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.