Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Glamour of Grammar

Ok, so maybe only a certain type of person is excited at the prospect of cozying up with a book about grammar (oher people call those types of people "nerds"). However, Roy Peter Clark's genuine enthusiasm, accessible voice and sense of humor will entice even those who don't really care when its proper to use "lie" instead of "lay."

This book is divided into five sections, all of which explore a different facet of the language - Words, Points (punctuation), Standards, Meaning and Purpose. Within those sections, the work is futher divided into 2-4 page mini-articles - that each focus on one very particular aspect of the language - the difference between "a" and "the," for instance, or verb tenses or different types of sentences.

Before you click off this page in horror, please believe me when I say that this book is funny! Clark doesn't take himself too seriously - he pokes fun at his own status as an "expert," and relates anecdotes of his own mistakes (and picks on his colleagues), tells stories about his college years, his family and his experiences with and within the language. Rather than reading like a textbook, it is more like having a conversation with someone who is totally fascinated by their field. And isn't that field something we all can relate to? We all talk, we all read...without getting too 1984 about it, its possible that language defines thought. Without words, we couldn't think the way we do - couldn't be who we are as individuals and as a species. Who, then, wouldn't want to read about grammar?!

The way the book is divided makes it easy to pick up and put down at will. If you're still not thrilled at the thought of reading a grammar book for fun, it would be a great reference for young readers and writers. All those comments English teachers make on papers - like "fragment sentence" or "comma splice" are deciphered within its pages. He also offers suggestions for writers to improve the quality and effectiveness of their writing, which will be helpful to writers of all ages. This book would be great for use in the classroom, for individual study or just to learn a little more about something (language!) that we all use every day.

So, what do you all think? Would you ever consider reading a grammar book for fun? Tell me about it!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dicey's Song

Dicey's Song, by Cynthia Voigt
When I was in sixth grade, I read Homecoming (Tillerman Series) by Cynthia Voigt. And when I say I read it, I mean I READ it. I got yelled at for reading it at the dining room table, I hid it in my science book at school, I asked for bathroom passes every hour so I could sneak in a few more pages. I fell in love with the Tillermans - determined Dicey, smart James, gentle Maybeth and defiant Sammy, struggling to stay together after being abandoned at a shopping mall by their mother.

It was one of those books that stayed with me - I've never forgotten it (and even remembered the title!) - so imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that there was not one, but five sequels to the story! Dicey's Song (The Tillerman Series #2) is set soon after the close of Homecoming, and, like Homecoming, it is a Newbery Medal Winner (apparently I'm not the only one who thinks they're awesome).

Dicey and her sibling have made it to their grandmother's in North Carolina. But they have yet to achieve perfection - Momma is still gone, sick and unresponsive in a hospital far away, and everything they've struggled with their whole lives is still a problem. Sammy still struggles with anger and fighting, no matter how hard she tries Maybeth can't seem to learn to read, James doesn't fit in and Dicey... Dicey wants to fix everything, and can't. She wants everyone to be happy, but they aren't. She wants to be close to other people, but she can't seem to let them near her. Will things ever get easier?

The short answer, which is thematic in the book, is no. Life is a struggle, for everyone, and always will be. But the book isn't as stark and depressing as you'd think it would be with that message. There is peace in accepting that things are hard and that life isn't fair. Because the other side to that coin is that sometimes things are great, sometimes justice prevails, and no matter how difficult things are, love can hold everything together.

A wonderful character who emerges in this book is the Tillerman children's grandmother. She's stern, fiercely independent and taciturn, but her love for her grandchildren - whom she had never met before they turned up on her doorstep - is powerful. She's been beaten around by life - and her own prideful choices - and she admits to Dicey that she doesn't have all the answers. She also confesses that some of the things she's discovered - you need to hold people close to you, you need to let people go - are even mutually contradictory. But that's life, too. She allows Dicey to see her own failings, allows her decision-making powers in the family and frequently seeks her advice. One of the things I liked about Homecoming when I was in sixth grade is that it showed a child - Dicey is thirteen in Dicey's Song - who could take charge and take care of herself. Voigt continues that idea in Dicey's Song, and Dicey's grandmother affords her the respect she would afford an adult, something that is enormously empowering for young readers.

There are moments of unfairness and aching sorrow in this story that brought me to tears - literally, tears running down my face as I read this book (and, as I read part of it in Barnes & Nobles, that was a sight to behold). Some of the scenes affected me differently than they would have when I was younger, but no more or less powerfully. That, to me, is the mark of an excellent young adult novel - one that can grow with a reader, and can speak to their experience at different times in their lives. This is one of those books, and it is amazing to me that Voigt managed to capture that two times in a row. Most authors don't manage it in a lifetime.

