Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cybils Nominations

Thanks to Karen at Literate Lives for reminding me about the Cybils nominations that start on October 1st. It's important that teachers and librarians and actual student readers are active in this nomination process, or it's no better than the Newbery Awards. Awards should be given for quality books that students actually will enjoy reading. Help that process at The Cybils 2009 site.
Trying to be better about reading things other than novels. I loved John Grandits' Technically, It's Not My Fault, and just ordered Blue Lipstick. These are both concrete poetry, which is not something my students really need, since they usually need a poem they can memorize for recitation. I'm a huge poetry snob and usually require good rhyme and meter, but Grandit's poems are so much fun. Hard to explain, as well. It's more word art. My favorite is "A Chart of My Emotional Day". I won't try to explain these-- you need to see them. Excellent books if you are trying to encourage students to have fun with words.
Can't be as enthusiastic and Rachel Renee Russell's The Dork Diaries. This is more appropriate for a younger audience, or for girls who are reluctant readers, and I have very few of those. Also, this is set in a private school, and one of the themes is the snobbishness of the students, and I'm just weary of that. Probably go over very well in 4th grade. And yes, if you have a huge fan base of Diary of A Wimpy Kid, buy this: the style is similar, from the hand writing font to the illustrations. Paper over board binding insures that it won't be around long. Did find it amusing that the librarian was wearing a plaid pleated skirt and looked rather like me!

Still have a few older titles in my library I haven't read yet, so picked up Arvella Whitmore's 1999 Trapped Between the Lash and the Gun. Worth dusting off. Jordan wants to stay in the inner city and run with a gang while his mother moves the family to a safer home in the suburbs, but while on a gang errand, he is transported, by means of his grandfather's heirloom pocket watch he wants to hock, back to a slavery era plantation. He meets up with his ancestor, and learns how difficult things were for slaves, which gives him a new appreciation for his own life. Definitely recommend this to a student today.

Jane Yolen's The Wild Hunt (1995), however, will probably go. It's been checked out three times and is indicative of the sort of book the previous librarian loved-- anything fantasy, even when it is odd/too young. I read some of the very short chapters to my own children and got wrinkled noses. Admittedly, I skimmed this, but found nothing in it to recommend it.
Looks very interesting, but is blocked here at school under "social networking". I wanted to see the "can't-miss reads for boys"!
Found this web site, that James Patterson has, called Read Kiddo Read. Looks very interesting, but is blocked here at school under "social networking". I wanted to see the "can't-miss reads for boys"!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Melissa Kantor Rules!!!

Melissa Kantor had her publicist send me the very first ARC's I ever got, so she has a special place in my heart. If you are near NYC, or are a young lady who writes, take a look at this invitation:

Attention all tween girls in the NYC area! The Amanda Project is the first series that invites tween girls to become a part of the mystery and contribute their own stories and ideas! Come celebrate the publication of the first in the 8-book series - Invisible I - and launch of The Amanda Project!Hear author Melissa Kantor read from the book and talk about writing collaborative fiction.AND, in the spirit of Amanda, we're also taking submissions from tween girls who aspire to be writers! Have your daughter send her latest piece of fiction (up to 500 words) to and we'll pick a select group of writers to read at the event!For more

9-30-09: Please note the change in e mail address for submissions.

Coffeehouse Angel

Suzanne Selfors' newest book sat in my pile for a while. There was something about the cover or title that just didn't appeal to me, and once I picked it up, I was concerned that it was more of a high school book, but it had such funny lines! (Ms. Selfors' web site is great, too!)

Katrina lives with her grandmother in a small town. They run a struggling Norwegian coffee house, and things are not easy. When Katrina leaves coffee and food for a homeless man who is sleeping in their alley, he turns out to be an angel who is bound to reward her kindness. At first, Katrina just thinks he is crazy and tries to tell him her desire (which he must grant) is for fortune, or fame. These wishes are granted in an off kilter way, so Malcom continues to hang around. Throw in a rival coffee shop with a perky nemesis, a silent but steadfast family friend with a secret, and a love interest in her best friend Vincent, and this wonderfully written tale becomes something I could not put down. I'll have to take another look at Selfors' Saving Juliet, which I dismissed because of the plethora of time-travel-back-to-Shakespeare's-England books in my library. If the writing is this good, I'll have to get it. My 10th grader snatched this one away from me even though she should be doing Spanish homework.

