Monday, October 31, 2016

SOL: Greek Urns and Face Paint

I read a great article the other day about avoiding "Greek Urns," meaning not wasting classroom time with projects that felt fun, but had no real educational purpose.

Then today I let ten students stand around and watch one student turn me into a kitty cat with her "traveling makeup bag."

Whoops.  My bad.

Let me attempt to explain.

Several weeks ago, one of my 8th graders came in giggling because a high school friend of hers had showed her a picture on her phone of a day two years ago when I let her paint a dot on my nose and whiskers on my cheeks.  I can't remember what my rationale was that time, but when my current student said, "Can we do that too?" I told her, "Ask me on Halloween."

And then I forgot all about it.

But she didn't.  Neither did any of the other girls in the class.  So today they showed up with that traveling makeup bag and oodles of enthusiasm.  It's the last period of the day.  It's a small class.  It's Halloween.  They did what they were supposed to do for the first half hour of class.

So then I said, "Okay.  You can decorate me now."  One girl took charge, two others were her key advisors, and yet two more filmed most of the event.  The rest crowded around, offering commentary.  I closed my eyes, relaxed my face, pursed my lips, fluttered my eyelids, and otherwise followed directions as carefully as I could.  The actual cat makeup was a matter of moments, but the excitement level was still high, so she added eye shadow, mascara, some shine and contouring, and even brushed some color onto my eyebrows.

Me: I've never had my eyebrows done before!

Them:  Giggling.

What was the educational value of those ten minutes?  I will freely admit that the learning was minimal--oh all right, it was non-existant.  But there is other value to be found in a classroom, and in life.  For ten minutes, my students were in charge, and I was passive.  For ten minutes, we did something that I am not very good at, but they are.  For ten minutes, we were shoulder to shoulder and laughing together.

For ten minutes, we had fun and enjoyed each others' company.

And that was no waste of time.

This post is linked to the Two Writing Teacher's weekly Slice of Life challenge.  Inspiring teachers to push themselves as writers so we are better equipped to teach writing.  Promoting reflection on our lives as teachers and humans.  

We Are The Ants. Also, We Overthink Things. And We Are a Tiny Bit Pretentious.

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

Published 2016 by Simon Pulse

455 pages, magical realism.

Simo & Schuster's teen brand and website, Riveted, regularly offers free downloads of new (and some backlist) books.  I don't usually read e-books, but it's hard to pass up something that is free, simple, and gives me access to new releases that I'd have to wait for at the library.  They're currently running a fundraiser readathon, #WeAreHuman.  You read books around GLBQT themes, they donate money to the It Gets Better project.  How awesome is that?  (Spoiler: Pretty damn awesome.)  So I downloaded one of the books and read it.

We Are the Ants tells the story of Henry, a teenaged boy mourning the death-by-suicide of his first boyfriend, and also dealing with being periodically abducted by aliens.  Plus, his family life is a mess, and he's the victim of relentless and intense bullying, because nobody believes he actually is being abducted by aliens; they just think he's weird.  When the aliens let him know that the world will end in a few months unless he pushes a big red button, he is undecided on the best choice.

These are the bookshelves I added the book to after I finished it.

See that first one?  Didn't live up to premise.  The book is wonderfully weird, and I kind of love the intermittent short stories about how the world might end.  The idea is just so out there, and the characters were easy to get invested in, whether loving or hating them.  Henry's situation is complex. (And huge kudos for writing a gay protagonist with a bi love interest without making it a coming out story.)  BUT.  There was a lot that frustrated me about this book, which kept it from being as great as it could have been.

Let's talk about Henry's brother Charlie.  Charlie is heinous.  Charlie is a horrible human being.  Then Charlie gets his girlfriend pregnant, and all of a sudden, Charlie's not that bad after all.  Charlie actually loves Henry.  And his girlfriend.  Charlie's going to make a great dad.

WHAT?!?  NO!!! Charlie is an ASSHOLE.  He is really, really nasty.  He is violent, cruel, and arrogant.  I just did not buy that he had redeeming characteristics, or that he changed.  Marcus is a more complex antagonist, and I felt some sympathy for him, some hope he would get his head out of his ass and become a decent human being at some point.  But Charlie didn't have a single glimmer of humanity until we started getting TOLD (not shown) that he was different now.

But Charlie's just a secondary character.  What about our hero, Henry?  Well, Henry spends the entire fucking book blaming himself for his boyfriend's suicide, with occasional forays into blaming others. Has Henry read a single thing about depression?  Has anyone ever mentioned to him, casually and in passing, that suicide is caused by a depressed person's brain, not by outside forces?  I can completely understand why he starts the book out looking for someone to blame and full of self loathing for not realizing how much pain his beloved was in.  But for crying out loud, he moans about it constantly, and hardly anyone takes the time to walk him through a reality check.  And when they sort of try to, he tunes them out.  "NO, NO, NO.  IT'S ALL MY FAULT.  I SUCK."  It gets really frustrating.

Reading on my laptop, I had no idea how far into the book I was at any point, but it seemed to go on and on and on.  Henry was spinning his wheels.  It's my fault.  It's your fault.  Nothing matters.  Nobody should love me.  I want the world to end.  It's my fault.  It's your fault... So when I finished the book and went to Goodreads, I was mildly relieved to see it was 455 pages long.  No wonder it felt like it was unending.  But really, how much of that could have been cut?  Henry is conflicted, we get it.

