Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Best Book of the Year so Far!

Shusterman, Neal (2016) Scythe.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

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            Opening Lines:  “The Scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.  Citra was at the dining room table, slaving over a particularly difficult algebra problem, shuffling variables, unable to solve for X or Y when this new and far more pernicious variable entered her life’s equation.”

            Okay, I’ll admit it.  I was getting a little tired of dystopian novels.  I mean, I liked Hunger games and Divergent and Shipbreaker but lately I have been reading dystopian stories where all the cats have died or the world has been buried in ice.  And I keep thinking about how bad it is going to get before this fad burns itself out -- I am just waiting for the society that is ruled by the winners of a Scrabble tournament or a world where the economy depends upon ancient Twinkie sponge cakes dug up from an ancient landfill.  Then along comes Neal Schusterman’s Scythe to remind me that it isn’t the genre so much as they writing that makes a book excellent.  And this one is my favorite read of the year so far.  You have to read this.
            Citra and Rowan are both teenagers who are chosen to be apprenticed to a Scythe.  In the world of this book, set in the relatively distant future, a world-wide computer net, combined with advances in nanotechnology, ensures that no one need die of natural causes.  Since the transportation network is computer controlled as well, accidents are unheard of and practically speaking, people can live for as long as they want to.  Of course, this has led to overpopulation.  So a cadre of Scythes, each working independently, are responsible for choosing, on their own, without computer interference, a certain quota of people to kill each month.   Although Scythes have some say in how they carry their duties out, they must grant a year’s worth of immunity from scythes to any relatives of the person they kill. 
            It is unprecedented when Scythe Faraday takes two apprentices at once, and the assembly of Scythes decides that at the end of Citra and Rowan’s apprenticeship, they will fight to the death to determine which one will become a Scythe.  Faraday continues to train them both, but when Faraday dies in an apparent suicide (deciding not to be saved by the nanobots in his body) Citra and Rowan are each turned over to a different Scythe.  Citra is apprenticed to Scythe Curie, who approaches her task with mercy and compassion; and Rowan is apprenticed to Scythe Goddard, who is known for orchestrated mass cullings which cause people to die in terror.  And with this, Schusterman sets up a story that will lead Rowan and Citra to make choices that will affect the structure of their world.  There are enough satisfying twists and turns to keep readers happy to the end. 
            There is enough going on here thematically that it would be an excellent book to consider using for high school English classes.  Though there is certainly some violence here, it is not glorified but rather shown to be abhorrent.  This would also be a fine book for a class or school library.  I doubt it would be likely to be challenged.

            If I haven’t made it clear yet, you need to read this book as soon as you can.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

True Life Attempted Murder Story -- Good for High School

Busby, Cylin; Busby, John (2008) The Year We Disappeared.  New York: Bloomsbury.

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John Busby, a police officer in a Massachusetts seaside town, was driving to work one night when another car pulled alongside him and fired a shotgun through his window, blowing off his lower jaw.  He managed to steer himself into someone’s lawn, get out of the car and signal for them to call 911. He was rushed to the hospital, stabilized, and flown to Johns Hopkins where he began a long and grueling healing and reconstruction process.
            While in the hospital, John thought about who had done this.  He concluded quickly that the local crime boss was behind it, partly because John was scheduled to testify against the crime boss’s brother.  Meanwhile, because of a clause in his contract, John’s family had around-the-clock police protection.  Because the police chief had been intimidated by the crime boss, the investigation was going nowhere.  John’s kids went to school accompanied by officers and the family seldom left the house.  After several incidents of intimidation, they built a high fence and got an attack dog, but the day came when the family had to decide whether to continue to live under what felt like house address or just disappear to another part of the country and start living again.

            The story is told in alternating chapters by John Busby and his daughter Cylin.  It makes for fascinating reading.  There is some violence and some vulgar language, but it would certainly be appropriate for a high school classroom library.  Well worth reading. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Informational Book about the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team -- Great for PE

Coffey, Wayne (2005) The Boys of Winter New York: Three Rivers Press.

