Friday, July 31, 2015

Beefing Up my Classroom Library

I don't normally do "book haul" posts, because I don't normally buy books.  I read too much, too fast, for that to be a financially viable way to get them.  Also, my house is not that big.  I am lucky enough to have a terrific library system in the area, and I can get books sent to me if they aren't housed at my favorite branches.

However, in the past year, I've really started trying to improve my classroom library.  Having a good school library is important, of course, and ours isn't bad. (Well, the fiction section isn't bad.  The nonfiction section was apparently last updated during the Cold War.)  But having books in the classroom does a number of things--it creates a tone and setting that says, "We read."  It lets kids get books when THEY are ready for a new book, not when I've signed the class up for a visit.  It lets me hand a stack of possibilities to a specific kid, based on what I know about them, so they aren't so overwhelmed at the thought of making a choice.  It lets me be responsive to the needs, interests, and enthusiasm of my particular students in any given year.

Or that's what I tell myself, anyway, when I whip out the charge card.

Over the course of this summer, I've added dozens of books to my collection, and I thought I'd share what they are and where I got them.


For $1-4 bucks, I can pick up older hardbacks or newish paperbacks.  I got some personal favorites (The Knife of Never Letting Go, Tangerine), some I know my students are into (Insurgent, Looking for Alaska), and some I just figure I can try out for that price (a Sailor Moon book, some Stephen King novella dealing with baseball).

And yes, I took these photos looking down on my unmade bed.  Sorry.  My dad was the photographer; I have other skills.

$1 for paperbacks, $3 for hardbacks, and I'd rather give them my money than Goodwill.  The downside is about half of them were in the library collection, so they have a crossed out bar code and the library stamp on them, which is both messy and potentially confusing.  I love Cloaked in Red, and plan to booktalk it this fall, so I was excited to find a hardback to keep my paperback copy company.  It's nice to have a couple copies on hand when you plan to drive up demand.  I picked up Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, which contains wonderfully honest yet sympathetic descriptions of how ADHD affect kids (and their teachers), Poison and Jasper Jones, both of which I've been wnting to read, and one that looked scary.  I hate horror, but my students always ask me for "something creepy."  I have to give it to them un-previewed, but I do ask for recommendations I can share with other students who have similar tastes.

Back in my younger days, I loved to visit the downtown Powell's, because by buying only used books, I could really stretch a dollar.  Lately, it's been harder and harder to find used copies.  Yes, I know I'm not going to get used copies of books published in the past couple of years, but even older books seem to always be only available new.  I do get a small teacher discount.  When a friend gave me a generous gift card as a birthday present, I decided to spend it on books I could add to the classroom library, but that I would choose which books based solely on my own interest in reading them.  Having just read and adored The Scorpio Races, I went all out and got the entire Raven Boys series, plus first novels in two series I've heard a lot about.  The other two books were on sale.  I gotta say, any anthology that includes Sherman Alexie and Lois Lowry is worth a look.

I way overspent my gift card, however,  Also, I've been there two other times this summer, once with each kid.  I am trying to beef up my graphic novel collection, given the huge demand for Raina Telegemeier's books this past year.  I was missing Breaking Through, the second book in Francisco Jimenez's autobiographical trilogy, Libby Bray and Rae Carson were both on sale, and I fell for the title and cover of Dorothy Must Die, only to be disappointed in the reading.  Maybe some student will like it though!

I've been going to this bookstore since it opened in 1978, across the street from where it's been for decades now.  I used to ride my bike there, combining a browsing session with a summer class at the Multnomah Art Center, or perhaps splitting a hot fudge brownie delight with my best friend at Fat City Cafe, arguing over whether or not we, as kids, were expected to leave a tip.  (I'm embarrassed to admit that I was on the stingy side of this argument.)

I digress.

 I had a mom-son date with my kid last week, and this was one of our stops.  I just had to get the graphic version of The Hobbit, and the Unicorns vs. Zombies collection.  I've also been hoping to do a daily read-aloud next year, largely, but not exclusively picture books (there's another blog post in my rationale for that), and they had several that will make wonderful mentor texts.

I am feeling all the feels about my purchases, as the young'uns say.  I am thrilled to have so many books at my greedy little fingertips.  I am excited to think of my students' reaction when I start unveiling all the new additions in six short weeks.  I am chagrined to realize how much I've run up my credit card bill.  Is it going to make or break us?  No, but it's a bad habit to get into, and with only my salary currently supporting our family, I need to make good fiscal decisions.  I am a little bit bitter that I can't just buy all the books I want for my classroom, and a little bit grateful that I can buy at least this many.  I am deeply satisfied to have such scope for planning how to set up my library, displays, booktalks, and other ways of making it easy for students to start connecting to these titles.