I'm not sure what I think about the sheer number of subplots, which probably also added to the book's length.  Will Henry's mom quit smoking and find a job she likes?  Will Henry's grandma burn the house down before they put her in a care home?  Will the closeted bully redeem himself?  What secrets are being hidden by the new boy in town?  Why DOES Charlie's girlfriend like him so much? Why am I supposed to care so deeply about the science teacher?  Why do so many chapters start with a textbook-dry lecture on astronomy?

It pretty much sounds like I hated this book, but I didn't.  As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot to like.  I was just so frustrated that the beautiful core of the book got buried under so much other nonsense.

3/5 stars

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Sunday Post #17

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Kimberly @ Caffeinated Book Reviewer.  It's "a chance to share news, a post to recap the past week, showcase books and things we have received and share news about what is coming up for the week on our blog."

Reading This Week:

This is going to be somewhat chaotic.  I realized after I posted my last Sunday Post that I'd missed a couple of books.  Then last week I posted about my read-a-thon books but not any of the other things I'd read.  So I'm adding everything in, but don't freak out--I did not actually read all of this in one week.  But here's the last two weeks, plus the ones I'd missed:

BEFORE Read-a-Thon
One Death, Nine Stories  by Marc Aronson, ed.
The Great American Dust Bowl by Dan Brown
Don't Pigeonhole Me! by Mo Willems

DURING Read-a-Thon
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
12 Rounds to Glory by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Thor, Goddess of Thunder Vol. 1 by Jason Aaron
Gone Fishing by Tamera Will Wissinger
Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

AFTER Read-a-Thon
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Cat Burglar Black by Richard Sala

And I'm still trying to get caught up on things like sleep and blogging, so I didn't link up or make photo collages for this, but I did highlight my favorites.  You're welcome.

Blogging this week:

Did not happen.  So here's this instead:

I'm working on some posts around censorship, gatekeeping, and how I handle "controversial" books in my classroom library.  I know I keep cycling back to this topic, but it's really important and I'm continuously thinking about my responsibilities around it.  

Life this week:

Significant upheaval at work, in which my elective Readers Theater class was taken away and another level of reading intervention was added.  Basically, chaos, but it will all work out in the end.  I've added about 15 new students, messed with a bunch of other kids' schedules, and am not sure what to do about the book I was reading to some classes, since their classmates missed the first 1/3 or so.

I took Tuesday off to accompany my 4th grader's class to the Oregon Food Bank.  They had a blast packaging frozen veggies and pasta, and now my girl wants to have her next birthday party there, then come back to the house for cake.  I kinda love that.

Sort of punted with the new classes by brainstorming types of books, then doing a scavenger hunt in the classroom library.
Ready to pack food at the food bank.

After a really nice small group discussion about Orbiting Jupiter, one girl suddenly held this up and said, "It's Joseph and his girlfriend!"  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Read-a-Thon Wrap-Up for Oct. 2016

The official questions:

Which hour was most daunting for you?
I faded around hour 17 (9 pm my time), but a change in venue and a lighter book gave me what turned out to be my final second wind.  I called it a night at hour 21, going to bed at 1 am.

Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?
I enjoyed my novels more than my "break" books, which surprised me.  Switching from rather heavy YA to a lighter MG novel (One Came Home) also helped me keep going.  Maggot Moon's short chapters made it a pretty easy read for the latter part of the event.  

Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next season?
Nope.  I love it. I just wish I could afford (in terms of both money, time, and obligations) to make it the center of a three day weekend at the beach by myself, or with only reader friends.  But I guess that's not really YOUR responsibility to make that happen.

What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?
I really like how much we can personalize it.  Want to read the entire time and come back later to write it up?  Fine.  Want to participate in every challenge, engage actively on social media, and host hours?  Fine.  Able to take the whole day to just engage in read-a-thon?  Fine.  Need to fit it around other activities, just coming back to reading in bits and pieces as time allows?  Fine.  

How many books did you read?
I read eight books: four novels, 2 graphic novels, and two children's novels in verse. 

What were the names of the books you read?
Books I Completed
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • 12 Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
  • More Happy than Not by Adam Silvera
  • Thor: Goddess of Thunder vol. 1 by Jason Aaron
  • Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger
  • Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Which book did you enjoy most?
More Happy than Not.  

Which did you enjoy least?
Gone Fishing

How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?
100% likely.  I'm not quite ready to take on official work, but I will work harder to recruit friends and even students next time.  I had several people say, "What?  Tell me more!" in response to random FB posts I shared.  

