Friday, January 24, 2014

Lucky for Good -- Enhhhh.

Patron, Susan  (2011)  Lucky for Good  New York:  Atheneum

When Patron's first book came out (The Higher Power of Lucky)  it raised a great deal of controversy over its use of the word scrotum in the novel's fist few pages (the dog had slid into a cactus and had been punctured in that area).  When I read that book I remember thinking that, without the controversy, it likely would have faded away without making much of an impact.  Lucky is an interesting character, and the desert outcast community that she lives in is certainly a fascinating place, but the book just didn't grab me much. 

I have much the same reaction to this sequel.  It has an interesting plot (Lucky's adoptive mom is in danger of losing her restaurant, Lucky is in danger of being kicked out of school, and she may also be on the edge of finally finding out details about her real father.)  The story moves, the characters are sympathetic.

I guess what bugged me more than a little was the way the book chose to take pot shots are simple-minded fundamentalist Christians.  To be sure, they are an easy enough (and arguably deserving) target, but it distracted from the story.  Lucky argues with her friend over a seven day creation versus the evidence in the geologic record.  Lucky's friend's Mom seems to read the Bible without much thought or discernment.  Christianity seems very much a black and white, cut and dried sort of thing. And there are Christians like that out there -- but they have been made fun of for so long that it seems like a tired choice. 

I liked reading it, I suppose.  It kept my attention.  But on some level, I found it sort of tiring.  Of course, I could be gone.  Give it a look and see what you think.  This book is probably best for fourth and up.     It can easily be connected to lessons in language arts and science.

My Conflicted Review of Jean Craighead George's "Frightful's Mountain"

George, Jean Craighead  (1999) Frightful's Mountain.  New York:  Scholastic

There are a lot of classic adolescent and young adult books that I have not read, and so now and then I try to get caught up.  Frightful's Mountain is the third book in the series that George began with My Side of the Mountain.  One of the things that struck me when I read this was how different the pacing used to be in young adults books.  Now almost all of them hit the ground running and are non-stop thrills, mystery, cleaver humor and so on.  This book takes its time getting going.  It isn't dull or uninteresting, it is just that George spends some time introducing us to the characters and the setting and it isn't until halfway through the book that the plot really starts to kick in.  The first half of the book reminds me of this classic film they used to show us every other year when I was in elementary school -- "Paddle to the Sea".  In that film (which follows a toy boat as follows melt-water streams to rivers, lakes, and eventually the sea), everything that happens seems more or less random.  There is no agency in the film -- no character with the will or ability to act.  The first half of Frightful's Mountain  feels a bit like that (or maybe it isn't that the characters don't have the ability or will to act -- maybe it is more that, because of their reverence for nature, they chose not to act.

By the middle of the book, though, we are drawn into an interesting story about a nesting falcon, a state mandated bridge repair, a group of people trying to save the nesting falcons, and a pair of poachers.  From there the story runs strong to the end.

Well, except there are moment when it feels like we are getting a lecture about the balance of nature.  I wanted to tell the author to relax -- I got the point.  Having said that, this would be a good book to read in connection with a middle school or high school biology class.

This is a classic book and remains a good choice for fifth and sixth grade and up.  If you have a student or two who need a rest from the fast-paced adolescent novels of today, hand them a copy of Frightful's Mountain and see what happens. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Picture Books about Art

Bjork, Christina and Anderson, Lena (2005) Linnea in Monet's Garden.  Stockholm:  R and S Books.

A little girl named Lennea gets to go to Paris with her elderly friend Mr. Bloom and, both on the way and when she is actually visiting Monet's estate, learns a great deal about the life and art of the famous painter.

The illustrations combine photographs with painting in a way that is engaging and enlightening. The story is interesting and enjoyable to read (though my adult self was wondering why Lennea's parents would let her go to Paris with an elderly friend -- seems a little creepy to me)  I think this book will work best for 2nd through 4th grade -- though teachers and parents may want to know that although the book handles it sensitively,  the book does not shy away from Monet's rather odd domestic situation.  The book also does a nice job of explaining what impressionism is, at a level where students can easily comprehend. 

And because the whole thing is a story of Lennea's journey, it is a remarkably readable introduction to Monet

Barsony, Piotr  (2012) The Stories of the Mona Lisa.  New York:  Sky Pony Press

Barsony takes us on an interesting journey through some really interesting modern and contemporary artists, by showing how each of them might have rendered the Mona Lisa if they had painted it.  We learn about impressionism, cubism, expressionism, minimalism, and surrealism -- and see how the Mona Lisa might have been painted by Van Gogh, Duchamp, Monet, Kandinski, Cezanne, Dali, Worhal, Picasso, Pollack, Lichtenstein, and others.  The narrative offers clear explanations of what each artist was seeking to do. 

