Monday, November 28, 2016

Five Free(ish) Gift Ideas for those Secret Santa Exchanges + Five Fun Finales

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 "Holiday Gift Guide Freebie."

I kind of love Secret Santa exchanges.  My first experience was in fifth grade, when my Camp Fire group drew names.  I do not remember a thing about the gifts I got, but I remember how happy I was to end up with my good friend Selene's name.  I remember two of the things I did for her, both of which have been in my Secret Santa arsenal (there's a weird juxtaposition of words--at least I had the sense to not just use the initials of Secret Santa) ever since.

1.  The e. e. cummings poem [little tree].  I carefully typed it out (on a manual typewriter, people, because this was the 1970s), rolled it up and put some red ribbon around it, and snuck it into her violin case during the school Christmas concert, as we called it back then.  The second grade classes were always assigned to sing a couple of  Hanukkah songs, but that's about as far as our acknowledgement that not everyone was Christian went.    I still use this poem, because it's awfully sweet without being drivel, and it's not as overdone as holiday songs, but you could adapt this to your recipient.  You also don't have to type it.  Computer is fine.  Or calligraphy, if that's how you roll.

2.  Five Minute Fudge.  Which is a bit of a misnomer, since you boil it for five minutes, but it takes approximately three lifetimes for it to reach the boiling point.  Still, it's a lot simpler than "true" fudge, and even if you have to go out and buy the ingredients, it's still going to be cheaper than, say, two pieces of Moonstruck or Godiva.  Added bonus: if you eat a few of the squares, nobody has to know.

3.  Snowflake blitz.  This is one I developed as an adult, but it's still one of the ones I use every single time.  Teachers have doors, secretaries have desks--whatever flat surface your giftee sees often can be absolutely plastered with paper snowflakes sometime when they're not around.  I usually do this one first, so they can enjoy it all week.  Go fancy if you want, or even use the power of the internet to figure out how to make themed snowflakes that relate to your person's interests.  Enlist helpers if you can't get there when your person's not there--having a crew of random people walk up to their space and start taping snowflakes everywhere is an experience in itself.  Don't forget to also take charge of the clean-up!  

4.  Fancy tea-time.  I stole this one from a Secret Santa even when I was teaching overseas.  During one teacher's break time, some students trooped in with a candle, a sprig of holly in a vase, a cup of piping hot tea, and a paper doily to put it all on.  Depending on where you work, the candle may or may not be allowed, but the rest of it is fine.  The Santa didn't even have to give away anything but the tea--the students came back at the end of the period to tidy everything up.  The guy who was on the receiving end loved it, and it encouraged him to use his break time to actually sit quietly and relax instead of frantically grading papers.

5.  Washi tape office set. Okay, so this isn't actually free.  It was sort of free the year I did it because I was using the materials for another project already, so I just used leftovers.  I got a composition book at Dollar Tree, cleaned and stripped the paper off an empty can of beans, and grabbed some wooden clothes pins.  I then covered everything with patterned tape in matching shades.  I might have put magnet strips on the clothes pins as well, or made little tags on pens or pencils.  You get the idea.

I firmly believe that White Elephant and Secret Santa gifts should not break the budget.  The point is to have fun and spread cheer, not to spend EVEN MORE MONEY on people you AREN'T EVEN RELATED TO.  Still, most exchanges have the expectation of a slightly bigger final gift.  This is probably a piece of cake (hey!  that's a gift idea too!) if you are actually friends with your person, but I've had several exchanges with people I couldn't pick out of a line-up, so it's good to have some more general ideas too.  Well, I have a super easy out for most of these things, what with being married to a winemaker, but there are other things one can do.  (Besides--and this is weird--not everyone likes wine.  Huh.)

1.  Speaking of wine, the BEST Secret Santa gift I remember getting were this set of wine "charms."
They actually are silicone, and they wrap around the stem of the glass, then the end slips through the center of the flower.  No clinking, easy to see and differentiate, and they are really pretty.  We actually  just keep them on the glasses all the time.  If I knew my recipient drank wine at all, I'd definitely consider these.

2.  If there's a price expectation of $10-$20, get a few $5 gift cards.  Enough for, say, one car wash, one cup of coffee, and one sandwich.  If it's a work-based exchange, get them at the local places so you know they will be convenient even if you live in different parts of town.

3.  A book.  Duh.

4.  This is more of a un-suggestion, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that unless the person has made it clear that they DO want them, don't give ornaments or mugs.  Because I'll be damned if I ever need another one of either of those.   I'd also avoid anything scented unless you've been offered pretty specific parameters.  
Except this Sandra Boynton mug.  It is always appropriate to give this mug.

