Monday, February 27, 2017

TTT: Ten Blogging Related Thoughts (Well, nine plus an American Girl Doll's Insta Account)



The delightful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish host this weekly list challenge.  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check them out!

HOWEVER, they are on a well-deserved hiatus.  And I am on a less-well-deserved slump.  So here is a list of ten things I do want to let you know about the blog these days.

1.  I'm going to do a February wrap-up.  Soon.  I think.

2.  I read I Hunt Killers this weekend, and it was really good, but it was also much creepier than I'd ever expect a YA thriller to be, and I had to go watch Finding Dory on Netflix after I finished so I'd be able to get to sleep that night.

3.  I plan to join the Two Writing Teachers' Slice of Life Challenge for March.  I did it last year and really enjoyed it.  Even though I haven't put ANY thought into it this year, and in fact just clicked away from writing this post in order to go sign up for the event, I'm still going to go for it.

4.  I did some math today and realized I've spent over $780 on books for my classroom library this year.  Which is insane.  Especially since I won that grant for 500 books that I received last summer, so it's not like there aren't any books in the room.

5. I went to a tech conference last week and now I can't stop bullet journaling, which is hilarious, since usually tech conferences don't get you engaged in hands-on, real-world activities so much.

6.  I want to join a Twitter chat--either the Nerdy Book Club's #titletalk or maybe #TwoJennsBookClub, but they are all set up for when the East Coasters have gotten the kids to bed, which means they're at 5:00 my time, which is when I'm driving home and/or transitioning into family life.  Not a good time to go stare at my screen for an hour.

7. The Winemaker and I watched all of Wallender (the Kenneth Branagh version) recently.  I'd only read two of the books, but I really liked them, and this adaptation is pretty much fantastic.  Bleak though.  The Winemaker also watched Chamber of Secrets with the kids in the middle of this and had trouble wrapping his brain around Professor Lockhart and Kurt Wallender being the same actor.

8. I'm also going to put together a post soon about our World Read-Aloud Day experience.  My students Skyped with four different authors.  They were all super awesome.  My kids were...themselves, so I have a few good stories.

9.  I recently picked up a Large Print copy of a book in the library, because sometimes you can avoid long holds waits by doing so, and I realized--hey, this is actually easier on my eyes.  SO OLD.  I'm contemplating stockpiling LP books before the next 24 Hour Read-a-Thon, because my eyes felt all fuzzy during the October one.

10.  I let my ten year old start an Instagram account for her American Girl Doll.  No, that has nothing to do with books.  It just cracks me up.




Friday, February 24, 2017

In Which I Attempt to Explain Why I Have 82 Goodreads Shelves



In the beginning (2008), when I was neither a blogger nor a reading teacher, I had the same three shelves that everyone starts with: Read, To-Read, and Currently Reading.  I've never been a big fan of "Currently Reading," as I tend to read too fast to bother keeping up with it.  It also seems a bit cursed to me; any book I do take the time to add to that shelf tends to never get finished.  If it were called "books I feel like I should read but actually feel rather lukewarm about," it would be more accurate.

I soon saw that you could add categories.  I couldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure the first few I added were Mystery (because I read a lot of mysteries), Abandoned Midstream (because I'd never heard of DNF), Read Repeatedly as a Kid (because I initially tried to put all the books I ever remembered reading onto Goodreads), and Other Worlds (because I didn't realize how silly it was for me to combine every sci fi, fantasy, dystopian, magical realism, and other type of speculative fiction into one giant shelf).  I'm still regretting that last one, as it has 317 books on it, and I dread the idea of going through and re-sorting them all into more specific shelves.

From then, I've added shelves sporadically and spontaneously.  My additions fall into three general categories.

1.  Genre and subject matter
Professional Reading, Poetry, Historical Fiction, Immigration, Bullying, Memoir & Biography, Adoption & Parenting, etc.

2.  Type of material
Picture Book, Graphic Novel, Audiobook, Novel in Verse, etc.

3.  Note to self
These are categories that help me to organize my reading and book buying (Wish List, In My Classroom Library, Mt. TBR 2017, etc) or are purely subjective comments about various books (Made Me Laugh, Feminist as Hell, Didn't Live up to Premise, etc.)

