Monday, February 29, 2016

TTT: Ten Books To Read If...

Our friends at The Broke and the Bookish gave us an open ended topic this week.  I now present you with: 

Ten books to read if you are in the mood for...snow and cold.  

Just in case winter isn't doing enough to supply that for you, OR in case your misery wants some company.  

1.  Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt  I know, I just wrote about this book, but it's the one that inspired this list.  It is just SO COLD throughout this book, the weather almost becomes a character in its own right.  
2.  Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen.  I've mentioned this favorite before too.  Paulsen's memoir of his trial-and-error experience with becoming a sled dog racer is harrowing and gorgeous, joyful and tragic.  
3.  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.  I can never pass up a chance to mention one of my favorite books.  It takes place on a planet named Winter, so it certainly works for my theme this week.  The inhabitants of winter are genderless, and can take on sexual aspects of either men or women when it's "that time of the month" for them.  What would it be like if we all had the potential to be a mother or a father, but most of the time sex and gender were complete non-issues?  
4.  Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.  I gather from some of the reviews on Goodreads that this book doesn't do much for people who have no mountaineering background, or at least armchair familiarity with it.  But as far as adventures go--wow.  
5.  The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman.  (And the sequels.)  How can this book be 20 years old?  At least it gives me an excuse for not remembering much of it besides: steampunk Victorian alt-England, fierce young heroine, polar bears, and daemons, which aren't misspelled demons, but creatures that represent one's inner self.  Like a cross between a house elf and a patronus.  
6.  Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys.  Historical fiction about when Stalin rounded up tens of thousands of Balts in one night and shipped them all off to Siberia to live.  Or die.  Whatever.  It is literally impossible to overstate how little Stalin cared about the lives of the ordinary people in the vast swath of world he controlled.  And if that's not chilling enough for you--Siberia.  
7.   East by Edith Pattou A retelling of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" set in a vaguely Norwegian, possibly 16th century location.  
8. Breadcrumbs by Anna Ursu.  Another retelling, this time of The Snow Queen, set in modern Minnesota. 
9. Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg.  It has "snow" in the title, the main character is a Greenlander, and it's translated from the Danish.  
10. Graceling by Kristen Cashore.  Only for the last bit, when they're struggling over icy passes, but man, is it chilly to read that part.  

Special fond mention to: Winter by Marissa Meyer (for being called Winter), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (for being set where it's "always winter but never Christmas"), and The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (for permanently setting my mental image of what blizzards are like. Tie a rope around Pa before he goes to milk the cows.)

and one NOT to read:
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  I don't think I ever hated any assigned reading more than this book.  Ethan's one chance at love and happiness is destroyed by sledding?!? Seriously?!?  Edith Wharton hated the world, I'm sure of it.  

Slice of Life

Happy Leap Day--I just signed up for a month long writing challenge that starts tomorrow.  Just think, if it weren't a Leap Year, I would have been too late.  It's teacher focused, but pfft.  I'll write what I write.  But it will be DAILY ack.  And I kind of think that writing ahead is cheating, so expect to see a few even more haphazard and rambling posts than usual.

Though I like this:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

February Wrap-up

My Reading

Books read: 17, which is fewer than last month, but a) I didn't get sick and spend extra time at home, and b) I read some lengthy grown-up novels this month.  I remain happy with the amount of reading I'm getting to.


Orbiting Jupiter was a re-read for me, but this was my first time reading it to students.  As often happens, I became more aware of the writer's craft by reading aloud--between the slower pace and the aural element, I can actually appreciate what the author does with rhythm and repetition.  Jack's simple language and viewpoint reveals as much as it hides.  One class in particular loved it--many of the same kids that were so passionate about Margaret Peterson Haddix have now become obsessed with Gary D. Schmidt.  One student has a CASA who gently reminded me that this book might be triggering for some students who have gone through their own version of Joseph's hellish childhood, so I tried to create a safe space for having strong emotional responses to the book.  But really, this sweet group of kids made their own safe place for each other, so passionate were they in their feelings of protectiveness towards Joseph and Jupiter.  I'd given it four stars when I first read it last fall, but it was a five star read-aloud.  

I finished two books I'd started reading to my kids last month.  My daughter and I made a triumphant finish of the illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone I got her for Christmas, and have begun the next book in the series (a used paperback, but the story IS THE SAME regardless of packaging).  My sister and brother-in-law gave my son two "Ghosts of War" books, and we finished The Secret of Midway.  This was pretty much NOT something I would have read otherwise--a  middle grade battle book.  My son was rapt.  I would have found it boringly informative at his age, but he was fine with it.  We have not rushed on to the sequel.  In fact, he likes to come in and listen while I'm reading the next Harry Potter, having seen the movies and therefore able to follow the story even if he's not there each time I read to his sister.

Mildly Disappointing

Rules is a much praised book that I started as a read-aloud last semester.  We didn't quite get through it, but we were far enough that I figured I may as well take a half hour and finish it.  It was okay.  I thought the narrator was a little weird in her obsession with making the new girl next door into Diana to her Anne.  I also thought my students were a little disingenuous when they were upset that she didn't see the kid with CP as a potential crush.

I bumped The Accident Season up my TBR list when I noticed a girl in my advisory reading it.  But it turned out to not be a book I'd really want to discuss with a student I don't know well.  I think the premise is awesome, but the execution was a little weird.  I had trouble with the sense of place also--other than all the teens smoking, it didn't seem very non-US to me.  


Lots of books I liked this month!  I buckled down and caught up on my Uppercase subscription books, and Wolf by Wolf and Starflight were both fun reads.  I Am Princess X caught my eye months ago, and I'm glad I talked our librarian into ordering it for the school library.  I've been wanting to read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ever since I heard Jesse Andrews speak at NCTE last fall, and I was not disappointed.  The protagonist/narrator is hilarious and awful, as promised.  Walter Dean Myers' Lockdown is one I think my students will really like once I get one of them to try it and back me up on that.  It's grim, but offers some hope as well.  I also read the latest Sophie Hannah mystery, Woman with a Secret, and thought it was great.  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a bit of an impulse read, with no idea of even the premise, and it was one of the most enjoyable vampire books I've come across.

