Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Heroines that Could Kick my Ass

I have been avoiding the frightening reality of working in public education by wallowing in a warm pool of alternative worlds and distant futures. I managed to get hold of several want-to-reads under the guise of buying books for my ten-year-old book worm. Buying books is easy, but getting them out of my daughters room is not so simple. She has a passionate desire to keep all the 'good books" in her room in case any one "messes them up". My friend Phyllis (who is older and much more reliable than me) has not yet been forgiven for returning Fire Bringer with a scotch-taped cover. I am no longer allowed to lend books to Phyllis, but where there's a will there's a way. I seem to have found my way in to a world where girls are tough and leave the boys behind in a cloud of indignation and embarrassment. The ones they don't kill have two choices - become embroiled in a complicated relationship and/or have their hearts broken. Excellent. Go girls.
I finally got around to The Hunger Games immediately followed by its sequel, Catching Fire. I am sure that most of you have read these almost instant classics by now, or read another review, so I shall spare you the details. (If not, here's Stephen King's review for EW and I agree with Stephen, Katniss is a hard name to get over.) We all have to wait until the summer of 2010 to find out if Katniss, the heroine, ends up with Peeta, heart-on-your-sleeve adorer from afar, or Gale, smoldering hunting companion/bestfriend. My friend Phyllis and I are wholeheartedly on the Peeta side of the fence.Luckily, Phyllis and I will be able to remain friends. There are, believe it or not, and I do, chat rooms dedicated to the Peeta/Gale debate.
The rights for the movie were bought by Lionsgate in March. If one is so inclined, and one was, you can go on Youtube and see fantasy cast lists for the movie. Brendan Gleeson would make a great Haymitch. Anyhoo, Suzanne Collins also wrote the The Underland Chronicles, which my daughter adored and Phyllis enjoyed, too (after checking them out from the library).
I moved swiftly on to Graceling by Kristen Cashore. I read it in a couple of days and will be reading the sequel Fire the minute I can pry it out of my daughter's iron grip. I smuggled Graceling out to Phyllis before winter break, so the jury is still out on her response. Thank goodness this heroine, Katsa, didn't end up in a love triangle. That would be too much to bare. She falls for and sticks with the lovely Prince Po. Thank you Ms Cashore. Both girls are tomboy heroines and both of them could kick my ass (which I'll admit wouldn't be difficult). Katsa, however doesn't have to learn to kill to survive. In Cashore's midievelesque alternate world, Katsa is a graceling - gifted with a "grace" and different colored eyes that signal her uniqueness (kind of like David Bowie). Unfortunately, her grace turns out to be more of a burden. She is a killing machine; a young girl capable of taking down the strongest of men with the flick of her wrist. Only until she escapes her evil uncle's influence and can use her grace for good does she realize that killing may only be one facet of her gift.
Phyllis suggested that Cate might like the Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce. So, I checked a couple out from the library for me trying hard not to be put off by the cheesy covers of the Random House editions. Needless to say Phyllis is always right. I am now on book three of the four book series (qualogy?). The heroine is once again a girl with the strength of a man and the intelligence of a woman (great combination), who battles prejudice and puberty to become a knight. There's always a love interest and this heroine, Kel, develops a crush on a fellow trainee (he has floppy hair and green eyes - I imagine hime to be a better looking Hugh Grant with magical healing powers). As I am only on book three and she just turned fourteen, I don't know if the crush will come to aught or not.
While reading First Test I received a notice that my request for The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness had arrived at the library. Another trilogy, Chaos Walking, of which there are two so far. I gobbled this one up just as quickly as those aforementioned. The Knife takes place on another planet that has been settled by humans looking for a simpler and less crowded way of life. The hero (don't worry, a strong female character turns up pretty quickly) of the story, Todd, is the last boy in a town of men. The women, he has been told, all died of a germ spread by the native "aliens" who were then wiped out for their sins. The germ also left all men, boys and living creatures able to hear each others' every thought. So, life in the town is very noisy and keeping a secret requires mental agility. When Todd and his dog stumble upon a pocket of silence in the swamp outside the town, life changes dramatically and Todd is soon on the run discovering that everything he thought to be true is not so. The book is well written and moves as fast as your eyes will allow you to. The idea of others being able to hear every thought reminds me of standing in line with someone talking on their cell phone. You are trapped in their conversation whether you like it or not, learning things that more often than not are mundane. Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of people on cell phones twenty four seven. The publishers try to recreate this experience of "the noise" by strategically filling a page or two with thought scribble. The Knife leaves you hanging and there was a tense exchange at my local library when the next installment, The Ask and the Answer, was found to be "missing". Undeterred, I trudged down to the Central Library through freezing slush and over pee ridden snow banks. That copy was MIA, too, but the librarian sensing my rising panic agreed to "look in the back just in case" and voila! I left clutching the elusive volume to my chest.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Publishing Meets Marketing Meets Racial Politics

I first read about this on the School Library Journal blog by the prolific Elizabeth Bird. It seems that I am not imagining things when I notice that it is very hard to find books for my African American students with covers they can relate to. This is particularly true for the middle grades. This issue has come to light with Justine Larbalesiter's recent book, Liar. The US edition has a white girl on the cover of novel that is about a girl "who is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short" despite Larbalesiter's objections. You can read all about it here.
So which books can African American students pick up and see a person of color on the cover? Pretty much anything by Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Draper, Jacqueline Woodson and Sharon Flake. Christopher Paul Curtis of course, although his characters are most often set in the past. There are more out there I know, and there are some great resources for finding books about students of color, but as The Brown Bookshelf put it "You can’t buy a book you don’t see on the shelf. And it’s awfully hard to buy a book you’re not even aware is available". The Brown Bookshelf spearheaded a campaign called 28 Days Later that showcased African American authors. There are lots of great suggestions from The Brown Bookshelf linked directly to Click here for the middle readers page although I know most of my 5th and 6th graders would probably be more interested in the titles on the Poppin' Black Teen Books. Oh, dear. No classroom budget this year, but as a teacher I feel it is my duty to get as many of these books in my classroom as possible. There's always the tax rebate!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

