Sunday, September 11, 2011

Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson

Title:  Feathers
Author:  Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher:  Putnam Juvenile
Year:  2007
Pages:  116
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Multicultural
Themes:  Acceptance, Disabilities, Multiculturalism
Age Level:  6th Grade and Up

Summary: (from Goodreads)
"Hope is the thing with feathers," starts the poem Frannie is reading in school. Frannie hasn't thought much about hope. There are so many other things to think about. Each day, her friend Samantha seems a bit more holy.”There is a new boy in class everyone is calling the Jesus Boy. And although the new boy looks like a white kid, he says he’is not white. Who is he?
During a winter full of surprises, good and bad, Frannie starts seeing a lot of things in a new light:—her brother Sean's deafness, her mother's fear, the class bully's anger, her best friend's faith and her own desire for the thing with feathers.”

Woodson's books are like small jewels, each one getting right to the heart of the matter in lyric prose that is sparingly beautiful.  In Feathers, Frannie is living in the early 1970s, a time when we as a culture were still struggling to come to terms with the many changes brought about by the turbulent 60s.  Woodson does a wonderful job portraying that particular time, especially the racial divisions that persisted despite the civil rights movement's many battles for equality.  The arrival of Jesus Boy throws everyone's beliefs about racial identity and where they "belong" into question.  His peacefulness and obvious unconcern for how he is perceived by others makes no sense to a group of children who are constantly monitoring themselves and each other for "coolness".   Her brother Sean's deafness, and the way that he carries himself with confidence despite it, plays a large part in her realizations about courage and hope.  Frannie is also deeply affected by the death of her sister as a baby, and her mother's subsequent miscarriages and depression.  When her mother becomes pregnant again, Frannnie is upset that she will no longer be the "baby" of the family, and worries about whether this baby will make it.  Through the course of the book she goes from a self-centered child only concerned about losing her mother's attention, to a compassionate young woman full of hope for her mother to be healthy and happy with her new sibling.  This short book is ripe with topics for discussion, and could be used as part of a unit on family or multiculturalism very easily.

Teacher Resources:
The Best Children's
Penguin Reading Group Guide

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Memories of Summer, Ruth White

Title:  Memories of Summer
Author:  Ruth White
Publisher:  Laurel Leaf
Year:  2001
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Historical Fiction
Themes:  Family, Mental Illness
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Memories of Summer is the moving story of Lyric and Summer, two sisters who move from coal mining country in the Appalachians to Flint, Michigan in the mid-1950s.  Their mother died when both girls were quite young, and after the death of their grandfather in a coal mine explosion their father, Poppy, decides to try his luck in the booming auto industry.  Summer has always been different than the other children, and shortly after moving to Flint she begins to demonstrate more and more bizarre behavior.  After a series of frightening episodes, she is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Fourteen-year-old Lyric and Poppy desperately want to care for her at home, but hiding her disability and managing her increasingly dangerous behavior become more than they can handle alone.

White's touching story is based on the real events of her childhood and adolescence, when it was her own sister who descended into the madness that is schizophrenia.  She chose to set her story in the days before mental illness was as accepted and understood as it is today.  It is clear that the story comes from her own personal experiences from the depth of feeling and the inherent authenticity of Lyric's narrative voice.  While the main purpose of the story is to highlight the effects of mental illness on family dynamics and relationships, White also does a good job capturing the time period-a time period when many southern families were migrating north to find work in the ever-expanding manufacturing industry.  My own grandparents came to Chicago by way of Alabama to find work in the railroads.  White clearly captures the ambivalence that Lyric feels towards her sister-love and embarrassment and worry and annoyance  coming over her in waves depending on the situation.  In an interview with the author at the end of the book, White states that often in her novels she rewrites history to give herself at least moderately happy endings for events from her life that were anything but.  However, in Memories of Summer, she found that she could not pretend, even for a fictionalized version of her life, that the story of her sister ended in anything but the tragedy of institutionalization.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick

Title:  Freak the Mighty
Author:  Rodman Philbrick
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2001
Pages:  192
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disabilities, Friendship, Overcoming Obstacles
Age Level:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Maxwell Kane, a lumbering eighth grader who describes himself as a "butthead goon," has lived with grandparents Grim and Gram ever since his father was imprisoned for murdering his mother. Mean-spirited schoolmates and special ed (for an undetermined learning disability) haven't improved his self-image, so he is totally unprepared for a friendship with Kevin, aka Freak, a veritable genius with a serious birth defect that's left him in braces and using crutches. Max is uplifted by Freak's imagination and booming confidence, while Freak gets a literal boost--hoisted onto Max's shoulders, he shares Max's mobility. Together they become Freak the Mighty, an invincible duo.

I loved this book!  Max was such a good narrator-at the same time that he is putting himself down for not having a brain, he is describing things in such a poetic, interesting way.  His heart really shows, despite his sometimes awkward behavior.  And there is a ton of fodder for a good discussion.  We have learning disabilities, exclusion, family issues, the effects of violence on children, friendship, and death and grieving.  There were moments when I laughed, I grimaced, I cried-you get the full range of emotions from this one.  Kevin's character was exceptional in many ways, but his brains and acceptance of Max were completely endearing.  There is plenty of action to please readers who are easily put off by slower paced stories, but sensitive readers who like stories with a lot of heart will enjoy it as well.  They made a movie based on the book called The Mighty which may be a good resource as well.

Teaching Resources:
  ReadWriteThink Lesson Plans
Web English Teacher Lesson Plans 
Teaching Guide from Author's Website 
Comprehension Activities from Resource Room 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anything But Typical, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Title:  Anything But Typical
Author:  Nora Raleigh Baskin
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Self-Acceptance, Friendship, Disabilities
Age Level:  4th through 7th Grade

Jason Block is a boy with autism navigating the neurotypical world.  The book, told in a first person narrative from Jason, tells the story of Jason's atypical behaviors-such as hand flapping and hair pulling-and the very typical feelings of awkwardness, self-doubt, and fear that almost any 12 year old feels from time to time.  We discover that Jason is a creative writing whiz, and he begins an online correspondence with another author on his favorite writing website.  The girl, nicknamed Phoenixbird, loves Jason's stories, and frequently asks him for advice for her stories.  Jason feels like he may finally have his first real friend-until the possibility that they could meet in person derails his good feeling.  Can she like him if she sees how he really is?