Admittedly, some of the prose in this novel is a little preachy and affected. For a bunch of emotionally stunted people, they have some very direct and open emotional conversations - certainly of a level that would have made me uncomfortable. I went back and looked at Homecoming, and that book has the same issue. I can say honestly that I didn't notice that at all when I was a young adult reader, and although I noticed it now (I blame my college education that pounded noticing that stuff into me) it didn't really bother me or detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Although I enjoyed this book as an adult, its target audience is middle school-aged readers, roughly sixth through eighth grade. Readers who enjoy character-driven works would particularly like this one, and it is a very emotional read. The technique is beautiful as well - intense imagery brings the reader into Dicey's world, and symbolism abounds (I love the symbolism of the boat and the paper mulberry tree. I just like the phrase "paper mulberry tree." Interesting things would happen in a yard that boasted a paper mulberry tree).
It would also be a great book to use as a springboard for discussion, as there's lots of issues - personal, social and educational - that are explored within its pages. If anyone reads or has read this one, I would be very interested in knowing what you think of it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Resource, Not Review

Well, today's contribution isn't a book review, but hopefully people will find it as useful. I've created a wiki, full of resources to help connect readers with young adult fiction.

The site has links for finding books, links to review sites, book trailer sites, blogs, contests and conferences associated with Young Adult fiction. There are also links to social networking sites based on books (goodreads, shelfari and the like).

For the in-school set, there are also links to sites to help you come up with great and creative ideas for sharing and presenting books (better than plain old book reports), as well as several free, web-based programs for creating multi-media presentations.

Finally, there are links to sites that might be of interest to young writers - whether you're looking for writing tips or advice on getting published, it should be there!

There are a few links that will likely only be helpful to my students (since I'll be using it with them) or people who live in my community, but the vast majority of the sites should be easily accessible for everyone!

So, if you're looking for more ways to find that book you don't know about yet but you're dying to read, see if any of the sites on Resources for Reading might help!

Happy reading!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things

Carolyn Meckler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things

Virginia Shreves doesn’t fit in anywhere – not at her New York City private school, where she is a sophomore, and certainly not at home. Her parents are thin, dark-haired and beautiful, her older sister Anais and her adored older brother Byron (her mom thought that if she named her children after famous authors they’d all turn out fabulous) are thin, dark-haired and beautiful, everyone at school, it seems, is thin and beautiful…and Virgina? Not thin, not dark-haired, not beautiful. Also, not what her mother – a well-known adolescent psychologist – wants in a daughter, and not anything any boy would be interested in (except maybe Froggy Welsh the Fourth, but he’s only interested in groping her on Monday afternoons – he doesn’t actually pay any attention to her in front of actual people). To add insult to injury, her best (ok, her only friend) is gone for an entire year, banished across the country so that her dad can research a book on onions, of all things, so she has literally no one to spend any time with, at all.

Ginny’s family issues suddenly worsen dramatically when her brother is suspended from Columbia University for date rape. Ginny is shocked and appalled, and incredibly disillusioned, that her “perfect” older brother could have committed such an act. At this point, her mother’s focus on perfection – or at least, appearing perfect - comes sharply into focus. Ginny is clearly not perfect, and as she realizes how very much her mother is obsessed with perfection, she becomes more and more insecure regarding her mother’s love. Ginny’s weight is a constant family issue, and the shame and hurt Ginny feels begins to manifest itself in acts of physical self-abuse.

Despite the furor into which Byron’s crime throws the Shreves family (except Anais, who is in Africa with the Peace Corps, and who is kept in the dark about the whole mess by Ginny’s mother), the event serves as a catalyst for a great deal of Ginny’s growth. She sees how her parents – particularly her mother – coddle and protect Byron, ensuring that he doesn’t have to take full responsibility for his behavior. She realizes that the “perfection” of other members of her family is not genuine, and so, slowly, becomes a little more accepting of her own flaws. Also, she becomes less cowed by her family. Her first act of rebellion comes when she buys herself a ticket to Seattle to visit Shannon, her best friend, over Thanksgiving, despite the fact that her mother has denied her permission (since everyone had to be there to support poor Byron). While in Seattle, she gets her nose pierced…and by the end of the story, she’s wearing a boutique dress of purple velvet – not the “old lady” clothes from Saks her mother has always forced her to wear – and sporting purple hair to match.

Ginny’s transformation doesn’t come easy, and she has help – mostly in the form of support from Shannon, from her teacher Mrs. Crowley (because English teachers rock), and in her own growing realization that she is, perhaps, not the ugly duckling among swans she’d always thought herself to be. Her doctor gets her into a kickboxing class, she starts a literary magazine at school, and she mends fences with Froggy, who she’d brushed off when her family life start spiraling out of control. In the end, Ginny is not perfect, but she’s ok with that. She has friends, she’s busy and absorbed, and she’s come to terms with the fact that, just as she isn’t perfect, her family isn’t either. In a great, symbolic act, she finds her sister’s address in her mom’s office, and writes Anais an eight-page letter, telling her everything that’s happened – with Byron, with their parents, and with herself - since Byron’s suspension. She begins to build a strong relationship with her dad, and the reader knows that Ginny is going to be ok.

