Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cosmic, by Frank Cotrell Boyce

Title:  Cosmic
Author:  Frank Cotrell Boyce
Publisher:  Walden Pond Press
Year: 2008
Pages:  336
Genre:  Science Fiction
Themes:  Family, Growing Up
Age Range:  4th-8th grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Liam is too big for his boots. And his football strip. And his school blazer. But being super-sized height-wise has its advantages: he's the only eleven-year-old to ever ride the G-force defying Cosmic rollercoaster - or be offered the chance to drive a Porsche. Long-legged Liam makes a giant leap for boy-kind by competing with a group of adults for the chance to go into space. Is Liam the best boy for the job? Sometimes being big isn't all about being a grown-up.

 That summary doesn't really do the plot justice, but I can understand why it's written the way it is. The plot for this book is convoluted and completely unbelievable-except it's not.  Somehow Boyce manages to make the story about an extremely mature looking 12 year old who fakes his way into a top secret space mission by pretending to be someone's dad feel real.  But I suspect that the authenticity that I felt while reading the book had less to do with the plot and more to do with the emotions that Liam brings out in the reader.

Liam is awkward and brilliant and lacks all common sense-much like almost any other tween.  He desperately wants to fit in, but has mostly given up on that due to his extreme height and premature facial hair.  The one place he feels accepted is in the online community of World of Warcraft.  But when he hears about a special contest for dads and their kids to ride the most amazing ride ever, The Rocket, Liam knows he has to find a way to win.  And when he finds out The Rocket is, well, a rocket, going to space, instead of running for the hills like most sensible chaps, he fights for the right to ride.

Liam's character perfectly demonstrates the stage of life that comes between childhood and the teen years.  He feels left-out by his peers, misunderstood by his parents, restless for adventure...the tween age reminds me of how a reptile must feel before it sheds its skin.  Itchy and twitchy and impatient for the next stage of life to begin.  Before Liam can truly understand the importance of his family and his own self-worth, he has to scrape away all of that immaturity and try to see the world for what it really is.  At least the view is better from space!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Title:  I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced\
Publisher:  Broadway
Year:  2010
Pages: 188
Genre:  Memoir
Themes:  Survival, Social Justice, Feminism
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from publisher)
Forced by her father to marry a man three times her age, young Nujood Ali was sent away from her parents and beloved sisters and made to live with her husband and his family in an isolated village in rural Yemen. There she suffered daily from physical and emotional abuse by her mother-in-law and nightly at the rough hands of her spouse. Flouting his oath to wait to have sexual relations with Nujood until she was no longer a child, he took her virginity on their wedding night. She was only ten years old.

Unable to endure the pain and distress any longer, Nujood fled—not for home, but to the courthouse of the capital, paying for a taxi ride with a few precious coins of bread money. When a renowned Yemeni lawyer heard about the young victim, she took on Nujood’s case and fought the archaic system in a country where almost half the girls are married while still under the legal age. Since their unprecedented victory in April 2008, Nujood’s courageous defiance of both Yemeni customs and her own family has attracted a storm of international attention. Her story even incited change in Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries, where underage marriage laws are being increasingly enforced and other child brides have been granted divorces.

Nujood's story is simply but powerfully written.  Detailing a loss of innocence that was made all the more brutal for coming from the betrayal of her parents, I Am Nujood is both an easy and a difficult read.  While the sexual assaults that she endured daily are only described in much detail once, the effect of it on her is both tragic and ultimately redemptive.  Despite all teachings to the contrary, Nujood refuses to accept that her fate as a woman is to be beaten and raped by her "husband", showing a bravery that not many adult women in repressive societies do.  Her determination to move forward and help other girls is an example to any survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, whether from countries where the practice is societally supported or from more "enlightened" countries like America, where supposedly we value women more.

