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!