This book is like a chameleon. Just when you think it's about one thing, it changes its colors and becomes another beast altogether. The narrator is Marcelo, a seventeen-year-old who is on the high functioning end of an autism-like spectrum. He has spent his school years in the safe environment of Paterson, a school for students like him. He is comfortable there, working with in the stable there during his summers. Marcelo's father, a high-powered lawyer, has decided that it is time Marcelo experience "the real world" and puts him to work in his law firm's mail room. The mail room is run by Jasmine, who is non too pleased to be landed with the job of babysitting the bosses son. Jasmine turns out to be like Marcelo in many ways and their friendship quietly grows. Marcelo, Jasmine and I could quite happily have spent the rest of the summer there, but Stork has other plans for Marcelo that challenge his sense of duty to his father, his need for friendship, and his relationship with Jasmine. Just like the "real world", the decisions Marcelo must make are clouded in shades of gray. In the end, things work out for Marcelo - almost too neatly. Stork's real world is a forgiving one, and all loose ends are tied in neat bows by the end of the last chapter. As a human I am glad because I love Marcelo and want only happiness for him. However, as a reader, I expected a little more ambiguity. Great books leave you with a sense of longing - with nagging questions and doubts. Without this Marcelo and the Real World stops just short of being great.

More information about Fransisco X. Stork and his other titles can be found here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Raucous Royals by Carlyn Beccia

There's nothing better than a bit of juicy gossip about royals. It's what makes history interesting and probably why I find most American history pretty boring. Never mind the fact that they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, spent money lavishly while their subjects starved, and went around taking over other people's countries. The point is royals of yore dressed fabulously while doing it. Those good old days are gone, though. I haven't seen an outfit yet on Elizabeth II that doesn't make her look frumpy (though I will admit, she knows a good hat when she sees one).
Beccia brings those jaw-dropping royals back to life in her deliciously illustrated new book. The rich colors echo the ostentatious luxury of royalty and her portraits seem as though they came off the gallery of some 16th Century castle with a dubious past.
Beccia chose a true or false approach to her subject and it serves her purpose well. Readers get a lesson in detective work and untrustworthy sources as well as tasty tidbits of information. My 5th and 6th graders nearly threw up after reading a typical menu served to Henry VIII - mind you, I did add the part about people making themselves sick at banquets just so they could cram more grilled beaver tail or roasted peacock down their throats. This led to an interesting discussion that I shall not elaborate on here. Suffice it to say that every page of Beccia's marvelous book sparks a myriad of topics for conversation - not many of them suitable for the dinner table, which of course kids love!
The Raucous Royals is Carlyn Beccia's second book. The first is Who Put the B in Ballyhoo.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Ok, so this one is going to join my very hard to get on to "Absolute Favorites" tag. I only have one other book there, so, yeah. I know Terry Pratchett is a hugely successful author, but his more fantasy oriented books have left me cold., and I like fantasy. This, however, I read in one day and mourned when it was over.

My nine-year-old who reads everything couldn't get in to Nation and so that tells me what I already knew - this is more of a cross-over novel and you have to be willing to go a few chapters before you're hooked. You have to understand (or at least be aware of) the history of colonialism, and you have to have the vision to see that this is about so much more than boy meets girl on a post-tsunami deserted island. And is still a wonderful story of (unconsummated) love and a story of hope for mankind that leaves you mad at the author for not making it all OK. It's kind of like Titanic the movie - but really much better- except the boat doesn't sink- it lands on a forest.

'Nuff said. You really have to read it.

Red Sings from Treetops: a year in colors by Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski

I have been inspired by Joyce Sidman to get back to what I love doing best - reading brilliant children's literature and raving about it to any unfortunate who happens to become snared in the dense thicket of the kid-lit blogging bush.
There are a lot of poems about color out there and I am sure that practically any elementary-aged child in the English-speaking world has had to write one. It's pretty easy and has a low-risk level (unlike my cat - long story). However, like most things that are pretty easy to do, they are really hard to do well.
I have spent many an early morning and late evening in my yard trying to think of an opening line for a poem about a cardinal. When you live in the northern regions of this fair land, the sight of a cardinal's scarlet plumage against eye-searing-white snow is sometimes the only hope you have that the world is still turning and you're not stuck in this frozen wasteland forever. Don't get me wrong, winter is beautiful when it first comes and everything is clean white,
"White dazzles day
and turns night
inside out."
But, at a certain point, you need to see green.
Luckily for me, Sidman knows this, too and she's got a magical touch with words. It's like she got inside my heart - because, truly, that's where poetry germinates - and translated it in to these beautiful poems - because, truly, that's what the poets you love do.
"And Red?
Red beats inside me:
Sidman is frugal but never meagre with her words. They take on the exact shape, smell, and feel of the season's passing colors. The verses are short but complete and leave pleanty of room for the stunning art work of Zagarenski. Verse and picture blend seemlessly together. Zagarenski never tries to "outcolor" the poems, and her palate is rich and delicious just when it needs to be. Zagarenski also illustrated Sidman's This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness and the same crowned and whimsically dressed figures run through these pages. The cardinal is ever present with his own crimson crown and a dog follows along, too. Each page tells a story and I discover something new every time I read the book.
Luckily for us, Sidman and Zagarenski know how to make a simple thing look and sound stunningly difficult.