I liked this book, though, admittedly, not nearly as much as some of the others I’ve read recently. There are parts of it I really like. Ginny is a believable heroine, and her angst is very real. At times, you just want to take her home and hug her and tell her that everything’s going to be ok. Her self-loathing is painful to read, so painful that sometimes it's hard to keep reading – even the parts that are funny (and there is a lot of humor in this book) are less funny because of Ginny's very real anguish. Her development as a character and a person is fun to watch, though. Her teen rebellion – nose ring, purple hair – almost exactly mirrors the little rebellions I wanted to enact as a teenager (I’d still love to have purple hair), and since I didn’t have the guts to do it, I enjoyed living vicariously through Ginny. Ginny’s also very witty, and her wit comes through more and more as she becomes more confident.

However, there are weaknesses that make it difficult for me to really enjoy it as thoroughly as some others. For one, there is a lot that is unresolved. There are several references to Ginny hurting herself – bruising and cutting herself – that are never really addressed. No one knows about it, and eventually Ginny just stops doing it. Self-injuryis certainly a relevant issue to discuss, but the fact that there’s really no discussion about it makes me a little uncomfortable.
Structurally, the book feels a little unfinished because there really isn’t a clear climactic event. Probably, the point of highest action is when Byron is suspended for date rape, which happens in the first third of the book. There are certainly high points after that, but not any solid “event,” which makes the pacing of the book uneven. Really, so many hot button teen angst issues - weight issues, eating disorders, self-abuse, rape - are referenced in this, it would be hard to do them justice, and sometimes it seems that the author didn't even really try to, which weakens the impact of many of them.

However, the weaknesses of this book are almost totally redeemed in my eyes by one major point: at the end of the book, Ginny is satisfied, happy and even popular – and she’s still not skinny. What an amazing concept – a woman of any age can be not skinny – can be F.A.T., even - and can still find that she has something to offer the world, and that people might actually like her even though she's not a size six or under. Ginny’s lifestyle is healthier than at the beginning – she’s exercising and learning to control her emotional eating (it would be nice if she’d give me some lessons) – but she’s still overweight. I think that that’s a major message to send to readers, and it ties in well with the theme that it's ok to be imperfect that moves through the novel.

This novel, a 2004 Printz Award Honor book, would be a good choice for junior high readers. There is no sex in the novel, though there are a few make-out scenes, and one minor drinking scene. Female readers will be drawn to this much more than male, and any girls who have or have had struggles with their weight (eating disorders are also addressed in the novel) will definitely be able to relate to this novel. It’s uplifting message of self-acceptance will be powerful for any reader who can relate to Ginny’s struggles.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When You Reach Me

Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me

Miranda is twelve years old, in the sixth grade, and her best friend, Sal, has decided he doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore. Plus, her paralegal mother is obsessed with trying to become a contestant on the game show the $20,000 Pyramid, their apartment is shabby and kind of embarrassing, her mom’s boyfriend (who’s great) wants a key to their apartment but her mom won’t give him one, and the crazy homeless guy who lives on the corner talks to her every time she comes in and out of the building.

At least she has her favorite book – A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeline L’Engle. Even that has a downside, though. Marcus – the weird kid Miranda had never seen until he walked up to her and Sal on the street and inexplicably punched Sal in the nose and the stomach, which seemed to somehow make Sal decide he didn’t want to be friends with her anymore – is really interested in time travel, and when he sees Miranda reading A Wrinkle in Time he decides she must really be interested in it too. So, she has to deal with Marcus’ weird ramblings on time travel. Infuriatingly, while Miranda doesn’t get what he’s talking about, Julia – the rich, pretty girl who is the rival for the affections of Miranda’s new friend, Annemarie – seems to understand him perfectly.

Even more disturbingly, someone is leaving notes for Miranda. Small, strange notes addressed to her, telling her about things she’ll do in the future, making predictions that come true about small events going on in Miranda’s life. Who could be writing these notes? How are they delivering them? How does this mysterious author know what’s going to happen to Miranda?

As Miranda tries to unravel the mystery of the notes, she’s also trying to figure out an even bigger puzzle – herself. Why doesn’t Sal want to be friends anymore? How can she make sure Annemarie likes her more than she likes Julia? Does Colin – another friend – like her or Annemarie? More importantly…how can Miranda be the sort of person who has friends, who people like? Does it mean being like her mom, who does all kinds of free legal cases and brings donations to pregnant prisoners? Does it mean being like Julia, and being better than everyone else? Where does Miranda fit in the midst of all these expectations?

All of these problems come to a head in a dramatic confrontation involving Sal, Marcus and the Laughing Man. I don’t want to talk too much about it, because I don’t want to give away what was truly an awesome ending, but it is very powerful, and has powerful consequences for all the characters involved. Combine that with an appearance by Miranda’s mom on the $20,000 Pyramid, and Miranda is able to make some of those important decisions about who she wants to be.