(Also, I have justified buying books for my personal children several times this summer, but I don't have pictures because those books have disappeared into their black holes bedrooms.  Besides, while I want them to have their own bookshelves to fall back on, I also want to build up good library habits with them.  My daughter spent most of today listening to Princess Academy on a Playaway we checked out yesterday, and I couldn't be happier.  Such a great solution for kids who can't read at their interest level yet.  But that's yet another blog post...)

You might notice that I don't buy books online.  I have a short but compelling list of reasons.

  1. I love walking around bookstores (or libraries) and looking at books.  Online resources just aren't the same. 
  2.  I am deeply afraid that if I started shopping online, that credit card thing would quickly get out of control.  Being a busy mom and teacher limits the amount of time I can spend physically shopping, which limits the amount I can spend on impulse.  Online shopping would not be as safe for me.  

I have decided I absolutely cannot buy any more new books this summer.  Well, except for Separate is Never Equal and Brown Girl Dreaming, both of which I really need in my classroom, but both of which are far past my $12 comfort level.  (It's kind of like buying wine--we all have different price points that seem "cheap," "reasonable" or "expensive," right?  A $30 bottle could be in any of those categories, depending on whom you're talking to.)  I'm soliciting donations from family and friends--last year my library got a huge boost when one student's family and my older sister both brought in boxes of books their kids had finished or outgrown.  During the school year, what I buy will be determined by the kids I'm teaching.

There you have it.  Where do you like to buy books?  How do you decide which books to spend your hard-earned money on? If you teach, how do you add to your library?   What do you consider a good price for a bottle of wine?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

Yes, that Julie Andrews, which I admit was probably the sole reason why I picked that book off the shelf of the long-gone The Lion and the Crab Bookstore in Lincoln City with the birthday money my sister gave me.  According to the book jacket, the hardback copy cost me $5.95, and according to my book plate, I was calling myself Wendy Falalaconer in those days.  Judging by the wonky cursive, it was probably the summer after 3rd grade, so my 9th birthday.
Or maybe I just forgot how to spell my name.  Cursive is hard, man.  

If I picked it up because of my admiration for Maria/Mary Poppins, it became a favorite because of its whimsical story and lovable characters.  Reading it now, I certainly have issues with it, but it was my stock answer to "What's your favorite book?" for a big chunk of my childhood.  
My well-loved copy.

The story starts out with the three Potter children, aged 7, 10, and 13, being sent out of the house so their father can get some work done.  They take a bus to the zoo and buy themselves donuts, which RIGHT THERE lets you know this book was not written in this century.  There they happen to meet Nobel Prize winner Professor Savant (really, Julie? Savant?) who befriends them, talks to them about DNA, and then invites them along to Whangdoodleland.  Lindy, being the littlest one, is of high importance, because she has the best imagination and is most able to believe in magical things.  (Like another youngest sister whose name begins with an L...)

After rigorous imagination training, they have to make the trip sooner than expected, because the Oily Prock, the disapproving-of-humans-visiting Prime Minister to the Whangdoodle, has caught on to their plans.  Using magical hats, they transport themselves to a land with tangerine rivers and marmalade skies.  No wait, that's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."  But seriously, that song and this book have always reminded me of each other.  There is a boat that will only move if you tell jokes, a fluffy Whiffle Bird that gives useless advice (or is it?), Sidewinders, Gazooks, Oincks, Splintercats, Flutterbys...some of which are friendly, some of which are threatening, none of which ever manage to cause real harm.  The faun High-Behind Splintercat, for example, seems very sweet and charms Lucy Lindy--until it turns out to have betrayed her to the White Witch Prock.

The theme of the book is the importance of imagination, and in that aspect, it's timeless.  I see on Goodreads that many people love it, even upon re-reading, but I have to say, my own high rating was based on my memory of how deeply I loved it as a kid, not on my careful consideration as an adult.  This is a children's book that is best enjoyed by actual children.  I suspect my daughter would love it.  

Review: After by Francine Prose

Let's just all take a moment to contemplate the beauty of someone named Prose becoming an author.

I finished this book at 3 am.   The review may be a little punchy due to lack of sleep.

And now, on with the review.

The blurb for After is vague:
School has become a prison.
No one knows why.
There's no way to stop it.

I started reading, and found a first-person story, narrated by a 10th grader named Tom, a self described "Smart Jock" (as opposed to a Dumb Jock, Nerd, or any of high school's many other labels).  A highschool in the area has just had a bloody school shooting.  The book, published in 2003, references Columbine and Paducah, but of course new incidents continue to be headline news, so it hasn't lost its timeliness.  At first, then, I was prepared for a We Need To Talk About Kevin type of look at what causes these events, and how they affect us.  But that's not what I got.

Tom's school calls in a grief counselor to help them through their fear and sadness.  In order to "make students feel safer," metal detectors are installed at the doors.  Next, students are banned from wearing the color red.  

