Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Zach Gets Frustrated

Zach Gets Frustrated
Zach Gets Frustrated by William Mulcahy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short, but effective book for helping kids deal with frustration. My only regret about it is that it is targeted for kids a bit younger than I usually teach. It would probably be most effective for Kindergarten through second grade and I usually teach a bit older kids. Recommended for teachers who have students who are struggling with anger issues.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 28, 2013

Book-Related Posts Moved Here

I think I have all of my book-related posts moved to this blog.  They are probably somewhat out of chronological order, but I am not going to worry about that.  I will get them deleted out of my other blog soon.  Three blogs:  book blog; education, social issues, serious stuff; less serious and more personal stuff.  There is some less serious stuff in the serious blog, but I am not going to move it, since no one cares, except me, anyway. 

Ashling by Isobelle Carmody

This review was originally written in 2007.  It was moved from my general blog to my book review blog.

I have now finished re-reading Obernewtyn, The Farseekers, and Ashling and I enjoyed them just as much the fourth or fifth time through. There is so much there. The story is complex, the characters are complex and there is so much to think about. The only problem is that I can't seem to find The Keeping Place - the fourth book. I know I had it, but it isn't where is should be, with the other Carmody books, filed under C (and next to Orson Scott Card). Oh, dear, I hope I don't have to buy it again - it is only available from Australia and that makes it expensive.

I am not going to give a summary of Ashling, since it would only make sense if you have read the first books. Obernewtyn is the one to start with. It is a post-holocaust book, where the world is very slowly recovering from "The Great White", a nuclear event that left much of the world destroyed and radioactive. In this world, mutants are put to death, books and machines are destroyed, and life reverts to a middle ages like agrarian culture - deeply religious and superstitious. But some children are born with powers that make them extraordinary. If those powers are discovered, the children are in extreme danger, as they are considered to be offenses against God (Lud). One such child, Elspeth, is discovered by the woman who runs a remote facility, designed ostensibly to try to heal the children. Elspeth is taken there and discovers that the truth is far more sinister.

When I talk about these books and the fact that the children have special powers, I don't know exactly how to convey them. They are not like the powers of the cartoon characters, such as the mutant ninja warriors. One of the special powers is the power to "beastspeak" - talk to animals. Another is the power of farseeking - finding someone who is far away and sensing what they sense.

I think one of the reasons that these books appeal to me so strongly is that the characters feel (and are) different from most of society. Whereas their powers should gain them respect and allow them to help society, they are instead forced to hide and deny their abilities, or face death.

I also like the complexity of the story - not only do the characters have great depth, but the setting and the background story is very complex. It is like being transported to a world that both is, and is not, similar to ours and living there for the duration of the book.

Highly recommended.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

This review was originally written in 2007.  It was moved from my general blog to my book review blog.

I enjoyed this book, but it is one of those books that I wish I had gotten from the library, rather than buying myself. The story is just a bit too far-fetched for me to feel comfortable with. But perhaps that isn't quite accurate. There are some really far fetched books that I completely enjoy. It is just that the characters in this book didn't seem completely real to me. Each one was a bit too much like themselves - too unidimensional, perhaps, is a better way to put it. Even though the characters weren't exactly stereotypes, their behaviors were fairly predictable. Perhaps that is OK, though, because it simplifies a rather convoluted story.

Nevertheless, for kids who enjoy mysteries and puzzling out what is happening as the story unfolds, this is a rewarding read. Some of the puzzles are easy, some much harder. This might make for a good read aloud. But, I still can't figure out Mr. Benedict's first name. Sigh.

I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes by Jaclyn Moriarty

This review was originally written in 2007.  It was moved from my general blog to my book review blog.

I guess I should just give up on adult books. I loved Feeling Sorry for Celia; I liked Finding Cassie Crazy (published in the US as The Year of Secret Assignments); I lost interest in Buttermilk Pancakes before I was even halfway through. I did skim the rest to find out what happened, but that was it. I am getting to the point where I think the problem is with me and not with the books, though, so if anyone is reading this, don't take it as a sign that the book isn't good. Maybe I will just talk about kids books that I read, unless I find an adult book that appeals to me.


Yankee Girl by Mary Ann Rodman

This review was originally written in 2007.  It was moved from my general blog to my book review blog.

This, on the other hand, is a book that I wish I had bought instead of gotten from the library. The story is set in 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, where the Moxley family has just moved. The father works for the FBI, protecting black people who are registering to vote. The main character, Alice Ann, is in 6th grade, in a school that is being newly integrated. The black girl who joins the class is Reverend Taylor's daughter, Valerie.

Although this is a work of fiction, the story feels so real that you have to know that it is based on real experience (and it is - the author herself moved to Mississippi during this time frame). This is the way history should be taught - by reading books like this.

Since Alice was an "outsider", a Yankee, she has trouble fitting in. She doesn't understand the Southerners ways and her feelings of loneliness and vulnerability are all too real. She wants to make friends, so she can't herself befriend the Negro girl, who, anyway, deliberately avoids any friendly overtures. Valerie doesn't want to be there either - as much, if not more, than the white kids (and teachers) who don't want her in "their" school.

I cried at the end of this one - cried for our inhumanity, our fallibility.

The cover of the book might be a bit of a turn-off for kids, though. It is appropriately old-fashioned and well done, but it doesn't look that appealing.

Highly recommended.

Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

This review was originally written in 2007.  It was moved from my general blog to my book review blog. 

This is the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen and is in much the same vein. In this story, the father has just recently died and Mother has to take over for him in more ways than one. Determined to keep the family together, she takes over his work obligations and gradually overcomes prejudice against women in the field by proving that she can, in fact, do the work.

The story, although it supposedly about Mother, actually centers more around how the kids pitch in to run the family on a limited budget. In a family this large, it is inevitable that some of the children will be more memorable than others. The boys, after a while seem rather indistiguishable. It is the girls, though, who seem to have their own characters more clearly delineated. Anne, the oldest, takes charge at the vacation house, while their mother is off earning money in Europe. Martha runs the budget.

All in all, it is a good family story. It is rather outdated, but that, in itself, is interesting. It points up things that have and haven't changed. Fashions come and go; loyalty to family remains important, but certainly takes a different form nowadays.

Tulku by Peter Dickinson

This review was originally written in 2007.  I am moving reviews from my general blog to my book review blog. 

I am always on the look out for books that bring to life other cultures and other ways of living and this book certainly does that. It is the story of a son of a Christian minister, who was killed during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Theodore, the son and a very devout Christian, escapes and ends up traveling to Tibet with an Englishwoman who is a botanist and her Chinese escort. Theodore has his Christian faith sorely tested and ends up still a believer, but with a much broader view of the range of human experience, both religious and secular.

I enjoyed the book, but toward the end, I felt it got to be rather long. I guess it reflects my own bias, because the religious parts interested me less than the cultural and travel oriented parts. I even liked the botanical things more than I cared for the religion. But, I also remember my early teen years when I was staunchly religious and I think that this might have appealed to me then.

I am not sure how current teens would react to the strict Christian dogma that Theodore seems to espouse. I think many would find it rather outdated. But then I think about how some people nowadays go around asking you if you are a "Christian" and basing a lot of their opinion of you on your answer to that question. It is a question that makes me uncomfortable, as I feel that religion is a completely personal thing, something I would much rather keep entirely to myself.

Again, I enjoyed the book, but I am not sure it would appeal as much to current day teens.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Colibri by Ann Cameron

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

This is another book about a non-US culture, this time Guatemala. It is the touching story of a young girl, who was snatched away froom her parents at a very young age and forced to travel throughout the land with a man who claimed to be her uncle. He makes a living for himself and the girl by begging, using the girl to help make his plight look pitiable.

Uncle is superstitious and believes that the girl, whom he calls Rosa, but whose real name was Tzunun, will bring him great fortune, which he has sought throughout the land. But, getting desperate, he goes back to an old friend and they both try to involve Tzunun in pick-pocketing and stealing. When they decide to steal a statue from a church, she tips off the priest of the church and flees back to the home of one of the fortune-teller women who had been kind to her.

The beliefs and customs of this society are gently brought across to the reader and the natural pace of the story treats it all with respect.

A good story and a good read.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

I don't know how many times I have read or listened to this, but each time, I am struck anew by the power of the story for me. There are so many questions I have. Do we have the right to survive as a species at any cost? Do we have the right, as adults, to make children do our bidding, even when it involves murdering a whole race and destroying an entire planet? And more specifically, was Graf right? Would Ender have refused to do his task if he had known what was really at stake? Should he have been given the choice?