5.  Cookies in a jar.  I seriously wish more people would do this for me.  It's a treat, but I don't have to eat it right in the middle of the season of All Treats All The Time.  It combines the simplicity of a mix with the deliciousness of homemade.  And I'm no fan of trend overkill, but this is one case in which it actually makes sense to break out the mason jars.  
And if it's for me, you don't need to fuss around with cute labels and pretty tops.  Just give me the damn ingredients.
Do you do Secret Santa exchanges?  Have you ever gotten a fabulous little gift from a near-stranger? (I actually know the person who gave me those wine charms quite a bit better now, but at the time, we'd barely even spoken.)  Which of these would you most like to receive?  MEN--are all of these too girly?  I really tried to not make it like that, but, well, I'm kind of a girl, so it's my default.  


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Sunday Post #21

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

Reading This Week: 4 books

I totally thought I would get a ton of reading done, as I've been off all week.  However, I've also been sick all week.  Nothing serious, but enough that I kept falling asleep when I'd try to read for too long. 

  • I finished up Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin series with Mortal Heart, which I didn't like as much as the second book in the series.  
  • I got my hands on Paper Girls Vol. 1.  I really like pretty much every comics series Brian K. Vaughan has been involved in, but I wish more of them were complete so I could read them all at once.  I was raised on novels, not TV, so the start-and-stop of an episodic series drives me nuts.
  • Next week my students are starting Lit Circles (which I'm calling Book Club because "lit" means something different to them).  I've read all the books I let them choose from except one, so I went ahead and read Call Me Hope early this week.  It's about verbal abuse, which is important and unexplored territory, but it's also MG, complete with ridiculously easy resolution at the end.  Bonus: I didn't realize that it was set in rural Oregon, so that will be cool for my students too.
  • Easily best of the week: Tana French's The Trespasser.  I was so excited when my hold came in at the library!  And it completely lived up to my enthusiasm.
Still listening to Pillars of the Earth, and just started reading Like a River Glorious.  I have slipped up and have about 50 books out from my school and public libraries right now.  Bad Wendy.  

Blogging this week:

Also not very productive.  I posted twice.  One was about books I recommend to build empathy and awareness.  In a fit of alliteration, I called it Tales for Troubling Times.  The other is a whole-series review for His Fair Assassin.  It just seemed that since I read all of them more or less back-to-back, I should share my thoughts.  

Life this week:

Ah, life.  I was off all week, and my kids had school the first two days, but like I said, Monday was a miserable nap-a-thon.  Tuesday my husband and I rallied enough to go out for lunch together and play some Scrabble.  The two of us have also been re-watching Harry Potter movies together.  Our kids still get too scared for the later movies (which we found out during Goblet of Fire when they're in the maze, and my kids suddenly discovered that it was bed time, good night!).  

We did our annual Thanksgiving at my mother-in-law's.  All month I've been feeling lucky to not be worried about political talk at family gatherings, since we're both from actively liberal families, but my sister-in-law's mom was visiting from the midwest, and she started talking about Trump during grace, while we all started in polite horror.  She's a lovely old lady, and she's going through a lot right now (she's out here because one of her sons is dealing with both physical and mental illnesses that I wouldn't wish on, well, Trump himself), and this side of the family is excruciatingly polite, so we went with a quick and decisive change of topic.  

Between dinner and dessert I did my customary craft project with the kids, which somehow fed into this lady asking me if I'd put together a scrapbook of her son's get well cards for him.  My poor sister-in-law was trying to head her off'--"Mom, she's really busy with her kids and work too"--but she had this idea in her head that it would be a matter of minutes for me.  I actually like the odd spot of scrapbooking, and figure it's something I can do to support their family while they support the guy who's sick.  

Yesterday we went bowling with the in-laws and I was hilariously bad.  Today (Saturday) I took the kids to a Latvian Christmas bazaar and then they both got drastic haircuts.  Sunday I'm having breakfast with my oldest group of friends, then we're going to sit on someone's sofa and make a bunch of phone calls or write letters or something political along those lines.  Then it's back to the real world on Monday.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Series Review: His Fair Assassin books 1-3

His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy published 2012--55o pages

Dark Triumph published 2013--385 pages

Mortal Heart published 2014--444 pages

publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I'd seen this series around and heard vaguely positive things about it without actually knowing any details.  And if you know me, you know that's how I like to go into a book.  I had all three in my classroom library, but hadn't even registered that there are three distinctly different young women on the covers.

The whole "beautiful young lady assassin" trope has certainly be done before.  From Poison Study to Poison to Graceling, we've seen it over and over.  Then again, I like all of those, so I figured I could at least give book one a try. I liked the mysteriousness of the convent, and it took me awhile to figure out whether or not the girls were really fathered by death or if it was just a superstition.  In other words, is this historical fiction or fantasy?  Well, as it turns out, both.  The romance was inevitable, but charming, and it was nice to see Ismae develop into a more confident and assertive person.

