Sunday, February 27, 2011

Zan-Gah: A Prehistoric Adventure

Title:  Zan-Gah:  A Prehistoric Adventure
Author:  Allan Richard Shickman
Publisher:  Earthshaker Books
Date:  2007
Pages:  160
Genre:  Historical Fiction/Adventure
Age Levels:  4th-9th Grade

Zan-Gah is a 14 year old boy living with a small group of families in the prehistoric era.  Hunters and gatherers, his small tribe survives by being fierce hunters.  Guilty over his brother's disappearance from the tribe, Zan-Gah goes off alone into the wilderness to try and find him.  Along the way, he faces danger after danger, growing from a young boy into manhood during his three year journey.

Getting boys to read can be a real challenge.  Jon Sczieska even has an initiative called Guys Read to encourage more boys to read.  So finding a book like Zan-Gah is like a gift to teachers or parents trying to find exciting, engaging stories for boys.  Zan-Gah has all of the things that the stereotypical boy would like-danger, daring escapes, heroism.  Shickman has created a world that is both informative and exciting.  It reminded me a little bit of Clan of the Cavebear for kids.  As coming of age stories go this one is pretty unique.  Never mind the trials and tribulations of middle school or the divorced parents-this is like coming of age on steroids.  The action is non-stop, and in amongst the action there are some good lessons on overcoming fear and standing by the people you love.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters

Title:  Of Thee I Sing:  A Letter to My Daugters
Author:  Barack Obama
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Date:  November 2010
Pages:  40
Genre:  Non-Fiction
Age Range:  Ages 4-8 (I would use it in 4th and 5th grade as well)

Of Thee I Sing is a loving tribute to President Obama's daughters, Malia and Sasha.  Mr. Obama uses the personal stories of 13 famous Americans of all races and backgrounds to highlight the traits he believes each of his daughters possesses- creativity, intelligence, bravery, compassion, strength, humility, and kindness.  With beautiful illustrations by Loren Long, this book makes an inspiring story to read with your own children.

I will admit to some bias in my reasons for buying this book.  I happen to love this particular president, and have read his other books as well.  What makes this book special is two things for me-the multicultural figures Obama uses to highlight each character trait, and the gorgeous illustrations that accompany each person's story.  As a teacher I am routinely frustrated by the token multiculturalism we have in American schools.  Too many people seem to think that if we teach about Martin Luther King Jr. in January and Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver in February we are somehow being progressive.  This dichotomous view of "diversity" in our schools, the myth that by teaching about a few African-American heroes we are somehow making up for the lack of representation in our history and literature series, leaves out the many children who belong to neither group, or to more than one.  Mr. Obama includes Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, women, men, rich, and poor in his description to his daughters about what makes America the amazing place that it is-and what it takes to make it the more amazing place it can be.  Despite the political rhetoric in Washington, I can feel his continued idealism, and that in itself is a source of hope for me.  For his daughters, this book holds all of the love and hope that their father has for them-and I dare say, for all of our children.

Teacher Resources:
I was unable to find any online teaching resources for this book yet, though I imagine that's at least in part because it only came out a couple of months ago.  I am planning on using it to frame a biography unit, where we will do research on each of the Americans highlighted in the book.   You can also use it to discuss begin a conversation about immigration, since a few of the people named were naturalized citizens.  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

Title:  Ender's Game
Author:  Orson Scott Card
Publsiher:  Tor Science Fiction
Date:  1985 (Original)
Pages:  352
Genre:  Science Fiction
Age Range:  7th Grade and Up

Summary (from Goodreads):
In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race's next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn't make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender's skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender's two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.

This novel, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, has been on my to-be-read list for a while.  As a science fiction fan, I felt that I needed to read it just to say I had.  I didn't expect to enjoy it-the premise of turning children into soldiers did not appeal to me one whit, especially given that there are actual children being conscripted as child soldiers all over Africa and Asia today.  But it is one of the classics of science fiction, so I finally agreed to give it a chance.

I should have known my fellow science fiction fans wouldn't have steered me wrong.  Ender's Game is gripping and intense.  There is violence from the very beginning, when Ender is attacked by some bullies at his school, but despite the violence the whole thing feels very controlled and rational, almost cold.  None of the characters are easily pigeonholed, as the usual good vs evil dichotomy doesn't really apply here.  All of the characters have flaws, pretty major ones for the most part, but it is hard to judge them too harshly.  How much can you blame a person for acting in a certain way when they have been genetically manipulated to be predisposed that way?   

Ender himself commits some pretty horrific acts, but is kept from the knowledge of their consequences so that he will continue to train, to "play the game".  I will admit to being as surprised as Ender to find that the final battles he fought were real, at least partly because I knew there were other books in the series, so I was expecting a continuation of the war.  But imagine the discussions you could have with students about what was done to Ender.  He was manipulated into xenocide, blithely sending what he thought were fake fighters into battle, only to kill them in real life.  What would that do to a person?  What reasons would make it OK for a person to be manipulated that way?  Would it have made a difference if Ender had been an adult?  This novel has a lot of  social commentary in it that makes it a great read with high schoolers.

Teacher Resources:
Unit Plans and Study Guides 
Character Lesson Plan 
Web English Teacher Plans