Falconer's Reflections and Additional Stats

Snack, hour six (11 am)

Coffee with whipped cream after finishing two books
  • Counting the 66 pages of I'll Give You The Sun I read before admitting I needed to call it a night, I read a total of 1,693 pages.  Counting only the novels, that would be 1,116 pages.  
  • I read during 18 of the 24 hours, slept during five, and did household chores, updated the blog, and fixed food during the remaining hour.  That's not to say I read for 60 minutes  during each hour that I read.
  • I drank two and a half cups of coffee, two cups of herbal tea, and one cup of cocoa, as well as maybe three glasses of water.
  • I did the entire thing without chocolate.  Really.  For some reason, when buying my snacks and treats, I got almond cookies and caramels, but not chocolate.  This is very confusing to me.
  • I spent most of my reading time stretched out on my couch.  When I started to fade, I went up to my reading chair (leather recliner) in the bedroom.  When my husband went to bed, I came back downstairs, but the light isn't as good, and I didn't last much longer.
  • My vision was an issue for much of the event, which is completely new.  Words were blurry, and I had to be in daylight or really direct, bright light to read easily.  I made an eye appointment on Friday because I've noticed such a decline in my vision over the past six months, and the RAT confirmed that this is needed.
    The "potential" pile I brought home with me.
  • It was fun focusing on a theme, which was "Books I Ordered Through My Grant But Haven't Read Yet So I Can't Recommend Them To Students Very Convincingly."  (Say THAT five times fast!)  I further prioritized Printz medalists and honorees, and when I was really stuck, I used a random number generator to choose the next novel.  Each time I did so, I felt like the book I subconsciously wanted to win did so.  But that might just be because I was excited about my entire stack.
    Needed a break by this point, but didn't love either of these.
  • My "light" reads were kind of a bust.  12 Rounds to Glory was good, but I'm not a comic book reader, so Thor was kind of lost on me, and Gone Fishing was much     more juvenile and cutesy that I'd expected.  I liked Honor Girl, but found it hard to figure out who the characters were (something that really bogs me down in some graphic novels) and the complete lack of resolution, even for a memoir, was frustrating.
  • "Award bait" is an intentionally loaded term.  From Oscars to Newberys, there's the idea that only a certain kind of material will be considered by the panel, and that serious & gloomy are the way to go.  All of the YA I read was kind of a downer, with much more difficult endings than you'd find in MG, or, frankly, adult literature.  They are also all highly recommended books.  But are they books teenagers themselves like?  That I'm not 100% sure of.  
  • For this reason, even though I usually grumble about the pat endings of MG novels, I really enjoyed taking a break with One Came Home, although now that I think of it, it's a book with a satisfactory, but not "happy" ending too.  
  • The cover of More Happy Than Not features part of a smiley face, which features in the plot.  But I noticed it also could be seen as a semi-colon, which has become a symbol for moving on from periods of depression or being suicidal.  Now I'm wondering if that's intentional.
  • I'm ridiculously envious of the people that posted pics of their fuzzy companions.  That's really all I was lacking--a cat.  

I'm linking up to the Sunday Post at Caffeinated Book Reviewer as well, since it's Sunday, and this is definitely a "what I've been reading" kind of post!  


Saturday, October 22, 2016

RAT Checkin #3: Naps and Human Interaction

The eye fuzziness finally persuaded me to take a 45 minute nap.

I love naps.  The problem is, I tend to over-do it.  Once I'm fully asleep, I bitterly resent waking up again.  So a timed nap made me a bit nervous.  HOWEVER, my read-a-thon joy is such that I bounced out of bed the second my alarm went off.

Okay, not BOUNCED, exactly.  And it may have taken a few minutes.  But the main thing is, I didn't just roll over and go back to sleep.

The nap was neatly sandwiched between a couple of fast reads.  Before I lied down, I read Thor: Goddess of Thunder Vol. 1.  It was pretty good, but I'm not really a comics reader, and I found some of the panels confusing, as well as only having the shakiest sense of the broader universe in which it takes place.  Still, much was made of the fact that when a unknown young woman picks up Thor's hammer when Thor cannot, she becomes Thor, not "Lady Thor" or any such nonsense.

After my nap I read Gone Fishing, a novel in verse that it turns out is even more juvenile than Middle Grade.  I guess a kid might like it?  If they were into fishing?  It didn't do much for me.

My daughter had it in her mind that she wanted to make sausage rolls.  I'm not entirely sure why, but I figured I was probably also due for some form of interaction with the fam, so I agreed to coach her through the dough making process.

I'll wind up this hour with some laundry and helping my husband with a design project he's working on, then I'm going to start with another novel!

1. What are you reading right now?
Great question.  I'm between books, and deciding between several books.  I may go with a random number generator to choose.
2. How many books have you read so far?
Five: two novels, two juvenile novels in verse, and a graphic novel/comic collection.

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?
Whichever novel(s) the generator picks from the ones I'm excited about, plus the YA graphic novel Honor Girl.

4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
It's been pretty good, actually, though I think my husband is starting to feel lonely.

5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
I got hardly any sleep last night but am doing okay with only that one nap.  Also, I'm surprised about my vision issues.  Never been a problem before, and I'm not pleased.  

Read-a-Thon Check In #2: Through Hour 9

Well, serious thanks are owed to those who called out their favorites from my list.  I've finished the two novels that got the most enthusiasm and loved them both.  I knew We Were Liars was twisty and had an unreliable narrator, but it still fooled me entirely.  And I really didn't know anything about More Happy Than Not, other than that it had a GLBQT slant of some sort, and was highly recommended.  This is how I LOVE to go into books, and it paid of big this time.  (Though I think it says something about my shallowness that the part that made me cry was the unrequited teen love part, not the other REALLY LIFE-SHATTERING part.)  This is one of those books where you wonder how it can possibly be someone's debut.  He must have a dozen unpublished manuscripts in a drawer somewhere.  Only since it's the 21st century, I guess they'd be on a hard drive somewhere.  I don't know.