Double wow!

There were several books that were terrific, but not all-time favorites.  I listened to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and I'm so glad I chose that medium.  Not If I See You First is definitely my favorite Uppercase offering so far.  When I was booktalking it, I noticed what a terrible case of "absent YA parents" it has--"Well, this girl is blind because of an accident when she was younger that killed her mom too, and then when she's in high school her dad dies, so she's living with her aunt and uncle and a cousin that she hates..."  It is powerful, and a great example of a "diversity book" that isn't ABOUT the thing that makes the protagonist a "diverse" character.  I learned some stuff about blindness and how not to approach blind people, but the actual story is about the character dealing with human emotions and relationships, forgiveness and friendship.  Marcelo in the Real World is my first read by the marvelously named Francisco X. Stork, and I will definitely be reading more by him.  Finally, I stretched myself a little and read a book of Mary Oliver poetry, A Thousand Mornings.  Reading poetry collections is like reading short stories in that it's next to impossible to be equally impressed with every single offering, but there were many poems in here that I found moving.

Wow, wow, wow!

Have I mentioned my book-crush on Matt de la Peña? A few times, you say?  Well, you can keep your book boyfriends; I'm more likely to have author boyfriends (or girlfriends--I have SUCH a crush on Ursula le Guin, even if she's older than my mom would be were she still alive).  So it was pretty much a given that I would adore Ball Don't Lie.  I need a bunch of more copies so I can keep pressing it into kids's hands.  Sticky's life sucks.  Sticky (like de la Peña) might be able to get to college on a basketball scholarship.  Sticky makes some good choices and some bad choices.  You might think it's either going to be a heartbreaking tragedy, or possibly a triumphant sports book.  It is neither.  Sticky learns (spoiler) that while basketball might really be his ticket out of the hellishness of poverty and the loneliness of life bouncing from foster home to foster home, it is not what makes him worthy of love and happiness.  That sounds SO LAME when I say it, which is why Matt de la Peña is an author and I'm not.  

Assorted Stats

I don't know how to disaggregate my stats without doing it by hand, which kind of defeats the purpose of keeping track on a spreadsheet, SO...I'm going to just update my 2016 stats each month.  
Of the books I've read this year,  20% earned 3 stars, 50% earned 4 stars, and 30% earned 5 stars.  I'm liking or loving everything I read!  

I get nearly half of my books from the public library.  In descending order, I get the other books by buying them new, from my Uppercase subscription, from my classroom library, from the school library, and buying used copies.  

66% of the books I've read were written by women, 75% of the books I've read were written by white authors, and 82% of them are by Americans.  31% of what I've read have been authorial debuts, and 67% of the authors have been new to me.  

Well over half of the books I read are YA, with the rest being MG, picture books, and adult books in fairly equal measure.  I've read 24 realistic fiction books, 5 mysteries, 8 fantasies and 3 historical fiction.  "Funny" and "magical realism" are two write-in categories I've used.  

My Writing

This will be my 15th post this month.  Given that my goal when school started up in September was to continue posting twice a week, I'm happy with how much I'm able to produce for the blog. I've also started writing ahead for the A-Z blogging challenge in April, and have posts A-F already written, which makes me feel very accomplished and ahead of things.  (Don't ask about my housekeeping, okay?  It's a mess.  We don't care.  Move on.)

I participated in three Top Ten Tuesday memes, writing about my ten favorite book couples, ten songs I'd like to see made into books (boy did that week's blog hop make me feel ancient!), and (fewer than) ten books I'd enjoyed that were outside of my comfort zone.  I reviewed Ball Don't Lie, Marcelo in the Real World, and Life After Life, as well as a comparison of the small towns featured in All The Rage, I'll Meet You There and Sharp Objects.  My participation in Modern Mrs. Darcy's "What's Saving Your Life Right Now?" linkup garnered the most page views, and my TTT about favorite couples earned the most comments.

I talked about my classroom a few times, listing the most popular authors in my classroom library, reflecting on an author's visit I took students on, and describing the development of one of my students, who likes horror/romance, a genre I'm not well versed in at all.

In addition to committing to the upcoming A-Z challenge, I pushed myself a little with a blog improvement survey, and by volunteering to host the giveaway for one of Nicole's Discussion Challenge linkups at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.   


I have mixed feelings about February as a month.  There are many important people in my life who have birthdays this month, plus my first date with my husband was on Feb. 3rd.  February can be depressingly cold and rainy here in the Northwest, but we also get the first primroses, forsythia, and crocuses (croci?) blooming this month.  My dad died two years ago in February, and this year two friends lost parents in this cold, dark month.  Another friend at work got bad news about his dad's health AND about his job security.  What would have been my sister's 32nd wedding anniversary took place almost a year after her divorce.  My kids kept getting sick and/or injured, and my husband's insomnia kicked it up a notch.  I feel like I spent a lot of the month vaguely worried about people.

There were some good times this February.  My husband and I finally rented and watched Mockingjay Part 1, then realized part 2 was showing at a local second run theater.  He went and watched it last Friday while I took the kids to Cinderella at the library, then I met my sister and nephew there the next night to see it myself.  They hadn't read the books or seen the prior movies, which I think speaks clearly to HER urge to get out of the house and HIS appreciation of Jennifer Lawrence's hotness.  My other nephew's wife had a baby two days ago, so I'm now great-aunt to both a girl and a boy.  

We finally pulled ourselves together as parents and instigated a Mon-Thurs screens ban for our kids, and it's making our evenings more productive (if not always more peaceful), PLUS it means they are quite content to veg out on the weekends if that's all the adults have energy for.  