Sometimes things overlap.  If I have a Call a Doctor shelf and a Mental Illness and Differences shelf, where does a book with a protagonist who's autistic go?  Sometimes I start a very specific shelf, and then neglect it.  Other times I adapt to a shelf without really registering that change in the shelf name.  I have a shelf called Bullying unit 2014, which consists of books that my department used in, yes, a literature circle unit around the topic of bullying (guess when?).   But since then, whenever I've read a book that seems like it would be a good fit for a middle school bullying unit, I add it to that list, even though it wasn't in our original syllabus.  Somewhat similarly, when I first served as a Cybils judge last year, I put the books I had to read in a Cybils shelf, but since then I've added other books that I heard about because they were short-listed or winners for any Cybils category.  It's a bit messy, as there are plenty of books that I'd already read that have been honored in the 11 years of Cybils awards, so the shelf really reflects books I heard about specifically through the Cybils website.  And then there's the Award Winner shelf.  I was thinking things like the Newbery or the National Book award, but Goodreads helpfully informs you when a book has won some obscure local award as well--so do those books make the shelf or not?

Whenever I get to dithering too much about that type of issue, I remind myself why I have this system in the first place. This is not a professional task, and it's not something I have to make clearly navigable for others.   I just want to track my reading and see what my trends are.  I want to be able to find books that I only half-remember later on.  I want to sort the thousands of books I interact with into more manageable groups.  And sometimes, I just want to browse my titles and Goodread's resources and enjoy myself.  One fine day, sorting out that Other Worlds shelf will be exactly the kind of precise, yet untaxing, project I'm in the mood for.

If you're on Goodreads, how many shelves do you have?  Which are your biggest?  Besides that giant Other Worlds shelf, I have 572 on my YA shelf and 372 on my In My Classroom Library shelf.  Do you find the shelving system useful overall?  

Also, take my poll!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mini Reviews: Tell Me Something Real, The Sound of Wild Snails Eating, Period Eight

I still haven't been blogging much.  But I have been reading, and while I haven't been writing up full reviews, I did jot down my thoughts on several books over on Goodreads.  I'm sharing them here as well now, in batches.


Tell Me Something Real by Calla Devlin




This book's cover is not doing it any favors. I picked it up at the library because I vaguely remembered hearing some positive buzz about it. I liked some aspects of it, and read it in one fell swoop between work and dinner. It's engaging and all. But even without knowing there was supposed to be a twist (which it says on the jacket), I caught on pretty early as to what that twist would be. And as someone who was a kid in 1976, I felt that while the clothing might have been described accurately, if they'd taken out all mention of the year (and those fashions), I would have thought it was contemporary, just from how people talked.




The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I read this for a specific reason. Some review or TTT list made it sound necessary, and I put it on hold at the library and got it almost right away. But now I can't remember where I heard about it, even though it couldn't have been more than two weeks ago.

At any rate, I read a few chapters before realizing that the author/narrator is a woman, then I got caught up in trying to decide if that changed my view of the story at all. (Not really.) It's just the right length--the first time I sat down with it, I got a bit bored and wondered if I'd finish it, but the second time I sat down with it, I finished it. If it had been a big tome, I think I wouldn't have ever given it that second chance. It's the memoir of an invalid, but she's very oblique about what is going on with her, focusing far more on the life and adventures of a woodland snail a friend places into a terrarium at her bedside. Bailey does a good job at weaving the gastropod research she did then and later into descriptions of that specific snail, and there are plenty of surprising revelations about mollusks, at least for a not-very-sciencey person like me.






Period Eight by Chris Crutcher

Not Chris Crutcher's best, but still a damn sight better than most.  All of his hallmarks are there--the dedicated swimmer, the flawed mentor, that one girl who's smarter than all the guys put together, the absent parents and the awful parents, and the guy in the middle, our protagonist, trying to figure out how to be a decent human being in a crappy world, with no more natural heroism than anyone else has been handed.  Set all of this in a small town in the inland NW, take a few potshots at racists and other types of bigots, and give everyone a few terrific comebacks and figures of speech, and you're comfortably in Crutcher land.  To this he adds a mystery/thriller aspect that's not as typical of his work, and since the first scene features what is clearly a teenaged prostitute leaving a hotel room, you know shit is going to get ugly.  (Oh--and cussing.  Crutcher is famous for his cussing.)  I didn't get as emotionally involved as I did in Whale Talk or Deadline, but it's up there with Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  In other words--this one made me laugh, but it didn't quite make me cry.   Still worth my time.

Monday, February 20, 2017

TTT: Books That Exceeded or Disappointed my Expectations



The delightful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish host this weekly list challenge.  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check them out!

The topic this week is Ten Books I Loved Less/More Than I Thought I Would (recently or all time). That's a bit challenging!  I decided to come up with five of each, all of which I've read in the past six months or so.  