Between novels I read 12 Rounds to Glory: The Story of Mohammad Ali.  In 12 illustrated poems, it traces the major events of his life. I realized pretty soon that this is poetry that is meant to be spoken aloud, much like Kwame Alexander's poems.  Novels in verse and graphic novels are my new favorite types of nonfiction.

I'm feeling a little bit punchy after getting a whopping 4.5 hours of sleep last night, and my eyes are being annoyingly blurry.  My vision, not my eyes.  My eyes probably look like they always do.  (See above re: punchy.)  I actually made an eye exam appointment yesterday, because I've noticed over the past few months that I can't read at a distance--and over the past few years, I've also struggled to read super close, or to read tiny print.  I even bought dollar store reading glasses, but only use them for reading medicine bottles.  This blurry vision thing is new too.  This might only be my second read-a-thon, but it is NOT only the second time I've spent a Saturday reading steadily.

Current plan: read two light graphic novels--ll my reading so far has been so serious--and then take a nap to see if that clears up the vision thing.  Or a walk.  Or a shower.  We'll see.  (Not much of a plan, now that I spell it out like that.)


Read-a-Thon Check-In #1: 2 cups of coffee and one book!

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
I'm in Beaverton, Oregon, which means I had a 5 am start.  Nice to get going before the rest of the family is up, even though I had a short night (due in part to my Christmas-morning anticipation, which made it hard to sleep!).

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Hard to say, but I'll say More Happy Than Not, because I've gotten so many recommendations for it.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
I'm still a sucker for the Fleur de Sal caramels from Trader Joe's.  Also the roasted red pepper and tomato soup.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
I'm a middle school reading teacher, and am focusing this RAT on books in my classroom library, so I can do a better job at matching kids to them.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
I didn't have a focus last time, which was my first time.  I also struggled a bit with juggling the social side with the reading, so this time I made myself a Google Doc for quick tracking, and have decided to only really dive into posting and reading others' posts between books.

COMPLETED: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.  So, I knew there was a twist, and I STILL didn't see that coming.  Even though I'm seen similar twists in other works.  I even teared up a bit.  I do like how Lockhart dives into this super rich, super white, super privileged world, but doesn't just acknowledge it, she challenges it.  With the talk about #WNDB and #ownvoices, I think this is a really interesting example of how you can write your own experience as a white person of privilege without erasing the rest of the world.

And I also completed an entire bag of Caramel Bites--little wafer/caramel cookies from Trader Joe's.  Breakfast of Champions.  (I started with some Greek yogurt with cereal in it, so I have had some protein too.)  

The family is all still asleep, though I expect the kids will be up soon.  It was pitch black when I started, and I'm curled up on the couch under a blanket with my stack of books and cup of coffee on the coffee table nearby.  It looks like it's going to be a grey, wet day here in the NW, but for all that, the window I can see offers me a view of bright green grass, red maple leaves, and golden oak and grapevine leaves.  Maybe I'll take a walk later on.

Fierce Reads Authors at Powell's

(Me, a week ago.)

When I learned over the summer that the Fierce Reads tour, featuring Leigh Bardugo and a bunch of other YA authors, would be coming to Powell's in October, I put it on my calendar immediately.  I didn't recognize the other authors coming to this particular stop, other than Emma Mills, whose First & Then I wasn't a huge fan of.  Caleb Roehrig is a debut novelist, so I couldn't find out much about him, and Kami Garcia's Beautiful Creatures--um.  I'm not a paranormal romance reader, is my polite way of addressing why I haven't read that series.  Still, I've found that authors often are--get this!--terrific story-tellers, so even authors whose books I don't love can be great speakers.

With Crooked Kingdom debuting at #1 on the YA Bestseller list, I was expecting a huge crowd, and I was right.  Oddly, Powell's did not seem to be expecting a huge crowd, and set us up in their smaller event space.  People were parking their butts as fast as they could put chairs out, and people who arrived less than an hour beforehand never had a chance.  The Fierce Reads folks put out some swag including the most adorable comic book ever, featuring the book cover and author photo for each of the dozen or so different authors that participated at various stops in the tour.   Author coloring pages!  How cute is that?!?

The event was hosted by Sara of Novel Novice.  (How do you get that gig?)  She did a great job, offered several questions to the panel in general and the different authors in particular.  There was a short Q&A at the end as well.  I would be a horrible journalist it turns out, because I only got one picture and failed to take a single note, so this is what I've cobbled together from my memory and the Twitter feed of others who were there.

