Thursday, July 31, 2008

When Katy Moore hands you a book, how do you say no?

1. Sonnenblick, J. (2006). Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie. New York: Scholastic. 273 pgs.

2. Steven finds out his brother Jeffrey has cancer. Combine that with trying to play in the all-city jazz band, while juggling two ladyfriends, and school on top of it--well, let's just say that Steven has a rough time. But what sounds like a depressing novel is anything but; it's sweet, a little sad, and very very funny. On top of that, it's actually an extremely informative novel, as far as the procedures and treatments of the illness go.

3. Believable characters all around: Steven, Jeffrey, parents, friends, etc. Sonnenblick does a nice job with Steven's voice and journal entries. The plot is highly believable, though there are some cheesy--if earned--moments. Also, major props to Sonnenblick for bringing the realism of the treatment into the novel, and having the smallest, most fragile character (Jeffrey), be the bravest of them all.

4. If you're looking for a book everyone in your class might enjoy, this could be the one. It's an extremely likable read, with nothing objectionable in the novel whatsoever. Reading it out loud to students would be great; using it in small groups would be great; recommending it would be great. A very useful book, in my opinion.

5. It's a junior high level read.

6. I owe the book a little more justice than this brief review, but I've read about six other books since finishing this one. Needles to say, the book was thoroughly enjoyable, and I've heard the same sentiment from many other readers. It might be a bit cheesy, but as an old writing prof used to say, "You have to risk sentimentality, sometimes." Major shout out to my girl Katy M. for shoving this one on me. Respect.

Odelay, as Beck might say

1. Soto, G.(1998). Petty Crimes. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. 157 pgs.
Short story collection

2. Gary Soto's short story collection takes on different voices and different scenes from California life outside of Fresno. Soto spices his stories of hispanic culture with a lot of Spanish slang and inventive language. The book's varied characters include a chola, a boy who wants to be a boxer, and a girl who's lost her mother and tries to collect all of her mother's clothes her father has given away.

3. Soto's fairly well known as a poet, and he tries to utilize his facility for language in these short stories. While he does focus mainly on his words, Soto tends to lose focus of his characters at times, to the detriment of the stories. It's nice to see some hispanic culture in literature, and topics of gangs, loss, and trying to discover who you are are very relevant to teenagers today.

4. As for classroom use, the book might be on the shelf as an independent choice. I might use the text in a multi-cultural lesson. I might also recommend the book to readers who enjoy his poetry (I do, a little more than this collection).

5. 6th grade on up. The book's an easy read and could be used as an early introduction to short fiction.

6. I'm going to say it: I was disappointed with this collection. I've enjoyed some of Soto's poems before, and was hoping that the collection would mirror some of his good stuff. Sadly, I think his ideas go underdeveloped. As a writer, he tends to be interested in his prose, while the story itself collapses. It's an easy read, and that might be Soto's aim. Ultimately, though, I'd have a difficult time recommending this one.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Guys Read?

1. Scieszka, J. (ed) (2005). Guys Write for Guys Read. New York: Viking, 273 pgs.
Nonfiction; compilation.

2. Jon Scieszka manages the website, He's compiled little 2-4 page selections from a bunch of well known writers--and illustrators-- for adolescents and chilren. The catch of course: all the writers are guys. And they're writing for guys. Just a little selection for you to choose from: Jack Gantos; Chris Paolini; Stephen King; Richard Peck; Neil Gaiman; Avi; Rick Reilly; Matt Groening; and of course, Chris Crutcher (with his off color story involving a basketball court, olives, and nudity). As you can see, a veritable who's who of male writers in the field. And, there's many more I have no room to name.

3. Most of the selections are autobiographical; therefore, yes, it's quite a believable book. It's a very quick read, and would be well suited to guys--or even girls, if they want some insight--who scoff at Dickens sized tomes. Some selections are throwaways, but some are ridiculously funny (see Crutcher) or poignant (first date stories, crushes, losses). I definitely see a lot of guys identifying with some of the selections, as well as getting to read tidbits by their favorite authors.