My kids attend two different schools, so their conferences are spread out across the next two weeks, meaning SHE was off two days this week and HE will be off two days next week.  My husband is taking each kid in turn up to the mountain for an overnight, while the other child gets to hang out with me at home.  We all enjoyed it this weekend and are looking forward to next weekend.

They worked on creating our family in snow.  I'm digging the glasses, but my husband does not have a goatee IRL.

I still love my job.  :)  I've had some kids get really into their books lately.  As Gary D. Schmidt himself says in Orbiting Jupiter

“You know how teachers are. If they get you to take out a book they love too, they're yours for life.”


Friday, February 26, 2016

Best Groundhog's Day Ever: Life After Life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Published 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books

544 pages, historical fiction, magical realism.

The premise of this book is that Ursula Todd, born in England in 1911 dies at birth...and then starts over in the same time and place.  This happens over and over, life after life. At first, it's just luck and coincidence that changes her fate, but as she repeats different stages, a sense of premonition or deja vu starts to influence her actions and decisions.  (I think the change that brings me the most relief involves her socking an older boy who tries to kiss her on her 16th birthday, preventing a rather horrible rape/abortion/death by infection storyline from playing out.)

This was my second audiobook after many years without them.  I am really glad I listened to it instead of reading it, because I know myself--I'm a skimmer.  If I'd had to read the bit where Ursula is born a dozen times, there's pretty much no  way I would have done so carefully enough to appreciate the small adjustments and changes.  If anything, I would have been annoyed at the repetition, as it sounds like other reviewers were.  Having the book read to me (in a lovely British accent, no less) helped me to appreciate the beauty of Atkinson's language, the poetic rhythms and recurring motifs.  

Ursula's many journeys, and her confused attempts to change her fate, make a fascinating story.  I'm surprised it wasn't harder to keep track of timelines and lifetimes, but even with frequent flashbacks and asides within each timeline, the actual story is easy enough to follow--even as it twists and winds and doubles back on itself.

The slower pace of listening also let me think more carefully not only about the different lives Ursula leads, but also how the people in her life are presented.  I started out feeling connected to Sylvie and suspicious of Hugh; by the end that was entirely reversed.  How did the woman who came up with the whimsical and unconventional "Fox Corners" become a bitter and judgmental termagant? How did the straitlaced young banker who objected to the house's name on the grounds that it was not a name already in use become the gently tolerant paterfamilias?   Another train of thought follows Ursula's siblings.  They remain constant from story to story, but why is it that Morris so unpleasant throughout his entire life while Teddy is sweetly charming, also from birth?  

I also found it interesting to see who else was and was not a constant in her many lives.  One lover shows up over and over again, while the rest might be a missed opportunity in one life, a regrettable mistake in another.  Neighborhood friends are inevitable, but friends and acquaintances met elsewhere shift and shimmer like mirages.  

World Wars I and II are always ripe for bittersweet storytelling, between the lost flower of England and the stubborn courage of the Blitz.  To my American ears, the language and attitudes of the eras sounded pitch perfect.  I enjoyed the accent of my narrator, although I'm sure I miss some of the implications of different types of diction.  The family is classically educated, quoting poetry and speaking French with ease.  I wonder if English readers would find the book more deeply nostalgic and personally relatable, a mirror as opposed to the window it was to me.

This book won several minor awards and was the Goodread's Choice winner for 2013. 

4/5 stars.  

If you were allowed to start your life over, what different choices might you make?  (Presumably none of us have DIED from our choices, but Ursula does take some actions that affect others' fates as well, or that change less drastic bits of her life. )

Monday, February 22, 2016

TTT: Recent Atypical Favorites

This week, The Broke and the Bookish challenged us to list books we've enjoyed in the last year or so that were not our typical fare.

This was super hard.  I could argue it's because I read so widely--fantasy, sci fi, mystery, historical fiction, short stories, literary fiction, graphic novels, picture books...I'd consider all of them "my type of book."  The reality still is that I don't venture outside of my comfort zone all that often.  Just because it's a big comfort zone doesn't mean I need to stay safely inside it at all times.  Of course, when I do, I am often pushed back towards what I already know I like.  As I reviewed my Goodreads list of read books, I kept going, "Here's an unusual pick!--and I gave it 2 stars, never mind."

I couldn't even come up with ten that were both unusual for me and that I liked, but here's what I did find:

1.  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black.  I've never been a vampire enthusiast, even back in the Anne Rice days.  This book was surprisingly engaging, even if it is unabashedly a paranormal romance.

2.  Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Gaudin, is not ANYBODY'S typical reading.  I challenge you to find any other alternate history/skin shifter romance/intercontinental road race books.  I was skeptical, but just like my mother's "refrigerator soup" made from leftovers, the total was more than the sum of its parts.

3.  The Truth About Stacey adapted by Raina Telgemeier from Ann M. Martin's Babysitter Club novel.    Another one that I assumed I was too mature for, but that I actually appreciated.  I don't know if Martin's originals were as astute and charming, but Telgemeier has the golden touch, as far as I'm concerned.

4.  Brody's Ghost, vol. 1-6, by Mark Crilley.  While I have started reading more and more graphic novels, I generally prefer the ones that don't look like comic books or manga.  Brody's Ghost counters both of these preferences, but I gulped it down and passed it along to my students.  Solid storytelling and a recognizable sci fi feel made it easy for me to appreciate.

And that's it.  Everything else I've read this year was either very much "the kind of book I like" or, well, I wound up not liking it very much.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reader Snapshots 1: Niche Reader Developing Confidence

First in a possible series of posts analyzing my students as readers.  Suggestions on books for them are most welcome!

Estella (all names have been changed) is a short 8th grader who tries to cover shyness with gruffness.  She's pretty, dresses mostly in sweatshirts and jeans, and jokes about beating up on her little brother.   She started seventh grade reading at a fifth grade level (according to the test we give, which is always a debatable way to evaluate someone's reading ability), and is currently up to the middle of sixth grade level.  When I met her at the beginning of this year, she told me that she'd spent the summer by reading a lot of fan fic.  "Some of it wasn't written very well, but I could figure out what they were trying to say," she told me.  "I didn't watch TV much, I mostly read that stuff online and I feel like I got a lot faster."

