Friday, July 20, 2012

YA Novel Review: The Rock and the River

The Rock and the RiverThe Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sobering narrative combined with detailed facts made me believe Kekla Magoon's YA novel The Rock and the River. The second YA novel that I've read in the past year using the turbulent late 60s as setting, Both Magoon's effort and the other YA novel, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams, pit siblings on the edge of the Black Panther Party. Of course, in each novel, one sibling grows attracted to people and the teaching while another is left, torn, between the world they know and the secrets percolating beneath society's skin.

I used the term "sobering" because at no point did I find the novel a light page-turn or a humorous jaunt through 1968. Worlds collide in this book. They collide with violence...the kind of violence people lived with everyday.  The kind of violence many in our nature struggled to comprehend. The kind of violence that drove an already deep wedge even deeper between the races. This is a serious novel for the YA audience (written on their level)because it treats the history and the reader with eyes wide open. Some text may make people uncomfortable. Kekla Magoon turns the light in a room previously avoided by YA authors: the racial hatred in America.

Without a shadow of a doubt, some kids will find a discomfort in some of the scenes and they will be inspired to ask "why" as they learn of Magoon's interpretation of the history. They may seek those answers on their own or they may ask a teacher or mom, dad, or a friend. But I firmly believe that this book will stir the curiosity of some kids.

In The Rock and the River the police swing batons and pull the trigger against African Americans as sure as putting on and lacing their shoes.

After Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in the novel we are later told that the assassination was a symbol of white America rejecting King's message. Some struggled with the question, "who would replace King?" For the resistant white populace, literally erasing King from the earth also erased his voice, his message, and his influence of creating a peaceful society and racial harmony. Amid this chaos, pain, and soul-searching, the protagonist Sam watches his older brother, Stick, drift away from the house and the family. Stick becomes a Black Panther much to their father's distress. Their father was one of King's ardent followers, and we read about the family friendship with Martin and Coretta, the family dinners, and the powerful speeches his father often gave.

He was a leader in the community and a powerful influence because he taught people that ideas are more powerful than guns. It would be a long road to finally achieving the dream, but it was the only right and just way.

Once the characters and both worlds are established the character arcs lead them all through violence. Yes the references of violence pile up in the second half of the novel: a stabbing, a couple of officers brutally beat a youth into an inch of his life; Stick sneaks home bloody and with something resembling cracked ribs; Stick hides a gun in the bedroom he shares with his younger brother, Sam; Sam points the gun at someone in self-defense; a teenager is shot and killed by the police; and, of course, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. all line the pages of this story.

Those attracted to the Black Panthers found solace in the fact that it felt like they were doing something. They raised money to feed their community members breakfast or to build a health clinic in their neighborhood--they, in a lot of respects--were taking control. The sadness, and the lesson in the novel, is that so much violence permeated their journey.

The violence is the setting. That is just the way it was and serves as the impetus of so many healthy opportunities to discuss violence, hatred, racism, Martin Luther King, Jr. et al with your students or child. I've read a bunch of YA novels in the past year that include some form of violent conflict. The violence is this book is handled as tastefully and respectfully of youth as I've seen--yet, the sobering narrative makes that violence feel more than what you might read in Harry Potter. Because it was.

A book with as teachable a presence as any I've read over the past year.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

The Privilege of Nature and Writing

“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind in their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking: ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’”
 –Anne Frank

Reading these specific words with a group of 8th grade students for the seventeenth year in a row stopped me in my tracks this year.  I hadn't noticed this specific line during any previous reading. This year, after reading several articles by Richard Louv and his ideas about Nature Deficit Disorder in children, the concept that fresh air could ever be considered a privilege seemed unconscionable. Anne's sentiment grabbed me by the collar and I began to see other references of the importance of nature in her life:
"From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind," she wrote on February 23, 1944. "As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be."
In 2012 we see many examples of nature falling out of our lives because of our own choices to do things indoors, and in many cases, as a part of a sedentary lifestyle.  I have fallen victim to this unhealthy habit. And yet, air is all around us when we are free to enjoy it.  Anne Frank’s reference to the suffocating denial of fresh air reminds me that their spirits, souls, hopes continued to suffer even through the kindness of their protectors or the support of one another.  In a very real way, as basic human rights were stripped away by the actions of the Nazis, human beings gasped and reached for whatever thin lifeline they could find.

