Friday, July 25, 2014

The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now: Two Endearing Reads for the Ages!

Do you know what it's like to find a book that you absolutely fall in love with?  In love with every word?  Every event?  Every character?  (Well...almost.)  And can you imagine what it's like to find not one but two of these books, written as companions to each other?  Do you know what that feels like? 

Gary D. Schmidt swept me away with the stories in The Wednesday Wars, published in 2007, and Okay for Now, published in 2013.  Both books have strikingly similar elements and themes with endearing characters that I want to keep reading about!  Taking place in the 1960's during the roaring Vietnam War, each book is told from the perspective of a different middle school boy with impossibly egocentric fathers, quiet mothers, and annoying older siblings.  And both books showcase the companionship that adults can form with children, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.  

The Wednesday Wars was written in 2007.
In The Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood is just trying to survive seventh grade with a teacher, Mrs. Baker, who he is sure absolutely hates his guts.  (She makes him clap the erasers after school every Wednesday, for crying out loud!)  Meanwhile, he has to deal with Doug Swieteck's older brother's antics, which include posting pictures of Holling around the school wearing yellow tights with white feathers on the...well...you'll just have to read to find out.  His sister wants to be a flower child, his father is obsessed with his architecture firm and seemingly little else, and his mother does not have a voice in their family anyway.  Plagued with the escape of his classroom's rats, enamored with the words of Shakespeare and baseball, fearful of being drafted into Vietnam in just five years, Holling navigates the oft rugged landscape of middle school with some unexpected heroes.

Okay for Now was published in 2013.


In Okay For Now, the author has crafted a new novel about Doug Swieteck himself who moves to Marysville, New York with his family after his father loses his job in Long Island.  Before he leaves, Holling Hoodhood comes to say good-bye and to share a special gift with Doug.  When Doug arrives in Marysville, he feels like an absolute chump until he bonds with Mr. Powell, the librarian at the Marysville Free Public Library, over an original book of John James Audubon's bird drawings.  Besides developing an interest and talent for himself, Doug is employed every Saturday at Spicer's Deli as a delivery boy, and the money he earns is, of course, taken away by his father to help support the family.  In the meantime, his brother returns from Vietnam much different than the way he left, his gym teacher's personal mission seems to be to torture poor Doug, and he does not want to read stupid Jane Eyre in class because...well...you'll just have to read it yourself to figure that out!

I absolutely admire the way Gary D. Schmidt has crafted both of these novels to be endearing, hopeful, and sweet, while still speaking to the hearts and passions of middle school boys.  Featuring grand coincidences in each novel and siblings who are not given names until the end of book - when Holling and Doug realize that their siblings do have identities after all - Mr. Schmidt writes in a way that makes me want to read more.  He embodies what it means to have voice as a writer, and I look forward to reading more of his books in the future. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Counting by 7's: A Review

Counting by 7's was published in
2013 by the Penguin Group.
This summer, I am working as a summer reading assistant at the Williamsburg Regional Library.  My primary job includes conferencing with young readers about the books they've recorded, which gives me an opportunity to learn about new and popular children's literature.  One of the books that has frequently appeared on the lists of middle school readers is Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan, a novel that focuses on a young genius - Willow Chance - who is obsessed with skin diseases and gardening. 

When she was a baby, she was adopted by her mother and father and has grown up in the Southern California desert.  She doesn't have many friends, but she prefers listening to the wind bellow between her extraordinary garden in the backyard, which is more a result of her scientific research than a green thumb.  She understands more about the lives of plants than she does the lives of her peers, and she is skeptical of formal education ever since her kindergarten teacher read her a book about saying "good night" to the indifferent moon. 

However, when Willow scores 100% on a standardized test and is accused of cheating, she is sent to a behavioral counselor, Dell Duke, who is a highly unmotivated individual content to play games on his computer while his clients sit in his office and sulk.  Worlds collide when Dell meets Willow and categorizes her as a "genius" and when Willow meets another of Dell's clients named Quang-ha and his sister, Mai.  After the sudden death of her parents in a car crash, Willow's world comes to an end, as she loses the two people she has loved more than anything.  She searches for books at the library about children who lose two parents at the same time, but of course, she can't find any because it just isn't possible!  But with the help of her new friends, and with friendship blooming in unlikely places, Willow just might survive the heartbreak, while those around her experience their own transformations. 