I tried to figure out what book would appeal to her.  "Well," she told me confidently, "I'd like something that is romance, but kind of scary.  With werewolves."  I handed her Shiver.  She blew through the first two books, but lost interest by the third.  Still, she was definitely reading.  I handed her other paranormal romances; some she turned down immediately, some she read a few pages of, and some she borrowed and finished.  She didn't always do other assigned activities in class, especially if they involved talking to people besides her small circle of friends, but when she refused to work, she did so by picking up her book and getting lost in the pages.  It's a hard thing for a reading teacher to object to.

She came up to me a couple of weeks ago.  Glancing at me, then quickly away, as if eye contact were too revealing, she asked me if I could help her track down a book called The Immortal Rules.  I found it at the public library that afternoon and brought it to her the next day.  She burst into my room at the end of the day, which surprised me given how reticent she always is, and said, "I'm sorry--I lost it!  I put it down in the gym and now it's not there!"  She retraced her steps, I put out an APB to my colleagues, and two days later the librarian noticed it sticking out of lost and found in the cafeteria.  I took about two seconds to decide whether or not to let her try again.  Her locker partner was excited to see me walk up with it, and put it in the locker so the cover would be facing her when she opened it.

Not something I'd want to see when I opened my locker, personally.

It was only a few days later when she asked me about getting the sequel.  The library didn't have it locally, and I could only track down a new hardback at our local bookstores.  "Do you think other kids would like this series?" I asked, thinking about the $19.95 price tag and the fact that if I get book two, I kind of have to get book one also.  "I don't know; probably not," she admitted.  Paranormal romances are hot, but as I've mentioned before, most of my struggling readers seem to prefer realism.

There was an ebook available from the library, but because I'm currently over the $10 fine limit, I couldn't check it out for her.  She found a 100 page preview on Google Books, and as soon as I pay down my fine this week, she'll be able to keep going.  We absolutely do not have similar taste in books--I tend to avoid things that feature tears of blood--but I will make sure she keeps getting access to books she enjoys all the same.

It never would have occurred to me to suggest that someone immerse themselves in fan fic as a means towards building reading fluency.  I never would have chosen a 485 paged book for a struggling middle school reader.  I never would have suspected my prickly, grumpy student would race to confess when she misplaced my library book.

This is why I love my job.  Learning goes both ways all the time.

Any suggestions for what Estella should read after this series?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Haters to Lovers trope

I'm exactly one chapter in to this month's Uppercase subscription book, and I've already deduced that the plucky but penniless mechanic and the haughty rich boy are going to end up in love.  This is rather disturbing, because so far he has shown himself to be rude, classist, cruel, spoiled, selfish, etc. etc. etc.  I'm sure that events will unfold so that we learn his tragic backstory*, and/or so that as he falls in love with our heroine, he learns to be kinder**.  Or maybe it's all a front all along***, and he'll turn out to have been disguising his true noble nature.

Or I'm mistaken, and he's really going to be the bad guy.  In real life, after all, if you are suddenly put into close working relationship with someone who was always a jerk to you when you were in school together, you grit your teeth, complain to your friends, and just try to get through without getting fired.  But since this is a YA novel, if a strong male and strong female character clash in the first chapter--surely Cupid is hovering nearby.

I would love to be surprised.  I know conflict builds drama, but come on.  It's one thing if the initial dislike is caused by a different worldview, or a misunderstanding.  But so far, it just sounds like the guy is an ass, so I really don't want to end up getting all mushy about him.  I'm not complaning about this particular book though--after all, I've barely started it--so much as the pattern that exists, which is what's causing me to make this assumption.  (And anyway, the fact that I assume a boy and girl meeting in chapter one means they are destined to be together implies some lack of variety in plotting.)

What are your thoughts about this "I hate you, wait, no, I love you!" romance convention? 

* like Logan in Veronica Mars
** like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
*** like what's-his-face in Red Queen, or, depending on how you look at it, Bruce Wayne.

The Rewarding Process of Giving Awards

I stumbled across the CYBILS awards blog last summer, saw a call for judges, and thought I may as well apply.  Rather to my surprise, I lucked into a 2nd round judge position for YA contemporary.  This meant I got to read the seven great books chosen by the first round judges, discuss them at length with my fellow judges (not that any of us are fellows), and help make the final selection.

The full slate of winners in all categories is here, but to sum up my little corner of it, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone was our pick, with Dumplin'; Everything, Everything; Infandous; How it Went Down, All the Rage and The Truth Commission all getting short-list honors.

Being assigned to read these books was such a treat.  Not only were they all very good, but they were all very different from each other.  There was no feeling of same ol' same ol' despite the fact that they all fit in the same genre and were published in the same year.  On top of that, getting to hear the perspectives of several other people who were reading thoughtfully and thinking critically, but also passionately, about the books was so enriching.

Having zero experience with this type of process before, there were some aspects I found really interesting.  First, as I alluded to above, our judging panel was (based on people's name) all female.  This ties into something I see in the book blogging community in general, which is a decidedly skewed gender representation.  Why is that?  Do men not admit to reading YA?  Do they really not read YA?  Or do they just not feel the same compulsion to discuss, analyze, and fanboy over their reading?  

I also realized as we worked on the process that it wasn't actually helpful to think we were choosing The Best Book.  We were choosing a winner, sure, but just because it won didn't mean it was clearly superior to All Other Books.  The winner would be the book that ALL of us LIKED A LOT, and NONE of us DISLIKED.  Still, it made me wonder about Newberys and Printzes and from there on to Oscars and Emmys and Nobel Prizes.  Is the winner of a subjective competition always going to be a highly deserving compromise?  Or are there times when one contender blows away the competition?

