Monday, July 4, 2011

List of the Week (#2): America, America! read!

This year, in honor of the 4th of July, instead of just chowing down on hot dogs and gawking at fireworks, try celebrating Independence Day through your reading as well. Here's a chronological list of historical fiction that will walk you through the (sometimes inspiring, sometimes saddening) history of the U. S. of A.:

1) Native Americans (before the European "discovery" of America):
-Children of the Longhouse and other novels of Joseph Bruchac
-The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (not pre-European but focuses on and celebrates Native American life/heritage)

2) Early European Settlements and the Salem Witch Trials:
A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky

3) The Colonies, Revolution and Formation of the U.S.A.:
Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

4) Slavery and the Civil War:
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
My Name is Not Angelica by Scott O'Dell
Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen

5) Life on the Prairie/Western Expansion:
The Little House collection by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Hard Gold by Avi

6) The Industrial Revolution and Immigration:
Lyddie and Bread and Roses, Too by Katerine Paterson
Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop
My Antonia by Willa Cather (Beautiful. Not YA literature, really--just, human literature. So if you're human, you should read it.)
Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse
The Traitor other books in the "Golden Mountain Chronicles" by Laurence Yep

7) Segregation during the Jim Crow Era:
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and other novels by Mildred D. Taylor
Sounder by William H. Armstrong
A Yellow Watermelon by Ted M. Dunagan
Jericho Walls by Kristi Collier

8) The Great Depression:
Out of the Dust by Katherine Hesse
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

9) WWII:
Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff
American Girl by Tony Talbot
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

10) Social/Class Tension and Rebellion: The 1950's, 60's and 70's:
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Just Like Martin by Ossie Davis
Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge
Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez

Generally good/prolific children's and young adults' American historical fiction authors:

-Scott O'Dell (Native American experience and Revolutionary War)
-Elizabeth George Speare (Native American and Pre-Revolutionary Colonial America)
-Laurie Halse Anderson (Colonial America and Revolutionary War)
-Avi (Revolutionary War)
-Ann Rinaldi (Revolutionary and Civil War)
-Laurence Yep (Chinese-American experience)
-Karen Hesse (late 1800's-Great Depression)
-Katherine Paterson (1900's-1940's)
-Richard Peck (early 1900's/Great Depression)
-Mildred D. Taylor (Segregation and Civil Rights Movement)

Monday, June 27, 2011

List of the Week (#1): Book-based Movies

Aaah, book-based movies...

Every week at the box office, there is yet another book being converted into film--especially young adult and middle grade books (Twilight, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, the Wimpy Kid series, etc.). In fact, a book's chances at publication seem to rely more and more on its potential to be adapted into film, and I'm guessing that many YA and middle-grade writers are aware of/influenced by this as they write. I can't say that I am a fan of all these book-based (often loosely book-based...) movies out there, but there are definitely some that hold a lace in my heart, so...I present a list of my top ten favorite YA/middle grade literature-based films. You may wonder about some of the obvious omissions, so I am also presenting a list of book-based movies I have not yet seen but want to:

My favorites:

10) Speak (book by Laurie Halse Anderson)
This is an excellent book and this film version does it justice. It stars Kristen Stewart long before the days of Twilight.

9) The Outsiders (book by S.E. Hinton)
A classic. Even though it's set in the 1950s, this story about gang tension and social class is still very relevant today.

8) The Secret Garden (book by Frances Hodgson Burnett)
I loved this movie version when I was a kid. It is hopeful but, at the same time, doesn't shy away from the darker side of the story (the death of Mary's parents, illness, etc.).

7) Little Women (book by Lousia May Alcott)
Be sure to have plenty of tissues on hand--both the movie and the book are tear-jerkers.

6) Where the Wild Things Are (book by Maurice Sendack)
This book is all about the power of the imagination and that is exactly what the movie version celebrates as well.

5) The Witches (book by Roald Dahl)
This 1990 movie version really creeped me out when I was a kid. But I think that is exactly what Roald Dahl would have wanted.