Trying to pitch nonfiction this week, and Dani Sneed's Ferris Wheel, from Enslow Publishing, is a nice quick read. George Ferris joins the Philo T. Farnsworth Hall of Hard Knocks-- things never went well for him despite his successful invention. This was very short-- almost like an article, but students will appreciate the pictures. There is a title about Farnsworth in this series, as well as Theodore Maiman, who invented the laser, and Vivien Thomas, who was a heart surgery pioneer.

Michel Ostow's Popular Vote was a light romp about a girl who decides to run for student body president against her former boyfriend when a historic field near their school is threatened by a corporation who wants to build a gas station there. The complications? The corporation is funding her father's mayorial bid, and blogging about them doesn't make anyone happy. Nice lesson about blogging, interesting story line, and fun characters, but there was something a little irritating about Erin's alternating brand-dropping/Clique like devotion to fashion and her environmental stance. Spoiler Alert: That she was happy in the end that the gas station was still being built but a 300 square foot park was left didn't ring true to me. Still, the book-a-day girls are enjoying it.

A much anticipated arrival was the Cirque du Freak 1 and 2 manga. Number 3 comes out very soon. I like the novels, and buy manga when I hope to introduce (mainly) boys who will read only comics to a book. This was fine, done by Takahiro Arai for the Japanese audience, and I liked especially how some of the words in the background were kept in transliterated Japanese and then translated. Still, any time I read a manga, I invariably think "Oh, Cirque du Freak, as performed by the cast of Speed Racer." Am I the only one who thinks this? Am I wrong?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Weekend reading

Jan Michael's City Boy is a book that I must order, so that I may hand it to children who think their life is difficult. In Malawi, Sam's mother and father have both died from AIDS, and when his aunt from a small village is the only one who wants to raise him, he must leave his comfortable house in the city (and his computer) to go live in a mud hut with other children his aunt is raising because their parents have also died. He must share his clothing, and his shoes, a gift from his mother, are stolen. He interacts with an interesting cast of characters, from doctors working in a local hospital to the town ruffian, who is responsible for his shoes being stolen. A note in the back says that 14% of the adult population in Malawi is HIV positive. This is an enlightening look into how life is lived in a different place.

Andrew Clements' Extra Credit also tries to shed life on the ways of others, this time on a brother and sister who live in the mountains of Afghanistan. Because Abby doesn't care much about doing her school work, she is in danger of being held back, unless she completes an extra credit project-- having a pen pal in Afghanistan. Her letter comes to the attention of a village school, and the elders decide that while Sadeed is the best student, it would not be appropriate for him to write to a girl, so he is instructed to oversee the letters his younger sister, Amira, writes. While I liked this, and generally like Clements, this seemed forced. Abby's academic struggles seemed unrealistically portrayed, and the friendship between Abby and Sadeed a bit odd, since they haven't shared that much information about each other. Still, fans of Clements will demand this, and it's not a bad book. I just wish some things had been handled differently.

For pure fun, Cabot's Being Nikki (sequel to Airhead) can't be beat. Emerson, whose brain has been transplanted into the body of supermodel Nikki, is still struggling with reconciling the two sides of her new being. She's doing modeling assignments and partying with celebrities, but also trying to keep up in school and keeping in contact with her real family. When Nikki's brother shows up, upset that their mother is missing, Em/Nikki gets drawn into the evil doings of the Stark corporation, along with Christopher, her best friend as Em. There are a lot of plot twists that I didn't see coming, and there is sure to be another book to follow this one.

Brandon Mull's penultimate Fablehaven book, The Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary, is full of incredible magical detail that fantasy aficionados will find enthralling. While I enjoyed the book, I'm not good on details, so I had trouble remembering some of them. The book starts with Kendra being kidnapped, and a stingbulb impersonating her. Seth, reeling from her "death" finds that he is a shadow master and can talk to magical creatures from the dark side. The two set off separately to get an artifact from the dragon sanctuary, a trip which, understandably, is fraught with danger. There are many characters from previous books who help them, and some which turn out to be evil. Lots of running around fighting, magical objects (I loved the back pack that Kendra could climb into and be carried around), and saving the world against evil. The children will be much more able to remember all the wonderful details.