There were a few we disagreed on.  One person made a persuasive case for a book that really spoke to her; I felt it was less original than the others.  I thought the changing POVs in another made it more compelling; others thought it was confusing and the voices weren't distinct enough.  Others we agreed more on--this one fun, but not as literary, that one incredibly well written but with a narrow audience.  In the end, Every Last Word was an easy decision.  All of us liked it a lot.  Even if it wasn't every individual's favorite, we all felt it hit the criteria (literary quality and appeal to the target audience) strongly.

At one point, giddy off Matt de la Peña's Newbery win,  I brought up the question of representation in the books.  Two had people of color as the main character, and others featured non-mainstream situations such as poverty or illness.  My question was, if two works were equally deserving, one of which portrayed upper middle class white kids and one of which portrayed inner city black kids (and was written by a person of color), would it behoove us to choose the book about less privileged kids?

Yikes.  The only real response I got was along the lines of "Color doesn't matter; it only matters whether or not it's a good book."  Well, yeah, I understand that, which is why I prefaced my question with the whole "two equally deserving works" bit.  Because let's be clear--if you are an middle or upper class kid of European descent, you are going to find LOTS of books about Kids Like You.  But if you are not all of those things, it gets harder.  And going back to the window/mirror analogy I glommed onto when Martha Brockenboough mentioned it at a conference last fall, us middle class white people could stand to be exposed to a lot more windows into other experiences also.  I was a little surprised more people weren't willing to discuss the issue.

For all that, I am happy with our winner (but will also be getting How It Went Down for my classroom.)

I would love to hear your thoughts about all of my (literally) large questions above.  Also, have you read any of the final field?  Which would you have chosen from them?  Or is there another book you think should have made it through the first round?  Me, I was a little surprised to not see Made You Up, Challenger Deep, or Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda on the list.  (Also, why is there no apostrophe in that last title?   It bugs me.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Apparently, Small Towns Suck

I wrote this post just after reading these books over New Year's weekend, but then realized I couldn't publish it, as one of the books was on the CYBILS short list, and judges can't share opinions on the books during the judging period.  So here it is now.

I've just come off of reading five books in three days.  I enjoyed them all; they were all quite different from each other, given that they all fell into the general category of realistic fiction.

Three of the books were set in small towns, and in all three of those books, the protagonists were miserable, and desperate to escape.  The towns became malevolent characters in their own rights, full of small minded people, vengeful gossip, brutal class hatreds, and of course drug and alcohol problems up the wazoo.

I've never actually lived in a small town (except for a fishing village in Latvia, but that's a whole 'nother story), but I have taught in two of them.  Some of what these books portray seems real, and some seems overwrought.  I thought it would be interesting to compare the author's approaches and attitudes.

Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects is, unsurprisingly, the most brutal of the three.  All the Rage, by Courtney Summers, describes a town that is nearly as awful, but the protagonist doesn't seem all that driven to leave.  In contrast, much of the plot in I'll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios, is about different types of attempts to leave their small town behind.

Poverty and a culture of haves vs. have-nots form the backdrop of all three novels.  I'll Meet You There is set in dry and dusty Creek View, California, and while nobody seems to be doing all that well there, Skylar, our protagonist, is scrambling to make ends meet, down to a few Saltines before finally taking on a second job.  Meanwhile, her recently unemployed mom is letting a creep of a guy move in, clearly as much for practical reasons as romantic.  Sky wants out so bad she can taste it, dreaming since middle school of going to art college in San Francisco.  She has the scholarships and loans all lined up, but her escape line is still fragile enough that her mom's financial problems could snap it.

In Sharp Objects, our protagonist, Camille, comes from the richest family in Wind Gap, Missouri.  This has done nothing to shield her against her town's pervasive mysogyny.  In fact, her mother's position as the heiress of the local hog factory fortune, ensures that nobody ever reaches out to help the three daughters she manipulates and torments in the guise of mothering them.  When 13 year old "Mil" starts self medicating with sex, drugs, and cutting, her friends and peers are only too happy to help her out.

Romy's family in Grebe, the setting of much of All the Rage, is just getting by.  The issue in Grebe, location unclear to me, is not so much money (although clearly the queen bees and jocks at her school have more cash than she does), but power.  Romy was raped by the sherrif's son, and even though she never pressed charges, the town has turned against her.  She is labeled a slut, and targeted for abuse and harrassment by everyone from her classmates to the police.

The town seems to thrive on judging other people with only partial information.  Her nearly-step dad lives off of disability, and takes heat because of it, since the pain he's been in for decades is not visible from the outside. When her black boyfriend visits, and she's desperate for him to leave so he doesn't find out how hated she is, someone else thinks this black guy is harrassing this white girl and runs him off.  Nice.

Absent dads and struggling moms are all the family these three girls have.  Sky's dad died in a drunk driving accident, spiraling her mom into depression and the family into even worse poverty than they'd known before.  Mil doesn't even know who her father was, and has called her stepfather by his first name since he joined the family when she was a toddler.  He's a cipher and a ghost, irrelevant to the story except in his appalling lack of interference in what goes on in the house he lives in.  Mil's mom is a piece of work, and I can't say too much more about that because of the twisty nature of that story.  Romy's mom is the happiest of the three, newly cohabitating with a sweet and loving man.  Sure, they can't marry since Romy's dad just took off without bothering to divorce her, but there is a living example of a healthy relationship in front of Romy.  I was frustrated by Romy's refusal to tell her mom what was going on in her life, but the other two protagonists were clearly on their own.