In the hope of feeling...of being...human again.

Of particular interest to me is Anne’s suggestion that a human could sense, whether through smell or sight, wind in an article of clothing or the cold outdoors along the complexion of another face.  This speaks to the deprivation of joy in their lives.  Anne, in one breath of text, elevates nature as beautiful, necessary, and therapeutic.

Imagine how much fresh air could have nourished Anne and her Annexed family.  At the same time, consider the therapeutic seconds we burn absentmindedly. Anne is a symbol of the millions who relied on the protection of others to preserve their humanity, but could anyone in hiding really have felt safe?  The fact that their protection was constantly in question removed another basic human need--feeling safe, secure, comforted.

I’m reminded of a woman I followed with my mother.  During a Susan G. Komen cancer walk, we walked together on a Mother’s Day to honor the memory of my mother’s dear friend and my godmother, Camille.

As the crowd moved from the Ben Franklin Parkway and into the downtown neighborhood streets, our eyes caught a survivor, a fighter.  The late morning sun dappled shadows, soft like watercolor, through the chestnut trees all along the neighborhoods lined with three story colonial row homes, clean brick facades and cobblestone walkways. In the middle of it all the careful steps of a thin woman caught our eye in the crowd on a narrow asphalt street worn thin and grey with time.

I could not accurately tell her age.

Unsteady between two young men, perhaps her sons, with her thin arms draped across their shoulders like a wounded solider, spent and dependent, he legs trembled forward in a steady rhythm.

Her body gnawed on by cancer looked weak with strained movements.  The marks of chemotherapy, diet, and a long daily fight clung to her pale, tight, sunlit skin.  Yet, that sunlight gave me pause.  That morning sun on her face taught me something.

She laid her head all the way back as far as a head will fall.  Her eyes remained closed.  And the sunlight, white and gold, radiated across her face—she smiled, a long, firm, fixed smile.

She smiled.  She could barely walk and she smiled.  She smiled in the sun and clung to the thin lifelines of affection for her sons and the therapeutic reality of the sun.  I found comfort in Anne's words as I read them and this, for me, iconic image of a woman suffering arose in my memory: “I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all that suffer.”
Burned into my memory, I often go back to this image of her. I never knew what to do with it, but Anne's words have forged its meaning for me.  Neither my mother nor I could keep our eyes from that woman, even though we tried. Breathing with some labor through her nostrils, everything else dissolved for her in that moment—it was as astonishing as Anne’s use of the word privilege.  That sunlight that day probably did not cure that woman’s cancer, yet in that moment, all moments were about the privilege of sunlight upon her face.

While disease wreaked havoc on her fundamental human needs, the affection we all crave also literally held her in the form of the two men I assumed were her sons.  In this I think of the affection Anne craved from her father, Otto, and lost; the affection never found with her mother, Edith; and the brief torch of affection shared with Peter Van Pels.  We’ve all read Anne’s frustration with her own failing to find the affection she desired, “Mother says that she sees us more as friends than as daughters.  That’s all very nice, of course, except that a friend can’t take the place of a mother.”

In the documentary Anne Frank Remembered, Peter Pfeffer spoke about his father, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer.   Writing letters to his new wife Carlotta (delivered by Miep Gies ) served as “a thin lifeline” for him.  It provided a semblance of mental health where there would otherwise be none.

Consider the source of Anne Frank’s and Fritz Pfeffer’s heated disputes and angry explosions.  While much has be made that the generational differences between a young girl and an older man were the cause of their venom, I believe that their anger ignited over the use of the one desk in their shared room—the desk Anne used to write in her diary (many times about nature); the same desk Fritz used to pen his affections and fears to Carlotta in privacy.  They both fought for the safety of their lifeline.

The lifelines in the Frank Annex were few.  From Anne’s perspective, none understood her. Fights among all the residents percolated over shared responsibilities and cooperation and space and time for expression was precious.  Considering the families made a point to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkha demonstrates that clinging and fighting for every last fundamental human need becomes part of the daily routine when they are stolen from a human being.

Pfeffer was a great outdoors man; however, as his son suggests, taking him and confining him to the Annex was like “caging a bird.”  The isolation away from nature, the affection in his life, Carlotta and his children, ate at him.  And these indignities consumed Anne as well as they devoured the basic human needs of the millions in hiding or awaiting their fates in a concentration camp.