When I picked up the second book, I was delighted to realize that it is about a minor character from book one.  I also liked that it overlapped slightly with the other book, then moved forward from there.  While I gave all of the books the same rating on Goodreads, I liked Sybella's story best, dark and twisted as it was.  She had a lot to overcome, and she found such a grand ally in Beast.  The middle of a trilogy is not generally its strongest point, but since each protagonist had their own full arc, the rule didn't really apply.

Annith's story didn't do as much for me, although I sure like Balthazar.  Personality-wise, she reminded me too much of Ismae.  I'd been wondering how this series would reach a happy ending, since it's no spoiler to say that France won over Breton at some point, and I thought that bit was neatly handled.

I read through the books pretty steadily, finishing the series in about a week, which is my favorite way to read a series, since I have a tiny memory.  There wasn't anything that blew me away, but I enjoyed the books and cared enough about the characters to keep reading.  While the romance factor was high, there was enough depth to the books to keep my mind engaged as well.  

3/5 stars overall--3.5 for Dark Triumph.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Tales for Troubling Times

I'm white, culturally Christian, straight, college educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and basically benefit from every single type of privilege a female can get.

I can number for you the times I've been brought out of my bubble by another person.  The Jewish friend who helped me find an apartment when I got my first teaching job.  We both noted the surprising number of Christian bookstores for a rather small town, and she commented, "It's probably a nice enough place, but I wouldn't be comfortable living here."  Why-oh.  Right.

The student who asked me, "Ms. Falconer, are you rich?"  I said no, and she smiled up at me.  "Sure you are.  You wear a different outfit every day of the week."  But that's--oh.  Right.

The student who told me, "When we were in Mexico and my family walked down the street, people knew us.  They said hi.  They respected us.  Here, when we walk down the street, people look at us like we're garbage."

The student who said, "I was a good student at home.  I used to be smart.  Then we moved here."

The long-time friend of my dad who didn't like to visit our house because he was likely to get pulled over in our neighborhood for DWB--driving while black.  Their other buddy who once got threatened to "get out of town by sunset, Jap," much to his bewilderment, as he's Hispanic.

The student who asked me, "What does 'wetback' mean?" and then cried out, "But I was BORN here! I didn't cross no river!" when I reluctantly explained to him what another child had just called him.

But for every experience I've been brought into as living witness, there are dozens more I've had as a reader. Is it as good as lived experience?  Of course not.  Is it even as good as, say, having actual personal relationships with people who are different from me?  Nope.  But it is a hell of a lot better than never exploring what the world is like from another perspective.

Books build empathy.  I've read that repeatedly, and if this were two weeks ago I'd just run with that, but in light of the recent realization of how readily people accept online conventional wisdom as Actual Truth, here are some articles backing that up:

Scientific American
The Reading Agency (UK)
Medical News Today
Psychology Today

Granted, these are all journals aimed more at the lay person than scientists in the field, but they are also reputable organizations, and they are referencing more academic studies and publications.

As I've been reading over the past year, I've been finding books I want to bring into my classroom, to put in the hands of students who, like me at their age, live in a safe, white bubble.  For so long, I've been focused on building a classroom library in which all students can find themselves--a library full of mirrors.  But what the recent election shows me is how desperately we also need the windows, the views into each other's worlds.  We cannot continue to have a nation of people growing up despising The Other. (We also need people to get better about fact checking, but that's another issue.)  Here are some of the books I am putting into my students hands in my effort to help them build empathy.

Recommended Titles

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen.
A book about a wall that is built between two countries.  A wall that divides families.  A wall that separates the haves from the have-nots.  A wall that people risk their lives to cross.

A book that is not dystopia, but historical fiction.  We all remember where we were when the great tragedies of our age occurred, but I also remember where I was when I heard that the Berlin Wall was coming down.  What a celebration!

Poem supplement--yes, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall".  While it contains the line "Good fences make good neighbors," that point is immediately contradicted by the narrator.  "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner
More historical fiction that bears relevance on today's society.  This graphic novel, gorgeously illustrated in teals and sunset colors, is the story of a half-Japanese boy and his white mother as they deal with rising prejudice in San Fransisco of 1945, leading up to their forced move to the Alameda Relocation center.  I found it powerful that the book didn't even bother with the prison camp in the desert part of the story--it had already said all it needed to say about paranoia, prejudice, and fear of the other.

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki
Another historical work, this picture book is one that honors the power of the individual to do good in the face of institutionalized, bureaucratic evil.  More than 90% of the Jews of the Baltic states were killed during WWII, victims of their neighbors' anti-Semitism as much as that of the Nazis.  But Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara went against direct orders and got as many Jews out of Vilnius, Lithuania as he could physically create visas for.  I once met an elderly woman who'd left Lithuania on one such a visa.  She would not have lived to old age without the strength of that one man.