The cast of characters in Counting by 7's are diverse and lovable, shocking and inspirational.  They each have a permanent impact on each other and progress as people in believable ways as the novel continues.  Willow has been crafted in the vain of other recent literacy geniuses I have encountered (such as Colin Singleton in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines), only without any conceit or arrogance.  She doesn't seem aware of her genius.  She notices and appreciates the small nuisance of other people around her and is sensitive to their needs.  At times, she filters her thoughts so as not to offend anyone, though she is not always successful at these attempts.  (For example, she tells Mr. Duke to check his blood pressure after their first meeting; she also saves her taxi driver's life by suggesting that he have a small mole on the back of his neck removed and thereby becomes his "angel" in another side story that is woven seamlessly throughout her tragedy.) 

When Willow considers Pattie, the mother of Quang-ha and Mai who agrees to care for Willow temporarily, she praises Pattie's silence, writing, "She is like me.  Silent.  I admire that in a person.  The ability to keep your mouth shut is usually a sign of intelligence.  Introspection requires you to think and analyze.  It's hard to do that when you are blabbing away."  Interestingly, it is true that most of what readers know about Willow is what they learn from her narration, as she really does not speak a lot through the novel, especially after undergoing tragedy.  But when she does use her words, she has the power to make a difference.  Although some of the characters' actions are quite despicable (Dell Duke pretending to rescue a cat and then letting it fend for itself in the school garbage bin, for example), I found myself rooting for them in the end. 

Along with intriguing characters, Counting by 7's is a great read because it is told in a poetic voice by an introspective twelve-year-old that entices readers to believe in hope.  Throughout the novel, I told myself that the connections between the characters wouldn't last.  It's impossible, I thought, yet I hoped.  I hoped that the characters could continue to live life, day after day, just as they were doing.  I didn't want to turn the pages for fear that their pretend perfect life would come crashing down.  Hope is a common theme present in this novel, along with the theory that all actions are related to each other.  The themes of this novel make it comparable to the most recent book I have blogged about, The Tale of Despereaux.  Although the stories inside are drastically different, both feature smaller-than-average heroes navigating through the "mine-field" of life.  The difference is that the people around Willow keep hoping before and long after she has given up, while Despereaux must remain hopeful even when the odds are against him.

The only criticism that I have of the book is that some of the events are almost too unbelievable; some elements of the characters just don't connect.  For example, (spoiler alert!) readers learn that Pattie has quite a lot of money saved and is rather wealthy, yet she and her children live in a one-room garage on the "wrong side of the tracks."  Pattie's actions prove that she is a loving, pro-active, and hardworking mother, yet I wonder why she would submit her children to this difficult and uncomfortable lifestyle if she was able to provide them something better.  Certainly, the rent of a two-bedroom apartment would be feasible for a woman with her means and would certainly accommodate her teenagers better than the small, cramped space that they are forced to call home. 

I also wonder why the principal accuses Willow of cheating on the standardized test in the first place.  I mean, this isn't the nineties, so I feel like there should have been two-way communication regarding this matter.  (And the story takes place in present day to be sure with references to Facebook and other present-day commodities.)  Wouldn't she have at least been tested for a gifted program?  At this point in her education career, wouldn't she have been identified as a gifted student?  Certainly this standardized test wasn't the first activity at school that made her stand out amongst her peers!  Of course, if the principal hadn't jumped to conclusions, Willow would not have met Dell, and the story would not have transpired as it did.  But still, as a teacher, it's difficult to read about other teachers and workers in education short-changing students in such ways.

Despite these small inconsistencies, the characters of Counting by 7's make for an interesting literacy bunch that I will not soon forget.  If you'd like to spend some time with them, check out the novel for yourself at your local library.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Tale of Despereaux: A Small Mouse with a Big Heart

The Tale of Despereaux was published in
2003 by Candlewick.
Image courtesy of barnesandnoble.com
In The Tale of Despereaux, author Kate DiCamillo once again explores the power of love and the transformative relationships that can occur between humans and animals; in this case, that relationship involves a mouse called Despereaux and a princess with a heart of kindness, empathy, hate, and sadness.  By weaving multiple stories together to create one complete tapestry, DiCamillo has written a unique, fantastical tale. 