Anne Frank’s need for open air and sunlight isn’t anymore unique than the needs of the woman battling cancer on the Ben Franklin Parkway.  We all need nature to survive.  Yet, when our fundamental human needs are stolen, whether through a ravaging disease or the insidious and murderous cruelty of another human being, our bodies will fight for and grasp whatever human need is left.

If our fundamental human needs are worth fighting for when stolen from us, what is our excuse when we are healthy and free?

In the documentary Anne Frank Remembered Holocaust survivor Sal de Liema credits Otto Frank with keeping him alive by forcing him to use his imagination and indulging with Otto in leisure:

Mr Frank and I…he said we should get away from those people…if you talk all the time about food and everything then your brain is going to go…physically we may not survive this…we should try to survive mentally and try to talk about things…like say, do you remember the melody of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and then we start singing to one another just to get away from this fear just to get our brain thinking about other things…we started talking about Van Gogh, Rembrandt, ‘did you ever go to the Van Gogh museum?’…and all those things just to get out of our minds, to get out of this here…and it really helped, I think…”

Our humanity, under great stresses, reaches and stretches for the nourishment we are capable of using in order to revive our souls.  The cancer survivor scuffled along, supported by affection, with her face tilted towards the sun.  Anne returned again and again to look at the chestnut tree just outside a small window in the loft. In a study published in a journal of scientific research, Science, R.S. Ulrich found that even brief exposure to nature, as in a view of nature through a window, helps people heal more quickly after surgery. Additionally, it found, as so many who work in a room without windows understands, working in an environment with windows improves work performance and increases job satisfaction. Anne’s chestnut tree, her talisman, fell to disease a few years ago.  Saplings of this symbol of the Holocaust have been planted in various locations throughout the world; yet, trees are all around us.  Fresh air is all around us. The privilege is ours.

How do we honor the privilege of nature?

Anne’s writing served as the frail lifeline to the natural world—a world where she missed the cold rain seeping into her socks, the cold wind disheveling her hair, and the scent of winter permeating her coat.  For Fritz Pfeffer, writing provided a weak glimmer of affection and belonging, but affection and belonging nonetheless.  His Carlotta was far away and safe; as far as he knew, his children were out of harm’s away.  Fritz was alone and human; he fought for his lifeline.

Since starting this piece, a new interest for me is researching the use of expressive writing with cancer patients.  The woman I saw on Mother’s Day did not write in that moment, but I wonder if expressive writing could be another lifeline for those fighting disease. The American Psychological Association published a collection of articles on expressive writing, The Writing Cure, edited by Lepore and Smyth (2002).  As I hoped, one study cited a reduction in physical symptoms and medical visits for cancer survivors (Stanton and Danoff-Burg, 2002) if they incorporated expressive writing into their lives as a daily habit.

How we honor the privilege of writing? 

The lifelines are all around us: fresh air, a view of a tree, the freedom to make writing a daily habit. We don’t need to wait for disease, a natural disaster, or a horrific violation of human rights to indulge in the privilege of writing and in the privilege of nature. We have plenty of reminders in our daily activities and in the books we read.  Or in my case, a book I read for every year for the last seventeen years—my failure to read Anne Frank’s diary through the lens of nature or the lens of fundamental human needs kept me from recognizing the gossamer suspended around each of us all our lives.

Through the lens of nature, I saw Anne Frank's diary in a way that overwhelmed me, quite honestly. Her words give me hope for myself as one who should make immersion in nature and writing a daily habit:
“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then, and only then, can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.”  

Works Cited

Anne Frank Remembered [videorecording]. Culver City, CA: Columbia Tri-Star Home Video, 1995. (Video Collection)

Lepore S J and Smyth J M, (2002) (eds) The Writing Cure, American Psychological Association, Washington

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). "View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery." Science, 22, 42-421.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nonfiction Book Review: Chasing Lincoln's Killer

Chasing Lincoln's KillerChasing Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As some middle schools muddle along seeking good nonfiction to satisfy their common core requirements, I raise James L. Swanson's book for your consideration. The text will be accessible to your reluctant readers;as a matter of fact, a colleague of mine sent me a message saying that her 7th grade son really enjoyed the book, and from what I gather he'd much rather throw a ball or catch a frog than read.