Soon, things have escalated to the point where when Tom goes to look up Stalin in the school library, all trace of the dictator have disappeared (so ironic!).  By that point in the book, the reader has realized that this is not ripped-from-the-headlines realistic fiction, but some sort of parable about trading individual freedom for imagined safety.

The tone of the book is creepy and menacing.  Prose did a great job at letting the reader experience, alongside Tom, the change from disbelief and "how can this be happening?" to outright fear and horror.  I was fascinated by the approach of taking everyday life and slowly building a dystopian nightmare, which is the opposite of how dystpian literature usually works.

The book suffers from lack of a rationale for the bad guys.  It also has the same issues that The Giver does, in that the science fiction has an element of magic.  How exactly does one use email to brainwash people?  If you are looking for a cohesive plot, you will probably find the book frustrating.  This is where it pays to think of the book as allegory, rather than speculative fiction.  If you can do that, you will find a lot to think about, from how we treat "troubled" teens, to how passive we can be in the face of authority.

3 stars.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge

Having been blogging for DAYS over a month now, I keep finding exciting new ideas and projects to get involved in.  I am trying to rein in my enthusiasm, because once the school year starts, my free time will pretty much disappear.  However, I can't resist joining in with this challenge, because I find the discussions to be one of my favorite parts about the book blog community.  I can get reviews anywhere, frankly.  But people to talk about bookish ideas and issues with?  That's something special.

This challenge is hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight! They ask that you commit to starting and participating in various book blog discussions.  Because of time constraints, I am signing up for the Discussion Dabbler level, posting 1-12 discussion topics from now until the end of 2015.  One of my side goals for starting this blog is to teach myself more about social media in general, as a writer and not just a consumer, so I will be nervously attempting to use the twitter hashtag as well.  (Am I dating myself here?  Then again, starting my 10 favorite book memories in 1979 might have been a clue I'm not a "twenty-something blogger" already.)

I am looking forward to joining in future discussions, and I dearly hope that you will respond here as well!  Thank you, Nicole and Shannon, for starting this up!

Top Ten Tuesday: I'm Off Topic Again

The Broke and The Bookish's theme this week is characters who are book lovers.  I felt like the ones I thought of were pretty obvious (Jo in Little Women, Hermione, etc.), so I hunted around for another top ten that happened before my time.

This week I'll be sharing with you ten of my favorite book related memories, in chronological order.

I've already mentioned this, but one summer my sister Peg and I read C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair together. I was about nine, which would make her twenty.  After the dinner dishes were washed, we'd cozy up together on the chaise lounge (turquoise flowers, wooden frame) and take turns reading.  One night she'd read me two chapters, and the next night I'd read one to her.  It's always been one of my favorite Narnian books, in no small part because of the fun we had sharing it.

In the long, lazy summer between high school and college, my best friend and I brought The Accidental Tourist everywhere we went and took turns reading out loud to each other.  The leisurely pace and our conversations about the book mean the story of Macon's heartbreak and subsequent growth have stayed with me for a very long time.

I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera, while sitting on my windowsill at the International People's College in Denmark.  It is a short book, and I usually race through everything I read, but it was so beautifully written that I tried to slow myself down, so the experience wouldn't end.  I've never re-read it, because the moment was so special to me, and I'd hate to have it ruined by middle aged cynicism.

After a year living in Latvia and studying the language, I decided to ease into reading by choosing a translation of a book I was already familiar with.  Thus The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe became my first book read in a foreign language.

1987-1991, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, 1996-1997
I worked in libraries.  Throughout college, I worked in the Interlibrary Loan department of the school library, and my bosses become both parent figures and friends.  After college I was a page at the local library until I got a chance to go overseas, and when I returned, I got a job managing the ILL department at Reed College until I left for Peace Corps.  During grad school, I put in one last stint in the tiny school library, earning barely enough to pay for tea in the local cafe.

A friend and I attended a poetry reading by Ursula LeGuin, a long term hero of mine.  I bought Blue Moon Over Thurman Street, and she signed my copy of Dancing at the Edge of the World.

While spending a year on a Fulbright Teaching Exchange in Riga, I discovered the English Language Library, and promptly signed up.  It was a very small library, so I was forced out of my comfort zone and had to read what was available.  This is the only reason why I finally picked up The Grapes of Wrath.  A few minutes in, I announced to my bemused husband, "I just read the most fascinating description possible--of a turtle crossing the road.  I guess this Steinbeck guy is famous for a reason."

