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.