33. 1984, by George Orwell. A classic that deserves that overused title. Winston Smith lives in a world where people are monitored constantly, where even thoughts against the status quo and Big Brother can be considered criminal. He begins to question how well things are in his world, and wonders what things were like before the current regime. His duties in constantly rewriting history -- something he is very good at -- begin to gnaw on his conscious. Orwell creates a scary and believable world. It's sad, too, because even the "sheep" (my term) aren't always safe from the rigorous Thought Police. The ironies run thick, such as calling the main enforcing body The Ministry of Love. The final third is a brutal read and shows the extent of how far those in power will go in retaining power and exerting control.
34. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. Incredibly layered and nuanced. Clay one day finds a box of cassette tapes. He discovers they are a recorded message from Hannah, a girl from his class who committed suicide. She left 13 stories for 13 people, each who were tied to her reason for wanting to end her life. There are few villains in this, just people being people. Hannah's reasons turn out to be her own guilt connected to a couple of tragic events as well as the actions -- often unknown -- of those she talks about. The story alternates from Hannah's narration to Clay's thoughts and feelings as he listens, but the story remains easy to follow (Hannah's dialogue is set in italics). The reader is drawn into the story as Hannah's narrative slowly unfolds. An excellent debut book from the author, and highly recommended for both teens, parents and teachers.
35. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch. A very depressing book. Ravitch, who once supported the concept of national testing and No Child Left Behind, speaks out against such philosophies in her book as time passed and they proved ineffective. She divides the issues -- testing, restructuring the schools, charter schools and how they are set up now, relying on grants and funds from a few powerful men to set educational change -- by chapter. The book is easy to follow and the data seems concrete and supported. There were few surprises in here, although the impact of the charter schools on the nation's Catholic schools was surprising to me. I guess the depressing thing is that the bulk of her arguments have been what educators and those who follow education have been saying for the past several years. I do have to give Ravitch credit for admitting she was wrong. Her solutions at the end make for a good start, but aren't anything concrete, beyond focusing on a range of topics, smaller class sizes and doing more hands-on activities. Don't get me wrong -- it's a must-read for those who follow education topics. The arguments are well-presented. For the most part, I agreed with Ravitch and the few times I disagreed were on minor points (I think at one point, she expresses concern that the effect of NCLB might be to privatize the bulk of the educational system. She mentions she is certain the legislators didn't mean for this unintentional result. Call me cynical, but I say baloney -- I think there are legislators whose aim is to do just that).
36. Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, by Nahoko Uehashi. 2010 Batchelder Honor Book. OK, this book wasn't so depressing, although it is serious. Balsa is back, and she heads to her native Kanbal hoping to lay rest her personal demons of guilt regarding her foster father Jiguro and her past. What she finds is a brain-pretzel of a political plot involving Jiguro, and the stories spread to discredit him. Balsa quickly discovers that not only is her life in danger, but the whole of Kanbal is in jeopardy. In this story, the reader finds out more about Balsa's past and her family. Balsa is a wonderful heroine -- tough, smart and human. The book is rounded out nicely by several secondary characters, including Kassa, a young spear-holder whom Balsa rescues early on, along with his sister. The details in this world are wonderful -- the history, the lands and the personalities there, the different people and creatures. The who's who at the end, along with the definition of the terms used, helps.