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Cooper, known for his savvy picture books (Beach; A Good Night Walk) and his parenting memoir, Crawling, trains his sights on teens with this perceptive documentary account of an academic year at Walter Payton High, a magnet school in Chicago (a few references locate the year as 2005-2006). Focusing primarily on seniors, he intersperses scenes about Emily, the straight-A soccer captain "who walks through the halls as if she were knocking people out of the way"; Maya, the intense actor who has a "small-town affect" and "could play the role of The Good Student"; Daniel, the overachieving class president whose role model is Barack Obama; Anais, the dedicated ballet dancer; Diana, the swimmer with a brother in jail; Anthony, obsessed with an ex-girlfriend and permanently ensconced in the cafeteria; Aisha, the only Muslim on campus; and Zef, the failing, caffeine-addicted insomniac. The school milieu is sharply and wittily evoked in deadpan transcriptions of anonymous conversations and descriptions of ordinary events like a basketball game (after it ends, the freshman who misses a key shot "jogs over to the basket and jumps into the air... placing the imaginary ball into its rightful place"). Readers looking for a story, however, may be disappointed; the considerable strengths of the work come from Cooper's genius for observation and confident refusal to dramatize what he finds. Illustrated throughout with small sketches; final art not seen by PW. Ages 12-up. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
School Library Journal
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Gr 9 Up-This book recounts the lives of eight students as they finish up their senior year at an alternative high school in Chicago. Readers see brief snippets of their lives, including their friendships and family dramas, struggles for passing grades, and the day-to-day things they do to stay on their individual college paths. While the book does cover the entire year and all of the standard events, it ends up trying to do too much and the result is a surface look at some forgettable types. The book is told from the third-person omniscient point of view, which is awkward, because instead of finding out about the teens, readers are either told things straight out or, even more annoyingly, the students have internal conversations with themselves. All of them fit some sort of label: the jock, the slacker, the class president, etc., although one of them, a Muslim, stands out as somewhat distinctive. Events like teen pregnancy feel glossed over as they are mentioned in passing. Because the book jumps around so much, with each individual receiving at most a paragraph before moving on to the next, it is difficult to get involved in any of these students' lives or to distinguish them from one another.-Jessie Spalding, Queen Creek Branch Library, AZ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
The tightly wound lives of high-school high achievers have had many chroniclers, such as Alexandra Robbins, who spent time at a prestigious Ivy League feeder school and turned her experiences into a nonfiction book for adults, The Overachievers (2006). In his second work of longer nonfiction (following Crawling, 2006, a parenting memoir for adults), Cooper aims his own documentary-style book about high school at an expert audience: students themselves. There are a couple of big differences here from adult treatments of the subject, many of which dwell on the stresses of getting into college. First, while Cooper's subject is set in a big-deal Chicago magnet high school (where kids can take classes in Zulu and hip authors like Jonathan Safran Foer come to speak), the eight ethnically diverse students he profiles, most of whom are seniors, don't seem like academic grinds. Sure, the anticipation about where they'll end up (Harvard or Penn? Indiana for ballet or NYU for modern dance?) lends the book most of its forward drive. But the variety in the students' ambitions and personalities helps Cooper's treatment seem like an authentic cross section of student life, not a vehicle for a particular agenda although some readers may find the teens scattered too purposefully across the ethnic map. (The inclusion of two starkly contrasting African American students, a Harvard aspirant and a pot dealer verging on flunking out, seems conspicuously pointed.) Also different from many adult titles is the author's loose, lyrical approach. Best known as the illustrator of picture books such as A Good Night Walk (2006), Cooper turns out to be an extremely graceful wordsmith, with a strong visual sense (the school sits in an athletic field like a block of butter on a green plate ) and a fluidity that matches the tiny, quick-fire sketches of students that dot the pages. Sewing together visits with the main subjects over the course of the academic year, Cooper's anonymous, omniscient narrator drifts freely along intersecting narrative paths, including funny vignettes set in the school's see-and-be-seen atrium, overheard conversations, and descriptions of the larger Chicago landscape. Far from the straightforward reportage that most readers expect of journalistic writing, the impressionistic quality of Cooper's style lends the book an aura of fiction. For that reason, some readers may not realize they're dealing with nonfiction until they reach the closing thank-you to the students for letting Cooper ask questions about their lives even as they unfolded. It's clear that he was able to win the students' trust to an impressive degree, but the erratic appearance of quoted material, along with numerous passages that presume knowledge of the students' inner lives, leaves the relationship between the author's research and the finished work a bit ambiguous. More information about how the book came to be would have been both interesting and valuable: Are the quotes verbatim or reconstructed from notes? Does the author himself consider this nonfiction or an interpretative creation? Teen readers accustomed to the finessed nonfiction narratives of reality television aren't likely to be bothered by questions about authenticity; a larger trouble spot may be the unusually distanced tone of the narrative. In a novel, it's easy for readers to forget that there's someone scribbling behind the scenes. That's not the case here. Cooper's voice is distinctly present, hovering somewhere above the high-school fray, and its sometimes slyly knowing tone ( After all the talk surrounding prom . . . the most exciting part of prom was the talk ) may leave some YAs vaguely resenting the attempt of an observer to summarize their lives. Still, there are plenty of high-school students (especially the senioritis stricken) who will wholly identify with Cooper's outsider-looking-in role, and even those who find his approach condescending will be sufficiently drawn by the individual stories to overlook the matter. But just because Cooper is writing for YAs doesn't mean that nostalgic adults, especially those with kids facing their own high-school years, won't be keenly interested in this, too; they'll certainly find Cooper's poignant, yet ultimately upbeat snapshots more welcoming than many existing exposés of America's burned-out youth.--Mattson, Jennifer Copyright 2008 Booklist