Monday, December 27, 2010

YA Book Review: The Dreamer

Pam Munoz Ryan's fictionalized biography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is austere and beautiful. 

I asked myself two days into reading it why it was taking me so long to get through it.  My girlfriend, upon seeing the large, almost elementary school print, asked me the same thing.  When I finally finished it, I realized it isn't that it took me long for any other reason than I was savoring it.  I read lines repeatedly; I did the same with entire pages.  I stared at the simple and poignant artwork.  I closed the book and let it sit...because I wanted it to last.  What you will find so surprising is how these simple pages can produce and evoke that type of reaction.

Some of it is Ryan's fascinating writing and much of it is within Neruda's enchanting childhood perspective.

The novel is Ryan's account of Neruda's development and meteoric rise from a pressure-filled childhood through an adulthood where his own government railed against him.  Ryan based her telling of Neruda's story on the work of past biographers as well as from the knowledge of friends and colleagues.  Her focus is on a shy and thin child raised by an obdurate and bullying father.  A father who did not support his son being a dreamer, a writer, a poet.  Yet, Neruda observed everything and collected more.  Father chastized son for being too thin, sickly, and a day-dreamer.  Yet, we learn his strength was not in bone and sinew, but in mind, heart, and soul.  His father intimidated his children and wife; eventually embarrassed by his son's gift with writing, he burns everything he ever wrote.  The young Neruda learns that even when things are burned there is an ember...somewhere...just waiting for breath and new life.

The anecdotes of Neruda's childhood are true and telling and poetic.  My favorite is Neruda's encounter with a pair of swans while away for the summer with part of his family.   Brought to the ocean only to be cruelly thrown into it every morning by his father in the hopes that the thin and physically weak Neruda would swim and strengthen his body,  the observant and sensitive boy found something else to occupy his attention...he fed two swans each day.

The swans were clearly mates.  When one is killed by hunters and the other wounded and left bleeding to death, the young crestfallen Neruda found the surviving swan and nursed him back to relative health; yet, it never would swim again...it only sank each time it was placed in the water.  The young boy bonds with swan and works diligently to restore it to its initial joy and happiness.  As the swan lays its head against his Neruda's arm and breathes its last breath, I found myself hoping the story was true.  After reading the Author's Notes my hope was confirmed.  Such a beautiful and telling moment in the novel.

Ryan took a childhood of a boy who was clearly passionate and sensitive at a young age and brought that spirit to the page.  Her writing style is misleading--because of the size of the font and the simple language the reader is caught off-guard.  Each anecdote asks you to think, and then you turn the page where only an isolated line of poetry is set along with a corresponding image.  You can't rush through these pages; you can't rush through these stories; you can't rush through this book.  You have to savor Ryan's language.  She does the great poet justice.

There is certainly something to be considered by Neruda's poetry (one of the most widely read poets in the world) no doubt...but Ryan's books holds his childhood and his core as a developing human being up for the reader to consider as well.  The book is aptly titled The Dreamer not only because Neruda was one, but like many of the questions posed by Ryan (and Neruda) the reader inevitably asks himself, "do I dream...enough?"

While it is brilliant to hand this book to a young person as an introduction to one of humanity's gifts with a pen,  hand this book to a young person if for no other reason so that you can ask him/her, "Do you dream...enough?"

Friday, December 24, 2010

YA Book Review: The Monstrumologist

Why different novels appeal to each of us varies according to our tastes or even where we are in our lives at that particular point.  Our tastes in music may change along with our tastes in clothing, food, or hobby.

In Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing the confirmed bachelor Benedick argues as much, "Doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age..."

The plot of Rick Yancey's YA horror novel The Monstrumologist appeals to a very specific audience: YA boysI state this for a number reasons outlined below, not the least of which is that almost every female character in the novel is shredded and gobbled by horrific monsters...and the heroes are male.  Yet it is much more than a horror story.  Yancey has coated this entertaining tale with a challenging vocabulary along with the promise of more --this is one novel in a series.  It seems nothing in hotter in YA literature than the serial novel.  True, it isn't written released chapter by chapter as readers experienced with Dickens, but this first novel is a compilation of three journals from a larger bundle of journals.  They were kept by a man who lived to be a 130 years old.  As a young boy he had been taken in to be cared for by what is known as a Monstrumologist --someone who studies and hunts monsters.  The promise is that subsequent novels will be formed by the remaining journals which recorded this unique and curious life.  Very clever.

What is enormously appealing about this novel is that it reads and feels like English Romanticism.  The novel brought me back to college lectures by Dr. Marilyn Gaul about this period of literature and art.  I can't forget her introducing us to Henry Fusili's 18th century painting entitled "The Nightmare" --the demon perched atop the sleeping woman, and that wild-eyed steed peering in on each.  One of the reviews plastered on the novel is that it is a cross between Mary Shelley and Stephen King.  That review nailed it. This book does not disappoint.

It is a great YA novel in terms of introducing kids to this genre of storytelling.  As much as Frankenstein is someone's journal, so too is this book...reading this is not a large leap to either Shelley and Stoker for a 13 year old.  The story will absolutely sweep kids away, particularly boys, and the vocabulary will keep them challenged.  It is a vocabulary beyond many 8th  grader's core knowledge, but not beyond their ability to stretch and learn vocabulary in the process.  I know many of my students will love this book for both its story and its challenges.

I love that the novel takes its classical heritage as deep as it could possibly go for the monsters which are hunted are from Herodotus and Shakespeare: the Antropophagi.  Headless creatures with shark-like mouths in their chests, and black soulless eyes in their shoulders.  Written about many times in ancient literature, Yancey brings them to life.  There is nothing silly or unrealistic as odd as that may sound.  Also, one of the monster hunters in the book just may be a young Jack the Ripper...the novel suggests as much.

Horror has taken some peculiar twists in the cinema, especially since latex was discovered in the 80s, and a lot of my students' only interaction with horror at this point has only been with what is accessible through film: the Saw series, Paranormal Activity, Halloween, etc.  Some students have of course discovered Stephen King, but King is our century...not that there is anything wrong with any of it.  I bring it up simply to underscore the impressively classical feel and scope of this YA novel.  It is terrific YA literature worthy of a spot on your classroom shelf.

Perhaps it received one its greatest compliments from one of my female students who saw it on my desk; after confirming that I was reading it, she uttered, "That book was gross...I couldn't sleep any night that I read it."

Highly recommended --mainly for the great gross storytelling... the workout your kids will get with vocabulary is just an added bonus.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Creating a Creative Writing Course

While sharing the basic framework of our middle school creative writing course, I'm really reviewing and celebrating the text which I used to create this course two summers ago: Janet Burroway's text Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft.

The idea behind our course is that it would be an optional class for students; they would take it in place of traditional English.  However...we were charged to design the course so that these kids would cover the same literature, vocabulary, and grammar as the traditional course.  The challenge was to rethink the current course and find a new way to deliver it.

We also did not want to make it an honors course necessarily; the bottom line is that we did not want to close doors on kids.