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges with Margo Lundell 
This photo documentary/memoir is one I have used in class before.  There is nothing quite like putting specific individual, especially a child, into a maelstrom of hate to reveal the true nature of apologists and excuse-makers.  There is NOT ONE THING this child could possibly have done to deserve ANY of what she went through.  Parallels to today's climate can be built from there.

Poem Supplement--I'd never seen this one before last week, but now it's everywhere.  Langston Hughes is a master at calling us out on our hypocrisy.  "Let America Be America Again" may sound terrifyingly like a certain orange bully's slogan, but it is NOT.

George by Alex Gino.  
I'll be honest.  I was a little bit nervous about how my students would react to this book, the first one I'd added to my library that is specifically about a transgender character.  To be even more honest, I suspect that one reason why so many kids have picked it up is because it's short.  But that's not why they finish it, and that's not why they recommend it to their friends.  I especially appreciate that George is young enough that her sexuality isn't the issue--it's purely about who she is, not who she is attracted to.  My students get invested in her story and in making sure she gets justice.  (Final bout of honesty--I'm still working on getting boys to pick this one up.  Not sure what that's about, except that maybe the girls love it so much it makes them think it's a "girl book"?)

Separate is Never Equal:Sylvia Mendez and her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Every time I read this to a class, they start off all weirded out by the art style Tonatiuh uses, especially the characters' ears.  I've tried explaining the historic roots of his style, I've tried pointing out that Greg Heffley isn't exactly drawn realistically, but what I've found works best is to just keep reading.  It doesn't take long for them to start paying more attention to the story than the ears.  I didn't know about Sylvia Mendez's pre-Brown Vs. Board of Education civil rights battle in California until I was a teacher.  Most of my students still have never heard about it.  Just as with Ruby Bridges' book, the ridiculousness of the adults' vile behavior towards children exposes their racist agenda.

Additional Suggestions

Morning Girl by Michael Dorris tells the story of a Taino indigenous family in the pre-Columbian era, including an epilogue that indicates the destruction that came with the invaders.  Poem supplement: Ursula Le Guin's "October 11, 1491"  with its heartbreaking warnings.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper covers voter intimidation and KKK terror in the 1930s, and is far more interesting than I just made it sound.

The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez is the first of a multi book memoir by a professor who grew up as an undocumented migrant worker.  So many of my students have felt they better understood their parents and grandparents after reading these.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is one of the best multiple POV books out there.  Each chapter has a new narrator, all drawn to a community garden that grows out of an empty lot in a nameless big city.  Race, immigrant status, age, religion and physical condition all weave into this tapestry.

March books 1-3 by John Lewis.  Civil Rights from the ground floor, in graphic novel format, told by a statesman of our times.  What's not to love?

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon is another multiple POV story.  This one examines the shooting of an unarmed (or was he?) black teen by a white adult.  Hmm, why does this sound familiar?  Sharp and devastating without being polemic.  The story is about blacks and whites, but there are plenty of shades of grey to go around.

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a remarkably hopeful intersectional story about two Latino boys discovering love in the 1980s.  I too was a teen in the 1980s, and there were NO out kids at my large suburban high school in liberal Portland, OR.  None.  What a bleak time to come of age for queer kids.  So I love that this isn't a sad story, or at least, not ONLY that.

Shine by Lauren Myracle is a tougher read, what with being inspired by the death of Matthew Shepherd and all.

Witness by Karen Hesse and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie belong on every single list ever written of YA books that deal with diversity.  Witness is both a novel in verse and a multiple POV book telling a story of when the KKK comes to a small Vermont town in the Prohibition era.  ATDOAPTI is classic Alexie, making you laugh and breaking your heart with equal ferocity.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sunday Post #20

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

Reading This Week: 6 books

I read the first Percy Jackson graphic novel aloud at my son's request.  It felt a bit rushed, more of an outline to a story than the full thing, but it was okay, so I wound up reading the next one, in large part because my kid leaves stuff strewn around, and it was near me when I was eating.

I've been meaning to read The Seventh Wish since hearing about the controversy last summer.  It's excellent, and I am appalled that there is even any question of it being kept out of school libraries.

I got the entire His Fair Assassins series as part of my grant, and have finally found a chance to start them.  I'm really enjoying them, and especially like how the books focus on a different character but refer to each other easily.  They're not blowing me away or anything, but they're good.

I picked up Gaijin for my classroom recently, as I continually work to keep up with the demand for graphic novels.  I didn't look at it too closely, and thought it would be about an American who was a prisoner of war in Japan in WWII.  Ten seconds of thought would have cleared that up--it features the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover, after all.  This is a terrific and colorful graphic novel inspired by the author's great-aunt and her family.  An Irish-American with biracial children and an estranged Japanese husband, she spent the war in an internment camp rather than be separated from her children.  The protagonist of the story is a Japanese American boy who struggles with hatred from both sides as he and his mom spend time in an Assembly Center before being sent to a desert interment camp.