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Opening lines:  “Year before I ever heard of Lake Placid or the Olympics, before I knew the mname of a single Russian Hockey Player, I was a kid in Massachusetts who wanted to be the next Bobby Orr.  I grew up skating on Holmes Pond, which took its name from our next door neighbor, Mrs. Holmes, who owned it.”

Among the holes in my reading knowledge, sports-related gaps are some of the biggest, and the hockey-related knowledge hole yawns open like a deep canyon, so when my amazing former student Evan recommended this book about the 1980 US Olympic team, I was glad to read it.  I was not surprised to find the story fascinating. 

The author, Wayne Coffey, has a remarkably readable style as he tells the story of the American Team’s Journey to the final game and describes the game itself that changed the way the world thought about American hockey teams.  But Coffey does more than this.  Within each chapter he also digresses repeatedly to tell the life stories of each play on the American side and most of the players on the Russian team.  In fact, he not only relates how the players got to skate on the ice while the world watched, he also describes what has happened to them since.  The hockey descriptions are excellent and Coffey does a really nice job of describing strategy (which would be really useful for Phys Ed classes), but honestly, the most enjoyable part of the book for me was seeing the amazing variety in temperaments, backgrounds, training styles, and approaches to life that the different players had.

This book is probably best from high school readers.  There are some descriptions of drinking and messing around, but nothing that would be likely to cause the book to be challenged.   It would be a great addition to an English classroom’s library, but I think it could be even more valuable for use in a PE class, or for a PE teacher to keep on hand for interested students. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Four Multicultural Novels for Everyone from Elementary to High School

Agosin, Marjorie (2014) I Lived on Butterfly Hill.  New York:  Atheneum.

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Opening Lines:  “The blue cloud finally opens – just when the bell rings to let the Juana Ross School out for the weekend.  I’d been watching the sky from the classroom windows all day, wondering just when the rain would pour down.  I run down the hall and through the front doors with Luciela, Marisol, and Gloria at my heels.  “Quick, girls, get under my umbrella,” Marisol shouts, and her cousin Luciela and I huddle close, on each side of her.”
            Celeste has a pretty carefree life, friends at school, a wonderful house on Butterfly Hill overlooking the harbor, two parents and a grandma to take care of her, and the joy of living in Chile, the most beautiful country in the world.  But when a military dictatorship seizes control of the country, warships fill the harbor, and her parents need to go into hiding because their volunteer work as doctors among the poor has branded them as subversive, Celeste gets sent to live with a single Aunt in the United States – in a very cold and barren place called Maine with no friends and no parents or grandma.  But these challenges are nothing compared to when she eventually returns to Chile and must find her mother and father who are among the disappeared.  
            This story has joy and comfort, heartbreak and homesickness, old friends and new, reunions, more joy, and a healthy dose of magic.
            You need to read this book.  You need to read it now.  Then your students need to read it.
            This could be a great book to study as a class, keep in your classroom library, or read aloud.  It is rather lengthy (clocking in at 454 pages), but kids who devoured Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo would probably like this one too. 
            There is nothing offensive here that I noticed and plenty of good thematic material for class discussions.  This book could be read aloud to fourth graders (though it might take all year) and some of the sharper ones could handle reading it, but it is probably best for 5th graders and up. 
            Read it as soon as you can.  It is the best book I have read so far this year.

Johnson, Angela (1998) Heaven New York:  Simon Pulse.