4. I honestly don't see too many classroom uses for the book. What the book would be useful for, though, is getting reluctant male readers to pick up a book. The chapters are small, the reading is a breeze, and the topics are pretty relevant to any adolescent male. After reading the book, I might have the reader write a short selection--be it a poem, an anecdote--that they think might be appropriate for the book.

5. I'd say that 6th graders on up could tackle this book. I think, obviously, the book skews toward males. But the stories, and writers, are relevant to everyone--so girls could definitely give it a shot (they might not enjoy it as much).

6. The book didn't blow me away, by any means, but I can see its relevance for its audience. There were a few selections that shined, but overall the shortness of the chapters kept the book from developing any depth. I'd definitely recommend to the books for boys having trouble reading, or having trouble finding anything they like (they're bound to like one or two things in here). Also, I finally checked out the website which this is based on. I was disappointed; I couldn't find any essays or selections like the writing in the book (stupid me thought they'd come from the website, but the writers were obviously asked instead), only a search engine. A search engine for suggestions would be greatly valuable, but it was down at the time I tried it, and can't give an opinion on its worth.

Tales From the Farm

1. Lemire, J. (2007). Essex County Vol. 1: Tales From the Farm. Top Shelf Production: Atlanta, pages not numbered.
Graphic Novel; Alex Award 2008.

2. If Terrence Malick and Errol Morris decided to have a child, who then decided he was going to write a graphic novel, you'd have Tales From the Farm. The stark, lyrical representations of the midwest (a Malick specialty) are offset by the extreme close-ups of the characters (hence the Morris reference)--both of which create an interesting, melancholy graphic novel. Lester runs around town wearing a cape and envisioning coming aliens attacking town. He butts heads with his Uncle Ken, while also building a friendship with the 'touched in the head' (due to a hockey injury) gas jockey, Jimmy. Through flashbacks, the reader discovers Lester has lost his mother, and that his uncle Ken is doing what he can to connect with the boy. Secrets are revealed at the finish, and a bit of magical realism takes the story, however minimally, out from the crushing loneliness of life on the farm.

3. Loss and loneliness are major themes of the graphic novel, and Lemire does well incorporating the stark black and white shading along with Lester's angry dialogue to bolster his themes. In the small space Lemire has to work, Lemire does a nice job sketching his characters, and the conflicts they're dealing with. Any adolescent would be able to identify with Lester and his 'fish out of water' experience on the farm.

4. Some great assignments to go along with this book would include a lot of writing prompts to fill in the spaces of the story. Lemire puts the reader in medias res (though he does include flashbacks); students would be able to write backgrounds for each of the characters. Also, basic descriptive writing about the frames involving no dialogue (a picture of the water tower; birds flying) would be an excellent exercise.
I would use the graphic novel as an individual choice. Unfortunately, there's quite a bit of language in the novel (possibly why it received an Alex Award--adult books for adolescents) and I'd be hesitant to expose the class to it.

5. Though a graphic novel, it's appropriate for older students, 10th grade and up. The themes are universal, but the ambiguity present, as well as the language, make it suited for a more developed reader.

6. My first graphic novel--yes, yes, you may cheer. I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest. I'd read a tidbit on this book in some magazine, and thought I'd give it a chance. There was an overwhelming sadness in the sketches, and those made the book for me. The dialogue was a bit wooden, though believable. I felt as if I were watching an indie movie--and that's a good thing. I would highly recommend the book to any fans of small, lyrical films.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Law and Order episode #2,002,456: MONSTER

1. Myers, Walter Dean. (1999). Monster. New York: Harper Collins, 281 pp.
Fiction; Coretta Scott King Award (2000), Michael Printz Award (2000).

2. "In the criminal justice system....." Wait, this isn't an episode of Law and Order? There's no "chunk, chunk" sound to switch scenes? Though it's not a fully sanctioned offshoot of producer Dick Wolf, Monster does play a bit like one of those L and O episodes: 16-year old Steve Harmon is jailed for being an accomplice to a murder; we loyal readers follow his trial from beginning to ambiguous end. What spices the story up is the narrative framework, which involves a script format 'written' by the protagonist himself, along with interspersed journal entries that allow the reader to understand how it feels to be young, African-American, and in jail. Did Steve give the other guys a signal? Was he nowhere near the scene? Does it, in the end, matter?

