Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda (Douglas Menuez)

I posted this earlier on our family's adoption blog (http://www.wilsonsinuganda.blogspot.com/). As a book review, it's fitting for this space as well.

We recently got a smoking deal on several Uganda-related books on Amazon. Among them was this amazing photographic journal showing the plight of Ugandan orphans.

The reasons for abandoned children in Uganda (or any country) are many and all very sad. Transcendent Spirit addresses them all, including AIDS. poverty, lack of education, political unrest, and murder. On each spread there is a massive, beautiful photograph of one (or several) orphans, and accompanying it there is a name and description of that individual's story.

This book puts specific faces and smiles and tears and hurts on the unfortunately vague term, "orphan." One young girl (Zaina), whose past includes the death of her entire family to some strange curse (her tribe's concept of the AIDS virus), was apparently asked by the author/photographer what she thought was most special about her. Zaina's response was: "The most special thing about me? That I am alive."

Other orphans featured in the book talk about their escape from their terrible circumstances due to traveling to the United States with a concert/musical/dance troupe known as Spirit of Uganda (since 2008...previously known as Empower African Children). Their performances raise money and awareness for the orphanages in Uganda. I have not yet had the honor of seeing one of these presentations, but I'm definitely adding it to our family's life experiences list.

The book is really a picture essay, and what is said about pictures being worth a thousand words is very true. We just received our copy today, and have all sat together looking through it a few times. It helps us understand more about Miriam's culture. It helps us feel the hurt of her birth nation. It helps us realize that when we talk about how "there are 147 million orphans in the world," each one of them is just like the hurting, crying, starving, sick children and teenagers in Transcendent Spirit. It reminds us that every one in that 147 million has a name, a face, and a story.

I'm so thankful that in April, when we finally are united with our baby girl, that there will be ONE LESS.


DEFINITELY worth it!



My National Board Experience: Was It Worth It?

From June of 2008-June of 2009, I underwent the most strenuous, rigorous, arduous task of my professional life: National Board Teacher Certification.

“National Board Certification is part of the growing education reform movement that is advancing student learning, improving teaching and making schools better. Teachers who achieve National Board Certification have met high standards through study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review.” (http://www.nbpts.org/become_a_candidate/the_benefits )

That is what National Board Certification means to some.

This is what going through National Boards meant to me.

While going through the National Board process, I:

-Missed bath time, blowing bubbles, reading, holding, feeding, playing, singing with, teaching, and playing outside with my child.
-Had acne breakouts so bad they were reminiscent of my high school days.
-Saw the sun rise…many times.
-Skipped Bible study, Bunko, parties, and dinners with friends.
-Declined requests to help at church, and with church get-togethers.
-Neglected my family’s scrapbook for an entire year. That is scandalous for someone who normally has the beach page completed before we leave the beach.
-Learned more about my students, about teaching, and about myself than I ever dreamed possible.
-Missed all my favorite shows…repeatedly.
-Skipped grocery shopping and cleaning house for several months.
-Had never been more thankful for my husband and his supportive nature.
-Felt like I didn’t have a real conversation with friends or family from September to June.
-Gained and lost the same 10 pounds at least 3 times.
-2 words: CARPAL TUNNEL.
-Longed to have my guest room back (sweet hubby had converted it to my personal National Board workspace)!
-Completely wore out a rolling crate. Wheels hanging off, bottom busted out, sides falling apart. By mid-March, it was out by the curb.
-Felt truly, madly, deeply VIOLENT towards my printer; how dare that thing print crazy when it knew I had a deadline to meet!
-Skipped more than one bath in favor of a few more minutes’ worth of sleep.
-Had collective emotional breakdowns with other candidates.
-Wondered if I’d have any friends at all once I emerged from the National Board cave because I never talked with them and if I did, the conversation was always about National Boards.
-Was in such a frantic state one day that I backed into the garage door as it was going up, then in my haste to throw it in Drive and prevent further damage to the garage door I almost slammed into the side of the house; the next day I was in such a hurry to get to school early that I ran into a garbage can on the side of the road and knocked off my side-view mirror. Even our cars paid for my stress this year!
-Almost could not pry my fingers off my box to hand it over to FedEx, and threatened them if they lost it.
-Told a friend at McAlister’s that I needed to see the pictures on the wall menu because “I’m a visual learner.”
-Felt so isolated, because no one else in the world knew my exact teaching circumstances, my certification area, my standards, my style, or my writing; this was ME vs. ME.
-Woke up in the middle of the night reflecting on a lesson, thinking of an idea to help with a lesson, thinking of my students, thinking of an idea to help them learn, etc.

In March 2009, I submitted THE BOX filled with my portfolio entries (also known as hundreds of hours’ worth of my blood, sweat, and tears). In June I took a 3 hour assessment at a testing center (also known as a crazy room filled with cameras and sound monitors and fingerprint scanners at the one point of entry/exit for security purposes). Since then I have waited for scores to be released, and have just received notice that all current candidates will find out the fate of our National Board journey this Friday.