Having worked with children with autism many times over the year, I can state that this narrative feels as authentic to me as anyone could write, given the fact that many people with autism have difficulty communicating at all, and especially in communicating their feelings.  Jason has a rich internal life, which he is frequently frustrated about not being able to express.  Like many young people with autism, Jason has learned and developed rules for himself to govern his social interactions,  but the tumultuous period of preadolescence leaves him unprepared for  the ways that he and his peers are changing.  

Baskin does an admirable job keeping this book from becoming another "heart-warming" story of overcoming disabilities.  Not that it doesn't have its tear-inducing moments, but unlike books I like to call the "Lifetime Movie" version of literature, there are no completely easy answers for Jason.  His mother has still not really come to terms with his disability, and she is alternately overly-protective and frustrated by his behaviors.  More than once I wanted to tell her to lay off-if Jason doesn't care that his belt is too tight why should she?  But I have worked with many parents over the years who have trouble finding a balance between accepting their child for who they are and helping them become more "typical".  When Jason finally meets Phoenixbird, it does not go as smoothly as Jason (and the reader) wish that it would.  But that is real life for many children with disabilities, and makes Baskin's story ring true.

Teacher Resources:
Simon and Schuster Reading Guide 
Nora Baskin's Website 
Autism Awareness Lesson Plans 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen

Title: The Running Dream

Author: Wendelin Van Draanen

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Year: 2011

Pages: 352

Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: identity, friendship, survival, overcoming hardship

Age Range: Sixth Grade and up

Summary(from Goodreads): Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?
As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.
With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.

Review: Wendelin Van Draanen, the prolific author of the Sammy Keyes and Shredderman series (among many other books), has created an emotional and inspirational tale with The Running Dream. The book opens as sixteen year old Jessica wakes up in the hospital following a bus accident and the subsequent amputation of the lower portion of one of her legs. Told in Jessica's voice, the story follows her journey of recovery and reinvention. The details, though interesting (and true to the life of a contemporary high schooler), are not what made me love this tale. It is the bigger ideas that readers will take from it: endings are almost always beginnings, true friendships can be found in the most unusual of places, an individual is not defined by his/her disabilities, and with love and hope one can achieve the seemingly insurmountable. This book speaks to students, athletes, and anyone who has ever been humbled by a challenge. Read The Running Dream.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Troublemaker, by Andrew Clements

Title: Troublemaker

Author: Andrew Clements

Publisher: Atheneum

Year: 2011

Pages: 160

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: school, identity

Age Range: Third through Fifth Grade

Summary (from Goodreads):There’s a folder in Principal Kelling’s office that’s as thick as a phonebook and it’s growing daily. It’s filled with the incident reports of every time Clayton Hensley broke the rules. There’s the minor stuff like running in the hallways and not being where he was suppose to be when he was supposed to be there. But then there are also reports that show Clay’s own brand of troublemaking, like the most recent addition: the art teacher has said that the class should spend the period drawing anything they want and Clay decides to be extra “creative” and draw a spot-on portrait of Principal Kellings…as a donkey.
It’s a pretty funny joke, but really, Clay is coming to realize that the biggest joke of all may be on him. When his big brother, Mitchell, gets in some serious trouble, Clay decides to change his own mischief making ways…but he can’t seem to shake his reputation as a troublemaker.

Review: Let me begin by saying that I wanted to love this book. I truly did. I have been a fan of Andrew Clements for ages, and count many of his books amongst my favorites - Frindle, The Landry News, The Report Card, No Talking...I even loved Room One. I was hoping that after reading Troublemaker, I'd have another Clements classic to add to my list of faves. Sadly, that is not the case.

Though I believe that there are plenty of kids who can relate to Clayton Hensley (and I have certainly known a few Clays in my day), his transformation from gleeful mischief maker to considerate rule follower felt altogether too simple to me. It seemed that, within a short period of time, Clay had managed to change his behavior, learn the error of his ways, rebuild a relationship with his beleaguered principal, and discover new insights into the nature of his best friend. Quite a list of accomplishments for a kid who started behaving just because his brother told him to.

All my grouching aside, I do think that this book will speak to many students, especially those who are proud to call themselves troublemakers. It would also be a good choice for read aloud because it could spark some interesting discussion about rules and why we follow them, as well as the nature of friendship.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Summer I Learned to Fly, by Dana Reinhardt

Title: The Summer I Learned To Fly

Author: Dana Reinhardt

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books

Year: 2011

Pages: 224

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: Coming of age, friendship, family, identity

Age Range: Fifth through Ninth Grade

Summary (from Goodreads): Drew's a bit of a loner. She has a pet rat, her dead dad's Book of Lists, an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese from working at her mom's cheese shop, and a crush on Nick, the surf bum who works behind the counter. It's the summer before eighth grade and Drew's days seem like business as usual, until one night after closing time, when she meets a strange boy in the alley named Emmett Crane. Who he is, why he's there, where the cut on his cheek came from, and his bottomless knowledge of rats are all mysteries Drew will untangle as they are drawn closer together, and Drew enters into the first true friendship, and adventure, of her life.

Review: In honor of the Book of Lists that Drew obsessively reads in order to connect with her deceased father, I am writing my review as a list, entitled...

What I Loved about The Summer I Learned to Fly

1. This book is set in the 80s, but never makes obvious jokes about the decade.

2. Drew's mother owns a gourmet cheese shop, and Drew makes mention of the difficulties Mom faces as a small business owner. This is a topic to which many of our students can relate, and has potential for rich discussion.

