Thursday, December 27, 2012

Blowin' in the Wind

I love Jon J. Muth's illustrations, so anytime I see something by him at the bookstore or library, I pick it up. This illustrated work to the Dylan song Blowin' in the Wind is a perfect text for exploring what might be possible when faced with a great challenge. Dylan's song is a milestone for us as a country, but Muth's additions offer a new lens to wear while considering the message offered in the song. By the way, a cd of the song is included in the book.

Here is a sample of one of the pages from the book:

You may have to enlarge it to see the details available in Muth's work, but believe me, you won't be dissatisfied with this adaption. I can imagine using this book with young readers when I wanted to explore both schema and mental images, although it would be a boon to use it with a group of savvy, well-grounded readers who were eager to dig into their own deep synthesis of a text. Using the song might just take the work into a whole new category of learning. Wouldn't that be a treat-- and something our illustrious leaders of education might benefit from making time to witness.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo enters winter with presence and realism in this lovely picture book published last year. Illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline muted his masterpieces with care and intent, making me want to turn the pages faster. The story of a young girl refusing the settle with the distances we adults create with and without awareness offers readers a sweet chance to enter the world of change during a season when cold and darkness can overpower each of us. Set over one hundred years ago, young Frances notices a man with a monkey on the snowy street corner one day. She watches and inquires about him, only to be rebuffed by her mother and not-so-gentle reminders of how the man is a stranger and not one to approach. Frances and her mother walk by the organ grinder and his monkey, and she quickly invites him to the church to see her performance....I can't tell you more or I will spoil it, but this lovely book is one to seek out. You will really understand the ending. And then you will read it to your children and your students and your friends, and you will find ways to teach with it get the picture. Great Joy truly is a book of the season.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Imagine a Place

I am sure you have all come across Imagine a Night with paintings by Rob Gonsalves and words by Sarah L. Thomson. One of my top 100 books of all time, a fave to use with kids and adults, absolutely awesome to use in exploring mental images in my teaching, and an all-time fave to simply dream into, Imagine a Night offers readers a chance to journey into the lands of possibility in a whole new way.  Gonsalves, the artist who creates the pieces first, simply awes me. His use of magic realism simply unseats me, making me totally slow down and live into his work and ideas. I liked Imagine a Day, but LOVE Imagine a Place.

Here are some sample pieces:
 "imagine a place...
...where words shelter you,
ideas uphold you, and
thoughts lead you to the secret
inside the labyrinth."

And this:
imagine a place...
...where the sigh of surf
and the whisper of waves
spill from your suitcase
and drift into your dreams."

And those two are not even close to my favorites in the book. This text is stunning. Gonsalves' work is stunning. And readers reading their work are offered a rare opportunity to enter an imagination that inspires, nurtures, and inquires. Imagine a Place indeed....

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George

So if you read our blog regularly, you know that I am a somewhat impatient reader. I want to get hooked right away. This book caught me in a really different way, less of turbulence and more of curiosity, slow and engaged curiosity. I loved reading through my own awareness.

Becca can listen into the whispers and thoughts of others. She has this nifty box that eliminates her ability to hear those words, aptly referred to as an AUD box.  She is on the run with her mother from some pretty ugly experiences, and then all of a sudden, it is just Becca. And it stays just Becca for a long time (I liked the realism that George used to craft this character's tensions). From the start, folks die at wickedly- timed moments, and friends crop up just in time frequently. BTW: the whole friend thing seems pretty standard issue until later in the book when the author starts revealing a little more about each character, entwining us more in her smart story like the master storyteller she is. Racism, bullying, classism, and the whole experience of American high schools all show up in this book, and being set on Whidbey Island serves us Pacific Northwestern-ers just fine. The end is a perfect set-up for future reads, something I am really interested in and exactly what the author plans. Woo-hoo for us!

