Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Title:  The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Author:  Stephen Chbosky
Publisher:  MTV Books (who even knew there was such a thing!)
Pages:  213
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  9th Grade and Up

Plot Summary:
Charlie is a 15 year old high school freshman living in Pennsylvania.  His brother is a football star, his sister is pretty and popular, and he is...well, he is something else altogether.  His unique perspective on family, love, and friendship are shared through letters that he writes to an unknown someone.  Charlie feels most comfortable in the "quiet", and is merely an observer in life until he meets Patrick (who is having a secret relationship with the quarterback), Sam (who Charlie falls deeply in love with), and their group of quirky friends.  Even as he experiences his first cigarette, his first drink, his first pot, his first date, his first dance, and his first Rocky Horror Picture Show, he feels like an outsider looking in-a wallflower, observing but not participating fully.  When he finally gets a chance at what he thinks he wants, he realizes that until he deals with the reason for his reserve, his sadness, and his anger he will never be a full participant in life.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a tribute to all counter-culture, disaffected novels for youth everywhere.  Chobsky makes no effort to hide his influences, giving the fictional Charlie a teacher who assigns him Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Naked Lunch, and The Stranger as reading assignments.  In their tradition, Charlie and his friends are at once desperate for a feeling of belonging while at the same time rejecting anything that smacks of the conformity that would make them belong.  Patrick, Sam, and the rest are a perfect backdrop for Charlie,  who is about as unconventional as they come.  He is almost paralyzed by the fear of doing something wrong, and as a result does almost nothing at all, becoming a mirror for his friends without ever showing much of his true self.  It is clear long before the big reveal at the end that something is just not right with Charlie-he gets so angry playing sports his parents made him quit, he gets so sad that he can't function, he's been in and out of hospitals-add the hormones of a 15 year old and it's no wonder he was an emotional wreck.

Sometimes the portrayal of Charlie is a little too on-the-nose, but despite some of the criticisms I've read of this book, there are kids like Charlie out there.  Chobsky creates in this book a doorway for today's youth to discover and appreciate the same malaise that previous generations got from Catcher in the Rye.  Is this book as good as CITR, well, no.  But as homages go it is pretty good.

Teacher Resources:

Mr. Jeffrey's Lesson Plans (scroll down the page)

WebEnglishTeacher Anticipation Guide 

Young Adult Review-Teaching Controversial Texts 

YA Lit Gourley 

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title:  Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher:  Penguin
Pages:  198
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  9th-12th Grade

Plot Summary:  
Melinda is a freshman in high school.  Instead of being excited to start the new year with her friends, she is feeling shunned, and outcast.  You see, there was a big end-of-summer party, and everyone thought she called the cops to bust it.  The truth is something that she can't tell anyone-not her parents, not her former friends, not her teachers.  Since she can't let the truth out, she decided to keep everything inside, barely speaking, skipping classes, and avoiding all thoughts of IT-that thing that happened to her.  She keeps it all inside, that is, until her ex-best friends starts dating Andy Evans-and IT forces her to make a difficult choice.  Speak up, and relive what happened, or stay quiet, and put her friend in danger.

It is hard to write the above summary without giving any spoilers about the big reveal-but I imagine anyone who is old enough to be reading this review probably already figured out what happened to Melinda.  I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time to get into this story.  Anderson does a great job of setting the scene of Melinda's deconstruction.  First it is little things-biting her lips, being late for class, not responding to teachers or the other kids-none of whom are terribly nice to her anyway.  But as you read, the tension continue to build, as Melinda gets quieter and quieter, and more and more withdrawn.  The only adult who really seems to "see" her is her art teacher, and he encourages her to use art to express whatever it is that is building inside.  Finally, Melinda must make a choice-let her friend get hurt, or continue trying to hide from what happened to her.  Anderson does a good job of showing that while Melinda thought she was hiding from the memories of that night at the party, really she was being eaten up from the inside by the things she couldn't say.  It may have been a slow starter for me, but it was worth it in the end-when Melinda finally stands up and speaks.

