Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Beowulf adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds

There’s a Beowulf frenzy going on right now. I blame Angelina Jolie. My local children’s bookstore, the Red Balloon, has part of a shelf devoted to it. Apparently, anything with five or more books constitutes a “section”. I rummaged through the various versions, including the one with a big shiny sticker proclaiming, “Now a major motion picture!”, and settled on Gareth Hinds’ beautifully illustrated and satisfyingly gory graphic novel (the ladies at the Red Balloon still say comic). Text is kept at a minimum and is based on the 1909 translation by A.J. Church. This is irrelevant to me as this is my first Beowulf, but it may matter to someone out there in the ether. Although scarce, the words have not been emasculated. Kids are still going to have to grapple with sentences like, “Of savage and merciless temper was she, and now she was wrought to fury by the woe of her son”. I’d be more motivated to tackle words like “liegeman” and “burnish” on a page full of beheaded soldiers and torn limbs, wouldn’t you? This thousand-year-old narrative is expertly told in both pictures and words,
“There the tide washes in and sprays the forests with its brine. Clouds shroud the waters and wet winds wail through the trees.”
Any male middle grader hoping for a glimpse of an Angelinaesque beauty in tight fitting robes is going to be sorely disappointed. For the ladies, however, you see a lot of Beowulf. Not all. But nearly. On a more serious note, there is an image of pre 9/11 New York that suddenly appears when King Hrothgar is lecturing Beowulf on the danger of too much pride and power after Beowulf has successfully slain Grendel and his monstrous mother. “Come in what shape it may, death will subdue even thee, thou hero of war.” Which, of course, it does.

Monday, January 14, 2008

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko

This is the new one from the acclaimed author of Al Capone does my Shirts (which I haven't read). I wasn't "felled" (sorry) by it, but I read it in one sitting. It's the story of a couple of misfits, Kirtsen and Walk, at an expensive white private high school in San Fransisco. Kirsten is white and rich but overweight and therefore not a member of the "in" crowd. Walk is Black and attending the school on a scholarship.
A couple of things brought this up short for me. First, I have a problem with the femme fatale of the book who seems too cliche for me. This is Brianna, the rich, beautiful, blonde and popular clique leader. Her mother is big on the PTO and at one point cancels the school's talent show because her daughter cannot take part. During lunch, Brianna askes Kirsten, who she knows to have an eating disorder, to lift up her shirt so they can compare stomachs. When she leaves, she pushes her half finished pizza toward Kirsten, "I think Kirsten is too thin...So here...Fatten up" (90). Maybe it has been too long since high school for me but, really, that mean? Brianna actually goes out of her way to torture Matteo, whose mother cleans house for Brianna's family, because she knows she "owns" him.
My other issue is that there are too many messages in this book: eating disorders, divorce, infidelity, honesty, and more. At times, I didn't know which message to focus on.
However, these can be overlooked because the novel does one thing well - race. This novel asks a lot of questions of young readers. What does it mean to be a low income or even middle income kid at a school swamped in over-privaleged white kids? How do you create authentic friendships with these students when your mother tells you, "Race doesn't matter...except for every hour of every day" (37). It also asks the reader to question stereotypes, even ones people have about members of their own race. Walk has a cousin, Jamal, who seems to be going down the wrong path. Jamal arrives at Walk's apartment in a black SUV, pulling a suitcase, "Got some product to show you," Jamal tells Walk. "Really fine stuff." Walk assumes the worst and replies, "I don't do this stuff, Jamal" (60). It turns out he is selling laundry detergent to make enough money to attend the same school as Walk. "Isn't anybody doesn't need soap. It's the American dream, man, right here. I've been to a weekend. They told me all about it" (61). The heartbreaking thing - and I admire Choldenko for not making everything work out OK in the end - is that Jamal gets in to the school but cannot make enough money to supplement his scholarship. The only students of color at the school have either a full scholarship or are being subsidized by a white person. Will kids be savvy enough to see that the American dream doesn't work for everyone, especially those who most need it to be true? I wish Choldenko had made this the central message instead of making it difficult to find among all the others.