Looking for a mystery with a strong female lead, solid male supporting roles, and a terrorizing bully waiting to show up? This might be a good one for you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Unstoppable by Tim Green

Just finished reading this engaging sports story. I really enjoyed how Green, a former NFL player, captured me within his words and storyline. While I may be a sucker for a good sports story, I have grown a little tentative when I pick up books in that genre. I mean, like with other books, I don't want to waste time getting into the story. I want to grow engulfed right away, not 50 pages in. Seems that a number of sports stories are doing that now-- at least to me. Unstoppable was an attention grabber from the start.

Harrison is a young teen who life has mistreated. His parents disappeared early in his life, and his experience with one foster family left quite the set of scars on his spirit and body. One thing that keeps him centered in the midst of all upheavals is football. His life changes massively when he switches foster homes to live with Coach and Jennifer. Pretty standard fare here with the amazing way they are ready to be parents, and all is well as Harrison finds his way to accept the love and care they offer, even when said dream is indeed upended by a major life illness. Author Green chose the title purposefully, and it certainly works to represent the spirit and dedication of humans when we come together in support of each other and in the spirit of experiencing life. 

I enjoyed the escape this book provided me: I read it for fun and got just that. I can imagine young teens, male and female-- middle school for sure since Harrison is 13 in the book-- who love reading sports books to really appreciate the story line and writing style. I just reserved a few more books from Green. I am eager to see if the others are as solid for me as Unstoppable was.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami

When my family and I visited Kolkata a few years ago, the sounds of the city stopped me. I was of course a visitor, and everything I encountered was new to me. While out in the community, if someone wanted to talk to me, I would have to stop and turn toward them and listen. I could not walk and talk at the same time. The feast of visions entering my brain through my eyes was literally as much as I could handle at that moment. To talk meant to stop and change focus intentionally. I had to do one thing at a time during my visit there. Yes, I walked away with a gigantic gift of reality.

Out of my Way! Out of my Way! is about that one thing that just wouldn't get out of the way, that really actually rooted in a place could be in the way. A boy notices a small tree growing on a small path in a village in India. He seeks to protect it by placing rocks all around it. When I think of small path in India, I see small and path as oxymorons. I know tons of people will see this differently, but very little in India is small to me. So much is happening all the time that small is difficult to see, to notice, but there is nothing difficult for the Indian people to hold sacred. The boy does this, and life continues all around the tree. It grows and grows, eventually becoming huge and totally important to the community. The tree becomes a place of peacefulness. 

This is a terrific story with fabulous illustrations. I could see reading this with students to open the conversation of what do you care for, what is important to you, and how do you offer your gifts of knowing to the world. Small stuff....uh, not really. Great book...I think you will love this one.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff

This sweet semi-biographical book based on one of the builders of the cathedral of St. John the Divine and her son is really rich. I am not familiar with too many stories about stone cutters, and for those of us with a little experiential history under our belts (ahem, I mean that we who are a little older and a tad grey-haired) can easily imagine the trials a female stone cutter might have encountered in our country. The author ties in family and calling so genuinely that I thought it might be amazing to be a stone cutter. Rockliff tells this story so calmly, with such compelling presence, that I wondered whose story it was. The story is inspired by one of the first female stone cutters in the United States at a cathedral whose work continued for decades. A simple look at the website points to some stunning visuals within that beautifully, artfully created cathedral in New York.

Like so many amazing books that I find, this one simply glowed on the library shelves, quietly encouraging me to pick it up. So glad I glad.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech

I am a rabid Sharon Creech fan. I love her work!!!! Love how she writes, how she frames sentences, how she crafts messages into her writing. I love Walk Two Moons, The Wanderer, Love that Dog, Ruby Holler, list goes on and on for her work. So when I realized that she had a new book coming out, I immediately put the book on hold at the Multnomah County Library. Yep, even before they had received their copies.  He-he-he-he-he, I love the deviousness of that action, the curiousness of my need to read her new words. The magic day it came, I could hardly let the book out of my sight. I was busy with my usual after school duties, what with chatting with Alysa about her day at school (most important than ever now that she is in high school), making dinner, prepping for my next day at work, and taking Alysa to dance class. Every so often, I would walk by the book, touch the intriguing cover, and wonder when I would devour the book. Ironically this was not a devour book; rather, for me, this was a savor book for me. I loved the savoring story.