And of course, I'm still listening to Pillars of the Earth.  The pace of listening to a book really makes the structure of a plot visible, just as I noticed with the very different A Night Divided.  Crisis--solution.  New crisis--new solution.  Setback--recover.  Setback--recovery.  I love the large but focused tapestry of the book.  I'm less fond of the way every ugly person is evil, and every good person is beautiful.  There is ONE beautiful, evil person, but otherwise there is too strong of a correlation.  As a decidedly plain person, I resent this.  

Blogging this week:

I spent a lot of time last weekend writing posts, so I had several go up this week--four.  Not being particularly interested in chatting about movies (I like Life is Beautiful and Princess Bride, if you must know), I wrote another Slice of Life post on Tuesday, talking about how I spend the three hours to myself I've lucked into every other Saturday this year.  I posted my second "Does Your Mother Know You're Reading That?" post, talking about how I label my more controversial books and giving some specific examples of books I've added to or taken off the YA shelf.   I wrote a post discussing two Chris Crutcher novels and his memoir, and I participated again in the Diversity Spotlight Thursday event, spotlighting books with characters on the autism spectrum.  

Life this week:

Two days at a training for work, then back at school for three days of frantically trying to cram in five days worth of material, since the sub tried, but didn't really get the kids where they needed to be.  My first ever Google Hangout, as part of the Global Read-Aloud, with a class of sixth graders in Iowa.  We weren't exactly sure what we were doing, but we made it work, and the students on both ends enjoyed it.  All school event yesterday to combat bullying.  Hard to explain, but students lined the halls and did a sort of circular parade, cheering for the other classes as they went past, then joining in when it was their turn.  

At home, two of us are fighting colds.  The Winemaker took our daughter to a Fantastic Beasts pre-event at the library last night.  They called me with HP trivia questions, and I helped them win a coloring book.  The kids have been into doing blind taste tests for each other, and the adults have been into watching Luke Cage and trying not to obsess about the spike in hate crimes and other horrifying events, which is a perfect example of white privilege right there, because we CAN block it out if we want to.  

I'm off all next week, and my children have school Monday and Tuesday, which is super rare and, I have to admit, kind of a treat.  

How's it going in your neck of the woods?


Friday, November 18, 2016

Chris Crutcher And the Seatbelted Toilets of Northern Idaho

Several years ago, I read a book called Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  This was pre-blogging, pre-Goodreads and possibly pre-internet, so all I really remember about it is that it was good.  (It's on my Goodreads to-read list, because I'd like to re-read it before rating it.)

More recently (2014), I was teaching language arts and my department did a "Bullying" unit in which kids chose from a list of books to read.  Among them was Whale Talk.  It was really good.  I realized that it had the same author as that book I'd read years before, and thought, huh, I should remember this guy.  I figured he was a young writer, because his teenagers sounded so real, like the kids I work with every day.  I also noted that he was from the inland NW, an area that doesn't get much attention in books.  Finally, both books were (among other things) sports books, but the sport in question was swimming--the only sport I've ever actually participated in.  All in all, I was pretty sold on this Crutcher guy.

Terrible cover, though.  I never would have picked it up on my own.

Later that year, I picked up his then-new book, Deadline, at the library.  My Goodreads review stated

I bought the book for my classroom and started talking it up.  I thought this guy was really hitting his stride.

Much better cover.

Last fall (exactly a year ago this week, actually), I was at the NCTE conference in Minnesota, and Crutcher was on one of the panels I went to listen to.  Imagine my surprise when this old guy with white, thinning hair and beard and a decided limp got up to talk.  I've read so many books about teenagers in which the slang sounds like a middle aged person attempting to be groovy, but his books nail it.

As he talked, I found out that he has a background in youth and family counseling.  He's worked with kids for years, and the kids he's worked with have not had easy lives.  Filtering their language is the least of their concerns.  Crutcher talked about his most recent book, Period Eight, in which a teenaged girl is confronting her cheating boyfriend.  She says something along the lines of "Did you put your dick in her?"  He said that as he was writing it, he knew he was going to once again have a banned book, but that in this case, with no adults present, he knew his character would not be mealy-mouthed.  

After the conference, I did a bit of internet stalking of some of the authors I'd been impressed by.  Many were available to follow on Twitter.  Crutcher, apparently, accepted Facebook friend requests from fans as well.  So I friended him.  It turns out my timing was impeccable, because his voice through the entire election debacle has been spot on, full of unfettered anger of a type I rarely allow myself.  Also, he's damn funny.  (Not putting any screenshot here, because that seems like a creepy thing to do.  Send him a friend request if you're curious!)