So was it all worth it? Absolutely. This process refined me as an educator and specifically as a library media specialist in a way that not even a doctorate level degree could have accomplished. I learned the incredible power of reflection, and of the importance of spending my time on the extra-curricular events, activities, and committees that CLEARLY impact student achievement. I’m naturally a tech person, and have always enjoyed teaching technology with students. During my National Board work, however, I fell in love (maybe for the first time) with the library media portion of my job. This year I learned that my next degree will be an EdS in Library Media, rather than the Instructional Technology program I had in mind before.

I have re-read the standards for Library Media numerous times…too many to count. I still feel the same way I did the first time I read them: inadequate. Regardless of the score I see on the screen Friday morning, I have a lot of growing room as a library media specialist. I simply have the National Board Teacher Certification process to thank for providing me with a measure of how to get where I need to be. Pass or fail this year, the National Board standards, rubrics, and methodology are permanently a part of my educational philosophy, which I hope will continually increase in impacting students in my learning community throughout the remainder of my time serving children.


Adopted for Life (Russell Moore)

I have a daughter in Uganda, Africa.
As my family and I are moving through the process to finalize her adoption, I've gobbled up numerous books on this topic.
Adopted for Life is not a "how-to" guide. It is not a step by step manual to lead adoptive families through the incredibly difficult and entangled legal process that encompasses adoption. It is not an authority on how to choose a country or how to raise funds to complete your adoption process.
Adopted for Life is a call to action for Christians and the churches they inhabit. Russell Moore describes the pressing need of people to seek the opportunity to help care for the fatherless, hopeless, and helpless. He addresses the concerns of those who oppose transracial adoption, gives practical advice for initiating an orphan care ministry within local churches, and provides guidelines for dealing with the rudeness of others and with the questions from your adopted children regarding their arrival in the family.
Throughout all of this, he interweaves his own family's painful experiences with infertility, and meeting their sons through international adoption, as well as gumdrops of wisdom he learned along the way about these children, his faith, and our God.
Adopted for Life is one of those books that belongs on every shelf in every home with every family. Even those who are not called to adopt (and not everyone is) still play a critical role in helping alleviate the global orphan crisis.



The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

What would you do if your parents were ghosts? How would you survive if you were confined to a graveyard? Bod Owens is a boy who was orphaned and subsequently adopted by an entire graveyard. The Graveyard Book tells the stories of Bod's adventures growing up in the graveyard and how he was raised by this village of ghosts. As Bod grows, he learns more and more about the murder of his first family as well as the darker forces that are at work around him. Through lots of adventure and surprising characters, Bod is eventually able to play the role he wants in helping protect his family of ghosts.
As with every other book purchase, I always carefully select new materials for my school library. Among many other things, I consult literature review sources, I preview the material if possible, I weigh in the amount of curricular support the books offers, and I also consider any awards the book has won. This book was the 2009 John Newbery Award winner for outstanding contribution to children's/young adult literature. Most Newbery books are a bit set apart, but then any book that wins a world class award would have to be different from the cookie cutter novels of the day. This one is no exception. The Graveyard Book passed all my selection criteria with flying colors and so I added it to my most recent book order...but I'll have to confess that during the first chapter I almost regretted it.
The tone and language of the book is not graphic or threatening, but in the opening chapter of the book Bod's mother, father, and sister are murdered. The first voice we hear is that of their killer ("the man Jack") and his longing to wipe out this family. I had a problem with exposing my kiddos to such dark evil. It wasn't blood and gore, but it was enough to make me think, "Can my 5th graders handle this?" As I turned that concept over and over in my mind, I've talked with other school librarians who've also read the material. One reminded me that this scene was no different than the Goosebumps series that they all seem to love (actually, those might be worse because they ARE gory), and so I read on.
I'm still concerned about the opening scene, and I will take caution to prepare the kids for that, BUT...it stays in my collection, and here's why:
-Without Bod becoming an orphan, this story would not be possible. Children who are orphans always become so through some tragic circumstances.
-The voice of "the man Jack" is not the main one in this story. He's the bad guy, but there is more good than bad here. If nothing, this book has a classic good vs. evil theme. Had Jack's evil narrative been projected throughout the tale, it would be a much darker, and scarier, book.
-This is a GREAT story. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, there are lots of small tidbits about the life and culture of this setting that come back to play critical roles in the conclusion of the book (and ultimate triumph of good). It's filled with memorable characters, learning experiences, and Bod, who teaches that doing the right thing is always worth it.
-This is the 2009 NEWBERY medal winner. Those aren't picked out of a hat.
-My friend is right. This is much lighter than all those Goosebumps books my kids gobble up like literature candy.



Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire (Rafe Esquith)

The nonfiction market is flooded with books with plenty of suggestions on how to improve teaching, how to better reach students, and how to surf the swell of the latest and greatest in educational fads and pedagogy.
They sell, and they sell well, because teachers are one of the few professionals who are continuously seeking improvement. They honestly do want to do the very best they can with this opportunity to shape the minds of the future.
Every once in a while, there comes along a rare jewel that is practical, and actually does contain some helpful tips for teaching. Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire is one such book. Rafe is a seasoned teacher from the New York city system, and this book begins with some basic concepts about what the big goal really is for educating students. He also goes into detail with practical ideas he uses with his students to teach them to think outside the box. Rafe is a one-of-a-kind teacher, and reading his book and applying the ideas within it will help others become those rare gems in the teaching world as well.


