Harlem (Walter Dean Myers)

This poem, written by Walter Dean Myers, is a collection of thoughts about Harlem. The word phrasing, along with the brilliant illustrations (warranting its Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King medal status) expose readers to the "spirit" of Harlem, including its music, art, and everyday life.


The Magic Gourd (Baba Waque' Diakete)

This is a Mali folktale about Brother Rabbit receiving a magical gourd from Chameleon, and the adventures the magic gourd brings to Rabbit and his village. Sprinkled throughout this picture book are gorgeous illustrations, many of various pieces of painted pottery from Mali. I also really loved the inclusion of Bambara (the language of Mali) terms. At the end of the book is a glossary of Bambara terms, songs of praise, and explanations of the bogolanfiniw (or mud cloth) patterns found in the illustrations on platters and tiles.

An Untrue Tale by Harve Zemach: The Judge (Harve Zemach; Ilust. by Margot Zemach)

I came across this book while on the floor in the nonfiction section of my library, and loved it! It is a short, rhyming story of various individuals coming before the judge and are trying to convince him of a coming surprise. The watercolor illustrations are very clever, and each picture presents new information about the different people and their situations. In one picture, a man with a wooden peg leg is trying to persuade the judge to let him go, but the way the pictures are drawn we can see that the man is only pretending to have a peg leg. To add to the hilarity of the illustrations, the people in the book are called Nincompoop, Ninnyhammer, Dimwit, and Dunce. I can just see my kids rolling around on the carpet laughing!



Sing Down the Moon (Scott O'Dell)

Sing Down the Moon is an incredible portrayal of a (yet another) nasty snapshot of United States history involving the treatment of various Indian tribes in the west. O'Dell follows a young Navajo girl throughout her daily chores of herding sheep, when she is captured by Spanish slave traders, being reunited with her tribe, and their subsequent "relocation" (along with hundreds of thousands of other Native Americans). I tell you, the way the Indians were treated by the US Government in the 1800's was despicable. There are prominent and eery similarities between the Holocaust and the Trail of Tears or The Long Walk.
I definitely anticipate using this with students. The way Sing Down the Moon is written presents students with a rare inside look into this aspect of American history.



On Becoming Toddlerwise, by Gary Ezzo

It has been 3 months since I returned Toddlerwise to the library, so I am going strictly by memory here. I won't be able to list specifics, but I will give my overall opinion of the book.

Babywise is the strongest resource for parents in the Ezzo series. Toddlerwise was okay; good, not great, 2.75 stars out of 5, etc.

Don't get me wrong, there are many practical tips for helping to guide your toddler through this very confusing stage in life, especially if you are working with your first child and haven't been there yet. I did, however, find it lacking in some areas.

Mom...and Loving It, by Laurie Hilliard and Sharon Autry

This is hands down one of the best books for mothers today. It is written in a simple and very practical format, without any loss of Biblical principles and their application to today's busy moms. In every chapter there are guiding questions that lead you to examine why you do what you do for your husband, your kids, yourself, and gives very concrete suggestions for making you stop and appreciate motherhood as the blessing and opportunity that it is. Throughout the book, you analyze guilt grenades (like lack of family time, dealing with angry outbursts, and the stay at home or go to work debate), the effect of the media on us and our families, and the effects of kids on marriage. I especially liked the appendix at the close of the book with a list of many great resources listed. ;)

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

This is one of those books that I've heard mentioned many times in conversation, and seen on all the "Classics" book lists. It's a nice, concise play of about 100 pages that is all about the Salem "witch" trials back in the 1600's. I don't remember diving too deeply into that topic when I was in high school, but I hope that kids today are presented with the opportunity to do so. In this play, Miller shows how village people would cry out against one another for simple purposes of gaining access to their land, in retaliation of a dispute over the sale of livestock, or (now it gets juicy) an adulteress weasling her way into her lover's arms by getting rid of his wife. I think this was a nice presentation of just how sick and twisted people can be, regardless of their presupposed piety.

A study of this book will ultimately lead to the question of the appropriateness of theocracy. The Governor and Ministers in this play have been given ultimate ruling and authority (based on their opinion of "God's Law"), and they could not have fouled it up more than they did. Theocracy itself isn't a horrible thing; man's very flawed interpretation and implementation of it, however, is.



I heard about this awesome word cloud tool from a fellow librarian. To access it, go to http://www.wordle.net/. You just copy in some text and it will generate a visual representation of your writing, with the most frequently used words in the largest print. It's free, no sign in required, no registration required. Pretty nifty, huh? I tried it out with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (There is a time for everything, and everything on earth has its special season. There is a time to be born and a time to die. There is a time to plant and a time to pull up plants. There is a time to kill and a time to heal. There is a time to destroy and a time to build. There is a time to cry and a time to laugh. There is a time to be sad and a time to dance. There is a time to throw away stones and a time to gather them. There is a time to hug and a time not to hug. There is a time to look for something and a time to stop looking for it. There is a time to keep things and a time to throw things away. There is a time to tear apart and a time to sew together. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. There is a time to love and a time to hate. There is a time for war and a time for peace.) Here's how it turned out:

Pretty cool, huh?! PLUS, the printing applet is preconfigured for 8-1/2 x 11 paper, so you don't have to make any page adustments for it to print out to the exact dimensions of your creation on screen.
Go ahead...give it a try!

