Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Wrap-up

The Wrap-Up Round-Up is a creation of Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction, and this month's related giveaway is hosted by Lory at Emerald City Book Review.

But first, my favorite song about September, for your listening pleasure:

My reading

This "working for a living" thing cut severely into my reading time.  After reading about two dozen books in August, I'm down to a measly ten in September, plus two I gave up on.  Nine of my finished books were solid reads though, so I'm not too unhappy with my reading month.  

Abandoned Midstream

I once used Goodreads just for myself.    I didn't know about catchy blogger acronyms like DNF or TBR or even NA and MG.  So I'm sticking with Abandoned Midstream instead of DNF.  More evocative.    

After trying twice to get going on Throne of Glass, I had to call it quits.  It just wasn't wowing me enough to keep struggling through.  Not when there are so many other books that I do enjoy.  The premise sounds good, but all she does is talk about clothes and how hot she is.  Poison Study was a much better take on a similar premise.  Hell, The Thief is a better take on it, and Gen's a boy.  

Shadows of Sherwood is all it's cracked up to be, and I enjoyed the part of it I read.  I just don't have the same love for MG books that I do for YA.  It's a character fault, and I guess it's good that I teach 7th and 8th grade instead of 4-6th.  (Though I do sometime manage to overstep their comfort zone anyway.)  I do recommend the book; it just wasn't for me.  

Mildly Disappointing

Remembering Raquel by Vivian Vande Velde.  It was partly my fault, because I was expecting fantasy goodness, and instead got realistic fiction.  I tend to like multiple POV, especially when there is no objective truth to be found, but it just wasn't as good as I'd hoped.  I gave it three stars, but it was more of a 2.5.



I gave Liars, Inc. three stars and the rest four.  You could probably argue me back down to a three for most of them, now that I'm not in my post-book glow, but I really enjoyed all of them.  I got caught up in the stories and rooted for all the protagonists.  


I put a bunch of "buzz" books on hold at the library, and they came through for me quickly.  Some of that haul are in the above group, and the rest were even better.  Bone Gap--strange and wonderful.  Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda--funny and wonderful.  George--ground breaking and wonderful.  Made You Up--oh my god that cover and wonderful.  Vengeance Road--I can't believe how much I'm loving this Western and wonderful.  Reading so many good books in a row, I feel unable to pick out which really will stick with me.  I gave George, Simon Vs. and Made You Up five stars and the others four, but I find that I'm thinking more about Bone Gap than any of those besides Simon.  

My Writing

I assumed I wouldn't write nearly as much this month, since I was back at work.  However, it seems employment cut into my reading more than my writing, as I have 16 posts this month, down only four from last month.  My discussion posts have being getting very little discussion going.  I'm not sure if my topics are lame, I'm not framing enough questions, or it's just that nobody is reading this.  Last month's wrap-up and the TTT posts were my most viewed.

I had a post appear on Nerdy Book Blog.  It was my third time posting, but the first one that went beyond a top ten list.  I had 430 visits to my blog the day that ran.  In comparison, I've had 26 today.  So that was kind of exciting.  I also got some kind words from a teacher blogger whom I admire greatly.  

I also got accepted as a 2nd round judge for the CYBILs.  I'm not sure what I've gotten myself in for, but hell, if I can't get paid to read, I can at least put my volunteer time in as a reader.  

My favorite post is probably the one about saying "masturbation" to my seventh grade class during my banned book week presentation.  Sheesh.   Talk about complete chaos.  When I told my principal about it, he joked, "I'll just change the school's phone message to, 'If you're calling in regards to Ms. Gassaway's reading class...'"  Other than that, it was a great teaching day, and I enjoyed seeing kids' thoughts and reactions as we discussed why various well-known books have been challenged.

Internet Goodies

Non reading related:


As I mentioned, I went back to work.  Teacher started in late August, and kids actually came back Sept. 1, which was weird to me.  We always start the day after Labor Day around here, and I'm pretty sure Labor Day has been late other times in my life.  I have a new assignment this year, as Reading Intervention teacher, and I LOVE IT.  I'm still figuring out what the heck I'm doing, especially with the class that I'm supposed to be running a canned program with, but I am so inspired and excited.  Also, my student loads have dropped significantly, which has brought a lot of the joy back too.  I do better with smaller groups.  

For the first year in many, we aren't making wine this fall.  It's kind of restful, actually.  I just don't want us to lose steam in moving forward with last year's wine, which was our first commercial bottling.  