  • When asked if they would ever write in the "other" genre, fantasy writer Bardugo and contemporary writer Mills said no.  Contemporary writer Roehrig said, "Only if I still get to murrrderrr people!" and fantasy AND contemporary writer Garcia assured him that actually, you get to murder MORE people in fantasy, so he said maybe.  
  • Bardugo commented that Six of Crows was originally billed as "Oceans Eleven meets Game of Thrones," until they realized that nobody under 20 would know what Oceans 11 is.  
  • When asked if they ever cry while writing, Bardugo told a great story: 
She always thought it would be super pretentious to cry over one's own work, but when writing Crooked Kingdom, she said she sobbed three separate times.  The "one towards the end" as she said, made a friend who was hanging out with her say, "What?!?"
"It's so s-s-sad!" through gulping tears.
"Well, you're the one doing it!  You're the author!  Just change it!"
"I c-c-can't!  But it's so sad!" 
  • An audience member asked about their inspiration to become writers as well as the inspiration for their particular latest story.  Roehrig talked about loving mysteries as a kid and teen, but being frustrated that gay characters either didn't exist, or were cast as the victim.  So he wrote a book where the gay guy is the hero.  
  • In Garcia's new book, the protagonist's dad is an undercover cop, just as Garcia's step-dad is, so he's convinced he's the star of her new book.  :)
  • Another person brought up NaNoWriMo, and all of the authors agreed that a) your first draft will be crap and that b) it's the only way to get anything done.  Crap first drafts are a necessary step towards decent writing--if you wait for perfection, you'll never do anything.  #growthmindset in action!

And then there's these gems:

I am too fucking polite, incidentally, which is why although I was there a full 90 minutes before the event started, I didn't push into the front rows.  Still, they were signing by rows, which meant there were three rows of ten in front of us.  But after waiting a half hour, there were still 30 people in line in front of me, so OBVIOUSLY other people did not have any compunction about waltzing into line when they wanted to.

Nice covers, right?  I keep gushing about Bardugo's covers, but the other three are great too. I love the silhouette and hints of red in the black/blue cover of Last Ween Leaving, and how the words peer between the branches.  Lovely Reckless is classic late 60s paperback, and I want to touch the thick painting on This Adventure Ends.

I bought a copy of Last Seen Leaving that Roehrig signed, and asked Bardugo to sign copies of Crooked Kingdom for myself and for a friend who couldn't make it.  I was too flustered to chat at all.  Gaaah.  Then I came home and read Last Seen Leaving in one go, and in the acknowledgements found out that Roehrig's husband is Latvian, which I TOTALLY would have talked with him about in line had I only known.  Sigh.  

All in all, it was fun, but somewhat exhausting--I think because of there being multiple authors and tons of people squished into a fairly small area.  I was back at Powell's yesterday and they had their larger event area set up for a celebrity biography.  Sigh.

If you want another taste of what the event was like, there's this charming video Taylicious Reads put together with the same four authors--possibly in their Washington stop?  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Readathon is Coming!

And chances are high I won't actually get through the stack of books I just pulled from my classroom library.  Still, at least I have a good "Read My Library" plan for the rest of the year, right?  

Lesser Known Novels-in-Verse: Make Lemonade, Witness, and Carver: A Life in Poems

Kwame Alexander and Ellen Hopkins have made novels in verse explode across the YA universe in recent years.  Alexander is truly a phenomenal writer, and if I am not a huge fan of Hopkins' work, I am a huge fan of the way she lures reluctant readers into book love.

I've been a novels-in-verse fan since before I'd heard the term.  Something about the way the sparseness of words on the page forces the writer to boil down what they are saying, while still using a richness of language and imagery.  Something about the way the characters' voices shine through differently than with prose narration.  Something about the way the reader is called to pause and reflect on what's not being said.  Of course, it only works if the writer a) tells a good story and b) writes good poetry.  Here are a few backlist books that do exactly that.

Make Lemonade was the first novel in verse I ever read, way back in 1997.  (Were you born yet?)  It is set in Portland, although you have to pay attention to figure that out.  The main character, LaVaughn, lives in the projects with her mom.  LaVaughn is a studious, serious girl who plans on going to college, but her family doesn't have much money.  She takes on a job as a babysitter for Jolly's two kids.  The interesting thing is, LaVaughn is a freshman in high school, and Jolly is 17, so they are nearly the same age, come from similar backgrounds, but are on very different paths.  Both young women have a lot to learn from each other.  There are two sequels to this book, but you could also just read this one by itself and feel satisfied.

This next book is one of my all-time favorites, regardless of genre or target audience.  Karen Hesse wrote a more famous book called Out of the Dust, but I find Witness to be a more interesting story.  Witness is set in the 1920s in a small town in Vermont.  Vermont is still a very white state, and in this book, the only "different" people in town are a black father/daughter family, and a Jewish father/daughter who are visiting from New York.  Things are tough for them...and then the KKK comes to town.  The book is told from many different points of view, and the author starts off with actual photographs from that time period of people who represent each of the main characters.  You can use that for reference if you get confused.  The book has some tragic scenes and some infuriating ones, but it is also an encouraging look at how people can change and grow, and how hate can be defeated with love.  (Bonus question: I never understood the cover until I mentioned that to a class that was reading it with me, and one of my students explained it to me.  Read the book and let me know if you figure out what the deal is with the cover!)

Carver: A Life In Poems is a little different from the first two books I've mentioned.  It is non-fiction based on the life of George Washington Carver, a scientist and botanist.  He was born a slave, and became one of the most famous and respected researchers and professors of his time.  This book tells the story of his life using poems that explain major and minor events along the way.  The poems go in chronological order from his birth to his death, but they don't tell every little thing, so you kind of have to read between the lines sometimes to understand what must have happened between one event and the next.  I especially admire Carver because he invented many things that could have earned him a fortune, but he didn't sell his ideas, he gave them away because he wanted them to benefit everyone.  I don't know if I would be generous enough to do that!