(*Warning: ANYONE can post ANYTHING here, so on the home page of the site, where most recent creations are posted, there's a chance you could run into some PG-13 language or possibly offensive topics.)

The Last Sin Eater, by Francine Rivers

Cadi is a young girl whose family is living in the mountains somewhere around early 20th century. Her parents don't seem to care a thing about her, and she thinks it's because her younger sister died while in her care (sort of). She carries around a tremendous amount of guilt for her sister's death, and thinks that the Sin Eater is the one who can help her get rid of her guilt. The Sin Eater (in keeping with mountain community culture) is a person whose job is to take in the sins of the newly dead through a ritual involving bread and wine. Along comes a prophet/missionary (called the Man of God), whose very presence causes the violent leader of their community to forbid anyone's contact with the man. Cadi is drawn to him, and as a result she and several others are saved as they hear the good news about the real Sin Eater. Her choices cause a chain reaction that unveils the deepest and darkest secrets of their settlement.

The book was heavy on the dialect dialogue, which is probably a good reason to listen to the audio version. It was okay, but not my favorite Francine Rivers. Overall rating: good, not great.


True Believer, by Virginia Euwer Wolff

When I was in library school, I read an insane number of books. Kids' books, young adult (AKA "teen") books, books for discussions, advanced copies of books for review, books for presentations, books about books, books about choosing books, you get the picture...

Needless to say, it could be a little overwhelming at times! I can honestly say, though, that 99% of the time I always managed to get my books read, whether through skimming and scanning, listening to audio versions during my commute to and from classes, but mostly by adjusting to the demands by becoming a sort of speed reader. One time I found myself listening to one book on CD while reading another book (Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff) for discussion during class later that day. It was ridiculous to attempt, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The result was that I don't recall very much at all about either one of those books, though I'm sure they were noteworthy for some reason or another.

True Believer is the sequel to Make Lemonade, and part of a trilogy.I listened to it in the car on the way to and from school. There were several cryptic remarks from the author that made me wish I had paid closer attention to the first book in the series. I'm not sure what I missed in book number 1, but in this book Lavonne is an underprivileged high school girl whose passion is to go to college. She has some typical girl-stuff going on in her life, like being desperately in love with a boy who just isn't interested, being nervous about a dance, and trying to figure out who her real friends really are. She's also dealing with some grown-up issues like helping take care of the small children of a struggling single mother. Overall, I'd say it's good, not great....maybe I'd feel differently if I actually read the first book! ;)


The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

Hannah is an ordinary 13-year-old girl who is self-absorbed, whiney about her family and their crazy traditions, and bitter because she wants her braces off and new clothes in her closet. She's also Jewish, and it is during a Passover seder with her family that something very strange occurs.

Hannah is mysteriously transported back to 1940's Poland, and is part of a Jewish community that is being "resettled" by the government. She experiences being crammed in boxcars like animals, along with being beaten, starved, robbed, stripped, and humiliated. While in the concentration camp, she comes to survive by attempting only to stay alive for one more minute, one more day. She feels the pain and insanity of losing people she loves one by one, constantly being treated like the scum of the earth.

The title, The Devil's Arithmetic, comes from the theme of numbers within the story. Interpreting people's tattooed numbers on their arms comes to mean the difference between life and death at times. Hannah and her remaining friends and family live each day hoping and praying that they are one less to go in the ovens, and one more to get their bowl of watery potato soup that day. This constant referral to numbers, (and the knowledge that there is no sense in seeking reason in the way things are), is where the term "the devil's arithmetic" surfaces.

I've read some pretty good pieces of historical fiction about the Holocaust, and I've explored it from several different angles. This book, though, takes the prize. It is one of the most moving works of literature I've ever had the pleasure to read.


One Butt Cheek at a Time: Gert Garibaldi's Rants and Raves by Amber Kizer

This funny little snack of a book was on the "New Releases" shelf in my favorite public library last week. In this first publication by Kizer, readers get a hilarious and all-too-honest picture of high school. Remember those "good old days?" When girls obsessed over every minute detail of their appearance, and boys obsessed over chasing the most recent object of their affections? How about remembering the rampant availability of drugs and the eating disorders and the insane idiocy (or so we thought) of everyone over the age of 18? What about over-analyzing every single detail of a conversation with your love interest, and feeling miserable when you were the fifth wheel in your group of friends? It's funny how we forget those things about high school, even when it hasn't been too terribly long that we've been out.
Gert helps us with that. As the main character, Gert takes us through the first half of her sophomore year in high school and consequently through some pretty major events in her life...learning how to pluck her eyebrows, getting in her first relationship, mortification at the hands of a teacher, sex ed, and dealing with being single and yet supportive of her best friend's newly found love (her best friend is Adam...his boyfriend is Tim).
Like high school, Gert's "rants and raves" are pretty raw. Like things that occur every day in high school, Gert's stories can be fairly offensive to those of us who are so removed from that setting. Consider yourself warned...but be ready to laugh your head off, too!



Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts

Look, I'm no feminist. I might be one of those who believes that every man and woman are equal, and equally capable, but I also know that guys and girls are different. We each have our own strong points, and as a matter of fact it is pretty genius how one gender complements the other. Good job, Creator.

Don't let this book title put you off. I will admit, I was a little hesitant at first because it seemed as though it would be pushing women as the superior beings and how America would never have existed without chicks. Roberts does a good job, though, of interweaving both the men and the women who were vital to the start of our country.

I listened to this on CD during morning and afternoon commutes, and since auditory processing isn't exactly my strong point, I have already forgotten some names and dates. The general gist of it is that while so much attention is given to historical men in American society, we don't ever really even think about the women. That really is true, too. There are countless biographies of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington...but what about the women in their lives? Who do we think did their laundry and ran their households, raised money, and tended to their wounds while they were off winning the nation's independence?

Did you know.....
  • that women served as spies for America during the Revolutionary way, traveling back and forth carrying information generals? There was one woman in particular who was caught by British troops, and while they were waiting for another woman to come search her, she ate the paper with the message on it. She delivered the intel later...verbally.
  • there were several women whose fundraising efforts were one of the main reasons why America won the war for independence?
  • educated women like Abigail Adams, Eliza Pinkney, and Deborah Read Franklin wrote letters and essays and crafted pamphlets that contributed to the colonies' desire to become a self-governing nation? Most of the time they had to use male or anonymous pen names, but it is important to note that it was their thoughts and opinions and ideals that drove so many to give their lives for liberty.
  • that once America was established, women were an integral part in the construction of our nation's principals?
  • there were bad girls back then, too? One woman, Maria Reynolds (naughty chick that she was), was used to set up Alexander Hamilton in an affair that was intended to ruin him politically.

That's only the icing on the cake. It's no wonder that George Washington himself referred to the women of America as the "best patriots America could boast."


Kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Katie Takeshima is the middle child in a Japanese American family of 5. She suffers from "middle child" syndrome in that she constantly alternates between mimicking her older sister in everything, yet serving as a second mother to her youngest brother. Katie struggles with feeling like there is nothing special about her, when it is actually she who holds her family together during their darkest days.
Written from Katie's point of view, the book alternates between funny little memoirs of family camping trips or her uncle's mishaps and the very serious story of her older sister's battle with cancer and her parents' financial struggles.
The title of the book is the Japanese word for glittering. In her younger days, it is Katie's favorite descriptive word for things like the ocean and the sky. By the end of the book, it serves as a reminder that-despite the terrible things that have happened to her family-she can still choose to live a happy life.



Dicey's Song, by Cynthia Voight

Dicey Tillerman is wise beyond her years, and sadly so. Apparently, she took the lead in traveling across several states with her 3 younger siblings in tow in order to get them to the one person who can take care of them: their grandmother. I say "apparently" because this book is #2 in the Tillerman series, and I have yet to read #1. (Not gonna lie...I just picked it because it is a Newbery.)

At the beginning of the book the Tillerman kiddos are all settling into life with their grandmother, and it bothered me that Dicey has so many different worries...well beyond anything that is age appropriate. Their mother is in an asylum with no promise of recovery, one of the brothers is fighting, another brother is a genius but feels left out, and her sister has a learning problem that not even the teachers can figure out. They also have to deal with rumors of their grandmother being crazy, and the fact that money is always short.

What I took from this book is that you just never know what kids are going through. Dicey is just a little girl, but seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. I think many of our students are the same way. Having said that, it's a real downer!

Breaking Dawn, by Stephenie Meyer

The 4th and final installment in the Twilight series was released last Saturday. My goal was to have it read before summer ends for me, and by the light o' my laptop I can see that I met that deadline by approximately 54 minutes. ;)

Breaking Dawn continues (and concludes) the story of Bella Swann and her involvement with the Cullens-a family of "vegetarian" vampires, or those who have sworn against consuming human blood. Bella's in love with Edward Cullen, and it is in this book that their choice to be together at all costs (in Bella's case, forsaking mortality) truly comes to fruition. Not only do their decisions affect their family, but also other friends and family members scattered worldwide. At one point even the Volturi (sort of like the vampire mafia) are involved, and in a nasty way.

There are HUGE surprises in this book, and more than once I got all hyped up as I put together some of the clues sprinkled throughout. I love how Meyer includes enough history from Books 1-3 to adequately wrap up the series. True Twilight fans will definitely receive the closure they need to say goodbye to the Cullens.

On an interesting note, a movie about the first book is due out in December, and rumor has it that Stephanie Meyer is rewriting the series from Edward Cullen's point of view. Clever, I think.


What the Bible Says About Parenting, by John MacArthur

In a world full of books offering parenting advice, I have learned very quickly that not everybody who makes it to publication really knows what they are talking about. If you want 101 reasons why giving your kids purple Kool-aid will make them a great kid, you can find it out there. But since the Bible offers the best advice in any other aspect of life, why not check out what It has to say about raising little ones? John MacArthur is an incredible author, and this book will evoke strong feelings from parents, parents-to-be, grandparents, anybody who has small children in the family.