Liked more than I expected:
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes.
It sounded like a rich boy/poor girl romance, but there's a lot more to it.

The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick
Digs into the moral quandary of a priest deciding that murder is justified in this particular case.  Lots of information I didn't know about how the German church let itself get co-opted by Nazis.

Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America by Gail Jarrow
If you can make it past the super gross photos on the first few pages, this is a fascinating look at the history of plague, continuing into the 20th and 21st centuries!

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle (and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me) by Nan Marino
I just bought this middle grade novel set in the summer I was born because I teach at a school named Neil Armstrong.  Kids voted to have me read it to them, and we enjoyed it quite a bit.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I know, I know, it won a ton of awards and accolades, but I kept putting it off, thinking it might be dour.  It's fascinating and wrenching and beautiful.






Liked less than I hoped:
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
I really wanted to like this one, or at least to find it interesting and disturbing.  Instead, it took a terrifying situation and filled it with bland, two dimensional characters that read like a list of "diverse people" rather than actual teens and adults.  

One Death, Nine Stories  edited by Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith Jr.
Another one that takes a fascinating premise and kills it with so-so execution.  This is often a problem with multiple-author books, which I suspect are more interesting to write than to read.  I'd love to see a similar premise done by one author.

Illumnae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Unpopular opinion, I know.  It's not the formatting--I'm a fan of untraditional narratives.  It's the plot.  Space romance clichés abound.  It's not that it's a bad book--I liked it--but it definitely isn't as amazing as I'd been led to believe, and I had no interest in reading the sequel.

The Accident Season b
Here's what I said on Goodreads: 

I can totally see why others might love this book, but--I didn't love it. It wasn't bad or anything. The premise is awesome, and the magical realism should have been awesome. I just couldn't get close enough to the characters to actually care much.

I stand by that.
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Okay, maybe I just don't like books with girls floating on the cover?  I couldn't stand the love interest.  I felt that the mystery/creepy angle was underutilized.  And I had no interest in continuing Mara's story.

I actually have a Goodreads shelf called "Didn't live up to premise," and that's where I pulled these last five titles from.  I do not have one called "Exceeded expectations," but maybe I need one!

Please don't yell at me if you loved any or all of the last five.  To each their own, right?  

Growing Readers


So, this happened:

and I posted the above on Facebook.





My kids both read "below grade level."  Considering that they started learning English at ages 6 & 8 and that I'm pretty sure their family of origin didn't do any pre-literacy activities such as reading aloud to them and surrounding them with print, I'm not concerned about it.  But neither am I giving up.

Most of us enthusiastic readers plan to raise children who love to read.  And often we do, since we naturally do all the things that help children get a good start in literacy.  Some kids don't take to it as easily or enthusiastically, but we persist, because we want this joy for our kids.

This is what it's looked like for us.

1.  Reading aloud
My kids came to us around the time other families might be ending the nightly read aloud, or switching to chapter books.  We read picture books to them all the time.  The first one is a baby's book, Goodnight, I Love You.  The pictures illustrate the bedtime process, so we pointed at the pictures, mimed the actions, and ended the book with the title phrase and hugs and kisses.  Other books I read to them that first summer were badly translated on the fly, using my limited knowledge of their first language, their growing knowledge of English, and pictures.  They'd been here about six weeks when my son quoted a book, saying, "Kuplink, kuplank, kaplonk," just like Sal as he dropped pebbles onto the porch.

As their English improved, each night I'd declare the number of books we could read, based on how close to bedtime we got organized, and they'd each get to choose half of that number.  Next came intense negotiation about the order of the books, then they'd settle in on either side of me and we'd read.  Occasionally I'd introduce a chapter book, but it took a LONG time before they were ready for that, and even know, at 10 and 12, they will sit and let me read picture books to them.

I've gotten lazy about this as they've gotten older, but we are enjoying the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets together right now.





2.  The Library
I have always, always been a library girl.  But now that I have kids, we go there all the time.  Like, weekly.  The first time we went and I told them they could each pick out ten books, they were stunned.  Once they'd gotten the hang of it, I lifted the limit.  There were times we had up to 100 items out between the three of us.  Sure, we sometimes get fines, but there is no fine that's going to make it cheaper to buy books at that rate.  We've grown from the picture book area to exploring the larger children's section--series, graphic novels, early readers, and chapter books.  I wander casually down the nonfiction aisles, and when they come to get me, they notice books about polar bears, about arts and crafts, about Star Wars, and I agree to let them check those out as well.  So accommodating of me.




