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Awaken by Kate Kacvinsky
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

It is the year 2060, and Madeline is seventeen and in her final year of Digital School (DS). In fact, her father is the creator of DS, which allows all American children to have free education via computers in the comfort of their own homes, and even adults socialize and work entirely online. Madeline's father doesn't make her life easy due to an anti-DS incident that happened when Madeline was fifteen, so she has a probation officer and is under constant surveillance. When she meets the mysterious Justin at an offline study session, she has no idea how much the life she takes for granted is about to flip upside down.

I had a great time reading Awaken. For one thing, I have a particular weakness for dystopian literature so this was right up my alley. What I found interesting was how similar Kacvinsky's imagining of 2060 is to today's world and that it initially threw me off a bit. I'm so accustomed to scenarios set 50 years into the future being full of flying cars (which actually show up but as a surprising invention and not a daily occurrence) and helpful household robots that the subtlety of Kacvinsky's vision was initially a bit of a let-down. However, it grew on me and is ultimately far more realistic and made the cultural developments that much more stark. It also allowed for one my favourite scenes in the book, in which Madeline encounters real grass and trees for the first time in her life.

Madeline has many firsts in Awaken, including first offline study group, first ride in a car, first time hearing live music, and first love. The vast majority of these firsts - if not all of them - are brought about by Justin, with whom Madeline is infatuated from the beginning. Madeline's inner dialogue about his friendship is entertaining and ratchets up the sexual tension, and combining that with watching Madeline and Justin warily circle each other and do their best not to succumb to their feelings made this one of the steamiest dystopian novels I can recall reading. As the Brits say, "Phwoar!"

Awaken is populated with many compelling characters. Madeline's mother makes a strong early appearance and, while she doesn't play a large role, is an effective presence with her values that lean strongly toward the pre-digital. By contrast, Madeline's father plays his cards very close to his chest and is deeply invested in his work, and his relationship with Madeline is rocky at best. One of my favourite characters was Clare, a friend of Justin's who adds much-needed lightness to the proceedings, as does Justin's monumentally charming family.

More than just a romance in a futuristic world, Awaken presents a vision of the future that may well come to pass and I will be handing it to fans of Uglies and Feed without hesitation.

**Electronic galley provided by publisher via netGalley.

 
 
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Patrick in "A teddy bear's picnic" and other stories by Geoffrey Hayes
Toon Books, 2010

Throughout the course this collection of short stories in graphic novel format, adorable young teddy bear Patrick goes on a picnic with his mother, encounters Big Bear the bully, and struggles with nap time.

First of all, the art is lovely. Hayes fills the pages with soft, colourful illustrations that are full of small details that make the most of the forest setting. The characters' expressions - especially those of Patrick and his mother - are a delight and provide a lot of the humour in the stories.

Hayes also uses a wide variety of graphic novel layouts, from full-page panels to a two-page spread containing 15 panels. While the book's language is at  Level 2 (emerging reader), the complexity of the panel layouts is used wisely and in intuitive ways that guide and instruct the reader. Additionally, the helpful "tips for parents and teachers: how to read comics with kids" page at the back offers insights and suggestions for reading graphic novels with children.

The stories themselves are snapshots of Patrick's life. While the picnic is a special occasion, the activities Patrick partakes in - puddle-splashing, playing with a toy boat, blowing up balloons - are ones that children are familiar with. There is certainly a wholesomeness and whimsy on display here as there are no signs of electronics, but the addition of Big Bear the bully (who Patrick deals with in a healthy manner) keeps it from being too saccharine.

This may sound foolish, but the one thing that distracted me throughout the entirety of the book was Patrick's shirt: it can't be a turtleneck because the sides aren't high on the sides of his neck but the front is up past his chin. Does he have his shirt on backwards? I have no idea. All I know is I had to look twice at some panels to see which way was his front because it honestly looked like his head was turned all the way around. After doing a bit of research, it appears that Patrick has always had a purple shirt that's a bit odd around the neck in all of Hayes' Patrick books, even those from the 1980s. Nonetheless, I found it bizarrely distracting, for nothing if not the perceived discomfort of such attire.

Minor wardrobe issue aside, Patrick in A teddy bear's picnic and other stories is an engaging and timeless introduction to the graphic novel genre for blossoming readers.

**Review copy provided by publisher.

 
 
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Stolen by Lucy Christopher
The Chicken House, 2010

On a trip to Vietnam with her parents, 16-year-old Gemma meets an attractive and vaguely familiar guy in a Bangkok airport cafe. What she thinks is an innocent flirtation quickly turns into a drug-induced blur that ends when she wakes up on a bed in a small room a few days later. It turns out that she's been taken to a remote part of the vast Australian desert and her captor, Ty, intends to keep her there with him forever.

Stolen is written as a letter from Gemma to Ty as she looks back on the beginning and development of their relationship, so as a reader I spent time in Gemma's head as the kidnapping and subsequent events occur but with the buffer of a reflective distance. This distance has an ebb and flow to it and while some events are told almost like a narrative, others are very immediate. To Lucy Christopher's credit, I didn't notice this flux as I was reading and was simply drawn deeply into the story.

What I find remarkable about Stolen is how the author managed to keep tensions high even when not much is happening. True, Gemma makes some dramatic escape attempts, but for the most part she is watching Ty's movements and slowly absorbing the situation she finds herself in. I found myself turning pages quickly to find out what happens next, and small things (like feeding the chickens) took on a lot of significance as a result.

Gemma's emotional journey throughout the book is wonderfully depicted. Her thoughts and feelings are on display and her actions reflect those internal struggles. Her relationship with Ty develops and his motivations and history are slowly revealed, and he is not in any way a cookie-cutter character. Both Gemma and Ty have a lot of dimension and complexity, and the stark and brutal Australian desert setting is a character in its own right.

My one criticism is that the end felt weak to me and almost like a cop-out (I won't spoil it for you though). I discussed this with a friend of mine who had recommended Stolen to me, and she made the considered point that it was the only possible conclusion. I beg to differ, however, and I feel like the book could have ended far more ambiguously. I will say that Gemma's emotional reactions at the end of the book were consistent and realistic, which I greatly appreciated.

While I've read a few books about teen kidnappings, this one has twists and complexities that I had not yet encountered.