With some authors, I might dig one or two really note-worthy statements. With MacArthur, it's every other sentence that you'll want to highlight. Obviously, in my line of work, I am an advocate of using the full resources of your local school or public library. 99% of the time, I will tell you to check it out and save that $10 or $20 for something else. This one, however, needs to go on your "must purchase" list....and go ahead and get yourself a new highlighter while you're at it!

What the Bible Says About Parenting is organized very well, with each chapter building on the one before it. MacArthur makes some strong statements, some I agree with wholeheartedly and others maybe not so much, but he uses hundreds of Scripture references to demonstrate what the Bible truly teaches about raising children. He states in the very beginning of the book that he is not offering a contemporary psychological study on child-rearing; rather, he is just here to pass along the timeless Biblical perspectives of parenting.

Some of the most powerful statements in his book are listed below. (Some are direct quotes, but others are themes or major thoughts within the book.) It would be an injustice to the book for me to attempt to summarize these few sentences:

~"Success in parenting is measured by what the parents do, not what the child does."(pg. 17)

~"Extreme isolationsim ("spiritual quarrantine") costs parents valuable opportunities to teach their kids discernment." (pg.39)

~"Teach your children the law of God; teach them the gospel of divine grace; show them their need for a Savior; and point them to Jesus Christ as the only One who can save them." pg. 43

~"Think of leading your children to Christ as a long-term, full-time commitment - the most important duty God has given you as a parent." (pg.48)
Small steps to take:
*Teach them about God's holiness.
*Show them their sin.
*Instruct them about Christ and what He has done.
*Tell them what God demands of sinners.
*Advise them to count the cost thoughtfully.
*Urge them to trust Christ.

~Teach wisdom (Scripture and Bible stories)

~Teach them to fear God: reverence and fear of God's displeasure (makes fear of your discipline incidental)

~Teach obedience through discipline (not as payback, but an aid to growth; pain inflicted is intended to make the consequence of disobedience unforgettable; Scripture does NOT support discipline out of sheer fury or exasperation); be firm and consistent; spanking is only one of many acceptable disciplinary tools

~"To attach a clinical name to chronic misbehavior (ADD, ADHD, ODD, APD, bipolar, etc.) and use it for an excuse for sinful behavior is a serious mistake." (pg. 87) As an educator, I would definitely concur that these disorders are often over-diagnosed and drugs way too freely prescribed to suppress the behavior that will inevitably surface as soon as the drug is gone. However, I know that there are some people who truly suffer with these conditions, and would never condone dismissing an actual disorder as fictional, as is suggested here. (my interpretation)

~Teach them to select their companions

~Teach them to watch their words

~Teach them to pursue their work

~Teach them to manage their money

~Teach them to love their neighbors

~Above all, live life in a way that gives you authority in instructing them in the ways of the Lord.

~Within the family, the Bible teaches that we all have unique roles designed by God. The role of children is simply to obey. The role of parents is to "teach them about obedience without exasperating them in the process." This happens when parents permit their own sinful attitudes and actions to surface in parenting (ex: favoritism, overprotection, excessive permission/spoiling, overindulgence, unrealistic goals, condescension, discouragement, neglect, withdrawing love, and excessive discipline).

~There are quite a few unfavorable comments about mothers who work outside the home in one of the book's final chapters. It seems very much that MacArthur has an "all or none" mentality here when it comes to a woman fulfilling her duties as a mother OR pursuing a career. There are a few pages of very harsh criticism for mothers who have careers. However, when seeking what Scriptures MacArthur offered for his stance, there were only about 12 or so verses in this chapter, and all had to do with the submission of wives to their husbands. I was in this for Biblical perspective anyway, but it's good to know where you stand, Johnny Mac.

So, overall, WTBSAP is a great resource for studying how to best raise those sweet little ones whom God has entrusted to you!


I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino

This book was just another notch on my "Newbery" belt until about a third of the way through it, when I became intrigued by such a unique story. Juan de Pareja is a black slave who is inherited by reknowned Spanish painter Diego Velazquez. Juan learns to be Diego's helper in the studio, and the two become very loyal and devoted friends. The book spans Juan's lifetime, most of which is spent in service to Diego.

My favorite scene in the book is when Diego gives Juan his freedom, and I was intrigued to learn in the "Afterward" that the whole story is loosely based on the real Diego and Juan. The story in its entirety is very moving, and the book is refreshingly clean and pure...more than any book that I have read in a while.
This book won the Newbery in the 60's, and I can really see why. Trevino speaks out in the "Foreword" about the prevalence yet injustice of slavery worldwide, and a major theme of the book is that slavery -even its most comfortable form (as was between these two friends)- is simply wrong.



