of backstage life for child performers in the 20’s are fascinating and all three girls are determined, strong heroines who make their own decisions and take control of their lives as they grow up. This is still a great choice for any reader interested in historical fiction or the performing arts.
Magic Slippers by Gilda Berger
My parents gave me this when I first started dancing and it brought to life the many classical and romantic ballets that I had never (and still haven’t) seen live. From the dreamy tales of the nineteenth century like La Sylphide to later twentieth century works such as Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet each is told in a simple style with plenty of dialogue. The pictures help flesh out the characters, although they are of the characters, rather than dancers. While this title is out of print, there are other collections available that cover many of the same ballets. The sad, romantic stories gave me many ideas for my own games as a child and helped me understand references in other ballet books as well.
Samantha on Stage by Susan Clement Farrar
While I read Ballet Shoes to experience a life entirely unlike my own, Samantha from this story easily could have been me or one of my friends. Set in a small Connecticut town near New York, Samantha is one of the best dancers in her ballet class. When a new girl arrives from Russia with much stronger skills, she has to learn to cope with feelings of jealousy as well as understand what it means to really be dedicated to your art. One of the things I love about this book is that the heroine has to deal with failure. So many ballet stories have the protagonist succeeding without experiencing struggle. I also love that what could have been a mean girl/snobbery story is instead a tale of friendship growing along with dancing skill. While the lack of technology and a few other references date this slightly, it still reads as relevant and fun for dancers today.
Listen to the Nightingale by Rumer Godden
Samantha is a character I could relate to directly as a kid. Lottie Tew, on the other hand, had a life that was completely exotic and alien to me. One of two books by Godden set at the Queen’s Chase Ballet School (the other is the slightly more obscure Thursday’s Child) Listen to the Nightingale follows Lottie from the small theater Holbeins to the grand and elegant world of Queen’s Chase. Along the way she has cope with her poverty, false friends, annoying boys and her love for a small dog named Prince. In some ways this title is closer to a boarding school story than a dance story, with more details about midnight feasts and uniforms than dancing steps. However, Lottie’s final triumph in a brand-new ballet is everything a stage-struck reader could wish for.
Author Visits! May 21, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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Just a couple of photos here from recent author visits at Politics and Prose, one of the other independent bookstores here in DC. They are probably the most high-profile independent, regularly hosting people like Michael Pollan and Maya Angelou, as well as political figures such as the Clintons and Mrs. Obama. As well as evening events for the general public, they offer morning visits for local schools, which anyone can sit in on. This has been a great way for me to catch authors like the Steads, who I wouldn’t meet otherwise.
Charles Vess is, along with Arthur Rackham, one of the few illustrators I know who I believe sees fairies in the same way that I do. From his collection The Books of Ballads, to his gorgeous Oberon and Titania in the ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ of Sandman, Vess excels at depicting lush nature scenes and mischievous fantasy characters. He generously shared artwork from his latest middle-grade project The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint and patiently listened to a bunch of boisterous fourth graders give ideas for his sketchpad. He gamely created many of them, from the valiant (dragons and griffins) to the slightly absurd (a duck and a flying hot dog).
I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity a few days later to meet Elizabeth Wein, the author of what was hands-down my favorite YA book of last year, Code Name Verity. Wein, who lives in Scotland and is a pilot and a knitter, to say nothing of a Phd in Folklore, was an entirely delightful speaker, who shared several artifacts that she used as research (a facsimile of Pilot’s Notes truly brought Maddie’s story to life) including a silk map scarf that she modeled and mittens that she had made herself. She really does talk a lot like Verity in the novel, with literary references galore like a fountain of words. Wein also discussed several of her favorite books–apparently she considers everything she writes to be in some way a reflection of A Little Princess, which I can start to see being true for CNV. When I got my book signed, I asked if she had read the Hilary McKay sequel to A Little Princess, called Wishing for Tomorrow, which led to a quick discussion on how much we love McKay’s Casson family series and that she had sent an ARC of her latest to Wein’s daughter. There really is nothing better than learning that your favorite author is just as much of a fangirl as you are. I can’t wait to read Wein’s new book coming out in September, Rose Under Fire.
