Friday, September 28, 2007

Dyan Sheldon/ Let them read Captain Underpants!!!

Last night I read Dyan Sheldon's I Conquer Britain. It is a companion piece to Sophie Pitt-Turnbull Discovers America, and it made me waaaay happier than it should have. Lots of descriptions of London sites and life, although I must mention that I only had two cups of tea when I went to London-- people don't go around offering stangers cups, but Cherokee Salamaca was staying with Sophie's family.

Is it great literature? No. Oh, there is subplot or two, some character development, and it's well-written, but it's just fun.

So, here's a slap, which I actually delivered to one of my SUPER parent volunteers who was in yesterday and shelved tons of books (thankyouthankyouthankyou!). This parent said that she wanted to make sure her child was challenged.

This always raises my hackles, and I gave her my spiel on how students who read well don't really need to be challenged as much as they need to keep reading. She took it, I hope, in the spirit in which is was intended.

Why does this always anger me? I thought this one through. The major reason is that we lose kids as readers in middle school. We make it not fun to read. This is why my youngest has decided that she hates books. I brought home a book on cheerleading which I thought she would enjoy, and she couldn't read it because the Accelerated Reader level was too low. Her teacher is very reasonable, but I will still have to have a talk with him. We need to make sure that middle school students are having fun when they read, or they will stop. Really.

The second reason is that even though I was a good reader in middle school, I wasn't reading War and Peace. I was reading Ellen Conford and Paula Danziger and having fun. Do I read challenging things? Occasionally. I'm capable of it. But what I like best is something fun. The average adult reads, what, 5 books a year. I read hundreds because I am having fun. Which is better? Reading 5 books that are okay, or reading a whole big bunch that make me smile?

Also, my own kids are fairly freaky bright. My 6th grade son (Code name: Norbert) loves Star Wars books and Bruce Coville as a steady diet. Yet, on his own initiative, he read all of the Lord of the Rings and is starting on The Silmarillion. My 8th grader (Hortense), who can still be found rereading Animorphs, sucked down Wicked in a few days and has also read some whopping big fantasy books her friends have recommended.

So, parents out there, take a deep breath. Let them read Captain Underpants. They are challenged enough at school. Let them enjoy their reading!

P.S. Yes, there are a few children who need to be challenged. One student this year has turned down all my best reluctant reader titles because, and I quote, "they just aren't nonstop freaky violent stuff". Hmmm. I will have an ongoing conversation with this child. I do have the suspicion, however, that perhaps this boy's parents are not overly concerned about what he's reading. There was some mention of a lot of tv and horror movies.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fairies, Vampires and Native Americans.

Not all in one book!

Read Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Thought I had already, but pulled a complete blank when I had it in my hand. The movie has just come out, and my daughter loved it. When a question about an objectionable passage came up, my daughter didn't recall it, but there it was on page 25. The short but fairly graphic and totally gratuitous sex scene really didn't add anything to the book, which was boring anyway. A little too precious, not much happening, and then that, so I think it's going to the high school. I bought it years ago (at a deep discount) because of the popularity of Coraline, but it only has circulated once or twice, and I don't think anyone ever got all the way through. Argh.

Heather Brewer's The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites also had it's annoying moments, but my vampire fans will adore it. They will adore it because it starts off with two pages that suck you right in (come on, it's early) and there is a lot of gross description of Vlad's donated blood snacks (not much actually biting of people). Decent plot, a bit of bildungsroman, some teen angst, some action and bad guys. Also on the bright side, cool cover, decent title, and a couple of good descriptions. "Vlad's heart sank into his stomach, then squeezed its down his leg and popped out of the hole in his shoe, where it struck the floor and broke". There were a couple others I forget. A solid first book.

My purely adult objections-- trite names, overly precious "this is vampire legend but isn't it wrong/actually right" musings, and the whole Goth thing. Like Vampire Kisses, it was too full of the "I'm Goth and I'm soooo different, just like all the other million of Goth students out there" attitude, although Vlad does mention that he only wishes he could actually join the Goths.

I guess it's a geek thing. If you want to be truly different, go find some day-glo polyester disco shirts. Dress like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Everybody who wants to be different dies his hair black. Maybe it was the cover blurb of the author that alarmed me "Today, Heather can be found writing in her funky, black Happy Bunny jammie pants, dancing under the full moon, devouring every book in sight, and attending renaissance faires in costume (and in character)."

It made me feel sorry for her children.

Man, I'm in a BAD mood, apparently.