Lost, by Jacqueline Davies, is yet another book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (Auch's Ashes of Roses and Haddix's Uprising being the most recent), but I found it hard to put down. Harriet Abbot is clearly not the usual sort of girl who works in a sweat shop, and Essie is drawn to her cultured ways as well as her helplessness. Essie is also trying to come to terms with the death of the younger sister for whom she has cared. Throw in a mystery about a missing heiress, and this makes for a compelling read. I did wonder, however, how many wealthy women really did care about the workers or tried to get jobs in the sweat shops to try to help and/or reveal working conditions-- this seems to be something that recent writers like to do. I also wondered about a young law student living in an immigrant neighborhood, and about Essie reading works of social philosophy. Still, a good book to have on hand for fans of historical fiction.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

High School Books

I was really enjoying Jessica Blank's Karma for Beginners, but then decided it was more of a high school book and tore myself away to read the newest Brandon Mull Fablehaven installment. Loved the cover (the barely visible image of the couple kissing in the rear view mirror is great), and had to comment on the hippie mother-- the book is set in 1985, the girl is 14, and the case is made convincingly about her mother being a hippie. The two go to live in an ashram after moving from town to town, but it all works. Thank you, Ms. Blank, for paying attention to this pet peeve of mine. Tessa doesn't care for her mother's choice of lifestyle but finds that the ashram isn't all bad when she meets a hot, older guy who works on the grounds crew. Definitely fun.

My 10th grade daughter picked up Ned Vizzini's Be More Chill and said that she thought it was very clever, but what was up with the language? She enjoyed the story, but was honestly appalled that everything was curse words. Was the author trying to appeal to nonreaders without extensive vocabularies? My daughter is an avid reader, and not above using the words herself (which doesn't go over well with me!), but did not want to read them. Perhaps YA authors should note this. Interestingly, Mr. Vizzini's web site is blocked at our school.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Corbett and Flinn

Sue Corbett did the wonderful Twelve Again and Free Baseball. Her latest, The Last Newspaper Boy in America, was something I had to read, because I fear the demise of the newspaper. On the eve of Wil's 12th birthday, when he will take over the family newspaper route, a call comes with bad news-- the newspaper will no longer do home deliveries in Wil's small town. Wil is crushed and determined to prevent this. His small town has enough troubles; the local hairpin factory has shut down and people are out of work. I was afraid that this might not resonate with students who don't care about the newspaper, but there are enough funny moments and sub plots (Wil is determined to win a carnival contest at the local fair, and uncovers some fraud), that this is one students will enjoy. Many thanks to Ms. Corbett for addressing an issue of importance in a vehicle that will hold up for a long time.

Alex Flinn's A Kiss in Time was great fun. My only complaint is that it could also be a boy book if it had a different cover. Told in alternating chapters, this twist on Sleeping Beauty has the princess, Talia, woken up 300 years after she touches a spindle by Jack, a malcontented boy touring Europe. Knowing the curse that was put on her, Talia persuades Jack to take her back home with him to Florida so that she can make him fall in love with her and escape the plans of the evil Malvolia. A little goofy, with the princess being freaked out by tank tops and cell phones, but a fun fantasy. This would work well for boys, since much of it is Jack's perspective, but they would need to slog through Talia's lenghthy discussion of ball dresses at the beginning.

Shameless Plug!

I spend an inordinate amount of time standing in fields watching children run. My two oldest children run for school cross country teams, and Picky Reader ran her first one mile race on Saturday. We have two of the most superlative coaches at my school, and our athletic directore nominated one of them for the Peachtree/Fred Bowen Name the Teacher Contest. I would love to see Jeff McMillan's name appear in a book, so if you want to help me out, go to:

And vote for him. Jeff McMillan. They call him Coach Mac, which would be cool in a book, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Books!

I envy the public libraries yellow "new" tape-- I just tell new books by whether or not they have the structural integrity left to stand up by themselves.

Joanne Dahme's The Plague left me wondering about the historical accuracy of the characters-- it involves Joan, the daughter of King Edward the Third, and a commoner, Nell, who is under the care of the royal household because of her resemblance to the princess. When Joan dies of the plague, her brother, the Black Prince, tries to pass Nell off as the princess so a royal marriage can still be carried out. Nell and her younger brother have a lot of adventures eluding the prince. Plague books are very popular, and this one was engaging even if it was more fiction than fact. Notes at the end would have helped.