Artemis Fowl: Time Paradox (Colfer)

About 5 years ago I fell in love with the Artemis Fowl series. They're action-packed, full of adventure, very clever, and filled with fairy-related creatures that are interesting without being corny to the kids. Great books. They're all in the 4th-5th grade reading range, and are especially good for reluctant boys.
Artemis Fowl is a young man whose family was once neck-deep in fraud, criminal mischief, and efforts at global control. The boy is a stinking genius, and mostly uses his brainpower for greedy purposes. Along the way in the Artemis Fowl series, he changes a great deal.
The Time Paradox is the latest installment in the series. In this book, Artemis's mother is struck with a fatal illness that can only be cured by Artemis travelling back in time. While he did so, he encounters his former (bad) self, and the adventure turns into a battle of wits with himself. Just as with the other Artemis Fowl books, there are plenty of twists and turns that give you a nice surprise at the end!




Yes, I have been reading...many, many books.
Yes, life has been busy.
Yes, I have neglected posting for a while.
Yes, this happens to everyone.
Yes, I will use the excuse of school starting=exhaustion.
Yes, I will post reviews soon.
Muchas gracias, amigos.


Understanding Poverty, Chapter 5: Role Models and Emotional Resources (Ruby Payne)

Now that Dr. Payne has clearly established characteristics of generational poverty, the dilemma is how those individuals can make the jump out of poverty into middle class.

"In order to move from poverty to middle class or from middle class to wealth, one must trade off some relationships for achievement at least for a period of time. To do this, one needs emotional resources and stamina."

People draw these emotional resources from role models, and the problem for educators is that most of our impoverished students do not have access to appropriate role models to help them make that jump. A few of the ways we can help students strive for better in life include using "appropriate discipline strategies," and by "establishing long-term relationships." These resonated with me because I have the opportunity for both in my library classroom setting. My own personal beliefs regarding discipline (at school and at home) are that the punishment should fit the crime. Logical consequences teach the child to trust me to be fair with them, which helps lead into building that long-term relationship. I teach at an elementary school, which means I meet those precious darlings when they are 5 and say goodbye to them when they are 10 or 11! (Disregarding transients, of course.) That gives me a good, solid 6 years with these children to impress upon them the inherent belief that they are capable of striving for great things in their life, regardless of what they are told at home! What a challenge before us, when you look at it that way!


Understanding Poverty, Chapter 4: Characteristics of Generational Poverty (Ruby Payne)

This chapter is about defining some of the distinctive characteristics of those in generational poverty. The difference between generational poverty and situational poverty include that those who have been in poverty for 2 generations or more are, obviously, in generational poverty; those who are impoverished due to a tragic or life-altering event (death, divorce, marriage, illness, etc.) are considered in situational poverty.

Some key thoughts mentioned about generational poverty are that these individuals believe that "society owes [them] a living. " They think only on a concrete level when it comes to work; they do not strive for a career, only for a job that will get them by for the moment. They are also more likely to quit if they do not like their teacher/boss/colleague/etc. There is also incredble emphasis on the mother figure in the family. Dr. Payne breaks down the basic structure of relationships between mother and children, and of husband and wife. She explains repeatedly that the mother is the most important person in the family, but that allegiances between parents or extended family members changes often and without warning. This causes confusion in basic elements of the student's life, such as who he or she is going him with, who will sign their permission forms or homework papers, who will send lunch money, etc. This was a great reminder to consider the whole child, and not to judge or become frustrated with them, as these things are inevitable and totally out of their control.

Poor babies. We will never know what our children face, and I don't think we could handle it if we did!



A Path Through Suffering (Elisabeth Elliot)

Elisabeth Elliot knows about suffering. When she was in her twenties, her first husband (Jim Elliot) was killed by Auca indians in Ecuador, where they were serving as missionaries in the 1950's. In the 1970's, her second husband (Addison Leitch) passed away from cancer. She has certainly handled some heavy blows from life.