Thanks to a grant underwritten by Grandma, we were able to sign our daughter up for a choir and theater course this fall.  She seems pretty happy.  Today our son went to check out the diving program at the local aquatic center.  He has severe anxiety about anything new, so he was being a sh*thead all afternoon, but as soon as we got to the pool, he loosened up, and came out of the session beaming.  So it looks like we'll be signing him up for that.

I signed up for Uppercase Box and got my first shipment mid-month.  SO FUN.  Not only did I get a copy of Vengeance Road, but I got golden snitch earrings and a very pretty "Books To Read" notepad.  It's not cheap, but I think I'm going to keep indulging myself.  If I were all instagrammy, this is where I'd add photos of the box and contents.  But I'm not, thus giving your imagination greater scope.  You're welcome.

Monday, September 28, 2015

TTT: If You Like Tiramisu, You Should Try English Truffle

The Broke and the Bookish have a very fun topic for us this week.  “If you love X, then you should read Y.”  I came up with ten suggestions that  fit the bill, from the obscure to the obvious.  And they are…

If you like Smile, you should read Awkward.  Not autobiographical, but still a very realistic look at middle school life.  It’s blurbed as something of a meet cute young romance, but the friendship that awkwardly develops is really  pretty platonic, and the focus of the story is more on the tension between the art club and the science club, and the ebb and flow of various friendships. 

 If you like Ellen Hopkins, but are maybe a little freaked out by the meth use and prostitution stuff, you should read the Make Lemonade trilogy.  Published before “novels in verse” even were called that, this series is set in the projects of Portland, Oregon—although it’s never made all that obvious in the book.  Fourteen year old LaVaughn needs to save money if she’s going to be able to get into college, so she takes a babysitting job for  a 17 year old single mom.  The two girls have a lot to teach each other, not all of it what you (or they) might have expected.  Less sordid than Hopkins, the books are nevertheless very realistic.

If you liked TFIOS, then you should read Deadline.  Chris Crutcher has a solid place in the YA hall of fame, but nothing like John Green’s rockstar status.  This is a shame, because his kids are just as smart and snarky as Green’s, while still somehow still sounding like actual teenagers.  Deadline begins with soon-to-be senior in high school Ben finding out he has a terminal illness.  Rather than, you know, telling anyone, he decided to handle it on his own, living his life with an ironic  fearlessness.  Funny.  Sad.  Thoughtful.  Also, Crutcher writes the only sports novels I’ve read where I don’t skip over the actual sports scenes. 


If you like the Lunar Chronicles, then you should read Truly Grim Tales.  (If you don’t like the Lunar Chronicles, I don’t know if we can be friends.)  Sure, it’s a collection of short stories, not an epic series, but the spirit of taking the core of a fairy tale and doing something new and exciting with it is there.  Plus, the final line o the final story made me burst into laughter.

This one is a bit of a stretch, but if you like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you should try The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez.  I wanted to include this book, and I thought to myself, “What better known work deals with a young woman trying to figure out her life despite the struggles and limitations placed on her by her family?”  Just, you know, a 21st century Latina in LA version.  I’ve recommended this to several students, and it always goes over well. 


Here’s another weird one—if you like Bridget Zinn's Poison, you should try to find a copy of Song of Sorcery. I still have the copy I had in middle school, and it was obscure even then.  It’s a light-hearted fantasy road story with a strong female lead and a sweet romance. 

Another one I struggled to place is Chime.  I’m going with if you like Lips Touch: Three Times you should try this.  It is haunting, and strange, and mysterious.  Only—I gotta be honest here—I was expecting it to be weirder after reading the reviews and blurb for it.  It’s not THAT odd.  But it is that good.  (And if you like the Daughter of Shadow and Bone trilogy, then you should read Taylor's earlier collection, Lips Touch: Three Times!)


If you like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should read another great book about outsiders finding their place, Tales of the Madmen Underground.   In mandatory school counseling with the same group of misfits for years, Karl decides it’s time for him to start passing as normal.  This despite still having a dead dad, alcoholic mom, and  enough smartassery to fuel a rocket ship.  (That is what they’re fueled with, right?)

If you like All the Bright Places, you should read DarknessVisible: A Memoir of Madness.  William Styron’s short memoir about his struggle with severe depression offers a new perspective on Violet and Fitch’s mental health battles.  I read this because someone close to me was dealing with suicidal depression, and I found much to relate to, and much explained in words my person couldn’t access. 


Finally, on a slightly lighter note, if you liked Bone Gap, then you should read Blankets, because Petey references this book constantly.  If you weren’t already familiar with it, reading it now will make you say, “Oh, THAT’S what she was talking about! 

This was hard! But good practice for me. I hope you found something new to investigate.

Oh, and one last thing...