Gloria Whelan's The Locked Garden was a nice read, rather like curling up with Alcott or Wilder. In the early 1900's, Verna's mother has died, and her father has moved the family, including her aunt Maude, to the grounds of an insane asylum where he works. One of the recovering patients, Eleanor, works for the family and takes wonderful care of Verna and her sister, much to the displeasure of the aunt. While I loved this, I don't know that I will buy it, since historical fiction can be a tough, tough sell.

The sixth (and penultimate? Seven books would make sense, and one comes out in June 2010, at least in the UK) book in the Last Apprentice series was every bit as fabulous as the previous ones, especially since Tom, the Spook, Alice and a whole contingent of Pendle witches travel to Meteora in Greece to help Tom's mother defeat the Ordeen. The Spook is leery of siding with evil, but recognizes that it must be done. He is right to be concerned-- Tom uses a dark wish given to him by Grimalkin to save Alice from being taken by a lamia, and makes a very big sacrifice at the end, which makes him reliant on even more of Alice's black magic.  Alice's struggles to stay on the side of the light are fascinating, and Tom's struggles against the Fiend are also multifaceted. If you don't have this series, buy it immediately.

Sharon Draper's third book after The Battle of Jericho and November Blues has some nice twists in it that I should have seen coming but won't give away. While the cover leads one to believe the book is primarily about an attack on a school, this is a small part of the larger story-- Arielle, who has material advantages that her classmates don't, struggles with a difficult homelife; Jericho, whose parents are no accounts, struggles still with the death of his cousin and also an Oxycontin addiction; November returns to school after having her baby and struggles with balancing her work with motherhood. The theme of never giving up on academics is a strong one, and makes this book particularly sucessful for me. The school shooting, while interesting and timely, was not as interesting to me as the struggles of the students.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Donut Days

Lara Zielin's first novel Donut Days was lots of fun, even though it covered serious issues. Emma's life is in turmoil because her mother, who is a pastor at an evangelical church along with Emma's father, is in danger of losing her job because an outspoken member of the congregation doesn't think women should preach. To complicate matters, there is some romantic involvement with the man's son. As for the donuts, Emma is desperate to go to a secular college, instead of a religious school as her parents want her to, and since the local paper is offering money as a prize for the best article about the camping out of cult followers of the Crispy Dream donut shop soon to open in her town, she wants to absorb this atmosphere and win the contest. Throw in a best friend who has issues, a cute little sister, and the overwhelming feeling that maybe God doesn't speak to her the way he speaks to the rest of her family, and Emma has a lot going on.

I like Emma a lot, and the book was breezy rather than overwrought. It is irreverant, so anyone who believes that questioning one's faith is not a good thing should avoid it. The ending is realistic, with many questions and problems still unresolved.

Thanks to all who commented yesterday. My existential crisis about collection development was abated by the end of the day when I had so many books returned that I had to go get another cart to put them on! Whatever I have in the collection, the students are certainly reading it!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Philosophical Discussion

What should middle school readers read? Children's books? Young adult novels? Adult literature?

Depends on the reader.

My own collection (And really, isn't it? I pick out all the books and decide what stays and goes.) is varied but apparently skews young. Not that my students are reading nothing but Beverly Cleary (her books for younger readers don't circulate much), but I don't have many "young adult" and fewer "adult" titles (most are "classics" like Vanity Fair and Last of the Mohicans that I am slowly weeding). At high school curriculum night last night, another middle school librarian and parent mentioned that she thought high schoolers should read adult fiction, and middle school students young adult. I disagreed.

Is it because I had a child capable of reading Harry Potter at age 6, but didn't want him to miss Magic Treehouse and Morris the Moose? Is it because I wasn't allowed to check out adult books from the library until I was 17? Is it because "young adult" has become so edgy, i.e. filled with sex and profanity?

Perhaps what forms my opinion most is my feeling that we push children to read far above their interest levels. Certainly, if a 6th grader really wants to read The Hobbit, she should. But I weary of students who tell me that their reading level is "so high" and they only like to read "big books" and parents who want to "challenge their students". These students don't seem to be as excited about books as the students who read I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You or Stormbreaker.

Any opinions? I will spend the day doubting my methods and efficacy, which is a good big dose of humble.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Story of...