The Great Unexpected offers a glimpse into the unpredictable universality of life. Our lives to be more specific. To me, Ms. Creech has grown with her writing, molding more complex themes, and explorations into her writing, and this book offers the most complex yet. She weaves heartbreak, heartache, and intrigue into the dailiness of living, wondering, and interacting. This book seems totally different from her others to me, although a tad of the abstractness reminded me of The Unfinished Angel. In The Great Unexpected, she ties two orphan girls, some strange townspeople, and a bunch of birds into a calm life-changing adventure that most of us would love to lift up as a story. My take away: be not afraid. Be not afraid of the unpredictable trials life throws at you, be not afraid of how friends seem to step away, and be not afraid of boys falling out of trees, having emerged from nowhere. Oh, and those birds: well, don't fear them either. They tell stories in their silence.

I hear your fingers tapping on the keys already....Amazon anyone? Library in your area?

**Side note to a reader from earlier: Little Bee just arrived. My week is pretty busy but looking ahead to Thanksgiving week offers a breath of possibility!!! Thanks for the nudge.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bully by Patricia Polacco

I love Patricia Polacco's work.  She is a master at opening conversations through her stories, and she captures important attention on dire issues in her writing. I seek her writing out for me FIRST and my students second (telling, yes?). I know her publications offer us all keen, critical entrances to the tensions of the human condition. Bully is no less than that.

Lyla seeks what every person in the world seeks: to be accepted, and she thinks she has that in the beginning of her middle-school experience. But then her "friends" start some wicked, underhanded means of ugliness, and she meanders the familiar line of what to do when others are not welcomed and she is. This is a familiar storyline, but it continues to be one that we see over and over across the U.S. Reading this story is painful at the very least, and I believe students and young people will want to find their own responses to Polacco's important book-ending questions.

Talking through the ugliness we continue to bring into our lives is never easy, and finding a way to fight back against the shame we in the U.S. create over and over again is relentless and crucially important. Polacco's wisdom in writing this book rises with a different light than in her other books. Sometimes the tensions of a society are carried effectively through a book. I believe Polacco does just that in Bully. I will be honest: this is not an easy read. And, and I know it is important.

We have more work to do.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Gold by Chris Cleave

In a rare jump into adult novels, I wanted to chat about this terrific little book I read recently. Chris Cleave is the author of Little Bee-- I am sure many of you have read this one before. I had not, but I had heard very good things about that and kept running into great reviews of Gold. The story line sounded just like I like 'em: a little Olympics, a little tension between friends, a little life and death edginess. And I was not disappointed.

Basically Zoe and Kate are track cyclists of Olympic medalist level. They are wicked good on the track, share the same coach, and have trained together for years and years. They share a bunch of things in addition to Tom-- a boyfriend, a daughter, a love of biking-- but it is only at the end, after years and years of Zoe kicking Kate's butt (barely matters a lot in track riding) or Kate choosing motherhood over winning that there is some resolution of how to live life without the rest of life getting in the way.

I loved Cleave's artful storytelling. Some books lift up the drama too much, but not Cleave. He holds a restraint in his writing that I really appreciated. The text was simple and complex at the same time, and I didn't want to put this book down. While fierce in the competitive levels framed and the dedication to one another, no matter some of the great challenges framed within, it still read as a quiet book for me. I am sure I am confusing you, but I could so see this happening in a sport. So see it.

I wonder what others thought of this....and Little Bee? Readers, advice?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

If you are like me, you jump at each Jacqueline Woodson title. I have used several in my classroom practice, and each time, the books served us sooo well, like third things taking us deeper through major thresholds of being in community. Really powerful. Her new book, Each Kindness, is no exception, bringing the reader into an inner conflict familiar to many of us.