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

Now isn’t that a great title! I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. Not because I read great reviews but because of the title and the tag line, “Fantasy just declared war on reality”. The cover is funky, too- Dune meets Lewis Carroll. This is Alice in Wonderland on some kind of illegal substance. Alyss is a tomboy princess and heir to the throne of Wonderland. Her birthday celebrations are ruined by the assassination of both her parents by her evil aunt, Redd. Alyss escapes death by traveling through the Pool of Tears with her bodyguard. Unfortunately, traveling through puddles turns out to be as fraught with error as changing planes in Chicago O'Hare and Alyss finds herself alone in Victorian England. We now enter a kind of Oliver Twist narrative that turns in to a version of Annie when Alyss is adopted by the affluent Liddell family. Alyss becomes Alice Liddell (for whom Alice in Wonderland was written) and in another fairytale twist of fate ends up as Queen Victoria’s youngest son’s fiance. This is not as great a leap of fantasy as one may think because the real Alice Liddell was acquainted with the real Prince Leopold. Meanwhile Redd has turned Wonderland in to a futuristic version of Maoist China where children turn in their parents to the authorities and “Reddisms” are broadcast from three-dimensional holographic billboards. As you can imagine, the stage is set for Alyss to return and reclaim her rightful place.
Definitely a page turner and my fantasy fans will love it. I just hope they have read the classic before they pick this one up so they can appreciate the inventive reworking Beddor has accomplished.
Other books in the series: Seeing Redd (second in the trilogy), Hatter M (graphic novel), Princess Alyss of Wonderland (scrapbook)

Sunday, January 6, 2008

the mysterious edge of the heroic world by e.l. konigsburg

Before I begin, I must allow myself a short rant about book titles devoid of capitalisation. It makes the already hard job of teaching 9-11 year olds "the rules". You can hear the satifaction in their voice as they wave their little hands at you and proclaim, "But it's not capitalised on the cover."
Anyway, back to the book. I went through this novel like a hot knife through butter, but I'm having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly I found so compelling. The story follows young Amedeo as he helps clean out and catalogue the eclectic contents of his elderly neighbor's mansion. While doing so, he finds an original drawing by Modigliani given to Mrs Zender by her husband as a wedding present. The drawing, in an all too convenient twist of fate, turns out to have a fascinating and tragic history connected to Nazi Germany and Amedeo's godfather. We learn that Modigliani, as part of the Modern art world, was labled as a Degenerate artist by the Nazis and his work was outlawed. Many Degenerate pieces were confiscated and found their way in to underground collections. The piece that Amedeo finds was used for both good and evil. For me, however, the true source of fascination in the novel is Mrs Zender herself. I adored her and despised her at the same time. A one time very minor European opera star, she now floats around her treasure stuffed mansion drinking chilled champagne, dropping the names of famous artists and writers-friends whose work she neither read nor admired, "I haven't read a book in years . Every now and then I read a review in a magazine at the beauty parlor, and sometimes I think I would enjoy reading and entire book, but I allow the thought to pass."(149) Her connection to the Modigliani is a somewhat sordid tale. Konigsburg has created one of the most intruiging characters I've encountered in young adult literature lately. Mrs Zender is a bully, a diva, and a lonely soul all at the same time. Tennessee Williams could have created her.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming

If you are a fourth grade teacher and have any concern at all for the happiness of your students, you should already be in possession of this book. If not, get it! I am not even stretching the truth a little when I tell you that I had three parents tell me that my reading aloud this book in class inspired their child to voluntarily pick up a book for the first time. By the second week of the read aloud (and second week of school because it is a perfect opener) three had bought a copy and two others had checked it out of the library.
So what's so great? It meets fourth graders at their humor level, and it's all about them! The fourth grade class have the worst reputation in the school. The principal is at her wits trying to find a teacher when lo and behold the mysterious Mr Jupiter enters. Each chapter that follows focuses on one or two children in the class and their in-school exploits while illustrating a moral from the famous fables. The budding romance of Mr Jupiter and the librarian, Paige Turner, creates a somewhat cohesive narrative that both delights and totally disgusts fourth grade readers at the same time. But it's not just written for laughs and affords the teacher and the class reading it a chance to discuss some of the issues of being 9 years old without anyone really noticing. For example, my class had a wonderfully frank discussion about cultural bias and the human body after reading the chapter where two boys get caught snickering over back issues of National Geographic. "They're so immature!" scoffed my oh-so-above-it-all boys. Mmm hmmm.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Glitch in Sleep by John Hulme and Michael Wexler

My best-of-lists savvy husband gave me this for Christmas, and I can't wait to introduce it to the Eoin Colfer fans in my class. Becker Drane, the twelve-year-old hero of the novel, is a Fixer in The Seems. The Seems is the secret alternate world, ruled by The Powers that Be, responsible for making our world work according to The Plan. Unluckily for Becker, his first Mission as a Fixer involves a Glitch, and a Glitch is no ordinary mechanical failure.
While being a fun read, the book does raise some age-old questions. If the world is working to a plan, how come some people have such terrible lives? What kind of power would deliberately incorporate pain and suffering? As an adult reader, I can't help but compare the doctrine of 'trusting in The Plan' adopted by The Powers that Be with the dogma of our own organized religions. However, the often incredible situations in The Glitch in Sleep - it is simply impossible that every human in the world would have a custom made dream delivered every night- make it hard for me to reconcile these two disparate attributes of the book. Then again, I haven't actually finished reading it yet, so perhaps reconciliation is yet to come.