3. Drew's voice (and point of view) remind me of being thirteen. The things she says, and the choices she makes, feel 100% real.

4. I consumed this book in two, big gulps. It is simple, honest, and lovely.

5. The ending doesn't give you all the answers, but it gives you just enough.

6. Since completing the book, I still find myself thinking about Drew, Emmet, and Nick. I wish them well.

Teaching Resources

Friday, July 29, 2011

Extra Credit, by Andrew Clements

Title:  Extra Credit
Author:  Andrew Clements
Publisher:  Antheum
Year:  2009
Pages:  192
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Acceptance, Self-Confidence, Multiculturalism
Age Range:  4th through 7th Grade

Summary: (from Amazon)
It isn’t that Abby Carson can’t do her schoolwork. She just doesn’t like doing it. And in February a warning letter arrives at her home. Abby will have to repeat sixth grade—unless she meets some specific conditions, including taking on an extra-credit project to find a pen pal in a distant country. Seems simple enough. But when Abby’s first letter arrives at a small school in Afghanistan, the village elders agree that any letters going back to America must be written well. In English. And the only qualified student is a boy, Sadeed Bayat. Except in this village, it is not proper for a boy to correspond with a girl. So Sadeed’s younger sister will write the letters. Except she knows hardly any English. So Sadeed must write the letters. For his sister to sign. But what about the villagers who believe that girls should not be anywhere near a school? And what about those who believe that any contact with Americans is . . . unhealthy? Not so simple. But as letters flow back and forth—between the prairies of Illinois and the mountains of central Asia, across cultural and religious divides, through the minefields of different lifestyles and traditions—a small group of children begin to speak and listen to one another. And in just a few short weeks, they make important discoveries about their communities, about their world, and most of all, about themselves.

 As children's authors go, Andrew Clements is about as consistently good as they get.  His books are always well-written, well-paced, and well suited to the age level of the kids he is writing for.  And that is why I was disappointed in Extra Credit.  Don't get me wrong, the writing is still first rate and the characters are well-developed.  In the first part of the book, Clements does a great job setting up the relationship between Abby and Sadeed.  And given the fact that Sadeed is from such an alien culture, that is no small feat.  The problems for me start after Sadeed is confronted by the Talib near his village.  Once that happens, the story suddenly speed up, but not in an exciting, things are really happenin' sort of way.  The last third of the book feels incomplete.  It felt like Clements was suddenly unsure how to write a story about why Abby and Sadeed had to stop corresponding in a way that would make it accessible for younger readers.  And I suppose that is not really surprising-I know adults who have a hard time comprehending the very different culture of Afghanistan.  There are some decent discussion points in the novel-culture clash, racism, stereotypes-but I felt a bit let down by Mr. Clements when I finished this one.

Teacher Resources:
Author Website 
Simon and Schuster Reading Group Guide  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine

Title: The Absolute Value of Mike

Author: Kathryn Erskine

Publisher: Philomel

Year: 2011

Pages: 256

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: Family, Friendship, Identity

Age Level: Grades 5 and Up

Summary (from Goodreads): Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.

Review: In my last review, I was fairly critical of Close to Famous for being riddled with cliched characters. The Absolute Value of Mike is similar to that novel in the sense that Mike, like Foster McFee, lives in a town of misfits, many of whom are all too familiar. However, the characters in The Absolute Value of Mike were drawn with a depth that made me care deeply for them, even if their stories weren't entirely brand new. There's Poppy, paralyzed with grief over losing his adult son; Moo, Poppy's absentminded wife who fancies herself a collector of lost souls; a punk rock girl looking for a normal family, and a homeless gentleman who is not at all what he seems. Of course there's also Mike, a boy struggling to accept the fact that he is not the boy his father wants him to be. Mike's journey to discover his "absolute value" is a touching one, and the relationship that develops between Mike and his father feels genuine. The book has many possible points of discussion, one of which being that each chapter is titled with a mathematical term and definition that is somehow connected to the plot. I think that this novel could provide interesting discussion in a guided reading group or literature circle.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Title: Close to Famous

Author: Joan Bauer

Publisher: Viking

Year: 2011

Pages: 250

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: Family, Friendship, Loss

Age Level: Grade 5 and up

Summary (from Goodreads): Foster McFee dreams of having her own cooking show like her idol, celebrity chef Sonny Kroll. Macon Dillard's goal is to be a documentary filmmaker. Foster's mother Rayka longs to be a headliner instead of a back-up singer. And Miss Charleena plans a triumphant return to Hollywood. Everyone has a dream, but nobody is even close to famous in the little town of Culpepper. Until some unexpected events shake the town and its inhabitants--and put their big ambitions to the test.

Review: Truth be told, I wanted to love this book. I really, really did. I thought that a young cupcake baker with ambitions to monopolize the Food Network spotlight was a novel idea. As a fellow cupcake baker and cooking show addict, I figured I would really enjoy spending some time with the character of Foster McFee. Unfortunately, Foster's town of Culpepper is chock full of literary cliches. There's Foster herself, whose list of issues would smother any main character: displaced from her home, suffering the loss of her father, worried about her mother's escape from an abusive relationship, trying to make friends in a new town, and....wait for it...she never learned to read. Joining Foster are the young boy with an inferiority complex (and big dreams of his own), the washed up movie star, the beautifully damaged mother, the villainous boyfriend of the mother, and many, many more. There's nothing inherently bad about this story, and it was not arduous reading by any means. It just wasn't all that compelling, either.

Teaching Resources:

Heather's Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Issues

This week's Top Ten list from The Broke and the Bookish gives me a chance to make two lists.  The topic of the week is books that deal with societal issues, and I've already posted my list of adult books at my other blog, Book Addict Reviews.  But because so much good children's literature also has social justice themes, I'm going to make a second list right here at Second Childhood Reviews. 

1.  The Friendship, Mildred Taylor:  This short novella tell the story of two men, one black and one white, and how the racism of the south in the middle of the 20th century led them from being friends to violence.  Great book-every class I've ever read this with has literally gasped at what happens.