Talking Banned Books with Middle Schoolers

My BBW lessons came together pretty last minute (read, I was up late last night figuring things out, and stopped at FedEx on my way to work to print color copies).  My hallway bulletin board is pretty shoddy, but I will be able to re-use the materials in the future, so I can build on them from here.

There were some awesome poetry and an infographic about author's responses available online.
And this is why I'm not Pinterest Famous.  
Banned Books we have available in our school library

I started my classes by reading Tango Makes Three aloud.  I told them the book had been banned, and asked them to figure out why as I read.  One 8th grade class was all, "Um, so the penguins are both boys, but why would someone ban it because of that?" The other two 8th grade classes were able to identify why it's been banned, but my 7th graders just couldn't bring themselves to say it.  They GOT it, they just couldn't say "gay," out loud, in class.  Which is interesting, considering how often I STILL hear kids say, "That's gay" to each other.  (Though actually, I don't hear it as much as I did 10 or 20 years ago.)   The level of mild freaking out in all but that one class let me talk about how if something offends or bothers you, you don't have to read it, or give your children access to it.  But you still can't control what others decide.  

How can you not love this sweet story? Still, I did have kids who were clearly uncomfortable when I was reading.

I told them that I won't let my kids play certain video games, but I am not trying to get those games banned for other kids.

I said I hate to read horror, and I've never been able to read A Child Called It, but I support their right to read either of those if it interests them.   Just because I don't like it doesn't mean I can take it away from them.

Heads were nodding by then in all classes.  This was making sense.  

Next, I pulled out a stack of books I'd asked our librarian to send me.  One at a time, I held up a book that has been challenged or banned in the last ten years, and we talked about the reasons behind it.  The Hunger Games.  Captain Underpants.  (Shrieks of disbelief.)   Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  The Golden Compass.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harry Potter.   We talked about how the books reflect reality, rather than create it.  Captain Underpants doesn't teach 3rd grade boys to love potty humor.  He is popular because 3rd grade boys already love potty humor.  ("Heck, I like potty humor too," said one of my 8th graders.)   Another student brought up the idea that when YA books have cussing and sexuality in them, it makes the book more believable and easier to relate to. 


One of my favorite moments happened when I held up Twilight.  The beefy kid in the camo jacket held up his hand.  "I know why that book is banned," he announced.  "Vampires don't sparkle."  This gave me a chance to talk about the fact that while I think it's second rate writing, and the romance is unhealthy, I would still allow my daughter to read it, but I would be sure to talk to her about what bugged me about it too.  Basically, thinking a book is crap is still not a good reason to ban it.

My grand finale each class period was holding up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and telling them that this was the number one most challenged book in the US for the last two years running, AND that it is one of my all time favorite books.  I told them the book is funny, and sad, and honest.  I told them it's been challenged because it contains racial slurs--but, like TKAM, how do you write a book confronting racism without admitting racism exists?  I told them the drinking and cussing have offended people.  

And I told them that the book deals with Junior's body and his response to girls and his thoughts about girls.  The 8th graders nodded sagely.  They knew what I was saying.  The 7th graders said, "What?  What do you mean?"  

So, in the spirit of anti-censorship, I said, "Okay, it talks about masturbation and wet dreams."

And then all hell broke loose.

Seriously, kids were falling out of their chairs, they were laughing so hard.  One kid turned bright red.  Another kid made, um, inappropriate hand gestures.  And when I say "kid," I mean "boy." The girls sat and rolled their eyes.  "Grow up, you guys," they sighed.  "So immature."  

In short, I think we all learned something today.

Or as my friend Carla would say, "Teacher of the year award, right here!"

I Read Banned Books, but can I let students do the same?

In honor of Banned Books week, I'm re-running my second post ever, from way back in June.  Yes, barely three months ago.  But I still feel strongly about it!

Click here for a list of the ten most frequently challenged books in 2014.  60% are young adult novels.

Click here for Ellen Hopkin's very cool poem on the topic.
I'm being pretty public with this blog, so I'm considering how best to approach this topic without being unprofessional.  Forgive me, but I'm going to have to stick to generalities.  There's a book.  It's a really good book.  It's written about high school juniors.  The book includes infrequent but vicious swearing, sexuality but no sex, and some pretty ugly portrayals of one character's home life.  It was banned at my middle school last spring.  I disagreed with the decision, but after a passionate but polite email exchange with my boss, followed by a face-to-face conversation, I decided not to engage in civil disobedience.  The book is still available to students at the public library, many of them probably aren't ready for it yet, and it's not worth putting my job at risk.  Right?  Right?  

Yet I've felt somewhat queasy about my capitulation ever since.