F&G’S! Spring Edition May 17, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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It’s been over two months since I last did a post on F&Gs (bookseller speak for ‘Folds and Gathers,’ the preview copies of picture books), so clearly now is the time to get excited about new picture books coming our way. Here are some of the delicious goodies you can expect to see on library and bookstore shelves in a few months.
With bold photographs and an exhaustive list of types, Sayre introduces the reader to many delicious nuts–the seeds we eat. From a photo of coconut that had my mouth watering to close-ups of rice and beans that made me want to stick my hand into the pictures, Sayre draws the reader in with engaging visuals along with short, punchy text. Great for use as an intro to a lesson on seeds or food, with excellent additional information at the back, including on nut allergies.
As any three-year old will tell you, there can never be too many books about planes. George Ella Lyon starts off with an overview of planes and their various parts, going through a list of fun words that little ones will quickly learn to recite along with the reader. From there Ms. Lyon details the different kinds of planes out there and the various jobs they can do. She finishes with a look at the experience of riding in a plane from take-off to landing, making this a good choice for parents who are preparing a child for his or her first flight.
My first thought after finishing this book was that its protagonist would have been good friends with Miss Rumphius. Based on a true story, it chronicles the life of Kate Sessions, who used her scientific skills and love of plants to transform the gardens of dry San Diego in the early part of the 20th century. With a text punctuated by short, affirmative sentences and illustrations by Jill McElmurry that harken back to Barbara Cooney, this is a great addition to the many wonderful picture book biographies out there for young scientists.
Click, Clack, Boo! by Doreen Cronin & Betsy Lewin
There can never be too many Halloween books. Even before Neil Gaiman started his tradition of All Hallows Read, I was stockpiling a set of scary and not-so-scary books to read to my class each year. I am slightly sad that I will not have a group of eager third graders giggling at this new title, which reunites the beloved characters of the Click Clack Moo farm for a Halloween party. Even Farmer Brown, who hates Halloween, eventually gets in on the fun.
This is a great addition to any artist or art teacher’s library. Winter, who has profiled many other artists in her books, turns to Henri Matisse here, focusing on the end of his life and his beautiful paper cutouts. Smaller paintings that show his earliest artistic efforts evolve into multi-page spreads as Matisse, stuck in bed or a wheelchair finds new ways to satisfy his imagination. A book that is as inspiring as it is beautiful.
What started out as a sweet story about a little bunny’s birthday has turned into a tale of Evil Plans, agents and megatron bombs thanks to the doodling of an unnamed reader (I suspect Mr. Barnett, as Mr. Scieszka is old enough to know better. Then again, maybe not.) The many crossed out words, additional sentences and word bubbles make this a bit hard to decipher at times, but I’m sure kids will love it. They may need to explain to their parents however that “Really, the book came like that!”
Anything by Ashley Bryan is a treat for both eyes and ears. This new story is text-heavy for a picture book, but clever rhymes and otomotopeia keep the reader engaged. Bryan’s usual bright colors and thick brushstrokes give us a mischievous hero whose run-ins with various giants teach him the meaning of fear. Fortunately, there is Grandma to make sure everything turns out ok in the end.
Baby Bear sees Blue was one of the most stunning picture books of 2012, and this is a more than worthy follow-up. As Mama Bear patiently explains each sound and sensation, Baby Bear counts the animals of the forest around him, making this a perfect read-aloud for the classroom as well as for bedtime.
Did you ever wonder what Santa’s early childhood was like? Turns out the Claus family wasn’t that happy with their life at the North Pole. It makes sense–endless snow, lots of chores, too many children. Doesn’t Florida sounds like a much better place? According to this new book by Jon Agee, yes, except for the youngest child, whose ability to direct reindeer and elves meant that he was willing to stick around. This is a laugh-out-loud picture book perfect for the holidays or any time of year.