2.  The Misfits, James Howe:  With all of the recent news about bullying, this book is a must read for the 5th through 8th grade set.  Includes bullying based on weight, gender, intelligence, and sexual orientation.

3.  Keeping Corner, Kasmira Sheth:  A historical fiction tale of a child-bride in India during the rise of Ghandi.  When her betrothed dies of a snake bite, 12 year old Leela is forced to live as a widow, which means never wearing bright colors or bangles again, never being able to marry or have children, and being considered bad luck by the others in her town.  Really interesting look at Indian culture.

4.  Monster, Walter Dean Myers:  Really thought provoking book about a teenager on trial for murder.

5.  Bait, by Alex Sanchez:  Deals with childhood sexual abuse with a male protagonist.  Sanchez's books are so good I have to list two, the other one being...

6.  The God Box, Alex Sanchez:  Reinterprets the Christian arguments against homosexuality through the story of a closeted Christian teen and his new out and proud Christian friend.

7.  The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins:  OK, I know that it is cool and trendy to love these books (and I did, love these books that is), but I also happen to think that they can be read and discussed as social commentary.  Classism, the value of democracy, the voyeurism of "reality" television, the power of perception and the media-all really topical stuff!

8.  Number the Stars, Lois Lowry; The Book Thief, Markus Zusak; The Devil's Arithmetic, Jane Yolen; The Boy Who Dared, Susan Campbell Bartoletti; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne:  All books about the holocaust, all really well done.

9.  19 Minutes, Jodi Picoult:  I know that she's usually considered an author of adult fiction, but this novel about a school shooting is perfect reading for teens.

10.  Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson:  Great story about finding your voice after a sexual assault.  And a pretty good movie with Kristin Stewart, before she became enamored of sparkly vampires.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

Title:  The Things They Carried
Author:  Tim O'Brien
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year:  1990
Pages:  273
Genre:  Historical/Realistic Fiction, Memoir
Themes:  War, Survival, Courage
Age Level:  10th Grade and Up

While I sometimes share reviews I've written of young adult novels on my adult book review blog (Book Addict Reviews), I have never posted the other way.  But when my daughter recommended I read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien after reading it in her junior level English class (my daughter, whose last recommendation to me was Twilight when she was 13), I figured I'd better read it.  And she was right-this book says things that need to be said about war and courage, and I think that those things should be said to our youth.  So, you'll find my review below, not in the usual format, but here all the same.

Summary and Review:
I was born in 1970.  So while my life overlaps briefly with the Viet Nam War, I have no real memory of it.  What I do remember is going to downtown Chicago with my granny, and later with my parents, and seeing the faces of the homeless vets that were begging on the streets.  Wild-eyed, or blank-stared, the memories of their faces color everything that I have heard, read, or seen about the war since.  And I have heard, read, and seen a lot.  Stories from the fathers of friends who fought in the war, lessons from school, movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon-from these sources I have cobbled together a picture of that hot, wet, chaotic, horrific place and time.

But I am not sure that I have truly felt that I had even the faintest understanding of what it might actually have been like.  Not, that is, until I read Tim O'Brien's stunning book The Things They Carried.  Neither entirely fact nor entirely fiction, O'Brien uses a series of short stories and vignettes to tell the tale of Alpha Company, a group of soldiers based, in part, on the real men that O'Brien served with during the war.  The stories meander from stateside to the jungles of Viet Nam, from childhood to middle age, detailing how each experience prepares or informs or explains the person that Tim was or is or may yet become.

I will admit to having some difficulty at first with the non-linear narrative, and with the fact that I was never sure what was true and what was made-up.  But the genius of this work is that you soon realize that it doesn't matter.  In fact, the way that the book is put together and the inability to tell fact from fiction ends up doing a better job describing what living through that experience was like than any straight forward telling could.  O'Brien and his fellow soldiers lived a reality that most of us will never experience, and can never truly comprehend, where time was skewed, day and night traded places, where extraordinary circumstances became ordinary, and where the ordinary world as most of us know it became a dream that you couldn't let yourself believe in.

My favorite section of the book (if favorite is even the right word) is the story of how O'Brien almost ran away to Canada rather than go to war.  Part of O'Brien's extreme talent is an ability to use words to paint not just a visual but an emotional picture for the reader, and I was able to feel how deeply terrified he was at the prospect of war.  I felt his ambivalence about running away, about choosing the possibility of death over the certainty of shame and embarrassment.  But the thing I found most stunning, and the line I would consider the most "controversial" of the whole piece, is this, "I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Viet Nam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending.  I was a coward. I went to war."
Given the hyper-patriotism of the US since 9-11, and our unquestioning assumption that every soldier is brave and heroic,  this simple statement stopped me dead in my tracks.  It felt almost sacrilegious.  Are we allowed to say that not going to war is more courageous than going?  What does that say about us as a society, that we are find ourselves so often in armed conflicts?  Is it bravery and strength, or is it because we don't want to be judged as wanting by the rest of the world?  What would happen if our young men and women, en masse, simply refused to go the next time we try to send them into harm's way?  Would it be courageous or cowardly?  Regardless of where any one of us comes down on that particular idea, what O'Brien's work has done is illustrate for those of us that weren't there that nothing is as simple and straightforward in war as those of us sitting at home watching it on our televisions thinks it is.

Teaching Resources:  
National Endowment for the Arts Teaching Guide 
ReadWriteThink Lesson Plans 
Web English Teacher Lesson Plans 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Junonia by Kevin Henkes

Title: Junonia

Author: Kevin Henkes

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

Year: 2011

Pages: 192

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: Coming of Age, Family

Age Level: 3rd Grade and Up

Summary: Junonia begins as Alice Rice and her family embark on their annual vacation by the sea. Every year, Alice celebrates her birthday in a cabin called Scallop, surrounded by her parents and fellow vacationers. Although this year's trip begins with a sense of promise and magic, that feeling quickly disappears as Alice's family is joined by Aunt Kate and a troubled young girl named Mallory. Alice spends her vacation trying to reconnect with that initial feeling of magic by searching for the rare Junonia shell.