3. The plot's fairly believable, and I'm going to risk saying that it might not be 'gritty' enough (arguably, this is YA Lit, and not Richard Price territory). Myers does a decent job bringing this slice of the world to life, and Harmon is well written: a scared adolescent trying to figure out who he might really be (we readers have to make our own judgments).

The star of the book, though, is the format. Myers uses the screenplay style to distance Harmon from his own life, while also allowing the character a creative outlet. The journal entries allow a window in Harmon's mindset--as well as creating a frightening setting for the reader (a little Scared Straight for the teeny boppers).

4. Monster presents a lot of technical uses for the classroom: screenplay writing (and how it differs from fiction); journal writing; dialogue (in regards to a script format). Most importantly, the novel opens a discussion of race, and how we view one another. Some excellent discussions could be had about societal stereotypes, as well as having students write personal reflections regarding their own prejudices (it might be difficult to have a class discussion concerning this point, and I'd be wary to encourage a discussion over journal entries). Myers leaves the ending ambiguous to prod the reader; as teachers, I believe it's our duty to prod our students.

5. Age range: I'm going to say 8th grade and up. The reading level isn't horribly high, but the the themes are complex. Plus, the prison rape scene might be a difficult issue to approach (and would probably be the reason the book's banned quite a bit). The ambiguous ending, where guilt or innocence is never resolved, also raises the age range (I think younger readers need that closure, which the book doesn't provide). An interesting bridge for older readers might be The Stranger, by Albert Camus (where the main character ends up on trial, and the question of 'guilt' in an irrational world is presented) or maybe even something like Kafka's, The Trial.

6. I was hoping Stabler and his swagger might make an appearance, but I had to make do with the book, rather than another Law and Order spinoff. Overall, I'm leaning toward the 'liked it' side, mainly because I like the chances that Myers took with the book. What is literature if it doesn't provoke a little self reflection? Or a lot of societal reflection? So yes, props to Myers for taking that leap. I am going to argue that I'd like a little more of Harmon's life outside of the pen, if only to get a fuller picture of the character. We readers get a few glimpses, but only a couple of nuggets. But yes, I would recommend the book. CHUNK, CHUNK.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ah, yes, a little light reading: Hitler Youth

1. Campbell Bartoletti, S. (2005). Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. New York: Scholastic Nonfiction, 176 pp.
Nonfiction, WWII History; 2006 Newbery Medal Honor Book

2. As I said, curl up, grab a nice relaxing glass of wine, and prepare yourself for a calming bit of WWII horrors. Bartoletti's Hitler Youth details the beginnings of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth to us not from the Fatherland) through the breadth of WWII. Rather than follow one or two people across that entire scope, Bartoletti instead uses a broad brush stroke to incorporate what the Youth were doing--war games, ditch digging, passing out propaganda--while also setting the scene and climate of Germany leading up to WWII. Bartoletti uses many chilling photos from the period (I know I cringe at a small child in an SS outfit), as well as numerous quotes from former members of the Youth.

3. It'd be hard to criticize the characters or plot in the book (yeah, well, that Hitler's just a little too crazy, you know?; or, no, I don't think a savvy warmongerer would wage battle in Russia, in winter) considering the all too true accounts in this nonfiction piece. Bartoletti does do a good job of presenting former members as people, too; she humanizes that which we dismiss as 'evil.' Also, there's a barrage of information present in the book, a lot of which I'd never previously read (mainly the climate of hatred toward Jews prior to Hitler's rise). Other issues presented in the book include blind submission to authority (hello Guantanamo) as well as ethical and moral dilemmas (do you join the Youth to save your family?; do you abandon your Jewish friend?).

4. Hitler Youth can most obviously be used as a book across the curriculum, particularly working with Social Studies or History classes. Also, I'd consider using the book in conjuction with Diary of Anne Frank, if only to embolden a lesson with more facts and history (along with more horrors). The moral questions provide numerous writing activities for children, as well as an examination of today's political world. Also, if a student was interested in that time period, or if a boy was fascinated by the machinery of war, rather than the human aspect, I might steer that student toward the book (if only to strip away the shiny gloss from guns and bullets).