I also let them check out DVDs and board games.  We attend movie showings and craft classes.  Sometimes I even cave and buy them donut holes.  We take walks in the park by our main library, or play at the playground next to one of the other branches.  I let them get onto the library computers while I am doing my own book searches.  I am conditioning them to feel happy whenever they enter a library.

3.  Creating conditions for reading
Let's face it; it's easier to get online and lose several hours than to pick up a book and get into it, especially if you're not a very good reader.  Which is one reason why we don't allow screens on weekdays.  It keeps reading as an attractive option.  We also use the school's expectation of a certain number of minutes of reading per night.  Part of me hates this, as it makes reading sound like a chore, but I do see how it creates the discipline to just pick up a book.  When my daughter read so much the other night, it started with her "reading time" and continued when she turned off the timer after thirty minutes and just kept going.

When they doing most of their reading aloud, I used to get extra reading time from them by considering "reading aloud to Mom" one way they could help with the dishes.  Whoever's night it was for dish duty almost always chose to read rather than dry.

It takes very little persuading for me to buy them book, whether through school book orders or when we're in a bookstore.  I don't fuss about their reading choices (although I did refuse to read Disney movie books to them for my own sanity) and am happy to encourage graphic novels, series, celebrity bios, etc.  I am pretty direct about the fact that it's okay if you read "easy books," and it's also okay if you read books your teacher says are "above your level."  It's the reader's right to choose what to read.

They get books as gifts.  They listen to audiobooks.  They are surrounded by books.



There's more I could be doing (namely restricting screens more on weekends and reading aloud with better consistency), but I do think that our approach is paying off.  There's a balance required between encouraging reading and making it feel like a test they're constantly failing, and I think we've done pretty well at that.  It's definitely a situation that requires trusting the process and not worrying about outcomes.

Are there any struggling readers in your life?  Or were you a reluctant reader in your youth?  What tips would you add?  






Saturday, February 18, 2017

This Land Is Our Land: Right Book at the Right Time

I read fourteen books for my job as a Round 2 judge for the Cybils award.  Last year I did the same job in the YA contemporary category, and we read maybe six books.  But the nonfiction judges read both MG and YA, and there were seven finalists in each.  I really liked eight of them, and I certainly understand why all of them made the cut, even if they weren't for me.

The last book I read (which was determined almost entirely by the order my library was able to track them down for me) is This Land Is Our Land, a Middle Grade title by Linda Barrett Osborne.  I think that in normal times, I would have found it mildly interesting.  But in the current climate, I found it provocative and important, a book I want to buy for my classroom library and press into the hands of everyone I meet.



This is a book about the U.S.'s history with immigration.  Each chapter deals with a chunk of time, and in carefully researched and well presented detail, explains how both laws and attitudes changed over time, yet remained essentially the same.  (Early on, the author also points out that African American "immigration," being one of forced removal from their home, is a whole different story.)

The author clearly has a point of view, one she supports with examples and illustrations.  She sets the tone early on, pointing out that historically, "Race was not just about looking different; it was about feeling superior to other groups of human beings." (pg. 9).  What does she mean by this?  Well, it turns out that Benjamin Franklin wrote "In Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also" (pg. 9).  I already knew that there was skin-tone based racism against Italians and Spaniards, but who the hell calls Swedes and Germans people of color?  Oh right, one of our founding fathers.  The mental gymnastics here--whites are better than people of color; I am better than Swedes; therefore Swedes are people of color--is horrifying.

A lot of the basic information is already familiar to the adult reader, and a lot of her thoughts that relate to the current debate over immigration are things I've long believed as well.  She emphasizes the fact that many white American's ancestors came before quotas were set up, and came primarily for economic reasons, implying that it's hypocritical to say things like "People should follow the rules like my ancestors did" or "You have to PROVE you are in HUGE DANGER to be let in as a refugee."

My great-great grandparents sent this picture to their daughter after she immigrated from Lithuania.  Clearly, my ancestors were peasants in search of a better life.

She included some details about the quota laws that I wasn't familiar with--for example, she talks about the general quotas from Asia, not just the ones pertaining to Chinese.  For decades, Asians could not become citizens by any means other than birth, so restrictions were placed stating that nobody who couldn't eventually become a citizen could immigrate--virtually shutting out Asians without ever saying so directly.  There was a lack of quotas from our continent until relatively recently (post WWII), so both Canadians and Mexicans could immigrate at will.