I am massively conflicted by my own answers to those questions. And I guess therein lies the power of the story. Many of the books that linger in my mind have great moral dilemmas and this book is one that brings the moral dilemma in extremely sharp focus.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

This book has long been on my Amazon suggested list, but I just never seemed to put it into my cart. Well, it finally came to my local library - I was the first one to check it out. I read this one quickly - one day and enjoyed it. The story is about a 12 year old girl who has an autistic younger brother. She patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, tries to teach him how the world functions, because he can't learn it on his own.

During the course of their visits to occupational therapy for David, Catherine gradually begins to get to know a boy in a wheel chair who also comes for therapy at the same time. Jason can't talk, but uses a book to point to words that he wants to use to say something. Catherine, who loves to draw, gradually gets very interested in thinking of and illustrating various words that he might need.

The most interesting thing about the book for me was to see Catherines shifts in perspective with regard to Jason. At first, he is just one of the motley assortment of people in the waiting room, then a curiosity to draw, then an awkward person to be curious about, and gradually he becomes an actual friend, accepted with all of his pieces, including the wheelchair, which, at one point, she tried to draw him without.

It is a good-hearted story. The people in it are flawed, but most of them are trying to do what they can. I even liked the part where Catherine drags her dad away from his work for something that is really important to her, saying that she needs him, too - maybe not as much as David does, but she still needs him sometimes.

I don't know how children with a disabled person in their family would react to the story. My guess is though that they would feel it resonating strongly with their experience. While I was reading, I was recalling one day when I was subbing in a Life Skills classroom. There were only 5 or 6 students in the class, but these children were severely disabled. Each student had a full time aide and they did virtually all of the instruction that day, as there was no way I would be able to come up to speed on their disabilities in one day. I was there mainly because they needed a certified person in the room. There was one autistic girl in the class who especially focused my attention. She also had a word book that she used to point to things she wanted to say. But it was a slow and painful process and she obviously hated it. Left to her own devices, though, she would probably have done nothing all day. It was an interesting, but difficult day - not difficult in the sense that I had to figure out what to do, but difficult in terms of trying to figure out what I thought about the class and the students.

Well worth reading.

Clare of Glen House by R. A. H. Goodyear

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

This book was published in 1955, according to Every so often I get the urge to read more British school stories and this is one of them. It is quite interesting to me to compare the behavior of kids that many years ago to the behavior of kids now. Of course, the observations are only as good as the authors are at writing about them, but you can get a general flavor of how things were then.

Clare of Glen House is not, first of all, a girl. Clare is his last name. In most of these British school stories the boys are referred to by their last names. Brothers are often referred to with the further appellation of "junior" or "minor", although the brothers themselves usually call each other by their given names. In this case, the younger brother is called Jourdelle minor and he is a trouble maker extraordinaire. Jourdelle minor, also called Pipit, gets into one scrape after another and is frequently bailed out, not by his older brother, but rather by Clare, who is in the same form as the older brother.

Young Pipit can never quite figure out 1) how he manages to get himself into one scrape after another and 2) why Clare seems to always bail him out. Clare, a good and kind student, is also a premier athlete. So, as is also typical of these stories, there is a good deal of sport in the story as well. This time football and track and field. Clare is also one of the least well off students in the school. He has little money to spare and due to his generosity to Pipit, he is anticipating having to miss a key game, because he can't afford the train fare to participate in the match. But at the last minute, some of his generosity to Pipit is repaid and he does manage to make the game, where he acquits himself very well. He ends up meeting the father of the Jourdelles who years earlier saved his own father from jail. This turns out to be the reason he has been so helpful to Jourdelle minor.

The British school stories often follow this pattern - with the story revolving around sport, pranks, and honor. The younger or weaker boys get themselves into trouble and are gradually pointed toward maturity through the acts of older or more honorable boys.

This was a satisfying read, if not especially outstanding.

Exploits of a Reluctant (But Extremely Goodlooking) Hero by Maureen Fergus

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

Coming on the heels of reading two British school stories, reading this modern Canadian story is rather a shock. The narrator of this book. a thirteen year old boy, is an amazingly self-centered, obnoxious, clueless kid. The fact that, eventually, he reluctantly and more through accident than planning begins to have a conscience is gratifying, if not entirely convincing.

A brief outline of this book: boy and his mother and father move to take over management of a failing store owned by mother's mother. Obnoxious boy gets into trouble for theft and insensitivity to others and is forced by parents to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Boy tries to get in good with both sides - the business side and the soup kitchen side, not out of conviction one way or the other, but out of sheer superficiality of who happens to have food, porn, or amusement available for him. Eventually, he has to take a stand and comes out in favor of the soup kitchen, but you are still left wondering if he really understands that he isn't the center of the universe.

The book is funny and the boy does have some good lines, but it is still disconcerting to me. Our modern "hero" is really a self-centered jerk. He does manage to gain a little bit of insight into how poor people live, but I could easily see that evaporating when something else becomes more interesting or important to his Royal Adolescence.

I don't really want goody-two-shoes modern heroes, but a little bit more understanding and less jerkiness would have been welcome. At least his two friends are a bit less callous. Maybe next time the story will be about them.

The Captain of Glendale by R. A. H. Goodyear

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

This is a good story in the British school story tradition, but I didn't find it as compelling as some of the others. The story revolves around Richard, whose uncle was school captain when he attended Glendale and hopes for the same for his nephew. Unfortunately, Richard, as a new boy, confides this in secret to another boy, Olaf, who then proceeds to tell the whole house about Richard's bold ambitions, thus setting the two up as enemies. Olaf is a very accomplished boy - outstanding at sports, outstanding in school, and popular among his schoolmates. But he is too calculating in his demeanor and that robs him of true affection, making him seem ingenuous. Richard does succeed in making two good friends who are largely immune to Olaf's charms. Eventually the threesome succeed and Richard grows into a position, where he can legitimately be suggested for the school captaincy, when one of his chums is offered it, but turns it down.

The standard British school boy elements are all there, the sport, the pranks, the point of honor. Academics seem to take a slight second rank, but they still figure in, to some extent. This one also had a good deal of town/school rivalry.

I appreciate that the character of Richard wasn't made into an all around hero. He was good at many things, but was mostly not at the top of anything. His growth through the years seemed very realistic.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

At least I can say about this book that the main character isn't as bad as the one in Exploits (reviewed recently), although at one point towards the end of the book, their voices sounded remarkably similar.

The clever thing about this book is the layout. It looks like it is written and illustrated on lined paper, just as if it really were taken from a diary. The pictures are crude, but appealing in a way. The story isn't a strong one - it is more like a series of middle school vignettes, but the book will appeal to kids who don't really like to read that much and they can just let the cartoonish pictures draw them along.

Not especially memorable, but relatively harmless.

24 Girls in 7 Days by Alex Bradley

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

The idea of this story is that the main character, who is graduating from high school, really wants to go to the prom, but he is obviously one of the geek variety of students and he has never had a girl friend, or even a date. So his good friends, a girl and a boy (both of whom do have steady boy/girlfriends) publish an ad announcing to the whole school that he wants a date. They make the whole thing into a contest, whereby he is supposed to select one lucky girl from the 24 girls on the List.

It is a relatively appealing idea and it works to a great extent, but it does get a bit tedious toward the end. There are just too many girls to keep straight and sometimes it feels like the author is working too hard to sample one kind of every girl stereotype - one intellectual, one drama queen, one music-hippie, one popular bimbo, one girl next door type, etc. But there are some very authentic moments and I think that carries the book through. And, there is a good resolution to the story. So, it isn't a classic, but it is a decent book, both in terms of enjoyment and in terms of honesty.

One of the reasons I was attracted to the idea of this book was that many years ago, my parents had pulled a slightly similar stunt. When my mother and father were first dating, my mother wasn't quite sure she wanted so much attention so quickly from my father, so she told him she thought they should date around a bit before getting too serious. She specifically told my father that he had to have dates with 10 (I think) girls before she would date him again. So he had dates with 10 girls in 10 nights and then asked her out again. That must have convinced her. :-)

Me All Alone at the End of the World by M. T. Anderson

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

The online book group that I belong to, Adbooks, is discussing M. T. Anderson's work this month, so I decided to read some more of his books. This one is a picture book illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. The main idea is that a young boy lives at "the end of the world" by himself. He does things all day that put him in harmony with his environment and he is happy. Until, that is, a man shows up who transforms the end of the world into a pleasure park and brings fun, fun, fun to his life. At first, he is enticed by friends and fun, but gradually he misses the wind. In the end he leaves to live by himself at the top of the world.