The Cay, by Theodore Taylor

Set in the 1940's and in the middle of German submarine attacks, The Cay is about a family who lives on the island of Curacao (near Aruba). Phillip Enright is an 11 year old boy whose ship is torpedoed as he and his mother attempt to escape the violence to America. Separated from other survivors, Phillip is stranded on a life raft with a cat and Timothy, a black sailor from the West Indies. Thanks to Timothy's years of experience, they manage to survive drifting in the open sea and on a deserted island (the cay). Even when Phillip's head injury from the torpedo causes him to go blind, Timothy guards him carefully and even teaches Phillip to fend for himself on the island. Phillip has been taught all his life that black people are different from white people, but through his time with Timothy he learns that the only real difference is the color of their skin.
There are so many ironies in this book. The war is the cause of all the pain and suffering, yet rescue comes because of American planes searching for German U-boats. Phillip is at first terrified of Timothy, but it is Timothy who prevents any harm from coming to him. Phillip's blindness is a plague that makes a difficult situation even more so, but in the end his blindness protects him from the worst experience of all.
I absolutely loved this book. The depth of its themes makes it more suitable to older students, but even younger ones could appreciate the story of a little boy being stuck on a deserted island. I listened to the audio version of it, and when Timothy's Jamaican-style accent started up, I was glad! Just a word of caution, though...that Jamaican accent can become contagious! My husband was bewildered by all of my "Dis book be true outrageous, mon" until he listened to a clip with me!



Hurricane Song, by Paul Volponi

Like the rest of America, I watched the events of Hurricane Katrina unfold on television. Though I probably had a tad more insight than most- due to a friend (who is an RN) being stuck in a downtown New Orleans hospital-I was still safe and sound with my family hundreds of miles away from the action.
Reading this caused my personal memories of Katrina to resurface. I remember being glued to the TV, horrified by the things that were happening in the Superdome. I remember wondering why, with current technologies providing weeks of advance notice, there were still so many people stuck there. I remember seeing those people stranded in the Superdome scream out for help, and how they were blaming every person and agency imagineable for their pain and suffering. When my husband and I headed to Slidell and Mandeville (cities on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain) with my best friend and her extended family to do what little we could to help, I remember the unfathomable amount of devastation, the sweltering heat, the feeling of helplessness, and most vividly the disgusting stench of rotten food and human waste and death and disease.

This book transformed me (in the magic way that books do) into a 17 year old black teenager who took shelter with his family in the Superdome during Katrina. I experienced-through Miles- the terror of having to pay off gangs of thugs to prevent them from burning my things and beating up my family. I breathed the smell of 100+ degree heat saturated with feces and urine. I saw a man, so overcome with the heat and filth and hunger, commit suicide. I had to step over crack pipes in the bathroom, and eventually bought pills from a hussler to keep me from having to go to the bathroom at all. Providing the reader with a thorough experience of Katrina's Superdome is what this book did best. I was hypnotized by the story, and found myself hurting so deeply for the people who went through such a terrible ordeal. I thought that Volponi tripped and stumbled a tiny bit, though, when he gave these characters dialogue that insists the color of their skin was the reason they were there. Throughout the book I flip-flopped between wondering if he was just using those statements to make it more real, or whether he was trying to make a statement.

Hurricane Song also has another story about the relationship between Miles and his jazz musician father. A little cheesy, I'll fully admit, but a nice addition to the pressure and stress of the Superdome horror show.

I do wish that Volponi had included more about the history of New Orleans. It is an incredibly unique and significant city, and while Hurricane Song has the teen's attention (and it will), they might as well learn something! *Lots of harsh language in this one, people. Nothing that teenagers don't hear in the hallway at school, but it's enough for me to make a point about it.

This is Volponi's web site, and a fantastic resource to read more about his motivation for writing Hurricane Song.


Redwall, by Brian Jacques

This is SUCH a "boy book!" Redwall is the story of a war between the good mice (and other woodland creatures) of Redwall Abbey and the army of the evil rat "Cluny the Scourge." Matthias is the main character, and hero of the book, who is on a mission to decrypt several messages left behind by the Abbey's predecessors in order to uncover the great sword of Martin the Warrior, and therefore secure Redwall's victory. It's sort of like Indiana Jones meets The Mouse and the Motorcycle, with a little bit of Lord of the Rings (animal style) in there as well.

There are about a gajillion battles between the two sides, and several interesting side stories involving a huge snake, a band of warrior sparrows, and a vegetarian cat. I did love that one of the key characters was named Jess!

The books were jam-packed with action, and were relatively clean. There's about 5 unnecessary d's and h's here and there. Overall, though, I'd consider it a good choice for a 5th or 6th grade boy.

Even though this is the first in the author's series of many other Redwall books, I probably won't be partaking of the bounty. I'm glad to know more about the series, for the sake of my students, but one Redwall is enough for me!

For more about Redwall:

- Redwall wiki

-Official Redwall site

-Redwall encyclopedia



A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

First in a series of 3, this book is the winner of several prestigious literary awards (Hans Christian Anderson, John Newbery, Lewis Carroll, and Sequoyah Book Awards) and is on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books. I finally got around to reading it this week, and I must say I was pretty surprised that it has ever been challenged. As a matter of fact, I had to do a little research to discover just why it was ever considered controversial in the first place. Before we go there, though, I better give a little plot synopsis...

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of three children's adventures through space and time travel. Meg and Charles Murry are looking to save their father from being entrapped by the Evil Black Thing, and Calvin is a friend who accompanies them. They meet three angels who help them on their journey (who give love and encouragement to the characters through Scripture quotations), and in the end are able to get themselves back safe and sound to planet Earth.