I personally did a lot of reading on the teaching of creative writing prior to writing the course.  What I came up with was that there were two camps.  A creative writing course was either imitative or instructional, rarely both.  Imitative meaning kids imitate various styles of creative writing and generally produce a lot of original creative writing in the class.  Instructional meaning kids learn and read about the various styles, but do not apply it much in their own writing.

My understanding for the split is time...in that it is very difficult to produce a course which covers all of the terminology and craft; read it; discuss it; write it; revise it; discuss it; repeat.

That is the challenge I took on.  What came out of the research and discussion with colleagues is a course which in its second year is not perfect, but does manage to work on all of the levels we identified as important for us.  It gives us what we want and need for our kids.  It will not work for everyone, nor should it.  Kids aren't canned, right?  We all face and deal with the unique challenges of the young people produced in our various communities.

The reason why Burroway's text was invaluable to our design of the course is it breaks the craft of creative writing down into manageable and clearly articulated segments: Image, Voice, Character, Setting, Story, Development & Revision.  Within each of those topics are several key concepts for focus and practice.  We built lessons around each of these key concepts, plugged in our current literature as well as dug around for some more literature to plug into the discussion and illustration of these concepts, and found, borrowed, and created writing lessons which allow students to demonstrate (imitate) their understanding of the concepts.

Burroway's text itself may be too advanced for a middle school student, but the concepts certainly are not.  Just as an actor has to bring a text alive for an audience, a teacher has to find a way to deliver whatever his/her message is each day.  We couldn't buy 100 copies and hand them to our students, but we could use it as our bible and build lessons from it, and that is what we have done.

For example in Chapter 3 - Character, Burroway breaks down Character into seven components: Character as Desire, Image, Voice, Action, Thought, Presented by Author, and Conflict.  Our middle school students have been learned the concept of Character as Desire and applied it to the books they read.  Desire focuses on the fact that all characters want and these wants come from a motive.  What can't this character live without?  What is his/her deepest longing, need, or hope?  The chapter also allowed us to develop a very basic introduction to Aristotle's belief that the nature of man's desire determines the nature of his morality: he who wants good is good; he who wants bad is bad.  Again, it is up to the teacher to deliver these concepts on their level.

Kids can tell me what a character's desire is.  They can absolutely tell me what Harry Potter, Christopher Robin, or Bella Swan can't live without no matter what their reading level is.  They can watch a film and tell us the same things.

In designing the course, we had to determine how we wanted it to run.  Did we envision it as a course where kids sat and wrote and produced work within the various genres; should it be an imitative course where kids imitate various styles and formats; or should it be a nuts and bolts course where kids learn the core concepts of setting, character, et al; and what about the other kinds of traditional writing an 8th grader must produce?  When I found this book, it brought all of that together for me.  I found a way to make the course respond to all of those various needs.

I need to add here that I used the Burroway book alongside of Bloom's Taxonomy. I wanted to make certain that the course allowed for a variety questioning: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  The traditional criticism of teachers is that our questions are heavily knowledge-based while leaving the other types as incidental.  I've found that the creative writing focus found in Burroway's book allowed us to easily create lessons which inherently addressed all questions types fairly equally.

This book has allowed me as a teacher to build and design a creative writing course which is not only viewed as valuable and useful by students, parents, and staff, but it is now receiving feedback that it might be considered an honors-level course.  What I believe people are reading as honors is really the fact that our questions are not too heavily knowledge-based; we cover the spectrum of Bloom's Taxonomy.  The reason why this is significant is because I read and hear from our teaching colleagues that in most cases a creative writing course is difficult to maintain in most secondary or middle-level schools because many look at it as kids just simply writing frivolous poems on butterfly cut-outs.

Students search for all of the concepts found in Burroway's text in our reading -it allows us to discuss literature on a deeper and different level beyond knowledge; it still allows us to write traditional (compare-contrast, expository) essays; and it allows us to apply these skills of the craft in our own writing (write a short story which clearly demonstrates Character as Desire).

For anyone looking to start a creative writing class or club, or restructure and defend one currently in place, I would highly recommend starting with this book.  It has been an invaluable resource.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

YA Book Review: As EASY As FALLING Off The Face Of The EARTH

Fifteen-year-old Ry is on a physical journey.  At first it is to summer camp by himself on a train.  When he is left in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home with a dying cell phone and about 80 bucks cash, his journey changes.

He needs to get home.

He finds some people willing to help him, and then through a series of events his journey shifts again.   He needs to find his parents (who lost their cellphone).

On vacation, sailing in Caribbean.

As EASY as FALLING Off the Face of the EARTH by Lynne Rae Perkins is a funny and easy story to read.  I laughed aloud a few times as mishap after mishap happens to this kid.  It is ease and pure joy in storytelling.  This is not a heavy read; it is not a book for soul searching or tender moments.  It is simply a fun, enjoyable story by an author who clearly writes little slices of life memorably.

The characters are built so well that we can see them and remember them.  Again, nothing is overwritten here, but the combination of what the characters say and do, along with some basic physical information, establishes each persona very quickly in your mind.  We can see and anticipate what these characters will do or say.

My favorite aspect of Perkins' writing how she builds scenes into humorous moments.  In isolation the scene below may not be funny, but when you read it within the series of plausibly crazy events which just occurred, you can't help but smile:
 He rode with his legs stretched out, the backs of his heels resting against a lower step, watching this chunk of the world scroll by.  When the train went over the river, on the trestle, Ry pulled his legs and feet up instinctively, uninstinctively forgetting how he had loosened his bootlaces earlier.  His left boot caught on the edge of the metal step, his foot slipped out of the boot, and the boot bounced once on the trestle and went sailing through the air, down into the milky coffee of the river water.
The chapters are short and the book is fast-paced.  There are sub-plots involving his grandfather who ends up on his own journey, as well as Ry's two dogs, who end up on their own journey as well.  Grandpa was supposed to be watching the dogs.  I have to admit, there were times where I felt like, ok, enough is enough, how many crazy mistakes or accidents can one kid have?  But therein lies the fun of the book.  Ry is certainly not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but the humorous events are cut from that cloth.  I could picture the scene I shared above performed by either of those great silent stars.

This is a humorous modern-day adventure story to keep on your bookcase at school or home.  A 6th grader through 8th grader can read and enjoy the story very easily.  It has humor and action, but none of the harsh and sometimes jarring reality which finds its way into some YA literature.  I absolutely recommend this book and enjoyed it myself.

Friday, December 17, 2010

YA Book Review: The Water Seeker

There are a lot of a fantasy, escapist, vampire YA novels produced, and there are a lot of YA novels involving collisions --a teen collides with life.  Kimberly Willis Holt's The Water Seeker is a refreshingly wholesome novel.  Based on the pioneers moving their lives along the Oregon Trail, this piece of historical fiction just stands out from the crowd in that it feels unique: no one is running from vampires, alcohol addiction, bullying, or any of the other dangers a teen faces today.  The dangers in this novel are natural, timeless, and tangible.

Two themes in particular stood out the most: beauty and becoming a man.