The story is high-paced and high-intensity narrative non-fiction. Swanson offers a quick foundation for the race, and then he fires "the" gun and the reader is off and on the whirlwind manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.

Many opportunities exist for discussion and digging deeper...whether for writing or research. Swanson presents several people who assisted Booth along the way deeper into the South.  Amazing that some who never met him and only knew of him through his heinous crime, assisted Booth because of their roots and obligation to the Confederate states.

Nice opportunities for comparisons to today--one that jumps out is the openness of Lincoln's White House as opposed to the Secret Service world of current Presidents. Also, in a world devoid of telephone or any of the modern communications of today, Booth was trying to outrun word of mouth.  I think a teacher could get some great discussion going about how effective the manhunt was in comparison to popular investigations and manhunts today.

Swanson does a great job noting that at the same time that Booth was running for safety, so was Jefferson Davis.

I like the book for a literature circles situation, especially if your middle school curriculum includes studying the causes of the Civil War, or the Civil War itself. It is the perfect way to get your kids to read (and enjoy) nonfiction, and potentially continue turning to nonfiction for their education and entertainment.

At the very least, a really easy pick for your middle school classroom library.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

YA Book Review: Shooting Kabul

Shooting KabulShooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading multicultural titles Bamboo People, by Mitali Perkins; The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez; and Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, I started to become critical of the books I made available to my students. I took stock of my classroom library--several hundred titles--it was lacking in variety. Where were the multicultural books? Where were the books that appeal to boy readers? Where were the books that could challenge my best readers? For each category I could think of, I wasn't happy with had. What I had was a mostly inherited collection of books, passed along by two retired teachers. I hadn't taken care of the collection by growing it, and retiring the titles that had seen better days.

What had I been exposing them to that had any contemporary value or resonance in their own lives?  Sure the yellowed and tattered Newberry winners from twenty years ago still ring true, great writing is great writing, but what about the literature being produced now? 

For the past two years I've been on a reading blitz of sorts. As best I can I pick up YA titles and have found that YA multicultural literature is out there. It just wasn't in my classroom. So, in addition to titles I mentioned above, I discovered A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata; Finding Family by Tanya Bolden, and Heart of a Samuri, by Margi Preus.

I read A Step from Heaven by An Na; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; and One Crazy Summer by Rita-Williams Garcia.

I read All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg; Someone to Run With by David Grossman; and Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham.

Now I've read Shooting Kabul, by N.H. Senzai. And I will be thrilled to include it in my classroom library and offer it as a book talk at the very least.

Fair or not, I am beginning to build up a expectations as I pick up contemporary YA literature. Each sub-genre carries unique expectations. Through the multicultural lens, I'm hoping my students would pick it up and be exposed to something they may not encounter in their everyday lives.

Shooting Kabul is built on the days around 9/11. Those of us who lived it (and taught through it) weren't just exposed to hatred, but immersed in it...from all directions.

Interestingly, the author notes at the end of the book that she did not want to write this book because of the sensitivity of the topic. The wounds still have not healed. How could they? Equally as interesting, my 8th graders this past year knew very little about 9/11.

(Where has the time gone?)

Oh, they knew "of" it, sure. But what was missing that had a real presence other years--an emotional knowledge and connection. The emotional knowledge of living it or gleaning bits and pieces through their family. Through the passage of time, it appears that 9/11 is beginning to take on the patina of an encyclopedia entry.

Shooting Kabul has us watch as families escape an Afghanistan growing more oppressive beneath the Taliban. Based on some of her husband's family history and escape from Afghanistan, Senzai offers many details (and opportunities for questions and classroom discussion) that my students would not likely encounter.

The family's new life in America is shattered by the events on 9/11. Living in an community called "Little Kabul" we see, from a unique perspective the fears and pressures on anyone not white. Even a Mexican is called a terrorist by an adolescent.

One note, "Shooting" in title is a reference to a camera, and not violence.

Senzai offers a comprehensive glossary of terms familiar to her culture, and unfamiliar to my traditional classroom composition.

The book reads very easily, but you wouldn't be coming to this book for its complexity of style, but for the richness of what the topic offers. I can't help but offer another photography term: exposure. Put this book on your classroom library shelf simply for the exposure it affords into a world unfamiliar to our eyes other than through the images depicted on the news--accompanied with so many explosions and so much death.