It is because of her difficulties in life, and her relationship with Christ, that she has an expert's point of view to surviving the most horrific of circumstances. A Path Through Suffering carries a plant/growth theme, and is uniquely designed in that each chapter is preceded by a description of a certain characteristic of a plant or flower (such as the process of blooms bursting forth from thorns, the comparison of a bare tree in winter with a fruitful tree in spring, and the dandelion's death providing life elsewhere). She drew these from Lilias Trotter's Parables of the Cross.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it is mostly meat. Rather than being a fluffy, feel-good, blase book report on the Biblical standard for understanding suffering, Elisabeth Elliot's style is considerably more straight-forward. She provides Scripture, she uses few metaphors, and she provides reminders of the commands of Christ.
A few of my favorite quotations, which provide a nice summary:
  • "Each time the mystery of suffering touches us personally and all the cosmic questions rise afresh in our minds we face the choice between faith (which accepts) and belief (which refuses to accept). There is only one faculty of faith, and 'faith is the fulcrum of moral and spiritual balance.'"
  • Elisabeth's list for dealing with suffering of any kind: recognize it, accept it, offer it to God as a sacrifice, and offer yourself with it. Another list of dealing with suffering caused by other people: forgiveness (Mark 11:25), trust in God's sovereignty (Genesis 50:20), and having a view to eternity (Colossions 3:1-4).
  • "We are seldom shown in advance God's intention in a particular trial, nor the long term effect our obedience may have on others."
  • "...the best fruit will be what is produced from the best-pruned branch. The strongest steel will be that which went through the hottest fire and the coldest water. The deepest knowledge of God's presence will have been acquired in the deepest river or dungeon or lion's den. The greatest joy will have come out of the greatest sorrow."
  • "While angels wait and watch, our part is to be simple- simply to trust, simply to obey, and leave the complexities to the Engineer of the universe."
In an appendix at the close of her book, Elisabeth provides a list of many of the reasons we are asked to endure various kinds of suffering. The 4 categories include:
-suffering for our own sake (that we may learn who God is, to trust, to obey, discipline as proof of the Father's love and of the validity of our sonship, condition of discipleship, required of soldiers, we are being pruned to bear fruit, that we can reach spiritual maturity, to produce endurance and character, etc.)
-for the sake of God's people (that they may gain salvation, to give courage, because of death working in us, life may work in them, our generosity may bless others, etc.)
-for the sake of the world (that it may see love and obedience, etc.)
-and for the sake of Christ (we identify with him in His crucifixion, share His glory, etc.).

Elisabeth Elliott is a very different author than I normally prefer. Her style is 50 years old but her her message is timeless. Her words are succinct and not impressive, though they carry incredibly deep meditative meanings. This is a book to keep on hand, as a tool of comfort when we all inevitably come to our respective times of suffering.



The Associate (John Grisham)

What is it about John Grisham? For about 20 books now, he takes the same general idea of an attorney struggling to beat whatever version of the legal system has him perplexed at the moment. Pretty much every time I pick up a Grisham book, I know exactly what I am getting. Same basic plot line, same general outcome. Usually I hate that in an author. Surprise me! Shake things up a bit! Maybe there is something about the relative predictability of John Grisham that I like after all.

Kyle McAvoy is a successful first year associate at a gigantic Wall Street law firm, only he is being blackmailed to commit corporate espionage. In undergrad, Kyle had the distinct misfortune of having passed out during a fraternity party gone haywire, and now 7 years later a video has mysteriously surfaced of 4 frat brothers in a room with a girl who was quite inebriated herself. The actions of 2 of the guys with the girl are questionable, and could possibly put them all in prison. The video has now fallen into the hands of some opportunists hoping to use Kyle to sneak out secret files for a major lawsuit that the firm is working on. His extortionists are very well-connected, very threatening, and have access to an endless supply of money and technology. They follow Kyle for several months as he tries to stall the inevitable breach of security to his firm. Like Grisham's other stars, Kyle McAvoy is smart and works hard to find a way out. In the end, he does...sort of, but the reader is left wondering about the permanence of his newfound peace and happiness. This ending was quite unsatisfying after such tension buildup. I would rather have seen Kyle McAvoy live happily ever after or die from a puzzling car bomb than to just have to wonder about him! Grisham, oh Grisham. Write me some more southern legal lit, just for old times' sake!


Chapter 3: Hidden Rules Among Classes (Understanding Poverty-Dr. Ruby Payne)

This chapter in A Framework for Understanding Poverty includes a breakdown of the hidden rules of the classes. There is a quiz for each class where the reader can explore what they know about poverty, middle class, and wealth. Some of the items for the poverty list were:
I know....
-which rummage sales have "bag sales" and when.
-which grocery stores' garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food.
-how to get someone out of jail.
-how to keep my clothes from being stolen at a laundromat.
-how to use a knife as scissors.
-how to move in half a day.
-how to get by without a car, electricity, a phone, or money to pay the bills.

It's overwhelming the number of my students to whom these issues are no big deal. It's also troublesome that I am living my life operating on the hidden rules of the middle class, and I have little to no idea about the culture of poverty (which is where over half of our student population is classified).

In this chapter, there is also a neat table that explores topics such as money, personality, food, clothing, time, education, destiny, family structure, world view, and even humor as they relate to the various classes. Standing out to me were time and money. With regard to time, in poverty, the present is most important and every decision made is based on feelings or survival. In the middle class, the future is most important and every decision is made based on future impact. In wealth, traditions and history are of utmost importance, therefore every decision is based on tradition and decorum. In terms of money, in poverty it is to be spent, in the middle class it is to be managed, and in wealth it is to be conserved and invested. Very interesting! The question is, how do we fix it? How are we going to help transition students from a culture of poverty to something better?