The theme that beauty is only skin deep is really artfully played here by the author.  There is a pretty girl, Jubilee, and an ugly girl, Gwendolyn.  The young protagonist of the novel, Amos, has his sights set on Jubilee; however, Gwendolyn is attracted to Amos.  Sadly, no one can even look at Gwendolyn: one eye is larger than the other, and the left side of her face is hideously scarred.  As we move through the novel, Gwendolyn's scars begin to vanish...not in reality, yet we experience it as Amos does.  He doesn't even notice them as he gets to know Gwendolyn more and more.  She is beautiful down to her soul.

There is also a more subtle, beauty is only skin deep, lesson unfolding through the novel.  The white man's perspective of the Native-American.  Jake, Amos's father, remarries later in life to a Shoshone.  Again, we are taken on a really subtle journey of valuing characters by appearance and then by what is inside.  We experience what the characters experience.

Regarding the actual craft of writing, Kimberly Willis Holt really found a rhythm in this novel.  Her use of the senses is strong and relevant.  Some of the characters have their own unique scents:
They settled on the rocky ground.  He sat a few inches from her, so close she was able to breathe in his scent.  There was the water, but also something else she'd not detected before.  He smelled faintly of pine and earth, like someone else she'd known, but could not recall.
These scents connect to a part of who they are and what their journey is in the novel.  The use of the senses is so important in any novel, obviously.   This chronicle of a journey along the rugged Oregon Trail comes to life because of the senses: the loss of life; the lose of body parts; the wet and damp of the rain; the cold; the hard and uneven ground; the thinning and fraying of clothing and shoes; and, of course, the smells.  It brings the reader to the unique hardships of this time and place; none of us has ever experienced anything quite like this brutally physical journey.


The Water Seeker certainly fits comfortably into the familiar American plot of someone goes on a journey.  The all-American tale of folks lighting out for the territory is in our American blood and these stories just seem to resonate a time that was good and honest.  I like that the author layered several journeys within the plot.  There is the 2,000 mile physical journey, but that is backdrop for the more interesting and engaging journeys of our protagonist, Amos.

I mentioned his journey in seeing the scarred Gwendolyn as truly beautiful, but there is also the journey to becoming a man.  He absolutely starts the book an infant who is cared for in the only way his father, Jake, can manage; and concludes the novel caring for his father --and at times literally carrying him so he can work.

One other element of the novel warrants mention.  Birds.

Birds of all types hover around the characters, but they hover around the reader as well.  Sometimes they just watch, and at other times they pester in droves when they do not like what is happening to or around Amos.  We feel they are the spirit or spirit guide for Amos's mother, Delilah, who passed while giving birth to Amos.  Her spirit also appears several times in the book; she allows herself to be seen by those guarding over and raising her son.  More than just a writer's trick, this thread establishes the belief that we are forever connected to loved ones and friends.  The imprint made on us by friends and loved ones constantly resurfaces throughout the novel.  Even when a friend or loved one may be taken from us long before we ever expected or needed, their influence, spirit, or essence never leaves us.

We are always our mother's son.

I appreciate how Kimberly Willis-Holt ended the novel:  Jake and Amos sitting together on a porch, looking out across the plains and into the mountains.  It is a simple image, but a beautiful one at the same time.  She gave Jake and Amos that time together, to enjoy each other.  They are forever bonded. even when Jake will pass, but...so many characters in this novel did not have the privilege of this type of moment that it makes it all the more powerful in the conclusion.

We know Jake and Amos reflect at this moment.

I know I did as well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Teaching in Isolation

I read the statement "I do not teach in isolation" in an article about a teacher who won a prestigious award as an educator.  I like it.  That teacher gets it.  How many of us do?  How many of us used to get it, but forgot it.  Did I forget it?

It is the word isolation which interested me most.  It means she does not teach alone, that much is obvious.  Yet, to me, it also means that as teachers we are not isolated in our classrooms, building, community, or country.  It means that everyone shares in progress and development of a young person.  Everyone.  This includes coaches, directors, or anything else which happens after school.  By the way, I've grown to despise that term after school...as if the activities performed on fields or stages are not school.

That teacher's wise statement also suggests that we do no teach isolated within information we learned 10, 15, 20 years ago.  It means we grow, or should grow.  It means that we push ourselves to be better teachers, or should.

Take it a step beyond and I think it also means that we do not teach isolated within the months August-June.  Teaching is a vocation.  We can not, nor should not, shut off the development or sharing of our skills or gifts.

Teaching is year-round.  It is life-long.  Many educational institutions state that they wish to create life-long learners.  Well, then we need to embrace the fact that we are life-long teachers as well as life-long learners too.  None of it stops for us.  Nor should it.

Yet...

We may all know teachers or colleagues who do teach in isolation.  Colleagues who have stunted their own growth as educators, coaches, and maybe even parents.  If you are one of them, and I have to ask myself that as well, then shame on you.  Shame on us.  Maybe we have forgotten the promises we made when we first took the job.  The promises we made that we would do whatever it took to do what is best for kids, for us...we promise to be the best we can be.

If we meant what we said, then teaching and learning never stops.

June and July may provide time and separation to recharge the battery, but not so that we can return to our own warm classroom wombs in August.

If we meant what we said when we were hired, then we should not be living the stereotype of the teacher who gets his summers off, who cannot be called on the carpet for incompetence or neglect, or even for an easily adjusted mistake...and we absolutely should not hail stones down on those who do all that is right, and good, and promising about what we do.  We should not criticize those who do.

The next time an administrator or  colleague speaks to a group of teachers, respect him/her.

The next time an administrator or colleague suggests something which could benefit the school or a school program, respect him/her.

We can not expect or demand respect if we do not demonstrate it to each other first.  We can not promote life-long learning if we do not do it ourselves.  We can not expect respect if we do not respect the vocation and work to become the best we can be.  And we can not do that in isolation of any degree or form.

Teaching is not isolation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

YA Novel Review: Crazy

Han Nolan's novel Crazy is one of those novels where after the first few chapters I thought myself, "This is a good book."  After each subsequent chapter I thought, "This is a really good book."  The format is unique, the subject matter, mental health, is handled beautifully, and each character's voice, decision, and idiosyncrasy is authentic. By the end of the novel, I concluded that this is a great book.

The 15 year old protagonist, Jason, narrates while voices in his head offer commentary on each circumstance in his life; the reader is also a part of these voices in his head.  Jason acknowledges that we, the reader, are there as a character as well.  A silent character, but we are there.  This Greek chorus of voices offers encouragement, advice, humor, and catches the reader up to speed on Jason's history where we need it.

Jason takes care of his father who suffers from a progressively worsening mental illness.  His father believes his son is Jason of Greek legend; he continually asks his son about the Golden Fleece, the Argonauts (Jason's new friends), and worries about the dangerous Furies getting to each of them.  The only thing which keeps the Furies at bay is music.  As it turns out, Jason's father can play the violin like a master.  There are several sweet scenes of the father, deep inside himself, standing in front of a mirror for hours, his fingers bleeding, and playing the violin.  His mental illness has stolen many things from him, but it hasn't stolen his ability to play beautiful music.

Alone to take care of his father, Jason's real journey is to come to terms with his mother's death, his father's deteriorating condition, and the blame he places on himself for all of it.  He ignores his own mental health condition, yet he acts out at school in a variety of ways for the attention.  Slowly, help crystallizes in his life in the form of new friendships.  What I like about the novel is that the long term solutions do not come in the form of medicine, magic, or anything other than time, love, and people selflessly caring for others.

