Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)

I love the Wizard of Oz. Seriously. Love. It. I am all about some "Somewhere oooover the rainbow..." "Follow the yellow brick road!" and "If I only had a brain." and "I'll get you, and your little dog, too!" and "I'm mellllttttiiiinnnggg!"

And those Munchkins? Don't you dare get me started.

But y'all. Judy Garland had it all wrong. All joking aside, the movie version should have had a disclaimer stating that it was loosely based on the book. There is so much left out, so much that is changed in the version written for the big screen.

Originally published in 1900, it all starts out about the same way. Dorothy has lost both her parents and is living with her aunt and uncle. A cyclone takes away Dorothy and her dog Toto to Munchkin Land, where her house accidentally kills the Wicked Witch of the East. The Good Witch of the North sends Dorothy (with the East Witch's silver shoes-NOT ruby slippers) on a journey to the Emerald City to get help there from the Wizard of Oz. Along her way, she meets the characters we know and love so well from the 1939 movie: Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. In the book, however, the story goes into great detail about the Tin Woodman and how he came to be rusted there on the side of the road. As the book tells it, the Tin Man used to be just a woodman who was in love with a girl. The Wicked Witch of the East put a hex on his axe, which turned against him and chopped his limbs off one by one. They were replaced with tin prosthetics until his entire body was made only of tin. His tin body was not given a heart, so he was unable to continue loving the girl he had lost his life over.

The Wicked Witch of the West blames Dorothy for her sister's death and sets out to doing whatever she can to keep her from getting to the Land of Oz. She sends hordes of crows, bees, and wolves to try and stop them. Two additional differences from the movie are that the Wicked Witch of the West has an army of Winkies in her service AND the witch has this Golden Hat. The Golden Hat grants permission to the owner to summon an army of winged monkeys to do her/his bidding. The witch uses her last summoning on Dorothy and her gang, and the monkeys tear apart the Tin Man and Scarecrow. Dorothy gets angry and throws a bucket of water on the witch, wherein she melts theatrically. No surprise there, at least.

So now Dorothy has the Golden Hat. She uses it to get the winged monkeys and the Winkies to help them all get put back together and taken to the Emerald City. They meet the wizard who really isn't a wizard at all, and he accidentally leaves Dorothy and Toto behind when his hot air balloon takes off unexpectedly. Dorothy and her friends make the long journey to see Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. After another series of adventures involving a giant spider and crazy trees, they make it to Glinda. Glinda tells Dorothy that the silver shoes have been her way home the entire time, and so they are. Dorothy and Toto are returned to her aunt's and uncle's house, and they all live happily ever after.

Check it out yourself in Google Books.



I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)

There are some books, some authors, whose styles resonate soundly within me. To Kill a Mockingbird is that way. Every time I crack it open, I literally sigh my way through it because it is just so...beautiful.

I really like to read and enjoy a rather nice variety of genres, but I LOVE it when an author takes ordinary words and crafts them into something so pretty it can only be called art.

Maya Angelou is an amazing wordsmith, and I adore her style. When I was about 2 chapters in to this book, all I could think was I will never forgive my high school English teachers for not exposing us to this.* I mean, we had to read "Hedda Gabler," for cryin' out loud! Ugh.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou's autobiography. She and her older brother Bailey were brought South to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when they were children (this would be the 50's), and encountered more than one brush with racism in its ugliest forms. The best parts of this book are Maya's penning of segregation and racism in ways most people have never fathomed. Before long they were returned to live with their mother, in California. She was a wild woman with a fierce love for her children but little regard for structured parenting. Maya's experiences living with her mother taught her everything she wanted to know and didn't want to know about family. Sadly, young Maya was sexually abused for a lengthy period of time, and soon after she and her brother returned to Arkansas for a time before a string of moves involving their father, their mother, and their grandmother. As Maya grew into a young woman, she questioned everything about herself, including her appearance, her sexuality, and her relationships with her family members. This "self-discovery" led to a pregnancy, and at a very young age Maya Angelou became a mother to her son.

Eventually Maya ended up in the theater and, through both her innate ability to paint pictures with her words and her proclivity for delivering them theatrically, has become an icon of both this century and the last. She continues to write and speak about her life, and the literary world is a better place because she's in it.

Some of my favorite lines from the book:

On Maya's and Bailey's arriving in Stamps, Arkansas: "The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embrace's a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly." pg. 5

"Of all the needs (and there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God." pg. 23

On her relationship with her brother: "Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God I was grateful." pg. 22

Maya's feelings while listening to a white politician giving a speech at her high school graduation: "We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous." pg. 180

*I suspect that the reason I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was kept from us in high school was the chapter toward the end in which she struggles with issues relating to her sexuality. If I'm right, I find this rather unfortunate. I'm a full believer in taking care not to expose children and young adults to material not developmentally appropriate. I also believe that we all need to do a better job of making sure that we aren't "protecting" children and teenagers from issues we find too uncomfortable ourselves. Yet again, a post for another day.


Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)

When you reach the end of the short time each of us is given on this Earth, what will be your most memorable moments? For Jacob Jankowski, who is in his nineties, his most powerful memories are from the days he worked for the traveling circus. Starting with the very unexpected death of his parents, Jacob's circus story is filled with sadness, violence, poverty, and injustice. In one situation after another, Jacob (and his new friend Rosie) are connected in a supernatural way. They are both alone and in need of a place to belong. Only for Jacob and Rosie, because it's filled with selfless, crazy people who want only to hurt them, the circus will never be the right home for either of them.

Oh, and another thing...Rosie isn't who you think she is. 


School of Fear (Gitty Daneshvari)

School of Fear is one of the (many, many, MANY) books I have purchased at my school book fair over recent years. Published in 2009, this story is about 4 students who have terribly ferocious fears of...something. Bugs, dying, tight quarters, and deep water are among the paralyzing fears of these 12 year old kids. In an act of desperation and desire to be free of their children's paranoias, their parents send them away to an exclusive school designed entirely for curing phobic children of their fears.

I liked the vocabulary exposure readers get in this book. I like the adventure, even if it does get a bit wonky at times. I love the sarcasm. I like the characters a lot, and suspect that many children today can identify with this exaggerated form of unique fears. It has favorable reviews from reputable school library book reviewers, but take a look at the cover. What do you notice?

I am concerned about the lack of cultural diversity in the book. Granted, ethnic diversity just for the sake of diversity is just as shallow as no diversity at all...but that is a post for another day.

It's a great piece to be included in a school library, and would be especially satisfying to Lemony Snicket fans.


Harvesting the Heart (Jodi Picoult)

Because Paige O'Toole's mother abandoned her and Paige's father at a young age, she has been left with a lifetime of empty, longing memories and curiosities about what would possibly cause a mother to leave her child. Because of the scar left on her by this abandonment, Paige develops a proclivity for running herself. Though she has a wonderful and supportive father, as soon as she graduates from high school, Paige runs away from home to pursue art school...

And then she meets Nicholas. Nicholas, the cardiothoracic surgeon. Nicholas, the (not by much) older man. Nicholas, her knight in shining armor. 

They have a wildly brief courtship and marriage, and just as Paige is about to be on the brink of starting the art school she always dreamed of, they have a son. Max is the love, delight, and the great terror of Paige's life. Overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood, her perceived loss of herself, and by an increasingly unhappy marriage, Paige does the one thing Paige knows how to do. She runs. She runs far away from what and who she has, at the same time running toward who and what she wants. 

I love Jodi Picoult. This wasn't my favorite of her works, as in my opinion it was a bit lengthy at the expense of precision. Still, pretty good for some heavy mom-introspection. 




The Weird Sisters (Eleanor Brown)

The Andreas sisters (Cordelia-Cordy, Bianca-Bean, and Rosalind-Rose) are all grown up and living their lives quite separately until their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. They have come back home as though magnetized, with much devotion to help their mother even despite their own capricious self-centerdness. In short, these girls are a mess.

Bean has destroyed her career and is over her head in tremendous debt despite egregious embezzlement from her company.

Rose has finally met and fallen in love with a real life Prince Charming, only the choice to build a life with him means letting go of all she has ever known and counted as her life...even if she can't reconcile the fact that her life as it is isn't what she wants.

Cordy has floated aimlessly from one hippie compound to another, lacking for even basic necessities of life in favor of her freedom. Suddenly, Cordy has another life to consider, and this sends her into a tailspin of despair.

The women do their best to give one another the impression that they don't need the other, but it is when they come home again that they figure out that sisters can be the only people they do need.

*This was Eleanor Brown's debut novel.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney)

My students are obsessed with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. At no less than 5 requests every single day, these items are hot commodities in my school library. At the end of the year I was finally able to wrangle the first installment to see for myself just what all the fuss is about.

The very first observation I had about this book was that Greg Heffley is a little jerk. He's narcissistic, rude to his parents, completely self-absorbed, and the most inconsiderate, selfish "friend" any kid could ever have. But, you know what? A lot of upper elementary/middle school boys are just like Greg Heffley. I suppose at the end of the say, it's all a part of their emotional development and that they are who they are at this stage for a reason. Still. He might be funny, but he's still a little tool.