As I wrote those emails to my principal, I started listing all the other books we have available, or even include in our curriculum, that some parents might object to.  Then I got paranoid, and removed all the titles from my email, not wanting to be told to yank all those books too.  That's the thing--once you start, where do you stop?  If the c-word and f-word aren't okay, do we also get rid of books that say dammit?  If the plot can't include teens who are sexually active, can it include reference to teen pregnancy or masturbation? Does it matter if it's the main character or a side character is pregnant?  If masturbation is handled referred to with humor or detachment?   What about the dad that doesn't want his children--or wife-- reading Harry Potter because magic comes from Satan?  What about the family that doesn't want their 14 year old reading (Newbery award-winning children's novel) The Giver because a baby is murdered?  (Yes, those are both real situations I've had in my classroom.)  Do they get to dictate what is on the shelf in our school library or in my classroom?

The slippery slope argument works both ways, I suppose.  "Why don't we just let them read Fifty Shades of Grey and The Joy of Sex?" I imagine the pro-banned book types sneering.*^  Well, for one thing, I am an actual educator, with actual 20 years of experience and an actual master's degree.  So I'm smart enough to tell the difference between "YA" and "porn."  If your kids are going to investigate porn, they're going to do it on your time, not mine.  But again--while parents have EVERY RIGHT to supervise their kids' reading habits (and viewing habits and dealing-with-other-human being habits), they have ZERO RIGHT to supervise the choices of other people's kids.

I read Clan of the Cave Bear (and its even racier sequels) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in middle school, with my parent's awareness, if not explicit approval.  (And I just this second realized they are both by Oregon authors.  Woot.)  I loved both of them, and if I didn't get the full impact that a more mature reader would have gotten, I still got what I was ready for.  I loved pondering human evolution with Ayla, I laughed and wept over McMurphy, and I was horrified by the banal evil of Nurse Randall.  Sure, I was a precocious reader.  Does the fact that some of my classmates weren't ready for these books mean I should have been prevented from reading them?

For that matter, I read some downright crappy smut around that age.   We all snuck-read the dirty parts of Forever and Flowers in the Attic.  The former just made me giggle, but the latter made me ill, so I never picked up another book by that author or in that genre.  In those pre-internet days, that's where many kids expanded on their classroom sex ed.  Other kids...well, some other kids engaged in more hands-on research.  I'd far rather have my kid read smut than try it out.  I know it's not an either/or, but I can tell you for sure that my precocious reading did not lead to early sex.  If anything, it gave me a somewhat better understanding of the adult world and its pitfalls.

That leads me to the final point I'd like to make about censorship and middle schoolers.  Instead of focusing on why we shouldn't ban a book, let's talk about why we should allow a book.  "We read to know we are not alone," as C.S. Lewis said.  I wish all of my students lived in a safe, happy, G-rated world.  But they don't.  I have kids who are abused, kids who go hungry, kids who have lost parents to death or prison or drugs.  I have kids who are battling mental illnesses or eating disorders, kids who struggle with their sexuality, kids who face racism, kids who are racist, kids in gangs, kids scared of gangs...anything that someone might object to in a YA novel is something that real teenagers, and even children, are dealing with in their real life.

As for cussing, we do our best, we really do, but if any student in the United States has ridden a school bus all year, walked down the halls of a middle school all year, changed in the locker room, and ducked into the restroom, and not heard a single cuss word, I will eat my laptop.

So let the kids read their reality.  Let them find out they are not alone.  Let them see how others have overcome the unthinkable, how pain can lead to growth, how decisions they are facing might play out.  A book won't spill your secrets or judge you, but it can encourage and advise you.  It can make you less alone.

What about the lucky kids?  The ones whose lives do not include anything objectionable?  We--for I was a lucky kid myself--we need to hear those stories too.  How else to develop empathy?  When you tell a kid, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is facing a hard battle," do you want them to simply imagine waiting in line for mediocre cafeteria food and not being allowed to stay up all night playing video games?  Or do you want them to have the scope of imagined experience that will inform them that their classmates could indeed have real problems?

Kids crave honest reality.  A Child Called It is one of the most checked-out books in our school library.  I've never been able to bring myself to read it, but students flock to the description of dehumanizing abuse.  They root for Dave and marvel in his transformation from objectified victim to kind man and famous author.  So, just because as a parent of kids who come from an abusive background I find the concept too upsetting, should I censor it for my students?  Of course not--and may the empathy they develop for the boy in the book translate into empathy for my kids and all like them.