This was a great book – fun, interesting with a great twist. It is the 2010 Newbury Medal Winner, and it is clear to see why! The story is set in New York City in 1979, and I enjoyed the little touches of seventies nostalgia, which are strong enough to entertain an adult reader, but subtle enough to be un-noticed or not distracting to a young adult reader. Miranda is a very engaging heroine – she is smart and funny, has a touch of attitude but knows it and is sorry –most of the time – when she’s mean, although she doesn’t always admit that to the people she hurts. And her efforts to become a nice person are sweet – the “heroic” acts that she engages in (becoming a bathroom buddy for the girl who still wets her pants) are so right for someone her age. An adult might not think this was a big deal, but to a middle-schooler, this is a major act of self-sacrifice. Also, anyone who’s ever been shunned by a friend will understand the hurt Miranda feels when she’s dropped by Sal, and the desperation that drives her to find another friend.

My favorite part of this book was probably the sci-fi, time travel twist. Having it worked into the story line via allusions to Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time(also a Newbery Award-winning book) is a genius twist – it foreshadows the time travel motif before it is officially introduced, and, hopefully, it will inspire some readers to check out A Wrinkle in Time. The time travel story line also helps to reinforce the theme that all people are important and have feelings – even weird or crazy people – without being at all preachy about it.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It was fun, fast-paced and believable. I didn’t see the twist at the end coming, which makes me enjoy a story so much more (even though I admit I do enjoy the smug feel that accompanies spotting a plot twist in progress :) ). This would be a great book for the younger echelon of young adult readers, though older readers will certainly enjoy it as well.

This is a blast-from-the-past image:
it's the cover art from my copy of
A Wrinkle In Time that I read when
I was about Miranda's age.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dark Sons

Nikki Grimes' Dark Sons

Ishmael is the beloved only son of Abraham. Despite the anger and jealousy of Abraham’s first wife Sarah, he is secure in the love of his father.

Sam is an adored only child, born to parents who had, after years of miscarriages, given up on their dream of having a child of their own.

One day, three men, angels, appear and tell Abraham that his wife, Sarah, will have a child of her own.

Sam wakes up one normal morning to find that his father has fallen in love with another woman, one who is twenty-five years younger than he is, and white.

Ishmael’s half-brother Isaac is born, and Ishmael soon finds that the limitless love his father had always given him has limits, after all.

Slowly but surely, Sam finds himself replaced by his father’s new wife and their new baby, David.

Within this verse novel the stories of these hurt, lost sons – one modern, one Biblical – are told in tandem. Sam’s story is dominant, and the hurt and loss that he feels as his father moves away from him – emotionally and literally – is haunting. One of the few things that brings him any solace as his world crumbles around him is prayer and his church community, so it’s appropriate that the other first-person voice in this novel is Ishmael, the Biblical son of Abraham, who was dismissed with his mother, Hagar, into the wilderness after the birth of the “promised” child, Isaac.

The novel is divided into separate “books,” alternating Sam’s voice with Ishmael’s. Each book is advanced through a series of short, free-verse poems. The poems from both voices are similar in meter and structure, but a reader can definitely differentiate between Sam’s voice and Ishmael’s. What’s truly great about this work, though, is the similarity between the experiences and emotions, and, ultimately, the conclusions, shared between these two very different young men. Also, the relationship between both narrators and their younger brothers is unexpected but warming – the new babies have, in effect, replaced their older brothers, claiming the fatherly love Ishmael and Sam had enjoyed. However, the “Dark Sons” love the little golden boys who replace them – despite the inevitable jealousy and resentment they feel, Sam and Ishmael love David and Isaac, and even set themselves up as protectors of their younger brothers.

The verse novel format was new to me upon reading this book, and I found that I like it a lot. The poems are brief and written in free verse, and are very readable. The poems and their structure also allowed the story to move more quickly where necessary – each poem functioned like its own chapter within the novel, so it allowed the author to linger on certain points, or skip forward or back to different places when necessary.

I can only describe this novel as haunting. This was one of those stories that left me thinking about the characters, wondering how they were doing, wishing I could help them or talk to them. It also left me wanting to slap a few characters (namely, the deadbeat dads). It was a little disconcerting too, since it left me thinking of Abraham as a deadbeat dad! I remember the story of Abraham and Isaac from Sunday School, and it bothered me to realize that I had never really thought what it must have been like to be Ishmael – to be cast away by his father for doing nothing wrong. I also really liked the relationships between both sets of half-brothers. Sam and Ishmael have both been hurt badly by their fathers, but they show remarkable maturity in their relationships with their younger brothers. One of the saddest aspects of the work was the sorrow both narrators felt when they were separated from their brothers.

This story is great for just about any young adult reader. Fans of poetry will really enjoy the verse novel form, but I think it will also be great for those reluctant to embrace poetry. The poems are brief, simple and easily comprehensible – they are also functional. Sometimes a major objection to poetry is that poems don’t have a “point” – that they’re too hard to figure out. Since these poems all fit in as part of an overall story, the reader already knows what the general focus of the poem is, so some of the intimidating “analysis” aspect of reading poems is eliminated.