When we adopted two school aged children from Lithuania, I didn't let our lack of a common language keep me from reading aloud to them.  About four weeks into our lives together, we were at a special place on Mt. Hood with my extended family, and I "read" Blueberries for Sal to them--meaning I summarized what was going on in each picture in my very bad Lithuanian.  The next day, I overheard my son saying "kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk" as he dropped pebbles onto the deck.  He was quoting a book I'd read to him!  It was so exciting.  (A few months later, in the middle of a tantrum, he shouted, "What do you know about fun, you old GOOSE!" at my husband, and I surprised them both by starting to giggle.  It's from Sam and the Firefly, and while wildly out of context, it was the only insult he could come up with in the heat of the moment.)

My kids had learned enough English that I could read to them straight off the page.  They still preferred picture books, and rejected the first few chapter books I tried on them.  Finally, however, we started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  They leaned into me from either side as we read.   They begged for more each night. I helped clarify when they got confused about what was going on.  After we finished the whole book, we watched the movie together.

I was so blown away by Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series that I bought More Than This solely because his name was on the cover.  It was on my desk the next Monday morning.  I have one student who had read the whole series, a quiet girl who had been in foster care for the two years I'd taught her.  In 7th grade she had quietly failed all of her classes, but this year she was scraping a C in my class.  She walked into the room, stopped dead, and said, "You bought it?!?"  I asked her if she'd like to read it first.  She nodded fervently, picked up the book, perched on my teacher stool in the front of the room, and spent the rest of the period reading, completely oblivious to the actual class.  I left her alone, and after class ended, sent her on with the book in hand.

Do any of these remind you of your own bookish memories?  Should I just stick with the assigned topic in the future?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Seven Deadly Sins Tag

Tagging myself again.  Since we can all play games against ourselves on computers these days, why not play tag alone too?  I found this fun one here.

1. Greed~ What is your most inexpensive book? What is your most expensive book?
Just spent a buck at the library book sale for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  Hard to beat.

The most expensive book purchase I remember is when we were considering building a home, and I was absolutely in love with A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander.  It costs $65 new, for this dense, tiny-print hardback with terrible black and white pictures.  I found it at Powell’s, used, for $43, which still seemed like a lot of money.  Will I ever build my own home?  Who knows.  But I love the book, and love owning it.  

2. Wrath~ What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?
Currently that would be Maggie Stiefvater.  I’ve read one book that bored me, one book that floored me, and one that bemused me.  (Sorry, I couldn't come up with an appropriate final rhyme.)

3. Gluttony~ What book have you devoured over and over again with no shame?
I re-read constantly as a child, but hardly ever as an adult (except for books I teach in my classes).  I am, however, up to X in the Kinsey Milhone series by Sue Grafton.  They are kind of the same book over and over, yet I keep on reading.  It’s the mac & cheese of mystery writing.

4. Sloth~ What book have you neglected reading due to laziness?
So many.  Besides the ones I’m allegedly reading right now, I’ll add A Long Walk to Water, which 7th graders at my school read in social studies.   I’ve been meaning to read it for at least four years now.

5. Pride~ What book do you talk about most in order to sound like an intellectual reader?
War and Peace is probably the one I’m most smug about, purely because of it’s length and Russian-ness.  I read it in college, as part of a Russian lit class (in translation!).  Our professor said he was having us read it instead of Anna Karenina because he was tired of teaching a book where the woman throws herself in front of a train but her lover just gets a toothache.  We had to read the assigned section each week, then summarize it in 15 words or less, which really gets you to focus on the most important details.  We also responded in rambling, handwritten journals.  God, I loved that class.  When we read A Hero of Our Times, the assignment was to respond to it in any way BUT an essay.  I made collages.  I remember classmates staging a duel with rubber bands, and acting out a scene with puppets.  

6. Lust~ What attributes do you find attractive in male characters?
First, this is kind of a problematic question.  What about straight male bloggers and gay female bloggers?  Etc.  But being plain ol’ vanilla myself, I will answer it as given.  

A sense of humor, intelligence,  and being tall-dark-and-handsome are always a good place to start, but just as in real life, they need to bring more to the table to really wow me.  Courage, meaning doing what’s right despite being afraid.  Respect of their female counterpart--from Gilbert Blythe to Gabriel Oak , I like a man who truly likes his woman as a whole person.  Kindness, not broodiness, which is why I am team Peeta, not team Gale.  I'm a sucker for a family man too. Sam Vimes became my favorite character in Discworld when he insisted on reading his son that silly book every night.  

Mmmm, I seem to be describing my husband as well.  ;)

7. Envy~ What book would you most like to receive as a gift?

A complete hardbound set of Harry Potter.  For me.  Not for my children, not for my students.  For me.

Judging by this photo, it's high time I see the movie adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd.
RIP.  He'll always be the face of Gilbert to me.

Not so sure he's the face of Peeta, but he's a cute kid.

This one's actually age-appropriate.  

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Mini Reviews: Gone Girl, Game of Thrones, Red Queen.