5. As for age range, I think middle school children would be able to handle the reading. They would, though, be faced with tough moral questions (which might also get them talking to their parents, another good benefit).

6. I was impressed by the sheer number of quotes gathered by Bartoletti, as well as the interesting facts she presents in her book. My issues with the book stem from Bartoletti's choice to narrate from an editorial vantage point. Most nonfiction I've read is more along the creative nonfiction bent, where a character or person is followed, almost as if in a novel, and the facts surrounding the character are presented in a novel-like format. Bartoletti's book does venture into specific stories, but mainly reads as historical text at times--which isn't bad, just not as engaging as it could have been. We as readers are introduced to a couple of people, Hans and Sophie Scholl in particular, who show up again and again, but mostly we're inundated with reportage. I would end up recommending the book, but would be hesitant to teach it if only because of the nonfiction elements present (teach it in conjunction with other things, yes; by itself, no).

Let's be honest, who hasn't wanted to start their own religion?

1. Hautman, P. (2004). godless. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 198pp.
Modern Realism; National Book Award Winner for Young People, 2004

2. Rather than worshipping Target's bullseye or the Nintendo Wii--you people out there know who you are--Pete Hautman's protagonist, Jason Bock, decides to begin his own religion. And what better god to worship in those flat towns of the midwest than the Ten-Legged One, the huge water tower looming over Jason's adolescence. Jason enlists a motley crew of 'believers', including his friend Shin, his love interest Magda, Dan, and Henry Stagg, Jason's former nemesis. The 'believers' deem themselves Chutengodians, and what begins as inspired imaginational whimsy, soon turns into something far more serious than Jason could ever imagine. Starting a religion might sound like an easy thing, but maintaining any sort of faith becomes an entirely different story.

3. Hautman walks a tightrope with his book: he presents the question of faith and religion, while not condemning, or supporting, either side. Also, big points to the man for throwing in a lot of humor. Religion isn't an easy issue, especially when it comes to the classroom or young adults, but by opening up the discussion, I think Hautman should be commended.

Hautman also does pretty well with his main character: Jason Bock is an identifiable underdog for readers; he's an intelligent kid who loves to question authority with his biting wit (tell me, what kid doesn't love to stand up to 'the man'?). Hautman also does well with another character, Jason's friend, Shin, who takes the religion seriously--he writes, in essence, a Bible for the water tower--and ends up a little too fanatical about Chutengodianism. The other characters, particularly Dan, seem to exist as stereotypes, though Henry Stagg, the bully, is allowed some minor character development in the allowance that he does actually read (shocking, I know).

The plot doesn't seem too far fetched, and I'd consider it a bit of modern realism. There are accidents (Henry Stagg's broken leg) and lost loves (Magda, the playa). There's also a little slice of insanity and fanatical faith (Shin's breakdown). Jason is not converted, nor does he discount others' beliefs, as he once did (his father is a devout believer). The book addresses religion with skeptical doubt, per Jason's viewpoint, but also presents the power that faith and religion can have to a person.

4. Honestly, the title alone would scare me off from trying the book as a whole class reading. Rather, I think it'd be a great individual choice book, or even a read aloud (though I'm sure I'd get a lot of: "he's reading WHAT to you??"). Also, I think the book would definitely work as a bridge to a classic, something along the lines of Jude the Obscure (though a much gloomier novel, and more depressing, the same questions of faith abound).

5. I'm gonna say the book is appropriate for 12 and up. Or, possibly, 4-year old existentialists. Either would work.

6. This was my first foray into young adult literature--and I made it back quite nicely. I enjoyed Hautman's playfulness concerning the beginning of a religion; he also does a good job with creating a memorable protagonist to lead us through this "semi-dark night of the semi-serious young adult soul." I'd have no problem recommending the book, but would be wary of assigning it in class (godless worries me in the hands of some parents). Overall, a good read that didn't turn me off to YA Lit. Now, back to Target to I can worship me some Wii.