Also, this would be excellent for any reader who is experiencing or has experienced a divorce in their family. Sam’s experience in particular is a very realistic look at what it feels like to be “abandoned.” It ought to be required reading for divorcing parents as well, many of whom don’t really quite understand how their choices are impacting their children. This would also be a great way for parents and teens to open up a conversation about divorce or family relationships.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Giveaway!

Hey, everyone...

Another amazing feature of the book review blogging universe is book giveaways! Blogs that have been open for more than 15 minutes have contests, it turns out, where you can win a prize just for entering and being you. Hopefully one day this blog will progress to that point - until then, I'll try to let you know about other people's giveaways.

A great giveaway that's going on right now on the Lost in Stories blog. Just click here, and you'll be taken to the entry page. Entries are being accepted for about two more weeks, so be sure to hurry on over there!

Happy reading!

The First Part Last

The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson. 2002.

This is a strong, emotional read that does something that I think very few books manage – that is, to create a strong, authentic male voice. Bobby is a father – and he’s 16. This was not part of his plan, or his girlfriend, Nia’s, plan…or his parents’ or her parents’ plan, but it’s the reality. And the reality we see Bobby struggle through with Feather, his infant daughter, is a hard one. He is awake night after sleepness night with a newborn, endures hour-long subway ride getting her to daycare every morning before school, all while attempting to maintain some semblance of a life.

The novel, the 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner, is told in alternating flashbacks, labeled “Now” and “Then.” In the “Now” sections, we see Bobby struggling to learn to be a father to Feather, and the “Then” segments detail the progression of events from the day Bobby learns that Nia is pregnant – on his sixteenth birthday – up to the day that Feather is born. The tension increases throughout the novel as it becomes more and more apparent that the future being planned in the “Then” segments – a future where Bobby and Nia give Feather up for adoption – doesn’t come to be, and the reader is left wondering exactly what happens to alter events so significantly. Additionally, Nia is entirely absent in the “Now” sections, and the question of her absence becomes more and more pressing as the story progresses.

What is apparent – and touching - is the deep and encompassing love that Bobby has for Feather. However, that is a love that is presented with an unflinching rendering of what it costs Bobby – his exhaustion and frustration and fear are palpable, and it culminates in an event that almost costs him everything he has been working so hard to maintain. The costs to Nia are extreme as well, and the effects the pregnancy and birth have on both Bobby’s and Nia’s parents is also moving (perhaps more to this adult reader who finds it very easy to empathize with Bobby’s disappointed and frustrated mom than to teen readers, but Bobby’s dad’s pain – and the guilt that Bobby feels at causing it – is definitely something that anyone who ever disappointed their parents can empathize with).

This is one of those books that you don’t exactly enjoy – it’s not entertaining and happy and something you can’t wait to read over and over – but it’s one that sticks with you, one that you keep thinking about, and that pops into your mind during random moments of the day. It’s beautifully written – the descriptions are spare but exquisite, and the emotion expressed is raw but always dignified. The love Bobby feels for his daughter shines through every line, as does his own fear that he will let her down, that he is not enough, that he won’t be able to do this “Dad” thing correctly. The scene from which the title is derived is so poignant it made me teary: “Things have to change. I’ve been thinking about it. Everything. And when Feather opens her eyes and looks up at me, I already know there’s change. But I figure if the world were really right, humans would live life backward and do the first part last. They’d be all knowing in the beginning and innocent in the end. Then everybody could end their life on their momma or daddy’s stomach in a warm room, waiting for the soft morning light.”

I also loved the characters, Bobby in particular. Because of the intensity of the first-person narration, the other characters aren’t fleshed out as much as supporting characters generally are. However, I think that that works with this novel – Bobby is 16 and in the midst of a massive life change, and all of his focus and energy are riveted on Feather and himself. Therefore, there isn’t room in the narrative for a lot of development of ancillary characters. Bobby is extremely strong, especially considering everything that is happening in his life. Johnson has built a character that explores stereotypes of African-American teens, examining them through Bobby’s friends and his relationships with them as well as through Bobby himself. Bobby plays basketball and gets in trouble for creating street art (adult authority types call it graffiti), but he also is part of a strong, loving family and is determined to provide that for his daughter as well.
Another plus for this book is its very accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a new parent. Bobby is so exhausted he’s barely functional, he’s lonely, cut off from everything he enjoyed before, and, while he loves Feather, he’s sometimes resentful of everything he’s lost. The reality of the situation is not romanticized – I’m still a new enough parent to remember the feeling that I was going to literally die from sleep deprivation, and I had more help than Bobby gets.