Chapter 2: The Role of Language and Story (Understanding Poverty-Ruby Payne)

According to Dr. Payne, one must consider elements of language in order to truly understand the culture of poverty. The 5 registers of language, and characteristics of every language in the world, are: frozen (Lord's Prayer, wedding vows), formal (communication at work and school, grammatically correct and in complete sentences), consultative (formal conversation), casual (incomplete sentences, incorrect grammar, general word choice), and intimate (between lovers or twins). The basic point of this chapter is that students in poverty speak casual register, whereas everything AT school (teachers, standardized tests, etc.) use formal register. That means the kiddos just don't understand what it is we are trying to say, which means they'll never perform at the level we expect. Sad, but it makes sense.
There are several practical ideas the author gives for helping teach students to convert to formal register. They include:
  • Have them write in their casual register, then translate to formal.
  • Establish as part of the discipline plan a way for students to write in formal register what they have done wrong, which will prevent them from being reprimanded.
  • Graphic organizers
  • Tell stories both in formal and casual registers. (I am definitely planning to use this strategy this year!)
  • Make up and use stories in all subject areas, and even in guiding behavior.



A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Intro and Chapter 1 (Ruby Payne)

I've wanted to read this book for a while, and now our faculty is doing a book study (via our schoolwide teachers' blog) on A Framework for Understanding Poverty. The study is going very well so far. We already have 71 comments in response to the first post by our principal (and our school only has about 25 teachers)! Because we are studying and reflecting collectively on our schoolwide blog, I'm going to use this space to note key points in each division. Most of these are direct quotes, and some are my own summary of several points made by the author. By the time I'm finished, you may feel as thought you have read the book!

This is a book truly worth taking the time to savor. It should be required reading for all educators in their first 3 years of teaching (NOT pre-service, because firsthand experience makes Poverty much more powerful).

Notable key points from Intro:

  • Poverty is relative.

  • Poverty occurs in all races and all countries worldwide.

  • Generational poverty and situational poverty are different.

  • There are hidden rules in every class, and individuals carry along those rules with which they were raised.

  • Schools (and businesses) target middle class hidden rules. This leaves out a lot of individuals.

  • My favorite quote: "We can neither excuse children nor scold them for not knowing; as educators we must teach them and provide support, insistence, and expectations." WOW

  • Two things that help move a person up out of poverty are education and relationships. WOW

  • Four causes for a person to leave poverty: too painful to stay, a vision or goal, a key relationship, or a special skill/talent.

Key points from Chapter 1: Definitions and Resources-

  • There is a set of various types of resources that people either have access to or do not have access to. The resources are: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships/role models, and knowledge of hidden rules.

  • So, even from the Introduction, Dr. Payne mentions several times the existence of "hidden rules" within different levels in a society. I was perplexed by this, and at the end of Chapter 1, Dr. Payne mentions a few of them as related to the 7 scenarios presented for dissection. Those rules include the ever presence of jail for many people who live in poverty. Jail bondsmen, bail, and even the guarantees of food, shelter, and safety provided by jail are a part of life for many in poverty. As Dr. Payne puts it, "The line between legal and illegal is thin and often crossed." People will do anything, sell anything, be anything, to get their loved ones out of jail in this class, because relationships are more important that money in generational poverty. In one scenario, a woman in generational poverty receives a bit of extra money, and is immediately asked by 3 different people for money they need to get out of a bind, buy groceries, etc. Another hidden rule is that any extra money is spent immediately or shared. If it is not shared, the next time she is in need, they will not help her...which leads to the hidden rule of the support system. "In poverty, people are possessions, and people can rely only on each other." Another important rule is that of penance and forgiveness, usually controlled by the mother. "The mother is the most powerful figure in generational poverty...she controls the limited resources" and also "dispenses penance and forgiveness. the typical pattern in poverty for discipline is to verbally shastise the child, or physically beat the child, then forgive and feed him/her. The hidden rules about food in poverty are that food is equated with love."

  • "Resources of students and adults should be analyzed before dispensing advice or seeking solutions to the situation. What may seem to be very workable suggestions from a middle-class point of view may be virtually impossible given the resources available to those in poverty."

  • "Educators have tremendous opportunities to influence some of the non-financial resources that make such a difference in students' ives. For example, it costs nothing to be an appropriate role model."

Great stuff, and I believe that this book will have a deep impact on the way we talk with and impact the students of our school!



If I Stay (Gayle Forman)

Mia is a senior in high school whose entire family is in a tragic car accident. Mia's parents are killed immediately, and her brother dies soon after the wreck. Mia is in a comatose state, but has a sort of "out of body" experience as she struggles with the decision to wake up and face life, or die. I realize that's such a harsh description, but this is a pretty harsh book. Forman describes pain and suffering, and even love in a way I rarely have read.