As far as the writing style goes, I'd have to say that it is a little too simplistic for the nature of the subject within. Of course, I'm reading this through eyes that have read Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, as well, so maybe at the end of the day it is more about my personal preferences than it is about the quality of writing here. Regardless of what I think, though, this book was highly controversial in its initial years of publication (early 60's). Wrinkle was considered to be a book that was "too different" from other books in 1962, and was rejected by over 20 publishers for that very reason. When I began to research the cause of all the fuss, it was mainly because Jesus Christ was mentioned in the same list as Copernicus, Einstein, Euclid, etc. as people who were fighting the Evil Black Thing. Despite the prevalence of Biblical Scripture in the plot and themes of this tale, L'Engle was heavily criticized for her "liberal Christianity." Hmm.

But even though I don't love A Wrinkle in Time as deeply as I do other works of fantastical fiction, I can wholeheartedly appreciate its apparent groundbreaking in the public's acceptance of books that are "different." Who knows? Maybe L'Engle's Wrinkle was inspiration for contemporary works of fantasy.


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

I feel as though my brain has been assaulted. The 394 pages of this monster were filled with the strangest, most obscure, most bizarre characters and events that I have ever encountered in a book. I am unsure that I have recovered enough to describe it, but here goes. Hold on tight.

Ignatius Jacques Reilly is a thirty year old, very well educated, egotistical, mentally deranged, idealistic yet diluded, morbidly obese man still living at home with his mother in New Orleans. He passes the days by writing insanely in his collection of notepads, watching movies at the local theater (but disrupting by screaming criticism at the screen), concocting plans to overthrow the government, and harassing everyone around him. It's pretty easy to see where Ignatius got his crazy, because his mother is just as bad...though I would concede that she is slightly more in touch with reality. (But only slightly.) Because of a debt owed by the Reilly duo, Ignatius is sent out to find a job. This leads to an absurdly ridiculous turn of events involving a riot in a pant-making factory, an underground pornography ring, and a comical attempt at hot dog vending.
The descriptive language used by this guy is hilarious. Rather than saying he was too fat to wear the former hot dog vendor's uniform, he says that "the costume, of course, had been made to fit the tuburcular and underdeveloped frame of the former vendor, and no amount of pulling and pushing, inhaling and squeezing would get it onto my muscular body." (page 228)

There are about 10 other minor characters that are sprinkled throughout. There is the flamboyantly gay Dorian Greene, who goes along with Ignatius's conspiracy for gay men to infiltrate the military and therefore take over the world solely because the "kickoff rally" will be a fantastic party. Then you have Darlene-the-Stripper whose act includes a cockatoo, policeman Mancuso who is forced to dress up in silly costumes while on patrol until he brings in a real criminal, and elderly and demented Miss Trixie working at the pants factory who makes daily demands for her Easter ham and turkey. Some of these people are inconsequential, some are vital to the plot of the story-even though you have to wade through Ignatius's spew to actually find it-and all are badly broken. They also have a heavy and distinctively New Orleans accent. I found myself rereading more than one page in attempt to figure out what the heck "Recor plain star at thirty a week" (page 218) really meant. (Translation: Record playing starts at thirty dollars a week.)
By the way, A Confederacy of Dunces was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

I really had to work to read this bad boy. Its peculiarity wasn't endearing, its characters were confusing, and though its ending provided closure, it wasn't happy closure. I am glad to have read it, though, because a) It is an award winning book, b) It is renowned in the world o' books, and c) I can see it being valuable for study on the undergrad level or above. *There are some rather shocking and inappropriate manifestations of Ignatius's sexual delusions, which do fit in with his characterization but are still completely out of line for discussions in the high school setting. Kids should not, I repeat NOT, be reading this book. The truth is, though, with the way the whole situation is worded, they probably wouldn't understand it anyway.

It's over the top, this book. It is wild and shocking and completely unlike any other of its kind....I guess that is what makes it a perfect representation of New Orleans.



Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Playing for Pizza is far from what is considered "typical John Grisham." The man has written 20+ books now, and the majority of those are legal thrillers. What's so refreshing about JG is that he doesn't stick to a template for his stories. They vary in many different ways, and are bound together primarily by the law and the name on the covers. However, JG does have a few novels that deviate completely from any sort of legalese. Playing for Pizza, released last year, is one of them.
I didn't read the book jacket, and had no idea what this books was about. (All I needed to know was that it was John Grisham.) Therefore, imagine my surprise when I began the first chapter and was launched headfirst into the world of football, a very foreign land to me! Just as my eyes began to glaze over, though, in snaps the main character (Rick Dockery), an NFL third-string quarterback who has done some serious and terminating damage to his career. As a last option, his agent scores him a position with the Italian equivalent of an NFL team, the Parma Panthers. Rick reluctantly heads off to Parma, Italy, and his experiences there with his new team and in Italy are life changing.
Because I don't know a lick about football (well, I suppose I know more now than I did), all of the game scenes might as well have been written in Arabic. I'm sure tons of people can appreciate that aspect of the book. For me, the real treat was learning about Italian culture. About a third of the way through it, I seriously wanted to go to Italy. By the last page, I felt as though I had been there already. That's Grisham for you.