Here are the covers of some bonus novels in verse that I just had to include.  I have a longer review of yet another novel in verse here, and my Goodreads Novels-In-Verse shelf is linked here.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Slice of Life: A Visit to the Bookshop With My Daughter

I wasn't motivated by this week's Top Ten list, so I decided to hop onto a different Tuesday link-up.  Two Writing Teachers host a weekly slice-of-life challenge.  I haven't participated much since completing their daily-posting challenge last winter, but I always find the community fascinating.

I'd already spent the morning deep into the world of words.  While she was at her bi-weekly Lithuanian Saturday school, I read at a coffeeshop, then headed to the library to do some research and writing.  Still, the book store was on our way home, and I needed to pick up those two holds.  "I'll just go in and grab them from the front counter," I assured her when she sighed at me.  "We won't even walk around at all."

So we did that.  In line, she was eyeing the sweets they strategically place up front, and I told her that since my holds were already paid for, I wasn't even getting out my wallet, so she could stop with the lingering glances.  We picked up the books and walked out through the store.

THROUGH the store.  That was my mistake.  I'd parked on the wrong side, the side opposite the cash register.

It was the socks, of all things, that stopped us first.  "Look, Mama! Corgi socks!"  We started browsing the selection, and suddenly I had holiday gifts for various family members in my hand.  She became determined to find something for her cousin, to take to her art show that day, so we drifted on to the mugs and kitchenware (I swear it's a book store!), where we found a wide range of adorable cat mugs.  We made our choice, then found another cute item just right for another cousin (I'm being coy here because some of these people might read this).  We were starting to juggle items, so we got a basket to carry them in.

So far, it was just the knick-knacks, and they could be justified as early holiday shopping.  Just taking the financial pressure off of December, that's all.  Then I saw a book recommended by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review and picked it up and put it down a few times.  It looks so good--but it's a new hardback.  It's not like I don't have anything else to read while I wait for it to hit the library.  But oh!  One student has been asking me repeatedly if I've seen the titles she entered on my "What books does the classroom library need?" form.  I'd better look up what those are and see if any are here.

While I was doing that, my daughter wandered off to the middle grade section and came back with a Warriors book.  The book snob in me wanted to roll my eyes.  "Oh my God, that's one of those series with dozens of pseudonymous authors cranking out formulaic drivel, right?  Nancy Drew in cat form?"  But my inner reading teacher is much stronger, and SHE knows that series reading builds both stamina and enthusiasm in struggling readers.  I compromise by making her find the cheapest copy of the book.

Oh, and speaking of series--just the night before I started watching the delightful Australian series Miss Fisher's Mysteries.  I wonder if they have the books here...

They do, but once again, I remember that I can just use my library card.  Still, I did manage to find one of the books my student requested, and I have no qualms about shelling out for a brand new paperback in that case.

She points out a doll and a hardback she wants for Christmas.  (I already know she wants those Corgi socks.)  I drift over to the YA graphic novels, knowing I can never have enough of those in my classroom to keep everyone satisfied.  We look at each other and laugh. "We need to get out of here," I tell her firmly.

We take our basket over to checkout and pay.  This time we walk quickly through the store on our way out, shielding our eyes dramatically while we amiably bicker over whose fault it is that we got so waylaid.  (Hers, obviously.  I was really going to ignore everything, but she just had to stop at those socks...)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sunday Post #16

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Kimberly @ Caffeinated Book Reviewer.  It's "a chance to share news, a post to recap the past week, showcase books and things we have received and share news about what is coming up for the week on our blog."

Reading This Week:

I should just accept that this is a bi-weekly feature at best.  As such, this is an update of what I've read in October, since my September check-in.  

I've read nine books in that time, give or take.

  • The Third Twin by CJ Omolulu.  3/5 stars for this YA thriller that didn't quite live up to its potential, which is usually true of YA thrillers
  • Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust by 
  • One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. 4/5 stars for a delightful audio book.  A really terrific blend of lovable characters, ridiculous situations, and genuine emotion.  Plus a certain Bernie Sanders vibe that I was really digging.
  • Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton.  I feel like a cheater counting this, given that I read it in a New York minute (get it?).  It's fascinating, yet I couldn't help noticing that Stanton's humans all seem to be either a) colorful eccentrics, b) fabulously wealthy, or c) heart-breakingly berift.  Then again, when I find myself saying, "Oooh, people like me aren't well-represented!" it's possibly not a bad thing, right, given that people like me tend to hog representation.  4/5 stars
  • A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  3/5 stars for my first ever novel-length original Sherlock.  I read it via the Serial Reader app, a bit at a time, and BOY was I confused when the action inexplicably switched to the Mormon migration.  
  • Ex Machina, volumes 1-3 by Brian K. Vaughan.  3.5/5 stars for another terrific sci fi comic series from Vaughan, who's the only comics writer I read.  Set in an alternate reality where a human-turned-superhero (like Spiderman) managed to keep the second tower safe on 9/11. 

  • Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig.  4/5 stars for this surprisingly thrilling YA thriller.  Remember my comment about those?  Roehrig avoids that sense of "this might have been good if the author let loose for an adult audience," in part by pushing some boundaries, and in part by terrific characterization and narrative voice.  I still need to write a post about the author panel I saw him on last week, but he did say that as a mystery lover, he was always frustrated  that gay people either didn't exist, or were the victims, so he wanted to write a book where "someone like me was the hero."  He sure succeeds here!
  • Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson. 4.5/5 stars and one of those "Why did I wait so long to read this?" experiences.  I loved the story, and the intense nostalgia I realized I have for pioneer stories inspired me to write one of my rare, rambling reviews.  I started listening to this on audio but finished the majority of it with a hard copy, because I was too into it to wait.  
  • The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes.  4/5 stars for this book that has some really disturbing parts balanced with some beautiful stuff.  It definitely reads like a debut to me, but I'm looking forward to seeing what Oakes develops into.  
I still have The Jungle Book on Serial Reader, am reading Orbiting Jupiter to my classes as part of Global Read-Aloud, and am working my way through The View from the Cheap Seats an essay or two at a time.

In my great weakness, I bought a book for each of my kids as well as my own copy of Orbiting Jupiter, and Notice and Note, a reading teacher book the library demanded back before I'd gotten further than two chapters of note-taking into it.  Plus library books and books bought for my classroom, of course.  I have to get better about reading from my classroom library; I got all those awesome new books and can't do them justice in terms of pushing them on kids until I've read them too!

Blogging this week:

I've only written seven posts since I last summarized.  I'm still working out the timing for blog writing this year.  In my defense, I've also been focusing on visiting other blogs a bit more.  I think I started slacking on that as the school year was getting started, and I noticed a complete drop-off in comments on my blog.  If it weren't for Nicole and AJ, I'd suspect I'm talking to myself.  

I've also been messing around with blog set-up and graphics a little bit.  Nothing drastic, just trying to get a better handle on things.  

Life this week:

The first thing that pops into mind is that Monday morning, another teacher stuck her head into my classroom and said, "Don't send anyone out of the room right now--we're having a leak out in the hall."  I didn't think too much of it, other than to wonder if that was code for someone wetting their pants.  About five minutes later my principal stuck his head in and said, "Sorry, but we have to evacuate this hall to the library right now."  As we started towards the door, kids started squawking, "There's water! It's coming in!"  Long story somewhat short, a pipe had bust, a drain was clogged, and our entire hallways (8 rooms) had water flowing in.  Not deep at all, since it was over such a large area, so nothing was damaged except the carpets by the doorways at either end of the hall, which now REEK like a wet dog that rolled in something nasty.  And I got to teach in the library all day, which was...challenging.  But not terrible.  

Otherwise, I had an evening out with a friend, went to two different trainings for work (both of which were better than I'd expected), and drank ever more coffee to deal with the gloominess of autumn.  Oh, and started watching Miss Fisher's Mysteries, which are gloriously fun.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

Backlist Review: Walk On Earth a Stranger

Walk On Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Published 2015 by Greenwillow Books

436 pages, historical fiction/magical realism.

I put off reading this book for a long time, without really knowing why.  I loved Carson's fantasy trilogy.  I enjoyed the last YA western I read, Vengeance Road.  But somehow, I just wasn't convinced this book had more to offer than a gorgeous cover.  And even the cover struck me a bit wrong, given that the girl's neckline and hairdo both seemed unlikely for pioneer days.

I got ahold of an audio version and started listening during my commute.  I was pulled in immediately.  There were parallels to other stories--I've read about a gold-finding girl sought by evil men before (though I can't remember where right now), and of course disguising yourself as a boy is a pretty common act in historical fiction.  But Leah's voice and story are hers alone.  I was only able to listen to the book during two commutes before grabbing my physical copy and gobbling the rest down.

I hadn't realized it was a covered-wagon story.  I guess the actual California part comes in the sequels.  I also hadn't realized how many of these I read in my childhood, but all the familiar notes felt like old friends.  Gathering supplies and forming a company in Independence, the oxen vs. mules debate, over-packers abandoning goods along the trail, cholera and shallow graves, river crossings, lowering wagons down steep hills, encounters with Native Americans, carving your name on Independence Rock (and judging your progress by how close to July 4th you arrived there), buffalo stampedes and wasteful killing of buffalos, Dutch ovens and flour barrels--I LOVED that shit what I was a kid, and it was so fun to travel the trail again, this time with a slightly older character and a markedly more "woke" author.

My great-great grandparents immigrated from Connecticut to Oregon in a covered wagon.  I've always been proud of that, if "proud" is the right word for something that actually has nothing to do with me.  It's been embarrassingly recently that I've become uncomfortable with that.  It was a land grab, made possible through genocide.  Carson doesn't shy away from that, and by creating Jefferson, Leah's biracial best friend, she allows Leah to be more sensitive about the prejudice against "Injuns" without making her anachronistically PC.  The flip side of this is the reality that hold true today--people immigrate for all sorts of reasons, and there's nothing inherently evil about seeking a better life for yourself.  The "Argonauts" are all part of a genocidal land grab, but they are also all motivated by entirely relatable reasons.  The hypocrisy of a nation with our history squawking about immigrants is certainly not the moral of this story--Carson is a far better writer than to deal in moralizing--but I love how this magical realism/historical fiction book is relevant and thought provoking.