I am not sure who the audience is for this story. The plot would seem to go over the heads of children who are normally the target of picture books, but perhaps not.

M. T. Anderson is a hard one for me to figure out. His books are so diverse. Some seem shallow, some silly, some profound, some grim. For me, Feed is his best book. Feed is a devastating near future look at the consequences of our current technology and seems frighteningly prophetic. Another of his recent books, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party, is getting good reviews, but I didn't like it that much - too grim for me. He is obviously a talented and bold author, trying out various styles and themes with audacity. I respect him for that, even if not all of his books hit the mark for me.

The Glory of Greystone by John L. Roberts

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

This is another British school story, published long ago enough that it doesn't even have a date in it. It follows the "japes" of one Henry Blundell, as told by his friend Gibbs, with the company of the third of the trio, Rowe. The three are not great scholars, nor stellar sportsmen, but Blundell does seem to be adept at getting into trouble. Unable to resist any sort of shenanigan, he is finally in the position where he is about to be expelled from Greystone by the headmaster, who vowed if he ever had to cane a boy three times in succession without the caning of another boy intervening, he would expel that boy. But he gives Blundell one more chance. If by the end of the term, he can do something "for the glory of Greystone", he will let him stay on.

It is a struggle for Blundell to forego his usual penchant for tricks, but he tries diligently to do something "for the glory of Greystone" - without success. He does finally succeed, though, when he gives up and pulls a "jape" as a farewell trick to the school - but the trick actually leads to doing something that is for the glory of Greystone.

It is an decent book, if not a particularly thrilling one. Once again, I was a bit foiled by the lengthy descriptions of cricket matches. Just when I think I am beginning to understand cricket, a more complete description of the matches proves that I don't.

The School Story by Andrew Clements

This review was originally published on my other blog in 2007.

(Revised. I read this over and decided there needed to be a bit more explanation of the plot.)

I have had mixed success with books by Andrew Clements. I didn't like the otherwise well-received Frindle, and I actively disliked The Report Card, but I thought The Landry News was fine. This book goes in the positive column. I enjoyed it.

The story is about two friends, Natalie and Zoe. Natalie is a gifted writer and has just written the first part of her first novel. She shows it to Zoe, who thinks it is fabulous and thinks it should be published. They know just the person to publish the book, Natalie's mother, who works as an editor for a children's book company. But they want the book published on its merits and not just because of Natalie's connections. So Zoe decides that Natalie should use a pseudonym to submit her manuscript under and she, her agent, will use a nickname. The kids also enlist the aid of one of their teachers. During the course of the book, we discover that Zoe is a gifted arranger - she does the things that an adult agent would do to get her client's work published.

The book isn't overly dramatic or wildly exciting - it is just a good, mostly honest story about writing, publishing, and friendship.

Recommended. (Middle Grades - not teens.)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

This was originally published on my other blog on 22 July 2007.

I have just finished the book, so I still kind of emotionally caught up it in. Since there are a lot of people still reading it, I don't think I will talk about plot or include spoilers just yet. Instead, a brief summary of my reactions. I thought the plotting of the book was well done. It was complicated and at times felt a bit too convoluted, but I think it worked. And, for me, at least, it was definitely exciting.

I am one of those people who have to read the ending of the book in order to be able to read the rest of it - otherwise it makes me too nervous and I don't even WANT to read it, because of the anxiety it is causing me. So, I knew how it ended, even before I had read too far into the beginning of the book. I really am glad I did, as I know I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much if I hadn't. And I really did enjoy it.

The only critique I have of it is that sometimes it felt like she was doing too much summarization and re-explanation of earlier happenings in the course of the 7 books. Some of that was necessary, I guess, but some of it felt a bit forced.

Still, I am immensely glad I liked the book. I have been such a fan for so long, it would have been sad if I hadn't.

The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's by Talbot Baines Reed

This book was a bit slow going at first, but I gradually warmed to it and ended up enjoying it. The story focuses a bit less on the Fifth Form than might be expected from the title. There was actually a considerable portion of the story that focused on the younger brother of Oliver Greenfield, Stephen. The other main character was Horace Wraysford.

Now that I have read a number of these old British school stories, I am coming to recognize their form and character. The themes that are almost always present include sports, pranks, academic competition, and some conflict with temptation, wrongdoing, and honor. The structure of this tale was typical. We are introduced to the older boys in the 5th form, some of good character, some less so. Then we are introduced to the younger boys.

The rivalry between the 5th form and the 6th form forms the focus of much of the story, but the point of honor involves the younger boy, Stephen, and one of the 6th form boys, Loman. Both of these boys get involved with the local shyster, who, through careful manipulation of these two manages to get both of them in debt beyond their abilities to pay. The younger boy eventually must confess to his wrongdoing and things are put painfully to right, rescuing his and his family's honor. The older boy refuses to take that route and gets himself deeper and deeper in trouble, until he has, at last alienated most of the people around him and has lost all self-respect.

Another complication is that Loman, Wraysford, and the elder Greenfield are all trying to get a scholarship that is being offered. To get the scholarship, the students must study specially for an extra exam that they must sit. Just before the exam, the headmaster announces that one of the test papers has been taken from his office. Since the elder Greenfield was seen leaving the headmaster's office at about the same time the paper went missing, he is suspected by one and all, including his best friend Wraysford. His extremely high marks on the exam seem to confirm everyone's suspicions, against which he does not defend himself.

I liked the way the character of Oliver Greenfield was developed. It was acknowledged that he was a somewhat difficult person, but the author didn't try to make him gradually change into a more popular or outgoing person. He remains somewhat aloof from the others, though, eventually, they acknowledge their mistake with him and rectify it. Oliver has many of the characteristics of a gifted child and it is good to see them valued at they were in that system of education. And it is good to see that he is allowed to be the person he is, with one close friend and the rest at a bit more of a distance.

Something which is not familiar to me as an American, used to our public school systems, is this method of awarding scholarships. It seems that prominent individuals endow these scholarships that students are allowed to compete for. Most of the competitions involve sitting for an exam. Not everyone has to take this exam, only those students who want to try for it. Several exams in different areas were offered. The exams are graded and the marks on them are publicly announced, not only for the winner, but also for the others sitting the exam. When Loman gets an unusually low score on the second of these scholarship trials, he is even chastised for his poor showing. In the current atmosphere of American schools, this simply wouldn't be done. And yet, the boys don't seem to fall apart because of this method. Loman falls apart for other reasons. His poor showing on the exam is the effect of his debts and lack of honor, not the cause.

I think, actually, that boys would do better in our current schools if we added back a bit of academic competition. And the ranking system doesn't seem as disastrous either as is currently thought. Teachers take great pains not to compare kids these days, but I am not sure that works well for boys. For me, it was fine, but I was a very compliant girl for most of my school career. I think boys put forth more effort when it improves their rank - both academically and in sports.

At any rate, as I said, I did end up enjoying the book.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Trouble for Two by Hubert J. Robinson

This book was written by the same person who wrote The Impossible Prefect, which I reviewed quite a while ago. That book is one of my favorites of the British school story genre. One of the elements that most endeared it to me was that the main character was a very gifted, if somewhat mischievous boy, who grows into his role as a prefect, but doesn't lose the spark that makes him so likeable.

This book also features a boy who has a knack for mischief - two of them in fact. Twins. Identical Twins. As the book begins, the boys have just brought home very bad reports from their school and their father decides that the only way to cure them of their frivolity and lack of application is to separate them and send them to two new schools. So the boys are sent off to two new schools that are actually only about two miles from each other. Leslie has a good start at his new school, but Basil, through some rather bad luck, gets into scrapes right away. They meet in the town, as they had planned, and it is decided that Basil, to escape his predicament, will take Leslie's place at his (Leslie's) school, while Leslie will take a week off and then Basil will get a turn at a week of leisure. But just as Leslie is finishing his week of fun, he is discovered by some boys belonging to Basil's school and is packed off to that school after being judged to be a lunatic - as he is claiming that he does not know the boys and that he is really Basil's brother, whom the boys know nothing about.

There isn't quite as much sport in this book as in most of the British school stories, but I, for one, don't mind that too much, since I still don't really understand cricket. Nor is there as much emphasis on points of honor. Of all of the school stories, this one strikes me as being more like modern stories - with more emphasis on extricating themselves from predicaments. In the end, both boys do learn their lesson - that they really should try harder to do a good job at school.