4) Fantastic Mr. Fox (book by Roald Dahl)
Yes, this is another Roald Dahl classic, but this film version could not be more different from The Witches. It's a quirky claymation version of one of Dahl's shortest stories. Wes Anderson definitely put his own twist on the story, but it's fun to see how much one short book can inspire someone.

3) Of Mice and Men (book by John Steinbeck)
OK, so this isn't exactly "young adult" fiction, but most people I know encountered this book for the first time around 8th or 9th grade. This film version is moving and does great honor to Steinbeck's classic.

2) The Wizard of Oz (book by L. Frank Baum)
Sitting down in front of this movie is like taking a sip of hot chocolate during a winter storm. It just makes you feel good.

1) To Kill a Mockingbird (book by Harper Lee)
Beautiful book. Beautiful movie. I hope they never remake it because it is just so perfect the way it is.

And here are the ones I haven't yet seen, but want to:
1) Lord of the Flies (book by William Golding)
2) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (books by Bryan Lee O'Malley)
3) The Golden Compass (book by Phillip Pulman)
4) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (book by Jeff Kinney)
6) I Am Number Four (book by Pittacus Lore)
7) The Black Cauldron (based on Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander)
8) The Devil's Arithmetic (book by Jane Yolen)
9) Alice in Wonderland (book by Lewis Carroll)
10) Flipped (book by Wendelin Van Draanen)
11) Because of Winn-Dixie (book by Kate DiCamillo)
12) The Tale of Despereaux (book by Kate DiCamillo)
13) Millions (book by Frank Cottrell Boyce)
14) War Horse (book by Michael Morpurgo)
15) Twilight (book by Stephanie Meyer)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review: The Fourth Stall

The Fourth Stall

by Chris Rylander

I had my doubts when I first saw the cover of The Fourth Stall (a spoof on the movie poster of "The Godfather"). Would middle grade readers be interested in (or get) the references made to the crime/mafia drama genre? But my doubts were soon laid to rest. The Fourth Stall is clever, unique and thoroughly entertaining. I wasn't the only one who loved the playful tone of this novel. Several of my students read it after I raved about it in class, and it was a big hit all around.

The Fourth Stall starts strong with the likable voice of Mac. He's not your typical 6th-grader. Mac is pretty much the "godfather" of his school. When kids need help (with a test, a bully, getting into an R-rated movie), Mac is the one they turn to. The title refers to Mac's "office," which is set up in a rarely-used bathroom in Mac's school. (The office was obtained through one of Mac's most valuable "connections"--the school janitor.) Mac is a kind-hearted kid, but also a shrewd businessman (with the help of his best friend/business manager Vince). Mac and Vince have enjoyed uninterrupted business since kindergarten, until a legendary bully that goes by the name "Staples" is rumored to be running an illegal gambling ring right under their noses. Staples becomes a threat to everything Mac and Vince have worked for (namely, the World Series Cubs tickets they have been saving for since their first day of business).

The Fourth Stall had me cracking up (somewhat embarrassingly) in public places--reading on the train, for example. There is just something so endearing and witty about Mac's tough mobster tone being used to talk about things like recess, bullies, substitute teachers and riding his bike. This contrast on tone and content makes for a lot of humor. But The Fourth Stall does not make fun of its characters the way many spoof novels do. Often, when writers decide to spoof on a genre, they do not take the time to develop realistic, likable, sympathetic characters. But Mac and Vince completely pulled me in. Their feelings were real to me and I found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping that their business (and friendship) wouldn't crumble the way Staples seemed to want it to.

The Fourth Stall has it all--laughs, tension, excitement, engaging characters, a message. Whether you're a fan of mafia/crime fiction or not, you'll get a kick out of this playful twist.

Original release date: February, 2011

Things to think about while reading The Fourth Stall:
-Genre conventions/Spoofs (How does the book make fun of/mimic the conventions of the mafia/crime fiction genre?)
-Conflict (What external conflicts does Mac face? What internal conflicts?)
-Foreshadowing (Which moments drop hints about what might happen later in the book? Which moment seems fishy to you?)
-Juxtaposition of tone and content (Notice how Rylander creates humor by juxtaposing the content--what is being talked about--with the tone--the way its being talked about.)