Also in this Creative Education series are McDonald's, Coca Cola, Disney, Ford, Microsoft and Starbucks. What I like about them is that they give concise but informative histories of companies which interest children. They are short (46 pages) but cover all the information needed, well-illustrated, and inexpensive ($13.66 in Follett Bound). The bright covers attract children. I recommend them for students who have "nothing to do" in study hall. As with most nonfiction, the Accelerated Reader levels on these are high.

LaFevers' second Lothar's Blade book is a must if your library has a big Deltora Quest following. Kenric, having rescued his father from the evil clutches of Lord Mordig, must visit the Fey to try to figure out the secret that will save his world from encroaching evil. The Fey don't want him, his goblin buddy is annoying, and he doesn't yet know what he must do, but he gets to have a lot of adventure while figuring it all out. These are a little cheesy and derivative, but great fun, and a good introduction to fantasy for younger children or struggling middle school readers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spies and adventure!

Hoorah! Ally Carter's newest Gallagher Girls book, Don't Judge a Girl by her Cover arrived in my latest order and was every bit as good as the first two. Cam and her best friend Macey (whose father is a vice presidential candidate) are kidnapped at a political event, but manage to escape due to their spy skills. When Macey returns to school, the Gallagher academy goes into red alert mode, making it hard for everyone. Cam doesn't feel safe, even though her estranged aunt is assigned to Macey's security detail, and is soon embroiled in the mystery of who wants to kidnap her friend. Or is it her friend they are after? And why is Zach hanging around during all of the intrigue? We are left hanging, which is okay, because this means that there is another book!

The fourth installment in The 39 Clues series is Beyond the Grave, by Jude Watson. This takes Amy and Dan to Egypt to follow the clues. They find a friend of their grandmother's, Hilary, and her Egyptologist grandon, who help the siblings by handing over some of the clues. The adventure and suspense are still there, and the addition of the experiences with their grandmother is quite nice. I know Jude Watson mainly for her Star Wars adaptations, but I thought that this installment was especially good.

The fifth is The Black Circle, by Patrick Carman. This time, the group is off to Russia. Dan gets to wield a gold charge card, drive a motorcycle, stay in the Grand Hotel, and replace a picture of his deceased mother and father. This series is quite cohesive, even though each book is by a different author, but there are suble differences in focus that are greatly amusing. I do appreciate how each book recaps the adventures a little, since I tend to forget just where we were. I have one reluctant reader who is just about done with Gordon Korman's Chasing the Falconers series, and this may be the next thing I try with him. Book number 6 (Jude Watson again, with In Too Deep) comes out in 49 days.

Patrick Jones' The Tear Collector is an example of an excellent book I probably won't buy, because it is more suitable for high school, not because of language or content, but more because of tone and complexity. Cassandra and her family get their energy from the tears of others, so they surround themselves with misery-- Cassandra constantly breaks up with boyfriends, volunteers at a cancer ward, and befriends a girl whose sister is dying. When the friend commits suicide and and Cassandra is interested in a boy with whom she doesn't want to break up, she starts to doubt her very existence. The cover blurb flings around the word "vampire", but this skips the horror and delves more into the psychological. Very good.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Not what I wanted.

This just goes to show why I read things. Some reviews make me think that a book will fill a need I have, but sometimes it's not quite right. All synopses from publisher.

Defelice. Signal."After moving with his emotionally distant father to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, twelve-year-old Owen faces a lonely summer until he meets an abused girl who may be a space alien. "

What I wanted: Either science fiction or child abuse. This wasn't quite one or the other. The shorter lenghth makes it better for elementary school. I love this author's Under the Same Sky.

Friedman. The Importance of Wings. "Although she longs to be an all-American girl, Roxanne, a timid, Israeli-born thirteen-year-old who idolizes Wonder Woman, begins to see things differently when the supremely confident Liat, also from Israel, moves into the cursed house next door and they become friends. "
What I wanted: A multicultural novel about an Israeli-American girl. This was more of a historical novel, because the early 80s reference were so thick. This is a fictionalized memoir of the author's life, and she does make special mention that she chose this setting deliberately to avoid the technology that students have today.

Voloni. Rooftop. "Still reeling from seeing police shoot his unarmed cousin to death on the roof of a New York City housing project, seventeen-year-old Clay is dragged into the whirlwind of political manipulation that follows. "
What I wanted: Gritty, inner city novel about drug abuse. This would fit the bill, but the language is too intense. I do have this author's Black and White, which has bad language, because it addresses racial issues that other books don't. If a book has the f-word, it has to be particularly phenomenal in order for me to buy it.