I think one of the reasons the British school stories were so successful is that boys could see other boys like themselves in many ways - playing sports, playing tricks, getting caught in predicaments - but the stories also speak to their higher selves and the necessity of actually learning lessons and eventually being an honorable member of society.

I liked this book, but because of the tie to giftedness, which is a special interest of mine, The Impossible Prefect is still my favorite of the two.

Airball: My Life in Briefs by L. D. Harkrader

Kirby Nickel has grown up in a town that is completely wrapped up in basketball and their one outstanding basketball claim to fame: Brett McGrew, who went on to become an NBA star. Now his university is retiring his number and Kirby's seventh grade team has been invited to play a scrimmage at half time with McGrew. Only Kirby's team and Kirby himself have virtually no talent for actually playing basketball. So their coach decides to try a new technique - practicing in their underwear. This is supposedly so embarrassing that their basketball can't be any worse, so they begin trying to actually prove that they can play.

Kirby's other "secret" is that he is convinced that Brett McGrew is his father. Kirby's mother is out of the picture (dead?) and he lives with his grandmother. All of his life, he has been trying to figure out who is father was and he sets about in the book trying to amass evidence that it is, indeed Brett McGrew - only he looks nothing like McGrew - now or when McGrew was younger.

This isn't a deep book - it is about having confidence in yourself, but it is entertaining. It will probably appeal to upper elementary school boys, who are interested in sports, but aren't sure about where they fit in.

Me at Harry Potter Party

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

Once again, I find a book that I didn't expect to enjoy, but it turns out I did. This isn't my favorite book by a long shot. It is too uncomfortable for that. But it does ring very true and you can't help liking a book that is this real.

The idea is that Fanboy is a geek and a comic book fan. Skinny and short and smart don't make for an especially good combination in his megaschool. His one saving grace is his friend Cal, a black kid, who overlaps Fanboy's world by being smart and liking comics, but who also belongs to the cool jock crowd. Fanboy's parents are divorced and he lives with his very pregnant mother and step-father, but he visits his increasingly distant father once a month.

Not wanting to participate actively in sadistic high school dodgeball, Fanboy purposely gets eliminated, only to be pounded on repeatedly by another student, while the teachers seemingly purposely aren't watching. But Goth Girl is watching and is intrigued. Goth Girl is direct, mouthy, and fearless - at least outwardly. Her odd friendship with Fanboy gradually brings him out of his self-imposed isolation. But it isn't all goodness and light either. As I said at the top, this is a very realistic sounding book.

In many ways, Fanboy is relatively naive. He likes looking at girls, but considers himself too ugly to ever get involved with a girl. He has his hopes pinned on college and getting away. He thinks most everyone else has it better than he does - and in some ways, he is right. But he has small epiphanies along the way that teach him that the rest of the people in his world aren't doing as well as he imagines either.

And I was glad that he didn't have to have sex with anyone to prove that he was normal. This seems to be the ending of a lot of the teen angst books nowadays, but this one didn't need that - his fantasies were enough. :-)

For older students.

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

This is a sort of companion book to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by the same author. I haven't read the Garcia Girls book, but I imagine that it is a good deal more light-hearted than this one. In this book, Alvarez explores what the life of the part of the family that remained in The Dominican Republic would have been like - life under the dictator Trujillo. The book has parallels to Anne Frank and Zlata's Diary - young girl keeps a diary during increasingly repressive times under dangerous conditions. Anne died; Zlata and Anita live, but all three were changed by the experience.

Anita goes from being a relatively oblivious child to gradually being able to understand what is going on around her. Like Anita, the reader doesn't at first see what is going on, but the repression becomes more and more blatant, and, like Anita, you gradually understand.

This is not a happy book, but it is a worthwhile one.

The Search for Belle Prater by Ruth White

I liked the first of these books, Belle Prater's Boy, and I don't dislike this follow up book, but it doesn't have quite the appeal of the first book, for some reason.

Part of it could be that the introduced characters, Joseph and Cassie, are just too convenient. And the plot is just too neatly arranged. It just didn't seem natural.

Still, I suspect that if this book were to be read immediately following the first one, it would be well received. It does provide the closure that Woodrow needed.

Upper elementary.

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay

Angels really aren't my thing and I probably wouldn't even have picked up this book if I hadn't forgotten my list for the library. I was returning books, but couldn't remember what I wanted to get next, so, since I was thinking about waiting for the audio book of the latest Harry Potter book, I found myself looking through the children's audio books and saw Indigo's Star. Since I don't like to begin a series, or even a pair, of books without having read the first one, I went looking for Saffy's Angel and checked it out, too.

Saffy's Angel isn't about angels appearing or anything like that. It is about family - mainly about this eccentric artistic family. The parents are both absent artists, the father physically - he works all week in London - and the mother mentally - she is gone most of the time in the back shed, painting. The ever resourceful kids are essentially left alone in the house to get on with things. Caddy, the oldest, due to a quite scatterbrained mind, failed all of her exams last time and is now taking disastrous driving lessons, while preparing to take the exams again. Saffron, the next oldest, has just discovered that she is actually the adopted daughter of her "mother"'s twin sister, who was killed in a car accident when Saffy was 3. Indigo, the only boy, is desperately trying to teach himself to be brave. And Rose the youngest, and also an incipient artist, is the manager of the whole household.

Saffy has found a new friend, Sarah, who is wheelchair bound, but very determined. One of the things she is determined to do is to help Saffy find her angel, a stone statue willed to her by her grandfather.

The plot of the story isn't riveting. It is interesting enough, but by itself it wouldn't go far. More interesting are the people in the story. Each one of them seems to be someone you might like to get to know better. Each one has some fascinating quirk that makes him/her intriguing.

The book has a rather old-fashioned feel to it. It could have been written 50 years ago, except for the occasional references to email or computers.

All in all, an interesting and enjoyable book.

Upper elementary.

Indigo's Star by Hilary McKay

And once I get started on an interesting series, I like to keep going. This book is the second book in the series which, according to Amazon is now up to 4 books.

Again, the plot of this story wouldn't carry it by itself, but somehow I got quite attached to the characters. This story features Indigo, who, after a lengthy illness is finally able to return to school, but dreads doing so because of the gang of bullies in his class. He is rescued, somewhat uneasily, by the fact that there is a new distraction - an American boy, who has come to his class for the remainder of the term. This bold and rather fearless braggart eventually forms a friendship, first with Indigo, then Rose, and then with the whole family.

Upper elementary.

Double Identity by Margartet Peterson Haddix


I have really enjoyed some of Haddix's books, especially Running Out of Time and Among the Hidden. And I enjoyed this one, too, BUT ... and somehow there is always a BUT ... this one ties up a bit too neatly at the end for me. The sinister guy stalking the teen wasn't really that sinister; Mom and Dad come back and are as loving as ever. Worried teen is now mostly carefree and confident.

And it leaves some things that need to be explained completely unexplained - not even alluded to. There is no mention, that I noticed at any rate, of just WHY Mom and Dad felt they had to clone their first daughter, rather than simply having another baby. You can infer that they loved their first daughter so much, they wanted someone just like her - but that seems so shallow. And, as caring as they have been for her every need, her every want, why in the heck didn't they give her ANY CLUE as to why her mother cried all of the time. They are not stupid; they have GOT to notice that Mom's incessant crying has an effect on their daughter.

It is an intriguing idea, just like the ideas of the other two books mentioned above, but I think this book needed some more polishing before being published.

On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck

This is a good book - in the same vein as Peck's wonderful stories set in rural Illinois. It lacks some of the humorous punch of The Teacher's Funeral, and others in that series, but it is a gentle, good tale about the people "back home" during World War II. Since it is rather gentle - none of the really ghastly horrors of that war, it would be suitable for younger children and their first encounter with world wars.

It is not my favorite Peck book, but it is a good one. Boys will be especially interested in how the boy in the story collects things in support of the war effort - rubber, scrap metal, etc., etc., - even milkweed pods.

And, as a substitute teacher, even though it was a minor sidestory, I did enjoy the glimpses of the teachers of the era.

Alice, I think by Susan Juby

I got this book from the library on the recommendation of people on Adbooks. One of their observations was that the main character in the story had a rather unique "voice" - and that it appeals to some and not to others. I was/am interested in this observation, largely because I didn't find the "voice" that compelling. While slightly different from some sarcastic teen "voices", it doesn't seem THAT different that I would have remarked on it. It isn't a bad book, and some parts are truly funny, but the main character just didn't grab me as much as I had hoped. Some of the people on Adbooks said similar things. Others completely loved the character and have read all of the sequels. I probably won't.