In fact, I really enjoyed almost every part of this book, except for one.  I suppose I cannot blame Barsony for including himself as one of the artists, and perhaps his name is a household word in lots of households other than mine, but it seemed to me that his Mona Lisa was more than a little self-aggrandizing.

I could see this being most useful for fifth or sixth grade on up through high school.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hagio, Moto  A Drunken Dream and other Stories.  Seattle:  Fantagraphics

Okay, so I confess, I don't usually cover manga style graphic novels for the blog.  It is not that I am incapable of reading right to left, or that I have some deeply held prejudice against Asian art.  Actually, the real reason is that I feel inadequate.  It is pretty much impossible for me to keep up with regular graphic novels already, and when I see the manga section in a bookstore, my heart sinks, because I know I could start reading now and never catch up.  So I apologize for my shortcomings -- but every now and then I get a strong recommendation or two and I give it a try.  So listen up, Moto Hagio's A Drunken Dream and other Stories is the best example I have ever seen of writing short stories within a graphic novel format. 

Oh, sure, Will Eisner's A Contract with God is a classic and it does a great job of presenting gritty realism in an urban setting.  But Moto's work is beautiful and weird and lyrical and gripping and magical.

I can't do justice to any story with my description, but I'll try to give you a taste.  My favorite story was Iguana Girl.  A woman gives birth to a daughter, but when she is first shown the child, she sees her as an overgrown iguana.  Her husband, the nurses, and everyone else see a normal human baby, but the mother is horrified.  When a second baby is born normal, poor Rika (the iguana girl) begins to suffer neglect and hatred form her mother.  There is a satisfying and somewhat redemptive ending. 

Not all the stories are that odd.  Many are stories of people trying to understand and love each other.  This would work well in a high school literature class -- particularly for AP English I think.  But is also just a really good read.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nerds, Robots, Cheerleaders, Elections for Class President, and Plans Gone Awry (All Wrapped in a Graphic Novel)

Shen, Prudence; Hicks, Faith Erin (2013) Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong.  New York:  First Second

     This is Shen's first book (though, of course, Hick's has proven herself again and again) and for the first attempt out of the gate, I'd say it is a really good story.  Charlie is the captain of the basketball team.  Because of his dorky friend Nate, he finds himself drawn into a competition for budget money between the cheerleaders and the robotics team.  Charlie also finds himself running for student body president and trying to figure out how to deal with his divorced mom and her fiancĂ© coming to his Dad's for thanksgiving.  He also needs to figure out whether to continue dating the cheerleader who doesn't seem to care abut him for anything other than his status, or find out a bit more about the girl on the robotics team, Joanna. 
      Maybe that story sounds a little cliche'd or trite, but it actually does work.  You find yourself rooting for certain characters and against others. The only drawback for teachers who want to include this in their class library is that there is some beer drinking, vulgar language, obscene gestures, and brief references to having sex with goats. That sounds pretty bad, but in the context, it really isn't such a big deal.  That is going to make the book kind of a hard sell for parents, principals, and other authority figures.  I doubt it will bother your students much -- but adults might not be so understanding. 

An Excellent Resource for Middle School and High School Teachers Who Want to do a Better Job of Teaching Reading.

Topping, Donna H.; McManus, Roberta Ann  (2010)  Stuck in the Middle:  Helping Adolescents Read and Write in the Content Areas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Okay, so normally in this blog I just review picture books, middle grade books, graphic novels, and adolescent literature.  Usually I try to avoid textbooks at all costs.  But this is a book that I am going to start using when I teach my Disciplinary Literacy class (instead of Jim Burke's Reading Reminders) as a supplemental text.

It is a well-written text with an intriguing voice, but what I like most of all  is that Topping and McManus get it.  Let me give you a couple of representative quotes and you will see what I mean.

"Demystifying reading is good for everyone.  Beginning is early elementary school, students have heard important messages about being a good reader, but it is ever so important that they see that the teachers of all their subjects understand, value, and enjoy reading as well. They need to know that their content-area teachers have the same knowledge and expectations regarding literacy as their English teachers do..." (p.11)

"What we advocate here is the kind of writing that adds up to a lot of learning -- a way of thinking, a way of figuring out what you think and what you know.  This writing is brief, but their is lots of it and most of it ungraded (did your ears just perk up?)....It is writing to learn, not to produce a finished product."  (p.67)

"We remember one teacher whose units all followed the same pattern:  Present the vocabulary list, read the textbook, outline the chapter, show a video, assign the questions at the end of the chapter, give a test.  Next unit?  Same pattern.  Although we believe in establishing routines so that students understand expectations, this is predictability run amok.  Besides being boring, this pattern plays to the natural strengths of only some of the students... "  (p. 95)

This just seems like a lot of sensible advice -- and I think it would be a good book for an established teacher to read -- they would likely find a lot in here that was affirming, but also some new practical ideas as well.  Good stuff.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Refugees from the French Revolution and Quakers living on the American Frontier? Really?