There is more to Mia, and to If I Stay, than just the accident, or her family. She is a master cellist, and is anticipating entrance to Julliard in the fall. Music seems to be a common and strong theme in this book, because all of the major characters have their own respective identities tightly connected to the music they prefer. Mia's mom and dad are former punk rockers who are pretty free-spirited and rebellious in their parenting. Mia's boyfriend, Adam, is the lead guitarist in a rock band that has recently signed with a record label in Seattle. The emphasis on music is what pushes this book just a tad in standing out among other young adult literature. I love it. Music is a very, very important part of teenagers' lives. Well, even on a greater level, I believe that music helps shape the culture of a society. I like that Forman uses music to show how individuals are different, yet basically the same in so many ways.

Language is harsh, and I'm just not a fan of blatant profanity, because to me there is an infinite number of better word choices. Yet, in If I Stay, at least I understand how the author uses it to characterize those in her book. Mia's mom dropping some bombs in casual conversation with her teenage daughter show that she is a very different sort of mother. Better? Great? Example for others? Hmmm...not so sure I would go that far. But it does show how because her family is very different, Mia also is a very different and complex young woman. That is what keeps the very basic plot of "will she choose to live or choose to die" going for 200 pages.



Certain Girls (Jennifer Weiner)

Ahhhh.....how glorious and free it is to read solely for entertainment! To me, it is like taking deep, cleansing breaths. There are few things more relaxing than reading just for fun. I've been so desperate for a recreational read that I bought Certain Girls completely on impulse in a moment of weakness. Shame on me for not going to the library! ;)

I liked many things about this book. Cannie (Candace) Shapiro Kreshevelansky is a wife, mother, and writer, whose "one great novel" was written in her anger over being abandoned by her own father and by the father of her child. Hence, ten years later there are many things about that book that she regrets, and has determined to shield her daughter from both the contents and the media backlash of it all. Unfortunately, her daughter (Joy) has determined to both read the book and sort through what is real and what is fiction in the story, which causes just a smidge of mother-daughter tension. Additionally, Cannie and her husband Peter (an overwhelmingly happy and in-love couple) are also seeking to have another baby through surrogacy, which is an element that weaves in and out of the plot and eventually ties it all together in the end. All the characters are Orthodox Jews, and a central focus of most of the book is Joy's bat mitzvah.

I liked that there was huge growth in every single character in the book, and the theme that there are many ways to make a family. I enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship (good, bad, and ugly), and the tale of planning Joy's bat mitzvah. I learned quite a bit about modern Jewish culture, and about surrogacy. I found it rewarding to watch Joy grow from a bratty little preteen to a young woman to be proud of. I loved Cannie's personality, with her quick wit, quicker tongue, and her absolute devotion to her child.

I did have some difficulty with the somewhat frequent uses of unnecessary profanity, which I've noticed is a trait of Weiner's main characters. What was perplexing about Cannie was that it wasn't even fitting with her character. Perhaps it was a tool to demonstrate that Cannie is multifaceted...I don't know.
All in all, nice read! I'm happy to move on.



The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Kate DiCamillo)

This was my first choice in a stack of "Just for fun" books I chose for this summer. It has been quite some time since I was actually able to read just for kicks, and I am so hungry for some great, satisfying reads!

Edward Tulane is a toy rabbit made mostly of china. He is at first a very haughty and self-righteous toy rabbit, but circumstances take him from his original owner, who loved and cared for him exceptionally well. Edward quickly goes from a life of royalty and finery to an existence filled with hate, despair, sadness, and depression. However, it is through these terrible events that Edward learns about himself, is humbled, and learns what it truly means to love someone other than himself.

The cover art is very tricky, because it indicates that Edward is a walking, talking rabbit. He is not, but the scene pictured here is pivotal and tightly connected to the title itself.

This book is clean, it is well written, it is compelling, and it could easily provide ample fodder for vocabulary studies, as well as a variety of complex themes (including selflessness, foreshadowing, comparing Edward to other characters or even to the reader herself, etc.). It was sad, though. Really, really sad. Despite that, Edward is able to lead the reader to continue hoping for better, which is a good message for any student. It was a great start to my stack!



The Cat who Went to Heaven (Elizabeth Coatsworth)

First published in 1930, this book is about a very poor Japanese artist whose housekeeper brings home a cat to keep them company. He is reluctant about this cat at first, but as she comes to distinguish herself as an extraordinary sort of cat, he gives her the name Good Fortune and grows to accept her as a member of the household. The cat watches as the artist designs a great picture of Buddha for his town's largest temple, which is a great honor to him. The artist goes through several meditative-sort of states in order to encompass an accurate depiction of Prince Siddhartha, the man who came to be known as the Buddha, and all the animals who supposedly came to pay homage to him.

A few things I learned from this book included some background information about Buddhism. I don't practice Buddhism, but it is always good to be educated about other religions.

I have a few questions about this one that were never answered in the story...namely, how does a poort artist still have enough money to keep a housekeeper? What was it about the animals (and their place in this culture) that made the artist focus so intently on them?



Cross Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Another audio encounter, and one I thought would NEVER release me from its evil clutches!