For Mini Reviews, I copy my reviews from Goodreads.  Unlike my blog reviews, when I write a review on Goodreads, I'm not interested in summarizing the book, but just jotting down notes for myself about my personal reaction.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Thriller, 555 pages.  Read in three sittings, mostly in the living room armchair. 4 stars.

I was, bizarrely, under the impression that Gone Girl was a memoir, along the lines of Glass Castle or Liar's Club.  Two sentences in, I realized my mistake.  Then I spent the first half of the book wondering WHY this title is so popular right now when it's just a "did he or didn't he?" mystery.  Then I hit the plot twist.  Yay!  I'm so glad I didn't know anything (and I mean anything!) going in.

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.  Fantasy, book 1 of Song of Ice and Fire series, 835 pages.  Read the prologue in 2012, read the rest of the book over several days, including a few stints at the pool and skate park while the kids played.  4 stars.

A kid left this in my classroom three years ago.  I picked it up, read the prologue, and thought it sounded pretty good.  Still, it was so LONG, and I'm someone who likes to read books all in one gulp.  Then the TV show became a big thing, and I caught a few spoilers (on Pinterest, of all things), which also kind of put me off. I finally decided to watch the show, and my husband and I sat down with Disc One.  At the end of the first episode, <spoiler>Bran is pushed out of a tower,</spoiler> and near the end of the second episode, <spoiler>Ned Stark has to kill Sensa's wolf.</spoiler>  My husband said, "I'm done," and left the room.

I went to the book to see if I could understand who the characters are more clearly.  It helped a huge amount.  I read as far as what I'd seen, and found it more palatable (Dany's wedding night isn't quite as rapey, for one thing.)  I love the huge cast, the slow building of events both in the kingdom and beyond the wall.  I didn't love the detailed battle scenes--yawn.  After all I'd heard about George R. R. Martin's cavalier killing off of any character you grew fond of, I only was really saddened by one death.  (Well, two if you count <spoiler>Lady the direwolf.</spoiler>)

I'm frustrated that I haven't been able to read anything else while I've been working on this, yet I still went to the library today to get the next book in the series.  If I had no other responsibilities, I'm pretty sure I'd spend the rest of the summer reading the books and watching the shows, but given the whole parenting/dealing with the two bathrooms that were ripped apart after a leak/planning for school thing I have going on in my life, I'll stick with the books for now.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard.  Fantasy, book one of an unpublished series, 383 pages.  Stayed up late to finish it, but still only 3 stars.

I might have rated this four stars had I never read The Hunger Games. It's not that this is a rip-off of the more famous book, it's just that you can't help but to notice parallels and similarities, and thus start feeling like this is not as fresh as it could be. That being said, for a 22 year old--WOW. I will definitely keep reading her work and see how she develops.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Reading Update, or Why Am I Not Reading What I Say I'm Reading?

The sidebar over there has been informing you for weeks now that I'm reading Night, Clash of Kings, and Igniting a Passion for Reading.   In the meantime, I've completed half a dozen other books.  What gives? I imagine you asking.  (My imagination is highly optimistic.  This occasionally sets me up for disappointment in the classroom and on holidays.)

I borrowed Night from a friend last summer.  It sat on my shelf for a solid year.  I took it along to the skate park one day--I get lots of reading done at the skate park and the pool, although this time of year I'm more likely to join them in the pool--and started it.  It's really good.  And really serious.  So I keep picking up other things to read instead of going back to it.  I'm currently getting sort of worn out with YA fantasy, so maybe it's time to buckle down and finish Night.  I know it won't take long once I get started--it's pretty slim, even though it's emotionally demanding.

The professional book also wouldn't take that long.  There are MANY professional books I could be reading, and I always enjoy it when I do.  But fiction is so much more compelling.  Sigh.

I am truly reading A Clash of Kings.  Those books are so freaking long!  I'm past the halfway point, which means I only have about five million more pages to read.  Most of it is great fun, but the battle strategy chapters are pretty rough going.  I have no idea where anyone's army is right now, because I don't care.  How are the people doing, George, and who's going to die next?  The sole spoiler I'm glad I've picked up on from living in a world where GoT is on TV is that the Imp survives for a good long time.  He may die yet, but I don't have to worry about it for another few books.

I'm also plugging away at The Raven Boys right now.  I was so smitten with The Scorpio Races that when a friend gave me a generous gift card to Powell's for my birthday, I bought the entire Raven Boys series.  This may have been a mistake.  I don't hate it, but my word, it moves slowly.  Also, there seem to be too many characters.  I can only hope that Noah, Helen, and a bunch of Blue's aunts develop more personality and more reason for existing as the books continue.  Does the pace pick up?  Will I start to care about the quest at some point?  Tell me.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with this photo my late father took.  It has nothing to do with the post, but everything to do with summer.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Long Secret

My freshman year in college, way back in the pre-Internet days, I was assigned to read Susan Minot's Monkeys.  I found it baffling and esoteric.  Who were these east coast children with yacht club memberships?  It was like reading Salinger.  I showed up in class ready to talk about how foreign the book was to me--and then the first comment anyone made was, "This book was just like my family!" to which a chorus of other voices agreed.