Wyatt. Funny How Things Change. "Remy, a talented, seventeen-year-old auto mechanic, questions his decision to join his girlfriend when she starts college in Pennsylvania, after a visiting artist helps him realize what his family home in a dying West Virginia mountain town means to him."

Freymann-Weyr. After the Moment (Not pictured) "Seventeen-year-old Leigh changes high schools his senior year to help his stepsister and finds himself falling in love with her emotionally disturbed friend, even though he is still attached to a girl back home. "

What I wanted: Romances. However, both of these were too sad to appeal to girls wanting light beach reads, but not sad enough to be billed as problem novels. Perhaps for high school.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Demon's Lexicon

Sarah Rees Brennan's first novel, The Demon's Lexicon, was so good that I took my time reading it even though I have a huge pile of books to work through. The language was so clever (first paragraph: "The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink." Okay, tell me more!), the plot fast paced (explosion on page 4!), the characters complex and likeable AND it involved demons and evil magicians. Alan and Nick are being pursued by magicians who want to get an amulet from their mother, who was driven mad when their father was killed. As a result, they have to move frequently, whenever the magicians locate them. The last time they do, two school mates of Nick's show up with problems of their own. Mae is concerned because her brother Jamie has a demon's mark-- a third tier one, which means he must die. Since Alan has a crush on Mae, he tries to help, and ends up with marks of his own. In order to remove these marks (which allow demons to possess the boys), the group must locate Black Arthut and his Obsidian Circle of magicians and kill two of them. Things become more and more complicated when it turns out that Nick is not who he believes himself to be.

Really--wow! Clever, clever language, and just a great read. Darren Shan fans, fantasy fans, horror fans, mystery fans-- this is something for everyone. It seems as if there is room for a sequel, but the book if brought to a satisfactory conclusion if there is not. Have to get two copies.

I also enjoyed Cara Haycak's Living on Impulse. Mia Morrow likes to shoplift for thrills, but when she gets caught and stuck with a $300 fine, she has to get a job to pay it off. Her ailing grandfather wants more for her than her own mother accomplished, but Mia doesn't think college is for her. This causes her friends to drop her, and she begins to rethink her goals. This is really more of a high school title, because the bad choices Mia makes involve drinking, clubbing, and some recreational drug use. I'll have to stick to Eyerly's Angel Baker, Thief for something about shoplifting.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

New books from the public library!!!!

Tim Bowler's Blade: Playing Dead was the best title of the night, even though I didn't want to like it. The students will be attracted by the title as well as the subject listings: Street children, violence, murder, gangs. The style is heavy on dialogue and the first person narrative moves quickly. I would have to categorize this as a mystery. Blade (aka Jonny, Slicky, etc.) is a homeless child who manages to survive alone by locating "snugs", houses where he can sleep for the night or day when the owners are out. After being attacked by a gang and having his clothes stolen, he is helped by a wary elderly woman who gives him clothes and food... and then is brutally murdered. Is it by people who are after Blade? When the same people come looking for him, and murder the leader of the gang who attacked him, Blade has to figure a way to escape them. It bothered me that I never found out who the "Bigeyes" Blade addresses frequently is, but this was an oddly compelling book, and blissfully free of bad language. Readers who like Morgenroth's Jude will pick this up.

While I enjoyed Barbara Dana's A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson, I don't think I will buy it for my library. It is beautifully done, and quite evocative of Dickinson's poetry, but to fully enjoy the book it was necessary to be well versed in Dickinson's work and have some knowledge of the time in which she lived and the circumstances of her life. Still, if you have a population of students who are very interested in this author, it would be a great book for them to have.

Penny Blubaugh's Seredipity Market confused me a bit, because I thought it was going to be about an exotic foreign country. Instead, it was about a woman who gathers story tellers to tell their tales (reworkings of fairy tales, mainly) so that order is restored to the universe. Lyrical and beautifully written, this has award winner written all over it, but I just can't think of any students who would want to read it.

