Sunday, December 30, 2012

Greatest Torment, Greatest Treasure

EndangeredEndangered by Eliot Schrefer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer started popping up on my radar through the various authors, educators, and agents I follow on Twitter. I knew nothing about it, but trusted the positive social media attention--and so, I will be adding it to my classroom library on Wednesday and book talking it to my classes. I loved the many layers the book was built upon:

a) it is a difficult, harrowing, journey akin to Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk to Water
b) as a reader I learned about the endangered bonobo ape
c) the palliative exposure of some of the political realities of the Congo
d) the strong and detailed writing had me wondering and second-guessing if this was non-fiction (it is fiction)

Ultimately, the strongest layer is the element of suffering. My gosh, so much suffering permeates these pages. Both human and animal.

Within the Q&A With Eliot Schrefer, the author notes:
"The moment I knew the bonobos would become a novel, though, was when I read about Kinsuke, an orphan who had arrived at the bonobo sanctuary too frail to survive. In her final moments, she had held tightly to the rope that her captors had used to restrain her, refusing to let it go. It was her only possession left after everything else had been taken from her, and she died clutching it to her cheek. Sometimes your greatest torment can also be your greatest treasure."

Endangered is challenging and moving; fictional and informative; alarming and humbling. Schrefer's story bridges the divide between YA fiction and adult fiction because it does not matter that a high school girl, Sophie, takes us on this journey. What matters is that so many human beings and animals suffer this journey every day.

It makes me feel grateful to be where I am and who I am. It also makes feel that familiar awe for the power of storytelling that had been missing from my book pile until just recently.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

YA Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have never reviewed John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway. Never reviewed the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The impulse to blog about my stuggles reading Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses, or Bleak House has never been felt by me.

So, to review The Fault in Our Stars by John Green feels a bit like reviewing The Catcher in the Rye, In Cold Blood, or On the Road.

I read The Fault in Our Stars over the last 24 hours, about 300 days after its first positive reviews appeared. Also, by my estimation, I read it about 299 days after one of my 8th grade students, Alyssa, told me it was one of the best books she ever read.

Ultimately, the book speaks for itself and if you read it, you will also understand--whether it happens in the next 24 hours or at the end of next 300 days does not matter.

Great literature removes something from us, I think. Sometimes it is our breath. Sometimes it our prejudices. Sometimes it our fears.

After reading The Fault in Our Stars, I am left different than I was when I began it. Not that I am less whole, but that I am more finished, like a marble sculpture. We are all these unfinished, imperfect, hulks of stone and life fractures us--shaves us--chips us. I do not know what my marble looks like to the rest of the world, and I am not sure what I look like to myself, but do you that feeling when you see a Rodin for the first time, up close, live, and you marvel at the possibilities of stone? when you marvel at the possibilities of iron, and muscle, and force? when you marvel at smoothness and whiteness and beauty and the silence of others staring at the art?

And you know when you walk away from that art...and you wonder about your own possibilities? the part of the wondering where you feel small, insect-like, and incomplete?

But you are comforted because you walking down the steps from a museum or away from an experience that chipped something away from you that you didn't need, that got in the away, that hid a piece of you you never knew existed?

So, forgive me, if I do not review John Green's The Fault in Our Stars because, well, the piece of marble it chipped away was mine.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

YA Book Review: Splendors and Glooms

Splendors and GloomsSplendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After several dozens of pages into Splendors and Glooms, I found myself hoping that the villain Grisini, a Victorian puppet master, would use his magic to kidnap children by turning them into marionettes. I even thought, if he does not, what a great idea for a story...

And then he did it.

I can't decide if I was able to anticipate this series of events based on what Schlitz revealed, or if he author meant to make it more of a surprise for the reader. Was the story predictable? Or was I just lucky with my guess?

Being predictable isn't horrible...after all, I know the story of Romeo and Juliet (as do many) and would still watch the play. Most know what happened to the Titanic and yet we watch the film.

As a reader, I did feel that I knew the story as the story unravelled. Little came as a surprise...but I can't determine if that is a good thing or a bad thing, because I liked the story.

I also can't determine several things:

I can't decide whose story this is. Who is the main character?

I can't decide if I "buy" that a magic stone could be destroyed by a child packing it in a snowball. This is a magic stone, minde you, which protected itself from being crushed by a heavy iron pan by sensing this and redirecting the pan down upon the hand of the person trying to rid the world of its black charms. This is a stone so powerful it burns to the touch, can break spells, can summon people from miles away to drop what they are doing and walk zombie-like to it. This is a stone that can only bring the owner relief if it is stolen from the owner--and the bulk of the novel is the plotting of the witch to get one of the children to steal this magic stone from her dying clutches. All of that said...a snowball destroys it.