My one real qualm with this novel derives, however, from that goal of presenting the reality of teenage parenting realistically. Toward the end of the story, the readers discover what happened when Feather was born that changes Bobby’s mind about his plans for adoption. It is harrowing and tragic, but it almost pushes the cautionary part of the tale a little too far. The novel becomes almost “back to school special”-ish in its warnings about the possible serious consequences of teenage sex and pregnancy. It’s not enough to totally derail the work, but it did strain my suspension of disbelief a little, and was the one weak note in this otherwise magnificent piece.
I would not hesitate in recommending The First Part Last to any teen, middle or high school level. The subject matter – teen sex and pregnancy – is a little older, but there are no explicit scenes in it, and the problem with waiting until teens are older to discuss matters of sex and sexuality is that it’s really easy to wait too long. I would not hesitate to use this book in my classes, and, though it’s a relatively short work, it gives a reader a lot to think about.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Avalon High

Avalon High, by Meg Cabot.

Ellie Harrison is bummed. Her parents, medieval studies professors, have taken a year’s sabbatical to write their very boring books – her father’s book is about some rusty old sword, and her mother’s about Elaine, the Lady of Shallott – the Arthurian figure for whom Ellie was named. What this means to Ellie is that she has to move to the Washington D.C. area, and spend her entire junior year in a brand new school, where she knows noone and has no friends.

Things start looking up when she meets Will, the very hot quarterback and president of the senior class, who seems very interested in her and tells her that he feels like he knew her in another life. That would be even more flattering and exciting (if still a little weird) if Will weren’t already dating Jennifer, the head cheerleader and best-looking girl in the senior class. Regardless, Ellie finds herself drawn into Will’s circle, with Jennifer and Lance, Will’s best friend. Of course, that means she has to interact with Marco, Will’s nasty step-brother who seems to have a grudge against his new sibling.

Mr. Morton, Ellie’s world studies teacher, is another dark spot in Ellie's days. He seems overly interested in Ellie’s new friends, and also seems very interested in throwing Ellie together with Lance, and keeping her away from Will. Plus, he’s even more obsessed with medieval junk than Ellie’s parents – apparently, he believes that King Arthur of Camelot will be reborn and return – and that maybe he already has.

Events start moving more and more quickly, and Ellie begins to realize that she and her new friends are in real danger – and, very possibly, the entire world is at risk as well. Everyone, including Mr. Morton, begins to abandon them, but Ellie is determined that she will stay by Will to the end, a vow she may be called to make good on.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a great book for an Arthurian junkie, and if you’re a real buff (for instance, if you spent approximately $15,000 worth of your college education on classes about Arthur and medieval lit), you might even spot the twist ending a little ahead of time and feel majorly smug with your bad self. Even if you don’t, though, it is a compelling, fast-paced story with great characters and just the right hint of light romance.

Another positive aspect to this book is Ellie’s relationship with her parents. Despite the fact that they have their differences, they are a close and affectionate family. Will frequently comments on that, as Ellie’s relationship with her parents is a foil for Will’s dysfunctional home life. It's nice to read a YA book where the parents aren't dead or evil.

The one weakness involves that character of Mr. Morton. He’s a device by which the main characters begin to realize what’s going on, but he’s not much of a character in his own right, and the whole “revelation” he presents to Ellie is a little awkward. If he were more developed, or even more a part of the action of the novel, his actions would incorporate more smoothly with the storyline. But that’s a small bump in an overall great book. If you enjoy these characters, and would like to see more of them there are three sequels, written in graphic novel form: The Merlin Prophecy (Avalon High: Coronation, Volume 1), Avalon High: Coronation #2: Homecoming, and Avalon High: Coronation #3: Hunter's Moon.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Supplementary Stuff for An Abundance of Katherines

So, in poking around today, I found a few sites that provide some fun "stuff" that relates to An Abundance of Katherines.

This site is part of John Green's own webpage, and it's a FAQ page regarding the novel. I wouldn't advise looking at it before reading the book, because it gives a lot away, but it gives some really neat insights into the book.

Colin Singleton loves him some anagrams, and this site is an anagramming site recommended by John Green. Just for the record "What Should I Read Now" anagrams to "Trainloads wowed, huh?" which is, I'm sure, exactly what is happening right at this moment.

Finally, the best one. Go here to find an online version of Colin's theorem. Plug in the numbers, and it will calculate your relationship arc for you. I can't swear to its veracity - by the numbers I should have dumped my husband about 27 seconds after meeting him - but I guess there has to be an exception to prove the rule (I know that this applies much more to spelling than math, to which it really isn't supposed to apply at all, but whatever).

Monday, July 5, 2010

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines

By John Green

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green, is a 2007 Printz Award Honor Book. I picked it as my first book to review because 1) I really liked it, 2) I think a lot of young adults (and not-so-young adults) will really like it too, and 3) I had to read it for a homework assignment, so it's fresh in my mind.