Michael Coleman's The Snog Log is one I am getting a second opinion on, since I have never been a teenaged boy. The story of a group of British school boys who set up a contest to see who can kiss the most girls, it definitely objectifies girls and focuses a lot of attention on portions of the anatomy. The main character, Robbie, does see the error of his ways, which redeems the book, but I'm just not sure. My son is reading it and will give me a report. This was billed as Louise Rennison for the male reader, and certainly the boys do look for books about romance. I'm just not sure this is the book.
9/10-- My son lists this is his top 25 favorite books. While I was a little uncomfortable with the topic, it obviously spoke to my son. He feels that the boys grow enough in the book to excuse their obsessions, which are, after all, something that some boys do think about. The language was circumspect enough that it is suitable for middle school. I'll be interested to see what Boys Read or Guys Lit Wire think about it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Books I will probably never, ever finish

Since my daughter had Thoreau's Walden as a choice for her year long journal project, I thought that I would try to read it. Again. I took it with me on Saturday, when I spent seven hours standing in a field waiting for various cross country races. I didn't have anything else to do, and I only got through 50 pages. While the concepts are no doubt wonderful philosophy, the prose was so dense and convoluted that it made me want to cry. This marks the ninth or tenth time I have tried this book over the past 30 years, and I don't know that I will ever make it through. Perhaps a few pages at a time, but I don't think that I will ever be able to tell anyone else what the book is about. I am not recommending that my daughter, who liked 1984 (which I found difficult going as a teenager) , read this.

The other notable book that I have never finished was Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. I'm surprised it didn't end up on this same sophomore reading list. For reasons I still don't completely understand, I bought a new paperback copy of this title and kept it for some twenty years, never getting further than chapter four. Eventually, I gave up.
So, readers: how many of you have gotten through these titles? Should I persevere? Notice that I didn't even list Joyce's Ulysses. Since I couldn't even make it past the first page, it's not even fair to say I attempted it!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Presidential Address

Sorry. Have to chime in on this. President Obama is addressing students on September 8th to encourage them to succeed in school. Parents are angry that their children will be "indoctrinated".

What's next? Second graders can't all watch as Skylab goes up? It's the president. It's a message teachers and parents send to students every day.

My only complaint? It's a live web cast. How, exactly, does President Obama expect children in the classroom to see this? Thirty students all hovered around the one teacher computer in the room? Will our internet even be fast enough to stream it properly? We don't have the LCD projectors to serve the whole building, most of the SVID connections of the televisions don't work, and we can't fit all the students in the lab. And I teach at a fairly well-off school. There are some schools where showing this at all will not even be an option.

The method of delivery does show some lack of basic understanding of the resources of public schools.

Williams and Winslow

Nearing the end of the alphabet, fiction-wise! Laura William's Behind the Bedroom Wall was a bit different for a Holocaust story, because the main character, Korinna, was involved in the Hitler youth. She is not entirely comfortable with the ill-treatment of Jews in her neighborhood, but buys the party line that the Jews are ruining Germany. When she finds out that her parents have a Jewish mother and daughter hiding behind the wall in her bedroom, she knows she should turn in her parents, but also knows that they will be shot as traitors. She learns to like the people who are dependent on her family for her survival, and grows as a person. A good addition to a collection if your students study the Holocaust, although the poor quality illustrations did not add anything to this book for me.

Joan Winslow's Romance is a Riot was published the year I graduated from high school, 1983. I am constantly amazed at how truly bad the covers on some of the books were. This was checked out frequently until 1992, and only a few times since. It's not a bad story, but clearly "high school" at the time, because a little drinking occurs. Ann's boyfriend doesn't want her to break up with him, and goes a bit nuts. Today we would call him a stalker, or send him to a psychiatrist. Ann is also dealing with her parents' separation (apparently a big topic of YA lit in the '80s), and other facets of high school life. I got a bit distracted by the brief wardrobe descriptions, and current students will wonder why she wore so many skirts. There are some girls to whom I will pitch this one, but it may just be too dated. It would be like me checking out a book from 1951 when I was in middle school. Hmmm.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Fast Talk on a Slow Track

Rita Garcia-Williams' 1991 book is good, but somewhat dated. Denzel is the valedictorian of his class, and has been accepted into Princeton with the understanding that he will take a remedial summer program. This makes him angry, not only because he thinks he is smart enough not to need remediation, but because he begins to realize that he does. When he returns home from the summer program, he gets a job selling candy door-to-door and realizes that he is a good salesman. He begins to think that his future lies in this direction rather than college, until he sees things go wrong for friends who are heading in that direction, and it's clear to him that even though college will be hard work, it will be worth it.