Review: I have always been a fan of Kevin Henkes' picture books (Julius, the Baby of the World is my favorite), but have not always connected with his novels. That being said, I found Junonia and its cast of characters to be quite relatable. Alice is a girl who, on the outside, appears reserved and calm. On the inside, her mind is swirling with multiple musings: Could God be a beautiful woman named Junonia? Why is Mallory so unhappy? How do I know when I am really growing up? When will I find my little piece of perfection? As I accompanied Alice on her journey of self discovery, I was treated to sparse and beautiful prose that I can only describe as Patricia McLachlan-esque. Though I enjoyed Junonia as a reader, I believe it lacks mass appeal for young readers. As a teacher, I believe it would be a great addition to a classroom library, but I would not use this book for guided reading or read aloud.

Teaching Resources:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

Title:  Shiver
Author:  Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher:  Scholastic
Pages:  400
Genre:  Paranormal Fantasy
Themes:  First Love, Werewolves, Family
Age Level:  9th Grade and Up

Summary (from School Library Journal): 
Grace, 17, loves the peace and tranquility of the woods behind her home. It is here during the cold winter months that she gets to see her wolf—the one with the yellow eyes. Grace is sure that he saved her from an attack by other wolves when she was nine. Over the ensuing years he has returned each season, watching her with those haunting eyes as if longing for something to happen. When a teen is killed by wolves, a hunting party decides to retaliate. Grace races through the woods and discovers a wounded boy shivering on her back porch. One look at his yellow eyes and she knows that this is her wolf in human form. Fate has finally brought Sam and Grace together, and as their love grows and intensifies, so does the reality of what awaits them. It is only a matter of time before the winter cold changes him back into a wolf, and this time he might stay that way forever.

I will admit it-I got completely sucked into the whole Twilight phenomenon.  The writing is only mediocre, and I only really liked about half of the characters, but the story sucked me in and wouldn't let go until I had read every, single, solitary word.  (I even read The Host, which I actually thought was a better story, and  better written.) Once I awoke from my Twilight-induced haze, and started blogging, I realized how many Twilight clones there are out there.  Most of them didn't really interest me much, but the one that popped up over and over was Shiver

As paranormal romances go, this one is pretty good.  It is well written, with believable characters and dialogue.  The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Grace and Sam, which makes the plot structure a bit different than other novels written for teens.  Both of the main characters are well-developed, but even the minor characters feel fairly fleshed out.

What makes this book stand out for me in the genre, though, is that Grace is not an awkward, indecisive girl.  She is independent, sure of herself as much as a 17 year old can be, and shows a strength of conviction.  Sam, as the poetry-loving, damaged 18 year old is a bit more stereotypical in his post-modern, post-feminist masculinity, but his inherent honor and decency feel authentic.  I think that this book, while not worthy of direct teaching, would make a good addition to a classroom library or reader's workshop setting.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen

Title:  Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom
Author:  Susin Nielsen
Publisher:  Tundra Books
Year:  2010
Pages:  240
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Divorce, Family
Age Range:  6th-8th Grade

Two year ago, Violet's life took a sudden turn-for the worse.  Her TV director dad met a 24 year old actress named Jennica, and took off with her for sunny LA, leaving Violet, her sister Rosie, and their mother behind in Vancouver.  Since then, Violet pretty much hates everything-her step-mom's fake boobs, her middle-school nemesis Ashley, and the fact that her mom has become a serial dater.  After a string of failed relationships, her mom brings home Dudley Weiner, a pudgy, nerdy punster in whom Violet can see no redeeming qualities.  Despite her best efforts to sabotage their relationship, her mother seems to really like this guy, even though he has man-boobs.  In a last ditch attempt to break them up, she starts writing letters to George Clooney, hoping to offer her mother a chance at the man of her dreams.  When Violet goes to LA to visit her dad on the set, it seems that she just might make that Clooney connection after all.

Written with refreshing honesty tinged with a sense of innocence, the character of Violet comes clearly off the page in this young adult novel.  Violet could be just about any 12 year old girl.  She's self-conscious, awkward, and self-absorbed.  She's angry with her mom, her dad, her step-mother, even her two year old "half-sisters", as she insists on calling them.  She tells herself that her spying on and being rude to her mother's dates is just a way to protect her family, but what she is really afraid of is someone taking the place of her dad.  Nielsen even makes the George Clooney tie-in believable, what with her dad being in the business.  Nielsen writes about Violet's various escapades with a sense of humor that keeps this story from straying into Lifetime movie territory, which as an adult reader I appreciate.  There are no easy answers in this novel, and no tearful reconciliations. This book would make a great addition to a classroom library-I think that there are plenty of kids out there who would completely relate to Violet and what she is feeling.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Countdown, by Deborah Wils

Title:  Countdown
Author:  Deborah Wiles
Publisher:  Scholastic
Pages:  400
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, Fear, Family, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Summary (from Goodreads):
It's 1962, and it seems everyone is living in fear. Twelve-year-old Franny Chapman lives with her family in Washington, DC, during the days surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amidst the pervasive threat of nuclear war, Franny must face the tension between herself and her younger brother, figure out where she fits in with her family, and look beyond outward appearances. For Franny, as for all Americans, it's going to be a formative year.

Wiles has pulled off with this novel the rather impressive feat of making something like the Cuban Missile Crisis accessible to younger readers through this coming-of-age story.  Franny could be any pre-teen entering adolescence; she's the unsettled middle child of a stern mother and Air Force pilot father, embarrassed by her family while loving them deeply, navigating the world of friends and boys without a map.  What makes Franny's story different is that she is doing it all in the context of some of the greatest upheavals in American society.  While she and her classmates are still pedal pushers and headbands, the world around her is getting ready to enter the era of Viet Nam, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the space race, and yes, the Cold War.