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: Museum of Thieves

Museum of Thieves

by Lian Tanner

SOOOOO GOOD! I know I could probably come up with a more savvy "hook" than that, but....THIS BOOK IS SOOOOO GOOD! Lian Tanner's Museum of Thieves blew me away. It is scary and dark and thrilling and inspiring and clever. But beyond being thoroughly entertaining, Museum of Thieves raises some very thought-provoking questions. It never ceases to amaze me how authors create elaborate fantasy worlds that on the surface seem to have nothing in common with ours, but soon are revealed to examine deep truths about the cultures and societies of our own humdrum world. Museum of Thieves is just such a book.

The story begins with one of the best, most-tension-filled opening scenes I have read in a long time. We are introduced to the city of Jewel. Ages ago, this land used to be filled with dangers (flood, kidnapping, murder, famine, plague, etc.), and it made the people fearful. A law was declared that all children under the age of 16 must be safely chained to an adult at all times. At home, children are connected to their parents by a "guardchain," and out in the world, they are connected to "Guardians" (who are basically like teachers/nannies/body-guards). But the times have changed, and Jewel's leader (the "Grand Protector") has become concerned about the power of the Guardians and their leader (the "Blessed Guardian"). The Grand Protector, much to the Blessed Guardian's dismay, has decided to lower the age of separation from 16 to 12. The book begins on this controversial "Separation Day," and Goldie, our bold and rebellious 12-year-old protagonist, is going to be the first one to have her chain removed. But (in one of the best introductions of a plot's conflict that I have read in a long time) suddenly, the Separation Ceremony is cancelled due to a mysterious explosion in the city. Panicked at the thought of having the freedom she longs for snatched away from her at the last moment, Goldie runs away, and so her adventure begins. She discovers the mysterious museum of the book's title and quickly learns that there is much more danger left in Jewel than anyone realizes.

This book is a genuine page-turner. As the end of each chapter drew near, I would promise myself that I would set the book aside and get some sleep, but when I got to the last line, I just couldn't bring myself to close the book. I had to keep going. Goldie is very likable--extremely bold and defiant but also frightened, at times, and unsure of herself. And she is surrounded by an entertaining posse of strange characters. The villains of the book are despicable and the moments of danger (which are many) feel extremely real and urgent.

But beyond being entertaining, there is a lot we can learn from Museum of Thieves, as it reveals truths about our own often-paranoid culture. The panicky, control-obsessed people of Jewel made me think of the ways we try to escape the necessary dangers of living life. I found myself thinking of security measures (in airports, and even in schools, etc) and people's willingness to trade their privacy (even dignity) to feel a little safer. Museum of Thieves shows that risk and danger are not something we can simply get rid of. They exist and are a part of life, and when you try to pretend they aren't, it only backfires--often in ways that are even more dangerous than you first feared.

Release date: September, 2010

Things to think about while reading Museum of Thieves:
-Symbolism (What might the museum represent?)
-Character development (How does Goldie change over the course of the book?)

You might also like...
Dormia by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

The story of One Crazy Summer opens with three girls flying across the country to meet there mother. When I say "to meet," I do not mean "to meet up with." They are going to meet their mother for the first time in years--since she left them as babies and toddlers in the care of their father in Brooklyn. After a long flight from New York to San Francisco, the girls find themselves face to face with the woman who chose to leave, and this is where the "crazy summer" begins.

We hear this story in Delphine's practical and no-nonsense voice. At eleven-years-old, she is the eldest sister and has basically been the mother her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern never had. Delphine is serious and dignified and often must be the peacemaker between her sensitive little sisters. But what makes Delphine such an engaging protagonist is that every now and then, her kid side comes through. It is heartbreaking because you realize that even though she has taken charge in her mother's absence, it is only because someone had to. Delphine needed (and still needs) a mother just as badly as her little sisters, but as the oldest, she had to step up and be there for her sisters.

