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'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'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
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.