When I had the chance to stock my classroom library through the Booklove Foundation grant, I ordered a bunch of Crutcher books.  Recently I read Stotan!  It's one of his earlier books, set in 1984, and is the first book I've read of his that felt even the slightest bit dated.  Still, the complexity of the plot (swimming, small town politics, racism, objectification of women, child abuse, terminal illness, flawed heroes, and, of course, growing up) and the humor of the interactions slowly pulled me in, and by the end of the book I was completely invested.

From there I went to The Sledding Hill.  I hadn't read the back of the book, so I was a bit startled when the narrator dies in the first chapter, but I loved the courage with which Billy dealt with all the tragedy life tossed his way.  This book is the only Crutcher book without any swearing (though a student calls a sadistic teacher something that rhymes with his dad's job driving an 18 wheeler around the state...), which was a deliberate decision, as one major subplot involves censorship of an imaginary book written by a foul-mouthed author named...Chris Crutcher.  It is fascinating to watch one of our most-banned authors work through the damage censorship has, the value of books that reflect real life, but also the often good intentions of those who try to act as gatekeepers.

Then I read King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography, and was stunned to find out how much true life experience infuses his work.  There is hilarity, poignancy, and a certain mildly bitter wisdom that make the book worthwhile in and of itself, but what really struck me was how many of the seemingly outlandish bits in his book were lifted directly from reality.  The kid who is crushed by a stack of sheetrock.  The teacher who forces students to stand with arms outstretched.

Stotan week.

The seatbelt an ex-soldier buddy installs in the toilet in his flophouse apartment.

Chris Crutcher is younger than my parents and older than my sisters, which I guess makes him a Baby Boomer.  He's a product of Northern Idaho/Eastern Washington small towns.  He has a quick temper balanced by self-deprecating wit.  He sticks close to the same themes, but he finds new ways to explore them in each book.  We readers claim that fiction builds empathy, and I'm pretty sure his books have more power to change hearts and minds than anything beyond lived experience.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Autism

"Diversity Spotlight Thursday" is a lovely new meme put together by Aimal of Bookshelves & Paperbacks.  The set-up is pretty simple: each week you post one book you've read, one on your TBR, and and upcoming release.  All of these, clearly, should fall under the umbrella term "diverse," with special emphasis on "own voices."

This week I'm focusing on Autism.

A Book I've Read and Recommend:

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

This is quite possibly my favorite book cover of all time.  Pair that with a terrific author name, and I had to at least give this one a try.  

Marcelo seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and has found ways to both compensate for and capitalize on his differences.  He has people that love and understand him.

His father is not one of them.  (At least, not the "understand" part.)  Dad forces Marcelo to spend a summer working the mail room at his high-powered law office.  There, Marcelo discovers a whole lot more than he bargained for about friendship, romance, betrayal, family ties, and the human condition.  The first person narration brings you right into Marcelo's way of seeing and interacting with the world, and it's an unforgettable experience.

A book on my TBR

Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

I've yet to read anything by this author (and her name of course reminds me of ice cream), but I have a few of her books on my to-read list.  In this book, an autistic boy makes an on-line friend, but isn't sure what she'll think if she gets to know him IRL.  

An upcoming book Another book on my TBR

I didn't know of upcoming books that dealt specifically with this theme, but I have plenty on my TBR, so I decided to just try to find a reasonably recent one.  

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, translated from the Japanese by K. A. Yoshida and David Mitchell

If I understand the Goodreads summary correctly, this book is in Q&A format, answering questions that Higashida has heard or suspects people might want to know about his life and his perspective on things.  I don't feel like I've read much about individuals with differences or disabilities from non-western voices, so that just doubles my interest in this book.  


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Does Your Mother Know You're Reading That? Part 2

As I work through my thoughts and actions around censorship and gatekeeping in my classroom library, I'm sharing with you.  For the first part of this series, where I worked out my core beliefs and remaining questions, see here.  

When I was sorting out my vast amount of new books last August, and putting up signs to help students navigate the classroom library, I printed out this sign without much thought beyond grabbing students' attention.  I've switched from using "PG-13" to using "YA" both because it's specifically a term from the book world, and because it implies more of a sliding scale.  

By using the YA label, I am trying to walk a line between honoring the sensibilities of my wide range of readers, clarifying for parents which books they might want to discuss or supervise, and allowing books in my classroom that will serve kids who are ready for more challenging material and themes.  And yes, "not losing my job" is always part of these decisions as well.    

How do I decide which books go on the shelf?  Well, as I mentioned in my earlier post, if I would be too embarrassed to read it to the class, I'm pretty sure the warning label is a good idea.  Thus, frequent use of the remaining "bad" cuss words, on-page sex scenes, and, well, I think that's about it.  After reading a lot about the kerfluffle over Kate Messner's middle grade book in which an older sibling has an opiate addiction, as well as a few well phrased tweets about the insult of putting all LGBQT books in the YA category even if there aren't any sex scenes, I am unwilling to label books as YA just because they have "mature themes." 

