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!