Criss Cross is about 4 teenagers, and how they are going about their daily life trying to figure out who they are and what they think about things. There weren't really any major events or development in character. There weren't any major conflicts. It was just these kids, doing normal things. It reminded me of that movie Crash in a way, as occasionally each of the characters would cross paths with another and only the reader is aware of the full impact of each event...only Crash was interesting. I know, sounds harsh.

I do have one good thing to say about this book. The author's style is very sophisticated. She used lots of metaphors in the book, which made for beautiful text. The only problem was, no true picture of these characters was really painted.

I will be honest, I have no idea why this was a Newbery winner. Did I skip a CD or something?


The View from Saturday (E.L. Konigsburg)

Oh, this book. This thing was really something! Lately I've really been making the most of my daily commute by listening to lots of books on CD, and this was one of those audio versions...the only thing about that is, I am so not an auditory learner! This was an okay book and all; I just had to keep skipping back on the CD's to figure out what was going on.
The View from Saturday is about four 6th grade students who are members of the academic quiz team at their school. It alternates viewpoints from each of the 4 kids and their sponsor, Mrs. Olinsky. As each member gets his/her turn to talk, they narrate some important event in their life.
Pros: I liked listening to this one on CD. It had several different actors with different voices who played each of the characters, and I enjoyed hearing all their different accents. That helped me visualize each character a little better. I also liked the structure of the book. As it flips around from person to person, it first seems disjointed. But what is cool is how each story is inextricably connected in the end, and how each student's unique experiences makes them, them...and even helps them answer certain questions in their quiz team "meets."
Cons: There is just not much character development, which is a key element for me when determing my opinion of a book. I like to see characters change over time and think about how events and experiences alter individuals...in this book, however, these people are already who they are. To me that is a little boring. There is also more than a little, well, strangeness to this piece of literature. There are too many oddities about the characters (for example, Julian is a 6th grader who wears knee socks and corduroy shorts to school) that are simply never explained. I like to read books and put together pieces of the puzzle and ponder how they come together. Unless I skipped a disc or something, some things just never came together in this book.
Is this a good book? Kinda sorta
Is this a book I would ever recommend to anyone? Nope.
Am I glad I read it? Sure, why not!



The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

I read this on a tip from a good friend months ago, and I am still trying to figure out what, exactly, I really think about it.

The gist of it is that it's the story of Liesel Meminger, a German orphan in the 1940's who is sent to live with foster parents in a small German town. Her foster family, (the Hubermans), take in a Jewish man and hide him in their basement. The "Germanness" of the plot is significant because the action takes place before and during World War II. I've read lots of Holocaust books, but none quite like this.
For example...
1. It is written from Death's point of view. Death was quite busy during World War II, and I found it odd and abstract to think of it all in this way. The personification of Death makes me uneasy, yet I do feel like it is a very real way to communicate all the loss of life during that time period.
2. Though written in narrative-style, it's not your typical, smooth flowing narrative. The parts and chapters are choppy and skip from one time period to another with no explanation. This is weird because it leaves the reader floundering to re-orient to the plot, yet that feeling also does serve the purpose of enabling the reader to get an idea of just how choppy and unsure and unsecure life was in Germany during that time.
3. Max, who is the Jewish man hiding in Liesel's basement, is interesting because he shows the guilty-feeling side of Jewish people who hid to escape Adolf Hitler's rage. He hurts constantly for the danger he puts them in, and he is tormented by the fact that Liesel and her family could be punished or killed just for hiding him.
4. The Book Thief is named so because Liesel falls so deeply in love with reading and with literature that she steals them. I'm no proponent of petty larceny, but is worth considering the reason for Liesel's thievery. She was a young girl in a hate-filled country in an era that paid little attention to the worth of a woman's brain. I found myself being proud of Liesel, not for what she did, but for having the courage to do it.
5. There is SO much sadness and death and dying and fear and anger in this book. It is hard to chew and even harder to swallow. However, it also has tiny little "ray of sunshine" moments that remind you of the complexity of human nature.
6. It is written about the German point of view of the Holocaust, and it does a good job of showing that not all Germans were Nazis and not all Germans were supporters of the murders of those millions of Jewish citizens.
7. If you like literary devices, this piece will impress you. There is an enormous amount of allusion to future events, which would make it seem like there are no real surprises in the text...yet there are twists and turns at every step.
The Book Thief is one of those rare books that picks and stretches your mind. It's scary and sad and hopeful and unique, and it isn't a book that fits any sort of mold...which is why I like it so much! The complexity makes it a nice choice for a book club or literature study, and would easily lend itself to some deep response writing.
The Book Thief is a 2007 Printz Honor book, a prestigious literary award given to works of excellence in young adult (teen) literature. Rumor has it, there's a movie version due out sometime this year.
I still don't know if I would want to see it.



Boys and Girls Learn Differently (Michael Gurian)

Okay, I confess...I have only read 3 chapters of this enormous book so far, but I do know that it is about gender differences in brain structure, hormones, and the implications to meeting both boys' and girls' needs in learning.