 The kids (especially the seventh graders) are good watch-dogs.  They will look up from their book wide-eyed and say, "I think this needs the YA sticker."

"Is it too much?"  I'll ask.  "Should we look for a new book for you?"

"NOPE!" is the usual response.  "I just don't want other kids to get surprised by it if they're not ready."

And that, upon reflection, is the reason for this bookcase.  For many kids this is the first time they've read a book that has those words or those behaviors in it.  Most of the kids have already seen movies that feature all that and more.  And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there are exactly zero students in my classroom who have never heard anyone say "fuck."  But still, if your prior reading is mostly Magic Tree House and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the real-talk of Chris Crutcher, Matt de la Pena, Ellen Hopkins, Sherman Alexie, Rainbow Rowell--WOW.  Intense.  You might want that heads-up.

I think of my own daughter, aged ten, who listened to Carl Hiassan's Chomp this summer.  Hiassan's kid lit is definitely not on the YA shelf--he dials back the adult language and situations of his adult mysteries while keeping the wacky Florida lifestyle alive.  Still, my daughter was thrilled, because there was a GUN in the book, and (in true Chekhovian style) someone got SHOT.  One of the adults was a DRUNK, and he sometimes said, "DAMN."

"It's my first young adult book," she kept announcing.  "It's a lot better than the 'Oh no, I lost my lunchbox!' kind of mysteries." I couldn't help but agree.  Kids crave reality.  They don't want to be patronized and protected.

It took me awhile to realize how many books I'd just brought into my classroom based on what I'd read ABOUT them instead of based on reading them myself, but now I'm starting to make a conscious effort to read from my library.  When I first made a push to do so during the read-a-thon, I noticed that some of the books I'd marked YA didn't really call for that, but others that I hadn't marked kind of needed it.

I'd had Honor Girl on that shelf because I knew there was a lesbian romance--more specifically a underage girl/ young adult element that sounded inappropriate, if realistic.  I get especially wary about graphic novels because an on-page makeout scene that's pretty tame in a book can quickly become the start of a classroom uproar when there's an actual picture.  After reading it, I realized that the girls never cross any lines in reality, so I took the sticker off.  Then a student who picked it up said, "Wow, these girls swear ALL THE TIME!"  I'd been so focused on deciding if the romance was too sexual that I hadn't even really noticed the cussing.  But she was right, and again, even though it's damn representative of the way teen girls talk to each other, we put the sticker back on.

We Were Liars also started off on the YA shelf.  I just had the impression that it was all Gillian Flynn for high schoolers.  Upon reading it, though, I realized that the twists and turns and shocks are all fairly clean.  The book may LOSE the less experienced reader, and the elite setting and subsequent rebellion against wealth may not be as fascinating to my younger students, but there isn't really much that's "inappropriate" per se.

On the other hand, More Happy Than Not, with its empty-lot against-the-wall sex scenes, is staying right on that YA shelf.

There's an argument against sectioning off ANY books in a classroom library, saying it gives the wrong message.  Books aren't "bad."  But given the range in maturity levels and life experience within my classroom, this is the best way for me to bring in as many books as possible while still offering a level of protection for students and families who aren't prepared for unvarnished reality in their fiction. My goal is to cover my ass without having to censor my collection, all while giving students guidance they can easily decipher as THEY decide what they are ready to read.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dancing With Myself

In addition to many other wonderful things, the teacher bloggers at Two Writing Teachers have a weekly Slice of Life challenge.  They offer prompts, but really, all you need to do is exactly what it says--share a slice of your life.  Still, mine usually focus somewhat on books and teaching, since they are so central to my life.  

I am writing this on Saturday morning, at the public library.  Late in September, my daughter started an every-other-week language class that lasts from 9-12. I eagerly took on responsibility for transporting her, and I use the time between drop off and pick up for a sort of date with myself.

First, I go to a coffee shop, or at least to get a cup of coffee.  I read while I sip, getting in an hour or so of uninterrupted progress in my current book.  The local libraries all open at 10:00 on Saturday mornings, so sometime after that, I show up at the closest branch and get on a computer.  The lessons have been held at three different locations, so I've been at three different libraries in two different counties.

Usually, I use the remaining time to write blog posts.  Today I also need to write a sub plan, as I'll be at a training for two days next week.  Regardless, I use this time to get focused work done.

It's not like I don't have a computer at home, of course,  But I find it easier to concentrate when I'm not there.  It's not just that the kids interrupt and errands come up, or even that my posture at a library desktop is better on my back than my posture on my laptop.  The sense of "I have exactly this much time and no more" means that I spend my nearly two hours working, instead of looking at funny memes and window shopping on eShakti.

It's three hours of time to myself.  I don't want to squander it.  But I do want to dedicate it to things I WANT to do.  (Although seriously, when you are a mom with a full-time job, even running boring errands all by yourself would feel like a bit of a treat.)