The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

Having recently renewed my committment to conquer more Newbery winners, one of my selections from the library last week was 1996 medal winner The Midwife's Apprentice. What a unique book, and one that is chock full of ammunition for discussion and study of character development! It is the tale (set in the Middle Ages) of an orphan girl who has nothing, no one, no knowledge of anything, and keeps warm in the winter by sleeping on huge mounds of poo. As you read her story, you will watch her go from Beetle (a name given by the village bullies) to Brat (the midwife's name for her) to Alyce (a name she finally chooses for herself). By the end of the book, she is a beautiful and confident young woman who is courageous enough to finally figure out her dreams, and then to boldly pursue them.

The vocabulary and topic of midwifery in Cushman's book obviously warrant its 6th grade reading level. While it has more to do with how Beetle/Brat/Alyce grows as a person than birthing babies, questions on that subject are likely to arise. My favorite aspect of TMA is the precision with which the story is told. Cushman uses 5 words to say what most authors need 15 to say. Another interesting and noteworthy trait is the unusual adaptability of the plot. I could easily see Cushman beefing up the details and marketing this to adults, or slimming down some of the events in order to create a picture book for children. Instead she chose a more straightforward approach, which (for me) was "just right!"



Author Jodi Picoult

I finished Picoult's latest novel this afternoon (Keeping Faith) and realized that I've read several books by this noteworthy author and have never posted. What is that all about?! Nevertheless, I am here to correct all wrong. First off, you've got to go into these brief summaries with a little bit of knowledge about Jodi Picoult's style. All of her books deal with family relationships, and most feature some sort of legal battle. Lots of her plots involve controversial topics, and resemble true headlines quite a bit. There are always twists and turns, and you find yourself making up your mind that the outcome will be one way, only to change your mind 2 pages later. They're all very good, and very thought-provoking, though you should know in advance that there's some language. To read about all of her novels, click here.
OK. Now the good stuff...

Keeping Faith is about the White family, and some bizarre things that happen to their daughter Faith. Mom and Dad are having some major marital issues, and an affair is discovered in Faith's presence. Soon after, Faith begins to see an imaginary friend that she calls her guard, and eventually God. Some of the things she begins saying and doing catch the eye of the Catholic Church and the Jewish authorities as well, not to mention the crowds of people who loiter on their front lawn to catch sight of the little girl. It gets ugly when Father-of-the-Year decides he wants custody of Faith, which results in a courtroom saga. There are some surprises, twists, and turns in the book, and each chapter will propel you to the next. You never know what is going to happen next, and Picoult is most intriguing as she keeps you guessing between the legitimacy of Faith's claims and the fact that the kid might just be blowin' smoke.

The Pact is another of Jodi Picoult's newest novels, and begins with the death of a teenage girl. The remaining 400+ pages detail the girl's relationship with her boyfriend, her family, their families, her secrets, and -above all- whether or not the couple had a suicide pact. It was disturbing yet compelling on so many levels. If you pick this one up, you can expect a story typical of JP in that there are all the twists and bends in the road. What's unexpected is the deeply sad reality of stories just like these kids'.

Nineteen Minutes should be required reading for every single educator, and for every Teacher Ed student at every college or university in America. You open the book and are launched right smack dab in the middle of a school shooting. When the dust settles, someone is arrested, and the trial uncovers some nasty bullying. Apparently lots of nasty things happen to kids when we aren't watching them. What I like about this approach to such a touchy subject is that JP isn't excusing murder by bringing out a troubled past. She is merely giving those of us who have been out of high school (or the students' version of it, anyway) much too long an accurate picture of what their life is like.

In Plain Truth was the first JP novel I read, and it is one of her older selections. It's the story of an Amish girl who was discovered with a dead infant, and how two opposing cultures (the American justice system and Amish tradition) dealt with her trial for allegedly murdering her child. The thing is, nobody knew the girl was pregnant. They don't know who the father is, and they surely do not know whether or not she really killed her child. As an added bonus, you get schooled on life with the Amish peeps as a local detective assigned to the case lives with them during her investigation.

My Sister's Keeper in probably the deepest of Picoult's books that I have read. It features a family that includes 2 sisters who are normal in every way, save the fact that the youngest was genetically planned to be spare parts for her older sister who has leukemia and is in constant need of bone marrow, blood, and kidney transplants. Then, Anna (the younger sister) decides she no longer wants to be her sister's donor. After the family is torn by a legal battle, and the book ends in a way that is rather shocking. What I like about this book is that it sparks some incredible discussions among readers, and it brings you to ask yourself some really uncomfortable questions.

The central theme behind The Tenth Circle is date rape. Daniel is Trixie's dad, and finds himself doing whatever it takes, even confronting his own demons, to protect his daughter. As an interesting side-story, Daniel is a comic book illustrator and there are comic illustrations of the story sprinkled throughout. Legend tells that if you look hard enough, there's a secret message spelled out in the illustrations. I didn't look hard enough. I just considered the book the prize.

So there ya have it. A lengthy post, I know, but remember I'm correcting wrongs here!



Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer

Apparently vampires are all the rage for high schoolers and some pre-teens. The Twilight series, written by Stephanie Meyer, is about a group of Washington state teenagers...ordinary except for the fact that they just so happen to be vampires. The main character, Bella, falls for one of them (Edward Cullen), and the first 3 books in Meyer's series are about the ohsovery interesting adventures that follow the Cullen family. Yes, I realize that to say a series about vampires-especially one involving a love story between mortal and immortal-is good might seem strange. The thing about Twilight is that no plot synopsis or book review can truly do it justice. I myself raised my eyebrows and gave a weird look at the person who recommended it, and every time I try to tell someone about it, they give me that same exact look. I get it. Bear with me, though, because I am going to make an attempt here to explain.
The Cullens are indeed vampires, but have "renounced human blood based on moral grounds." Time recently featured an article (linked here) about Meyer's series, and in it I learned some pretty intriguing facts about the author and her characters. Her intended theme is the importance of doing the right thing regardless of what all the other kids are doing, and her books are free of the usuals that tend to plague young adult literature. There is no underage drinking, smoking, sex, etc. Edward and Bella rarely do anything beyond holding hands. Meyer actually shares in the Time article that she resists pressure to include intense sex scenes, because that is so prevalent elsewhere. She says that "you can go anywhere for graphic sex. It's harder to find a romance where they dwell on the hand-holding. I was a late bloomer. When I was 16, holding hands was just--wow."
But high school students aren't reading the Twilights because they are clean. They are reading them because of how incredibly well they are written. These stories take an ancient plot concept and give it a very fresh twist. The normal vampirish myths (intolerance for garlic, crucifixes, etc.) are debunked, but there is a pretty odd sensitivity to light that you'll have to discover for yourself. Meyer also does a fantastic job of planting little seeds of information in the first book that become huge branches of the plot in the second and third books.
So there ya go. This may not clear any at all of the confusion surrounding those vampire books, but al the very least now you'll know what the kids are reading!



The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

This autobiography/memoir/encouragement piece was predictable in that it was everything I had already heard in the media. It was also incredibly surprising in Pausch's method of attacking this work here at the end of his life. For some background, Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 06, and in August of 07 was given 3-6 months to live. He's now on month 10, by the way, and his day-to-day update page is here. As a former professor of computer science (specifically, virtual reality) at Carnegie Mellon University, he was invited back to give his last lecture. That lecture was recorded (as it seems everything is now) and posted to YouTube. The link to that is here, and as of this posting it has been viewed over 2 million times. Obviously, a clip that popular caught some national attention...hence the book. The book gives an in-depth view to Randy's state of mind and his reasoning for choosing the points to express. His primary motivation is to leave a legacy for his 3 very young children, who are unlikely to remember him very well, if at all.

I'll tell ya, this book is beyond inspirational. I don't know that I've ever come across someone who is doing about this whole dying thing as well as Randy Pausch. He's very realistic yet remarkable, funny but nerdy, and immediately likeable. Despite the fact that he chronicles his experiences in Academia that most people cannot and will never relate to, he does so in such a simplistic fashion that you understand and take away some deep life lessons from his excerpts. The last few chapters are when Randy begins to speak more specifically to and about his wife and children, and that part is pretty tough emotionally. He wraps it up nicely, however, and send you back to your life feeling all warm and fuzzy and better just for reading about him.

I highly recommend reading the book and then watching the lecture on TouTube. That will give you the whole picture, and therefore the best experience. My favorite line in the video clip is when Randy talks about the fact that he has indeed had a deathbed conversion experience: he recently purchased a Mac. ;)



Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

I totally get why this book (author Mildred Taylor) won a Newbery in its year of publication. Set in the 1930's, it is the story of a black family living deep in the heart of Mississippi who is dealing with the ugly reality of racism at its worst. The Logans are a rarity because they own their own land (400 acres, to be exact), and are therefore exempt from lots of the difficulties that sharecropping black families deal with. However, because of their position of independence, they are somewhat of a target for the hate-filled racists who are looking to keep the "coloreds" in their place.
As I read it, I thought about lots of different angles from which to go about teaching this book in depth to students. The themes of friendship, trust, character, strength, responsibility, conformity vs. nonconformity, etc. would make this book an excellent choice for classroom study or a student book club. Just know that it is a question-sparker for sure...those make the greatest books! By the way, Thunder was written on an upper 5th grade reading level.
Curiously enough, David Logan (Papa) reminded me soooo much of my beloved Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird). He is the one to calm his family with the "it's not time to worry yet" phrase, and he handles the drama with class and nobility.


The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a collection of 5 books, all co-authored by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. They are absolutely perfect for those hesitant readers (especially of the male variety), or those with little to no interest in literature. The books are short but action-packed, and do a fantastic job of grabbing your attention from the get-go and leave you wanting more on the last page. There are also interesting little illustrations sprinkled throughout the text, which would also be appealing to those who just don't love to read.
There is one hilarious character named HogSqueale who I just loved. I coudn't begin to describe what sort of creature he is without basically ruining the plot of the first book, so we'll just say he's a faerie (Spiderwick spelling for "Fairy") and leave it at that. He has this hilarious habit of calling people and other faeries weird little nonsensical names like "nimbly-pants" and "chicken-lips." I have really been caught up with the HogSqueale Syndrome! I almost called someone Bucket Legs and Cinnamon Lashes earlier.
But seriously, the Spiderwick books are good stuff. I'd rate the series 4 out of 5 stars! Just don't judge it by its movie, which I sincerely hope you would never do anyway. Enjoy!