But this book is much more than one personal story of survival and redemption.  This book can be used to highlight the very real problem of forced child marriage that exists in parts of the developing world.  Unicef estimates that in Africa, there the practice is prevalent, 42% of girls will be married before the age of 18, many without their consent.  This means that a lack of formal schooling and a separation from the rest of society will only lead to a perpetuation of the cycle for their daughters.  Child marriage is most often the result of poverty combined with a  rigid sense of honor.  This sense of having to "honor" the family by putting up with abuse is pervasive and makes girls in this situation feel ashamed of their desire not to be married.  There is much work to be done to help women world-wide gain the education and rights necessary for them to have true self-determination, not to have to choose between the equally unacceptable alternatives of staying with their family and starving or being forced into a marriage with an older man and enduring whatever abuse he chooses to throw her way.  

While the reading level for this book is quite low, the content is mature, and should it should be read with guidance by younger teens.  I believe that it could be a very powerful book to use in the classroom, however, not necessarily for its literary merit as much as for the issues it raises about human rights.  While the description of Nujood's rape on the first night of her marriage is disturbing, it is not graphic in nature in terms of language.  I believe that it would make an excellent addition to any high school literature or social sciences curriculum, and that it could be used as a jumping-off point for a unit on the status of girl children throughout the world.

Teacher Resources:
Random House Reader's Guide
Human Rights Watch Article About Child Marriage in Yemen

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffery

Title: Dragonflight
Author:  Anne McCaffrey
Publisher:  Del Ray
Year:  1968
Pages: 320
Genre:  Fantasy/Science Fiction
Themes:  Survival, Self-Determination
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary: (from Goodreads)
To the nobles who live in Benden Weyr, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright. 

But everything changes when she meets a queen dragon. The bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world. . . .

The Dragonriders of Pern books were some of the first adult fantasy novels I read.  I had already been through the Narnia books, as well as Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper.  While I certainly had a strong desire to find my own magic wardrobe, none of those other series made me long to be part of a fictional world the way McCaffrey's books did.  To experience the intense psychic bond between dragon and rider, to fly in battle against the devastating Thread, to travel through space and time in an instant-these were things that so greatly appealed to me that I felt it as a physical force when I read these books.  

I am not alone in my worship of the dragonkind as imagined in these books.  Anne McCaffrey, who died earlier this year, had a house full of dragons, many of them  given to her by her adoring fans.  People who, like me, wished they could experience the magic of dragonflight.  McCaffrey's books are for fantasy lovers, but also for lovers of science fiction, because as the series went on and we learned more about the origins of the dragons, we discover that in fact science is at the core of what these books.  McCaffrey merges science fiction with fantasy elements in a way I have not read since.  

From a teacher perspective, these books are likely not something to use as a whole group or small group reading assignment.  But they are certainly books worthy of inclusion in your classroom library.  They may provide a gateway to reading for kids who are looking for a fantastic world to escape to.  And if it affects them anything like it affected me, it will lead them to authors like Tolkien and Asimov and Heinlein and the many fantastical worlds they created.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Signal, by Cynthia C. Felice

Title:  Signal
Author: Cynthia C. Felice
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Year: 2009
Pages: 160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Family, Friendship, Loss
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
One day while running on the trail near his house in upstate New York, Owen McGuire meets a girl with startling green eyes and bloody cuts all over her body who seems to be utterly alone. Her name is Campion, after the wildflower that is an alien species in the area—alien meaning “from someplace else”—and Campion claims to come from someplace else entirely, a planet called Home. She plans to signal her parents to come pick her up in their spaceship. Owen agrees to help, and as he does, he feels happier than he has in a long time: his mother died a year and a half ago, and now he and his workaholic father live together like two planets on separate orbits, in a new house far from his friends. What will he do when Campion asks him to come with her into outer space, away from his lonely life on Earth?

I picked this book up at the book fair at my school.  I hadn't read anything about it online or anywhere else, so the description above led me to believe it was a science fiction book.  And that is the hook, the thing that sets you up for the much sadder and more earthly truth of Campion's life.  