As crazy as it seems, Jason fights and pleads for things to stay the same.  He begs for others to leave him and his father alone even though they live without food, heat, or a suitable roof over their heads (it leaks in many places).  At first he is embarrassed for others to find out how they live.  Then his embarrassment turns to fear of losing his father to the "system."  If the right people find out, then he may never see his father again.  His father is that sick.

As a reader, you fear for Jason's own mental health in the wake of his father's illness.  His choices make sense even though they may not be the best choice or what logic would argue, but you know Jason needs help.  He needs help caring for his father, but he needs his own help for himself.  He is absolutely believable and I found myself really pulling for him.  I began to filter out the background noise (the Greek Chorus) of the voices in his head.  I wanted Jason to accept the help his friends were offering, and at the same time I wanted his father to be well, but with his son.  It becomes painfully obvious that Jason's dad may never be well, and they may not live together for long.  As Jason also realizes this his actions become more desperate.

His dad's mind is someplace else for much of the novel, but there are glimpses of the real man,  Jason sees it.  And his father sees it.  In one of the more touching moments of the book, Jason holds up a picture of himself with his mother and father.  His father places his thumb over his wife in the photograph and says to his son, "This is how it is."

There is a lot of great literature being written in the YA genre right now.  Socially responsible and relevant books are on the rise seizing the role television's "After School Special"  played in America through the 70s and the 80s.  Of the eleven YA novels I've read since November,  Han Nolan's novel Crazy is the first I'm going to label must read.  And I've read some pretty good and worthy novels.  It will absolutely be on the shelves in my classroom for a long time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

YA Book Review: Please Ignore Vera Dietz

Vera Dietz lives her life trying to hide the fact that her mother was a stripper and left her and her alcoholic (recovering) father when Vera was 12.  She sends out her "Please Ignore Vera Dietz" signals and attempts to walk through the early stages of high school as anonymous as she can be with her neighbor and best friend, Charlie.  She is embarrassed about her family and just wants to blend in with the linoleum floors of the high school.

Charlie also lives with a bit of a secret.  A rather disturbing secret which earns him 30 dollars a week.  And an incriminating DVD by the end of the novel.

A.S. King's YA novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not shy.  Among its characters are a pedophile, a morally loose girl explicitly offering herself to Charlie, an alcoholic dad, an on-the-path-to-becoming-an-alcoholic daughter, another dad who physically beats his wife, a son who hits his girlfriend, a college dropout, a skinhead who also commits violence against a female, an openly gay high school detention monitor who gets ridiculed, a high school senior who can't read but he is going to college on a football scholarship, and a nameless character who answers the door and pays for his pizza in the nude.  This is all in one neighborhood.  Oh, and one of the girls burns down the pet store with many defenseless animals inside.

Some of the more charming and brilliant moments of the novel are King's use of flowcharts.  These are actual graphics in the novel which highlight the paths to a variety of mistakes we can all make in our lives.  A recurring message in the novel, however, is that it is very easy for anybody to avoid the devastating mistakes we make in our lives.  We so often anchor ourselves down with pride that we rarely take the opportunities to make things right.  We'd almost rather blind (bind?) ourselves and choose incorrectly.  By allowing bad things to weigh us down, we only have ourselves to blame.  The spirit of Charlie, talking to the reader from "the other side" suggests that the bad decisions we make while we are alive are most often made out of fear or hopelessness that nothing good is going to come of it anyway, so why bother.  These are the choices which can be so easy to avoid, yet we allow ourselves to make them...and act surprised when the outcome is ugly.  It is King's use of the flowchart which illustrates this message in very clear, poignant, and humorous, diagrams.

I think the book was written from an honest place.  The whole core of the book is that Vera Dietz both loves and hates Charlie.  She hated him before he died, and hated him after he died.  She loved him before he died, she loved him after he died.  All while nipping on a bottle of vodka she keeps tucked away under her car seat.  Vera also gets beat up quite a bit in the novel, both literally and spiritually.  Her best friend literally throws animal feces at her at one point.  It doesn't get much lower than that symbolically, does it?

Vera makes decisions to go to and with Charlie, and she also makes the choice to remove herself from his company and friendship.  Even after Charlie has passed and has been dead for months, Vera still vacillates between this hatred and love.  It is her struggle, and we are along for the ride with her in her car as she delivers pizzas and swallows down a lot of vodka.

There are many sensitive issues in the book which are placed on the page in brutal frankness.  They happen in the book, and they happen in life.  As is so often the case, the best authors are those who offer the best questions, not offer answers.  King's novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz offers a hell of a lot of questions and opportunities for conversations among young people, and certainly between adults and young people.  If a health class ever taught a novel or was looking for a book I'd say I'd recommend this; there are enough issues in this to keep discussion going in an 8th grade health class for several marking periods.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

YA Author Kathi Appelt Blog Tour (Post 4)

Q. In your opinion, what is the most difficult skill (or most valuable) for a young writer to grasp?

A.  I think the most difficult thing for any writer, young or old, is to be brave. 

Because our writing has the ability to make us look absolutely stupid, it’s scary to get the words on the page or the screen or the slate or whatever.  For most of us our primary experience of writing is when it’s being judged.  A missed comma, a malaprop, a dropped vowel, can make us look awful, like we don’t know anything.  So it’s scary.  Why write, when a small mistake can make us look so bad?

So first, we have to be brave enough to look stupid.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have to be brave enough to write something that has
significance, even if it’s silly or bawdy or a little crazy.  We have to put our silly, bawdy, crazy hearts down in black and white.

And then, we have to be brave enough to let others see it and to realize that not everyone is going to think your beloved story is their cup of tea.  Some people will say mean things.  Some people will use your story for compost.  Some people will roll their eyes. 
 
And yet . . . and yet . . . we humans are built for story.  We’re meant to tell them, have been telling them for centuries, will continue to tell them in one form or another.  For me, it’s a matter of existence.  I have to tell my stories in the truest way I know.  I write because I have to, because telling stories is the way I know how to live.  But I also have to gin up some courage every time I sit down at my desk. 
 
How?  I write about things I love and things that scare me.  Love and fear, the twin sisters, the great opposites.  I am called to be brave in the face of the things that matter, the things I love and the things I’m afraid of.  They’re all that really count.

So, I think the hardest part then for teachers is to be able to inspire our students to be brave, honestly brave, knowing the risks involved, but to be brave anyways.   Wow, what a big responsibility that is, yes?  But what a worthy endeavor, too.

YA Author Kathi Appelt Blog Tour (Post 3)

Q. What inspires you or energizes you in another author's work?

A.  So many things, but above all, when I feel that the author has nailed down authenticity, that makes my heart sing.  But what the heck does that mean?  For me, it’s when the character acts out of his or her own beliefs, prejudices and attitudes during the course of his or her quest.  And also, it’s when the story feels completely inevitable.  Those two things—a character who is reliable in his or her beliefs and an ending that is inevitable even if it’s unexpected or unsuccessful.