Teaching Resources: 

The Writer Lady 

Ms. Hogue's Unit Guide 

Speak Out! Reach Out! 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Baby Be-Bop, by Francesca Lia Block

Title:  Baby Be-Bop
Author:  Francesca Lia Block
Publisher:  Harper Teen
Pages:  112
Genre:  Fantasy/Realistic Fiction

Age Level:  10th Grade and Up

Plot Summary:
Dirk is 15.  He lives in Los Angeles with his grandmother Fifi.  Ever since he could remember, Dirk knew he was not like other boys.  He knew that other boys dreamed of kissing girls-but Dirk dreamed of kissing other boys.  He keeps this secret about himself hidden away from everyone, including his beloved grandmother.  All of that changes when he meets Pup, the new boy at school.  Through his friendship with (and crush on) Pup, he soon learns that denying who you are can have devastating consequences.  Throwing himself into the punk scene in the 80s, Dirk finally runs up against some young men who are only too happy to express their hatred of him through their fists-a hatred about himself that he shares.  In a coma, Dirk sees visions of his dead family, who teach him through their stories that accepting yourself is the only way to make it in the world.

Baby Be-Bop is an unusual coming of age story.  Mixing elements of fantasy with the all too realistic story of a young gay man full of self-hatred, Block gives the reader an insight into what costs we pay for denying our true selves.  Block shows the rage and frustration of so many youth in her use of the punk rock movement and the beat poetry movement.  Dirk finds freedom in listening to ear-blistering music, and slam dancing until he feels no more pain, or emptiness, but numbness.  Baby Be-Bop is a prequel, of sorts, for Block's book Weetzie Bat, in which Dirk and his partner Duck play a role.  Duck is introduced at the end of this book, when his coma-visions show him a glimpse of the future that can be.  It takes what was a rather tragic story and transforms it into a story of hope.

Block's writing style is beautiful.  Her language is lyrical and flowing, with descriptions of Fifi's house and yard, and the places in LA that Dirk and Pup visit that create a sense of magic.  While this is a short novel, it uses rich language that begs you to go back and re-read certain passages.  There is a lot of depth for such a slim volume.  It's quirky and poetic and, in the end, full of promise for what Dirk's life can become.

Teaching Resources:

EZ Notes Dicussion Questions 


Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County, by Janice N. Harrington

Title:  The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County
Author:  Janice N. Harrington
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Pages: 40
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  K-4

Plot Summary: 
The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County tell the story of Janice Harrington's life growing up in Alabama.  There was nothing she loved to do more than chase the chickens her grandmother kept.  Despite her grandmother telling her not to tease the animals, every day she would race outside, and run and chase until she was able to get every chicken in the yard.  Every chicken, that is, except for Miss Hen.  The girl made it her life's ambition to catch that chicken.  One day, she sees her chance-Miss Hen is just sitting in the tall grass, almost asking to be caught.  When the girl goes in for the catch, however, she discovers that Miss Hen has a reason for standing still-a new family.  The girl makes it her new life's work to help Miss Hen take care of her chicks, and to teach them to run so fast they will never be caught by any chicken chaser!

This book is charming!  The author has been a teacher, librarian, and professional storyteller, all of which contribute to her ability to paint a picture with words.  This book is full descriptive language, with rich vocabulary and sayings that show the true creative and flexible nature of language.  The characters are engaging-I wanted a Big Mama when I read this book for the first time!  The illustrations are a good match for the writing style.  Using a collage technique, the illustrator blends elements and mediums to create pictures that have texture and depth.  The art makes the characters come alive. The story has a good message, about respecting all living things, that most children can relate to. 

This book makes a great read aloud, what with all the chicken sounds that the kids can make as the teacher reads.  It is also good for teaching figurative language forms, such as simile and metaphor.  It could also be used for teaching writing, especially the trait of word choice and voice if you are using a 6 Traits writing model.  Because the story is told from the first person, you could do a mini-lesson on point of view as well.  There are lots of cross-curricular connections that can be made-young children love learning about chicks, and there are plenty of chicken themed books and activities you could use to add depth to a unit on chickens.  Below are some teacher resources I've found for this book.  Have fun-and don't tease the chickens!

Leslie Chasing Queen of Lamar County

Reading to

Keister Elementary School Teacher Resources

Interworld, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves

Title:  Interworld
Authors:  Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves
Publisher:  HarperCollins 
Pages:  239
Genre:  Science Fiction/Fantasy
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Plot Summary:
Joey Harker is a normal 15 year old boy.  Not hugely popular, not a loser-just one of those average guys you can find at any American high school.  That is, until his teacher, Mr. Dimas, devises an interesting final exam for his social studies class.  Joey, Todd, and Rowena will be dropped off somewhere in their small city of Greenville, and without any money, cell phone, or help they are to find their way back to school.  Sounds doable, until Joey gets them hopelessly lost.  Of course, Joey doesn't realize just how far away from home he actually is-he has somehow stepped into an alternate reality, where his parents are not his parents, and people on flying disks are trying to capture him!  What follows is the story of the Walkers-people who can walk between worlds, dedicated to keeping the balance in the Altiverse between the science worlds of the Binary and the magic worlds of the HEX.  What Joey discovers about his many selves will astound you.