The best thing I read last night was Conrad Richter's The Light in the Forest from about 1953. Young boy stolen from the settlers at age four and stolen back at 15, much against his will. There are lots of Indian captive books (I am Regina; The Ransom of Mercy Carter; Wait for me, watch for me, Eula Bee; Indian Captive: The story of Mary Jemison) , and this was especially well done. Everyday life of Native Americans as well as settlers was well covered, but the touching part was the wrenching emotional journey of True Son. He tried to fit back in to the settler life, but just couldn't be happy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Carolyn Reeder/Neal Shusterman/Etc.

Have not been motivated to read lately, but did get through a few things this weekend.

Carolyn Reeder's Shades of Gray and Captain Kate were both good historical fiction. Not too long or confusing, interesting plots, quite serviceable. Shades of Gray was a bit on the philosophical side, with a young boy going to live with an aunt and an uncle who did not support the Civil War. Takes a while for the boy to realize that this is because of the toll that war takes, not because his uncle thought that the North was any better. This would not be a good fit for a boy who wanted an action novel, however. Captain Kate almost fits into the survival fiction mode-- young girl and her stepbrother attempt to take a canal boat 180 miles along the Chesapeake and Ohio canal on their own. And my 14 year old claims she is not competent enough to vaccuum!

Also read Shusterman's What Daddy Did. Father shoots mother, that's what he did, and the book deals with how the son copes. It's odd, though, because there wasn't a history of violence or abuse, and everyone is very forgiving. Father gets out of jail in three years. Good, but struck me as odd. Not what he's been writing lately, either.

Rottman's Hero was good. Boy abused by his mother and abandoned by his father ends up doing community service on a ranch where the owner takes an interest in him and with the help of a colt turns the boy around.

Since Madeleine L'Engle's death, I have been looking vaguely at her works on the shelves, which have sort of gone out of fashion. Thought I had read them all, but picked up House Like A Lotus, which I must have missed. Must say I didn't get it, and it is that sort of overwrought 1980s pointless drama that was in vogue. Sort of Cynthia Voigt-like. I somehow didn't care. I am sure that I will get grief about this from my best friend, who is a huge L'Engle fan, but I couldn't even care that it was Meg's daughter. Meg grows up and has 6 children. I was just disappointed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Odd assorted titles

It's almost as if Gary Paulsen were reading my mind. I slogged through The Cookcamp, The Island, and a lot of other lyrically written but ponderously philosophic books and thought "Why not more action?" Well, in The White Fox Chronicles, he gives us plenty of action, but it's not well-written. On the upside, it is an easy read for some of my struggling students, but I wish that we could hvae the nice writing and the adventure. (Basic plot, from the back cover-- "The year is 2057. Endless wars have torn the USA apart and enslaved Americans to the evil Confederation of Consolidated Republics. Growing up in wartime has made Cody wise in survival skills...")

Melody Carlson's Fool's Gold is quite timely-- it discusses shopping addiction, and talks about $200 Prada t shirts and the like. A lot of the "pink" books I have been coming across drop name brands frequently, and they mean little to me and will date the books. Since this is in papreback, I don't feel too bad, and it is a differenet side of the phenomenon.

Will Hobbs' Crossing the Wire is also timely--15-year-old Victor attempts to cross from Mexico into the United States by himself, with the help of a few people he meets along the way. As always, Hobbs researched this well, which lends it a great immediacy. Since I can't get anyone to check out Patricia Beatty's Lupita Manana, this is a good addition to the topic of illegal immigration.

A teacher loaned me Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I was fully prepared to hate it. The back cover is filled with "Advance praise" which compares the main character to Holden Caulfield (never a good sign), and the author bio described him as "One of the moste well-known and beloved literary writers of his generation". Huh? Never heard of him, but the term "literary" makes me want to grab a stack of BabySitters' Club books and run screaming into the wilderness. The cartoon illustrations didn't help.

However, I liked the book. It was an entertaining story of a young man facing numerous obstacles with good grace. Well-written, quirky, interesting. But I won't buy it. For one, there are a couple of gratuitously crude and offensive remarks (you can do that when you are 'literary'), and it's not the sort of thing that students will ask for. The whole quirk/dysfunctional navel gazing thing. If I had a larger high school collection, I would buy this.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Richard Peck

Apparently in my trek through the collection I missed Are You In the House Alone. Since it was published in 1976, it's conceivable that I read it in high school. I was looking for quality mystery/horror/suspense, since there is an insatiable demand for it this year, and picked it up, mainly on the strenghth of the catalog blurb, and I quote:
"Gail Osborne, a high school girl in suburban Connecticut, is swept up into a world of terror when she begins receiving threatening and obscene notes and telephone calls."