Today I stopped at Fred Meyer's to get a few things* and wound up finding a Christmas gift for my husband.  Then I walked over to Moonstruck Chocolate and got a mocha.  I'd spent enough time agonizing over my purchase that it hardly seemed worthwhile to settle down with my drink, so instead I drove straight to the library and sat and read in the car until opening time.

Now I'm settled in at a computer by the windows.  My keyboard sounds clattery to me, especially the space bar, which I hit with an enthusiasm left over from learning how to type on a manual typewriter.  But when I pause, I notice a few others are also typing rapidly, and their noise isn't distracting, so I hope the rest of the room isn't thinking vile thoughts about me and my right thumb.  Because of needing to lesson plan, chances are high that I'll take the kids to our local library either today or tomorrow and do some more writing while they entertain themselves on the library computers.  Like me, they have specific things they do on the library workstations, games that work better on the desktop than on their "phones."**

One of these weeks, when I find out far enough in advance which location the class will be at that time, I'll get a friend or sister to meet me for coffee, and then my writing time will be cut short, but that will be okay.  I don't get a lot of "me time," and even less often do I get some time without feeling guilty.  But nobody else needs me on Saturday mornings, and if I really wanted to push it, I could even claim to be doing my husband a favor by not dragging him out of bed to take her, since he does morning school prep every weekday.

But truly, I'm just dancing with myself.


* I wasn't running boring errands.  I was getting water repellant for the new off-brand Uggs I bought yesterday and suet for the feeder outside the kitchen window, visible again now that the leaves have fallen.

**Their phones do not actually have phone or texting services hooked up, which raises the question of why we still call them "phones."  Super mini tablets?  

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Sunday Post #19

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

Reading This Week: 3 books

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.  I read this on the Serial App, bit by bit, and on one hand, every time the narrator mentions it being the nineteenth century, I was a little startled, because in many ways his voice sounds so modern.  On the other hand, I think I read this decades ago and found it very amusing.  Now--I don't think it got more than a smirk from me the entire time.  It is oddly written--part tall tales, part travelogue, part patriotic celebration, with a heavy handedly unreliable narrator.  I think being unique is part of its charm, but there's not much else to add to it.

The Sledding Hill and King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher.  I am clearly on a Crutcher kick, inspired in large part by his cantankerous passionate Facebook posts in the weeks leading up to the election.  His autobiography revealed the truth-behind-the-story of many characters and incidents in both The Sledding Hill and Stotan!.  I hope to put together a review soon of the interplay between the three books.  

I've finally started Robin LaFever's Grave Mercy and am enjoying it very much, although so far nothing too unusual stands out in the plot.  

Blogging this week:

Only four posts--in addition to a super quick TTT in which I screenshot the most recent additions to my Goodreads TBR, I shared my very first infographic, which I put together for my students after we finished Orbiting Jupiter.  I also tried out a new-to-me linkup called Diversity Spotlight Thursday, sharing three titles by and about Mexican Americans: one I've read, one I plan to read, and one that's not released yet.  Finally, in still more teacher eagerness, I shared pictures of the cool blackout poetry my students did after finishing our book.  

Life this week:

Last Sunday I went to a party at a resale shop that benefits a homeless shelter in downtown Portland.  I shared a dressing room with my oldest friend and her dog, and wound up with two skirts, a sweater, a jacket, and some jeans for about $55 total.  

I'm glad I started off the week on that high, because the rest of the week--well, you know.  I can't decide if the wise thing is to trust in our system of checks and balances and give the man a chance to lead before I start complaining, or if the wise thing is to avoid complacency and divide my time between volunteering to support refugees and women's shelters, donating to mid-term campaigns, and researching Canadian citizenship (which I am actually entitled to, since my dad was born there and became a naturalized US citizen during a time period in which dual citizenships weren't allowed).  

I had an eye appointment Thursday and have an order in for my very first pair of glasses.  Ah, the joys of aging.  I also forgot my purse at home on Thursday, which I discovered WHEN I WENT TO PAY FOR MY COFFEE AT THE DRIVE-THROUGH WINDOW, and the girl very graciously let me just take it anyway.  

I celebrated Veteran's Day by taking my kids out and spending a bunch more money.  Graphic novels for my classroom, new boots for me, and lunch for all of us.  I took them to the Starbucks that had covered my coffee and tried to pay them back, but they said not to worry about it.  Since I would normally NOT spend the kind of money we did for that lunch, I don't feel too guilty.  Ironically, I'm one of those people who usually refuse to go to Starbucks because a) I prefer supporting local businesses, and b) their coffee tastes burnt to me.  But kudos to them for nice customer service on that one.  

Silent Satuday #5

My students made blackout poetry using photocopied pages from the book we just finished, Orbiting Jupiter.  I was thrilled with the results.  

If you want to see the text of their poems pulled out, I also have a slideshow that does that.