Over-the-top Mean Girls and Jackass Boys are the final thread connecting these charming villages.  An 8th grade Mil is passed around by four or five (the inexactness is chilling) high school boys at a party, and so deep in her self-loathing that she tries to frame it as sexual freedom rather than gang rape.  When she returns to town as an adult, reporting on two child murders, her own half-sister is now thirteen, and runs the most terrifying girl clique I've read about since Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye.  Romy is taunted and degraded over and over again, with not one single classmate suggesting that maybe you don't have to hate on a girl just because she decided she didn't want to have sex with her crush after all.  Again, she internalizes the shame, trying desperately to keep her burgeoning romance with a coworker at a diner out of town separate, because she doesn't think the girl she is in Grebe deserves anything but hatred and disgust.

Sky has a much saner experience.  She finds herself increasingly drawn to Josh, a co-worker who was kind of a jerk before he signed up and went to Afghanistan.  His experiences there changed him, and when he returns with a missing leg, he wavers between the good ol' boy behavior expected of him and a more mature way of being.  The town partiers, the ones who go to keggers and give blowjobs in pickup trucks, can be dumb, catty, and tacky, but they aren't evil, like their counterparts in Grebe and Wind Gap.  Also, Sky and her buddy Chris have held each other to their pact of getting out of town, but their third bestie, Dylan, finally calls them on the inherant snobbery of that.  She had a kid, is staying in town, and will make her life in the place they are so vocally eager to leave.  And she needs them to admit that it's okay--for her, and for others, even if not for them.

I am left wondering about the hatred with which these small towns are described.  If a big city features this strongly in a book, it is usually portrayed with love, even if the book itself is gritty.  Maybe the authors are trying to show that no place is truly safe.  Maybe they want to up the ante on high school drama by making the whole town in on it.  Maybe they want to play with the bucolic image of small town we see in commercials and romantic comedies.    I keep thinking of Winter's Bone, going beyond small town to backwoods tragedy and bleakness.  The human condition exists in all locales.  I don't believe that as many people are as darkly twisted as portrayed by Flynn, or that popular opinion is ever as united as portrayed by Summers (who at least allows other kinds of characters to exist, in Romy's home and workplace).  I do believe that people are dumb, or kind, or messed up, or warm-hearted, or vicious--or all of the above, given different circumstances.

I'll Meet You There, then, was my first five star read of 2016.  Sharp Objects was nasty, but I was expecting that, and was happy to give it four stars.  All the Rage dropped from four to three stars the more I thought about it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

TTT: Songs I Wish Were Books

When I heard the premise for this week's TTT list, I was baffled.  Songs that would be great books?  Theme songs of books?  Huh?

Luckily, Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish linked us up to a similar post she'd done earlier, and my wheels started turning.  I'm pretty sure my age is showing in my selections, but that also means that there might be some tunes on here that are complete standards in my mind, but will be new discoveries for some of you younger folk.  

Here are ten songs that I would love to read a book version of.

1. "The Queen and the Soldier" (Suzanne Vega)
I've loved this song since I first heard it in 1990.  It's a story-song already, but it would be great to have a full length version.  I'd like there to be one more twist at the end though--it's so tragic as is.

2. "Do I Wanna Know?" (Arctic Monkeys)
I have hopes that this one would have a more hopeful ending.  The break-up and realizations that the feelings were still there would make a good story, told in that particular voice.

3. Born in the USA album, focused around "Downbound Train" (Bruce Springsteen)
20th Century American tragedy.  It baffles me how people can think the title track is an upbeat, patriotic anthem.  "Born in this dead-end town; first kick I took was when I hit the ground..."  Definite shades of Grapes of Wrath in the story of how class and economics can drive all the joy out of the working person's life.

4. "Sweet Surrender" and/or "Rocky Mountain High" (John Denver)
Yes, I'm totally showing my age and sentimentality with this list.  These two songs, though, have a lot to say about finding your place as a young adult.  Not "YA" like literature aimed at teens, but actual young adults in their twenties, finding their place in the world.

5. "If You're Wondering if I Want You To" (Weezer)
This would be more of a teen YA book about first love.  "Your mom cooked meatloaf even though I don't eat meat, and I dug you so much I took some for the team."  How cute is that?

6. "I Will Buy You a New Life" (Everclear)
Like "Do I Wanna Know?" this could be a story of love lost and found.  Everclear is a local band, and while I'm sure you don't have to be local to get the import of "a new house way up in the West Hills," the book would definitely have to be set in Portland.

7. "King of the Road" (Roger Miller)
Let's get some 1930s historical fiction in the mix!

8. "Moving the Goalposts" (Billy Bragg)
"I don't believe that love should be pain, so could you please rub my back again?"  Another one that mixes social commentary with love.

9. "Photograph" (REM with Natalie Merchant)
Side note--if I were to have a beautiful singing voice, I would like to sing like Merchant.  This story of finding an old photo and wondering about the life of the girl in it would be a great premise for a book.  It could go any number of ways--MG ghost story, adult time travel, etc.

10. "Royals" (Lorde)
The intertwined lives of working class Australian teens.  Or maybe something like The Rest of Us Just Live Here, contrasting the imagined glories of the tigers-on-a-gold-leash set with real life joys and challenges of the counting-change-on-the-bus set.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Author Events: Margaret Peterson Haddix and Marissa Meyers

In the past two weeks, I wound up attending two different author events at the closest Powell's.  Since I only remember attending two author events before, ever (other than at teaching conferences), this was significant change for me.

It happened thus:  my students are, as I've mentioned before, obsessed with MPH.  I've read two of her books to my seventh graders this year, at their request and to much enthusiasm, and The Shadow Children series also has a steady check-out rate from my classroom library.  I got a selfie with her at NCTE and when I sent it to my sub, she sent me back a picture of my students squealing with glee.

So a few weeks ago, I went to her website, just to look, and I saw that she was coming to Portland the next week.  At first I was just thinking I'd let the students know when and where, but when I asked the principal to get my letter home translated, he said, "Why don't we just get a bus and make it a field trip?"  Since it was in the evening, there wouldn't be any hassle with kids missing classes, and the school wouldn't have to pay for a sub for me.  I surveyed the students to see what level of interest there was, and although some were disgruntled that they wouldn't be missing school, I definitely got a bus's worth of kids showing interest.