My make-shift compromise is this:  Books that include language that wouldn't be allowed in a classroom, sexually active teenagers, or certain mature themes such as suicide, drug abuse, etc., will be housed at my desk.  If a student wants to check a book out from this collection, they need to first talk to me.  Part of my job is to know the books, and to know the kids.  I will explain this in my letter home at the start of the year.  I will give parents three choices to indicate on a paper that returns to me.  A) Please do not allow my child to browse or borrow from these books.  B)  Please notify me of any titles my child wants to borrow, and I will let you know if I approve.  C)  My child has permission to borrow any books they are interested in reading.  B) is more work for me, but I think it's necessary to let parents be informed and not make blanket decisions.  What do you think?  How do you handle this in your classroom?

Maybe I'll use this sign to indicate this section of my classroom library.

No?  Too sassy?

*I feel like my lack of smutty book knowledge is showing with those examples.  SorryNotSorry.
^ I'm not adding links for these titles...I think I just developed a Blog Policy.  I will only link to books I would actually recommend to a student.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Published 2015
327 pages
YA Historical Fiction/Western

This was the first book (and only, so far) I got from Uppercase book box service. I was initially a tiny bit disappointed, because it's clearly a Western, and I wasn't sure I'd like it.

The cover, however, is GORGEOUS. I don't like orange, yet I love the desert flowers and how they contrast with the skulls and pistols. The lettering is also awesome. No surprise that the author has a background in design. Not that she designed the cover, but I imagine she had some ideas and was part of the process. Also, I usually loathe actually dealing with covers as I read, but the paper this was printed on was very pleasant to the touch, not slick and slippery. I actually read the entire book without taking the cover off in a huff.

The book starts with a bang. Kate, our heroine ("protagonist" sounds too anachronistic for this yarn), shoots a man in cold blood on page nine. He is a murderer, but still. It sets a tone where you're never sure how far Kate will go down her road of vengeance. It also gives her plenty of room for character growth, if that's what the author is aiming for.

I was happily reading along, enjoying the story, the characters, the slowly budding romance, the terrific sense of place, the acknowledgement of the diversity of the population, when page 227 caught me completely off guard. Did. Not. Expect. That. 

Then again, on page 285, I got another shock. In retrospect, I could have pieced that one together earlier, but I didn't, okay? 

Those two events earned the extra half star for me. The first one made the book a little darker, and the second one showed the author had more up her sleeve than I'd expected.

About the dialogue--I noticed some reviewers were entirely put off by it. I don't understand why. I didn't find it overdone to the point of distraction, and it was certainly appropriate for the story being told. Why would Kate talk like a 2015 teenager? THAT would have been distracting. 

I also enjoyed the author's afterward, with her story-behind-the-story.  

The next paragraph is a spoiler!

I was puzzled by the ending, or rather, the bit just before the ending. What was the point of separating our young lovers, then reuniting them? Did we just need to see that Kate could stand on her own two feet without Jesse if she had to? I think we already knew that. Did she want to create one last round of will-they-or-won't-they tension? Um, the fact that I had a chapter left pretty well signified that there was time for a reunion. Although I guess after Will's death, I didn't feel a happy ending was 100% guaranteed. Whatever the purpose was, it felt like it just tacked on an extra chapter after the story had already resolved.

3.5 stars

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reader's Timeline and Blogger Energy

I recently was looking at the adorable graphic reviews and infographics over at The Bibliomaniac.  And I thought, "I wanna do that too!"  Only, of course, I have no idea how.  Now, I realize that the internet is a great source for learning about...the internet.  In other words, I can certainly find tutorials on how to create that type of thing.  It would be interesting, and I would enjoy it, and I'm all about the life long learning.


It's not just that there are 24 hours in a day.  We all get the same amount, and yet there are those who do FAR more than I do already.  And, yeah, I'm pretty sure there are those who do far less.  It's more that my energy is finite.  Some of this comes from not being as young as I once was, some of it comes from being out of shape and overweight, some of it comes from being a mom and a teacher and a wife and a friend and just basically someone with a significant set of responsibilities.  

I think though, that most of my energy conservation needs are driven by being an introvert.  Not so much in the "avoid people" way as in the "needs lots of alone time to recharge" way.  And being a mom and a teacher and all those other things means that I am pretty much always operating on an alone-time deficit.  

So given that I spend a great deal of time wishing I were taking a nap, I have to be smart about what I put my energy into.  I could very happily spend the rest of my afternoon and evening learning how to make cool infographics and then practicing my new skill, but these are the things that would NOT be happening during that time:
  • grading student work
  • making dinner
  • supervising washing up
  • lesson planning
  • interacting with my kids
  • baking cookies
  • taking a walk
  • talking with my husband
  • reading
  • setting up a coffee date with a friend
  • writing
  • taking an actual damn nap
Not all of the things on that list are more fun than learning how to infograph.  Not all of the things are, objectively, more important.  But they are important to me.  I'm not going to get to all of them today, but they are the things I need to get to this weekend in order to not be stressed out about life. 