The race-based national quotas of the 1920s are what most of us are at least dimly aware of.  After World War Two, the McCarran-Walter Act was passed, maintaining national quotas.   When Harry Truman vetoed the act, stating that "The basis of this quota system was false and unworthy in 1924.  It is even worse now...It is incredible to me that, in this year of 1952, we should again be enacting into law such a slur on the patriotism, the capacity, and the decency of a large part of our citizenry."  (pg. 91), Congress overruled the veto.

I kind of want to get Truman's words on a t-shirt.

In 1965 national quotas were replaced by hemisphere quotas, with a higher cap on Western (New World) immigrants than on Eastern (Old World) immigrants.  In 1976, that quota was ended, replaced by a general cap of 290,000 legal immigrants per year.

Osborne brings us into the current century, if not quite up to the Muslim Ban and the proposed wall on the Mexican border, stating that in 2010, 58% of undocumented immigrants were Mexican.  Nearly 7,500 people were caught that year trying to cross from Canada, including boat, Jet Ski, and swimming to MI, NY and MN.  In 2011 "more suspected terrorists were caught trying to enter the US through Canada than through Mexico, according to the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol Agency.  Yet most Americans are far more concerned with undocumented Latin American immigrants than with those from other countries."  (pg. 100)  In a post-truth world, does it matter? (Rhetorical question.  Of course it matters.)

Osborne was preaching to the choir in this case.  My father immigrated from Canada as a teen and became a naturalized citizen after he'd married and had his first child.  His parents had both immigrated from Scotland.  My mother's father came from Lithuania as a babe in arms.  The remaining branch of the family has been here for centuries, but even they were immigrants once, uninvited and without any particular paperwork.  I've worked for decades with immigrant students, some with and some without documentation.  The struggles people go through to get to our country, the grief they feel at leaving their home, the hope they have for the success of their children--I simply don't understand how you reject them and criminalize their behavior.   Osborne uses facts, data, and quotes from key thinkers throughout our history to come to the same conclusions I've reached on emotions alone.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and his Sacrifice for Civil Rights by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace

Published 2016 by Calkins Creek

352 pages, YA nonfiction.


I read this book as part of the round two Cybils judging.  It was one of my favorites from that astoundingly interesting collection of nonfiction written for middle grade and young adult audiences.





I have to start by acknowledging the problematic aspect of another "white savior" narrative.  Do we really need another biography of a white male New Englander who traveled to the Deep South to lend an oh-so-important hand to the Civil Rights movement?

Maybe not.  But Jonathan Daniels does deserve to be remembered, and the Wallaces did a beautiful job in bringing his life and the struggle into focus, conveying the sense of injustice and danger as well as the courage and teamwork it took to stand up to it all.

The book is pretty much a chronological account of Daniel's life, with plenty of photos and fine use of primary sources and interviews to keep it grounded in what is known rather than what is guessed.  If like me, you didn't read the subtitle all that carefully, it's made clear on the first page how this is all going to end up for Daniels.  As is the case with each new chapter, a date is given (the first one his birth date) and then a countdown begins--less than 10,000 days to live on the day he was born.

The timeliness of this book cannot be overemphasized.  John Lewis, now senator and object of Twitter taunts from the president, has a key role.  Protest marches are met with resistance, including violence and imprisonment.  Mistrust between potential allies runs high, and as for those in opposition--it seems they lack all human decency.

The Wallaces certainly don't claim Daniels' role was bigger than anyone else's.  In addition to Lewis and MLK, Stokely Carmichael is a significant player, and many women (and their contributions) are named as well.  Still, it's astounding the amount of courage and decisiveness that were required for Daniels to leave his home and education in order to support the effort to register black voters and stand up to Jim Crow in its many iterations.  I was appalled to find out that his life was considered even more at risk than other "interfering Yankees" because--not in spite of, BECAUSE--he wore a priest's collar.  And I can never ever ever wrap my mind around the way racists then and now are able to literally get away with murder.

I thought this book would be interesting.  I did not expect it to be so moving.  You should probably read the March series first, but this one is worth your time as well.

4.5/5 stars

Have you ever heard of this guy before?  Can you wrap your mind around what causes some people to be willing to risk their lives for justice for others when most of us just want avoid threats of violence?  What other books on Civil Rights do you recommend?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Should a Literary Canon Be Taught?

When I was young (hard to believe, but I was, once), there was this program at my school called Junior Great Books.  While it seems that nowadays the company that organizes this program does include modern books, at the time the idea was that there was Classics with a capital C, and that reading, thinking about, and discussing these books was key to becoming an intelligent and thoughtful person.

