Saturday, July 30, 2011

While I'm on my Patrick Ness Love Fest

During my recent visit to my family in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the UK, I got in to a lengthy discussion about good literature with the young adult section book buyer at the Waterstones there. (Waterstones is kind of like Barnes and Noble but classier). Obviously Patrick Ness' name came up pretty quickly and she pointed me in the direction of his new title A Monster Calls. There is an interesting, heartbreaking, and ultimately heartwarming story behind the story. The original idea came from a children's writer Siobhan Dowd who died of breast cancer before she was able to write the book. Dowd's notes were handed to Ness to write the story. As Ness explains in his Author's Note, he never met Dowd but knew her from her books (probably best know in the US for The London Eye Mystery) "She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately was time." (Ness, 2011).
Whoever the genius was that handed Ness those notes deserves a standing ovation. It's a haunting masterpiece of tension despite the fact the outcome is inevitable from the beginning. Ness does what he does best - lets characters be complicated, flawed, and yet still capable of great things. There is no black or white in the tales Ness weaves. Nothing is ever quite what it seems and no one can be defined as either one thing or another. As the monster explains to young Conor, who is trying to come to terms with his conflicted feelings over his mother's suffering "...human beings are complicated beasts...How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour?...How can a person be wrong-thinking but good hearted?" Conor feels guilty because in his heart he wants his mother to die so her suffering, and in many ways his own, can end. His guilt is tearing him apart. The monster has come to save him, and not his mother as Conor believed, by forcing him to speak the truth. "You do not write your life with words, the monster said. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do."
What you need to do dear reader is get out there and read everything Patrick Ness has ever written. ASAP. Also, you will need a hanky for the last two chapters. I wept through them both.
The Guardian's Review of A Monster Calls.
Siobahn Dowd's Obituary from the Guardian

I Am the Circle and the Circle is Me

Whooaaa. I just remembered I had a blog and why I have it. Picking up from where I left off...The Ask and The Answer turned out to be as equally amazing and full of surprises as the first installment of the Chaos Walking Trilogy. Ness left me once again at the edge of a precipice and I had to wait until September of 2010 to read the final book Monsters of Men (I preordered). This final installment is breathtaking in its ability to create characters both evil yet redeemable as well as force the reader to question their trust in characters believed to be on the side of right. I don't want to give the climatic ending away, but my heart went out to Mayor Prentiss; something I never thought would happen.
A Goodread friend of mine is going to "read" the Ask and the Answer in audible form. I am a little worried about this. One of the amazing things about this book is the choice the writer and (I presume) publishers made to visually express on the page what it must be like to be able to hear the thoughts of all around you. So, if you do decide to listen to these books, at least pick them up in a library or bookstore and leaf through.
On a more aesthetic note, I much prefer the US covers to the UK ones. The US versions are more foreboding and capture more of what the books are about. Let me know what you think.
One more thing...My daughter was recently "forced" to attend summer camp for the first time and was very, very nervous driving in. She kept repeating "I am the circle and the circle is me"!

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.