Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

As I waited impatiently for the copy of Eclipse to finally be shipped to my school library by Follett, I read a number of reviews of it by bloggers. Although many of the reviews indicated the readers were disappointed with the path the series is taking, Becky at Becky’s Book Review and Jen Robinson at Jen Robinson’s Book Page both have reviews of it that reflect the way I felt about the book. I’m not going to rehash what they said but I do want to add to it.

Many of the less-than-positive reviews I’ve read focus on the amount of agony Bella goes through as she is torn by her love for both Edward and Jacob (the reviewers say she whines too much). She wants to be a vampire so that she can always be with Edward, but she doesn’t want to hurt people, and she is acutely aware that becoming a vampire will hurt many people, most notably Jacob and her father, Charlie. Like I would, like anyone would, she just wants everyone to be friends – to be able to maintain the relationships that have been so important to her since she moved to Washington. She would be the worst kind of selfish person if she didn’t consider the long-reaching effects of her decision upon the lives of the other people she loves.

I must admit that as I read Eclipse, I kept thinking back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the end of season 7 Buffy finds herself caring about two vampires, Angel and Spike. While Angel is her soulmate, she does acknowledge that Spike is also in her heart. She won’t deny either of them and she’s mature enough to know that she needs to grow up a bit more (or as she puts it, she’s uncooked cookie dough that needs to finish baking) before she decides upon her place with either of them.

That’s what I want Bella to do (and also what Edward wants her to do). So what if she’s five or even ten years physically older than Edward? She’ll have had plenty of time to make her decision and truly know that it’s the right one. Right now, my personal opinion is that she should choose to not become a vampire. Changing into something that will result in craving human blood forever? Into perhaps killing people? Not for me, and right now I don’t think that it’s for Bella at this point in her life. Meyer will have to do an awful lot of convincing in the next book for me to change my mind.

On a side note, the one thing I found frustrating about the novel is that I didn’t have time to reread the first two books and I needed to in order to understand some of the people that were being referred to. I never liked they way the Nancy Drew books always caught the reader up with who each character was, but I wish Meyer could have given me a little more to go on as I struggled to remember the stories of some of the minor characters.

I do love the way these books are clean reads – I can give them to any child and not worry about its appropriateness. I think I’ll hand them to my younger daughter next – she’ll love them.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

Imagine living all of your life on the run with your mother. Never staying very long in any one location for fear that you might be found. Who are you running from? Your grandmother who says she is a witch.

This is what life is like for Reason. She and her mother Sarafina have spent their lives on the run from her grandmother Esmeralda. Sarafina has always told Reason that magic isn’t real and that Esmeralda is evil. But when Sarafina goes insane and is committed to a hospital, Reason is taken to Esmeralda’s house. Reason is afraid of everything in the house -- afraid of what her grandmother might have sacrificed in horrible rituals. Reason decides she is going to run away but when she leaves out of the back door, she is no longer in Sydney, Australia but in New York City. Magic is real and Reason is now on her own in a strange city and clueless about what to do next.

Reason is rescued by a girl named Jay-Tee, also magical who lives in an apartment owned by a man who loves to take magic from others in order to live longer. Reason knows that he is evil, but the confusing thing is, who isn’t? In this story in which most people aren’t obviously good or evil, Reason must try to figure out how to survive. Denying magic means that she will eventually go insane like her mother, but heavily using magic ensures an early death. Either way, her choices aren’t great.

I really wanted to like this book. I read Justine Larbalestier’s blog, and when I picked up the book from my school library, I was sure it would be a home run. I didn’t dislike Magic or Madness, but I didn’t love it either. I’m hoping to like it more after I read the next book in the series.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I've spent the past week reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is not the first time I've read it and it won't be the last. I truly love this book, but I've struggled to write a review of it so I'm giving up for right now. Suffice it to say that it is one of the books I'd take to a deserted island. Francie is one of the great characters in literature, and I learned more about poverty and succeeding against all odds from her than from any person I've met. Francie convinces me that what I do matters -- children can overcome their backgrounds.

One more thing -- if you have read the book and are ever in New York City, you MUST go to Lower East Side Tenement Museum so that you can truly understand how Francie lived (there's also a really good place to get fresh pickles that I'd highly recommend).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

looking for alaska by John Green

As I’ve said before, there are books that are easy to review and describe, and then there are books that are more difficult. Sometimes I think it’s easier to talk about books you don’t like because there are usually specific things about a book that cause you not to like it.

That said, I’m not sure exactly how to talk about looking for alaska. John Green has written a coming of age story that reminds me of the ones I read for high school literature classes. It is not an easy story to read, but it is beautifully written and I couldn’t put it down.

Miles Halter is in the eleventh grade and he’s going off to boarding school. His life in Florida has been a bust – he has no friends, no life really at all – and he’s in search of the “Great Perhaps.” At school he meets his roommate, nicknamed Colonel, and Alaska Young, a beautiful, tormented girl who he immediately falls in love with but who has a long-distance boyfriend she never cheats on.

Although classes are harder than Miles expects, he also has a social life for the first time ever. The Colonel and Alaska teach Miles to have fun, and not through what we as adults would consider healthy means. They believe in smoking, in heavy drinking, and in elaborate pranks that get back at those they do not like (I found the pranks to be original and very funny). Things are good, and then . . .

It is easy to see why looking for alaska won the Printz Award for the Best Young Adult Book of 2006. In many ways it is a classic coming of age novel, yet it is also very fresh. It is also for mature readers. The language and sex in some scenes make it R-rated so I would recommend it for eleventh and twelfth graders.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Celebrate the Author Challenge

For my first challenge, I'm going to participate in Becky's Celebrate the Author Challenge. This challenge runs all of the 2008 calendar year. I had a lot of fun debating about which authors I'm going to read, and I think I came up with a variety of choices and alternates. I've read at least one novel by each of these authors except Robert Jordan. Some of them are favorites from childhood; others are authors I've discovered within the last few years. I'm looking forward to starting the challenge in January.

: Diana Gabaldon
Alternates: Robert Cormier, A. A. Milne

February: E.L. Konigsburg
Alternates: Meg Cabot, William Sleator

March: Ezra Jack Keats
Alternates: Carl Hiaasen, John Updike

April: Anne McCaffrey
Alternates: Maude Hart Lovelace, Shakespeare, Barbara Kingsolver

May: Scott Westerfeld
Alternates: Arthur Conan Doyle, Willo Davis Roberts

June: Sarah Dessen
Alternates: Dorothy Gilman, Dorothy Sayers

July: Beatrix Potter
Alternates: Chris Crutcher, Sharon Creech, Emily Bronte

August: Walter Dean Myers
Alternates: Karen Hesse, P.L. Travers

September: Joan Aiken
Alternates: H.A. Rey, William Faulkner

October: James Herriot
Alternates: Robert Jordan, Anne Perry

November: Madeleine L’Engle
Alternates: C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Atwood, Frances Hodgson Burnett

December: Shirley Jackson
Alternate: Jane Austen

Poison Ivy by Amy Goldman Koss

We have all known mean girls. We have also known their victims. In this story, Ivy is the victim, Ann and her two girlfriends are the bullies, and the entire class witnesses everything and does nothing.

When Ivy’s government teacher Ms. Gold find a note from Ivy that might be construed as suicidal, she confronts Ivy and learns that she has been horribly bullied over the past several years by three girls in her class. While the entire class has been aware of the bullying, the teachers are oblivious to what’s going on. Ivy pours her heart out to Ms. Gold and her teacher reacts by deciding having a mock civil trial, with Ivy suing her tormentors. Lawyers and the judge are chosen by drawing names out of a paper bag and the trial begins.

As a middle school librarian, the bullying in Poison Ivy rang true to me. It might seem unrealistic that Ivy could be bullied for years and no teacher caught on. Unfortunately, mean girls also tend to be clever, and they are really good at saving their bullying for those moments when the teachers aren’t watching.

I liked having a book where the one who was bullied didn’t end up bringing a gun to school and shooting everyone – I seem to have read a lot of those books recently. I know that’s a direct reaction to Columbine and other school shootings, but the truth of the matter is that most victims of bullying just take it. They just die a little bit inside each time they are bullied.

I also liked many of the characters. Ivy isn’t a perfect child but she is just strange enough to be the perfect victim. As she withdraws more and more from her classmates, she exhibits habits (such as picking at her sweater and never seeming to be fully “with it”) that give her enemies more reasons to bully her. There was an Ivy at my middle school back in the 70’s, only her name was Sheila (fortunately for her or I’m sure she would have also been called Poison Ivy). The girls at my middle school could be vicious and Sheila was just strange enough to be the target of their wrath, and she was just na├»ve enough to never see it coming (as a contrast, Ivy does see it coming and her reaction has been to withdraw from everyone). Sheila didn’t go to our high school and I’ve often wondered what happened to her.

Why do the classmates put up with the bullying? I think it’s partly so that they don’t become victims themselves, and partly so that they don’t get ostracized from the ‘in crowd.” We as teachers need to continue to stress to our students the need to stand up for those who are victims to bullying.

Finally, one criticism. The character of Ms. Gold bothered me a lot. To think that middle school kids are mature enough to overcome peer pressure and their own personal feelings to make unbiased decisions in front of an entire class is incredibly irresponsible. What does she do if the class rules against Ivy? She jumps on a bad situation and tries to use it as a learning tool, but her whole plan ultimately backfires on her. The better solution? Take the whole situation to the guidance counselor who is professionally trained to deal with such problems.

Monday, September 3, 2007

memoirs of a teenage amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

First of all, let me say that I read Elsewhere this summer and it quickly made my list of favorite books read this year. So I approached memoirs of a teenage amnesiac with a little bit of trepidation. I thought I would either love it or be disappointed by it. Actually, I was neither. I liked the book a lot, but just not as well as I liked Elsewhere.

Naomi and her best friend Will are leaving school one day when they realize they have forgotten the yearbook camera. They flip a coin to see who will go back in and get it. Naomi loses and on her way back down the stairs, she trips and falls, hitting her head and causing partial amnesia. Naomi forgets the events of the past four years of her life (from 7th grade through 10th grade).

Naomi now has to figure out who she is. During the time period she has forgotten, her mother has had an affair, divorced her father, and gotten married, something Naomi hasn’t forgiven. Should she now? Her father has become engaged to a tango dancer, someone Naomi hasn’t been able to warm up to. Should she give her another chance?

And then there’s the matter of a boyfriend with whom Naomi cannot seem to make much of a connection. And the mysterious new guy who rode with her in the ambulance the day she was injured. Naomi feels pulled to him, but he is obviously damaged. Is that what appeals to him or is there something more?

If I had amnesia and had to learn all over about who I am, would I like her? Would I make the same choices, commit to the same groups? Those are just some of the things that Naomi has to deal with in memoirs of a teenage amnesiac. Today was a day well spent. I read a good book.

The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton

This won't be a full-fledged review of The Outsiders -- I will assume that most have read it. But when I checked the copyright date on the book, I realized that this year is its 40th anniversary and so I thought I'd post a few thoughts on a book that I've never had a student say they didn't like.

Somehow I made it through middle school and high school (and, I think, library school) without hearing about The Outsiders. Just goes to show what type of bubble I lived in. I'm not sure that I would have liked it back then. I do like it now.

Books like The Outsiders make you think. How can we, as a society, progress beyond the point where we stick artificial labels on groups of people based on where they came from or to which race they belong or their economic status? We know it's wrong and yet we still do it. We don't give people a chance. This is such a basic theme of so much literature, and yet we still don't get it.

I love the characters in this book. I think they are the main reason it still resonates with teenagers. I think Darry is my favorite, because of the sacrifices he has made in order to take care of his brothers (and because he does his best to insist on what's best for them).

One of the true classics in young adult literature -- may it never go stale.

Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough

We all have to face the consequences of our actions – that’s a basic fact of life. What really hurts is when others are damaged because of the choices we make.

For the first nine years of her life, Savannah has known freedom. Crisscrossing the United States at her mother’s whim, she has loved the freedom of being a nomad. Although money is often tight (and there’s not always food to be had), she is happy. But eventually her mother grows unhappy and when their car breaks down in New Jersey, they go no farther. Instead, Alice meets and marries Jack and they have a son, Henry.

Jack and Savannah do not get along. He’s an abusive alcoholic and her mother tolerates it, telling them to go to a neighbor’s house when things get bad. One night when her mom is at work, Savannah snaps, hitting her stepfather on top of the head with the frying pan and escaping with her little brother Henry.