The night of the field trip, 28 kids showed up.  Both of my co-chaperones got sick with this upper respitory thing that's going around, so I was a tiny bit nervous.  We rode into town, with the 8th graders in the back of the bus singing "The Wheels on the Bus" followed by "Hotline Bling."  And that pretty much sums up everything you need to know about middle schoolers.

We were met as we got off the bus by the Beaverton Powell's event coordinator (I'd called ahead to give fair warning).  She showed us a giant foamboard poster of Haddix's latest book, Under Their Skin, and asked if we'd like to have it signed to us.  Um...yes.  We had some time before the event started, so kids started wandering the bookstore, creating even more nervousness as I lost track of who was where.  They all made it back in time though.  We made up about 50% of the audience, with the rest being divided between families and random adults.

Ms. Haddix talked about her latest book, telling us just enough to get everyone excited about it without giving anything away.  Then she took questions, and I was pleased at some of the questions my students came up with.  She was patient and good humored, and my students led the group in several spontaneous bursts of applause.  Only a few of my students could afford the new books, and I wish I'd thought to let them know they could have bought an older or even used book for less, and she would have been just as gracious about signing them.  I got three copies signed, two for my classroom and one for the school librarian, and have not been able to get my hands on any of the copies since, which is a great sign.  The kids who did get the book are also reading it with great enthusiasm.

Inspired, I went back to the Powell's website, and discovered that Marissa Meyer was coming the very next week to talk about Stars Above, her Lunar Chronicles short story collection.   Long fantasy/sci fi books are not the type of things my struggling readers are drawn to, so I called the friend who first loaned me Cinder and Scarlet, igniting my enthusiasm for the series.  We met at Powell's the next Thursday evening.

This time instead of about 40 members of the audience tucked away in the back corner, there were close to 200 seats set up in the main area of the store, which had been cleared of all bookshelves for the event.   Getting there twenty minutes early put me in the second to last row, and there still wasn't enough seating for all the people that showed up,  Meyer had a pretty, starry backdrop and told us about how she enjoyed coming up with backstories for her characters, and where her enthusiasm for fairy tales comes from.  Then she read us the Hans Christian Anderson original version of The Little Mermaid, which not only has a tragic ending (which I remembered), but comes with a preachy moral about doing good (which I didn't remember).  She mocked it freely, which made me a bit confused about why she was sharing it with us.

There wasn't much time for Q & A, and the line to get autographs was done row by row, so I wasn't sure how long it would take to get to our row.  My friend had to leave, and the copy I'd bought came already signed, so instead of taking my opportunity to meet Ms. Meyer, I spent a bunch of cash on graphic novels for my students, and left a half hour later, with my row still patiently waiting their turn.

Both authors were gracious and intelligent, but despite the fact that I like Meyer's books better, I found Haddix the more appealing speaker.  It wasn't just that I did get the chance to interact with her due to the smaller crowd, but she had more to say about her process and writing history.  Still, I certainly don't regret giving up one evening to spend with my students and another to see one of my literary heroes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A-Z Challenge

A, you're adorable
B, you're beautiful
C, you're the cutest thing that I ever saw...

I have no idea where this snippet of song comes from, or why it's occupying valuable brain space that could be better used for remembering which street to turn on to get to my daughter's friend's house, or which password goes with which username, or even for the name of Bellingham, WA, which I can never recall in conversation.  But I think it's an oldie, partly because I hum it to the same tune as another weird little ditty--My girl's a corker, she's a New Yorker, I'll buy her anything to keep her in style.  She's got a pair of hips just like two battleship, hot dog! That's where my money goes.

This post is not going to be about odd songs I have stuck in my head, although there is certainly enough material to write a blog post on.  Instead, I am declaring my intent to participate in the April A-Z blog challenge, and I'm inviting you to do the same.  Information is available at Blogging From A-Z Challenge.  In a nutshell, you blog every day except Sundays in April, which leaves 26 days.  Your content each day is based on the next letter of the alphabet--it can be themed, or random; related to your usual blog, or not.  I'm going to be writing book-related things, but not get any more specific than that.  If B is for biography, U might be for Ursula le Guin, and J might be for judging a book by its cover.

I'm going to have to write a bunch of stuff in advance, which is not how I usually roll, so I figure that will be good for me.  It might even force me to not be so dang long-winded all the time.  I don't do so great with reading challenges, but I've never tried a writing challenge.  It could be a bust, but that's never a reason to not try.

Who's in?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Blog Improvement Survey


I've been blogging for a whopping seven months now, and I'm starting to find my focus as well as see where I need to improve.  The problem is, there are actually so many different areas that I'd like to do better at.  My blog works for me, but I'm not sure it works all that well for others.  Also, I often see things on other blogs that I really like, but have no idea how to do on my own blog.  Given that I already have kids and a(nother) full time job, I'm not going to be able to dive deeply into all aspects of blogging, nor am I able to pay someone else a bunch of money to work on design issues for me.

Still, I would like to keep improving.  I have put together a short survey to get some feedback on what issues readers and bloggers think are the most important for improving this blog.
The problem with trying to run a survey/poll is that if only a couple of people respond, it doesn't really help me figure anything out.  This is where YOU come in!  Please take the time to give me your thoughts on these questions--totally off the cuff, don't stress about it.  I'm just looking for a little guidance, but of course, it will all come down to what I decide I want to focus on.

Thank you in advance for your replies!

Monday, February 8, 2016

TTT I and Love and You*

In honor of the upcoming Valentine's Day holiday, The Broke and the Bookish gave us a LOVE theme to interpret as we will.  I've selected ten of my favorite romantic couples in literature. I'm sure there are many others I've forgotten, but there are the couples that leapt to mind first.