I will say that when homework involves reading a book like this, it's not so bad. The story opens the day after graduation. The main character, Colin Singleton, should be in a great place - he's a child prodigy who speaks eleven languages, who's won thousands of dollars on a game show for "smart kids," who's been accepted to all of the colleges on his list and who just graduated from high school. However, he's not in a great place - he's crying in the bathtub, until he moves to his bedroom where he lays facedown on the carpet and wishes for oblivion. What's wrong? Well, he's afraid that - at the age of 18 - he's washed up. It turns out that most child prodigies never make the transition to adult geniuses. They just learn faster, and get older, and everyone catches up to them and they aren't that special any more. Colin has been longing since he was four years old for his "Eureka Moment" - that moment of inspiration and discovery that marks the innovation of a genius. It hasn't come, and Colin is desperately afraid that it never will - that he will never do anything that "matters" in the world.

That's not the worst of it, though. The worst part is that on graduation night, he was dumped by his girlfriend, Katherine. Adding insult to injury, this marked the nineteenth time that Colin was dumped by a girl named Katherine - all his previous girlfriends shared both the name and the tendency to get bored with him.

Broken-hearted Colin figures he'll spend the summer brooding on his empty future of annonymity and solitude, with maybe a little learning Sanskrit thrown in for good measure. But his best - and only - friend, Hassan, has different plans.

Hassan, while no child prodigy, is pretty smart himself. He's a perfect foil for Colin - where Colin is introverted and awkward, Hassan is outgoing and at ease with everyone. Colin is lost in his books, Hassan riveted by Judge Judy. Colin is determined to grab all the academic accolades he can, while Hassan has put of college for one year already, and is planning on going for two. Hassan is a Muslim, Colin is Jewish. Hassan grounds Colin, keeps him from taking himself too seriously, and in the process keeps the novel from delving too deeply into preachy self-introspection. When Hassan finds Colin prone on the carpet, he determines that there's only one thing that will drag Colin out of the doldrums while also keeping Hassan from the necessity of finding a summer job: a road trip.

As they drive along, Colin begins to melodramatically compare himself to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, since the hole in Colin's heart over the loss of Katherine is as gaping and damaging as the hole blasted in the Archduke's body by an assassin, the act that sparked World War I. Imagine Colin's surprise, then, as they pass a sign for the Archduke's grave - in the middle of Tennessee. This coincidence is too much to bear, and they get off the highway, driving down rutted dirt roads until they reach the small town of Gunshot, Tennessee. The girl who guides them to the Archduke's grave, Lindsey, explains how the Archduke came to be buried in Gunshot, and introduces them to a few of her friends, including her boyfriend, also named Colin (a muscled quarterback whom Hassan and Colin dub TOC - The Other Colin), and the beautiful-but-dumb Katrina.

When Lindsey's mother, Hollis, arrives on the scene she recognizes Colin from KranialKidz, the game show where he had won thousands of dollars. On the spot, she offers Colin and Hassan jobs recording the oral histories of people who have lived in Gunshot and worked for Gunshot Textiles, the factory Hollis owns and which has provided the livelihood of all Gunshot for generations.

Ensconsed in Lindsey and Hollis' impressive pink mansion, Colin doggedly pursues his Eureka Moment through the creation of The Theorem - a mathmatical formula which, once perfected, Colin believes will be able to predict the outcome of the relationship between any two people, even before the relationship begins. At this point, there is a great deal of math, but the author assures readers through footnotes, a stylistic device which is used to great - and comedic - effect all through the book, that they don't have to read the math parts, and that they'll be explained for anyone who cares in the appendix.

However, it's hard to devise a perfect forumla in the midst of the distractions that begin to bombard Colin. Lindsey, though no Katherine, becomes more and more interesting - she challenges Colin, points out his weak spots, helps him build the formula based on her own experiences in determining how to become popular. Colin slowly becomes immersed in the community of Gunshot, which is radically different from his native Chicago, through his interviews with the people in the town - particularly the retired workers - the "oldsters" - all of whom adore Lindsey. Hassan, meanwhile, embraces all that Gunshot has to offer, including Katrina, the first girl he has ever kissed - which he does, frequently and enthusiastically, despite the fact that he's violating his religous beliefs to do so. This leads to a fight with Colin, who, in order to make up, agrees to accompany Hassan, Katrina, TOC and some of the other Gunshot boys on a boar hunt. The disasterous end to that day is as funny as it is illuminating to the characters - if a little painful, particularly for Colin and Hassan.

Toward the end, the plot takes a turn out of the inner worlds of Colin, Hassan and Lindsey and into the real world, as they learn of a threat to Gunshot Textiles, and therefore to Lindsey's mother and the entire town. This plot thread is not resolved within the scope of the book, which is frustrating to the reader, but true to life - rarely are major problems solved within a three-week-period. This is part of Colin's discovery too - that the future is, as he proclaims, unpredicatble - that there is no guarantee that he will be a genius, or a failure, or anything else. By letting go of his need to predict and control the future, he is finally able to live in the present.

Lori Likes:

Theme: This novel has a great take on the classic "quest" theme. Instead of searching for treasure, Colin and Hassan are searching for themselves. Their monsters and demons are all internal - their own fears and doubts and insecurities. The archetypal characters are all present - hero, hero's companion, wise king, maiden - but they are all flawed - Colin is a nerdy hero with glasses, Hassan an overweight, asthmatic, under-achiever of a companion, the maiden (Lindsey) saves herself from the attack perpetrated by the Dark Knight (TOC)... It's a familiar story, but has a refreshingly wry, modern, self-deprecating twist.