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Opening Lines:  April 28,  Sweet Marley.  I’m on my way to Kansas.  I guess me and Boy have finished our stay in Oklahoma.  I decided on Kansas because of a dream I had.  I dream so much now.”
Every now and then I run into a book where I have trouble keeping the characters and the story straight.  This one started out that way, but then, about a third of the way in everything sort of clicked.  This is the story of a girl named Marley coming to terms with the knowledge that her parents, who raised her, are actually her aunt and her uncle and that the person she has always thought of as her Uncle Jack, a carefree drifter who sends her postcards from time to time, is actually her father. 
While Marley is African-American and there are some references to her culture, this is a book in which race plays a small part.  It is not part of the theme, plot, or overall message of the book.  The book is more of a story about a girl learning to accept a past that doesn’t agree with her perception. 
It is a good book. There is nothing here that would give any cause for challenges.  The reading level is probably suitable for students as young as third or fourth grade, but because it manily deals with a kid trying to find her identity, I think it might work better for fifth grade and older. It would be a good book for your classroom library.  I am not sure it is thematically strong enough to sustain small group or whole class study in a literature class.  I also think that because of the confusion in the first several chapters, it might not be the best choice for a read aloud book. 

Kuroyanagi, Tetsuko (1981) Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window.  New York: Kodansha, USA

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Opening Lines:  They got off the Oimachi train at Jiyugaoka Station, and Mother took Totto-chan by the hand to lead her through the ticket gate.  She had hardly ever been on a train before and was reluctant to give up the precious ticket she was clutching.”
            One of my students, who is herself from Indonesia, highly recommended this book.  It reminded me a bit of Meynert DeJong’s classic early Newbery Winner, The Wheel on the School. As that book gives a glimpse of what it is like to grow up in a school in the Netherlands, so this book describes Totto-chan’s adventures in a school in Japan – only this is not a particularly conventional school.   In the beginning of the book, Totto-chan gets expelled from firt grade, essentially for being too curious, too interactive, and too excited about learning.  Her parents then send her to a different school – Tomoe, a school that meets in decommissioned train cars, where students learn whatever subjects they are interested in, and where teachers and students go on class walks every afternoon. 
            When Totto-chan drops her new purse in the pit toilet and wants to shovel out the cess pool to find it, the headmaster shows her where the shovels are, cautions her to be careful, and requests that she shovel all the sewage back when she is done.  The students go on camping trips in the school gym where they set up tents; come to school in the middle of the night to witness the arrival of a new train car classroom; and are allowed o go skinny dipping in the pool. 
            There is not much plot here, the story is more told in episodes, but it will certainly hold student’s (and adult’s attentions.)  Partly what is so enchanting about the book though is to get a glimpse into a completely different way of running a school.   Here is how the headmaster introduced the school library to the children.  “This is your library.  Any of these books may be read by anyone.  You needn’t fear that some books are reserved for certain grades or anything like that.  You can come in here any time you like.  If you want to borrow a book and take it home, you may.  When you have read it, be sure to bring it back!  And if you’ve got any books at home that you think others would like to read, I’d be delighted if you would bring them here.  At any rate, please do as much reading as you can!”
            This would be a great way to introduce another culture to your students.  It could easily be a read-aloud book for second through fourth grade.  It would be a wonderful addition to a class library.  And it could be an interesting topic of study for a unit that looks at education in other cultures. Fifth graders and older would also be interested.  And I highly recommend it for teachers wanting to rethink how to best do educator.

Park, Linda Sue (1999) Seesaw Girl. New York:  Dell.

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Opening Lines:  “’Is anyone coming?’ Jade Blossom whispered.  Graceful Willow peeped around the edge of the sliding paper door.  She looked back at Jade and shook her head, putting her finger to her lips.”
            We read books set in other cultures for two reasons, I think.  First to have an adventure in a world very different form our own.  Second, to discover again and again that we have a great deal in common with other cultures. 
Seesaw Girl  gives us plant of both of these aspects.  In the beginning, Jade and Willow are pulling pranks against the boys who live in the same court  They put soot in the writing ink so that the boys’ calligraphy will be blotchy.  Then they sew the boys’ trouser legs shut.  Before long, however, Willow gets married, leaving Jade alone, without her best friend.   
So Jade hatches a plan to escape the inner courtyard, journey out into the world, and visit her best friend.  Along the way she discovers that not everyone in seventeenth century Korea lives like she does.   

Nothing offensive here, and it is probably best for fourth grade and older.  It is a quick read, but a good one.