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


Monday, March 14, 2011

The House Your Pass On The Way, Jacqueline Woodson

Title:  The House You Pass On The Way
Author:  Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher:  Laurel Leaf
Year:  1999
Pages:  114
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Coming of Age, Sexual Orientation, Identity, Friendship
Age Level:  6th through 9th Grade

In this understated story set in a small, mostly African-American community in the South, Staggerlee Canan is shunned by her peers because her mother is white. This is not the sole cause of her isolation, however. She has a secret. In sixth grade, she had kissed another girl. Rejected by that friend, Staggerlee has no one to talk to about her sexual feelings until her adopted cousin, Trout, visits for the summer when both girls are 14. Both wonder if they are gay, but sexual identity is really only one of the things that troubles them. Their platonic intimacy is the intense kind shared by friends who see themselves as different from the crowd. Asked by Trout to say whether she's black or white, Staggerlee replies, "I'm me. That's all." (From School Library Journal)

Despite the slim nature of this book, it carries a surprising amount of weight.   Staggerlee is an interesting character-the grandchild of famous grandparents, unable to take advantage of the freedom from oppression that they fought for.  She struggles to understand what it means to be bi-racial in a mostly black community, where the other kids assume she thinks she is better than they are.  The fact that she has a secret about her feelings towards other girls contributes to her isolation.  When Trout comes into the picture, she has finally found someone "like her".  But when Trout leaves, and the intensity of their frienship starts to lessen, Staggerlee is left wondering if and when she will truly be able to just be herself.  This book would be great for teaching about multi-racial identity or sexual orientation specifically, or tryiing to find your place in the world in general.

 Jacqueline Woodson's Website

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Totally Joe, James Howe

Title:  Totally Joe
Author:  James Howe
Publisher:  Antheum
Year:  2005
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Coming Out, Coming of Age, First Love
Age Level:  6th through 10th Grade

Joe Bunch is your average middle schooler.  What he really wants is to be popular, but he'll settle for being left alone.  Unfortunately for him, his rather flamboyant nature makes him the target of the school bully, Kevin.  Told as journal entries for the "alphabiography" his teacher assigned, we learn about all of Joe's ups and downs, from his first boyfriend to his distant relationship with his brother and his beloved Aunt Pam moving away.

I don't usually read other people's reviews of a book before writing my own, but in looking for a summary of the ply of Totally Joe I came across two that made me shake my head.  Both mentioned how well-written the book was,  and how engaging the story was, and then went on to mention how unrealistic it is that a gay middle-schooler could be so comfortable with themselves, and that their family and friends could be so accepting.  It is such a sad testament to the fact that most people still see being gay and coming out as traumatic experiences filled with self-hatred, family denial, and rejection.  Believe it or not, there are families out there that are completely and unreservedly accepting of their gay children.  I know at least three such young people myself, who came out in middle school to their families and close friends and had nothing but positive, supporting experiences.  I love the fact that Howe does not make Joe's journey and coming out full of drama and conflict.  Why is it unrealistic to describe what a loving, accepting family structure looks like?  This book, a companion to The Misfits, does not have its power.  But Joe is an engaging, likeable character, and his story of self-acceptance and first love is sweet.

Teaching Resources:
Alphabiography Project

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Misfits, James Howe

Title:  The Misfits
Author:  James Howe
Publisher:  Antheum
Year:  2001
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  6th through 9th Grade
Themes:  Acceptance, Family, Bullying

What do a 12-year-old student who moonlights as a tie salesman, a tall, outspoken girl, a gay middle schooler and a kid branded as a hooligan have in common? Best friends for years, they've all been the target of cruel name-calling and now that they're in seventh grade, they're not about to take it any more. In this hilarious and poignant novel, Howe (Bunnicula; The Watcher) focuses on the quietest of the bunch, overweight Bobby Goodspeed (the tie salesman), showing how he evolves from nerd to hero when he starts speaking his mind. Addie (the outspoken girl) decides that the four of them should run against more popular peers in the upcoming student council election. But her lofty ideals and rabble-rousing speeches make the wrong kind of waves, offending fellow classmates, teachers and the principal. It is not until softer-spoken Bobby says what's in his heart about nicknames and taunts that people begin to listen and take notice, granting their respect for the boy they used to call "Lardo" and "Fluff." (From Publishers Weekly)

This book should be required reading in every middle school in America.  Robby and his group of friends represent the typical middle-school outsider archetypes-the hooligan; the nerd; the unattractive know-it all; the sissy.  But Howe-speaking through his insightful, hilarious narrator, Robby-shows that their experiences of name-calling and bullying are universal.  The book examines issues of race, sexual orientation, and sexism in such a way that the target audience of tweens can easily relate.  While the characters may be more well-adjusted and mature than the average middle-schooler, the journey of these four friends is inspiring.  Speaking of inspiring, this novel spawned a nation-wide event, founded by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network called No Name-Calling Week, which is now celebrated in schools all around the country.  As an educator, I'm speaking from experience when I tell you that the issues presented in this book are just as relevant today as they were when Howe wrote The Misfits.  If you need proof, the fact that this book has been challenged in some school districts should be proof enough.  I wish that we all had the courage and ability to speak truth to power the way that Howe has with this gem of a book.

Teaching Resources:
Teaching Tolerance Interview with Author James Howe 
Teaching Guide from TeacherVision 
No Name Calling Week 
Literature Unit from edHelper 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Sissy Duckling, Harvey Fierstein

Title:  The Sissy Duckling
Author:  Harvey Fierstein and Henry Cole
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing
Year:  2002
Pages:  40
Genre:  Animal Fantasy
                                                 Themes:  Family, Acceptance
                                                 Age Levels:  1st through 4th Grade

Actor and playwright Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) turns a gimlet eye to Hans Christian Andersen in this ducky tale. Elmer, crowned by a wispy comb of feathers and wearing a pink backpack with daisies on it, is "one happy duckling doing all the things he loved to do," such as baking cookies and staging puppet shows. When Papa Duck, an imposing mallard, forces him to try baseball, Elmer promptly strikes out and heads for home, unfazed. Later, he hears his father complaining ("They all called him sissy! Now I'm the laughingstock of the whole flock") and endures threats from a school bully with a feathery flat-top and muscular chest. Elmer runs away and sets up housekeeping in a hollow tree, but comes to the rescue when his father gets shot by hunters and cannot fly south for the winter.  In a campy, triumphant ending, the resourceful duckling loudly proclaims, "I am a big sissy and proud of it!" Ages 5-8.(From Publishers Weekly)

This book is lighthearted and fun on the surface, but addresses some read issues that students face when they act outside of what society considers "normal" for their gender.  Fierstein draws from his own experiences to create a main character that is lovable and easygoing, an completely happy being different than the others.  Fierstein shows clearly that the problem is not with Elmer's behavior, but with the prejudices and actions of others.  Why should Elmer have to change who he is?  Why shouldn't the other ducks have to open their minds?  And who made up these gender roles anyway?  I so appreciate that Elmer does not ever question his right to be who he is.  And that while he misses his parents, he knows that he should not have to live someplace where he is not loved for being himself.  Great book for teaching stereotypes and self-acceptance.

Teacher Resources:
Accepting Others Lesson Plan 
Character Education Using Children's Literature 
The Sissy Duckling Video