And he is most definitely funny. Greg Heffley makes some pretty witty observations about the social order in schools that I think most educators and maybe even parents miss out on. There is a tinge of a "bully or be bullied" theme which I definitely believe is part of the under-the-table social interactions between students. Another observation I have is that the books are 5th grade level readers, which I think is overestimating a bit. These books are not exactly solid 5th grade level material. There are illustrative comics interspersed throughout, which make it even more popular with kids. These kiddos do love their graphic novels (sigh)...

Overall, it's a good set to have in the school library. As for me, I'm done with you, Greg Heffley. But I like that my kids like you, so maybe you were worth my time after all.


The Sea of Monsters (Rick Riordan)

This is the second installment in the Percy Jackson series. Percy's friend Groves is in big trouble, and it will take everything he and Annabeth can do to save both their friend and all of Camp Half-blood.

The camp is in utter chaos when one of their long-standing defenses begins to fail. Everyone will be killed unless Percy and Annabeth can retrieve the golden fleece from Polyphemos (a giant Cyclops), which just happens to be in the middle of the Sea of Monsters (commonly known as the Bermuda Triangle). One disaster after another awaits them in this portion of the sea, but it is their friendship that keeps them pressing on. A new characters introduced in this book is Tyson, a young Cyclops. It is difficult to determine whether he is friend or foe, and as Percy figures that out, he reveals some interesting pieces of his character and his relationship with Annabeth.


The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) [Percy Jackson Series: #1]

Percy Jackson is just a regular kid. Just a regular, middle school kid. Sure, weird things happen to him. Water does strange things when he feels strong emotions. Or does it? Maybe he imagines it.

Actually, Percy J is sort of a son of Poseidon. It's kind of a long story, but Papa Poseidon and human Mama Jackson go their separate ways and Percy never knows his father. And it's all fun and games until a lightning bolt gets stolen. A rather important lightning bolt. Zeus's lightning bolt, to be exact. Zeus thinks Poseidon took it, Poseidon blames Hades, Hades blames everyone, and the world is going to implode unless that bolt can be recovered.

Percy Jackson and his friends are the kids for the job. They trek all over tarnation trying to locate the bolt and then return it back to Zeus in order to stop World War III, and all along the way it seems that everyone and everything are trying to stop them.

This is the first installment in the Percy Jackson series. The series is wildly popular with kids, and in its movie form as well. I can see why! Incredible suspense, Greek mythology, and classic good vs. evil all make for strong elements in young adult literature. I found it interesting that the author is a middle school English teacher. That explains how he nails middle school humor and logic so well.


Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Good for reflection as working moms and GREAT for a laugh, Bossypants is by far one of the most entertaining autobiographies I've ever read. With her classic wit and hilarious sarcasm, Tina Fey sends readers to the floor in all-out gut chuckles over her antics, experiences, and observations. She tells her side of the whole Palin impersonation gig, shares insight into work on the SNL set, and gives her inner monologue on the conflict (every working mom's conflict) between a desire to work and a desire to be with her children. It's a short, light read and you close it (or click out, in case of e-readers) with a greater respect and appreciation for Tina Fey's work than ever before. 

Just do not, don't even think of it, ask her about her scar. 
What scar? 
Yeah, that's what I said! 




Choosing to SEE (Mary Beth Chapman)

Thanks to a hot Kindle sale, I was able to read this narrative biographical journey of Mary Beth and the Chapman family throughout their rather tumultuous life experiences. In the book, she tells of her early life together with Christian singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman. She also tells of their family's growth through birth and through adoption. She writes very candidly about the sad accident which caused the death of little Maria, one of their daughters. This is a book that resonates with every mother, and unlike many of the popular "celebrity" books written today, Mrs. Mary Beth is as real as it gets. I'm thankful for her courage in writing this book.

Deuteronomy (Moses)

Deuteronomy is all about the remembrance. It's the 5th book in the Pentateuch, and a rather lovely synopsis of the history of the Israelites and of God's instructions for their new nation. Moses summoned the people, and reminded them all about how the Lord had done for them. He reminded them of the rules for the clean and unclean meats. He reminded them of how God provided for them in the desert. He reminded them of how they were to make sacrifices. He reminded them over and over and over how important it was to care for the immigrants, orphans, and widows.

In every single community, there are immigrants and orphans and widows. Just as in the day that Moses authored the book of Deuteronomy, the immigrants and orphans and widows are still the most fragile, vulnerable people in our midst. The Bible is very clear: it is our responsibility to care for those who need it, in whatever way we can, which includes the immigrants and orphans and widows.