This was when I knew I wasn't in Kansas any more.  Or Oregon, as the case may be.

Despite four years of college in Vermont, plus a year of grad school in the same state several years later, New England remains very Other to me.   Still, it is an Other that is familiar, in the way ancient civilizations are familiar to archaeologists.  Books about New York and New England, like books about London, charm me with their oddities while reassuring me with their literary familiarity.  I don't really know these places, but I feel like I do.

The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh is, to me, a very East Coast book.  It's more famous companion, Harriet the Spy, is set in NYC itself, but The Long Secret finds Harriet, her family, and her friends' families on vacation on...well, they're at the beach, and they have lobsters at their clambake, so clearly it's some sort of New England-y location.  The author apparently summered on the coast of Connecticut, so I'm guessing that's where the characters are summering as well.  (And only in New England is "summer" a verb.)

Harriet and parents aren't poor, but they are less rich than some of her friends.  Beth Ellen, called "Mouse" because of her timidity, lives with her grandmother in a grand summer home that features maids, a cook, and a chauffeur.  The two girls are not terribly close during the school year, but spend much of their summer together, since they are living in the same coastal town.  As they bike around town, they meet a cheerfully religious and decidedly NOT rich family, the inn's piano player (on whom Beth Ellen develops a mighty crush), and an old black preacher.  Harriet's insatiable curiosity is attracted to the mystery of who is leaving sharply pointed Bible quotes and misquotes for everyone around town.  Beth Ellen, meanwhile, is dealing with a surprise visit from her flighty mother and current stepfather.  While Harriet and her spy's notebook are still featured, we also see a lot from Beth Ellen's point of view.  Being a shy girl myself, I always appreciated that.  Harriet was fun to read about, but Beth Ellen would have been a good friend.

First published in 1965, the book is surprisingly frank for its era (Beth Ellen starts her period, her new friend Jessie May explains that a fancy woman is a whore, and some of the adults are clearly alcoholic idiots).  The girls' personalities are strongly drawn, and their inner lives are as important as the events of the story.  The ink drawings, done by the author, add a mid-century charm, and are astoundingly unflattering to nearly all of the characters.  In an era where gorgeous models grace most book covers, these lumpy, freckled, bespectacled illustrations are refreshingly relateable.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: We Need Diverse Books.

This is a Top Ten Tuesday post, hosted by the great blog, The Broke and the Bookish.

The theme this week is "Books that Feature Diversity."  This could mean so many things, and at first I generated a list of a few dozen.  I finally decided to keep my focus on cultural diversity.  Teaching ELD (English Language Diversity, aka ESL) for fifteen years, I developed a habit of looking for books that would either let my students see themselves reflected, or let them see that white people aren't the only ones worth writing stories about.  If a future top ten concept doesn't work for me, I may be back with books that feature other types of diversity.

In no particular order:

1.  Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero.
Gabi is a bright Latina high school senior with a drug addict dad, pregnant best friend, and a gay other-best-friend.  So in terms of diversity, many bases are covered.  I love Gabi's voice, and highly recommend this book.

2.  Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Pena.
This book speaks to so many of my students.  Danny is half Mexican, half white.  He's grown up mostly in an upper class Anglo environment, but is spending a summer with his dad, in the barrio.  This is one of those books I can sell to a certain type of student by saying, "Well, it has some cussing and other kind of inappropriate stuff.  Do you think you can handle that?" Like Gabi, it captures the way teenagers actually talk to each other.

3.  The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jimenez.
The first book in a autobiographical trilogy, written as a set of specific memories rather than a continuous flow.  If my students relate to the characters from the previous two books, this book gives them the story of their parents and grandparents.  I've had many students tell me that they have a whole new respect and understanding for their families after reading these.  In deceptively simple, straightforward language, Jimenez brings his memories to life, and illustrates themes of poverty, family, perseverance, and his thirst for education.

4.  The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream by Steve Wilson.
Woodburn, Oregon, aka Little Mexico due to its large immigrant population, is two towns over from the town where I taught ESL for a decade.  The school's soccer team is 100% Latino, and makes it to the state championship year after year, only to lose to one of the wealthy, suburban high schools.  Sportswriter Steve Wilson spent a year with the team, and the book he wrote is more about the boys and their lives than about soccer.  I first heard about this book when I took a summer course with the team's coach, who is also an English teacher.