Well, sort of. The terror isn't quite there, and I knew from the first who the culprit must be. This book is primarily about an acquaintance rape. Nothing too graphic (the victim is hit in the head with a poker first, and therefore unconscious), but there is some clinical detail. Probably rather shocking at the time, I hope that the general treatment of victims of rape has improved in the past 30 years-- since the attacker is from an influential family, the police are reluctant to do anything and blame the girl! Luckily, the parents and others don't, but it's still a disturbing snapshot.

While I wouldn't recommend this for someone looking for a straight mystery, girls who like problem novels will like this. It is beautifully written, and reminded me in an odd way of the film All That Heaven Allows. Very evocative of small town New England and the crisp autumn weather and bright blue skies. Odd association, but very strong! (Great cheesy movie, by the way. Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.)

Notes from a Spinning Planet

This Melody Carlson title, Ireland, is available only in paperback, but the "color Me" titles by this author were so popular that I went ahead and bought it. Fueled by the success of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, travel titles are doing well (See Students Across the Seven Seas).

This book is interesting in that it doesn't just describe the landscape and way of life in Ireland, it also tackles "the troubles" and explains the fighting between the Protestants and Catholics. I have a series from the early '70s by Joan Lingard that I haven't been able to get rid of that chronicles a romance between a Protestant and a Catholic-- girls who read this book might well start that, and understand it better.

This book tries too hard in some ways-- I got plain tired of the main character taking offense at people having a pint (of beer) because she was Christian and didn't think Christians should drink. Also, the intrigue of one character who was supposedly dead but wasn't, and was supposedly involved in the IRA somehow seemed contrived.

Still, I liked this. It covers an area of the world the readers might not normally see, and would actually make a really good made for tv movie. Melissa Gilbert might not be quite old enough to play the aunt, but it could be quite fun to watch!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Marissa Marsh's Field Guide to High School

Loved the cover on this one.

Very vintage and fun. I also enjoyed reading this-- girl's older sister goes to college and leaves her with a notebook of her best tips for surviving the private school she will attend. A slim book, a quick read, but on the insubstantial side.

The whole private school discussion would leave my students flat. I taught at one, so can understand.

Nyah. I want to buy it, but just can't justify it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


What are the chances that I would read TWO books on amnesia within a week?

Last night I enjoyed Gabrielle Zevin's Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. Naomi falls at school, bangs her head, and loses the memory of the last four years, including some traumatic family events and her boyfriend. Told in a believable way, it's an interesting portrait of how someone who doesn't quite know who she is yet can forget what she does know and start over. The amneisa isn't debilitating-- it just leads to many philosophical introspections. There is something riveting about Zevin's prose, and she tells stories from odd viewpoints. My enitre family was riveted by her Elsewhere.

In Lee Weatherly's Kat Got Your Tongue, the amnesia is total. Kathy doesn't remember who she is, doesn't remember her mother, or any of her friends. She doesn't understand anything she liked before-- she looks strange even to herself. Teens are always wondering about what things would be like-- this is a great story if they wondered about what it would be like to forget everything. I like Weatherly's books a great deal-- Child X, Missing Abby, and Breakfast at Sadie's were all phenomenal. Love the new covers, too.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Todd Strasser's Mob Princess

Can only think that Todd Strasser has fallen on hard times. When I think of this author, I think of social issue books like Give a Boy a Gun and Can't Get There From Here, or some serviceable humor or adventure books. While the first book in this series (For Money and Love) was sort of fun, and I bought it sight unseen because it deals with the Mafia and an odd number of students ask for this sort of thing, it was...pulpy? Dime novelish? I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of Korman's Son of the Mob, with some self-deprecating humor. It read like someone said "Todd, we would like you to write a book about a girl whose father is in the mob, and please include these plot twists."

That said, this will be popular. Will I put it into students' hands? No. More of a high school book, it has some intimations of sex and some alcohol. It would ruin the guilty pleasure if I handed it to someone.

Do I wish I hadn't bought it? Almost. Will this book start some reluctant readers on the series. Definitely. That's the fine line that has to be walked.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Jonathan Stroud

This author brought us the very witty and popular Amulet of Samarkand series, but before that he wrote a rather wonderful fantasy novel set in the English country side-- Buried Fire. An odd, possibly Celtic cross is unearthed beneath a church while the foundation is being shored up, and strange things start to happen. Michael and Stephen, two brothers, end up with otherworldly powers that torture them, and they soon find out that the cross has unleashed a dragon that has been slumbering underneath a hill near their village.

Reminded me a bit of Dorothy Sayers and something else-- well-paced, good character development, nice conclusion to the story, unlike so many fantasies that go on and on to many, many books. Some fantasy fans just want one book, and I will highly recommend this one.

And no, not just because he uses the word "wodge" which is such a satisfying word to say. Slips in a "needs must", too. Lovely use of language.