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

This is the story of a girl who was caught by her father in the back seat of a car having sex with a friend of her brother's. This event marks a turning point in her life, as she is now regarded as the school slut and, in a small town, she is unable to escape both her reputation and the boy who turned his own part of it into a sniggering opportunity to smear her.

While the topic is one that isn't comfortable for me, the handling of the story is good. The characters are realistic and the resolution believable. I wouldn't give this book to young teens, but that's because I am uncomfortable with young teen sex. Still, it is a decent book for older teens and is cautionary in a way - both for the effects on the girl and for the side story about her brother, his young wife, and their baby. The brother and his young family are struggling with the effects of sex, pregnancy, and marriage before they are really able to handle them.

Hank Zipzer by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

I read this book several weeks ago and, to tell the truth, I remember virtually nothing about it, except that I thought it was funny, but rather shallow. I guess that says it all.

On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books tonight that are the third or fourth book I have read by the author, but I liked the books I read earlier better. This one is a case in point. Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca were great. I love the feelings demonstrated by the family members for each other. This book is actually no exception to that. The family and friend interactions are very life affirming to me.

The thing I struggled with in the book though, was simply understanding the interweaving stories - two relating to the past and one in the present. I think that was the intention - that you would gradually become aware of how the stories interconnect and the impact of all of it would hit you and you would say, "WOW! That is amazing! What powerful storytelling!" Only that never happened with me. I just felt confused and a bit betrayed, as if the author was purposely trying to confuse me, so that I would think of how clever the story was when I finally understood it.

Sorry, this one wasn't for me as much as the other two.

The Sunita Experiment by Mitali Perkins

I like books that deal with the intersection of cultures and this is an example. It isn't a classic and I don't suppose the writing can be called excellent, but it is a decent story. I am reminded of when my younger daughter was in high school. She is from a family that could be called average American - mixed Caucasian ancestry, nothing really interesting ethnically, living in the mid-west. In her high school, there were a rather large number of children with much more exotic family origins and ancestry and she frequently lamented the fact that our family was so "boring".

This is the other side of the coin. Sunita is of Bengali ancestry and her grandparents have recently come to the United States from India to live with their family for a year. For Sunita, this heightens her feelings of difference, as her mother reverts to a lot of Indian ways and the American part of her feels betrayed and abandoned. This is the story of how she comes to terms with both parts of her. It is somewhat predictable, but I think kids would enjoy it.

This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis

Warning SPOILERS!!!

This book is a bit of a puzzle. I don't feel I can really discuss it without giving away some of the plot, so I am not going to even try. The story is told from the point of view of Logan, whose best friend Zyler lived with a father who would physically abuse him. From the beginning, Zyler had told Logan not to tell anyone when Zyler suffered some injury at the hands of his father. And the injuries weren't minor - black eyes, broken arm, cuts requiring stitches, etc. Then, at one point, Logan witnesses an assault on not just Zyler, but also on Cami, a girl who was with Zyler, when Zyler's father was ostensibly gone. The father returned unexpectedly and assaulted not just Zyler, but also the girl - ripping her clothes. If there was a sexual assault, and it seems likely that that is what occurred, Logan (and the reader) didn't see that explicitly, but he did hear what was going on. Zyler then attacked his father and thought he might have killed him. Logan listened in horror - and fled. After escaping the scene, he not only did nothing, but he also refused to open his window to help Zyler and Cami when Zyler tried to get some help.

The book is really about the aftermath of the attack, but the story is not told in sequence, rather it jumps around in time from early days of their friendship, to Logan's life after Zyler has moved away, to events unfolding just before the attack. Basically, Logan has to learn to live with the guilt of doing nothing, of having actively refused to do anything. He does this by actively refusing to do anything to combat the abuse he is also suffering at the hands of the kids in his Boy Scout troup. Occasionally, he gets to a point where he can't stand it any more and he fights back, but this seems to only make matters worse, reinforcing his tendency to do nothing instead of act. A budding friendship with another girl, Laurel, and a part in a play seem to gradually bring him to the point where he can take some action, but it is an excruciating journey and, even at the end of the book, when he has finally stood up to the Boy Scout troup leader, the reader is left with the question of whether Logan really is going to be OK. The author attempts to show his positive progress with the Boy Scout leader incident and with Logan's willingness to email Zyler, but it still isn't clear that he is on the road to recovery - or what shape his recovery will take.

The story works for me, in spite of the tenuous conclusion, except for one hole in the story. At one point, one of Zyler's teachers says she has had enough (she has seen Zyler with too many "accidental" injuries) and she decides to take action. But, rather than reporting the abuse to the proper authorities, she confronts the father himself - and that is the end of it. As a teacher, I just can't see this happening. In ALL of the school districts I have worked in (and that is quite a few, since I have moved around a bit), teachers are reminded of the LAW that they have to report suspected child abuse. They don't confront the perpetrator, they REPORT it. It would have worked better for me if the author had written that the teacher reported the abuse, but the father stopped abusing for a while, until the case went cold. The case worker moved on to more active cases. Then the abuse started again.

An unsettling book. I am not sure who the audience for it is.

Buttermilk Hill by Ruth White

I like Ruth White's books, but, now that I have read 3 or 4 of them, they are getting a bit predictable. I am not sure why I say that, as the plots are all different, but the atmosphere of the books seems the same. This one deals with Piper, whose best friend, Lindy, is also her aunt, her father's youngest sister and her same age. Piper's parents have been arguing about pursuing dreams and in the course of the story, her mother returns to college to pursue her dream. The parents separate and then divorce and her father remarries - with a woman who has twin sons. There is also the side story about a boy in the girls' class, who is a loner and becomes their friend.

Things finish up a bit too neatly, as is typical for White's stories. It is heartwarming and pleasant and a good read, but I am left with a bit of the feeling that it isn't quite real enough. Perhaps this is my fault, though, as it is written for an age group probably a bit younger than I usually read books for. If you are in the mood for a non-devastating, good book, this would fill the bill. Worthwhile, but ultimately not one that will linger in your mind.

Excellent Writing, Revisited

After some discussion of this on HPforGrownUps, a list devoted to discussing J K Rowling's Harry Potter books, I can now say that I at least understand a bit better what people are talking about when they call JKR's writing "Grade B". The thing that helped me understand was the comment of one poster (on Adbooks) about her excessive use of the writing construct: [he/she] said [adverb], as in "she said angrily" or "he said excitedly". Extended a bit, my feeling is that people who criticise her writing are the people who appreciate more elaborately descriptive language. They are the people who prefer "she growled" or "he exclaimed", people who actually read and enjoy the long descriptive passages in some books, passages telling just how glorious the sunset is, or describing the beauty of the twinkling of the moonlight on the new dusting of snow.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, now that I understand it. It is just not the thing that is most important to me when I am reading. I am much more focused on plot, on characterization, on the depth and complexity of the story. Oftentimes, I actually get annoyed with the descriptive language, because, for me, it gets in the way of the story. I love Anne of Green Gables, but even so, I am almost embarrassed by her effusiveness at times. I suppose the best thing is to have both effective descriptive language, as well as strong plot, strong characterizations, and a good story. Perhaps that is why Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books are so highly regarded.

I will stick to my opinion that JKR's writing is fine with me. I didn't even notice the problem with the "said [adverb]" until it was pointed out. And the story certainly has depth and complexity, interesting characters, and a strong plot.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Laurne Tarshis

I am not sure if this is meant as a look into a girl with mild Asperger's, but I did think of it several times while reading this book, especially at the beginning. Later on in the book, you find out that her beloved father was killed in a car accident. This event may explain why Emma-Jean is into viewing things unemotionally and through logic - she is still having problems dealing with her father's death and does so largely through denial of emotion. But that is also not the major focus of the story - the major focus is Emma-Jean's attempts to help people, which get her into more and more trouble as she goes along. The problems are realistic, the complications are believable and the resolution is satisfying. The only thing that bothers me a bit is the ease with which she forges a letter at the beginning of the story. It doesn't seem quite in character.

Another side story is the developing relationship between her mother and their boarder, Vikram. Since Emma-Jean considers her father to have been the love of her mother's life, this relationship is troubling, even though she likes the man. The image in my mind of the resolution of this part of the story is, for me, the most memorable part of the story. Emma-Jean and her father used to sit together and read, wrapped in a favorite quilt. Through long use, this quilt had become frayed around the edges. When Vikram had to return to India after his mother had a heart attack, Emma generously packed this quilt for him to comfort him on the long trip. When he returned, his mother improved, and Emma-Jean reconciled to the growing relationship between him and her mother, he brought back the quilt, now with Indian sari fabric skillfully and beautifully integrated around the edges of the quilt.


