Friday, December 31, 2010

Bait, Alex Sanchez

Title:  Bait
Author:  Alex Sanchez
Publlisher:Simon and Shuster Children's Publishing
Year: 2009
Pages:  239
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Diego MacMann is in trouble. At 16, he faces juvenile court, charged with assault. He just can't control his fists, especially when he feels that his masculinity is threatened. Anger-management classes have failed, and now this earnest young man teeters between self-loathing and defensive pride. Hope comes unexpectedly when he establishes a bond with Mr. Vidas. The probation officer asks questions that challenge Diego to examine his motivations and his emotional life. How does he feel about his absent birth father? The stepfather who committed suicide? The gay student who looked at him that way just before Diego punched him out? The third-person narrative keeps readers one step ahead of Diego as he unravels the effects of abandonment, poverty, and sexual abuse on himself and his struggling family. (from Amazon)

One of the things that I like best about Alex Sanchez as an author is that he shows such a clear sense of the issues teenagers deal with on the journey from childhood to adulthood.  As someone who works with teenagers as a youth advisor, Sanchez's characters and situations feel authentic in a way that some young adult authors can't seem to manage.  I also respect the fact that when he takes on an issue, whether it is the experiences of gay youth, or, in Bait, the devastating results of childhood sexual abuse,  he provides the reader not just with all the gory details, but with moments of transcendence and redemption that take the story from sensationalized stereotype toa deeply moving snapshot of the human experience.  Unlike many books on sexual abuse, Bait does not focus on the act of telling the truth as its culminating event, but on the difficult process of dealing with the emotions and patterns of behavior left in the wake of such violence.  There are no platitudes in this novel.  All along the way Sanchez shows how incredibly difficult the journey back to wholeness is for children who have been broken in this way.  But in Mr. Vidas, Diego's probation officer, Sanchez created the perfect model of what a supportive adult looks like.  And while most of the other adults in Diego's life let him down one way or another, you can't help but hope that all of the Diegos in the world will find their own Mr. Vidas.

Teaching Resources:
Alex Sanchez's Website 
Teenreads Author Profile 
Dunebrook Lesson Plan in Child Abuse 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title:  Chains
Author:  Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Antheum
Pages:  320
Year:  2008
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Age Level:  6th Grade-10th Grade

As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight...for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.(from Goodreads)

Laurie Halse Anderson does an excellent job in Chains painting a picture of just what freedom means, to a country and to an individual.  Perhaps there are other novels that combine the issues of slavery with Revolutionary War history, but if there are I doubt they do it as deftly as Anderson does.  Isabel's story provides a depth to the story of the start of the Revolutionary War that few other books, with their focus on the Patriots as good guys and British as bad guys, achieve.  Told from the slaves' perspective, the fact becomes clear that what "liberty" and "freedom" meant to the Patriots was not something that was extended to women, or to Africans.  In Madam Lockton, Anderson creates a truly despicable villian, and her malice towards Isabel creates a tension and suspense that makes the novel fly.  This is a great read for students studying the American Revolution-as a companion to non-fiction texts on that period in history I can see it leading to many interesting discussions with students.

Teaching Resources:
E-Notes for Chains 
Simon and Shuster Reading Guide 
Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson-ReadWriteThink  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Out of My Mind, Sharon M. Draper

Title:  Out of My Mind
Author:  Sharon Draper
Publisher:  Atheneum
Pages:  295
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  5th-8th Grade

Melody is 11 years old, and she has never said a word.  Born with cerebral palsy that has left her unable to walk, speak, or control her limbs, she has lived her entire life unable to communicate with her parents or teachers.  But that doesn't mean that she doesn't have plenty to say.  Her physical limitations hide mind with a photographic memory, the mind of an extremely smart girl frustrated by people's perceptions of her as retarded.  Finally, in fifth grade, she gets a classroom aide who sees past her disability, and together they get her the technology she needs to communicate.  To everyone's surprise but her own, Melody qualifies for her school's academic bowl team.  But what should feel like the answer to all of her prayers for recognition and acceptance is just the start of the battle to show the world who she is inside.

This book was recommended to me by a very dear friend with excellent taste in young adult literature, so it is no real surprise to me that I enjoyed this book.  But really, enjoyment does not begin to describe how I feel about this book.  As a special educator, I have constantly fought to get my students recognized for what they can do, rather than always focusing on what they can't.  Melody's story is like the fulfillment of every dream I have ever had for my students.

I literally read this book in one sitting.  As Melody described her challenges, I felt her frustration.  When she described her family, it was with a clear understanding that they were flawed, but doing the best they could.  When her mother tells off the doctors and teachers who underestimate Melody, I cheered, even though she herself underestimated her brilliant daughter.  When Melody "speaks" to her parents for the first time, I cried.  And when she in confronted by students and teachers at school who see only her physical limitations, I had a sudden urge to punch something.  

This is no after-school special, however.  There is no heart-warming moment where suddenly everyone has an epiphany about how special Melody is.  The kids don't suddenly start inviting her to sleep-overs or making play dates.  Things do not turn out perfectly for Melody, but that is part of what makes this book so powerful.  It is about more than just gaining the acceptance of others-it is about learning to accept yourself.  Part of the lesson that Melody has to learn is how to deal with her loneliness and frustration, and not let it turn into self-pity and self-loathing.  Draper's portrayal of Melody and her experiences feels all the more authentic for not turning out picture perfect.  And all children, regardless of the challenges they face in their lives, need to see that failure, or exclusion, does not have to mean the end of your hopes and dreams.

Teaching Resources:
Sharon M. Draper's Website 
Lessons on Teaching Acceptance of Disabilities