5.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
What can I say about this book that hasn't been said already?  It is heavily illustrated with comics, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, but is nothing like it in terms of story.  It is hilarious and heart-breaking. Like Danny in Mexican WhiteBoy, Junior is caught between two cultures.  He doesn't fit in on the rez, and he doesn't fit in at the white in-town high school he decides to attend.   Also, as with MWB, I can get tough guys to read it by warning them that it contains inappropriate language and content.  (It's been banned in various districts because Junior admits both to masturbating and to getting an erection while slow dancing with his crush.  Obviously, no middle schooler would ever realize either of those things were possible if they didn't read about them in a book.)  (That was sarcasm.)

6.  Winterkill by Craig Lesley.
This one isn't a YA book, although older teens would certainly enjoy it.  Lesley and Alexie together form my education about the native Americans in my region.  I enjoyed all of Lesley's books, but Winterkill is really great.  Danny Kachiah is a Nez Perce Indian, a rodeo rider who travels around Oregon and Idaho.  When his ex-wife dies in a car wreck, Danny becomes responsible for his son Jack.  He tries to pass on the good from his own father, Red Shirt, while leaving the bad behind.

7.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
Another one that isn't written as YA, but is accessible to older teens.  Like many, I went through a huge Toni Morrison/Alice Walker stage in the mid-80s.  This title has always stood out to me as my favorite.  Covering the 1930s to 1960s, this novel shines with magical realism and bleeds with the horrors of racism in America.

8.  Nighjohn by Gary Paulsen.
A colleague of mine calls Paulsen "the Hemingway of kidlit."  I have taught this book a half dozen times in my sixteen years of teaching.  It is short, violent, and ultimately hopeful.  It's also pro-education.  What's not to love?  The story is told from the point of view of Sarny, a slave girl, shortly before the Civil War.  I usually read it aloud, as Paulsen writes in Sarny's vernacular, which can be off-putting for students on the page, but is easy to follow orally.  He pulls no punches, and specifies at the beginning of the book that while he made up the characters and situations, every horror he describes is something that has been documented as being done to slaves in that era.

9.  Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  This graphic novel begins another autobiographical trilogy.  Satrapi was born in the Shah's Iran, and the Islamic Revolution took place when she was a young girl, changing the trajectory of her life.  Her parents are Marxists, with views in direct opposition to the new regime's.  Satrapi and I are about the same age, but I am embarrassed to say how little I knew about what was going on in her country during our youth.  These books balance the personal and the political, while still creating a sense of plot out of the randomness that is real life.

10. Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say.

I've read this picture book to 7th and 8th graders many times. Say uses his grandfather's travels between Japan and California to perfecly illuminate what it means to be bicultural, and to have your heart in two homes. The watercolor illustrations are gorgeous.

For more information on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and why it is so important for all children to see themselves represented in literature, visit the We Need Diverse Books website.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

On Book Reviews In General

I've spent a lot of time this summer reading other reading blogs.

It's really fun.  It also give me lots of ideas for this blog, both what I want to do with it, and what I don't.

(It's also one of several reasons why my children get too much screen time, and my house is a mess.)

Most (all?) book blogs include reviews.  As I scroll through them, I realized something about myself.  I only like to read reviews of books I've already read, movies I've already seen, etc.  My favorite way to go into a book is completely blind.  I can do this if the author is one I love, or if someone I trust recommends a book.  Otherwise, I'll read just enough of the blurb to get a sense of the type of story inside, and then I'll give it a try.  The less I know going in, the better.

After I've read, though, I want to find out what others thought.  It's not just with books--after we watch a DVD, my husband will see me on the computer and ask, "How are the reviews?" because he knows that's the first thing I check after a movie.   It's interesting to see if others noticed what I did, or if they have a perspective that challenges mine.

Yet most book reviews I've seen on blogs start with a complete summary, and then add the blogger's reactions.  Even their personal responses often reveal more than I'd want to know up front.  My reviews, on the other hand, tend to assume the readers has already read the book, so I'm just sharing my thoughts about it.

So, if you're one of the three people reading this, that's what you can expect to find in my reviews.  Keep on writing your reviews your way, of course.  They are still useful to me, just not in the way you may have planned.

When I'm browsing through a new book blog, I read their reviews for books I've read.  This gives me an overall impression of how well our tastes match up.  If we seem to be in sync, then I look for other books that the reviewer likes, and add them to my "to-read" list without reading the review.  Once I read the book, I'll read the review too.

If you too like to find out how compatible your tastes are with a reviewer's tastes, you can find a list of my favorite books in my favorite genres here.  I'd love to know which ones you're read and enjoyed!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Mini Reviews: Blankets, The Magic Finger, The Monogram Murders

For Mini Reviews, I copy my reviews from Goodreads.  Unlike my blog reviews, when I write a review on Goodreads, I'm not interested in summarizing the book, but just jotting down notes for myself about my personal reaction.

view while I read
Blankets by Craig Thompson.  Graphic novel.  592 pages
Read all in one go, sitting by the lake while my kids swam. 3 stars.

