Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why Laurie Halse Anderson's _Speak_ reminds me of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

     Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has become a kind of a modern classic, but I haven't ever gotten around to reading it until this morning.  And I have to say it reminds me a lot of Lord of the Rings. 
     Not, of course, in terms of the story.  You will find no hobbits, dwarves, elves, or ringwraiths here.  Melinda does not have a magic ring or reforged sword to fight evil with.  And Speak certainly isn't written as a fantasy, rather it is suburban realism.  No, instead the similarity has to do with hope.
     In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, is given what seems an impossible task -- to hike across what seems like thousands of miles of enemy territory to destroy an incredibly powerful enchanted ring.  Whole armies of terrible creatures are arrayed against him -- and as he journeys on, the chances that he will succeed seem to grow smaller and smaller.  Toward the end of the last book, the hope that Frodo can fulfill his task and save the world becomes the tiniest spark.
     But that spark is always there.
     In Speak, Melinda is beginning high school under nearly impossible conditions.  The summer between middle school and high school, she was invited to a party, and we are told that she called the cops on the party.  As a result, the group of friends she has grown up with has not only deserted her, but are actively working to ruin her life.  On the first day of school, a kid upends his lunch all over her, gaining her exactly the wrong kind of attention.  As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Melinda is deeply trouble by something in her past, but also that her teachers (with the exception of her art teacher) go from being allies to enemies, that her parents are so caught up in their own squabbles and the challenges of their lives that they offer no comfort, and finally that her only friend is more interested in becoming popular than in listening to what she might have to say.  Melinda starts to shut down, to withdrawal, to hurt herself, and to sink into depression and self loathing. 
     But, though hope seems to be fading, there is always at least a spark.   She finds hope when her science partner stands up to their bigoted history teacher, when her art teacher doesn't give up on her, and even when a message she scrawls on a bathroom stall shows her that she is not alone.
     In Lord of the Rings, things stay desperate almost to the very end.  In Speak, the turn comes in the final couple of pages.  And maybe I am showing my over-sentimentality here, but I would argue that it is an ending worth waiting for -- even though in the end of both books we are left not with a perfect restoration of a perfect world, but rather with a bright shining window of hope thrown open, instead of a tiny spark shining through a keyhole.  It is a satisfying story to read.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Beautiful picture book for art and spanish teachers

     My brother Mike is an art teacher and spends most days of the week immersed in helping students make and understand art.  I go to the Art Institute of Chicago a couple of times a year.  My good friend Jim is also a high school art teacher.  He takes his students to Chicago to visit the gallery district and some art museums I have never heard of.  I enjoy outdoor sculpture when I notice it.  So I am an amatuer.  I am not confident that I know what good art is.  I am not certain that when I look at a painting I know what to look for.  I know that when Mike or Jim look at a painting, they are seeing far more than I am.  I am vaguely familiar with Piccasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Georgia O'Keefe.  I have heard of Diego Rivera, but am not certain that, as of two weeks ago, I could have told you what country he is from or what his style looks like.
     Then I read the picture book, Diego Rivera:  His World and his Work by Duncan Tonatiuh (2011, New York: Abrams). 

It is a pretty simple biography of Rivera and tells of his early childhood in Guanajuanto, Mexico, of his art education in Spain and France, and of his return to Mexico to paint murals.  It talks of his gradual development of a style deeply influenced by ancient Mexican art.  It tells of his desire to show the ordinary people of his homeland, and make their world the subject of his art.  And then Tonatiuh experiments with Rivera's style to ask young readers to imagine what subjects he would paint if he were alive today.  The book ends with a challenge for young artists to uphold Rivera's legacy as they decide what they will draw or paint.
     I know the book isn't comprehensive.  I know it doesn't say a single word about Rivera's passionate and sometimes bizzare relationship with Frida Kahlo.  I know that the final section goes on a bit long. At the same time, though. I love the way Tonatiuh appropriates Rivera's style to show images from his life, like this one of Rivera as a yonng boy:


or this one of him working on a mural:

This would be a great book for art lessons for little kids -- first, second, third grade -- but I also think students through high school would get a kick out of the images.  I liked it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Excellent Graphic Novel! (for 4th graders through 47 year olds)

Kibuishi, Kazu (2012)  Explorer: The Mystery Boxes.  New York:  Amulet

      Brilliant.  Absolutely brilliant.  So this editor guy, Kazu Kibuishi (never heard of him before) is brilliant.  Brilliant, I say. 
      He gathered together some amazing up and coming graphic novel creators (including Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile and Drama; and a bunch of other animators and graphic novel contributors) and asked them to create stories with the common element of a mystery box somewhere in the story.  The resulting book has seven amazingly diverse yet somehow connected stories.  A girl finds a box with a wax doll in it who (much to the delight of the girl) takes over her chores and her homework -- then starts to take over her life (until the girl comes up with a plan to get her life back).  Two friends find a magical box and are amazed when oddly-dressed wizards begin showing up at their door trying to buy it.  A young knight finds that the treature at the end of a quest is not always what you expect.  A young girl hoping to avenge her dad gets a lesson in the futility of war and the value of love.  A young hiker abducted by aliens needs to chose between all that the interplanetary worlds have to offer and the chance to go back and save his planet for environmental destruction.  All these and lots more stories besides. 