A book that has felt that way for me recently is Lynn Rae Perkins’ As Easy as Falling Off The Face of the Earth.   Her hero, Ry, goes from one mishap to another on his journey to find his parents.  The book is, at turns, drop-on-the-ground funny, frustrating, tense, all of those things . . . just like the 16-year old hero, just like any teenager.  Ry’s voice is authentic; he acts out of his own beliefs and world experience.  He stays “in character.” And the ending is completely inevitable.  It feels like there could not be any other ending.  When that happens in a book, I feel a combination of being dazzled and satisfied all at once, even if tears are streaming down my face. 

YA author Kathi Appelt Blog Tour (Post 2)


Appelt explains the 3 stages of revision to my creative writing students.

YA author Kathi Appelt Blog Tour (Post 1)



YA author Kathi Appelt spoke to my creative writing classes recently about a variety of topics.  Here she addresses a student's question about how she prepares an outline for a novel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Skype chat with YA author Mitali Perkins

YA author Mitali Perkins speaks to my creative writing classes about inspiration for writing stories...
video

My students loved her, by the way.  She was so friendly, so warm, so genuine with them.  They appreciated that she asked them questions about them too.  Actually, a few of the authors have done this.  That kind of kindness goes a long way with young people.  Thank you, Mitali!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Holiday Story

The pictures below are some of the hand painted ornaments I inherited from my grandparents.   They are all well over 60 years old; we estimate they are from the 1940s.  They are very fragile and quite thin.  I seem to break one a year just holding it in my hand.  I'd love to know their story: when they were bought, who picked them out, where...
    

  
This is the mighty white fir I cut down last weekend with Dublin's help.  Dublin is asleep on the floor.  I seem to put the tree in front of a window every year.  I know it is from growing up in the city; everyone put their tree in front of a window, plus decorated their windows.  

So in honor of the upcoming holidays, here is a little story about where those antique Christmas ornaments came from.  I may not know their entire history, but I do know the people they spent a lot of their years with:

Everyone on my mother’s side of the family has some roots to Italy.  For many, those roots are firm and strong.  They run from South Philadelphia up I-95 to the New Jersey turnpike and directly into Ellis Island.  From there, a not so straight shot across the sea to Reggio Callabria, Italy.

When our families settled here, they worked the difficult jobs.  They took their classes and jumped through the American hoops to citizenship.  They fought in the wars for the country.  And they had children and raised them in modest row homes.  They walked to work.  They walked to the store.  They lived together.  On top of each other.  Around each other.  With each other.  They became one large extended family living next to another large extended family next to an infinite collection of extended families.  Great grandpop and great grandmom lived on, around, and with grandpop and grandmom who lived on and around and with pop and mom.  And the children.

An automobile was a dream.  Tables were crowded, cabinets were emptied faster than they could be filled.

The Jersey Shore was the one vacation spot for all.

When the children grew and wanted to start families, the row home was not big enough anymore.  Great grandpop and great grandmom passed.  Grandpop and grandmom were left alone.  On either side, familiar faces began to leave.  Some to heaven.  Some to Jersey, but that was good too.

Even though life changed, and circumstance shifted, and the family spread out across the interstates, some holiday’s brought them together again.  

They came back to the neighborhood.  In droves.

Our Beppa, everyone’s Beppa, forever 80 years old, yet she lived made it to 100, baked pizzas all day every New Year’s Day.  She cut irregular slices with scissors.  Some were uneven squares, some were round and almost triangular at the same time.  And they were delicious.  On any New Year’s day Beppa would feed pizza to at least 50 people.  Beppa’s house was just a pit-stop though; everyone in our family gathered on Broad Street early in the morning near the Methodist Hospital because that is where the string bands would stop and play their music.

Tens of thousands of sons and daughters of immigrants gathered with their fathers and mothers, who would drag along with them their fathers and mothers.  No pocket was empty: flasks, rolls, plastic bags of cheese, peppers, sandwiches, anything and everything consumable.  It came.

Some arrived with shopping carts full of a bounty to share with anyone.

Everyone hugged.  Everyone was bundled thick in warmth and family.  Everyone was happy to everyone.  I never remember an ill word or look from one person to another.  It was New Year’s Day.
Forget the past.  Eat, sing, and dance.

I found myself involved in the New Year’s Day parade for one year.  I was in 9th grade in high school and one of my friends hooked us all up.  We pulled a float from Broad and Oregon, straight down to city hall, and then made the right and continued to pull it to storage down on Penn’s Landing, a distance of about five miles.

We volunteered to do it because it would be fun, and because we knew we would have the opportunity to kiss girls in the parade with make-up on their faces: the performers.  We weren’t performers, we were pullers.  Nevertheless, we procured a tube of white face and smeared it on at 5 in the morning.  And so, in our regular old street clothes, and rope in hand, 8 adolescent boys pulled a float which weighed a couple of hundred pounds just so they could kiss some girls.

I kissed 6.  A little more than one girl per mile.

It was nice, but I have to say that even then I knew that was a lot of work just to kiss a few girls.

While New Year’s Day was the seminal holiday on our street, it was not the only one which brought family raining down to it.  Christmas was also special when I was younger as I remember long dinner tables in Beppa’s dining room.  The long table, overstuffed with ravioli, turkey, ham, and all seven fishes: calimari, smelts, shrimp, clams, baccala, scungilli, and crab.  Traditional fried dough mounds (like funnel cake) with powdered sugar piled up in dishes; one batch held sardines inside which I didn’t even look at when I was 10 and I can’t say I’d look at it now.  The same long table, overstuffed with food, was also over stuffed with family, friends, and neighbors.  

I sat sideways once because there were so many of us.

It was at that table where I learned to unbuckle my pants before eating.  An uncle showed me that was how you made more room to eat.

Those immigrants thought of everything.

Yet, beyond the meals and the fellowship shared around the tables, the one thing I carried with me was the demonstration of respect.  I saw the men hug the old women.  I heard them say thank you.  I witnessed expressions of love and heard “I love you” from everyone: man to woman, woman to man, woman to woman, man to man.

They made time to see each other.  They made time to reconnect.

That is respect.

YA author Gayle Forman on Punctuation

Click to play videoClick to play video

Gayle Forman generously spent some time with my creative writing class yesterday and discussed punctuation, creating character, as well as several other topics.  Here she explains to my students the importance of punctuation.