The cover on my copy is very dated, with an early Will Smith hairdo on the character of Denzel. Still, this is a good title for fans of the Bluford High series, and while it has an important message, does not become overly preachy.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Difficult Choices

It doesn't seem right that I would spend money on fluff like David Van Etten's Likely Story #2, All That Glitters, but I did, and it was a good choice. Why would the continuing story of a girl whose mother is a soap opera star, and who gets a chance to write and produce her own soap opera be a good choice? I have a large female readership that likes fluffy, amusing books. These girls will often read two books a day, and it is difficult to fill their demands. The writing in this series is facile, the characters well-developed, the setting exotic, and the entire package a whole lot of guilty fun. Would I want an entire library of such books? No. But I need a lot of them.

Fantasy, however, is a different story. I have fewer fans, but the ones I have are extremely discerning. The customer base for titles over 200 pages is comprised of 8th graders, who want more mature characters. Students who need to read fantasy to fulfill requirements want fantasy that is very fast-paced. Not all fantasy books (or other books for that matter) that are published strike me as books that balance what my students seek. I can't buy everything. I need to choose.

Sam Llewellyn was kind enough to comment politely on my review of his book, Lyonesse: The Well Between the Worlds, that was not positive. The sequel to this book, Darksolstice, comes out in the spring of 2010. I will take a look at it, and depending on my library's needs at the time, may decide to purchase both books. I may not. Occasionally, I do wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but I try to couch my appraisals of books in terms of what my school needs and my personal preferences. (The Warriors series is hugely popular in my school, and I still find the books personally very, very painful to read.) Lyonesse certainly got very nice reviews from Booklist, Horn Book, Publisher's Weekly, and many other mainstream reviewers which librarians consult. Those certainly influence far more purchases than this small blog. I wish Mr. Llewellyn the best, and am trying to track down copies of his book, Little Darlings, that does look like something that my students would like.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Divorce books, older titles.

Working my way through the end of the collection, and had to read Van Leeuwen's Blue Sky Butterfly(1996). Twig's family has always been happy, but her parents have separated because they don't make each other happy anymore, and her father has moved out. Her mother, distraught, neglects all the housework and cooking, and spends most of her time studying. Twig refuses to see her father, and tries to cope by learning to cook. When things are really bad, she calls her exuberant grandmother, who helps by restoring order to the house and giving Twig a sense of optimism. Twig's brother starts to see their father, her mother takes up gardening and returns to her normal household duties, and Twig begins to realize that while life will not be the same, it will be okay.

Also picked up Wallace's Beauty(1988). In this, Luke's parents have split up and financial difficulties force him and his mother to move in with his grandfather on his farm. His plight is eased by a horse named Beauty, to whom he can talk about all of his difficulties. There are some problems-- his grandfather has a farm accident, and Beauty meets a sad end.
My copy of this is waterstained, a bit smelly, and has a wholly unappealing cover. Both of these titles are very slow reads, which is probably why they haven't been checked out in some time. Tastes change. Perhaps students used to like to read lyrically written books about family pathos. Perhaps there just wasn't anything else.

You would think that Carman's third Atherton book, The Dark Planet, would have hit the spot after reading these two, but I think I got it on a bad day. It has all of the adventure and excitement of the first two books. Edgar, in his traveling around the newly reconfigured planet of Atherton, finds a shuttle that takes him to the Dark Planet, where children are enslaved making food and sold to traders when they are 4200 days old, presumably for evil purposes. Edgar manages to rescue the children and put in place the mechanisms to save the Dark Planet. Students who like the first two will find this a worthy ending, but there were just some unanswered questions that took away from my enjoyment of this. One very nice touch, though-- the beginning of the book synopsizes the other two, and has a list of characters. This was very helpful in getting me back up to speed.
A teacher brough this article from The New York Times to my attention:
There are some schools that are letting students pick books that they actually enjoy reading instead of automatically assigning To Kill A Mockingbird to everyone. I thought that the titles discussed in the article seemed awfully old for middle school students. There's a lot of quality literature for young adults-- why make 8th graders read adult fiction? I side with providing choices of quality literature for children. We no longer live in a society where we embrace common canons of anything. Students don't even listen to entire albums of music, and won't be able to sit around at their high school reunions and talk about what everyone watched on television on Thursday nights. Having a passing idea of what To Kill a Mockingbird is about-- great. Spending nine weeks reading it as a class and discussing it-- great way to kill the love of reading.
Things change.