There is still a train of thought that dismisses popular fiction as not worth teaching.  Fine for entertainment, but with no educational value.  Others agree that the canon needs to be widened, but not if it means students will lose access to Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, Dunne, Plato, and, God help us all, Lord of the Flies, Walden, The Stranger, Billy Budd, and Ethan Frome, the banes of my high school existence.

It's no secret that I'm a big believer in choice when it comes to reading.  There are those that love the books I just listed, just as I loved the required reading of Death of a Salesman, Macbeth, The Scarlet Letter, The Chosen, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I am not advocating for denying students access to classics.  But I will state unequivocally that a student who hates reading will not benefit from mere "exposure" to the so-called great books.  First comes the love of reading.  THEN comes the will to tackle challenging texts. 

Our language arts department has been consciously increasing our teaching of both "diverse" and "relatable" literature--meaning that we have been looking for books by Latino authors and books about the immigrant experience, since our school is 55% Latino, mostly first and second generation immigrants from Mexico.  The response from our students has been amazing, with higher engagement and more profound discussions.  Given the current political environment, we've also been quietly pleased with what this shift in curriculum is doing for our white students, many of whom are economically disadvantaged and from families without advanced education levels, a group that is often easy prey for xenophobic propaganda.  Reading books like The Circuit, La Linea, and Buried Onions breaks down the "us vs. them" mentality, and also gives non-white students an opportunity to be the experts in the classroom, the ones who already have the background knowledge to "get it."  If literature can be either a mirror to reflect our own experience or a window into the experience of others, by changing up the canon, we are flipping who is looking into mirrors for better understanding of where they are coming from, and who is getting a windowed view into lives they hadn't considered before.

We still read The Outsiders and The Giver, modern but canonical middle grade classics.  And for all my love of independent, free choice reading, I still see a role for the whole-class novel.  It does equip students to take on a book they might not brave on their own, and can often lead to follow-up reading.  "Do you have a copy of The Outsiders?" asks a student who's older brother is reading it in class. "I heard you have the sequels to The Circuit" says a student I don't even know, popping her head into my classroom after her language arts class.  "Are there other books like The Giver?" asks a kid who's book club just finished it.  "I kind of liked it" he continues with a faint tone of surprise.  "What else did Gary D. Schmidt write?" they all clamor after we finish Orbiting Jupiter

 But I find that the more freedom I give in my classroom, the more students I see reading.  Last week one 8th grader brought in a library copy of Judy Blume's Forever (now there's a classic!) and now all her friends want to read it too.  This book that was snuck-read when I was her age, far from adult eyes, was being passed around my room all week.  Sure, they were giggling about the sexy bits, but we also ended up talking about the ending, that your first big romance probably WON'T last "forever," which is all the more reason to play it smart, take it slow, etc.  So I trotted off to the used book store today and picked up a classroom copy of it, as well as Tiger Eyes, Then Again Maybe I Won't, and even Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret.

I draw the line, however, at Flowers in the Attic.  There's smut, and then there's sick.

Okay, before I get too far off topic, I'll put my question to you.

 Is there such thing as "canon" or "great books" that should be taught to all students?  If so, should modern classics gradually replace the older ones, or do we need to hang onto a few familiar titles that are part of our cultural literacy?  Or should students just be encouraged to read widely?  Or should individual teachers share their own favorites with their classes, whether it's The Color Purple, The Tell-Tale Heart, or The Knife of Never Letting Go?  Is it more important to teach students to wrestle with challenging texts and big questions, or to love to read?  (The ideal is both, of course, but if one had to choose...)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mini Reviews: Girl Mans Up; Blood Red, Snow White, and Same Difference

I haven't been blogging much.  But I have been reading, and while I haven't been writing up full reviews, I did jot down my thoughts on several books over on Goodreads.  I'm sharing them here as well now, in batches.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Okay, first, I don't know if I've ever hated a character as much as I hate Colby, Pen's neighbor and "friend." He's almost comically evil, but we've all known guys like him, sadly enough.

Pen is adorable, although I think she'd be pissed at me for saying so. She is a girl who looks like a boy and who likes girls, but she's still a girl too. Her Portuguese immigrant parents are super freaked out by this, and spend a lot of time trying to heap guilt and shame on her. Her gamer friends are starting to get weird about her role in their lives. Her crush might not be as straight as she'd originally assumed, and one of her "friend's" cast-offs seems like she might actually become Pen's first female friend. Things are changing rapidly, and her big brother doesn't seem to be in her corner any more.