Classroom Visit with YA author Gayle Forman

This is a transcipt of a small piece of the Skype chat Gayle Forman held with my creative writing classes yesterday.  I typed out her response to the question how/why she found herself writing for the YA audience:
I sort of backed into my calling, but I had always written for teens. 
When I was in college there was an incredible teen magazine called Sassy...I really wanted to work for Sassy.  It was one of the coolest, hippest, fabulous teen magazines and all the twenty-somethings I knew read it and we all loved it.  I was studying journalism and I thought, "I'm going to move to New York (I lived in Oregon) and I'm going to work for Sassy.  Well, unfortunately, by the time I got to New York, Sassy had died as so many magazines do.
So, I worked for Seventeen instead, five years: three on staff, two as a freelancer.  And I worked on these amazing stories that no one ever believed that Seventeen did.  I was their social justice reporter so I did everything: from going to Sierra Leone to write about child soldiers; I went to the Philippines to write about child labor; I did the story about behavior modification bootcamps.  I also did great quizzes such as "75 Reasons Why Life Without a Boyfriend Rocks"...so, I was really drawn to writing about and writing for that readership right off the bat.
When I left Seventeen I kept writing articles about young people, for young people, but I missed writing for that readership.  I was writing more nuanced articles for Seventeen magazine then I was for many of the adult magazines.
And then when I wrote my nonfiction book it was, again, a lot of writing and reporting for young people.  So that when I finally wrote that first young adult novel it was just sort of like slipping into a soft comfortable bed---where I should have been all along---and I didn't know that I knew how to write a novel, but apparently I did.  And...it was like: "this is what I want to do."  And...it was a little bit scary because once I realized that I wanted to do it I realized that you also only had so many chances in life to write a novel that nobody reads before they stop letting you do it.  So, I kinda wanted to get serious about it.
It's funny because outside of the YA community there is this idea that young adult authors are the farm team, and we're just sort of warming up for the big leagues.  Anybody who is in the YA world knows there is amazing literature being produced in YA right now.  We're all really glad to be here for a number of reasons. 
First of all, we have the best readers.  We get the most engaged, excited readers.  When they get excited about the book, they tell absolutely everyone.  Our books get such great word-of-mouth: Facebook, Twitter, things like Tumbler, and blogs.  They really get the word out.  I don't think adult readers are as engaged; plus, adult readers are still reading our books.
The kinds of things we can right about are great.  The risks we can take are great.
I love writing for young adults; I can't imagine writing anything else.  These are the stories that excite me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

YA Novel Review: Madapple

The joy of reading this book is in its protagonist, Aslaug.   She is trying to discover who she is, as are we. We want to know: what are you?  That simple premise is enough to engross the reader in a plot which twists around and around itself like a climbing vine. One moment you will believe that Aslaug is human, another you might lean towards her being a mythical creature, and then enough occurs and you settle onto the fact that she is indeed human.  Yet, you wonder.  Circumstances change.  More details arise.  Is she a goddess?  A witch?  Was she the next coming of the Christ?  No...she's human. Isn't she?  But you doubt.  You definitely will doubt all the way through to the final paragraphs.

Students check in with me almost daily regarding the books I read and share with them.  They are used to my being able to read a YA every few days.  Even though I completed Christina Meldrum's Madapple in three afternoons, my early thoughts to my students was that it was a fairly unsettling novel to read.  And I mean that in the best way possible.  I had to put it down to let it all sink in.  I wanted to keep going, but the novel was so rich in detail, religion, folklore, science, and sharp twists in character development, that I felt that I needed a short respite from the story on several occasions. 

When I wasn't pausing to think about all of the interesting use and role of plants in the novel (each chapter is named for a plant), I was stopping to wrap my head around who the character could be based on what new clues were provided.  Add to this: stops for facts provided in the trial, Christian and pagan history, and the plot.  Oh yeah, the plot...that was interesting too.

The novel's chapters alternate between a murder trial held in 2007, and Aslaug's life experiences before the murders.  She is on trial for two separate murders: her mother, and then her aunt and her cousin.  While we are not certain what Aslaug is, we are also not certain what she did, or what she did not do.  I felt a sustained unease, a slight;y taut pulling on the logical portion of my brain.  While I hung in there with Aslaug, I never truly knew if I was hanging in there with a murderer, the devil, a fallen angel...

There are moments where I felt like I was backing the wrong horse.

One of the pleasures of reading some of the great stories out there in YA literature is, of course, being able to discuss them with my students.  Sadly, I haven't found one who has read this novel yet.  They seem interested when I tell them about it.  They seem intrigued by the strangeness of the particulars of the plot.  I know more are going to try to read it.  Yet, one of my best readers (an 8th grader) told me yesterday that she had to put it down and has never picked it back up.  She couldn't finish it; she felt it grew too strange for her and she couldn't hang in there with it.

Sadly, I can't imagine many of my 8th graders being patient enough to hang in there with Madapple.  I can see them getting lost in all of the religion and mythology and the science and nature, and I teach bright kids and good readers.  I hope I'm wrong.  I really do.  Maybe I am underestimating them.  It is a really good book; some of the best moments of the book are in places where Meldrum burrows us deep within paganism and early Christianity.  Yet, it is these moments which I feel lose a younger reader.  Again, maybe I am not giving my students enough credit.

Aslaug, the narrator, tells us:
...a sequence of events, even down to the most minute detail, does not imply an understanding as to why those events took place,  It seems we humans so want to divvy the world up into clean little packages that fit neatly together.  But in reality, each package seeps into the next, affects the next.  And the pile forever shifts.
And the pile forever shifts.  Therein lies the strength of the novel and the protagonist Aslaug.  The constant shifting.   

Madapple is a clever, tightly woven story.  Meldrum is clearly deserving of the William C. Morris debut award for this novel. She is a strong writer in that she told a well crafted story very patiently without wasting a word.  I highly recommend it; it should be on your middle school bookcase or in your libraries

Punctuation and Character

Teaching creative writing has altered the way in which I read a book.  I still read and enjoy the story if it sustains me, but I have all of the things I teach swirling around my brain as I work through a novel.  It is difficult to separate the two, and I'm not sure that I would even want to.  Whatever our current topic is in class, that item presses to the forefront of my brain and it is partially how I see a novel.

We are currently working on two units: punctuation and character.

In our Skype chat today with YA author Gayle Forman, I am hoping to have her explain how an author can use punctuation as a tool beyond writing with clarity.  How can punctuation help control mood, pull us deeper inside a character, or alter what the reader knows or doesn't know.  Can an author have fun with punctuation?  Also, I will ask her to address developing a character's controlling belief.

My method for trying to build up an understanding of each (punctuation and character) is through poetry.  I feel like they can play around with each so much more freely within the guise of poetry.  Instead of worrying about the logic of one sentence leading to the next, let them play with images and thoughts and moments...shuffle them around...use the punctuation, remove the punctuation...play with it.  See what you can create. 

Yesterday, I had my students write a poem (any style) about an endowed object.  Real or made up. 

We started with free writing as I narrated possibilities: is it something someone gave to you, or something you bought, found, made...is its power, value, significance within where it came from...is it fragile, sturdy, bright, dull...where is it...can anyone see it...how is it used...is it valuable to others, or just you...objects can be endowed with power to change people, things, animals...it can be used for good...or evil...it can bring joy...it can cause pain...the ruby slippers...Frosty's hat...a magic wand...a ring...there is always some thing in a life which carries value beyond dollars... (and so on)

Once I saw that they were all (mostly) settling in to write and were slowly tuning me out, I then narrated characteristics of poems...reminders...as many possibilities as I could think off the cuff...

At the end of the exercise, I simply asked them to state what their endowed object was.  In our case, all of this endowed objects will be actual physical objects, tangible items.

Tomorrow, I am going to ask them to begin to build the history of the object...a poem about its origin, who or what once held it, saw it, used it.