Hidden Talents by David Lubar

This book has such a silly cover, I don't think I would have picked it up had the book not been recommended to me. I suppose it appeals to kids, though, and that is more important than appealing to me, so I am not sorry it looks like it does. Just a warning: there is more substance here than might be thought, if you just look at the cover.

The main idea of this story is that Martin Anderson has been sent to an Alternative School. It is a school at the end of the line for kids who have been expelled from all of their other schools. As might be expected in such a school, there a lot of kids with problems - thugs, certainly, but a wide range of other problems, too. Martin's problem is that he can't keep his mouth shut. He is adept at saying things that are precisely the thing that would anger the person in question, usually an adult, most. His comments hit at the person's deepest worries and vulnerabilities - and therefore, they anger the people beyond tolerance.

The other kids also have problems and Martin, after careful observation, discovers that some of their problems stem from supernatural talents and not willfully bad behavior. One kid starts fires; another throws things randomly; another is an inveterate cheater. This is not a completely realistic book, as most of these hidden "talents" are in the area of supernatural abilities, but that really doesn't detract from the story. Martin and his friends learn to control their talents and even Martin, who thinks he has no special talent discovers that he can, in fact, use his abilities for good, rather than let them control him.

Better than I expected. Enjoyable.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

I am not sure why this book goes to the top of the list of books I have read lately. It is not showy or groundbreaking. It is simply a good and good-hearted read.

Holling Hoodhood is not Catholic, like the kids on one side of town, nor is he Jewish, like the kids on the other side of town. Since the Catholic students and the Jewish students go to religious education classes on Wednesday afternoon, Holling is left as the only one in Mrs. Baker's class on Wednesday afternoons. This premise might strike current-day kids as an unusual arrangement, depending where in the world they live, but it is/was not unheard of. How he and his teacher occupy their time is the basic focus of the story. At first, Mrs. Baker has him doing odd jobs to help around the classroom, but eventually, she decides to assign him to read Shakespeare. Surprisingly, Holling actually enjoys it.

And the plays that she has him read parallel some of the events in his life. His relationship with his father is rather rocky, and his mother doesn't seem to be able to improve things. His sister, older than he is, is also unhappy with their parents. She eventually runs away and it falls to Holling to rescue her - and to prove to himself that he really does like her.

The book is set in 1967 and I am impressed that it sticks to some of the feelings and actions of the era (which I know, having lived through that time :-)) - it feels authentic. I can't remember details right now (I finished it probably a month ago), but one thing is that there is more innocence (naiveté?) than there is now in such books. Issues are addressed more obliquely and are not the constant focus. For some reason, with many current books for older children and teens, I almost feel assaulted by dysfunction. This book does not have that feel for me.

Recommended with pleasure.

Edge City by Terry and Patty LaBan

I suppose this type of book is simply self-indulgence, but this particular indulgence brings me a lot of pleasure, so "so be it".

This is a cartoon book, in the same category as For Better or For Worse and Stone Soup. This particular book deals with a Jewish family, Len and Abby and their two children Colin and Carly. Much as in both of the aforementioned cartoons, this book follows the ups and downs of family life, only with the Jewish component added. I like it. The Jewishness takes an important and realistic place in their lives - at least as far as I know. I am not Jewish, but I have had good friends over the years who are.

I enjoy cartoon books. I have a rather large collection of them. I especially enjoy cartoon books that elucidate the everyday lives of people from various cultures. I am pleased to add this book to my collection.

Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf

Sometimes when I disagree with the reviews that I have seen elsewhere I really wonder what it is about a book that I don't get (or DO get) in comparison to most people. And then I begin to question myself and my opinions. I know that I am not good at detecting "well-crafted" writing, since I never seem to see it in the books that others describe as such.

At any rate, I enjoyed this book. I don't know if it is "well-crafted" or not, but it pulled me in and I finished it in a single day. It is historical fiction and deals with what happened to Lidice in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) during World War II. One of Hitler's favorite commanders was attacked in Czechoslovakia and eventually died. Hitler falsely believed that the instigators of the attack were people from Lidice, so he rounded up all of the people in the village, separated the women and children and sent them to a nearby school, and then shot all the men and teenaged boys. Some of the children, specifically those with blond hair and light colored eyes, who conformed to the Aryan ideal, were sent to Lebensborn camps to be trained to be perfect Germans. This is a story about what might have happened to a girl who was sent to such a camp and then later adopted into a German family.

Although the story is fiction, it is based on historical evidence and in fact parallels in some respects the story of one of the survivors of the experience, as is detailed in the author's note at the end.

I found the story interesting and absorbing. It would make for a good discussion with kids, as in some respects you actually begin to feel sorry for the Germans and especially the German mother and sister. In your mind, you KNOW you shouldn't accept the racism and racial hatred they evidenced, but nevertheless, it becomes tempting, as the young girl feels it, to believe that it really isn't all that bad -- until the evidence emerges.

Another chapter in the World War II genre - recommended.

Pendragon - The Merchant of Death by D. J. MacHale

I have had this book on my To Read list for a long time - since I saw a student who otherwise read very little carrying it around OPEN to the page he was currently on. And now I can say that I see why it attracted him and I can also see a bit better what the differences between top quality books and lesser books are.

First of all, this is not a top quality book. There is too much "oh my gosh, isn't this amazing!" kind of writing. But it does have what middle schoolers like - a lot of action with characters that are calculated to have middle school appeal. If they are female, they are attractive and reasonably smart. But they are lacking something that lets the boys shine through. If they are male, they fit some stereotype, so that in depth characterization isn't necessary - geek, sports-dude, all knowing mentor who never seems to be able be there when the protagonist really needs him thus forcing the character to struggle to victory, powerful evil villain who nevertheless makes a critical mistake that the main character is able to exploit. No, it is not writing - or plotting, for that matter - at its best, but it is an interesting read and it doesn't take deep insight into people or society to understand. It is just a swashbuckling story, with movie-like main events and movie-like appeal.

I am getting closer to understand what it is that makes a book good. Though I still don't always agree with people who are more well versed in this than I am.

Quest for Understanding Quality in Literature

For quite a while now, at least several years, I have been trying to understand what makes a book "quality literature", especially with reference to upper elementary and young adult books, which seem to be my primary interest. I have joined and left several online news groups and I remain a member of 3 of them now, whose attention is focused on discussing these books. Two of those groups are composed primarily of teachers, librarians, and authors, who are, presumably the ones who understand this literature the best and who can provide in depth, critical analysis of those books. The third group is made up of adults who simply enjoy discussing the Harry Potter books.

And yet, when any given book comes up on the two professional groups, there are, in most cases, at most 20 posts regarding the book. Many of these posts are of the nature of "I really liked/disliked this book, it was better/worse than his/her last book. I thought the main character was appealing/whiny/unrealistic. The book reminds me of X/Y/Z book, which does {genre} better/worse."

The non-professional group, which discusses the Harry Potter books, is now up to message number 182,288. Recent posts have discussed the issue of house-elf enslavement - its morality and its implications; the sacrifice of one boy to save the world - again, morality and implications; the origin of the names Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus (the Peverell brothers) and their mythological significance.

Now, admittedly, the Harry Potter books number 7 plus the two textbooks, so if we divide the 182,288 by 9, we only get 20,000 posts per book. Still, that is considerably more per book than most of the books discussed on the professional groups. I also concede that with hundreds of books to discuss, there really isn't time to discuss them in the same depth as people who are interested only in the HP books can discuss. And yet, the thing is that, on the professional groups, the Harry Potter books are not considered to be very high quality literature. These books have outsold most other books besides the Bible, but that is dismissed (just marketing); they have inspired high quality discussion (people with too much time on their hands). But when I ask on the professional groups why they think HP books are just hype, the only thing that I get is that the writing is "B Grade". For example, in the first books, she uses the grammatical construct "s/he said {adverb}" too much. This is true, but I must admit that I never noticed it until they pointed it out. And if that is all of the criticism they can offer, it is a bit insubstantial in my eyes.