I Love Little Books May 13, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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Everyone knows the old adage about not judging a book by it’s cover. But what about judging one by it’s size?
I have always had a bias towards small things. From toys (dollhouses) to pets (mice), I was fascinated by all things miniature as a kid. This eventually had a rather profound effect on my bookshelf, which was often difficult to tell apart from my doll’s bookshelf. In no particular order, here are some of the little books that I loved as a kid, most of which are still in print and just as fascinating to kids today.
The venerable author-illustrator of Peter Rabbit created all her books in a size appropriate for children’s small hands, making her detailed watercolors that much more delightful for the reader. One of my favorites as a child was The Tailor of Gloucester, with it’s tiny embroidery and china patterns, to say nothing of the delicate mice characters. The other was The Pie and the Patty Pan, which includes lots of food and descriptions of milk and butter, various pies and pie dishes, as well as odd unfamiliar rooms such as the larder. Even now, I am still curious as to what a patty pan looks like, as I don’t think I have ever seen a real one!
This series was possibly the first time I wrote my name in my books (can’t say it was the first time I wrote in books, as a copy of Angelina Ballerina proves otherwise) and the seven titles show my handwriting getting steadily more legible from age 4 to about 13. Jill Barklem’s community of mice who live in the hedgerows of England has remained a favorite world even as I moved on to Middle-Earth and Tortall. Named for the seasons, the original four books are Spring Story, Summer Story, Autumn Story and Winter Story. Subsequent titles focus on journeys to the ocean (Sea Story) and the mountains (The High Hills) or take place during special celebrations (The Secret Staircase, Poppy’s Babies). But all the titles feature the self-sufficient mice each fulfilling their individual role in the community, alongside such innovations as flour and dairy mills rendered in precise detail. The botanical details were amazing to a city kid and any time I was even remotely near the country, I would scan large oak trees and thickets of brambles, hoping for a glimpse of a mouse gathering seeds. Later, I would imagine houses and cities of my own and inspired by Barklem’s artwork, try to illustrate my ideas of cutaway views inside trees and mountains.
Another nature driven, even more fantastical world than Brambly Hedge, were the gardens of the fairies in the various Flower Fairies titles by Cicely Mary Barker. I vividly remember being introduced to these books by my friend Emma when I was six or seven; I insisted on playing fairies immediately and Emma later gave me one of the books to keep. Similar to Brambly Hedge, there is a title for each season, along with Flower Fairies of the Wayside and A Flower Fairy Alphabet. First published in the 1920’s, they have grown in popularity and there are many collections and additional titles and paraphernalia that you can buy for little girls who love magic wands and fairy dust. However, it was the gorgeous watercolors, with fairies of all shapes and colors, that drew me in (the poems that went with the drawings I could take or leave. I usually only read the ones with pictures that I REALLY loved). It was also a much more interesting way to learn about different kinds of flowers, especially slightly obscure British ones (tansy, cowslip) that would later be referenced in other books I read. This series connected my love of fairies to the world around me and the flowers I could find in the garden.
Friends and Animals: New Early Readers May 8, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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April was a good month for readers age 6-8 (or anyone who likes a good story, for that matter). Here are a couple of new Early Reader titles.
Radiating good humor, a love of pancakes and rock solid friendship, the duo Bink and Gollie have won many fans with their first two books Bink & Gollie and Bink & Gollie: Two for One. I’m sure everyone will be sad that the latest installment of their adventures; Bink & Gollie: Best Friends Forever will be their last.