Characters: The characters are all likeable, and I was rooting for all of them all the way through. They take themselves a little seriously, but, that's a tendency of their age group (says the woman who once solemnly determined she was going to go down a path of self-destruction, but couldn't think of anything self-destructive to do that was certain not to cause her bodily harm). Hassan and Colin's friendship is wonderful, and gives the characters the warmth they need to make them more "real."

Voice: My favorite stylistic device in this novel is the use of footnotes throughout the text, provided in the author's voice, providing commentary on the characters, bits of trivia related to the action, and discussion aimed directly at the readers. These footnotes are frequently laugh-out-loud funny (which gets you weird looks if you're not alone when you're reading), and are a great vehicle by which the author himself gets to be a character in his book.

Lori Doesn't Much Like:

Introspection: This is a coming-of-age, search-for-identity novel, so it's given that there has to be some introspection. There's just...rather a lot of it, and when the characters begin to open up to each other, they do it with a thoroughness and a level of emotional intelligence that's just a little far-fetched both for their age and for the personalities that have been established for them. I don't know that I would be capable of the level of self-realization that these kids achieve in three weeks. They're good realizations, I'm just not convinced they could have attained them when they did.

Plot Weaknesses: I really liked the Gunshot subplot, which is interwoven with the motif of storytelling that is also a prevelent part of the novel. doesn't really go anywhere, and, while it's hinted at for a long time, the scope of the problem isn't realized until the end of the novel. Even then, it's presented rather baldly, with the announcement that there's five years to figure out a solution. So the reader is left with the idea that it'll probably be ok...or not...but no one's really sure. I know that this is realistic, and I complained about a lack of realism in the last paragraph, but it's also kind of unsatisfying, and leaves the novel feeling unfinished.


I'd recommend this as reading for anyone, senior high level or above. There's some language and some naming of body parts that might make younger readers - or their parents - uncomfortable. Also, thematically, this book deals with issues that older teens are exploring - their futures, who they are going to become, what role their parents play in their present and their future... Young adults in 10-11 grade or above will get more out of this book.

Note: I'd hate to see anyone get scared away from this book because of math phobia. I am not a math person myself, and it's not really necessary to understand anything except that Colin is really good at math to understand the action in the story.

This book would be good for beach, bath, boredom. It doesn't require a lot of effort to get into the story, understand the characters, or work through the conflicts. It's a quick, fun read, and has stayed in my head for days after reading it!

Just What The World Needs...Another Blog

All right, I admit it. I saw Julie & Julia, and since then, all I've wanted is to start my own blog. Fame, fortune and a book deal will follow forthwith, I'm sure, although if the fact that it took me more than a year after I saw the movie to start a blog is any indication, I'd better not quit my day job.

My day job, of course, is what led me to this blog topic - books. I'm an English teacher, a reading specialist, and I'm in the process of getting a degree to become a librarian. I like books. More than like, really. I love books. I'll read any book, and will frequently read them until they're falling apart, pages fluttering away (I don't imagine that my future will involve employment in any rare books archives, sadly). It makes me sad to think about how many people don't love books, and how many who do like them prioritize things like American Idol over reading (I can be superior about not watching American Idol, since I haven't watched since Bo Bice lost to Carrie Underwood in a teeny-bopper driven miscarriage of justice).

The problem with finding a good book is often that we all judge books by their covers. That's not social commentary, it's just fact. We look at cover art, the title, and maybe the blurb on the back, and we're in or out. Maybe sometimes we listen to Oprah, or actually read one of the thousands of emails Amazon sends out, but mostly, book choice is a browser's paradise. Or not. true Julie & Julia fashion, I'm issuing myself a challange: I will read and review at least two books a week until the start of the 2011 school year (that's almost 14 months. I'm already more dedicated than Julie). Most of the books will be young adult titles, because my other goal is to try to incorporate more reading into my students' lives (but I won't blog on that one, since I would likely erupt into screaming frustration on a regular basis if I had to chronicle all the reasons teenagers present me regarding why Reading is Dumb). I don't want to repeat authors, but I'm considering that one more a guideline than a rule. I'll probably have to work out a scale eventually, but I'd probably leave out essential elements, so we'll let that develop as it will.

While reading is essentially solitary, there's no cooler community than a community of readers. Toward that end, I'd love recommendations, so long as you promise not to be mad at me if I don't love one of the books you love. Share this blog with whomever you want, and please let me know what you think (nicely - I am fragile).

Bookishly Yours,

PS I read Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
also. And My Life in France. They were both awesome, in completely different ways. I have not read Julie Powell's second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, yet, because it deals with butchering and infidelity and, while I have no objections to reading about either, it seems that if they're put together in one book it ought to be a true crime story. See what I mean about browsing?