Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In Which I Become Overly Philosophical

About once quarterly, I doubt my methods of picking out books and agonize. This latest installment of worry can be attributed to Valerie Hobbs' comment yesterday. Are books just to entertain? Shouldn't I be giving my students more Serious Literature?

The whole point behind reading every book before I buy it is to identify students to whom I would give a particular title. My students are very good about articulating their desires, and I try to listen carefully. While I purchase books that I like personally, I don't purchase them unless I can also come up with a list of students who would like them. I also buy things I don't like that students do. (Warriors. Bleah!) Out of the 932 books that I purchased this year, there was only one that I bought because I liked it so much. (Flightsend by Linda Newbery) and the first girl who checked it out didn't like it. Sigh. If students won't pick up a book even when I recommend it, or worse, get into the first chapter and bring the book back, why did I spend money on it?

My blog policy is to write short reviews that are fairly neutral about a book but which indicate a possible audience; I then chime in on my personal feelings. Unless something is truly wretched, I try to be kind, because books that don't work for my library might be a great success somewhere else. Today I will give publishers descriptions and opine a more on why or why not I think the books would work IN MY LIBRARY.

Soup, Cuthbert. A Whole Nother Story.
"Ethan Cheeseman and his children hope to settle in a nice small town, at least long enough to complete work on a time machine, but spies and government agents have been pursuing them for two years and are about to catch up."

Most of this book made me want to bang it against my forehead until I lost consciousness. But I will buy it. Why? This is methadone for Lemony Snicket addicts, and there are still many 6th graders I have not managed to wean. Luckily, A Whole Nother Story is more cleverly written, and despite having the Snicketesque quirkiness, it lacks the condescending tone. Loved the title, found the sock puppet, the psychic dog, and the "relatively odor-free children" amusing. The book moved quickly, had a good amount of action and suspense, and generally was written in a cohesive, intelligent way. Will my 8th graders read it? No. Will 6th graders bring their friends to check it out? Every time it returns.

Leavitt, Lindsay. Princess for Hire.
"Desi Bascomb, who longs for something more glamorous than her life in Idaho, is approached by a woman named Meredith who explains that Desi can use an Egyptian formula called "Royal Rouge" to temporarily change herself into a look-alike of any princess, and as Desi gets involved in various royal fiascos, she realizes that the job is harder than it first seemed."

Two things move this right up to the top of my purchase list-- the cover, which my insatiable girl readers will adore, and the fact that it is a girly fantasy which will be great when a language arts requires a class to read a fantasy, and there are girls that don't want to stop reading a Simon Pulse Romantic Comedy every day. That, and the word "floccinaucinihilipilification", which is always great to see in a book. I thought that the author did a great job at the suspension of disbelief that is so tricky with fantasies-- the appearance of Meredith in a bubble, and the transformation into someone else is briefly explained, and then they never look back. That's the way to do it. There is also a lot of clever turns of phrase. My reservations with this book come from the fact that it is so packed with things that it veers toward disorganization, which is a quick way to lose readers. Desi takes a range of multicultural jobs, including an Amazon rain forest princess, which seemed a stretch to me. All of the princesses have problems, which Desi works to solve, and she has her own problems on top of it. It got to be a bit much. Still, VERY promising author, and I will definitely read her Sean Griswold's Head when it comes out.

Mass, Wendy. Finally.
"After her twelfth birthday, Rory checks off a list of things she is finally allowed to do, but unexpected consequences interfere with her involvement in the movie being shot at her school, while a weird prediction starts to make sense."

Even though I usually cringe when I see a new title by Wendy Mass, (I always want to like her books, like Every Soul a Star and Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall, and never do), I bought this at Barnes and Noble for my daughter's 12th birthday, mainly because of the cover. Very unusual move. Even more unusual-- Picky Reader LIKED it.

This book also suffered from too much going on, and I started to weary of the string of small catastrophes that plague Rory (a makeover gives her a rash, her pierced ear gets infected, she scratches her cornea trying a contact lens AND her pet bunny tries to suffocate her at night, and that's just the beginning), but the brilliant thing about the book was that it addressed concerns that 12 year olds have but haven't made their way into books yet. What's it like to ride in the front seat of a car? Can I shave my legs? (Although really, shouldn't Rory's mother have paid attention before Rory shredded herself?) Will I be scared if I stay home alone? What happens if I drink too much coffee? Or lose my brand new cell phone? This reads in part like a protracted Embarrassing Moments magazine column, which is why tween girls will love this. These things aren't happening to them. The overly contrived ending bothered me a bit. This is the least literary of Mass' books, but I will buy one for my library, because the girls will read it.

Are these books serious? No. Are they entertaining? Yes. Middle School is a dangerous age. It is so easy to lose them as readers. There are many demands on their time, language arts teachers are assigning things like Of Mice and Men and The Pigman, and if I start handing out slow-paced Very Special Stories on a regular basis, many of them would stop reading. Many of them will anyway, when they are forced to read Gone With the Wind and The Tale of Two Cities in high school, but I try to prolong the inevitable for as long as possible. And what do most adults read? I think sales of Nora Roberts and John Grisham are higher than of serious, literary authors.

Enough philosophy. Back to short reviews tomorrow, I promise!


Jim Randolph said...

Reminds me of working in the bookstore. A mom would come in and her kids would gravitate toward a book with monsters or aliens on the cover and she would try to push him to read a "classic." Meanwhile, she'd have a pulpy bestseller under her arm.

The Book Chook said...

I found it fascinating to see those books through your librarian filter. And also fascinating to read your comments in the light of advice I read to writers - pile on the conflict etc

To me, the main reason adults and kids choose a fiction book is for enjoyment. If we want kids to love reading, then we allow them to choose what they prefer to read. I think it's wonderful that you provide books you know your students will enjoy.

Jennifer said...

I think pretty much every book I'm taking on my 6th grade school visits this week is either laugh-out loud funny, gross/scary, or a comic. Excepting a couple fantasies and some nonfiction. Serious literature? Pft. I am all about FUN!

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