Friday, August 26, 2016

Saving a school, killing a mockingbird, and a dystopian book that is more dys than topia.

Clements, Andrew (2011) Keepers of the School:  We The Children.  New York: Atheneum.

Image result for We the children andrew clements

There was a student in my Children's Literature class a couple of years ago who would raise her hand every time I asked if anyone had read a particular book.  All of my students are amazing, but this student, Nicole, seemed to have read everything.  When she told me, at the end of the year, that I had to read Andrew Clement's Keepers of the School series, I ordered it immediately.  And it came as no shock to me to learn that she was right.  It is an excellent book -- particularly for upper elementary and middle school.

Benjamin Pratt' attends a strange school.  It was built over two centuries ago by a sea captain who wanted to give the kids of the town an educational institution that would last.  The school almost seems to be as much of a boat as it is a school. with decks instead of floors and a ship's bell to signal the end of class.  When Ben starts school for the year, still reeling from his parents' separation, he finds out the school is scheduled to be torn down to make way for a huge amusement park that could revitalize the area's economy.  He also has an odd encounter with the school's head janitor, a man who has served at the school for as long as anyone can remember.  He presses into Ben's hand a golden coin, which sets in motion the story that follows (including intrigue, mischief, new friends, sailboat races, rescue, secret compartments, hidden messages, and the chance to save the school).  Almost from the star, Ben's friend Jill is a part of the story as well, but as the series develops, Jill's role expands.

Fair warning, though, the story is not complete in this book, it leads right into the next book in this series.

The book is well-written, exciting, requires student-readers to do some thinking as they go, and connects with both male and female readers.  There is nothing in the books that would cause them to be challenged, though the kids do sometimes go against school rules.  This is not a book to choose if you want to engage students in discovering new cultures -- it is very much about white, middle class people -- but it is a good story and I can think of no reason for you not to get ahold of it for your classroom library.

Acampora, Paul (2014) I Kill the Mockingbird.  New York:  Roaring Brook.

Image result for i kill the mockingbird

Opening lines:  "My mother's wheelchair does not fit through the bathroom door and
I don't know what to do about it."

Lucy, Elena, and Michael had this amazing teacher who they called Fat Bob.  Fat Bob died at the end of the previous school year and they have been trying to figure out how to do right by him.  When they read Harper Lee's  To Kill a Mockingbird they decide that everybody should read it.  Further, they believe the best way to make people want to read it is to make it scarce and hard to find.  So they visit bookstores throughout their area and take all the copies of To Kill and Mockingbird and hide them elsewhere in the store.  Their scheme starts to pick up momentum and soon grows out of control.  But how they solve that problem is only a part of the book.  Lucy, the narrator also has to figure out how to convince her mother to eat better so she will recover from her chemotherapy, and she has to figure out what to do about her friend Elena who think is that Lucy likes their other friend Michael as more than a friend.  Especially because what Elena says might be true.  Along the way the story includes a horror Santa with an axe, major home runs, Uncle Mort's bookstore, graveyard talks, and a movement that sweeps the country.  Fat Bob would be proud.

It is a fine book.

There is some mischief in the book, but nothing that would get it challenged.  This one would be best for fifth graders and up -- but would work really well for middle school.  I can't be sure, but I think it might make a good read aloud too. And chapter 17 might make a nice little dramatic reading for somebody.

Get it.

Terrell, Heather (2013) The Relic.  New York: Soho Teen.

 Image result for the relic terrell

Opening lines:  "Eamon throws his axe into the ice above his head.  He hits a perfect depression in the wall.  Pulling up hard, he kicks the bear claw toes of his climbing boots into the wall.   He repeats this practiced motion over and over.  Like some kind of arctic cat, he scales the frozen Ring."

I was really excited about this book.  It is such a cool idea for a dystopian novel.  In the near future, after an ice age, a medieval style community sends its adolescents on a rite of passage to plumb the crevasses of a frozen sea and bring back artifacts of the previous civilization.  Especially valuable artifacts (e.g. the ones that make refrence to the false god Apple) mean that the finder will win a seat on the ruling council.  So it is both a trial and a contest.    Eva, the daughter of the chief, decides after the apparently accidental death of her brother Eamon that she is going to compete in the Testing.  Maidens are allowed to do so, but it is very rare.  The book also features an interesting love triangle, and Eva proves to be a remarkably capable competitor and anyway, as I say, when I first heard about it, I as pretty excited.

But I ended up being disappointed in the book iself, mostly because the actual writing is pretty bad in places.  Eva, whose voice the book is written in, tends to spend most of her time thinking about her motivation to do something and asking questions about why she should or shouldn't do it.  I can imagine books in which such an approach would lead me to be very interested in the main character and share in that character's difficulty in making certain decisions -- but this book is supposed to be, to some extent, an action book.  In the moments when things get really exciting -- when Eva is scaling an ice wall or dogsled racing against the other competitors or helping a competitor in clear violation of the rules -- she begins this lengthy and tiresome internal monologue.  It made me want to scream at the book sometimes.