Despereaux is a different mouse.  He is about half the size of a regular mouse at only two ounces but has rather big, velvety ears.  He enjoys listening to music and can read.  He especially enjoys fairy tales.  It is his penchant for music that gets him into trouble in the first place, as it causes him to sit at the foot of the king and later, in the hand of the princess, as he sways in tune with the music.  It is during this serenade that he falls in love with the princess and hopes for his own "happily ever after" just like in the books he reads.  When the other mice see Despereaux romancing the princess and sitting so close to a human, they call an emergency meeting and send him to a dungeon, a dark maze at the bottom of the castle filled with rats.  Oh, yes, and no mouse that has ever gone into the dungeon has come back alive.   When Despereaux learns about a rat's plot to steal the princess and keep her locked up in the dungeon, he realizes that he must be her knight in shiny armor to save her, a big act of bravery and courage to match his heart, if not his physical size.  

The plot of Despereaux has rich elements of fantasy that would make this book an interesting read for any author to write: talking animals; a deep, dark scary dungeon; comical characters, such as Cook and her constant "Ho-hee-"ing or Miggory Sow and her redundant use of the word "Gor;" and a counsel of mice to list just a few things. However, any author didn't just write this novel; Kate DiCamillo did, and it is her examination of good vs. evil and light vs. dark that make this tale so memorable.  

In fact, DiCamillo writes that she hopes her readers were able to find some of their own "light" after reading the novel.  This notion is suggested by Gregory the Jailer when Despereaux first arrives in the dungeon.  You see, Gregory promises to save Desperaux's life if the small mouse can tell him a story, as stories are beacons of light.  Other characters create their own light by having "hope."  This is true for Mig, a poor girl without a family who hopes to be a princess one day to get out of her miserable life of servitude and abuse.  Even if everyone else thinks it's impossible for Mig to be a princess - she's "not the sharpest knife in the drawer," after all - having hope "really makes no difference to anyone but you."

Further, DiCamillo teaches readers to be empathetic for the characters that she has crafted by revealing their "heart maps" and exploring what has shaped each character's personality.  She even uses the word "empathy" within the novel and provides an example of Princess Pea's empathy, allowing young readers to use context to infer the meaning of this rich word.

In fact, DiCamillo allows readers to do the same thing for words like "perfidy."  It is the personable conversation that she has with readers as she tells the story that sets this novel apart from all others.   For example, when demonstrating the horror of the dungeon, she even suggests that she and the reader go into the dungeon together and hold tight to one another so as to feel secure!  While reading, I felt connected to the author, as if we were on a journey together.  I felt that she truly cared about me as I learned about Despereaux's tale, and young readers will surely feel the same.  

The Tale of Despereaux is a reminder that there is light and darkness within all of us; however, all humans are capable of shedding light onto the world.  Some people, too, are missing that light and need others to reveal it to them through kindness and empathy.  For me, the message of Despereaux will live on long after I have closed its cover.  

To check out The Tale of Despereaux, a Newberry Medal winner, or other books by Kate DiCamillo, visit your local library. 






Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reading: Now I'll Tell You Eveything (The FINAL Book in the Alice McKinley Series)

The FINAL Alice book published in 2013
Courtesy of Simonandschuster.com  




As soon as I finished reading Now I'll Tell You Everything, the final book in the Alice McKinley series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, it started to rain.  Not just metaphorically but literally.  Along with the rain came hail pounding at the window and strong gusts of wind stirring up mini-hurricanes on the Chesapeake Bay outside my patio.  How timely this rainstorm came to align perfectly with my conclusion of the Alice series, a set of books that I have been reading since I was thirteen years old.

The series began in 1985 and includes twenty-eight follow-up books that focus on Alice and her life in Bethesda, Maryland, with her father, the manager of a music store, and older brother, Lester.  Along with her two best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth, Alice explores the ins-and-outs of growing up, asks the questions that everybody wonders but dares not say, experiences her fair share of awkward and embarrassing life stories, and through it all, comforts her readers, young and old.  