I know a lot of bloggers put a lot more energy into their blogs than I do.  They hire designers, request ARCs, and post daily.  But mostly what I like to do is read.  And then to write about reading related stuff.  At some point I may try to figure out why my links come up in an ugly color, or why sometimes my text has white highlights.  If making infographics becomes something I find myself wanting to do in a range of contexts--for blogging AND teaching--then I will find the time to do it.   

All of that being said, I did find this reader's timeline I made last year as a model for my students.  Enjoy.

What are the competing demands on your time?  Because I'm pretty sure all humans have them.  How much time do you put into your blog weekly?  Actually, that's something I'd like to see a poll about, preferably on a blog that gets a lot more traffic than mine does.  I'm curious about that.  I'm also curious about the amount of time spent blogging in different demographics--do the college students spend more time than the working moms?  Do the authors blog less, since it's like giving away their work for free?

Also, can I get away with taking a nap right now without my kids getting out of control?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Open Endings

The other day I read the same short story aloud five times.  "Under the Rug," by Jon Scieszka, is one of fourteen stories in Chris Van Allsburg's The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.  You may remember The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, published in 1984 as a collection of pictures with just the title and a quote from the allegedly missing story.  In 2011, "14 Amazing Authors," just like it says on the front cover, each wrote a story to accompany one illustration, sticking to the original title and "quote" the picture illustrated.  I chose Scieszka's because it is short, funny, and relies on the reader to make some rather simple inferences.

The new version
The Original, with the illustration Scieszka wrote about.

As I read the story aloud to each class, it was immediately clear who was getting it, and who wasn't.  "Where did that cat get to?" mutters grandma, and two classes gasped and giggled, realizing that the dust monster must have snacked on the kitty.  Three classes, however, sat in stony silence.  The end was even more revealing--spoiler--when the narrator calls grandma out to get eaten by the monster.  Even in the classes that hadn't commented on the cat's disappearance, a few kids said, "What?  Did he just kill his grandma?" and the classes that were following all along--well, they pretty much went berserk.

Many students, however, had no reaction whatsoever to the ending, and when I prodded them, were unable to tell me what had happened.  "I don't know...he asked her to come to the living room.  To sweep, I guess?"

The rest of the class took them through it, and we finally got everyone to understand what Scieszka had made pretty clear already.  The whole thing prompted me to start asking them how they handle it when authors leave things open to interpretation, which in turn got me thinking about a good blog discussion question.

How clearly do you like the author to spell things out?  In this particular example, it's clear what Scieszka intended, and I think it's fun that he lets you imagine what comes next.  Inferring comes easily to me after years of reading and life experience.  However, many of my struggling readers were lost.  They needed things described and pinned down.


Do you want to have all the loose ends tied up and all the mysteries explained?  Or do you like an ending that could be interpreted in more than one way?  The Giver is a classic YA novel with an open ending. The recent publication of Son makes it clear that Jonas and Gabe survived, but even Lowry said for years that she intended it to be up to the reader, and that some readers were angry at her for "killing them off," while others were sure that the boys made it safely to Elsewhere.  Would that kind of ending drive you nuts, or fill you with joy?  I was fine with that ending, but Tana French's In the Woods frustrated the heck out of me when I realized that although the mystery of the day had been solved, the mystery of the past, with its implications of supernatural dangers, was not going to be explained.

Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Monday, September 21, 2015

TTT: It was the Summer of '69

Edited because MY BAD, I forgot to credit the wonderful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish for inventing and sponsoring this link-up extravaganza!  And also because the placement of the book covers vs. historical photos was bugging me.

In which, yet again, Wendy rebels against the topic of the week and makes up her own.  My too-read list is too long and my approach to it too impulsive (and/or too driven by what I can actually get at the library) to let me put together any kind of comprehensive list for you guys.  Instead, I'm going with an idea I had while working on last week's list.

I got my first real six string...

Well, no, I didn't actually.  Instead, I was BORN, which is also pretty exciting and important.  Missed the moon landing by three days, and I think I was in high school before I figured out that the Vietnam War was actually going on when I was alive.  Still, it was 1969, and I was there.