Shooting Kabul is about perseverance, love, and tolerance. I anticipate many kinds wanting to talk about what they confronted in this novel.

I highly recommend it.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Resource Review: The Craft of Revision

The Craft of RevisionThe Craft of Revision by Donald Morison Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Murray cautions us:
“Students, first of all, must learn a positive attitude toward revision. The process of revision, for most students, has not been concerned with finding meaning, but it has focused on editing superficial mechanical and grammatical errors to a preconceived and often not clearly understood standard.”

My reaction:
The one word I’m left with is INFORMATION. It seems most of the revision process is rooted in arranging, adding, removing, improving, and making decisions based on the best use of the best information in each moment.  The title could very easily be "The Craft of Writing" because as Murray demonstrates the very act of writing itself is a revision of our thoughts or the seed of an idea.

Format of each chapter:
Murray explains one concept at a time
Organizes chapters in a very specific order / how to write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
Most chapters offer exercises and/or examples
Some chapters offer Common Problems and their Solutions
Interviews with different writers at end of each chapter

1. Getting Writing Done—creating a discovery draft
No such thing as writer’s block. Excuse for poor habits.
a. “Writing becomes relatively easy if writing becomes a daily habit.”
i. No truck driver refused to work today because of truck driver’s block
b. Know tomorrow’s tasks today
ii. Know the territory and the task for tomorrow’s writing today

2. Rewrite to Focus

An effective piece of writing says on thing and, before rewriting a draft, you should be able to state it in a single sentence. (Steinbeck did it.)

To discover and state the focus be able to answer the following questions with specific, brief statement: a sentence or less.
a. what is the single dominant meaning
b. what is the central tension within the dominant meaning?
c. What do test readers say is the meaning of the draft?

Frame Your Meaning
a. like framing a picture with a camera
b. draw a box around a part of a picture
c. use the frame like a zoom lens
a. give students same picture with different size frames
b. write a piece on the picture

3. Rewrite to Collect (information)
a. writers write with information
i. words are symbols of information
b. don’t be word-drunk
i. readers hungry for information, images, facts, insights
c. readers read to become an authority
d. concrete, accurate, significant details
i. creates trust
ii. makes writing lively

4. Rewrite for External Order
a. you should have a draft and a bunch of information to work into it
b. now you need to shape everything and take control of it
i. 5 paragraph essay may seem harmless (but it isn’t)
-5 paragraph essays lives only in a school, not real world writing
-suggests that FORM is more important than the content
-suggests that meaning can be changed to fit the form
-there is one right way to tell all stories
-the reader has to be told what the message will be, what the message is, what it means
d. the purpose of the form is to carry meaning to the reader
i. essay? Narrative? Argument? Expository? et al…

5. Rewrite for Internal Order
a. Readers should be able to follow a trail of information
b. Remember a reader is always in control and it is up to you to give them a trail worth following (“a seductive trail”)

Exercise: Answer the reader’s questions
a. all effective writers hear the reader’s questions and answers them immediately
i. How come? How do you know that? Says who? I’d like to know more about that… Why’d she do that? Whoa, back up, I don’t understand…

Exercise: Outline after writing
a. to expose the structure of the draft
b. adapt/redesign the structure

6. Rewrite to Develop
a. an underdeveloped draft is fully developed in a writer’s mind but not on paper
b. stand back and look at it like a reader (hungry for information)
c. look for the signs of an underdeveloped draft:
-it is predictable
-it could have been written by anyone
-there is no individual vision
-the reader learns nothing the reader did not already know
d. develop with information
-reveal with specifics
-write with abundance
e. develop with authority
-convince with authority
-persuade with evidence
f. develop with clarity
-dominant impression-every piece of info supports a single meaning
-the reader should receive information in a natural order
g. develop with context
-address the reader who asks, “So what?”
h. rewriting starts with rereading
-read fragments of your writing
-search for code words or words that have meaning only to you
-read to add snapshots of memories that haunt or move us

Exercise – Emphasize the Significant
a. Arrange and Rearrange paragrahs in a 2-3-1 order
b. moving the most significant information to the edges will clarify the writing