While the story itself does a decent job of detailing the particular moment in our country's history that was the Cuban Missile Crisis, there are also many parallels that could be made between 1962 and the fear that gripped the US after 9-11.  What struck me most was the fear that the adults thought it was OK to lay on these kids.  And the absurdity of teaching them to "duck and cover", as though that would provide any protection from a nuclear blast.  Just another example of schools making safety rules and having safety drills designed to make us feel like we're doing something to be safer, when in reality we can't control all of the dangers that face our children.

The format of the book is engaging, with photos and advertisements and slogans, and short biographies of some of the major players at the time thrown in.  While the main character is female, with rather uniquely female friend/boy issues, I think that there is enough action going on in the book that make readers would be able to get into the story.  Apparently this is going to be part of a trilogy called The Sixties Trilogy, though I haven't found a release date for the second book.  I'm hopeful that the next book will follow Franny's sister, Jo Ellen, as she goes to Mississippi for Freedom Summer.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic-Deborah Wiles Author Study 
Deborah Wiles Website 
Countdown Discussion Guide 
Mutlimedia Playlist of Music and Images from Countdown  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Title:  Ninth Ward
Author:  Jewell Parker Rhodes
Publisher:  Little Brown and Company
Year:  2010
Pages:  217
Genre:  Magical Realism
Themes:  family, natural disasters, strength, survival, friendship
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. She doesn't have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya's visions show a powerful hurricane—Katrina—fast approaching, it's up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm. (From Goodreads)

When a humanitarian tragedy as large as Hurricane Katrina occurs, often adults struggle to find ways to discuss the horrors of the situation in a way that is at once truthful and comforting.  As the sixth anniversary of the hurricane that devoured New Orleans approaches, Jewell Parker Rhodes gives us a stunning example of how we as adults can harness the fear and sadness and turn it into something that kids can not only understand, but learn and grow from.

Lanesha is about as self-assured a character as you'll find in children's literature.  Despite her unusual birth, living situation, and gifts, Lanesha is almost completely comfortable with who she is.  Much of this can be chalked up to Mama YaYa, the midwife who raised her after her mother died in childbirth.  Lanesha's "Uptown" family wants nothing to do with her, and leaves her in the Ninth Ward with Mama YaYa.  In fact, the only thing that seems to bring sadness to her life is the desertion of her Uptown family-the wealthy family that never gave her a chance because of her mother's indiscretion with a low-class Ninth Ward boy.  Lonely as she is, it isn't until she makes friends with a girl named Ginia, a boy named TaShon, and a dog named Spot that she realizes what she's been missing-friends.  

Having lived through the lead up to and aftermath of Katrina, even from a distance, I didn't need much help imagining what the Ninth Ward was like during the hurricane.  But Parker Rhodes' descriptions bring home the chaos and fear caused by the storm, and the desperation as the water flooded in afterwards.  As an adult reader, I had a context for the references to the Superdome, but I can see how building background knowledge before reading this aloud or having your students read it would be important.  I am thinking of using it as a read aloud during a unit in natural disasters.  Sadly, what happened in New Orleans may be America's equivalent to the sinking of the Titanic (certainly, as many people died), or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  Unlike those events, however, this one is still unfolding, as New Orleans continues to try and rebuild.

Teacher Resources:  
Author Interview 
Education World Hurricane Watch Lesson Plans 
Jewell Parker Rhodes Webpage for Ninth Ward 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ash, by Melinda Lo

Title:  Ash
Author: Melinda Lo
Publisher:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 272
Genre: Fantasy
Themes:  Family, First Love
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Summary: (from Goodreads)
In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

This is one of the more creative re-imaginings of the Cinderella story that I've seen.  Even above and beyond the fact of Ash's same-sex first love, Lo makes Ash a much more active participant in the story of her life than most versions do.  Ultimately, the story comes down to the choice between fantasy and reality.  Ash's life was hard and miserable-it only makes sense that she would wish to escape it to the land of the fairies.  At least, it made sense to her until she saw what real life could be.  Was it worth giving up a chance at happiness in the real world for an eternity of contented servitude to the fairies?  Lo's writing is dark and subtly menacing when describing Ash's life in her stepmother's house or her time with Sidhean, but becomes luminous when describing Ash's time in the Wood, and her interactions with Kaisa.  There are great opportunities for discussing writer's craft with this book, both in the use of descriptive language and the character development of Ash from young girl to young woman.

There are many ways this book could be used in the classroom.  I think that you could make a whole unit out of re-imaginings of various fairy tales, of which this is a great example.  I think that there are many discussions that could come from the choice Ash must make between withdrawing from the world and being a part of it.  Regardless of whether it is used for direct instruction, I think that Ash would be a great addition to any classroom library.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool

Title:  Moon Over Manifest
Author:  Clare Vanderpool
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2010
Pages:  368
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Family, Finding a Home, Community,War, Xenophobia
Age Range:  5th through 8th Grade

Summary: (from School Library Journal)
It's as if readers jump off the train in Manifest, KS, in 1936 with Abilene Tucker, 12, the feisty, likable, and perceptive narrator. She is there to live with Pastor Shady Howard, her father's friend, while her father works on the railroad back in Iowa. An equally important story set during World War I is artfully intertwined. Since her mother went off on her own 10 years earlier, Abilene and Gideon have been alone. Though their life together is unsettled, their bond is strong. Shady's place is shabby, but he is welcoming. The mystery about Manifest and Gideon unfolds after Abilene finds a box filled with intriguing keepsakes. It includes a letter dated 1917 to someone named Jinx from Ned Gillen that has a warning, “THE RATTLER is watching.” This starts Abilene, with the help of new friends Ruthanne and Lettie, on a search to learn the identity of the pair. The story cleverly shifts back and forth between the two eras. Abilene becomes connected to Miss Sadie, a “diviner” who slowly leads her through the story of Ned and Jinx. Though the girl is lonely, she adjusts to her new life, feeling sure that her father will come for her at summer's end.