Maybe you like that sort of thing -- maybe it just isn't my kind of book.  If so, you might want to pick it up and read a chapter or two and see what you think.  There is nothing particularly offensive here -- though I suspect some readers could see parts of the book as an indictment against religion -- and I doubt it would be challenged.   I'll leave the choice to read it up to you, though.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Three Classic Adolescent Novels about violins, horses, and a kid named Hubbo.

Classic novels are interesting.  Sometimes even though a book might be forty or fifty or a hundred years old, the storytelling is so spellbinding that the dated references and anachronisms fade so far into the background that you don't even notice them.  Other times it becomes clear that tthe way we view the world has changed so much that even a good story can get bogged down my moments of cultural disconnection for the modern reader.  Here are three adolescent novels I read this summer.  Some of them would be excellent for a contemporary classroom.  Others might be more of a stretch.

Wolff, Virginia Euwer (1991) The Mozart Season.  New York: Scholastic.

Opening lines:  "In Mr. Kaplan's studio is a needlepoint pillow, on a chair.  On one side of it is a violin.  The other side says, 'A teacher is someone who makes you believe you can do it.'"

Allegra Shapiro is going into eighth grade.  She loves playing the violin and is pretty good at it.  Toward the beginning of the summer, just after her softball team fails to make the playoffs, she finds out that on the strength of her audition tape, she has been accepted into the prestigious Oregon Bloch Competition.  She will compete at the end of the summer, if she decides to go for it.  Over a summer that includes subbing for an injured violinist at a community orchestra concert, a visit from her rather odd aunt, family mysteries, and a quest to find the tune that a dancing homeless man has been looking for for decades, Allegra practices and focuses, and finally makes a decision.

This is not an action book, but it doesn't move slowly either.  Allegra's first person narrative voice, her interesting life, and a plot with some twists and turns will keep students interested.  Obviously, this will be an easy book to convince violin-playing students to read, but I think it might be worth suggesting that thoughtful non-musicians give it a shot as well.  i would recommend it for strong fourth-grade readers and up.

There is nothing in this book that I noticed that would be offensive to parents or cause it to be challenged.  I would probably work as a decent read-aloud, though it doesn't strike me as one that would grab all the students. This would be a great book for your classroom library, though.

Doyle, Brian (1988) Easy Avenue.  Toronto:  Groundwood.


Opening lines:  "My last name is O'Driscoll and my first name is Hulbert.  When I was little I couldn't say the word Hulbert very well.  The word Hulbert came out something like Hubbo and everybody started calling me that.  They still call me that.  Hubbo.  Hubbo O'Driscoll."

One of the reasons to read classic adolescent literature is to get a sense for how much it has changed over the last three or four decades.  Easy Avenue is a funny and interesting book, but it isn't in any kind of a hurry to get to the plot of the book.  When  I was six chapters in, I almost gave up on it.  There was no real plot development at that point and I wasn't sure I even liked the main character, Hubbo yet, and the period wasn't always described in a way kids can relate to.  Also, in the first half of the book, there are cruel pranks that go unpunished.  In fact, I am not sure why I kept reading.

But I did.  And here is the thing.  At the end of this book Hubbo shows himself to be a truly Nobel young man in a way that is very uplifting, and believe it or not, made the first half of the book worthwhile.

I am not sure what kind of kid would like this book.  It is short (only 118 pages) and so it might make a good read aloud if you can hold students attention for the first half.  There is a girl in the story whose reputation is unfairly damaged.  The language is not explicit, but I suppose could cause very sensitive parents to object (though I would find that highly unlikely).  The vocabulary is at a level that a fifth-grader could understand it, but it might be better for middle school (especially for the kid who always picks the shortest book).  I wouldn't call this one a must-have, but if you stumble across it, it would not be a bad addition to your classroom library.

Seredy, Kate (1935) The Good Master.  New York:  Scholastic.

Opening Lines;  "Jancsi was up bright and early that morning and at work milking the cows.  He was so excited that he couldn't stay in bed.  For today Cousin Kate was coming."

One of the things books should do is give readers a good into other cultures, times, and worlds.  This book brings the reader into Hungary around the turn of the 20th century.  The question, however, is what we do with a culture that has values that may be at odds with the values of 21st century America.  On the one hand, this is a heartwarming story about a rather difficult city girl  who is sent by her parents to live with her Uncle and Aunt and cousin and through kindness and strictness, learns to behave correctly and becomes a delightful person to be around (and along the way we learn about Hungarian Easter Egg art and some other cultural details).  On the other hand, it is a story that describes corporal punishment as being a good thing, moves from breaking gender stereotypes to reinforcing them, and is particularly harsh in generalizing "gypsy" children as "swarms of dirty little wretches..." who "...steal like magpies."  There are some parallels between this book and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew particularly in the way that Kate is tamed.  There are some negative depictions of the city as an exclusively unhealthy place.  There are also truly wonderful moments, such as when Kate is reunited with her dad. So this book is kind of all over the place.