What I have read has been jam-packed with information about how the brain is set up, how it works, the different hormones and the roles they play, etc. There are charts and pictures and comparisons and descriptions of how boy brains and girl brains are wired. I have learned so much already, and I genuinely am eager to finish the book. I've experimented with some of the strategies Gurian suggests for gender-specific needs, such as permitting boys lots of movement and transitions to keep them focused. I tried that out with a couple of 5th grade boys in my reading intervention group, by letting them watch/listen to podcasts about whatever topics our daily passages were about. For the girls, I read about drawing out the relevance of their feelings and emotions to interest them in the subject at hand.

One interesting piece of information I learned was that emotive processing uses the most advanced parts of the brain, and that in order to fully engage any child in the topic, it is essential to find a way to make them feel strongly about it. I used that in a discussion with my 4th graders this year about plagiarism. I gave them some scenarios and let them talk through how they would feel if someone stole their work and passed it off as their own. They, of course, were infuriated. Then I asked them how they thought authors of websites, books, etc. (who had written info the kids were using to plagiarize for a presentation) felt with them stealing their work. It was a powerful moment for those kids because their emotions were creating their learning experience.

All of these situations of successful targeting of gender-specific learning needs showed me instantly that this book is a MUST READ for every educator. I've read lots of these professional research pieces, and rarely are they as full of practical tips for being a better teacher as this one.

My favorite aspect of the book is simply the fact that grounded, respected, scientific research confirms that there are major differences in boys and girls. For a long time we have been told to treat boys and girls the same, when I have never believed that. Both genders have been created with special strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, and it is nice to finally have that acknowledged by an authority in this field.



The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)

I listened to this one on CD. When I first picked it out, the cover art and title gave me the impression that this might be some flavor of a Salem witch trial story. In actuality, TWoBP was full of surprises.
Set somewhere in the late 1700's, 16 year old Kit Tyler was raised as royalty by her grandfather on the island of Barbados. After his death, she takes a ship to Connecticut to meet her only living family. Kit is in for quite a shock when she and all 7 of her fru fru-filled trunks get to the rigid Puritan settlement, and quickly realizes that life in Connecticut won't be much like life in Barbados.
Though her independent spirit and outspoken nature are appreciated and loved in Barbados, in Connecticut her "strange" ways quickly land her a witch accusation, and her friendship with a Quaker woman in the town (also an outcast) doesn't help much either.
One of this book's many surprises was that intertwined with the ridiculous witch hunt, Kit's adventurous voyage from Barbados, and a plague of fever that struck the colony, was a triple sided love story involving 3 guys, Kit, and her 2 cousins.
There are too many fun little details that would ruin the book if I were to share them, but overall this is a very interesting and "feel-good" kind of book, as everything turns out A-OK in the end.



Sadako (Eleanor Coerr)

Sadako is a picture book and written on a third grade reading level, but I will say without reservation that this piece has impacted me very deeply.

Everybody knows about Pearl Harbor and the US dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of us even have ancestors who served during World War II. We have been taught to remember it as a proud moment in our nation's history, how America (for once) showed its great might and power and delivered the blow that brought Japan to its knees.

Sadako is a narrative biography that tells the story of Sadako Sasaki, a 10 year old Japanese girl who was 9 months old when the bomb was dropped on her city of Hiroshima. Known as The Thunderbolt, the bomb not only killed thousands of people and devastated every part of Japan's existence (infrastructure, economy, etc.), but it also left behind residual chemicals that caused thousands more in the following years to develop leukemia and other cancers. Sadako Sasaki went from being an innocent little girl who had no idea about world politics and whose only concern was whether or not she would make the track team at school to fighting for her life against a sickness that was caused by a war.

Ingrained in the Japanese culture is the concept of luck and legends. One legend is that if a person folds (origami) 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will grant their wish. Sadako's sets out to folding her 1,000 cranes, and with every fold she wishes that she will get better. Sadako is unable to finish folding her last 300 or so, and after her death her schoolmates fold them on her behalf. It has become a tradition in Japan and all over the world for students to fold paper cranes and send them to the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, where a statue of Sadako stands in her honor.

I love this book because it lends itself to so many different topics. Just a few of the topics I could use this with students include: considering other points of view, the culture of Japan, legends and traditions, art, WWII, war in general, sickness, death, friendship, etc.

The Rick and Bubba Code (Rick Burgess/Bubba Bussey, with ghostwriter Martha Bolton)

You can tell by the wad of chewing tobacco in "Mona Lisa's" jaw that this is no ordinary book. A play on The DaVinci Code (which is a fabulous work of fiction, by the way, so long as you recongize that it is fiction), The Rick and Bubba Code was written by a popular duo of radio show hosts who broadcast from Birmingham. Also known for being very strong and outspoken Christians, Rick and Bubba's Christian worldview is a very important part of this book. It is filled with funny stories about their families, and woven throughout is the relevance of faith. There isn't much meat here, but it is a nice choice if you need a light, funny read or a simple brain break. My favorite feature, I must point out, is that the Mona Lisa on the cover is sporting a mullet.



It's been 2.5 months...

And life has been a little nuts, to say the least. But I'm back, and pondering some reviews as we speak. Yes, Randi, I'm on it!!!