7. Rewrite with Voice
a. lack of voice is most common reason we stop reading
b. signs of a draft without voice:
-no individual human being behind the page
-no intellectual challenge
-no emotional challenge
-no flow
-no magic

8. Rewrite to Edit
a. Twenty ways to “unfinal” a draft
-listen to the draft -cut the end -make new connections
-welcome the unexpected -cut or extend the length -reorder the draft
-expand what works -play with a new focus -change the pace
-tune the music of the draft -reconsider the audience -unbalance the proportions
-start closer to the end -put draft into new context -try a new genre
-add new evidence -look for instructive failure -role play a reader
-use a test reader -observe the draft

b. attitude change…writing is editing…trust your ear more than your eye

Exercise: Interview your draft
a. what is the one thing I wanted to say?
b. What single message does the draft deliver?
c. To whom is the message being sent?
d. Does everything in the draft support or advance the message?
e. Where are the greatest failures in the draft?

9. Rewrite at Work

10. The Craft of Letting Go

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

YA Novel Review: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Miraculous Journey of Edward TulaneThe Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How many times can I write "Wow!" about a children's book? Not enough.

Kate DiCamillo's charming The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane stands alone as my favorite book that I've read this year. An adult or adolescent can read this book in under two hours--in that respect it is all children's book.

I put it down to pause and exhale a "wow" many many times.

As is the case in any book, film, or television show, story matters. DiCamillo's story is about loss, redemption, finding the ability to love within oneself, hope, being broken, and the power of time. I'm especially sensitive to the power of time in novels ever since an all too brief summer (1995) studying at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Part of my enlightenment was that Shakespeare often devalued magic in his plays, and took great care to demonstrate that the real power and beauty in the world is in time.


It takes Edward Tulane many years and (a toy rabbit made of china, wire, and some fluffy stuff) a truly "miraculous journey" to undergo a change. Once self-centered and arrogant, the toy passes hands to many different types of owners. At times, he lays forgotten and lost in a garbage dump and at the bottom of the sea...for years and years. I love DiCamillo's patience in this regard. She makes her characters suffer.

Of course, her story has purpose without giving anything away or sacrificing her hand as at each stop along the way, Edward's shell wears away until both metaphorically and literally he is shattered.

Edward is broken.  He comes to understand the power and truth behind the line, "If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless."

DiCamillo writes a story about what it means to be human. She shows us our humanity through a once little supercilious china doll.

But like in so many instances in a life, change is possible.

It just takes a little time...and one miraculous journey.

Even though by all tokens, this presents as a young children's story, I heartily recommend it for your middle school classroom library, your high school classroom library, and your home.

Brilliant, brilliant, book.

I'll say it again...


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YA Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first exposure to Sherman Alexie was in the mid-90s when I saw the film Smoke Signals and then went back and read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (the book the screenplay was built on). Both the screenplay and novel struck me as beautiful writing. I remember, “He could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.”

And I had to pull the novel off the shelf, but I remember the feelings I had reading this passage over fifteen years ago:

"How much do we remember of what hurts us most? I've been thinking about pain, how each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now. How each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now. How each successive pain distorts the preceding. Let's say I remember sunlight as a measurement of this story, how it changed the shape of the family portrait. My father shields his eyes and makes his face a shadow. He could be anyone then, but my eyes are closed in the photo. I cannot remember what I was thinking. Maybe I wanted to stand, stretch my legs, raise my arms above my head, open my mouth wide and fill my lungs. Breathe, breathe. Maybe my hair is so black it collects all the available light."

And then this brilliant moment near the end of the screenplay:

"How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often? or forever when we were little. Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage. Or for making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all. Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers? For divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing...or leaning? For shutting doors, for speaking through walls, or never speaking...or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them, or not saying it? If we forgive our fathers, what is left?"

The "forgive our fathers" moment in the film seized me fifteen years, and then Sherman Alexie faded out of my consciousness until this past year, when I saw quite a few of my students reading his YA novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. I read reviews--and adults and educators loved it. My students mostly gave it favorable reviews (a couple of boys balked at the conclusion).

But I had avoided it...and kept picking up something else, even though it sat on my desk, ready for me to read.

I felt a similar moment when I discovered Vonnegut--I started to consume all of it, and then feared nothing would be left if I read it all too fast, too soon. And then I put Vonnegut down...swore off Vonnegut for years.