Writers Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee spin three final tales with themes of dissatisfaction and searching, accompanied as always by Tony Fucile’s delightful illustrations. Gollie finds a picture of a relative wearing a crown and decides that she will be queen, prompting Bink to retreat until she comes back down to earth. Bink decides that she is tired of being short and sends away for a Stretch-O-Matic machine, with predictably wacky results. As in the previous volume, which also gave each character a feature story before bringing them together, the final tale follows their quest to become world record holders. In my book, however, they are and always have been champions.
Welcome to Silver Street Farm
I was already sniffling over the final Bink & Gollie book, so it was lucky that the same shipment brought a brand-new Early Reader series that I can look forward to now. Nicola Davies, who is one of my all-time favorite animal writers, makes her chapter book debut with this new series.
Meera, Karl and Gemma have been friends since kindergarten, where they all ignored the toy city and buildings and focused on the farm animals instead. Now that they are older (the book never gives an exact age) they still dream of having their own farm in the city. When Meera discovers an abandoned railway station called Silver Street, she is convinced that the dream can actually come true. With the addition of two poodles who turn out to be lambs, some ducklings and a guard dog who likes jelly beans, the group is well on their way. But with the city council looking to build a new parking garage, will the station be demolished before the animals even get there?
With short chapters, charming illustrations and a fun wish-fulfillment story, this is a perfect new series for animal lovers age 6-8. Fans of Mercy Watson, Anna Hibiscus and the Cobble Street Cousins will love the kids in this books. I’m looking forward to many more books about Silver Street Farm in the future!
Those Dangerous Vegetables May 5, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Classroom Books.
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It’s always nice to find a brand-new picture book that provides the perfect companion to an older classic. It’s even better when the two together create a framework for a great classroom writing activity! As soon as I read How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, a new book by David LaRochelle, I immediately thought of The Secret Knowledge of Grownups, by David Wisniewski. I had already used Wisnewski’s book for several read and think aloud activities when I was doing my school librarian internship. This new tale just gave me even more ideas.
Martha refuses to eat her green beans every Tuesday, despite her parents’ assurance that they “…are you good for you” and “…will make you big and strong.” Martha’s conviction that green beans are bad is proven one day when a gang of mean green beans (led by a mustaschioed giant in a cowboy hat) marches into town and begins to terrorize the green-bean eating populace. Eventually they capture Martha’s parents, leaving her alone in the house to eat junk food and watch television. However, as other book characters have discovered, losing your parents often has the uncomfortable side effect of making you miss the, so Martha, accompanied by her dog, sets off on a rescue mission. And when the mean green beans scoff at her threats to eat them, she shows them that she means business. The fantastic illustrations by Mark Fearing punctuate the buildup of the story perfectly, making this a great read-aloud or classroom book.
In The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups, David Wisniewski explains the real reasons why grown-ups tell you to do things like eat your vegetables or not do things like jump on the bed. It was the eating your vegetables tale (the real reason: so they don’t take over the world!) that popped into my head when I first read How Martha Saved her Parents from Green Beans. The brilliant part of the story, I think, is that the child has to do something she didn’t want to do (eat green beans) but she was still right about them being bad! It’s the perfect combination of a comeuppance for both parent and child. The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups works on a similar structure of requiring the reader to consider two truths at once; the ‘truth’ behind each parental rule as well as the greater truth that no, many of these are probably not true.
But they could be true, which is what makes both these books such a great jumping off point for writing. Many teachers have used Wisniewski’s books as a writing prompt, sharing some or all of the text and then asking students to brainstorm their own parental rule and the real, wacky reason behind it. I might go further and share LaRochelle’s story, then ask students to swap rules and write a short story where a character has to deal with the reality behind the rule, whether it is green beans or rampaging mattresses awoken by children jumping. After all, everyday things can be deadly. Just ask the green beans.
Review: Eleanor and Park May 3, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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With all the current pop culture trends of vampire books and movies where love is destined and always works out in the end, it is easy to forget sometimes that first love doesn’t always last. Sometimes, the odds are stacked against you.