I love Neil Gaiman's work.  His stories are always so creative, and his mind works in ways that are like the worlds in his fictional Altiverse-his ideas may be close to what the rest of us might come up with, but with that little something skewed that makes him totally unique.  I love the idea for this novel-alternate worlds, born when important decisions are made; magical or scientific forces working at odds with each other, a small band of Walkers trying to keep the balance of power.  Great stuff!

Unfortunately, the writing does not quite live up to the ideas.  This story was originally intended as a television script-one that didn't get picked up, at that.  It feels unfinished to me.  There were about a half-a-dozen places where I wanted more story in my story.  There is almost no back story about the Walkers-you learn who they are and what they do, but not where they come from.   There is almost no back story about the Binary or the HEX-same deal.  There are a couple of journal entries from a Walker who helps Joey, but then he dies and nothing is done with the journal again.  The end is clearly not meant to be the end...I could almost hear someone in the background saying, "Next time, on Interworld..."

In a way, I'm mad about them turning it into a novel instead of shopping it around 'til they found someone to make it into a series or movie.  Because, as I said, the ideas in it are challenging, fun, exciting, and engaging.  If only the novel did them justice.

Keeping Corner, by Kashmira Sheth

Title:  Keeping Corner
Author:  Kashmira Sheth
Publisher: Hyperion
Pages:  279
Genre:  Historical Fiction, South Asian
Age Level: 7-10

Plot Summary:
Keeping Corner is the story of Leela, a 12 year-old Indian girl living with her family in the rural village of Jameel, in the Indian state of Gujarat in 1918.  Leela's family is Brahman, the highest caste in India's strict class system.  At 2 she was engaged to Ramanlal, a young boy from another Brahman family.  At nine they were married, though Leela would continue to live with her family on their estate until her anu, a ceremony officially welcoming the girl into her new family.  Just months before her anu, Ramanlal is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies.  This makes Leela a child widow.  According to her caste, she must shave her head, wear only the widow's chidri, and stay in the house for a year, keeping corner for her dead husband.  Leela, who had been a happy, rather spoiled young girl with a love for fashion and jewelry, quickly falls into despair, wondering how she can live the rest of her life being shunned by her community for being bad luck.  She finds help and solace in her brother, Kanubhai, her teacher Saviben, a lower caste woman named Shani, and ultimately in Gandhi's non-violent movement to overthrow the English occupying their country.

Sheth's story is really a coming of age novel, albeit an unconventional one by Western standards.  Her writing is beautiful-her characters speak in a kind of lyrical, poetic style that suits the overall mood of the piece.  She draws us into Leela's world, even as that world shrinks to only those things inside the walls of her own house.  You feel her frustration at the inherent unfairness of her situation.  Lower caste widows are allowed to remarry, and so are men even of her own caste.  No one sees these people as bad luck.  She feels trapped by tradition, as do many of the people who love her most and grieve for what has befallen her.  Sheth's descriptions of the small town of Jameel, the acitivities of the community, the small world of Leela's house, and ultimately the historic period in which the novel are set gave me a deeper understanding of a part of the world that I am only beginning to understand.

This novel is well-suited for classroom use, if for no other reason than the insight it gives about a culture foreign to many of us.  Additionally, it could be used in a social justice context, with it's themes of feminism, classism, civil disobedience, and standing up for what is right despite hundreds of years of tradition.  Listed below are teaching resources I've found for this book.

Intermediate Lesson Plans: The Rights of the Child

Wild Geese Guides: Keeping Corner

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Diamond of Darkhold

So, remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of People of Sparks and how I felt like City of Ember was just an appetizer for People of Sparks and I was wondering if the last book,  The Diamond of Darkhold, would be a scrumptious dessert. Well, I finished The Diamond of Darkhold, and it tasted more like a Hostess Twinkie than tiramisu. 