Neil Armstrong.  Photo credit: Buzz Aldrin.  
Putting together last week's TTT list I discovered that, just like me, one of the books on my list was published in 1969.  That got me thinking about which other books came out that year, so I looked it up.  There were some I've never heard of (Flashman, The Sunflower, Travels with My Aunt) and others I've never felt moved to read (Portnoy's Complaint, The Godfather, The Cay).  There were a few that made me think, "Oooh, I probably should have read that by now" (Slaughterhouse Five, a collection of poems by Anne Sexton, and one of Farley Mowatt's delightful memoirs).  I had no idea What To Expect When You're Expecting was around before the 1980s, or that Milan Kundera published a couple of books way back then.

Woodstock, man.
There were quite a few I remember from the collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books we kept at our beach cabin: The Adromeda StrainThe King's Pleasure, Mary, Queen of Scots, Master and Commander.  (For those of you too young or too cultured to know what those are, they were omnibus collections of 3-5 best selling novels boiled down to about 2/3 of their original size, and I believe they were published quarterly throughout the sixties and seventies.  I read both serious junk and rather good books in that format.  Mostly junk, though.  I doubt serious literature lends itself to being condensed.)

The real question, of course, is which books published in my birth year have I read and enjoyed. In no particular order, here they are:

The Beatles looking decidedly groovy.

1.  Betty Crocker's Cookbook by some impersonal company masquerading as a sweet little housewife in order to sell more groceries.
We have a later edition of this book in our pantry even as I write.  I believe my mother-in-law gave it to my husband when he got his own place.  I don't use it a lot, but it is home to my biscuit recipe, my German pancake recipe (both memorized by now, but that's where I got them from originally), and some decent cake recipes.  It's what I check whenever I forget how long and at what heat meatloaf needs to cook.  It doesn't have the same importance in my life that Betty Crocker's Cookie Cookbook does, but it's a solid entry.

2.  Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban
I adore the Frances books (although it turns out they're kind of LONG for nighttime read-alouds).  The arbitrariness of the characters all being badgers, Frances's revealing little songs, the patience of her parents, and the lovely illustrations with those Nesco wafer colors--they're pretty much dripping with charm.

It turns out that this particular one involves a threat of a spanking, so it probably wouldn't fly these days, which may explain why although we've found and read all the others to my children, I don't remember seeing this one since I was a kid.  Some Goodreads reviewers also complain that Frances is disobedient, which is kind of the point, or that her father smokes a pipe, which is retro enough to be a non issue.  I mean, if you're going to complain about that, you can also complain that her mother wears a dress and doesn't have a career, or that Frances's bedtime is awfully early.  Different era, people.  Your kid is not going to take up pipe smoking because they see a badger with a pipe in a picture book.

Also, I did not realize before that Garth Williams illustrated the first book before the author's wife, Lilian Hoban, took over as illustrator.  Williams is one of the few illustrators whose work I recognized as a kid (along with Ernest Shepherd and Quentin Blake), so I'm not surprised that he originated the style for a series with pictures I loved.

3. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
I take that back; I also recognized Steig's art as a kid.  I don't remember specifics about this Caldecott winner, but I do remember Sylvester the donkey being turned into a rock, unable to communicate with his frantically searching parents, and their joy at being reunited at the end.

4.  The High King by Lloyd Alexander
This series was the fantasy series of my youth.  The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit were beloved, but old even way back then.  The High King was the conclusion of the Chronicles of Prydain, but Lloyd Alexander was still writing as I grew up.  There was an excerpt from The Black Cauldron in one of those anthologies read at school, and I went straight from that to the book to the entire series, then to everything else he was writing.  It is Welsh influenced, both dark and humorous, with characters that were more believably flawed than the Pensevie children.  I was reminded of it recently by Poison, because a pig plays an important role in this adventure also.

I'm guessing that men of all colors looking like Barbie dolls while wearing bell bottoms was NOT part of King's dream.

5.  The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
A Victorian tragic romance...or is it?  Fowles plays with the tropes, lifts the curtain behind which the author toils, and injects a sixties spirit into his story.  I never saw the '80s Meryl Streep movie, but I remember the romantic looking movie posters, which inspired me to pick up the book itself a few years later.  I was surprised and happy to realize it was not just faux Hardy, yet neither was it experimental enough to make me feel stupid, and thus annoyed.

6.  I Sing the Body Electric by Ray Bradbury
The title of this short story collection always makes me hum the song from Fame (again, dating myself here) even though it's actually referencing a Walt Whitman poem.  Bradbury is just such an amazing writer, skating smoothly between horror and nostalgia and sci fi and philosophy and humor.  I've been wanting to write a Throwback Thursday post about The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, Bradbury's more famous collections. This collection is not one I remember as well, but after  we read the first two in middle school, I methodically plowed through everything else by him I could get my hands on, and I know this was among them.  It may not sound like a compliment to say Stephen King reminds me of him (though he does), but it's clearly legit to see a connection to Neil Gaiman, given this incredible short story and tribute Gaiman narrates here, called "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury."