Eleanor and Park, the protagonists of a new young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell, know this all too well. Both are adept at navigating the hierarchy of their homes and schools: Park doesn’t speak up when the mean kids bully people at the back of the bus and Eleanor takes her baths right after school, while her stepfather is still at work. Both are misfits in their neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska of the 1980’s. Park is half-Asian, obsessed with comics and music, but never quite macho enough to please his father. Eleanor–big, with wild red hair and crazy clothes– is back with her family after a year of living with strangers after being kicked out by her stepfather. They end up sitting next to each other on the bus and eventually begin to share music, comic books and finally, personal history. As they fall in love, they will make mistakes, fight for time and space to see each other and finally–because sometimes the world and life just get in the way– have to try and let each other go.
The main characters are the great strength of this book. As a whole, the book is a little wordy and at times I questioned whether all the switching points of view between Eleanor and Park was really necessary. The 1980’s setting worked well, but wasn’t quite as vivid and clear as in other recent books (I’m thinking of The Miseducation of Cameron Post in particular). Despite being written in third person, it felt like a first person book, as each section focused in so specifically on the actions, thoughts and feelings of the two main characters. Because we are getting the story from their point of view, other characters feel flat and at times superfluous. There is absolutely no sympathy for Eleanor’s stepfather and even her mother is hard to understand. Park’s parents go through more of an arc as they gradually learn about and come to accept Eleanor, but we barely see his younger brother, to the point where it feels like the only reason he is there is to make Park feel inadequate.
Eleanor and Park are characters with an endearing combination of snark and romanticism. Eleanor, who rolls her eyes at Shakespeare, saying “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want” also thinks when looking at Park “There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat that makes me want to let him open doors for me.” Park, for his part, jokes about Star Wars while also telling Eleanor how much he loves her freckles. Readers will go back to this book again and again, hoping that the ending is just a little happier the next time around.
From the Fabulous Books of Mrs. E.L. Konigsburg May 1, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Analysis, Quotes.
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A tribute to one of our greatest authors in the form of the wise words that she slipped into so many of her books. As a kid, I probably couldn’t have quoted you any of these lines, but I definitely read them and over many years, their ideas and philosophy have sunk into my brain. While most people point to authors such as Elise Broach and Blue Balliett when looking for Konigsburg comparisons, I actually see her as having a more profound influence on Rebecca Stead and Holly Goldberg Sloan. In order of publication, some thoughts to consider from a writing master. Enjoy!
“Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”
—From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
“Festival, he explained to Salai, is like lightning. It has no history and it has no future. It lights up everything for a brief second. It passes. It leaves nothing of itself save its effect. The lightning itself is never there to be pawed over by future generations. A pageant, dear Salai, gives an artist a chance to zigzag through time like lightning, like a wild irresponsible thing.”
—The Second Mrs. Giaconda
“Well, darling, a true scientist is not an algorithm. He is an artist, not a mechanic. Both are seekers of truth. The truth may be poetic in one case and factual in another but if you are going to be merely logical and merely mechanical, you will never be a star. Just as an actress has to think as well as feel, a scientist must feel as well as think.”
—Up from Jericho Tel
“She thought that maybe–just maybe–Western Civilization was in a decline because people did not take time to take tea at four o’clock.”
—The View from Saturday
“Friendship depends on interlocking time, place, and state of mind.”
—Silent to the Bone
“They are telling me a story. A story full of sense and nonsense. They are saying that if life has a structure, a staff, a sensible scaffold, we hang our nonsense on it. And they are saying that broken parts add color and music to the staff of life. And they also say that when you know that your framework has been built right and strong, it’s all right to add color to it, too. The towers are saying, there is no why–only a why not. That’s what the towers say to me.”
“Uncle Alex had said that you can’t stop history from happening because the entire past tense is history. But the future is choices. And the choices of a single person can change future history even if that person is underage and does not have a driver’s license or credit card.”
—The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place