And then the object will be gone, and they will need to write someone going to find it.  They will put a character on a journey. Who wants this object?  Why do they want it?  What are they willing to go through to get it back?  And most importantly, they will learn, and learn to write another term: what is their character's controlling belief?  What drives them for this thing?

When I read now, I do keep this question in the back of my mind: what is this character's desire?  Currently, I am within the last fifty pages or so of Christina Meldrum's novel Madapple.  The protagonist, Aslaug, has one drive, one purpose: to find out who (or what) she really is.  Is she a human?  an angel or fairy?  the next coming of Christ?  the Madonna?  a child born from a rape? 

This pursuit of her answer, her endowed object, is the thing which sustains me through a novel.  She has some thing she wants, an answer.  It is clear early in the novel.  Aslaug becomes a character I believe and follow because I know what she wants and I know what drives her.

So, our task in class over the next week is to develop this concept within my students.  To apply it in their own writing, and then to seek it out the books they read on their.  Also, I am hoping that these ideas begin to inform their questioning and conversation with me, each other, and with the YA authors we are fortunate to have work with my classes this year.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Skype chat with YA author Kathi Appelt

An excerpt from YA author Kathi Appelt's discussions with my creative writing classes.  Here Appelt responds to the question, "When a novel goes through 30 drafts, what is the difference between each draft?  What are you revising?  Is it punctuation and word choice each time?"

There will be more snippets from our discussions as well as some answers to my questions about writing on Saturday, December 11th as my blog will host Appelt on her blog tour that day.

video

Monday, December 6, 2010

YA Book Review: One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams-Garcia's YA novel One Crazy Summer is perhaps the best example of dialogue and voice I've read this year.  What I admire in her writing is that each voice is distinct, each character is clearly defined, and each character plays an important role in the evolution of the story.  I teach my creative writing classes that some of the strongest stories (books, film, or otherwise) start with strong characters.  This will be a great book to draw their attention to for that reason.

One Crazy Summer wraps the radically changing political and social climate of 1968 around three children (ages seven through twelves) on a journey to meet their mother.  Abandoned seven years ago, the three sisters are put on a plane by their father so that they could meet their mother: a poet and political activist.  Upon arrival, the girls are an imposition on their mother, Cecile/Nzila, and soon their dreams of what California could be (Disneyland, beaches, plucking fruit from trees) disintegrates.  Thrust into the heart of the poor, urban landscape of 1968 San Francisco, the girls spend time at the summer camp run by the Black Panthers instead of meeting Tinkerbell.

There are several journeys at play here: the girls relationship with their mother; the oldest sister, Delphine's social and political education; the youngest sister, Fern/Afua's growth from carrying a baby-doll to becoming a poet; and the reader's re-education to the fact that children are always directly impacted by everything in our communities on small and even global scales.  Williams-Garcia notes at the end of her book that she did a lot of research to help her do justice to climate of the times, and she adds:
I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change.  Yes.  There were children.
 It is her attention to the detail of the children, her strongest characters, which give the book a lot of charm and make it a really enjoyable, energetic, read.  There is a wonderful balance among the characters: aside from their personalities and interests, the older sister takes care of the younger sister, while the middle sister clamors for attention of her own and runs off befriending other girls.  Also, each is viewed similarly by the mother at the start of the book, then that view separates as Delphine is allowed privileges the other two are not.  Interestingly, the youngest receives the negative attention, while the middle, Vonetta, receives hardly a glance by the mother throughout the novel until the very last scene.

Meanwhile, part of me doesn't see this as a novel about the girls, even though the oldest, Delphine, narrates it.  I am so tempted to say that this is indeed the mother's novel.  It is her story.  Their mother starts as an enormous physical and emotional barrier and slowly throughout the novel, each layer of her wall comes down: she abandoned the girls before the story starts; when they finally meet her she throws the girls out of her house all day; she doesn't cook for them; she forbids them to go into her kitchen; she refuses to call her youngest daughter by her name, she just calls her 'Little Girl,' and she doesn't even physically touch them, no warm hug, no hand on the back or in the hair; and then bit by bit the girls make progress, which I don't want to reveal, until the final moments of the novel.

Standing in line to board the plane to return home to Brooklyn, the girls physically begin to tremble and shake.  Tears?  Perhaps.  But there is a sense in Garcia-Williams' writing that this is a more base emotion, something erupting from the core of what it is to be human.  The girls need to hug their mother...for the first time:
How do you fly three thousand miles to meet the mother you hadn't seen since you needed her milk, needed to be picked up, or were four going on five, and not throw your arms around her, whether she wanted you to or not?
The girls get their hug, but reading between the lines, Cecile/NZila gets her hug.  And an education.  She has daughters and always will have daughters.

Highly recommended for 6th grade through 8th grade (and beyond) this is a terrific story just for story's sake, but it will also be a nice teaching tool in a creative writing class because some of the author's skills here are just so strong.


Friday, December 3, 2010

YA Book Review: A Million Shades of Gray

Cynthia Kadohata's novel A Million Shades of Gray is set in the heart of South Vietnam in 1975 not long after the Americans have pulled out of the Vietnam War.  The North and the Vietcong are on the move again.  Villagers in the South flee to the jungles.  Yet, this isn't a war story.  It is a love story between a boy and an elephant.

At age 11, Y'Tin seeks to become the youngest elephant handler in the village.  He trains daily with an elephant named Lady.  By the time Y'Tin is 13 Y'Tin connects with Lady.  He does not use the crude and cruel hook to force his elephant to respond to him.  Instead, he patiently forms a connection.  When scolded about not using a hook, Y'Tin replies, "But I want her to like me."  Y'Tin's trainer, a 16 year old boy, uses a hook on his own elephant and keeps reminding Y'Tin that you don't want the elephant to like you, you want the elephant to respect you.

As Lady's sole handler, Y'Tin has indeed become the youngest handler in the village and has witnessed the death of her first calf, named Mountain.  No human to their knowledge has ever been able to keep an elephant calf alive while in captivity.  As Lady wallows in depression, she does not eat and begins to show signs of starvation.  Y'Tin also forgoes food, and lays with Lady and her sorrow.  Eventually, he begins to mush up food for her, and she takes it.  The bond is forever forged.

What I like in the story is the author's ability to allow Y'Tin to change.  Once settled in as Lady's handler he truly believes and wants to stay with her for as long as she lives.  If that occurred, and that isn't unusual, that would make Y'Tin about 50 years old at the end of Lady's life.  Only at that time would he consider leaving and perhaps opening an elephant training school someplace such as Thailand.

There is an ebb and flow of connection and disconnection between Y'Tin and Lady.  The Vietcong storm Y'Tin's village which sends many fleeing into the jungle.  Those captured are executed.  Y'Tin and Lady are physically separated for days in all of the confusion.  When Y'Tin finds Lady they reconnect and we learn that Lady is pregnant again. 

Enter the wild herd of elephants.

Lady begins to follow and drift towards this wild herd of elephants repeatedly.  Mostly, Lady wanders off to find the herd as Y'Tin sleeps at night.  We learn she isn't trying to abandon Y'Tin, but she is looking to protect her calf which will be born soon.  It will not survive in captivity.  It needs the wild.  It needs to be free.  These physical connections and disconnections lead us to the touching conclusion of the story.