There's a lot of "seems" in that brief synopsis. Pen is an inadvertently unreliable narrator. She's not lying, but there's a lot she doesn't get. Girard is adept at making Pen's confusion and obtuseness seem entirely believable while still giving the readers enough info to read between the lines. Pen is trying so hard to just live her life, and I was rooting for her from page one. Watching her grown into herself is terrific, if painfully slow at times, and the people around her also start to "man up" in various ways. 

(Unrelated question: why can't any of the teens drive in this book? I actually looked up the driving age in Canada to see if it was set higher than 16, but it's not. So either these are a bunch of 14 year old seniors, or I'm being super American to assume that even teens who don't own their own car have access to one.)



Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
I picked this book up because I've been wanting to read more Sedgwick, and because the title reminded me of my favorite fairy tale, Snow White and Rose Red. I didn't know it was loosely fictionalized history of author Arthur Ransome's years as a journalist and sort-of spy in revolutionary era Russa. 

At the start, it's very fairy tale-ish, but having studied Russian history in college, all these many years ago, I started figuring out the allegories--who these men with their tidy beards were, why the bear slept twelve years. And then...

it switched into much more traditional narrative style. I spent a few confused moments working out that Arthur Ransome is not Arthur Rackham, and then that Ransome was a real person too. (Very American of me to never have read Swallows and Amazons, I'm sure.) 

Each section of the book was slightly less appealing to me. I really liked the dreamy fairy tale first bit. The middle section, in which Ransome is shown thinking back on his time in Russia while nervously getting ready for some sort of spy gig, was not as fun, but still quite interesting. In the final section, told in first person, the convoluted politics started to make my head spin. 

And the only reason I can see for this being considered YA is that the author is known for his YA work. Although again, Midwinterblood didn't seem particularly YA to me either. Who decides these things, anyway? Both books are quite a bit more subtle and intelligent than, say The Help.   (The book I read had a different cover than the one pictured here, but I prefer this one.  I probably wouldn't have been as surprised to find myself reading a novel about the Russian Revolution if the book told me so right on the cover like that.  Plus, the St. Basil's skyline is always so cool.)

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim
Is this New Adult? I think it might be. I've had trouble pinning down what that categorization might be, but this is about a couple of people in their early twenties mulling over how they've changed since their teens, so...pretty new adult-ish. I liked Nancy and Simon a lot. Simon is super self obsessed, as Nancy points out, but he's getting there. Nancy is a bunch of fun, and the situation she gets herself into as an adult balances out the situation Simon got himself into in high school. Both of their embarrassments are resolved with dignity.





Of these three, I loved Girl Mans Up, really liked Same Difference, and had mixed emotions about Blood Red, Snow White, but I suspect I'll remember it longer than I do Same Difference.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February's Six Degrees of Separation: Fates and Furies

I've seen this on Wilde on My Side, and she pointed me to Books Are My Favorite and Best as the originator.  Basically, everyone starts with the same title each month, and then using your own personal trains of thought, lead your readers through six books, one to the next to the next.  It could be authors, covers, time of life when you read the book, or any other connection that comes up in your mind.




I've never read this month's starting title,  Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff, but apparently it's told in two parts, the first narrated by the husband and the second by the wife.  I'm a big fan of multiple POV stories.  One I've enjoyed recently was...



Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley.  This one also has a male and female narrator, and there is the significant piece of information being withheld from the guy by the girl.  The book is funny and insightful, and does a great job skewering the notion that mental illness can be "fixed" by love or good intentions.



Whaley's three part name, with the "Whale" in there, always reminds me of the name of one of my favorite fantasy series authors, Megan Whalen Turner.  The first book in the series is The Thief, and much to my delight, the fifth book is coming out soon!



Speaking of thieves, David Benioff's City of Thieves is a terrific book set during the siege of Leningrad.  When I read it, I dropped my rating from a five to a four because he sets it up as being based on his grandfather's life, but it's not at all, which annoyed me.  But seriously, it's a great story, both hilarious and poignant.