      The stories are well told both in terms of text and in terms of the art.  There is everything in here from cartoonish stuff to realistic images  to art that seems to let you pass into another world.  The art and text work well together and let you easily fall into each story. 
      This is an excellent book for introducing kids who may not be familiar with graphic novels into that mode of storytelling.  This is an excellent book for helping kids recognize themes like self-sufficiancy, the value of forgiveness, the glory of friendship. and how sometimes it isn't the end of the search but the saearch itself that is morst important.  Bottom line, though, this is just a good book.

      Fourth graders should be able to read this on their own.  I am 45 years old and I liked it a great deal.  Pick this one up.  You'll enjoy it.

P.S. -- Someone suggested I add a feature that allows folks to sort of subscribe to this blog thing or whatever.  I think I did that.  I think it is to the right of these words (and maybe up a little bit.).  For waht that is worth.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Excellent History of Slavery in the United States: Not for Young Adults Only

Johnson, Charles; Smith, Patricia (1998) Africans in America:  America’s Journey through Slavery.  San Diego:  Harvest.    

     Sometimes when I am thinking about good books for students in high school I find I am so caught up in the amazing possibilities in adolescent and young adult literature that I forget that high school students will soon be college students or simply adults.  Part of the task of a high school teacher or librarian is to help students start to make the transition to the regular section of the book store or library.
     Over Christmas break I ran across a history book that might help do just that.  It is Charles Johnson and Patrica Smith's Africans in America:  America’s Journey through Slavery.  It is an interesting book -- combining regular text with photographs, drawings, and documents (as many history books do) along with brief fictionalized vignettes at the beginning of each section (written by Johnson, author of the brilliant novel Middle Passage).  All of this does a really nice job of taking us through the transition of indentured servanthood into slavery; into the brutality of slave capture, the Middle Passage, and the harsh treatment in the United States; into the fight for abolition; through the civil war; and through the end of legal slavery and what followed after. 

      It is a big book (the text runs 445 page not including the end notes) but there is nothing in here that an average  high school student would be incapable of reading -- and much they would find fascinating.  Here is the story of George Washinton's slaves, the story of slave revolts and walkouts, the story of the parts that slaves played in plagues and wars, the story of bounty hunters and how slaves worked together to evade them, and so much more.  Well worth reading.

Hey, speaking of bookstores, over break I also got a chance to visit the new Sem Co-Op bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago.  I was worried that the new store would lack the bizarre nooks and dead-end passages of the old space.  Turns out it is an excellent space -- with lots of nooks but also somehow natural light.  Well worth a visit.  Here are some pictures of the new space:

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A horrible, horrible train wreck of a book

     In life there are many books worth caring about.  There are a few truely excellent books -- books that make you want to pound the table and tell someone you care about that you just read this amazing book that somehow grabbed hold of you and although you could summarize the plot for them, it wouldn't matter because really, they just have to read it.  Right now.  Many books are simply good -- they are worth reading, they are entertaining, and they make you think or feel something.  There are also many mediocre books -- books that never rise to the level of being commented upon.  They are badly written, uninteresting to children or adults, pointless, and at the end of reading them you feel nothing but astonishment that you have wasted time reading them (though if you are reasonably intelligent, you don't bother reading past page six. )
     And then, every now and then, there comes a book that is really truely horrible, flawed in some way that is, perhaps, hard to figure out.  Or maybe it is a book that contains a message that is, at its heart, simply and profoundly wrong.  Nothing, by Janne Teller (2000, Atheneum), is such a book. 
     I recognize that I am venturing into the thin ice of opinion and value judgements here.  That is okay.  I will make my case, and if you doubt me, go read the book.  It did, after all, win the Batchelder award for best children's novel translated from a language other than English (and usually, I enjoy the Batchelder winners quite a lot.) 