4/5 stars

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Mini Reviews: This Savage Song, Finnikin of the Rock, Friends With Boys, A Night Divided

In which I cobble together a bunch of short reactions I've posted on Goodreads, because I don't really write proper reviews. And there is absolutely zero theme to this collection.  Intense YA sci fi, noble and romantic high fantasy, a MG cold war novel, and a graphic novel with a ghost.  We'll start and end with the best ones.

This Savage Song by Victoria E. Schwab

What an adrenalin rush! 

I'm glad it wasn't my first Schwab, because it takes a pretty long time to work out what the hell is going on, and if I didn't trust her so much, I might have lost steam. But I knew it would all come together in a great way, and boy, did it ever.

I marked it "alternate history" because at one point there's a class discussion of how things went to hell after the Vietnam war, and it kind of made sense to me that it was set in a world very different from ours, but with really similar technology. Like, cell phones and cars, only some of which have keyless entry. So the last 40-50 years have gone wildly off rails in this world, as opposed to it all taking place centuries into the future, as with many other dystopias. 

I've seen some reviews that have either rejoiced or mourned the lack of romance, but hello? Total chemistry between our warring protagonists. Still, props for not rushing it, for not elevating romance over survival, and for not even a whiff of triangle. An enthusiastic four stars.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Well, that was...interesting.

I'd heard that this was a great fantasy novel, so I tried to read it a few times, only to be put off by the ponderously epic tone of the first bit. When I saw the book on CD at my library, I thought I'd try listening to it, as that can sometimes help me get into a more serious book.

And clearly I enjoyed it, because after listening to about half of it during my commutes, I read most of the rest the other night, then finished it up today in the car again. I wanted to know what would happen. There were great moments of both humor and adventure. But there was also a lot of stuff that was just weird.

It's a really rape-laden story. Prisoners, novices, ladies--everyone's getting raped. Off-screen, so to speak, but still. The male/female interaction was also weird in other ways. I felt like I was reading something written in the 1970s, not in this century. Lots of male posturing and boys-will-be-boys (Hey! Let's all go sleep with prostitutes while our female traveling companion travels to help people dying of fever!). Even a strong woman who appears to hate men, except maybe the one she's sleeping with, who used to torture her when they were kids. Like, literally TORTURE. Men were all masculine and gruff and aggressive and a bit simple-minded, while women were lovely, and sneakily powerful, and far more sophisticated. 

Far less problematic, but still kind of strange, the geography and culture felt strangely squashed. Entire kingdoms seemed to be rather smaller than the average US county, but contain a continent's worth of peoples. Also, Lumenere of the prologue is this glorious Camelot of happy, united people, but the rest of the universe is a dirty, nasty place. What is up with that? How could this little bubble of Utopia have ever existed alongside the slave trading prison mining, xenophobic, disease ridden countries that surround it? And if they were so great, why did they tear apart their own country in a matter of days? And WHY was everyone so obsessed with their own birthplace and lineage? I love my state, but if it were to disappear behind a magical poisonous cloud, I could live happily somewhere else too. The author is Australian, so I'd think she'd be familiar with the concept of immigration. 

I'm giving it three stars only because it kept my interest for those many long pages.

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

I'm all over the place on this one.

The title is really misleading. There are a lot of boys in the protagonist's life, but most of them are her brothers. I'm also a bit frustrated by the lack of resolution--or, frankly, any development at all--with the ghost storyline. And somehow I kept thinking SOMEONE of the many different boys who were giving each other baleful glances at every turn would turn out to be in love with one of the other boys.

The non-ghost storyline was very sweet and relatable. I still tend to focus more on the words than the art in graphic novels, but there were a few times I slowed down enough to catch some of the great bits that were strictly visual, from the evolution of the mom's facial expression in the years of family pictures to the details on Maggie's map of her new high school. The family felt very well rounded, like they have a whole history and life beyond the limits of the book. I see that the author has three big brothers and they were all homeschooled, so that may explain why!

So--3.5 stars?

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I listened to this on audiobook, so I really have a distorted sense of the timing. I can't think it would have taken more than a few hours to read, but it took days and days to listen to. I say this because the only two issues I have with the book could be direct results of this.

1. The first few chapters felt really slow. It was basically an info-dump about the situation in East Germany in the early sixties. I imagine that most MG/YA readers might need that background, but since I didn't, I thought it was pretty boring. I nearly stopped listening.

2. Things eventually picked up pace, and I wound up REALLY getting interested and invested. But the constant barrage of obstacles and problems thrown at Gerta and her family started to get to me. I figured from the tone and audience that it would all end successfully eventually, so every time disaster struck, I was both anxious (which is good) and exasperated (not so good). I wonder if this would have seemed so obvious and frustrating if I'd been reading at my regular pace.

All that being said, it's a very good book with a very gripping story. As a presidential candidate talks big about building a wall at our borders, I think this fall will be a good time to read this book to my classes and give them something to think about.
 Four stars.