Besides being well-written, fast-paced, humorous, and super relatable, the Alice series made me feel like I had three best friends across the country.   They weren't fantastical superheroes, or girls being chased down by werewolves or hungry vampires, or famous celebrities hopping from one party to the next.  Instead, they were seemingly regular kids navigating the throes of middle school, and then high school, with Naylor spending chapters and pages of books devoted to poolside conversations, dressing room horrors, or sibling banter. 

But in Now I'll Tell You Everything, there is not a lot of time devoted to one particular thing, as this book follows Alice from her first day as a college freshman to a sixty-something wife and grandmother.  On the one hand, I like knowing how Alice's future unfolds and how it mimics the Alice in the past book.  Sixty-year-old Alice shares, "I wanted to write some books about what it was like to grow up without a mother and about all the things Dad and Lester had to teach me.  I wanted my children and grandchildren to know that no matter when you are born or where you life, happiness and disappointments have the same flavors the world over.  I think that Mom, and the girl I was back in seventh grade, would have been pleased."  And while the book concludes in a nicely, neatly sealed way, I almost wish I didn't know so much.

Most of the Alice books span four months and spend more time developing character and detailing certain events for pages and chapters!  With this book covering over forty years in just over 500 pages, there are many details that are left out.  It almost reads like a summary of Alice's life after high school.  Perhaps this was done as a promise Naylor made to fans: that she would reveal everything about Alice!  Perhaps this parallels the common thought that life just seems to go faster as people get older, and with the blink of an eye, Alice transforms from an eager college freshman at the University of Maryland to an eager grandmother.

As a fan of Alice McKinley, I am sad to see the series end.  I feel antiquated, and to console myself after the conclusion of this series (a literary crisis if I've ever known one), I am considering making a purchase of every single Alice book ever written from Amazon.  (They all have real pretty covers now, too.)  Many of the events in the final book warmed my heart, and I appreciated how the author brought up several details that had occurred in past books to show how moments that occur when we are young  can still impact us in the future.  (There's Patrick promising to call Alice on her twenty-first birthday, for example, or the memory of Alice meeting Patrick for the first time in an embarrassing moment at The Gap.)  Yet, like time itself, I wish this book would have slowed down and spent more time focusing on Alice in college.  I would have been content with the series concluding with Alice as an early twenty-something and then could have imagined the rest of our lives unfolding together.  But I think I'm just sad to let go of the dear friends I've known for so long. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Reading: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Courtesy of soundcloud.com
"Sometimes, I think I am the saddest boy in the world." 

These words are shared by Aristotle "Ari" Mendoza in the novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a recent Stonewall and Printz Award winner written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a cultural insider to the Hispanic characters.  Except for books in which dogs die, this one was the first that made tears stream down my face with that line alone.  

Growing up in the desert of El Paso, a city that is cherished in my heart, sixteen year old Aristotle just wants to be alone.  His mother, a teacher, always "hovers," and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, never wants to talk.  His older sisters are too grown up for him, and his older brother, Bernardo, is a mystery.  The only thing that Ari knows about his brother is that he is in prison but for what reasons, Ari doesn't know.

The absence of his brother is haunting to him, along with several other insecurities that Ari has.  Uncomfortable dreams.  Annoying boys.  Pestering girls.  And then one day, he meets Dante at the pool who offers to teach Ari how to swim.  The two boys instantly connect and become best friends.  Their friendship is so deep that when Ari sees a car slide around the corner after a slick rain and nearly run over Dante, he rushes to the middle of the road to push his friend out of the way, nearly paralyzing himself in the rescue.  

Throughout the novel, this event torments Ari.  He doesn't want to talk about it, and he doesn't consider himself a hero.  When Dante moves away for eight months with his parents to Chicago, he regularly writes to Ari, who irregularly responds.  As their friendship unfolds, Ari begins to questions his thoughts about Dante, his loyalty to his family, and his own normalcy.  He makes reckless decisions to help him cope with his insecurities - driving out in the middle of the desert and drinking beer, for example - and becomes acquainted with his parents in ways that he never know.  When Dante admits that he wants to grow up and marry a boy, Ari is certain that he will always be friends with Dante, even if he doesn't really want Dante to talk about these things with him. 