Higgins, Joanna  (2013)  Waiting for the Queen:  A Novel of Early America  Minneapolis:  Milkweed

So from this blurry cover photograph it will be clear that few boys will be willing to even touch this book -- girl in a blue dress with songbirds and a rose -- no way -- which is too bad, because it is a good one.  The girls (probably sixth grade and up) will likely enjoy it (My students read it aloud to me during a ten hour drive to Northwest Iowa for a conference -- and proved that college studnets find it interesting).

Eugenie is a fifteen year old girl who, along with a group of fleeing nobles, manage to escape the French Revolution by fleeing to the new world.  Eugenie has lived her entire life in luxury with deferential servants and unbelievable wealth.  Their intention is to build a new city of luxury with the gold they have brought with them.

Hannah Kimbrell is an American and a Quaker.  She and her family are helping to build homes for the newcomers.  What they find, however, is that the French are upset that the buildings are no more than log cabins and that their new American servants speak out of turn and do not bow properly.  (The Quakers believe that all people are equal and that no man should bow to another.

The book starts off a bit slow, and for a while we only hear of Eugenie (who is not, initially a very sympathetic character) but by about a third of the way into the book it really starts to pick up steam.

There are some really interesting themes here -- patience versus impatience; slavery versus freedom; adaptability versus tradition, and a few more.  This might be a good book for a class to study -- well, at least the girls. 


Best of the Year Part 2: Picture books and Informational Books

So these two categories are a little tricky.  I read a bunch of books this year that are both picture books and informational books.  So I am kind of going to do my best to put appropriate books into appropriate categories (but know that when it comes to categories and books, the best books are category-elusive. Anyway,  here we go:

Top Seven Picture Books I read in 2013

Ringgold, Faith (1991)  Tar Beach  (reviewed in March)

Crew, Gary; Tan, Shaun (2004)  Memorial (reviewed in March)

Hill, Laban Carrick; Collier, Bryan (2010) Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave  (Also reviewed in March, I think)

Willems, Mo. (2012) Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs  (reviewed in August)

Bernasconi, Pablo (2005)  Captain Arsenio:  Inventions and misadventures in flight.  Reviewed in September

Nelson, Kadir  (2011)  Heart and Soul:  The Story of America and African-Americans

Say. Alan (2011)  Drawing from Memory  Reviewed in November

Top Three Informational Books I Read this Year:

Murphy, Jim.  (2012) The Giant and Ho w He Humbugged America  Reviewed in November

Berger, Lee R.; Aronson, Marc (2012)  The Skull in the Rock:  How a scientist, a boy, and Google Earth opened a new window on human origins.

Sheinkin, Steve  (2013)  Bomb:  The Race to Build -- and Steal -- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon.  (reviewed in June)

Friday, January 10, 2014

End of the Year Book Awards! (Part 1)

Okay, so in 2013 I read 129 books.  Of those, 3 were children's literature criticism, 18 were adolescent/YA novels, 30 were picture books, 61 were graphic novels, 15 were general interest books, and 1 was an informational text. (I am not this obsessive about everything -- only books.)  So it is the time of the year for me to look back over my booklog and see if I can come up with some top ten lists.

Remember, though, I read now books, old books, and really ancient books. This isn't a list of the best books that came out in 2013, it is a list of the best books that I read in 2013.  I am just going to give the titles -- if you want to read my review of the book, look back in the blog (I'll include the month when I reviewed it in parentheses.)

Category 1:  Top Five Adolescent/Young Adult Fiction Books

Anderson, Laurie Halse (1999) Speak  (January)

Green, John (2012) The Fault in our Stars. (April)

Palacio, R.J. (2012) Wonder  (April)

Fforde, Jasper (2010) The Last Dragonslayer  (October)

Mikaelson, Ben (2001) Touching Spirit Bear

Category 2.  Top Nine Graphic Novels Suitable for use in Schools:

O'Connor, George  (2013) Poseidon, Earth Shaker (January) and Aphrodite (November or December) and really any of his Olympians series.

Lambert, Joseph (2012) Annie Sullivan and the Trails of Helen Keller (March)

Hinds, Gareth (2010)  The Odyssey  (March)

Halliday, Ayun; Hoppe, Paul (2013)  Peanut (April)

Hostler, Jay; Cannon, Kevin; Cannon, Zander (2011) Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth  (June)

Butzer, C.M. (2009) Gettysburg:  The Graphic Novel  (July)

Larson, Hope (2012) Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time:  The Graphic Novel (August)

Yang, Gene Luen (2013) Boxers and Saints (August)

Ottaviani, Jim; Wicks, Maris (2013) Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikis.  (October)

Next time, top general interest, picture books, and informational books.