Owen's loneliness is apparent in the beginning of the book, and only gets more evident as the story progresses.  His father throws himself into his work after losing Owen's mother in a car accident, and Owen has no friends in the new town where they live.  The few interactions we see between Owen and his father are obviously strained, and it helps make his decisions-first to believe Campion's very far-fecthed story, and second to leave with her and her "parents" when they arrived in a spaceship to rescue her.

From the beginning of the book I felt that the backstory that Campion produced was not exactly believable.  But I was still thinking of it as a science fiction story at that point.  Once I realized the sad reality that Campion was running away from an abusive home, the story set-up made much more sense.  I can see how children reading the story would be drawn in thinking it was one thing, and be surprised at the "twist" at the end.  It would provide an excellent discussion of character motivations-both for Owen and for Campion.  The other characters in the story each have their own quirks and eccentricities, which can only add to the discussion and make it richer.  I would say that this book would be good for a book club, or for a literature circle format.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Latte Rebellion, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Title: The Latte Rebellion
Author:  Sarah Jamila Stevenson
Publisher: Flux
Year: 2011
Pages: 327
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Identity, Racism, Social Justice, Friendship, Transition from High School
Age Range:  9th Grade and Above

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
When high school senior Asha Jamison gets called a "towel head" at a pool party, the racist insult gives Asha and her best friend Carey a great money-making idea for a post-graduation trip. They'll sell T-shirts promoting the Latte Rebellion, a club that raises awareness of mixed-race students.

Seemingly overnight, their "cause" goes viral and the T-shirts become a nationwide fad. As new chapters spring up from coast to coast, Asha realizes that her simple marketing plan has taken on a life of its own-and it's starting to ruin hers. Asha's once-stellar grades begin to slip, threatening her Ivy League dreams, and her friendship with Carey is hanging by a thread. And when the peaceful underground movement turns militant, Asha's school launches a disciplinary hearing. Facing expulsion, Asha must decide how much she's willing to risk for something she truly believes in.

The Latte Rebellion highlights an increasingly important theme of modern American life-the effects of racism on those of mixed racial background.  As our country becomes increasingly diverse, and old social boundaries about who dates and marries who break down, more and more children are coming into our schools who identify as bi-racial, multi-racial, and mixed-race.  The fact that we have our first mixed race president, but the narrative is that he is our first black president, highlights the point that Ms. Stevenson was trying to make by writing the book.  Our society puts people into boxes based on parts of their identity that may or may not resemble the way that they identify themselves.  These labels affect almost every aspect of a person's life, something that Asha discovers.  From a strictly thematic point of view, this novel has important points to make.

Unfortunately, I felt that the story was too slow...there was an awful lot of internal dialogue that I didn't think was strictly necessary, and it felt like it took forever to get to the "event" that caused all of the trouble.  In between chapters, there are excerpts from the disciplinary hearing held towards the end of the book, and all of them are sort of annoyingly vague about what it is that Asha is actually being accused of.  Over all I felt that the action was not well-paced, and the book probably could have been shorter  by about 50 pages.

The other things that I did not care for was the portrayal of Asha's parents in the book, but I will admit that has more to do with my own personal liberal bias than any issues I have with the author's craft.   I was appalled at the lack of support that the parents showed their fairly amazing child in her efforts to make the world a more accepting place for people of mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds.   Their daughter was a straight A student, had never been in trouble before, was in lots of extra-curriculars and clubs, and had a social conscience.  I would be thrilled to have a child like Asha, and I certainly would have backed her up if her school tried to label her a terrorist for starting a peaceful social justice club.  Instead, Asha's parents tell her how disappointed they are in her, and how selfish and childish she is for jeopardizing her future by participating in something so controversial.  I was annoyed by pretty much every adult in the book, and with the attitude of some of the other youth as well.  Really, starting a social justice club should not be something that frightens people, and I thought that the reaction by the school and the parents was completely out of line with what was actually happening.  But then I think about things like the Tennessee law that no one is allowed to use the word gay in the classroom, and I realize that maybe my own liberal views and the fact that I live in a pretty liberal metro area make me blind to the attitudes that exist in other places.