The Diamond of Darkhold is the final chapter in the story of Lina and Doon, two residents of the former city of Ember, current residents of the village of Sparks, the surviving remnant of a civilization that annihilated itself through greed and violence.  The story picks up during the first winter that the former residents of Ember are living in Sparks.  After living their whole lives underground, the Emberites were unprepared for the cold, rainy weather of above-ground winter.  Lina and Doon decide to return to their former home to try and find something to help their new neighbors get through the long winter months.  They find hints in an old book that the people who built their city may have left something behind, and they set out to find it.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the book, because I did (after all, Twinkies are a tasty snack!).  I just found there to be the same general lack of substance in this book as in the first, City of Ember.  The story was enjoyable, the characters were well-written, the setting was evocative-there just weren't enough universal themes for me to sink my teeth into.  People of Sparks had so much to say about the way that we as a society view outsiders, or the way people use fear to manipulate others, or the way that we solve (or fail to solve) conflicts. Diamond of Darkhold was entertaining, but ultimately it didn't really speak to any larger truths.  I realize that I read lots of things for entertainment only-I certainly don't expect existential enlightenment from a cozy mystery or formula thriller.  However, if a young adult novel is going to really grab me, given the readability level, it has to have something more to say.

The People of Sparks

Last week, I reviewed the book, City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau.  This YA novel focuses on the residents of the underground city of Ember, a dying city.  The heroes. Lina and Doon, find a way to save their people, if not their city.  I enjoyed it.  The setting was intriguing, the action was well paced, and the characters were relateable and well-written.  What I thought were lacking were more global, sophisticated themes that would appeal equally to adults, a la The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Then I read The People of Sparks, and it all became clear to me.  The People of Sparks picks up where City of Ember leaves off, with the Emberites traveling through the open landscape looking for other people.  They finally stumble upon a village of 300 people called Sparks.  The 400 survivors of the city of Ember are taken in by the residents of Sparks, who are themselves survivors (and the descendants of survivors) of devastating wars and plagues that swept across the globe, resulting in the loss of most of humankind.  The generosity of the villagers is tested as food and supplies become more scarce.  Acts of vandalism and graffiti contribute to an increasingly tense atmosphere, until it seems that violence is sure to erupt.  Finally, there is a showdown that will determine the future of each group, villagers and Emberites alike.

This novel is a story about immigration, and xenophobia, and war, and fear, and greed.  The villagers of Sparks act in a way that I suspect most of us would like to think we would in a similar position-when confronted with people in need they were generous and caring.  But as time goes on, and resources become more scarce (or are perceived to be more scarce, which amounts to the same thing), the people of Sparks and the Emberites are increasingly at odds.  The Emberites know that they are reliant on the villagers for support, which causes resentment.  The villagers are increasingly afraid that after years of struggle, their relative comfort is threatened by the newcomers.  Sound like the current immigration debate to anyone else?  The leaders of each group make up stories about the "others" to incite fear and anger in order to justify starting a war.  Sound at all like the lead up to Iraq, hm?   This novel is one long lesson in the absurdity of xenophobia and war.  Easy enough for middle grade readers to understand, substantive enough to be interesting to adult readers, The People of Sparks is the meat and potatoes to City of Ember's appetizer.  I can't wait to see if the last book in the series, The Diamond of Darkhold, is a scrumptious desert, or if I'll leave the table hungry.

City of Ember, Jeanne Duprau

Like The Divide, which I reviewed last week, City of Ember was an accidental book selection.  While avoiding as much work as possible after a very grueling week of meetings, I ran to my friend's classroom and chose the first book off of her shelf that I remembered her loving-City of Ember was it.  Needless to say I spent a much more enjoyable afternoon with Lina and Doon than I would have organizing the destruction the substitute did to my room!

Lina and Doon are the two protagonists of this YA novel by Jeanne DuPrau.  It is the story of the City of Ember-the only city in the world, as far as the residents know.  The sky is always black, and there are no stars or moon.  If the lights fail, there is total darkness.  And that's something that has been happening more often lately, the lights failing.  Lina and Doon, two young residents, just out of school at 12 years old with their first jobs, discover that things in Ember are even worse than everyone thinks, and they try to discover a way out of the coming darkness.

I think this book, the first in a series of four, is very well-written and engaging.  The protagonists are likable and relateable.  When Lina finds a rare set of colored pencils in a city where supplies are running low, you feel the same excitement.  The author does such a good job putting you into the scarcity of the City of Ember that when one of the characters discovers a can of peaches (considered a treat akin to dining at Le Cirque to the residents of Ember), my mouth actually tasted the sweet, syrupy, slightly metallic taste myself.  The action is well-paced, though most of the real action happens pretty quickly towards the end of the book.  It didn't feel slow to start though, because DuPrau did such a good job setting the scene and letting suspense build.