     It all begins in Denmark with a student (the book never specifies the grade level of the characters, but they seem to me to be in middle school) named Pierre Anthon.  Pierre has had a revelation that nothing matters, and therefore nothing is worth doing.  And so he stops coming to school.  Logically, perhaps, that is where the book should end.  But Pierre, it turns out, is rather evengelical about his new-found existentialist beliefs.  And so he mocks the other children from his perch high in a plum tree.  He says that they are stupid to care about life and about other people.  And perhaps that is where the book should end, with a bunch of annoyed children having to cross to the other side of the street to avoid the crazy existentialist in the plum tree. 
     Instead, however, the children are deeply and profoundly shaken by Pierre's beliefs.  At first they try to pelt Pierre with stones, but that doesn't seem to help.  Then they get this idea (and here is where logic and believability pack their bags and leave the book for good) that the best way to fight against Pierre's weird ideas is to go out to the abandoned sawmill on the edge of town and make a collection of things that matter -- then later they will show him this pile of stuff and he will abandon his strange ideas. 
     And then the novel starts to go all Lord-of-the-Flies on us.  The group of children decide that they will determine collectively what matters most to each person and then that person must then give up that thing.  It starts out simply enough -- one girl must give up her sandles, and a boy his yellow bike, but as the kids grow resentful about what they have been forced to abandon, they keep rasing the stakes on each other.  So soon they must steal things that matter from school and church, murder their pets, dig up one girl's deceased baby brother from the cemetary, one girl must give up her virginity, and finally, they all agree that the ringleader who got them into all this must give up his index finger, since he plays the guitar and that matters to him.  So they cut it off for him. 
     It is only at this point that adults seem to notice.  Parents get a bit angry (though not much, it must be said).  The story gets picked up by the news and goes international, and an art museum offers them a lot of money for their pile of things that matter.  I won't give away the ending (not that it matters much), but suffice it to say that the book seems to conclude that Pierre was right.  There isn't  much point to life.  And that is where the reader is left.
     If it is such a horrible book, why do I bother talking about it at all?  Well, actually, I think it is a fascinating example by contrast of what makes adolescent literature wonderful.  This book is implausible, and relies on the characters doing things that don't make much sense.  But a lot of characters are like that.  Does it make logical sense for Frodo to accept the responsibility for carrying the ring to Mordor when he is the smallest and weakest of the fellowship?  Does it make logical sense for Harry Potter to go into the dark basement of Hogwarts without telling an adult?  So what is the difference here?
     I think it is two things.  First, the world that a young adult novelist creates must be internally consistant.  Frodo carries the ring because that is the sort of person he is.  We see his courage and stoutheartedness earlier in the book, before he accepts the task.  When Harry and his friends get into dangerous territory, they either don't realize what they are getting into, or they have some other motivation that makes sense in the context of the story.
     The second thing is what is at stake.  Frodo must carry the ring because there is a great deal depending on it.  Same thing for Harry. Same thing for most good books.  They undertake difficult tasks and put their lives on the line because something matters a great deal. 
     I think the single greatest flaw of Nothing is that the only motivation for anyone in this book is a deep fear that Pierre may be right and nothing really matters in life.  That is, perhaps, a good reason to stay in bed all day.  Or maybe it is a good reason to act like a jerk to other people.  But it is not much of a reason to steal, give up objects that have sentimental value, risk being caught exhuming the body of a baby in the middle of the night or stealing the statue of Jesus on the cross from the front of the village church, or giving up your virginity, or letting your friends hack off your finger. 
     It doesn't leave the reader with much of a reason to read the book either.   

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The 206 books of 2012

Last year I had a sabbatical in the Spring.  Partly to keep a record for my official sabbatical report and partly because I was curious, I kept a record of everything I read from the beginning of my sabbatical on January first through the end of it in mid May.  At that point, though, I decided to keep going and ended up keeping a record through the whole year.  Here is a quick report on what I read:

Total number of books read:  206

Graphic Novels read:  79

The best of the lot were probably George O'Connor's series about the Greek gods and goddesses.  O'Connor does an excellent job using the graphic novel form to tell stories.  I also liked the book Town Boy by Lat (that is, apparently, his whole name) which concerns a boy and his friend growing up in Malaysia. 

Adolescent Non-fiction read:  3

Okay, so I don't read a lot of non-fiction.  By far the best, though, was Elizabeth Partridge's This Land was made for you and me:  Life and songs of Woody Guthrie.  My brother Tom is the music critic in the family, and so this isn't a subject I know much about, but the book did an amazing job of presenting Guthrie's life with all of its triumphs, contradictions, challenges, and changes in a way that was gripping.  And it is a non-fiction book.  Well worth checking out.

Adolescent Novels read:  44

The best one, hands down, was Michael Chabon's Wonderland.  The review of that book is actually the first review on this blog, and consequently is somewhere underneath us, I think.  (I still haven't mastered all this blog ruckus)

Books about education theory and practice read:  29

A lot of this was pretty dry and esoteric and though I found it a great deal of fun to read as a literacy researcher, I am not so deluded that I believe that normal human beings would have nuch interest in it.  Having said that, the book I enjoyed the most (which might also have the widest appeal) was Nerds: Who they are and why we need more of them, by David Andereg.  I always like reading about my people.

General Interest books read:  30

This was a catch-all category that included both fiction and non-fiction.  The book that stuck with me the most, though, was Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.  It is a hard book to summarize because it covers so much territory, but essentailly it is about a frontier woman who disguises herself as a priest and serves for many years in a small outpost village.  It is amazingly well written, and the story, voice, and images all stay with you long after you have finished the book. 

Picture books read:  9

Well, new ones anyway.  I read some good ones, but none of the new ones really grabbed me.

Books on Children's Literature criticism read:  12

There were a bunch of these that were interesting in terms of the research I do but again, not so much for normal people.  By far the most interesting one, though, had a pretty wide appeal.  That book was  Neil Gaiman's Don't Panic:  Douglas Adamas and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  This book taught me a lot about Adams, about children's literature and literature in general, and it also reminded me why I love the Hitchhiker's Guide books so much. 

A few minutes ago I finished my first book of 2013.  If you'll excuse me, I need to go start a list.