I don't know...

I can't ascertain how old the children are. We're told they are teenagers, but they do not act, speak, or read like teenagers in my opinion. I think their age dissipated in the setting of the story in Victorian London. In an effort to ensure accurate dialect, the feel that these are authentic teenagers is lost. With the onslaught of referring to such things as "coppers" me-finks I imagined the younger characters as more in the image J.M. Barrie's Darling children than any of John Green's Katherines, Alaskas, or Margos.

That said. I liked it.

Purportedly dark and Dickensian, Splendors and Glooms reminded me of the kind of story I liked when I was twelve. Thinking of it like "Oliver Twist light," or "PG-13 Pinocchio" it fits somewhere in the Middle Grade to younger Young Adult category and is a worthwhile book to keep on your classroom library shelf. For all of my uncertainty, I feel confident that my students will like the novel.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Right to Put a Book Down

Ever struggle reading a book? (Silly question, I know.)

I am struggling with a YA book right now, and typically I find something to latch onto in most YA books and do not struggle reading them at all.

Right now, The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George has become a chore...a yoke... at 118 pages into it. My struggle is in the writing, and not in the story. The story carries a lot of promise, and I don't know, maybe I am just being too "old" or too snobby about books when I say the writing is leaving me unfulfilled, unchallenged.

The only way I can categorize it is to provide an example. The following passage is representative of the entire book which feels like an adult tried too hard to write the way teens speak and think--it reads awkwardly:
Afterward I was, like, shaking. For a second, right after I put the phone, I thought I might throw up. I hate letting people down. It's my least favorite thing in the world. My mom was so sweet to me about it, though--she made me tea and sat with me on the couch and reminded me that this experience was actually really good practice for me.
I am around teenagers for a living, and have been in some capacity since 1993. I feel like every teen-adult stereotype is just jammed into that little passage from page 119. Well, image that over the previous 118 pages.  Honestly, I expect more out of YA literature and most of the time the writing is there. I am just not connecting with this writing style. As a reader I wonder if this author is around young people much at all.

What nags me, however, is the fact that this author is attacking a subject worthy of being written about-changing the world. Because it addresses several issues in a healthy way, I want to like the book. I want to recommend the book.

Further complicating matters...

Emblazoned across the top of the book jacket is a quote from YA author Laurie Halse Anderson which reads, "Achingly honest and empowering."

YA author Maureen Johnson says "The difference between you and me is different--and complicated, and romantic, and fun."

And YA author Robin McKinley calls it "dazzingly good."

So, listen, maybe it is me. Maybe I am being too stuffy and narrow-minded. Because of that, I am going to dive in again this morning and give it another hour of my time. If it doesn't improve over the next 59 minutes or so I may exercise my right as a reader that I rarely invoke.

The right to put a book down. Forever.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

YA Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of GrayBetween Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books outgrow their jackets.

They are bigger and stronger than advertised, and can not be contained by genre.

I see young adults reading some books traditionally thought of as adult fiction, and I see adults devouring books marketing for the the younger reader.

For instance, over the past three months, individual 8th grade students have read and book-talked The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand; Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier; The Shining, by Stephen King; A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah, Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, among many others. Where and when book and reader meet is a very personal relationship dependent on our tastes, friendships, and exposure.

In this regard, Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys outgrows its compass. While I have a strong affection for historical fiction, this book is bigger than the YA genre and it is perfect for the YA genre just for that reason. Young adults need books like this regardless if its message is delivered in Middle Earth, down the rabbit hole, or in Siberia. This is the book I will book talk to my class after the holiday, and it is the book I hope they will be drawn to read and share.

Sepetys, in a larger sense, tells her story against the backdrop of Stalin's icy grip on the victimized Baltic people during WWII: Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Here the protagonist's family (Lina Vilkas) is sent on an arduous journey to die in the frozen wasteland Siberia. The important element is not in who lives or dies, or who is to blame, or who is left for our hate. Rather, the heart of this story is in the strength of humanity--incredibly, I found no hatred for the cruel beasts raking their prejudice and hatred upon the victims. Instead, my energy was drawn to the spirit of the survivors, to the resilience of being human. As one hardship falls after another, I could feel the strength mounting inside Lina--it was subtle, but her actions built the evidence of the undeniable strength forged within people in trying circumstances.

This is the same focus I find so many of my students have upon meeting Anne Frank for the first time. After the initial gusts of "why?" and the horrific Nazi state recedes as a black backdrop--present, but put in its place--my students have always written about Anne's spirit. Instead of walking away from these stories with hatred or fear cradling our hearts, we walk away with a better understanding of the importance of tolerance, culture, and kindness.