In a time when the Gay Rights Movement is making strides like the Civil Rights Movement did in the 1960's - and still does today - Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a comfort to young adults who might be coping with their own insecurities.  It also helps cultural outsiders to be empathetic to the feelings that people who are gay experience.  The development of the characters is rich, making me fall in love with Aristotle and Dante.  There are many times in the novel when Ari's family and friends tell him to "love himself the way that others do" and to stop being so hard on himself.  I felt this way towards Ari, too, as I got to read about what a selfless, unique person he was.  Reading about Ari's internal battles hurt my heart, and I found myself rooting for him and praying that the author would please do him justice at the end of the book; I just couldn't stand it if he was sad for one more day!    

The author writes in his dedication, "To all the boys who've had to play by different rules."  Throughout the novel, Ari sets rules for himself to try to conform to societal standards, but these rules just aren't going to help him win.  Mr. Sáeiz has written an influential, insightful novel with compelling characters that tells a coming-of-age story for all readers.  He includes beautiful phrases (like when Ari talks about how he wants to kiss the raindrops, for example), and the lexile makes this lengthy book accessible for struggling readers, as it is readably appropriate for third graders.  (The content, of course, is for older readers.)  To check it out for yourself, visit your local library.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading: Tuck Everlasting

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
in 1975
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit is one of those books I've always wanted to read.  I always saw it at the library or on the bookshelf, but it seemed my hands were always filled with titles and that book got "saved for later."  Well, no longer was I going to save it anymore!  I finally read this long-awaited book, and while it was different than I was expecting (um, yeah, I was expecting more of a love story, I suppose, BUT this was way better), it was totally worth the wait!  

The Tuck's are a family like no other because they won't die.  They unknowingly drank from the Fountain of Youth and haven't aged a day since.  It sounds great, doesn't it?  But for the Tuck family, it's not. While they don't have to meet the ultimate fate that befalls all of mankind - death - they also don't get to live fulfilling lives.  

“You can't have living without dying," they explain. "So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”  And that is how the Tuck's live.  They can't go into town too often or people will recognize them and wonder why they don't age!  They can't get married because people will find out their anti-aging secret and get suspicious!  And while they themselves go through life unchanged, their other friends pass on, and the Tuck's are lonely.  

This is obvious when ten-year-old Winnie goes wandering into her family's forest and almost drinks from the fountain when seventeen-year-old Jesse Tuck stops her. Despite their age difference, Jesse tries to persuade Winnie to drink from the fountain when she turns seventeen so that the two can get married and stay young together forever.  Meanwhile, the Tuck family sweeps her away on their horse to tell her the story about the fountain when a devious man in a yellow suit overhears their story and plots to capitalize on the Fountain of Youth.  His first order of business:  Reveal Winnie's whereabouts to her worried-sick family in exchange for their forest. The deal is set, but when the man in the yellow suit approaches the Tuck household to "save" Winnie, Mae Tuck takes her husband's gun and kills the man in the yellow suit.  Because he brought the town's constable with him, he is witness to the crime, and Mae's punishment is to be hung.  But if she is hanged, the whole world will find out her secret.  

I like Tuck Everlasting for many reasons:  It showcases a relatable main character coming-of-age and going through many changes with conflicting opinions; it causes readers to question if the Tucks are really crazy (which I believe they are, though I suppose anyone would be with eternal life); and it illustrates an empathetic young girl with a thoughtful head on her shoulders.  

Throughout her time with the Tuck's, Winnie has diverse feelings, from feeling mistreated by the crazy kidnappers who had no right to take her from her family to feeling that they are her friends.  At times, she wonders if the Tuck's are crazy.  At times, I wondered if they were crazy!  Certainly, they were lonely, bored, wistful.  And these things certainly may have drove them a little crazy, but by the end of the novel, Winnie has decided that the Tuck's are indeed her friends after all.  