This book won the Newbery Prize for children's literature last year, giving some indication of the quality of the writing in this book.  The narrative structure is interesting and engaging, and the story within a story device works well in this setting.  In many ways this book reminded me of books like Because of Winn Dixie-small town, spunky girl, eccentric older woman, slightly shady older man-but what makes this book unique is the focus on how the immigration question affected the midwest during the first part of the 20th century.  Not many people know that the Ku Klux Klan targeted immigrants as well as blacks, nor do most people truly understand the hold that the mining companies (and other large manufacturing companies) had on the workers and their families.  Throw in a short lesson on Prohibition and a long look at World War I, and this novel is a rich source of historical content for discussion and extension activities.

Teacher Resources:
Moon Over Manifest on eNotes 
Moon Over Manifest on Bookrags

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman

Title:  Unwind
Author:  Neal Shusterman
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Year:  2007
Pages:  352
Genre:  Science Fiction, Dystpoian
Themes:  Reproductive Rights, Ethics, Morality, Survival, Identity
Age Levels:  7th-10th Grade


Set in the future, the second civil war is fought over abortion. To end the war, a compromise is reached that ends the practice of abortion but creates an alternative called "unwinding." Between the ages of 13 and 17, parents or guardians can choose to have their children unwound, which involves having every part of their bodies harvested to be "donated" to another person so, technically, they don't really die. The complex and compelling plot follows three teens whose stories intertwine when they escape while on their way to the harvest camps. Fifteen-year-old Connor's parents can no longer control him. Lev, a tithe, was raised by religious parents for the sole purpose of being unwound. Risa, a ward of the state, is a victim of shrinking budgets since she is not a talented enough musician to be kept alive. (From School Library Journal)

My first thought upon finishing this book (in practically one sitting, I might add) was "Holy crap!".  Not the most literary of sentiments, I realize, but I was so blown away by this story that "Holy crap" was as articulate as I could get.

When  this book was first recommended to me by a close friend, I was a little bit concerned about the subject matter.  Not that I consider myself squeamish, nor and I averse to a good debate over something I feel strongly about, like a woman's right to choose-I was more afraid that the book would come off as preachy, which is something I find pretty abhorrent in a book (though less so when the author's preachiness agrees with me!).  I was assured by my (many) friends who had read Unwind that was not the case, and they were 100% right (I can hear them all saying, "Of course we were, stupid!"-well, maybe without the stupid part!)  In fact, after reading the entire book I'm not sure where Shusterman himself would come down on the subject of reproductive rights-but I do know how he feels about respecting and protecting  the children already here.

Shusterman's characters are well-drawn, and sympathetic while still being flawed, each in their own way.  Connor, the character who sets the rest of the events in motion, is a perfect example of a good kid gone bad through lack of impulse control.  I see two or three of those go through my classroom every year.  Risa is actually the most functional of the three youth, which is ironic given the fact that she spent her entire life in a state youth home with no family.  Lev is the one that got to me the most-a boy raised from birth to believe that he was destined to honor God by allowing himself to be "tithed" to the church by being unwound.  Let's see, young men raised to believe that it is an honor to die for their religious beliefs-sound familiar to anyone?

Obviously the whole concept of unwinding could lead to some pretty intense discussion of morality, ethics, and the existence and/or nature of the soul.  But there are points all along the way to take that discussion into different directions.  What about the doctors?  Don't they take and oath to do no harm?  What happens to the parents?  What kind of belief about the sanctity of life does unwinding lead to in the society?  Do people seem to value life more or less as a result of storking and unwinding?  Should people be allowed to pay for body parts?  Should scientists do something, like the neurobonding in the book, just because they can, or is there a higher ethical standard to meet.  This book has a ton of different ways you could go.

Teacher Resources:
Simon and Schuster Reading Guide
Teachervision Reading Group Guide
 eNotes Study Guide

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan

Title:  Forest of Hands and Teeth
Author:  Carrie Ryan
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2009
Pages:  320
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Survival, First Love
Age Levels:  7th through 12th Grade

Mary knows little about the past and why the world now contains two types of people: those in her village and the undead outside the fence, who prey upon the flesh of the living. The Sisters protect their village and provide for the continuance of the human race. After her mother is bitten and joins the Unconsecrated, Mary is sent to the Sisters to be prepared for marriage to her friend Harry. But then the fences are breached and the life she has known is gone forever. Mary; Harry; Travis, whom Mary loves but who is betrothed to her best friend; her brother and his wife; and an orphaned boy set out into the unknown to search for safety, answers to their questions, and a reason to go on living.
(From School Library Journal)

If you liked M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Village, and you like zombies, then you will probably like this book.  While I enjoyed this book, I'm not sure that I would say that it is one of the best examples of dystopian young adult literature that I've read.  There were moments when it had similar suspense to Hunger Games, but without the emotional impact.  It had elements of the drudgery of The Road, but without the masterful use of language.  All in all, I think that this book (and the ones that follow) would be best used as part of a larger unit on dystopian literature, perhaps as a choice book for students to read after studying Hunger Games or Life as We Knew It.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Three Questions, Jon J. Muth

Title:  The Three Questions (based on a story by Leo Tolstoy)
Author:  Jon J. Muth
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
Year:  2002
Pages:  32
Genre: Animal Fantasy
Themes:  Morality/Ethics
Age Range:  K-4th Grade 


Muth (Come On, Rain!) recasts a short story by Tolstoy into picture-book format, substituting a boy and his animal friends for the czar and his human companions. Yearning to be a good person, Nikolai asks, "When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?" Sonya the heron, Gogol the monkey and Pushkin the dog offer their opinions, but their answers do not satisfy Nikolai. He visits Leo, an old turtle who lives in the mountains. While there, he helps Leo with his garden and rescues an injured panda and her cub, and in so doing, finds the answers he seeks. As Leo explains, "There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side." (from Publisher's Weekly)


I am using this book as the children's story during a youth service at my church about "The Big Questions".  While the text is deceptively simple, the concepts behind the story are subtle.  The story has enough action to keep younger children entertained (plus pandas!), but older children will be able to discuss the lesson inherent in the questions that Nikolai poses to his animal friends.  The art is beautiful-understated, but detailed enough to engage a child's interest.  The story is moral without being preachy, and with older students you could compare the original story-which involves Russian politics-with the animal version.  Regardless, it is a lesson worth teaching.