This isn't just your average coming-of-age, mother-daughter story, though. Did I mention that it is set in 1960s Oakland, California at the peak of the Black Panther movement? Definitely not your typical middle-grade/young-adult story setting. It soon becomes clear that Cecile (Delphine, Vonetta and Fern's mother) is involved in the movement in some mysterious way. In fact, on their first morning in California, Cecile sends the girls to the Black Panther day camp, where they encounter ideas and personalities that they have never faced before. It is fascinating to see the Black Panther activities through Delphine's eyes. She starts out suspicious, but soon Delphine (along with the reader) starts to see that the Black Panthers are about a lot more than the violence that the news and media (both then and now) portray them to be. One thing is for sure: that "crazy" summer is to be a summer of change--in Delphine, in her mother, in the world.

This is excellent writing about a part of American history that is rarely represented in historical fiction--especially for the under-twenty set. It's great for readers who think they don't like the historical fiction genre because the setting is not oppressive to the story. It provides the perfect frame to a moving story about a girl learning to want a mother's love again after years of having to deal without it.

Release date:
Newbery Honor, 2011

Things to think about as you read One Crazy Summer:
-Setting (Notice how the historical setting/situation are used to enhance the tension in the story)
-Character development (The characters change a lot over the course of the story. What does this show/teach?)
-Symbolism (What objects and belongings are important? Do they possibly have symbolic meaning? What feelings or ideas might these objects represent?)

You might also like...
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The Pinballs by Betsy Byars
Last Summer with Maizon by Jaqueline Woodson
Money Hungry by Sharon G. Flake

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog)

How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog)

by Art Corriveau

Nicky Flynn is a lovable misanthrope. Well, to call him a "misanthrope" may be extreme, but he is, at the very least, quite grumpy. At eleven, he thinks he's got it all figured out and has little patience for the mess his mother has gotten them into (or, at least that's how Nicky sees it).

Nicky's whole world has been turned upside-down. His parents are going through a messy divorce and his mom, as Nicky likes to point out repeatedly, his mom decided she needed to "stand on her own two feet" and moved them from a house in the perfect (according to Nicky's descriptions) suburb of Littleton to a tiny/scuzzy apartment in the rough not-quite-Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. As Nicky narrates the story in a conversational present tense, you can practically see his eyes roll and hear him heave a heavy sigh at pretty much everything and everyone that crosses his path--his therapist's clumsy attempts to get Nicky to "open up," a quirky classmate's odd conversation-starters, and even his mom's surprise gift at the beginning of the novel...a dog!

Man's-best-friend novels always run the risk of being a bit cliched. But what makes Art Corriveau's take on the old boy-and-dog story feel fresh and engaging is that Nicky wants nothing to do with Reggie (a stupid name, Nicky points out, given by a past owner, not himself). The story opens with Nicky complaining to the reader about how irresponsible and typical it is that his mother went out and got this dog without even thinking about the practical side of owning a dog. At first, Nicky tries to avoid Reggie, but when it becomes clear that his mother will not be doing the walking and feeding, responsible and reliable Nicky steps up. Reggie's need for daily walks forces Nicky out of the house into the neighborhood he hates to much. Slowly, Nicky and Reggie begin to share adventures together in Charlestown and Nicky starts to (begrudgingly, and under somewhat unusual circumstances) make connections with the neighborhood and its people.

Nicky's voice is so engaging. No matter how grumpy he is, you see his warm and honest heart shining through. As he and Reggie explore Charlestown and Boston together, Nicky thinks back on a special day he spent exploring the city with his dad. Nicky's holds his dad up on a pedestal, and your heart aches for him as time and time again, his dad bails on weekend plans. As a reader, you try to make sense of the image Nicky paints of his father and the image that the facts seem to show--a dad who just isn't around. You want to comfort Nicky, but at the same time, tell him to snap out of it.