I would have a hard time imagining this book being used in a straightforward way in a classroom, but I could see it as an excellent subject of a critical response by fifth graders and up.  If it is used in that way, it would be less likely to be objected to by parents.  Read it yourself and see what you think.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Three Excellent Graphic Novels -- with three amazing female protagonists

Stevenson, Noelle (2015) Nimona.  New York:HarperCollins.

Opening lines;  Lord Ballister Blackheart:  "What?  Who are you?  How did you get in here?"
Nimona:  "Hey, Boss!  The name's Nimona."
Clanking sound as he extends his metal arm.
Nimona:  "Oh. huh.  The agency sent me.  I'm your new sidekick."
Lord Balckheart:  "That makes no sense.  Why would they send some kid to be my sidekick?"

Thus begins the story of Nimona and Lord Blackheart.  Nimona thinks of Blackheart as the most accomplished villain ever and wants to learn to be just like him.  She is disappointed when she finds out that Lord Blackheart has rules -- he doesn't kill people indiscriminately, least of all his arch nemesis, Sir Goldenloin.  When, with Nimona's help, Blackheart discovers corruption in the kingdom, he needs to seek out his hated enemy Goldenloin to help.  And somewhere along the way Nimona realizes that Blackheart is close to uncovering her secret, that she is not just a shapeshifting kid sidekick, but far more.

Stevenson draws here characters right on the edge of cartoony and realistic and is remarkably good with using the panel divisions to tell the story in a way that is funny and gripping at the same time.

This is a fun and funny story that would be great for middle school and older readers who have read some comic books or fantasy (doing so will help them to get more of the jokes.)  It is remarkable story about loyalty, friendship, and, strangely (for a book with the villain as the main character) about doing the right thing.

There is nothing particularly controversial about this book.  Though in the interest of thoroughness, I should mention that some adult readers might wonder if the book is implying a relationship that is more than friendship between Blackheart and Goldenloin, but any such implications are speculative at best (and no student-reader shy of high school is likely to consider them. )  Bottom line, it is a wonderful book.  Buy it.

Bell, Cece (2014) El Deafo.  New York: Abrams.

Opening Lines:  "I was a regular little kid.  I played with my mom's stuff.  I watched tv with my big brother, Ashley and my big sister, Sarah.  I rode on the back of my father's bicycle.  I found caterpillars with my friend Emma.  And I sang."

On page 2, however, Cece gets very sick.  She is rushed to the hospital where she is diagnosed with Spinal Meningitis.  Eight pages later, she is out of the hospital but eventually realizes that she is deaf.

And what happens next is amazing.  the best books in the world let you get inside the mind, body, emotions, and life of another person.  Bell's drawings and writing take you inside Cece's life.  You see her triumphs and loses and struggles to fit in while wearing a clunky hearing aid around her neck.  Bell draws all her characters as rabbits.  While I have no idea why she chooses to do this, I can tell you that it works.

The bottom line is that this is a story of a little kid trying to fit in and having a hard time of it.  So yea, it is valuable as a way to live inside the shoes of a deaf person for a while, but it might be even more important as a story about how schoolmates can be jerks, but also how eventually things get better.

Fourth graders and up would enjoy this one.  Cece discovers at one point in the story that she can listen in when her teacher leaves the room but forgets to take off the mic that hangs around her neck, and as a result, Cece becomes invaluable to the class as a lookout when they are engaging in mischief of one sort or another.  I suppose some parents might object to the rule-breaking but it serves to make a point about the difficulties of fitting in socially with a difference when you are in late elementary school.  Buy this one too.

Cliff, Tony ((2013) Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.  New York: First Second.

Opening lines:  Constantinople (Istanbul) 1807.
 Lieutenant Erdemoglu Selim:  "Tell ne friend, who is this?"
Cafe Owner:  Hm?  Ah.  Halukoglu Bahadir.  Freshly returned from Siam I hear."
Selim:  "Mm, yes.  He's been telling stories of it."
Owner:  "Sound's very exotic."
Selim:  "Very."

Selim leads an uneventful life working in the court as part of the Janissary Corps.  He likes cafes, hates fighting, loves a good cup of tea, and avoids stress at all costs.  Unfortunately, he is sent to interrogate a recently caught thief who seems to be a combination of Indiana Jones, Wonder Woman, and maybe that sword-wielding elf who unaccountably appeared in the second Hobbit movie.  She loves the tea he brews for her and tells him her whole story.  As Selim is reporting to his superiors, Delilah Dirk escapes and soon Selim finds himself branded a traitor and, along with Delilah, on the run from his own fellow troops.

And there begins a romp through the middle east that is the sort of non-top action and wisecracks that would make Indiana Jones proud.  The illustrations are reminiscent of the best comic books -- they move the action along and make the story magically bombastic.

This one is good for fourth grade and up as well.  There is a bit of violence, but really more property damage than lives lost.  This, too, is one you need for your classroom library.