Sunday, December 23, 2012

I love this book, but I am not sure I can recommend it (or even review it).

I read Pam Munoz Ryan's book, The Dreamer (2010, Scholastic).  And frankly, I am not sure what I can tell you about it.
     It starts out slow, and even seems aimless in parts.  The main character, Naftali Reyes seems like a good-hearted kid who is unlucky enough to have a really emotionally abusive father.  So Naftali keeps getting in trouble for not paying attention and not focusing and being too frail.  And I feel bad for him, I really do, but he is not the kind of kid who you get to love immediately.The book didn't really start to take off until over a hundred pages in, when Naftali's father takes the family on a vacation.  Each morning the father insists that Naftali and his younger sister go swimming in the ocean -- even though they nearly drown more than once.  When that swim is done, the children have the rest of the day to do with as they want.  Naftali finishes all of his books and wanders into town looking for the library.  Instead he has a brief encounter witht he town librarian -- an old man who seems to be the best of the breed.  That scene made me want to keep reading.  From there on things get more interesting and Naftali starts to take hold of his life.  He finds a job.  He finds purpose.  He finds a girl he loves.  He finds his voice.  And then... And then...

     And then... But I can't tell you.  If I did it would ruin the surprise.  And it is a grand surprise if you are fairly well read, especially in 20th century poets.  But see, here is the other problem with the book.  Once it finally gets going and builds to this amazing surprise, it is unlikely to catch any of your students because they will not have read the one poet you need to have read for the surprise to make any sense. 
    Peter Sis's drawings are wonderful.  I really liked the book after I got the the surprise.  But I don't think it is going to work for your students.
     So read it already.  Maybe even recommend it to the kind of kid willing to do some research to figure out why the surprise is such a big deal.  But don't figure on this book being the next big hit in your classroom.  Sigh. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

So B. It (A novel by Sarah Weeks)

     When Heidi was a baby, her mother appeared at Bernadette's door, wet from the rain and clearly cognitively different enough that she was unable to raise a baby alone.  As Heidi grew, she was rasied by Bernadette and helped to care for her mother (who cannot tie her own shoes without assistance).  Now Heidi is twelve and starting to wonder about her mother and where she came from.  She has a few clues -- mainly a roll of film from a camera that was with the stuff her mom brought with her.  Heidi has decided that she wants to run down one of those clues -- a sign in one of the pictures says "Hilltop Home --Liberty, New York."  Unfortunatley, Heidi, Bernadette, and Heidi's Mom live in Reno, Nevada.  Add to that Bernadette's extreme agoraphobia that makes it impossible for her to leave the house, and you have an interesting problem for Heidi to try to solve.
     Heidi ends up crossing the country by bus and avoids detection by the authorities by attaching herself to different adults as she travels.  She learns a lot about honesty and dishonesty, and how the line between childhood and adulthood is not as clear as some might think.  And when she finally makes it to Liberty, New York, what she has learned about telling truth from lies gets its most severe test yet. 

      Sarah Weeks's novel So B. It (2004) has some interesting things to say about special education and some of the moral responsibiliites involved.  It has some interesting things to say about how some children must accept responsibilities far earlier than we think -- and how some adults spend much of thier lives running from those same responsibilities.  It has a couple of nice twists in the ending and has a strong and heartwarming ending.  Not the best book I have read this year, but far from the worst.  It would be a good book for middle school and high school teachers to have on hand to pass to students who need a solid and reasonably intelligent book to read. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Yolanda's Genius -- good for music teachers, Special Ed teachers, and language arts teachers (Also for people who like Chicago, the Blues, and good stories).

     A while ago at a thrift store I picked up Yolanda's Genius by Carol Fenner.  It was a Newbery Honor book in 1995 and I had never heard of it before.  Turns out it is wonderfully quirky book, suitable for middle school or high school students.
     The story, in brief, is this.  Yolanda and her little brother, Andrew are two African-American kids living with their mom in Chicago (where Mama works as a paralegal.)  They live in a decent, but not perfect neighborhood.  Yolanda has friends there and is happy.  She looks after Andrew who struggles in school but is an amazing harmonica player (their father gave Andrew a harmonica shortly before he passed away.) 
     Then one day Andrew comes home from school with a little baggy of white powder that some older kids in school told him would help him feel good.  He offers it to his mama when she comes home with a headache and she is horrified and decides on the spot that they are leaving Chicago.  Mama gets a job in Grand River, Michagan (which seems to be psuedonym for my native Grand Rapids).  Yolanda hates leaving Chicago and is not looking forward to the move.
     In Grand River, Yolanda finds a new friend, Andrew's harmonica gets smashed by some older kids, and Yolanda comes up with a crazy plan to buy Andrew a new Harmonica, return to Chicago, and help everyone to see that even though Andrew cannot read or do well in school, he is, nonetheless a genius.