How I, Nicky Flynn... is a funny, sweet, sincere story. It confronts the fact that everyone makes mistakes, kids and adults alike and that change, scary as it may seem, can be the best thing that happened to you.

Release date: May, 2010

Things to think about as you read How I Nicky Flynn Get a Life and a Dog:
-Verb tense (Corriveau chose to write in the present tense!)
-Character development (How do the characters change?)
-Unreliable narrator (Do you ever disagree with Nicky's opinions/interpretations?)

You might also like...
Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick
The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander
Schooled by Gordon Korman
My Brother's Keeper by Patricia McCormick

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Grounded


by Kate Klise

Who would ever guess that a story about a young girl losing her father, brother and sister to a horrible plane crash could be so full of laughs? Yes, Grounded explores the aftermath of a horrible loss, but by its end, you realize that it is not really a story about death. It's a story about what it means to be alive. It's about the people who are left behind when tragedy strikes (Daralynn and her mother, in this case) and how they have to drag themselves up and back into life no matter how much the hurt drags them down.

Daralynn Oakland is a twelve-year-old tomboy living in the tiny southern town of Digginsville (population 402!). The story begins when she and her tough-as-nails mother Hattie find out that Daralynn's father, 16-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister have all been killed in a plane crash. The only reason Daralynn wasn't along for the ride was because she was (as the title hints) grounded. Daralynn and her mother--a proud and reserved woman--have always butted heads, and Daralynn had been grounded that day because she had run off to the lake to fish without letting her mother know where she was going. Daralynn already thought her mother's leash was short before her father, brother and sister's death, but once Daralynn is the only child left, her mother won't let her out of her sight.

At first, I had a bit of a hard time warming up to Grounded. I wasn't sure what to make of the casual tone used for such a sad situation. Also, many of the characters of Digginsville felt a bit like caricatures--Daralynn's flashy Aunt Josie, for example, in her too-tight clothing and too-bright lipstick. But Daralynn's genuine and straight-forward voice kept me reading. Soon I began to realize that Daralynn's seemingly emotionless tone when talking about the deaths was not bad writing--it was part of Daralynn's character. Much like her mother, Daralynn is not one to wear her heart on her sleeve. She and her mother are proud and not about to make a slobbery, blubbering mess of themselves in front of everyone. Daralynn and her mother cope with their tragedy in their own way.

For Daralynn, this means throwing herself into investigating Digginsville's mysterious newcomer, Mr. Clem. Mr. Clem has opened the town's first crematorium--that's right, a place where they cremate people. He cozies up to Daralynn's beloved Aunt Josie awfully quick and Daralynn decides she needs to figure this guy out. Through her investigation, which she journals about in letters addressed to her dead family members, Daralynn slowly starts to face the sad reality of her "A.C." life, as she calls it (life "After the Crash").

Daralynn is tough and observant, and she describes the oddball characters of her town with the serious tone of a news reporter. This provides a lot of humor since so many of the people of Digginsville are so quirky.

But while Daralynn's "investigation" provides humor and suspense, this story is really about a mother and daughter trying to find each other through the fog of a deeply tragic loss. I am a sucker for mother-daughter stories. Hattie just doesn't seem to understand her daughter, and what's worse is that for much of the book, she doesn't seem interested in trying to. This story is about the danger of letting a sad event harden your heart. As I read on, I found myself willing Hattie to open her eyes and see her daughter there in front of her, needing her. Losing those we love can so easily make us want to never take the risk of loving again, but as wacky Aunt Josie says, "Everybody needs somebody to take care of them, and it's the taking care of that makes us sweet" (p. 30). Grounded shows that no matter how many times your heart gets broken, it's always worth letting yourself care again.

Release date: November, 2010

Things to think about as you read Grounded:
-Character development (How do the characters--Daralynn, her mother, etc.--change as the story goes on?)
-Setting (How does the setting--small southern town in the 1970s--add to the story?)
-Dark humor

You might also like...
Pie by Sarah Weeks
Faith, Hope and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson