Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What Erika Wants by Bruce Clements

What Erika wants is to please everyone. Not a bad sentiment for a young girl to have but in Erika’s family it’s just about impossible. Erika’s mom left town several years ago and moved out west with her older sister. Now she’s back and she wants custody of Erika, and Erika’s father is not willing to let her go. Erika has been assigned her own lawyer, whose job it is to help her figure out what she wants and to take Erika’s wants to the judge.

One of the most striking things about this book is trying to figure out who is the adult. Erika is the youngest in age, but far and above the most mature. I think Erika’s father loves her, but he’s not really capable of showing outward affection. To be honest, I’m not sure why Erika’s mom wants her except to get back at the dad. Fortunately for Erika, her lawyer is wise enough to help her without telling her what to do, and in the end Erika makes the best decision for her, not for her mom and not for her dad.

The only problem I had with this book is that I think it will be a hard sell to kids. I’m just not sure how many of my students will appreciate it, but I feel that those who try will be rewarded.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

I’ve often wondered what I’d do if I were told that I had cancer and the chances of recovery were not good? Would I go ahead and get treatment in the forlorn hope that it would work or at least stretch my life out a little longer? Or would I accept what was and try to live the most meaningful life I could in the time I had left?

Ben Wolf makes the latter decision. He’s eighteen years old, a senior in high school, when he finds out that he has an incurable blood disease. He orders his doctor not to tell anyone (and because he’s of legal age he gets away with it) and he sets out to have the best year possible.

Now Ben has his reasons for making the decision not to tell anyone. His mother is bipolar, with nightmarish manic and depressive cycles. Ben has no idea how his mother will react to the news, except it won’t be good. His father has all on his plate that he can handle. Ben also wants to be treated normally – he doesn’t want to be known as the “dying kid.” Finally, he wants to do some things that he would never have had the nerve to do otherwise – such as playing football (at 123 pounds) and seeing how far he can go with Dallas Suzuki.

So Ben plays football with his brother, starts a relationship with Dallas, and continually irritates his government teacher by pointing out how bigoted he is. To Ben, “somehow I knew my chances aren’t about living, they’re about living well” (p. 10) and that’s what he does.

Now one might assume a book about a dying kid would be depressing but this book is anything but. Ben has his moments of self-pity, but mostly this book is about getting the most out of what life you have and I must say I loved it. A couple of times I thought Crutcher might reaching a little far in the number of problems he brought into the book (a child abuser, a child molester, a victim of incest, etc) but the plot stays on Ben and that’s what makes the book work. This book was a winner.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why I haven't been posting recently

In the past couple of weeks, I have devoted myself to reading some adult books. Since this is a young adult blog, I haven't been writing about them. What have I been reading? First I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. This book has made me think about what I eat and the need to eat more locally grown foods. I've moved from it to The Omnivore's Dilemma which I am still reading and probably will be reading for several more days. I find it fascinating and scary -- it is amazing how badly we can destroy our environment and our bodies all at the same time.

It is also amazing how little our children know about the food we eat. Friday I had a very earnest eighth grader ask me if roosters lay eggs. When I explained that they didn't, she then asked me if roosters were chickens (surely if they didn't lay eggs, then they couldn't be chickens). This led to a class discussion about farm animals. Many of the children who go to our school are rural children but they know nothing about the farms that surround them. We are taking our eighth graders to the state fair Monday and this is one of the reasons we are going.

After I finish The Omnivore's Dilemma I'll start A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray and will write about it as soon as possible.

Oh, I also read Rituals of the Season by Margaret Maron. I love her murder mysteries, partly because they are set in North Carolina near where my parents grew up.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper

Teachers and media specialists everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Sharon Draper. I know that her books have been financially successful and as far as I’m concerned, she has earned every penny. I have never given Forged by Fire or Tears of a Tiger to a child and they not fall in love with it. These books are two of my “go-to” books when I have child who hates to read. As I said before, thank goodness for Sharon Draper.