Much in Between Shades of Gray can be compared to the hatred and conditions the Jews found in concentration camps--while one human starved in the bitter cold, another fattened in warmth. While the Jews battled dysentery, lice, and meager rations, the Nazis danced with comfort, sipped cognac amid gauzy cigarette smoke, and ate tender beef and puffy pastry with relish. So too the Lithuanians suffered like despised animals looking down the barrels of Russian guns.

I loved Between Shades of Gray because it unravelled a period of history I know very little about. Yet, at the same time, it reminded me of the aspects of humanity that we all know a lot about, and can't ever get enough reminders of: love, hope, perseverance, kindness, faith, memory, family, and compassion. I see the same messages each year when I read and teach The Diary of Anne Frank. I find the same message almost daily in an 8th grade student's essay or entry in a writer's notebook--the beauty of humanity is far stronger than the bitterness of hatred.

I hope my students read Between Shades of Gray for many reasons (the brutality of history, its elegant writing) but I especially hope that its frank reminder to never quit, never let go, and never, ever, give your enemies anything--not even your fear.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whitewashing...I almost can't believe it.

I learned something new today.
Some YA literature features something called a "whitewashed" cover..and it really disturbs me.
Apparently, when a YA book has an international protagonist or a character of color who appears on the cover, someone in charge of book covers or marketing or editing...someone...makes a rather peculiar decision.
The cover gets "whitewashed"...that is, the cover depicts a Caucasian model.
To counter the obvious racist undertones of this decision, something else can happen...the cover shows a character whose race isn't really clear.
or...and this one made me angriest of all because of I could think of a book immediately that this is true of...the Vietnamese character in Inside Out & Back Again (a recent favorite of mine) is shown as a silhouette.  As you can see from the cover, it won a Newberry Award, a National Book Award, among many other adulations. A significant portion of my anger is directed at myself...because I did not notice it, and never have.
It makes me feel as though I am unobservant or insensitive to the issue. Now that I have read about this issue, I plan on scanning my book shelves in school to see if I catch any of these "whitewashing" techniques at work.
This blog post by a librarian was the first I read about whitewashing.
This blog post by a favorite YA author of mine, Mitali Perkins, addresses the challenges of race in YA literature and is well worth reading. Very illuminating and thought-provoking.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Students Write on Their Own After Tragedy

Click to make it larger and readable.
Several of my 8th graders went home after school, heard the news, and took to writing to sort it out for themselves. I only know this because they posted their thoughts to the classroom blog. 

This surprised me.

Sometimes I look at my students and remind myself that they are young, with young minds, no matter how much they want to be older, and heard.

While I can't make them older, and shouldn't, I can help them be heard. 

First, by listening. 

My student teacher just finished her time with us and I hope that lesson, first and foremost remained impressed upon her. Children and adolescents are so used to being talked to by adults. Talked TO. --comes with the territory in many cases (and is often unavoidable and necessary). 

The thing is, when it is time to listen, adults have to exaggerate the listening. We have to let them realize they are being listened to--and we don't always need to give them an answer.

Often, a student will tell himself/herself that mom and dad do not listen or talk with--even though in most cases they do. That is also part of the deal, moms and dads--youth must find their way to be mature enough to understand the difference.

For example, regarding maturity, I overheard an 8th grade student complain to another about a teacher yesterday:
"I better not get anything lower than a B on this algebra test--I mean, I went in for like 20 minutes of extra math help, and she didn't even help me."
"She wouldn't help you?"
"No, she was helping, but I like, sat there for 20 minutes and she totally wouldn't help me. I'm going to be so pissed at her if she gives me anything less than a B."
I could go on about the expectation of passive learning that some young people assume--learning is uncomfortable, school should be like a car wash where knowledge gets put on you...etc.

Sometimes we wish they saw things the way they need to be seen. And sometimes they do--and it surprises us.

And so, I found myself both caught off guard and pleased that a few students used the classroom blog to reach out to write and be heard about yesterday's event. 

It made me consider that writing, and in this case the blog, is in some respects that quiet listener we all need, especially young minds. They know the blog is "public" within our classes. They know they can, and most probably will, receive comments from their peers and me.

Teaching students about all different types of writing can be rewarding in and of itself--I read some beautiful sentiments about pets, grandparents, dreams, and their lives. However, last night's discovery provided a different type of reward--I am proud of the perspectives their young minds have forming in the wake of a national tragedy.

I'm glad they found an outlet that listens and talks with

And I am wondering, what if the national conversation included young people. Would we be ashamed by what they told us?