None of this would bother me, I am obviously a fan of the Harry Potter books, except that I am trying to understand what professionals regard as excellent writing. Since they have dismissed books that have evoked massive interest, what is it that they are looking for that is better than huge popular appeal and critical adult interest? So far, I haven't found all that much. Effective use of metaphors is one thing that is mentioned. Other than that, it seems the evaluations are very personal. Some like elaborate descriptions, some don't. Some like off beat characterizations; some find them annoying or unrealistic. Some like tight plotting; some dismiss plotting almost entirely.

So, I am gradually coming to the opinion that I am going to have to search for my own definition of quality in literature. One thing I know is that I enjoy books/movies that have some sort of moral dilemma, preferably one where the solution isn't entirely clear, even after you have finished the book. Was it right for Dumbledore to plan to sacrifice Harry and hope that it would work out? Was it right for Ender to be duped into wiping out an entire race of sentient beings? Was is right for Will Hunting to leave a promising job to go in search of Skyler? What should be done with/for geniuses of Will Hunting's caliber?

I will leave grammatical analysis to the professionals.

Multiple Titles

Sometimes, for some reason, I seem to just stop wanting to read. Books just don't appeal to me during these times. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, if you look at my expenditures and excess accumulation of books) it doesn't last too long, and I am back reading again.

This past weekend, the opposite of a reading lull struck when a package from Amazon finally got here. Now, 7 books and 3 audiobooks later, I am catching up here.

It has been such a long time since I have wholeheartedly enjoyed a children's book. Part of the reason is that I don't especially like too much "teen-y" stuff, which seems almost obligatory according to some of the members of Adbooks. For instance, I didn't like Tyrell, partly because of the frequency of casual sex in it. Yes, I know, it is probably very realistic, given that it is set in the poorest parts of a big city. So I am glad people think it is good fiction, as kids need fiction that helps them reflect on their lives as they really are. But that still doesn't mean I have to personally enjoy reading it. And I didn't. I finished it, but I have decided that I probably should focus a bit more on books designed for a slightly younger audience. I am tired of dire things happening: messy divorce, parental abuse, casual sex, death of a close friend/family member. It isn't that I want to ignore these things. I just want normal growing up things to happen and be the focus, too. That brought me to some of the books that I have read just recently.

The reading frenzy started with:

The Rising Star of Rusty Nail by Lesley M. M. Blume

Part of the appeal of this book for me is probably the setting: rural Minnesota, far from city life. I grew up in semi-rural Iowa, taught school in small-town Illinois, and now live in marginally urban Fairbanks, Alaska. I know small town life, a loving family, and the desire to get out of there and make something of yourself. The setting is also historical. It includes key plot points from the McCarthy era, which, while I lived through it, didn't impinge upon my consciousness directly, but which still engenders stray whispers of remembrance when I read about it.

The plot basically is that 10-year-old Franny is a music prodigy. She plays piano with more devotion than even most kids play sports. But, her family can't afford the expensive music lessons in the city that her local rival gets. She has to make do with the town's aging and inattentive teacher, who eventually admits that she has taught Franny everything that she can and now she must get a new piano teacher. Then a mysterious Russian "Commie" woman takes up residence in town and Franny in desperation and with marked perseverance negotiates for piano lessons from her. This is a good kids' eye view of prejudice and the effects of stereotyping hysteria.

I enjoyed the book. It isn't that it breaks new ground, but it is great to see a book that acknowledges that excellence is a combination of phenomenal talent AND phenomenal persistence and hard work. It is also refreshing to allow a female main character the personality trait of competitiveness, even in the field of music.


As If Being 12 3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! by Donna Gephart

I am not sure why I bought this book. It sounds too much like the Princess Diaries or another such Chick Lit book. But I did buy it and I actually enjoyed it - even the snide parallels to some of the current political machinations.

The plot: Vanessa's mother, the governor of Florida, has decided to run for president and is actually doing quite well in the effort. Vanessa, however, is doing quite poorly. Her father died in an airplane crash and now Vanessa feels abandoned by both parents. Predictably, Vanessa eventually comes to terms with the whole thing, but it is still a good story about getting there.

Not first class literature, but an enjoyable book, nonetheless.

Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress by Maria Padian

Maybe it is a bit of jealousy that draws me to a character like Brett. I wish I had a bit of her spunk and she had a bit of my self-control. Brett's circle of friends has been enlarged to include a newer girl, who is aiming to be in the more popular circles of junior high, taking with her Brett's best friend for years. Brett's grandmother has also been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And Brett's former best friend, Diane's parents are going through a messy divorce. Yes, I know, all of those teen-ish things that I said I was tired of. But the focus on her grandmother is turned toward living well, rather than dying and the divorce thing is mostly in the background, so it didn't hit me quite as strongly over the head.

Usually I feel like I enjoy a book more when I can identify more with the main character. I like this book, though, even though I didn't feel akin to the main character very much.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I guess this is the week for reading about pancreatic cancer. This book was recommended to me and I can finally say that I enjoyed an adult book. Most people who have heard about this book probably heard about it through TV and an interview Randy Pautsch had with Dianne Sawyer. Since I don't have TV, I didn't hear about it that way. It was recommended to me by an acquaintance whom I've never met, but with whom I have shared book ideas. At any rate, I enjoyed this. I hope I can live my life as well as he is living his death, though I doubt I will. I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that even though I think about my life and what I do a lot, I never really understand some part of it until that part is over for a few years and I can gain some perspective on it. This man seems much more self-aware and cognizant of the present. Enviously.

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

Sometimes, no matter how much you wish it to be true, things really just don't work out. Addie wants life with her mother, apart from her step-dad and half-sisters, to work out, and she gives it brave try after brave try. But her mother just can't be the parent Addie needs. This is a bittersweet book about a girl with a lot of heart in rather desperate circumstances. Touching and heartwarming.

Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls, Moving Day by Meg Cabot

This is the beginning of a series of books for a slightly younger set than the Princess Diaries by the same author. This book has similar appeal. It is entertaining enough, but I will give subsequent ones in the series a pass. Not enough meat on the bones for me. I will say, though, the the cover of the hardback is very clever. It is actually a poster folded into a cover. Kudos to THAT cover designer.

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee T. Frazier

Brendan Buckley has never met his grandfather on his mother's side and as a budding scientist he wants to know why. This book is about racism and what it means to a biracial kid. It is well done and appealing. It could serve well as an introduction to the topic for grade school kids. It is a bit too light weight for me, but that is probably much better for younger kids.

The Fish by L. S. Matthews, read by Jenna Lamia

I listened to this book and have mixed feelings about it. While it could have been a realistic tale similar to Parvana's Journey, it seems designed to have religious overtones - or at least to be allegorical in nature. As one reviewer on Amazon said, "I would have enjoyed it more if he had played it straight."

Sing a Song of Tuna-Fish by Esmé Raji Codell

I listened to this one in audio, too, but I did not care for it. It seemed a bit too young for me. In fact, only a day or so later, I don't really remember much about it, except that parts of it were annoying.

So that is it. The last few days spent reading. Now to get some "real work" done.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dear Papa by Anne Ylvisaker

What a lazy summer I am having - playing too much Scrabulous on Facebook. But I also want to do some catching up on reading. To get the endless stacks down to something I can manage. I have also decided to give away books to the library. There are just too many here for the shelves.

At any rate, I just read Dear Papa and I enjoyed it. It is a sweet account of the home life of a young girl during World War II. The war is there, but it is the home life that is the main focus. This is a gentler introduction to it than most of the Holocaust literature, so it would be more appropriate for the younger set. The writing is believable and is enjoyable enough to pull you along. Nothing terribly exciting, but that's OK with me sometimes. I get a bit tired of books that have to have something dire happen or they aren't considered to be relevant or worthwhile. This was just plain, normal growing up during the war.

Tennyson by Lesley M. M. Blume

I haven't written here for a long time, but I am feeling discouraged about my participation in the online book groups I belong to, so I am writing now for my own purposes: to keep track of what I read and to help myself figure out the books I have read and what I like/dislike about them.

I just finished Tennyson by Blume and really enjoyed it.  It is a quiet, non-flashy read and historical at that, so I doubt if it will get much of a following.  That is too bad, because it is worth the time.  But I guess I am not sure if it is written for children or for people like me: adults who read children's books.  

The basic plot - two young girls, 11 and 8, are taken by their father to the family's ancestral home, to live with their aunt.  He leaves them there to search for their mother (his wife), who has left the family.  Tennyson, the older, introspective one begins having dreams that involve the history of the old house and the family that lived there.  The dreams help Tennyson understand what her father meant about the family's "blood money" - and throws light on some of the complex problems of the old South, slavery, and the Civil War.  It is not a didactic exposure of these ideas, but rather more like a memoir, seen through the eyes of an innocent, but sensitive observer.