I especially enjoyed the final event of the novel with Winnie showing compassion for a friend and heeding the advice offered by her "crazy" friends.  I don't like to reveal spoilers, but I found her actions to be heart-warming.  Years later, the response of the Tuck family is heart-wrenching and illustrates how painful eternal life could be. 

While reading, I couldn't help but wonder what the Tuck's would be doing today! Would they have learned how to drive cars?  What would their occupations be?  It would be interesting to pose these questions to students and have them extend this story to reveal a modern-day version of the Tuck family. 

Tuck Everlasting is an unforgettable story for me that has been turned into a Disney movie and even a musical.  According to the ALA, "it should have won a Newbery," but even though it didn't, it still has the power to transform lives.  For more information about Natalie Babbit, including a book list and interview, click here.  To check out Tuck Everlasting, visit your local library.   

Reading: A Time of Miracles

Courtesy of goodreads.com
In 1997, I was in the fourth grade at Webster Elementary School in attendance with one of the most transformative teachers I ever knew.  After a summer spent at the swimming pool with my sister and our neighbor friends, I began the year alongside my best friend and fell in love with the book Shiloh.  I got to have lunch with my teacher and ride in the front seat of her car (major big deal), I went ice-skating for the first time, and I spent a weekend fishing with my uncles, in which I got the greatest quantity and largest fish of any of my (boy) cousins.  It was also the year that I lost my first dog to old age and my grandmother to cancer, the first year in which I experienced what it felt like to lose somebody.  At this time, I had no concept of the word "refugee" or of the predicament young Blaise Fortune encountered as he traveled with Gloria, his mother by chance, across the countryside and cities of the Caucasus, walking "straight ahead towards new horizons," losing almost everything he ever knew - except for hope.   

In A Time of Miracles by Anne-Laure Bondoux, a Batchelder Award winner originally written in French and published in 2009, tells the story of Blaise, a boy reportedly rescued from a wrecked train.  His travel companion and maternal figure, Gloria, rescued the boy from the train wreck and believes his mother to still be alive after being taken to a hospital due to the unfortunate incident.  Gloria says that she is from a wealthy fruit orchard and fell in love with a man named Zemzem when Blaise came along.  Although they are no longer together, Gloria tells Blaise that Zemzem left her with the greatest gift of all but won't reveal what it is. 

As she and Blaise travel, their ultimate goal is to arrive in France, where people have civil rights, and the two companions won't have to spend cold nights at campsites anymore, breathing in unhealthy, corrupt air.  In France, Blaise will have a chance to reunite with his birth mother and go to school.  But the journey to France is not easy with war following in their footsteps, and Blaise finds himself saying "good-bye" to many friends that he meets along the journey - Hoop Earring, the gypsy boy; Emil; Baska; Rebeka; and Fatima, who he hopes will remember him by his heart and violin. 

As I read A Time of Miracles, I was not expecting the story to span from Blaise's childhood (age eleven) to his college career, but it does.  Although the story spends most of its time with Blaise as an eleven-year-old, I enjoyed reading and watching the timeline of his life unfold.  Throughout his journey, I felt rather smart, as I was able to piece together the clues early into the story to figure out the mysteries behind Blaise's unknown life.  Who was his mother?  What was Zem-Zem's gift?  Why did Gloria often sneak away when the two weary travelers arrived somewhere new?  If students are reading carefully, they too should be able to piece together the clues and make many inferences and predictions and enjoy having their thoughts challenged as they journey through the book with Gloria and Blaise.  It was a journey that I was deeply engaged with, as I had trouble putting the book down and probably stayed up too late traveling with them.  

Yet, I also had to keep reminding myself that this story takes place in the 1990's, and when Blaise is in college, it is actually 2005 - the year I was a junior in high school!  I feel ashamed that I had no idea that this war was even occurring during my lifetime, and it shows me how I must educate myself about these issues.  Besides telling an engaging story with characters that are easy to care about and befriend, A Time of Miracles shines on a light on issues that are not always on the front page of newspapers or on the evening news.  

I am so grateful that I discovered this book and would like to read more of Anne-Laure Bondoux's books, especially if they follow the same theme as A Time of Miracles.  This book opens the door to further research for students and tells a story that will not be forgotten.  To check it out for yourself, be sure to visit your local library