As Savannah’s story unfolds, we also get to know about Alice’s life through a series of flashbacks. Alice falls in love with a black man but gets pregnant with a police officer’s child. Unable to accept the fact that the man she is in love with has left town, she goes in search for him and ends up traveling all over the country. Her decision to leave her home in Maine irrevocably affects both her and the child she is carrying.

What’s interesting about this book is that it is full of bad decisions, made by perhaps every important character except Henry, who is just a little boy not allowed to make choices. I'm not sure, however, how realistic all of the choices are. Savannah’s choice to take Henry and run doesn’t ring true to me. Why doesn’t she find help at school or through Social Services? She has had one run-in with Social Services but it didn't seem so bad that she wouldn't feel like she could go to them. April’s decision at the end (which I can’t talk about without spoiling the book) also disturbed me. Although I have seen parents act this irresponsibly, it was hard for me to swallow.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was the cursing. Now I promise that I am no prude, but the beginning of this book had so many swear words that I found them distracting, which is my personal measure of whether or not cursing is appropriate in a book.

Today it’s off to read The Outsiders, another reread to prepare for Battle of the Books. If I manage to finish it quickly, then I’ll reward myself with of my new purchases.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Two Fun Nonfiction Reads

Some books are just fun to read. They aren’t deep but they are fun, especially if you love little, bizarre facts. They Did What?! Your Guide to Weird and Whacky Things People Do by Jeff Szpirglas fits the bill. Who would have thought that a ball of Elvis’ hair would have sold for $100,000? Or that people used to consume ground up mummies as a medicinal remedy? Boys would love this book. I loved this book. The illustrations are wonderful. Definitely one to share at school.

While I don't think that kids will fall for Fooled You! Fakes and Hoaxes Through the Years by Elaine Pascoe quite as much as they will like the previous book, I still think that they will enjoy it. I loved reading about many hoaxes that I had never heard of before. This book proves that humans can be really gullible and want to believe stories of the fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled "The Fraudulent Fairies" where two girls who didn't want to be in trouble for coming in late for lunch invented a story about meeting fairies and took photographs of these fairies (which they had created out of cardboard). Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed them!

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Catherine lives during the Middle Ages when her options about how she will live her life are not great. She is fourteen, old enough to be married, and her father seems to be chomping at the bit to get rid of her. She has no desire to be married off, and certainly not to the men her father keeps bringing to the house. She works hard to repulse anyone who shows up and is quite successful until she meets Shaggy Beard, who is as determined to marry her as she is determined not to marry him. Who will prevail in this battle of wills?

We often think of the Middle Ages in romantic terms, but Karen Cushman doesn’t allow that. In Catherine, Called Birdy we are “treated” to all the sights and (especially) the smells of this era. Cushman also makes it painfully clear how few choices women were allowed back then. Give me the 21st Century any day.

This is at least the fourth time that Catherine, Called Birdy has been on the rotation for North Carolina Battle of the Books, but it had been a long time since I had read it. I really enjoy Cushman’s sense of humor. My only question is whether students will give the book enough of a chance to appreciate it. Except for the years that it is on the list, I don’t think anyone checks it out. I’m glad I reread it this year – I will push it in future years so that hopefully others will give it a chance.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Coming Up for Air

This has been the first week back to school for the students at my middle school. It’s been wonderful to see the kids again and hear what they’ve been up to. I’m so blessed by God to have this job and to know without a doubt that I’m where He intends me to be.

I’ve been working on preparing about 150 booktalks to do with the language arts classes during their orientation time. I’ve had 12 classes already and it’s been a lot of fun to talk about all of the books I read this summer. Books like Elsewhere and Life as We Knew It flew off the table after I booktalked them.

I have read exactly 56 pages of Catherine, Called Birdy this week. Needless to say, my fall goals have gone down the tube, but I vow to catch up during the long weekend.

I broke down and ordered three books from Amazon yesterday. My “to read” pile of personal young adult fiction now includes Peeps by Scott Westerfield, memoirs of a teenage amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, looking for alaska by John Green, The Other Side of Dawn by John Marsden, Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande, and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson. My “to read” pile of adult fiction is too high to mention and my school pile is ridiculous.