     The ending is perhaps a bit improbable -- but fun all the same. 
     This is the sort of book that could help a reader learn to love music, a music kid learn to love reading, and anybody who reads it to understand that differences are not always disabilities.  Having said that, though it is a good read, it will probably not become your favorite book in the whole world.  Still. worth checking out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Time Travel, Intrigue, and Romance (kind of)

     Kerstin Gier's Ruby Red starts out kind of slow (the main character doesn't travel through time until chapter 3) and the cover isn't too interesting, and I wasn't really sure this was the kind of book I would like.  In the first two chapters, after all, we meet Gwyneth and her cousin Charlotte and find out that Charlotte has a genetic predisposition for time travel -- something which Gwyneth seems to have missed because she was born on the wrong day.  Genetic time travel?  It seemed like kind of a lame premise.  I thougth about quitting after two chapters..
     Then I read chapter two.
      And suddenly everything started getting really interesting. Gwyneth starts to get a headache and vertigo and suddenly finds herself transported about a hundred years back in time.  She goes back to where her house is in that time period, and is about to ring the bell when she phases back to her own time.  Suddenly she has problems.  She can't control the time shifting.  She doesn't want to tell her mom about it because her mom never believed her stories about the ghosts she can sometimes see.  She doesn't want to tell her cousin because her cousin will be jealous.  Time travel itself is disorienting and confusing, especially when she doesn't know when or where she is.  She also has begun to figure out in her time travelling and snooping around the house that at least part of her extended family is fighting a war through time travel, and she suspects she might be on the wrong side of it.  What is at stake in the war is a machine that can control the destinations of the time travellors.  Without access to that machine, Gwyneth may end up time shifting uncontrollably for hte rest of her life. 

And as I read on, I started to like Gwyneth.  She is a strong girl in a difficult situation.  I was bothered a bit by her tendency to reference popular movies a bit too much.  But she seems to get the hang of escaping from difficult situations.  The romantic sub-plot is also interesting.  And, although the ending seemed designed for a sequel (This is the first book in a trilogy) it was still a good conclusion.  This book might be a good suggestion for any student who seems a little too obsessed with the twilight series. 
     It doesn't seem to me have any particular applications to other subjects, but is a fun book to engage girl readers in middle school or high school.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Moon Moth -- The Return of Real Science Fiction -- in a graphic novel

     When I was a young nerd in middle school, once a week or so I would walk to my Grandpa and Uncle Dirk's house.  They were both professors and their house, despite the best efforts of my mom and her sisters, always seemed in a perpetual state of rumpled disorder -- rather like a library that someone had been living in.  In that house I was given free reign of the study in the basement -- with no one asking me when I would be done looking at books so I could clean my room or mow the grass or whatever.  It was glorious. 
     The basement study had shelf upon shelf of philosophy and theology and history and astronomy.  But my favorite section was the old science fiction that my Uncle Dirk had bought in his younger days.  Here were endless issues of Astounding Science Fiction -- each about he size of a slightly overgrown paperback.  Here were books by Phillip K. Dick, A.E. VanVoight, Asimov, Bradbury, Larry Nivin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursala K. LeGuin.  And these books were not action movies set on other planets, these were first of all SCIENCE fiction.  Within them were concepts of physics and time travel, astronomy, sociology, psychology, and biology -- ranging from well-grounded theories applied to new environments, to whacked-out crazy thoeries that were fun to read about.  Though such fiction was sometimes a bit wordy, it was, at its best, fiction that made the reader think and wonder and dream.  I loved it.
     Star Wars came along (and I fell in love with that sort of story as well) but other than Blade Runner's brief revival of Phillip K. Dick's work, pure science fiction fell by the wayside, replaced by novels and stories that seemed to have a far better grasp of how to tell a story, but much less interest in the science. 
     And now, out of the blue, First Second publishers and Humayoun Ibrahim (who is a graphic novel creator I have never heard of before) bring out a brilliant new adaptation of Jack Vance's The Moon Moth

The story is a little hard to explain.  Edwer Thissell is an ambassader of sorts from Earth tot he planet Sirene.  Thissell has arrived on the planet with very little briefing but soon finds it a bewildering place.  The inhabitants of Sirene all wear masks to indicate their social status.  They communicate multimodally using words and music -- with different instruments indicating different social situations.  The moral code of their society is based on each person acting in his or her self-interest.  And Thissel has to solve a murder -- in this setting where the masks mean you can never tell who you are dealing with, the moral code means that you can never tell who is telling the truth, and errors in musical communication etiquette are punishable by death.
     This book is not for everyone.  But if you (or one of your students) like puzzling things out, like stunningly beautiful illustrations (see below),a good detective story set on another planet, and some excellent story twists at the end, thsi book might become one of your favorites.

It might also fit in well with some high school social studies units (though it would be a stretch.)  Anyway, check it out.  Let me know what you think.