The title of Benioff's book takes me straight to Marge Piercy's City of Darkness, City of Light.  I've had a weakness for historical fiction set during the French Revolution ever since I happened to read A Tale of Two Cities weeks after my freshman Global Studies class finished studying it.  Piercy's feminist story telling also reminds me of Margaret Atwood's.  But I'm going to take this in a slightly different direction--



Piercy also wrote one of the only two modern volumes of poetry I've bought.  The other one is Ursula Le Guin's collection, Sixty Odd.  It has a little bit of many things--reflections on people she knew in her youth, poetry of the type that makes me feel a bit unprepared to read poetry, and one of my favorite poems of all, "October 11, 1491" in which she desperately warns the Taino people to not go down "in a year an and a day" to greet Columbus's ships.

I enjoyed putting this chain together--I really like all of the books I added to it, so you may take them all as recommendations!  I plan on taking part in this every month, so come on back and see what March brings.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

What's Saving My Life, 2017 Edition

Just like last year, Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy has invited us all to share what is saving our lives this cold, grey February.  I checked out my list from last year, and a lot of it still holds, but I'll try to share some new things that are getting me through my days right now.  



1.  COFFEE.  I got me us my husband a Keurig machine for Christmas, and it's so easy, and makes decent coffee.  We've only had a cheap espresso maker for years, and it was sadly unpredictably quality-wise, and always somewhat time consuming and loud, so I really only used it on the weekends.  Also, I wound up with about $35 in coffee cards over the holidays, and I've been doling them out pretty carefully, so I've been managing to both drink coffee and save money, which is nice.  I really do blow a huge chunk of my disposable income on coffee, but I'm saving up for hiking boots right now, and I'm actually getting there pretty quickly.

2. Having a loose reading plan.  I mentioned this earlier, but I started the year rotating through one Cybils book (I'm a round 2 judge), one Dumbledore's Army Read-a-thon book, and one Mt. TBR book.  As the first two events wound down, I slid library books and #ownvoices books into my rotation.  It still leaves me plenty of leeway for the mood reading I do, but makes me feel more focused and productive at the same time.

3. Make America Kittens Again.  This free Chrome extension replaces pictures of The Trumpster with pictures of kittens.  I don't care what your politics are, you have to admit that's pretty great.

4. Running grocery list.  Many months ago, someone randomly gave me a magnetized notepad.  I stuck it on the fridge and it just lived there for quite some time.  Then one day I used up the last of something--onions, dish soap, chicken stock, who knows?--and jotted it down on the notepad.  I continued doing this until the next time I went grocery shopping.  It serves two purposes--it writes the bulk of the grocery list in advance, and it helps us to actually track things we run out of that we might not specifically think of until we need it again.  The whole family quickly adopted to this new practice--the kids will write things like PECH AND VANILA JOGURT or THE HOTTEST PEPPERS YOU CAN FIND on the list, and The Winemaker brings the list with him when he's going

5. Haircuts My daughter and I both got fairly drastic haircuts the other day, and we both feel very glamorous and fresh.  Even though I was too lazy to hunt for coupons, the price with tip was less than what my mom used to pay at the salon she went to (which was NOT a very fancy salon).  

5. Windows.  My new classroom has a wall full of windows.  In my teaching career, I started out with six years in a windowless room, then spent five years in three different rooms with windows, back to three without, then one with, and back to four without, and now am back in a room with windows.  I really feel that the 1/3 of my teaching done with natural life has been the happiest and healthiest years on the job.  

6.  Alone time.  Monday evenings my husband plays bridge.  (No, really.)  So after the kids get to bed, I have between 1-3 hours on my own.  Twice a month, my daughter has a three hour Saturday morning class.  I drop her off, spend an hour in a coffee shop, then spend two hours at the library.  I look forward to these small oases in my crowded life.  Teaching and parenting get exhausting for an introvert.  

7. Low-key activism.  There is a lot going on in the world right now.  In my country.  A lot going on that I don't like at all.  I am already operating just on the edge of being able to cope with things in my own life, so I was dragging my feet on getting involved.  I'm getting there though.  It started with accepting the fact that I'm going to have to follow the news even though it's upsetting.  We don't have much disposable income, but I made some monthly commitments to organizations that are doing good work.  I've narrowed in on the issues that I feel the most strongly about--and have more background in--and am following those more closely, including signing petitions, sending emails, and soon making phone calls (the introvert's nightmare--calling strangers).  My daughter has expressed interest in attending a protest, so I'm going to find a family friendly event we can go to.  I can't do a lot, but I am not going to let that be my excuse for doing nothing.  Neither am I going to beat myself up for not doing more.  (That's the plan, anyway.)  

There you have it.  That's what saving my life in February of 2017.  It's that or the dead man's float at this point.  Hang in there.  The days are getting longer (at least in the Northern hemisphere)!