I felt the same thing as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian stared at me and I stared back. Kids started borrowing it from my desk..."well, if you aren't reading it, I'd like to."

And then it disappeared into lockers for weeks...only to resurface and be scooped up again by another student.

Finally, when it resurfaced for a few days in a row I set my mind to read it over a weekend--and I did. And loved it for the following reasons:

a) Alexie's unique voice
b) the exposure I receive to Native American fears, hopes...realities
c) the humanity in his craft
d) every story he tells needs to be told
e) at their core, his stories are about survival, forgiveness, family, loss, and strength

One difference between The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is in the the YA novel, the language is grittier. The youth curse. They make fun of each other. The narrator talks (briefly) about masturbation. The word "boner" appears a few times...both as a mistake, and as a teenager's physical reaction to a woman hugging him. Some adults may be offended or sour their faces at those facts--the point, in my opinion, is that this may cause some parents to steer their 12 and 13 year olds away from the book. And quite honestly, I respect that. If and when some parents want to fence out some literature because their son or daughter is too young in their estimation, that is their right. I guess, I want to say here that these pieces and bits of language are authentic to some teenagers--they are the language of some teens. It resonates as true. They can identify and connect.

And they can laugh about it.

The fact is, Alexie is an artist with language. So much of his text is poetic, powerful, and evocative.

I keep coming back to the young boy who wrote and said to me that he was disappointed in the conclusion. In my mind, he was disappointed because he read it with his own eyes and life experience, and did not have the rich experience of discussing the novel with others his own age, or even with an adult. I think he missed the nuance...he missed the craft...he missed the reward and beauty of Alexie's story.

That's a shame. I wished I had read it before him, so that I could have had that conversation with him.

I definitely recommend this for your older middle school or high school book shelf (as long as you understand what you are getting into with some of the language choices.)

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Multicultural Lit. Review: Someone to Run With

Someone to Run WithSomeone to Run With by David Grossman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Insert the sound of a long exasperated disappoint groan.

It pains me when I read a brilliant book and yet cannot directly share it with my students because of some of its content and pockets of harsh language...a character calls the boys "f-able" [the inserted dash is mine[ among many other gristly uses of that most colorful of "f" words.

However, starting at the beginning I had so much hope...

The opening device, a stray dog, Dinka, leading sixteen year-old Assaf on a journey to find the dog's owner, Tamar, yanks the reader right into a plot where bits and pieces are revealed by the hands of a craftsman. Israeli author David Grossman's opening is brilliant. Racing and yapping, Dinka tugs Assaf into a pizza shop...where pizzas are waiting for the dog's owner. Then Dinka gallops through the streets to the home of a nun...and on and on as it picks up scents and traces of memories of places and people she has seen before.

All along, we gather pieces of the ever-unfolding puzzle...who is the owner, where is she, why is the dog out on its own, and so on. The "where is she" question lies at the heart of the story.

It really is a thrilling ride through the streets of modern day Jerusalem--and then 1/4 of the way into the novel we discover what happened to Tamar. She ran away from home to become a street performer so that the local seedy corps of the mafia scoops her up and delivers her to her runaway brother. A junkie hooked on heroine. She doesn't want to run away from home, but she goes undercover in a sense to rescue someone she loves.

The parallel journeys are equally exciting and shifty--little is easily anticipated by the reader. But everything in each plot arc unravels in our hands and comes together in one pleasantly tangled and knotty story.

So much is right about this story; however, the authentic language is bit too gritty for the average middle school student. On the one hand, I see this as more appropriate for a high school aged student or, at best, a really mature middle school student in a really progressive family. On the other hand, the language is no more gritty than something you'd find in a John Hughes is just that we also do not hand John Hughes scripts to our students either.

The other layer, the young characters hooked on drugs, performing on the street to line the pockets of the local mafia may also be too healthy of a dose of dark reality for your middle school community.

It disappoints me because there is so much here that young writers could learn from--I heartily recommend the novel for any adult to read, especially if you would like an introduction to more multicultural authors.

I see Grossman has written several books for young people--I'll have to check those out, as Someone to Run with, even for all of its brilliance (rich in culture and style) maybe be just a little too mature for a young adolescent audience.

Nevertheless, I guess all I can say is pick it up if you are old enough to drive.

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