I am not terribly fond of the dream tactic as used by many authors, and here, again, I find it just a tad awkward, but I can forgive the author the use of this device, because it seems to work for me this time.  I am not sure why.  There was some indication that the events in real life were enough to suggest the dreams.  But there was too much detail in the dreams for them to appear to be real dreams.  So, yes, they have to be, in a sense, magical.  But, they seemed like plausible magic, if that makes any sense.

There is one thing I am puzzling about though.  Tennyson starts writing the story of the family to submit it to the literary magazine that her mother reads and tries to get published in.  She is hoping that her mother will see her published work and come back.  What confuses me is what she expects the mother to think.  Her mother has tried for years to get published in that magazine.  True, Tennyson knows that it is a way to communicate with her mother, but what does she think the mother will think?  Here is her daughter, only 11 years old, getting published with her first effort, on equal footing with adults.  Doesn't she have any idea how that will further devastate the mother's sense of efficacy?  She failed as a mother, she failed as a wife, and now she has been shown that she has failed as a writer.  Yes, Tennyson and Hattie and their father still need her, but what does she have to offer?  Do they love her for what she is NOT?  She is not of the formerly wealthy aristocracy.  What can they expect from her - she who is compared to a wild dog with manners?  

This one may need a second read - except I have so many others I should be reading right now, so that I can return them to the library on time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

One World, One DayOne World, One Day by Barbara Kerley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gorgeous pictures; interesting concept; good potential for further projects for kids; but the most interesting part for me was the section at the end that annotates the pictures. 

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Beauty Queens Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a hoot!  But a hoot with a lot of messages.  And, yes, I will admit that some of the language, some of the sex, some of the relationships make me a bit uncomfortable.  I am a bit of a prude like that, but this is still one funny book.  I am like one of those people Libba talks about at then end of the audio, the ones who write reviews decrying the language and the morals depicted.  If this weren't so over the top, perhaps I would find it in me to be more irate about it, but I think it is the over the top part that makes me like it.  I don't think it would have worked without it.  Still, I won't be giving it as a present to anyone under the age of, say, 60.

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A Girl Called AlA Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember reading this when I was younger and enjoying it.  I am interested in the unspoken messages that might not be obvious to readers of the target ages, but which almost seem didactic to the older reader.  I wish I liked the girls more. 

And, later, upon reflection:  There are some obvious markers that this book was written a long time ago.  Al, chubby at the start of the book, puts on even more weight, in order to gain the attention of her mother, but then, as a happy resolution, she loses 100 pounds.  And both girls, according to the grandfather figure, are on their way to becoming pretty, an all important quality.  The death of the grandfather figure brings about the resolution of Al's relationship with her father, acceptance of neglect, but it brings her mother closer.  And, in all honesty, I am not sure how I feel about all of this.  The semi-happy ending is realistic enough to be believable, but, as a person who struggles with weight control, I think the easy loss of 100 pounds is a bit TOO easy.  And I wish there had been some goal other than being pretty. 

The interest in building bookshelves was a bit too obvious as a plot device, although I remember being in exactly the same position when I was in junior high.  My homeroom was in the shop and I wanted to take shop, rather than cooking and sewing, but it wasn't allowed.  The girls had to learn to cook and sew ugly box-pleated skirts, while the boys learned to make bird-houses and lamps. 

I still think the book is worthwhile enough for current upper elementary kids, but a discussion of the differences between now and then is probably warranted.

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The Four-Story MistakeThe Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although this is much older than the Penderwicks books, it reminds me of them.  It is bit too sweet, reminiscent of a different era, where children played outside without supervision, wrote plays and performed them at home, were nice to all of the members of their families, and were supported by everyone in the community.  It makes me a bit nostalgic.  But, perversely, I also long to see a little orneriness here and there, too.  I guess it is a bit of orneriness in myself that can't help thinking, it can't always be that good, can it?

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Middle School, The Worst Years of My LifeMiddle School, The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book.  Rafe is an interesting character, although the other characters are, shall we say, a bit cartoonish.  I wish I had seen a bit more of the art interest earlier in the book, but it made sense in the end.

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Gut gegen NordwindGut gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is told completely through emails - or at least the audio version is.  I haven't seen the book.  About half-way through, I came to the conclusion that there was no way it could end happily, and it didn't.  That shouldn't count against it, but, for me, it does.  There was such a connection between the two.  Now I will be depressed for a while.  Sigh.

I had a bit of difficulty with the German at first.  Emmi speaks fairly rapidly and I am simply not used to hearing German much lately.  That is one reason why I like audiobooks - to keep up my German, but I guess I need to listen to more of them.  After a while, though, I didn't notice it so much.  The descriptions of people were the hardest - I'm not sure why. 

Worthwhile, but a bit sad.

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Ten Kids, No PetsTen Kids, No Pets by Ann M. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a pretty standard middle grades book.  The interesting part is that there are 10 kids in the family and each kid gets a chapter in the book.  The plot isn't much of a surprise, though, and there isn't any deeper meaning, other than kids adjusting to a new home.  But this kind of normal, everyday life appeals to a lot of kids of this age.  My own children would have liked a book like this.  I found it a tad ho hum.  I skimmed over many of the later chapters.

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Mapping Penny's WorldMapping Penny's World by Loreen Leedy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book would make a useful addition to a classroom, especially if the curriculum includes map study.  It is especially effective to start with very local maps, e.g., the bedroom, and then expand gradually to larger maps.  I would have found it more useful for older children, if it had included more complicated and subject specific maps, but that it probably because I usually target a bit older students.

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The Death-Defying Pepper RouxThe Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a way, the plot of this book reminds me of One Whole and Perfect Day, with various strands and adventures coming together at the end for a satisfying ending.  It is a rollicking adventure and the audio version is read well. 

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JunoniaJunonia by Kevin Henkes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the book you don't want to read when you are feeling a little depressed.  It is a sweet, peaceful book about disappointment. 

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Turtle in ParadiseTurtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I would like to give this 3 1/2 stars, because I think it is a bit above just liking it.  But I got impatient with listening to the audiobook and, if it hadn't been so short, I would probably have abandoned it.  I am not sure why it didn't just grab me.  I like that it is rooted in the depression era and includes many elements of that time.  Middle grade kids would probably really enjoy it as a read aloud. 

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Behind the Gates (Tomorrow Girls, #1)Behind the Gates by Eva Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, high quality literature, this is not.  But exciting and interesting it is.  There is enough foreshadowing to make a forest, but still, somehow, the book grabbed me and kept me interested in reading further.  I like the shifting and believable interactions between the characters. 

But there is one thing that annoys me - these half-books (or part-books).  The ending is such a cliff-hanger that it is hard to think that it really counts as a whole book.  I suppose that means that they get to sell more books - you have to buy at least two books to get the whole story. 

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[The beginning of this comment is taken in part from my post on Goodreads group Mock Newbery 2012's July discussion.]

I enjoyed Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, but I agree with an earlier poster that the plot is at times annoying and frustrating.  It suffers a bit from what I have come to think of as "too-much-itis". Rather than dealing the everyday problems of life in a normal manner, the situations and problems have to be taken to the extreme. This is NOT confined to Gary Schmidt and his books; it seems to be pervasive in YA books now. E.g., rather than simply gaining the trust of the parents again through reading with their kids and taking care of them, there has to be an asthma emergency. Rather than old Mrs. Windermere writing a play for a local theater group, she has to be writing for Broadway. The side effect of "too-much-itis" is that, as in this book, the actual plot resolution then becomes too much, too - a little too good/bad, a little too extreme to be credible.  It makes the book into a parody of life, rather than a believable way of handling what life gives you. 

There are a lot of YA books that fit this bill.  Sure, there has to be a problem or there isn't a story.  But it seems that the problem has to be massive, rather than just the everyday life problem.  I can understand that for fantasy - saving the world from the ultimate evil is usually the basis of the plot for these books, but I am talking about realistic fiction.  Most kid's lives don't suffer from divorce, abuse, drug-addiction, fatal or near fatal accidents, drunkenness, abandonment, violence, rape, unwanted pregnancy, etc., all in the space of a short time.  Especially in middle school/junior high.  There are a lot of kids dealing with a lot milder problems.  Not everything has to be titillating or extreme to attract YAs.  At least, I don't think it does.  But I am not an author, just a reader, who wishes there were more books that weren't so extreme, but instead, were a bit more real - like the realistic part in "realistic fiction".