1. Gilbert and Anne from the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maude Montgomery.
The first couple I thought of, naturally.  It's a love that grows and develops over time, extending from childhood crush/enmity to romance and on into marriage and parenthood together.

2. Aristotle and Dante from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Aliré Saenz.
I was so glad when they finally were both able to admit their love, and I can't wait for book two.  Bonus points for excellent parents who model what loving relationships looks like, regardless of sexual orientation.

3. Simon and Blue from Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.
Those two.  So cute!

4. Katsa and Po from Graceling (and sequels) by Karen Cashore.  This relationship pisses some people off--because she loves him but won't marry him.  Whatever.  It's still hot, sweet, and lasting.  I ship it, but it's their ship to do with as they wish.

5.  Hermione and Ron.
If I have to cite their source, you might not want to be reading this blog.  I have never, ever, ever understood Harry and Ginny.  Ginny?  Really?  Why?  But it doesn't mean I wanted Harry and Hermione either.  Maybe, just maybe, Harry would fall in love with someone he met as an adult.  I've heard that happens sometimes.  But this partnership I am totally on board with.  From the get-go, Hermione and Ron were ying and yang, perfectly complementing each other, and gradually coming to appreciate each other's strengths.  I don't think they ever got as conventionally beautiful as Emma and Rupert, but I'm sure they could never look at another after all they went through together.

6.  Cinder and Kai from the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.  My favorite of the four main couples.  They faced so many obstacles and constrictions, and really had to consciously choose each other.  Kai may have been prince and emperor, but he is often forced to take the passive role and trust in Cinder's lead, and it's to his credit that he is able to do that.

7. Sean and Puck in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  

“I say, 'I will not be your weakness, Sean Kendrick.'
Now he looks at me. He says, very softly, 'It's late for that, Puck.”

Swoony swoon swoon.  

8. Eugenides and the Queen of Attolia in The Queen's Thief series by Margaret Whalen Turner.  
He steals from her, she cuts off his hand--clearly the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

9. Shira and Yod in He, She, and It by Marge Piercy.
Twenty-second century love between a divorcee and an android.  If you think that doesn't sound very romantic, you're wrong, and you need to read this book.  If you think it sounds very romantic, you're right, and you should read this book.

10. Jack and Ennis in Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx.
This is the only tragic couple on my list, because I just don't find tragedy that romantic.  But these characters, whether in the short story or the movie adaptation, have a love that is just as epic and as true as any on this list--but they aren't allowed to say so, even to themselves, so it sours and withers and MAKES ME CRY, DAMMIT.  This story of how what should have been a lifelong love instead becomes a heartache and a death sentence is the best argument I can ever imagine for marriage equality, whether it be same-sex, cross-race, or any other societal hangup.

* I realize my post title is actually from a break-up song, but I like it anyway.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Marcelo In The Real World

Marcelo in the Real World by Fransisco X. Stork

Published 2009 by Arthur A. Levine Books

312 pages, YA contemporary fiction.

 Marcelo (pronounced Marselo, not Marchelo) has an Asberger's-like condition.  He struggles to express and understand emotions, but he is wonderful with the ponies at the special school he's attended for years.  He hears something like music in his head, and religion is his "special interest."  He lives in a treehouse in his backyard, which among other things allows for one of the more beautiful covers I've seen lately.  And his father insists that he take a summer job in the mailroom of his Boston law firm.

Good thinking, Dad.

Stork uses Marcelo's voice to narrate the story, and he does a beautiful job at capturing it.  A story like this is perfect for examining all sorts of social norms and expectations, because a narrator like Marcelo is an outsider by nature.  He questions and struggles with everything from jaywalking to professional competition to the barrage of sound in your average gym.  He has a child-like lack of understanding of how the world works, but a sophisticated approach to figuring it out and analyzing the confusion he feels.  Somewhere between Harper Lee's Scout and Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Rainman, he misinterprets some things, ignores other important clues as to what people are thinking and feeling, yet is absolutely heroic in his determination to make sense of a world he finds baffling.

He is also a genuinely kind human being, one you immediately start rooting for.

The book starts with his father attempting to make him work in the mail room AND sign up for public high school for his upcoming senior year, both of which horrify Marcelo, who already has a summer job lined up in the stables at his beloved private school for special kids.  Arturo, his father, makes him an offer--if he can successfully complete a summer in the law firm, Marcelo can choose for himself which school to attend next fall.  Arturo expects Marcelo to be invigorated and "normalized" by his summer job, and to choose the public school.  Marcelo expects to be miserable, but is game to give it his honest effort if the payoff will be finishing high school at his old school.

As a reader, I was conflicted about this.  Yes, I want Marcelo to develop confidence and learn to navigate the world (on his terms), but his dad is obviously kind of an asshole who is ashamed to have a son who's "different," so I also want Marcelo to buck Arturo's plans.  Stork's writing is so confident that I knew I didn't have to worry; in setting up this confusing conflict, he knew exactly what he was doing.  He would take Marcelo on a journey that would ultimately be satisfying, whatever he had in mind.

The book took a turn I wasn't expecting, with Marcelo going all undercover whistleblower sleuth on shady dealings at the law firm.  He makes friends with a guy universally described as an a-hole, and with a girl universally desired for her beauty, and is, at least initially, unable to see them the way others do.  He questions his own specialness, and like Adam and Eve, loses his innocence as he comes to see his own culpability in the wickedness of the world.  As I suspected, Stork leaves Marcelo in a place that is less safe than what Marcelo hoped at the summer's start, but less "normal" than what his father had hoped.  He matures in ways unexpected by either.

Oh, and the aging farmer with Alzheimer's and his Vermont neighbors are kind of a hoot.

4.5/5 stars.  I will definitely be seeking out other works by the wonderfully named Mr. Stork.

When I bought a copy for my class, this cover was two bucks cheaper.  I'm kind of regretting being such a skinflint about it though.  I do love that starry blue sky on the original.  Still, the lack of hand-holding might make it an easier sell for boys.  What do you think?