While I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and plan on reading the next one, I found that there was a lack of global themes.  In a dystopian novel such as this I expect a little bit more social commentary, even from a YA book.  But seeing the way the story arc is going, I suspect that some of that will be addressed in upcoming novels, and I am looking forward especially to reading the prequel, to find out what on earth caused this bizarre set of circumstances!  If you like YA fiction for the middle school set, you should check this series out.

Rules, by Cynthia Lord

One of the joys of being a teacher is having an excuse to keep up with the latest in children's and young adult literature.  In my quest to become a reading specialist, I even get to take a class where all we do is read children's and young adult literature!  The fact that this class happens to correspond with my summer vacation means I get to spend the next few weeks ensconced on my couch with a stack of books, reading to me heart's content!

The first book I read for my class is called Rules, by Cynthia Lord.  I must admit that I was given a copy of this book at school by some very smart ladies who told me I should read it to my class, but after skimming it I put it away in favor of other things.  Had I only listened to these very smart ladies I would have discovered this moving story of family and friendship that much sooner (sorry Gail and Rachel!).  The book is about a 12 year-old girl named Catherine.  Her younger brother, David, has autism.  All Catherine wants is a normal life, for once!  What she doesn't want is to spend the summer making up new rules ("No toys in the fish tank.", "A boy takes off his shirt to swim, but not his shorts.") for David about how to be "normal".  When a new girl moves in next door, she is hopeful that this can be the friendship that she's dreamed of-if only she can leave David and his problems behind.

This novel gives an honest portrayal of people with special needs.  For the most part people with disabilities in our society are ignored, unless their story is especially "inspirational" or their disability is unusual and therefore ripe for exploitation by the media.  This novel, suitable for ages 9-12, shows people with disabilities exactly as they are-very much like the rest of us, strong in some ways, weak in others, needing to feel loved, valued, and cared for.  As Catherine goes through the ups and downs of being a pre-teen, she has reason to question exactly what "being normal" means.  Her journey helps us see that the way that David's autism impacted her life said more about her than about him.  In the end she learns that some rules are meant to be broken.

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

I heard a disturbing statistic today-the United States has the fastest growing prison population in the world.  Not just in the western world, but the world-period!  That means that totalitarian governments like North Korea and Iran put fewer people in jail than we do.  Much of this can be traced back to mandatory sentencing for drug crimes-and while I have many opinions on that, it doesn't have much to do with the review I am about to write.  What does is another disturbing trend-more and more states are allowing youth as young as 15 to be tried as adults for violent or drug-related crimes.

Walter Dean Myers takes this issue on in his book, MonsterMonster is the story of Steve Harmon, a 16 year-old black teenager living in Harlem.  At the opening of the book Steve is incarcerated, about to stand trial for felony murder, a charge that could carry the death penalty.  We quickly learn a few things about Steve-he's smart, he's creative, and he's terrified.  The only way he can deal with the emotions brought on by his incarceration and trial are to treat them as a screenplay.  This budding film maker may or may not have been involved in a drugstore robbery, a robbery that went horribly wrong when the store owner was shot and killed.  Steve's supposed part in the robbery-look out.  The book follows his trial, and the effect that it has on him and his family.

Most of Myers' books take on issues of race, racism, and growing up black and male in our society.  One of his strengths is that he does not make excuses for poor choices.  What he does is paint a pretty stark picture of what it can be like to grow up black, male, and poor in America.  You may not always like his characters, but you can understand their lives and their choices based on the circumstances in which they live.  Monster is no different.  It would be easy to make this story about racist police and racist judges sending another black boy to prison, but the story is more nuanced than that.  Not that there aren't elements of race and racism woven into the narrative-it is impossible to separate that strand of American culture from the rest when talking about issues of poverty, crime, and justice in America's urban centers.  But the book is not about racism, per se.  It is about one boy, coming to terms with what it would mean if he spent the rest of this life behind bars.

To me, that is the real issue that this book raises.  How can we, as a society, support sending teenagers as young as 15 and 16 to jail for the rest of their lives?  We must believe that teenagers have not yet reached the age of responsibility, seeing as we don't let children that young vote, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or make their own medical decisions.  How then can we expect them to pay for the rest of their lives for a decision made before rationality, reason, and responsibility have truly taken hold of their minds?   I don't have the answer for how to rehabilitate young offenders, so I won't pretend that I do, but it seems to me that before we start locking children up for what could amount to 60 or 70 years (provided the violence in prison doesn't kill them sooner, but that is another post for another blog), we should at least make sure that we have exhausted every other possibility.