Hmm. I had high expectations, which may be why I ended up somewhat disappointed.

I loved the art. I felt horrible for the various types of abuse Craig and his brother suffered. The trouble with memoir is always the lack of plot. The book focuses on his first love, how it gave him hope and a sense of self when he badly needed both, and how they both moved on when the relationship had served its purpose. But there were so many other elements competing for attention--the abuse (which in the case of his dad never really gets resolved or addressed, presumably because this is an on going relationship), the bullying, the crises of faith, Raina's family structure...I kept getting distracted, and I want to know more about some of those pieces. I'd been hoping to find a graphic novel/memoir I could recommend to all my Smile fans, but I don't think this is it.

The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl.  Children's fantasy.  67 pages.  Read aloud as a bedtime story to my daughter.  3 stars.

Cute. My daughter started reading it to me, then I finished it for her. I can't believe I've never heard of it, as I read lots of Dahl as a kid. Quentin Blake's illustrations are always the perfect accompaniment.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah.  Mystery featuring Agatha Christie's detective, Hercules Poirot.  320 pages.  Read on the back porch and couch over a period of 3 days.  3 stars

I was a huge Christie enthusiast in my early teens, but Poroit was actually my least favorite of her creations. Hannah's tale is a tad darker than most of Christie's (with the exception of Endless Night, which threw me for a loop in a big way), and there are very subtle hints that her narrator is gay, something that would not have been considered in the originals. The ending got a little convoluted, which is nothing out of the ordinary for this style of mystery. For the quality of the homage, I'd give the book a five, but no longer being such a fan of the style, or Poroit, it was just a three for me.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Chocolate Tag

I don't really get this "tag" thing. Well, I kind of get it, but I don't know anybody to tag me, nor do I have anyone to tag. But in my internet wanderings, I discovered the creature known as the "Booktuber." One in particular, Caz of Little Book Owl charmed me with her pink hair, Australian accent, and obvious enthusiasm. As I spent some time viewing her videos, I got all excited about the chocolate tag she shared.

So here's what I've come up with. If you like this, consider yourself tagged, then let me know what you came up with!

Dark Chocolate--a heavy topic.  The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle. This is one of the few books I listened to rather than reading, and the Irish accent of the reader made it even better. Doyle is best known for his hilarious Barrytown trilogy. The sense of humor is still here, but the first person narrator is sharing her history as an abused wife. It's painful and sad and hopeful and amazingly well done.

White Chocolate--a light, silly read.  Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason. Jason Getty buried a body in his backyard. Then two other bodies are discovered in his yard--but he has no idea how they got there. It gets pretty ridiculous. Not the most memorable book I've read, but a fun one.

Milk Chocolate--popular, lots of hype, dying to read.  The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. Ness is one of those authors I will read without any knowledge about the book, because I trust him to amaze me, and probably break my heart. In a good way. Therefore, I can't wait to read his latest.

Chocolate with a Caramel Center--made you feel gooey in the middle.  He, She, and It by Marge Piercy. Early nineties feminist sci fi. With a swoony romance between a divorcee and a cyborg. I know, it doesn't sound promising. Trust me. It's great.

Wafer free kit-kat--a book that surprised you recently.  Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. I already gushed about it here. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I was overwhelmed. Love it. (What is a wafer free kit-kat, anyway? Is that really a thing?)

Snickers--a book you are going nuts about.   Winter by Marissa Meyer. PUBLISH IT ALREADY, DAMMIT!!! I am completely nuts about this series, and it is KILLING ME to wait for the final installment. I'm so excited for it!

Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows--what book do you go to for a comfort read?  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montogomery. Once in college my roomie and I were watching the mini-series, and she turned to me and said, "Between the two of us, how many times do you think we've cried over Matthew's death?" Well over a dozen, as we'd both read it over and over, then watched the adaptation several times. I owned about six books in the series as a kid, but the first book is the one that really stays in my heart.

Box of Chocolates--a series with variety and something for everyone.  Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series. I have read my way through many a mystery series in my time. Nine times out of ten, the patterns get too predictable, or the characters get stale (or the plots get too convoluted in an attempt to avoid getting stale). Elizabeth George's series is that tenth one that just keeps developing and growing. One key is that her cast of recurring characters is large, and different books focus on different points of view. Another is that those recurring characters actually (gasp!) change and grow. Finally, each mystery involves a complex range of one-off characters, who are as well develped and fascinating as the recurring characters. Kinsey Milhone's investigations all run together, but I still remember specific characters and situations from individual cases that Lynley has been involved in.