When Gerald is three years old, his drug-addicted mother leaves him alone in their apartment. Gerald finds her cigarette lighter and accidentally sets their apartment on fire. He is rescued and his mother is sent to prison for child neglect and abandonment. Gerald is rescued by his Aunt Queen and he lives happily with her for the next six years. He heals emotionally and all is well until his ninth birthday. On that day his mother shows back up. It turns out that she was pregnant when she went prison, and her baby daughter, Angel, has been raised by her boyfriend, Jordan (now her husband), and her boyfriend’s mother. Gerald also meets Angel and Jordan for the first time. He tells them all that he wants to continue living with Aunt Queen and it looks as though that will happen until Queen has a heart attack later in the day and dies. Gerald is devastated. He loses the one stable thing in his life and is forced to go live with his mom and her new family.

Gerald immediately dislikes Jordan. He discovers that Jordan is both physically and emotionally abusive to everyone, and then he finds out that he is sexually abusing Angel. Gerald is brave enough to tell the father of one of his friends and Jordan is sent to prison. Unfortunately his mother refuses to believe her children and only wants Jordan back

Fast forward several years. Both Gerald and Angel have begun to heal emotionally from Jordan’s abuse. Angel has become a talented dancer and Gerald is a basketball player and all-around good kid. Then Jordan gets out of prison. Gerald’s mom wants him back in her house and soon enough he is. Although he is behaving himself for the time being, the reader knows that it’s just a matter of time until he is back to his old tricks again.

I reread Forged by Fire earlier this week because it is one of the books on North Carolina’s Battle of the Books list. I enjoyed it every bit as much this time as I did almost ten years ago when I first read it. Sharon Draper has written a book about serious issues, but has managed to do it in a way that makes it an appropriate middle school read. The book is free of swearing, and the sexual abuse happens “off camera.” As I said before, my students eat this book up. Yours will too.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

Talk about an opener that grabs you!

I knew today would be ugly.

When you’re single-handedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parent sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies.
(p. 1)

Mena has not had an easy time of it recently. She has done something she is convinced was the right thing to do, yet now she is an outcast among all of those who meant anything to her: her friends, her church, and, most especially, her parents. She has grown up in an extremely conservative Christian family – one in which Harry Potter and even The Lord of the Rings is forbidden. She has no friends except those in church and now she has lost them. She is living a life in exile and she is miserable. Not only does she have to have to live without any friends, on her first day of school, she discovers that her former friends are going to bully her, both emotionally and physically.

In her biology class she meets her teacher, Ms. Shepherd, and gets a lab partner who is thankfully not a part of her church. Casey just appears to be a science geek, albeit one who can make her laugh. He does, however, want something from her that she thinks is impossible. He wants for her to work with him on a science project. Mena knows that there is no way her parents would let her go to a boy’s house, and so she lies in order to get there. As she discovers the life outside her church and family, the lies continue. It’s not that she’s doing anything most parents would object to – she’s absolutely not – but she does feel guilty about deceiving her parents.

Then crisis happens. Ms. Shepherd gets to the evolution section of her curriculum and Mena’s former friends rebel. They want the theory of intelligent design to be taught along with evolution. Ms. Shepherd refuses, citing the separation of church and state, and the all of the students who belong to Mena’s church pick up their chairs and turn their backs to the class. Each day, Ms. Shepherd utters the magic word, evolution, and the Back Turners assume their position. With the backing of the church, this has all possibilities of turning really ugly.

One of the things I loved about this book is that Mena takes something really bad and learns from it. It occurs to her, that had she not been ostracized, she would also be a Back Turner. And yet because she’s been given the opportunity to think about the issue, she agrees with Ms. Shepherd’s position. I also like the fact that she still feels loyal to her parents (although I would love to shake some sense into them) and she not happy about lying to them. Finally, Mena never questions her own Christian faith. She does, however, question the idea that those in her church are always right. It is possible to believe in God and to also believe in evolution. To truly solidify our faith, we must be willing to question it.

This book has characters that were really easy to like (as well as some that were really easy to dislike). Robin Brande must have had a blast writing the character of Kayla (Casey’s sister). I wish I could have had a science teacher like Ms. Shepherd. And Casey seems like an incredibly sweet lab partner/boyfriend. As I have said in previous posts, I'm a sucker for interesting characters, and this book is full of them.

I really enjoyed Evolution, Me & other Freaks of Nature. I’d love to use it in a book club setting so that we could discuss all of the issues it brings up. This was a great read.