Teacher Resources: 

Learning to Give Lesson Plans
Questioning Lesson

Thursday, April 14, 2011

School for Tricksters, Chris Galaver

Title:  School for Tricksters
Author:  Chris Galaver
Publisher:  Southern Methodist University Press
Year:  2010
Pages:  248
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Racial Identity
Age Range:  7th-12th Grade

In School for Tricksters, Gavaler examines racial identity through the true, though fictionalized, lives of Ivy and Sylvester.  Ivy is an orphaned white girl trying to move up in the world, Sylvester is a black Southerner trying to escape the Jim Crow south.  Both end up at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania-a school designed for assimilating Native Americans into mainstream society.  Both of them are "passing" as Indian in order to escape their poor upbringing.  Through Carlisle they come into contact with some famous-or infamous-names.  Pop Warner, activist Angela De Cora and her husband Lone Star Deitz (himself passing as Indian to further his sports career) and future Olympian Jim Thorpe.  Told in alternating stories about each main character, the book shows the ultimate price for "pretending" to be someone you are not.

Gavaler takes on a shameful period in American history-the destruction of Native American culture through forced attendance and boarding schools-and turn it on its head.  This is not a story of Native Americans overcoming the threat to their identity, but rather the affects of defining people by race at all.  While the very idea of someone having to "pass" is abhorrent, you can't help but understand the impulse.  Our racial policies over the years have pitted groups against each other, causing people to act against their own long term interests to try and get ahead.  This book would be a great way to introduce the idea of passing and what that meant to people of different backgrounds.  Ivy and Sylvester are both written in a way that is promotes thoughtful discussion about character motivation and the narrative structure showcases a different way of thinking about storytelling.  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, By Sherman Alexie

Title:  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author:  Sherman Alexie
Publisher:  Little, Brown for Young Readers
Year:  2007
Pages:  230
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  9th Grade and Up

Arnold Spirit, a goofy-looking dork with a decent jumpshot, spends his time lamenting life on the "poor-ass" Spokane Indian reservation, drawing cartoons (which accompany, and often provide more insight than, the narrative), and, along with his aptly named pal Rowdy, laughing those laughs over anything and nothing that affix best friends so intricately together. When a teacher pleads with Arnold to want more, to escape the hopelessness of the rez, Arnold switches to a rich white school and immediately becomes as much an outcast in his own community as he is a curiosity in his new one. He weathers the typical teenage indignations and triumphs like a champ but soon faces far more trying ordeals as his home life begins to crumble and decay amidst the suffocating mire of alcoholism on the reservation. (from Booklist)

Alexie does not pull any punches in this young adult novel about race, culture,  and individuality.  Arnold Spirit, known as Junior on the reservation where he lives, is conflicted.  His family and culture encourage him to stay with the tribe, to stay on the reservation, to not look to the white man's world for hope.  But Junior feels trapped on the reservation.  He watches his family and friends deal with poverty, alcoholism, and violence, and he knows that if he does not leave the reservation he will succumb the the same hopelessness that is slowly killing the very culture of their Spokane tribe.  But leaving opens him up to a whole different set of challenges.  The other students at the small-town high school he attends treat him with suspicion, and he never truly feels like he belongs.  At home, the members of his tribe treat him as a race traitor-someone who thinks he is better than the rest f them, and is betraying them by trying to "be white".  Caught between these two worlds, Junior feels like a part-time Indian.  When he is at school, he is always part-Indian, and on the rez he is always considered part-white.  This duality of his existence begins to help him understand that identity is more than simply the race or tribe you are born into.  It is also about what you do with your gifts, and about coming to terms with the fact that all of us have to make our own way, regardless of the challenges that stand in front of us.  On the reservation he sees Indians who have given up, who have refused to face their challenges and try to cover them up with alcohol and violence.  Despite his feeling that he is leaving something important behind, he knows what he needs to do to be a whole person.

Teacher Resources:  
Sherman Alexie @ Web English Teacher 
eNotes Study Guide 
Oak Park River Forest High School Summer Reading Packet 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block

Title:  Weetzie Bat
Author:  Francesca Lia Block
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  1989
Pages:  109
Genre:  Magical Realism
Themes:  Family, GLBT, AIDS
Age Range:  9th through 12th Grade

Weetzie Bat and her best friend Dirk live in Shangi-L.A., which most of us call Los Angeles.  They like 60s Hollywood glam, and punk rock.  Weetzie is straight, Dirk is gay.  Both are looking for their "duck", or soulmate. After Weetzie gets three wishes from a genie in a bottle,  Dirk find his in a dreamy blonde surfer boy, Weetzie finds her Secret Agent Lover Man.  This odd collection of people live together in a bungalow in LA, creating a blended family like none I've ever seen.  Together they face depression, AIDS, parenting, and an uncertain future.

This is a strange little gem of a book.  There is almost no formal character development, yet I felt as though I knew and understood each of the characters intimately.  Block's sparse, lyrical language paints a picture of a Los Angeles that is at once glamorous and gritty, magical and dirty-in fact, it is the perfect setting for a story with both Old Hollywood and punk rock sensibilities.  Weetzie and her friends make some questionable choices-drinking too much, picking up men at clubs, having a baby while still very young-but you can't help but be moved by their loving, quirky, rather bizarre family.  This book was the first in a series about Weetzie Bat and her family, including Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys and Baby Be-Bop