When the calf is born, Lady makes a decision.  She returns with her calf to Y'Tin.  She stays.  Even though she has the instinct that her calf would be in danger, she acknowledges the loving bond between her and Y'Tin.

Y'Tin knows better.  He knows he has to change his plans.  He knows he has to let Lady go so she can raise her calf.  She won't leave though until he raises his hook.

Her reluctance to go is heartbreaking for both Y'Tin and Lady, but it saves the life of the calf.

When teaching "Love Story" to my middle school creative writing classes, many giggle and grin.  They believe "Love Story" can only mean the smoochy-smoochy love between people.  This is a wonderful story which illuminates just one of the million different shades of love.

Recommended, especially for younger middle school readers (6th grade), you have a great story for your bookshelves which teaches that love isn't demonstrated by what you say, it is demonstrated by what you do.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

YA Book Review: Speak

To review a YA novel like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which over one million have read, is like reviewing this thing called the internet.  It's gonna be big!  However, the book has now reached its ten-year anniversary and it is worth revisiting since there is now a new generation of YA reader who may not have read it.  Since Speak, Anderson has written four more YA novels and four books which fall under the category of historical thriller.  There have also been 16 children's book written by Anderson, since Speak.

I'm just trying to give you a reminder to make sure it is on your bookshelf so kids can pick it up.

It is the story of teenage girl, Melinda, who lives with a painful secret and struggles to keep it buried within her. If she can keep it buried, she can forget it ever happened. The novel moves us through Melinda's freshman year of high school; there are four sections each labeled as First Marking Period, Second Marking Period, Third Marking Period, and Fourth Marking Period.  As the school year progresses, we witness her grades plummet, her social life grows worse and worse, until she is alone and barked at by adults.  There are plenty of get-your-act-together-young-lady moments which further drives a wedge between her and any adult who should be helping her.

Melinda's painful secret is that she was raped at a party just before she started high school.

Anderson notes at the end of the novel:
I have gotten one question repeatedly from young men.  These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused.  They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.
The  first dozen times I heard this, I was horrified.  But I heard it over and over again.  I realized that many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman.  They are inundated by sexual imagery in the media, and often come to the (incorrect) conclusion that having sex is not a big deal.  This, no doubt, is why the number of sexual assaults is so high.
 Yet it is Anderson's comment on the knee-jerk reaction of adults which should give us greater pause:
I am also shocked by adults who feel that rape is an inappropriate topic to discuss with teenagers.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 44 percent of rape victims are under the age of 18 and 46 percent of those victims are between the ages of 12-15.  It makes adults uncomfortable to acknowledge this, but our inability to speak clearly and openly about sexual issues endangers our children.  It is immoral not to discuss this with them.
The novel clearly comes from the heart and handles the issue of rape sensitively and absolutely within the bounds of what a 13 or 14 year old can handle.

I remember, fondly, a former student who sat on the school board during her senior year as the representative of our student body.  The issue of sexual education came up as did several books in our library.  From what I understand, she listened and as the conversation tilted heavily towards erasing any frank discussion or lessons on sex from the middle school curriculum she asked a simple question which went something like this: all in favor of allowing kids to learn about sex, as well as the STDs, pain, depression, and loneliness which can be caused by sex, all by themselves, raise their hand...because that is what I hear.  They stared at her; my principal said he smiled, proud of her.  No one raised their hand.  Fortunately, the conversation started all over again.  I am still in contact with this former student; she is in her mid 20s now and proves to be a wise old soul time and time again.

I want to leave the blog with another thought written by Anderson at the end of her novel:
Literature is the safe and traditional vehicle through which we learn about the world and pass on values from one generation to the next.  Books save lives.
Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.  Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.  They need us to be brave enough to give them great books so they can learn how to grow up into the men and women we want them to be.
Check your shelves.  This is a book deserving of a place on it.  Over one million have been served already.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

YA Author Kathi Appelt Guest Blog (Part 1 of 3)

Q. As an artist who creates something for young people, do you feel a responsibility or obligation to deliver a message, to teach through your story telling, etc...or are you truly just trying to write a good story and if it teaches something along the way then that is ok too? (My question comes from an interview I saw with Sean Penn a while back. He made the statement that film is too powerful a medium to not try to do serious, beautiful work with. To simply just use it as a vehicle to make money would be irresponsible of him.)

A. I think Sean Penn is a very wise soul, and I agree with him. However, I know very few children’s writers who are in this industry for the money.  There’s just not that much money to be made in children’s books, and I would guess that only a few of us are supporting ourselves on our writing alone. I’ve been working hard at this for the better part of thirty years and I can honestly say that my writing income has only become viable enough for me to live on in the past few years. Most of us, present company included, supplement our writing incomes by teaching and doing school visits.  And more than a few of us hold day jobs. Early on, I worked in a book store to help make ends meet, and I’ve had a variety of other jobs along the way as well.

But to get back to your more interesting question about delivering a message, I will say that when I’m writing a book I’m always aware of a question that I’m trying to answer. Is a message the same thing as a question? That probably depends upon whether or not I actually answer it in the course of the story. In Keeper, the question was, “Can love abide?” I posed this for each of my primary characters, and as the story unfolded, I hoped that the answer would be “yes” for each of them.

For Keeper, the question appeared as her need to make things right between herself and everyone she loved. Could love survive all the mistakes she had made?  For Mr. Beauchamp the question showed up in the form of time— could love abide so many years later? For Dogie, could love allow him to speak his two-word question to Signe? Could love abide? Did I answer that overriding question?

If my young readers get that—the notion that love can survive or abide across time, in spite of big mistakes, and in the face of incredible odds, then that would be the answer I longed for, and if it presents itself in the form of a message, then that seems like an enormous bonus to me.  As a caveat, the answer doesn’t have to be neat and tidy. At the end of Keeper, the question concerning Keeper’s mother is never really resolved.

And I left it open with the hopes that my readers would come to their own conclusion. There is room in life for ambiguity, and I think that’s important too.

In the face of my young audience, I feel it is my responsibility to ask hard questions and to also make them difficult to answer. Just as a hero is only as worthy as the antagonist, the question is only as worthy as the possible answers.

Years ago, when I was just starting out as an author, I read a wonderful interview in The Writer with Madeleine L’Engle. The interviewer asked her how she knew whether she had written a story for adults or a story for children, and her response was something like, “I stand back and ask, is this good enough for children?”

I’ve thought of that so many times in my work. Is it good enough for children? It’s a daunting thing, a big responsibility. But I don’t want to make it too easy for them either. I think that kids deserve a chance to ask their own hard questions, and a book offers them that chance.

I recently read a book by Kelly Gallagher called Readicide, and in it he described something called “imaginative rehearsals,” in which he talks about allowing a child to “rehearse” strong feelings such as sorrow or joy via a story, and how important that was so that when they were faced with something in their real lives, they could know how to name their experience.  I love that—imaginative rehearsals.

So, long answer to your question—a question is what I hope I’m offering my readers, and if we’re all lucky, perhaps they’ll find a message in the answer.