My dad told stories about covering Vietnam War protests in Portland.  Hard to imagine.

7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Sometimes I wonder if we're going backwards.  I got pushback on reading The Giver with 8th grade students a few years ago, and I've already written about the actual banning of a YA book from our middle school last spring.  But when I was in ninth grade, we read this searing autobiography, complete with incestuous rape, in class.  Of course, we were assigned it because it's a monumental celebration of the human spirit, not to mention a huge wake-up to call to reality for all the white, middle class kids I grew up with.  (Including me.)  Angelou went on to become one of the most famous poets of our time, and one of the most widely respected female African Americans in general.  To those who would shelter their children from reading this book--that is the very definition of privilege, since Angelou, and thousands--millions?-- of kids still today are living this life, not just reading about it.  Sticking our heads in the sand is not going to improve anyone's life.

*carefully steps down off soap box*

8.  The Promise by Chaim Potok
The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen, which I ALSO read in my freshman English class.  Then I ran out and looked for other works by the same author.  Yes, I have always been a major nerd, why do you ask?  (Man, we read Romeo & Juliet and Cry the Beloved Country that year too.  What was UP with that teacher?  It's like she was trying to educate us or something!)

Part of the fascination may have been the up close look at the life and quandaries of mid century New York Jews.  The local Jewish Academy only went through 8th grade, so freshman year there was an influx of new-to-us students who identified very clearly as Jewish.  They were, of course, a lot like us (did I mention white, middle class suburban kids?) and yet there was something different too, and these books showed me some of that.  Then again, the differences also revealed similarities, because you don't have to be an Orthodox Jew to question the faith of your ancestors, or struggle to balance between two worlds.

9.  Helen Keller by Margaret Davidson
Oh my god, when I was a kid my obsession with Helen Keller was second only to my obsession with Sacagawea.  (See previous comments re: my general nerdiness.)  I can still picture the illustrations that went with the children's biographies I read about both of them.  So yes, when I got older, I read this full length biography.

Biographies tended to be overly glowing when I was a kid, and now I know that all heroes have flaws.  The thing is, Keller's life really does prove that you can do anything if you have enough determination.  And Anne Sullivan proved that the right teacher can literally change your life. You really don't get much more badass than these two. (Unless, you know, you accompany a pack of oafs around the country, keeping them out of trouble, while toting your baby and translating for a teenager.)

10.  Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, and this is one of my favorite books.  If you like science fiction, you must read this.  If you don't like science fiction, you should read this anyway.  Le Guin has joked that she wrote the book just so she could include the sentence, "The King was pregnant."  Because on the planet Hainish diplomat Genli Ai is visiting, all people can become physically male or physically female at various points throughout their life.  More specifically, they periodically enter a state of kemmer, which is rather like being in heat, and at that time take on sexual characteristics of either sex.  But when kemmer passes, they go back to being asexual.  (This makes it challenging for me not to smirk at my kid's pediatrician, Dr. Kemmerer.)  So the same person could father one child and then give birth to another.

That's all pretty great, and gives Le Guin great scope to speculate and imagine what the world might be like if sexism (but not sexuality) was effectively removed from the picture.  SHE PUBLISHED THIS IN 1969, PEOPLE!  I mean, yeah, sexual revolution, women's lib, blah blah blah, but I'm pretty sure most Americans weren't really wrapping their heads around the idea that hetero was not the only option, or that gender didn't have to be destiny.

The book is not all cerebral though, it's an adventure, with political intrigue and daring escapes, and even better, a story of how friendship and love can shake you up and set you down in a new place.  The Hainish people are civilized beyond imagination, the product of centuries of steady development.  Imagine Scandinavia, only more so.  They are the We of these books, and the people they encounter on other planets are the Other.  Yet Ai himself comes to understand that he is not inherently superior to the people of Winter, and he is changed by his time there.

A final comment: The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published that year.  I feel ambivalent about this book.  The structure is cool, especially to kids, and the colors are gorgeous.  I don't really care for the art itself, and even as a kid, the "story" bored me to tears.  I don't loathe it like I do The Giving Tree, and it's not creepy like Love You Forever, but it's not a book I've ever been into.  Still, it's so famous and beloved that I feel weird not mentioning it on this list.  So consider it mentioned.  Coldly.

TL;DR?  Wendy's older than than most of the book bloggers out there, and you need to read Left Hand of Darkness.