Chloe is an elementary student who makes a mistake but doesn't realize the inner ramifications until too late. A new girl enters Chloe's classroom community, but Chloe refuses to spend time with her. Maya, the new girl, tries again and again to connect with Chloe and her friends but the social price simply is too high for Chloe. Until Maya leaves.

Woodson takes us on an deeply personal and familiar inner journey in this book. It is a heartbreaking story, worthy of being told and then dug into with others. Find this one: it is a keeper. Each Kindness: yea, that.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Earwing and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

Seeking a laugh out loud and simple read for those new to reading on their own? Or a laugh out loud and simple read aloud as our evenings get darker and the season turns a little spooky? Diana Wynne Jones homered this one! I loved Earwig and the Witch: come on, with a title like that, you know you are in for a good read!

Erica Wigg, better known throughout the book as Earwig, is simply pleased with her life in the orphanage. She loves her days and nights there, and her best friend Custard (real name: John Coster) lives there too. One day a rather odd looking couple visits, and Earwig, ahem, Erica, despite her ugliest face- making goes home with the woman and the Mandrake. The surprising story continues with Earwig journeying into her birthright gift of being a witch and learning the hard and not-so-hard way of getting what you need and want from those around you. A talking cat, rather unpredictable adults, and a humorous storyline leads the reader well. This book is a blast. I encourage you to race right out, find this gem, and set with some youngsters who are ready to giggle. Your painful stomach muscles will not regret it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Black Boy White School by Brian F. Walker

I couldn't stop reading this book. Brian F. Walker writes from his own experiences here in part although it is a book of fiction. I walk around every day, in white skin and white privilege, not knowing what I am missing. I pass through the world with folks not knowing I am gay, but people of color don't have that opportunity. Judgment rides a broad and demanding horse, and this book attempts to shed light on one person's viewing of that experience.

Ant lives in East Cleveland, in a neighborhood filled with violence and anger. In spite of all of the trials Ant witnesses and battles against, he still carries the truth of what "home" can be. He receives a scholarship to an elite, mostly white boarding school in Maine, and once there, he quickly realizes that racism is an ugliness that pervades every community, from inner city to deep forest. He battles back, sometimes in ways that cause people to shy away and other times in ways that invite them to lean in.

In an interview on You Tube, Mr. Walker talks a bit about how much of the book is based on his experiences. The original title of the book was Look Both His story is only enlarged by listening to the words through his voice. Powerful. If you want to hear it from him, here is the link:

I loved how the author pulled few punches, and the realistic way he represents Ant's struggles expose powerfully the heft and tension an African-American male teen must carry these days. The story ends with some hope but no clear next steps. I appreciated the authentic struggles that the author uses to teach through this text, and I am glad he took the risk to name the bitter truth encapsulated and experienced within so many of the neighborhoods that fill our cities across the country. I most wondered how accurate the storyline holds with the author's experiences. I doubt if I would be surprised.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dear Blue Sky by Mary Sullivan

I have long been a secret fan of war books. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried tops a long list of adult novels I have really appreciated and enjoyed reading. I have found a few teen novels that have really engaged me, but not a ton. Maybe it has to do with the voice of the character but for some reason, whether I am a girl or I have no experience with war or who knows, many of the y.a. books just haven't caught me. Dear Blue Sky is housed in the juvenile category of the library because the main character is a eighth-grade girl, and we all know that kids will read about characters older than they are but not younger so the juvie category makes sense, but this one caught me. In a good way. Well, not that war can be good in general terms but for me, the book really hooked me. Be warned though: the content is wicked intense and me, this is a keeper.

Cassie's older brother heads to Iraq to serve in the Army. The entire family reels with his absence, and the outer story of this book percolates around how they make it through those first few months of life with Sef at war. But the inner story centers on Cassie and how she is making it through. Like how does she continue to be the same big sister she was before Seb left and also take the important place that her big brother had with their youngest brother who has Down's syndrome and struggles mightily to live up to being the superhero of his brother? How does Cassie stay true to who she is when her friends and family members keep doing unusual things? What does Cassie need to do to keep uncovering who she is as a growing teen?

And then there's this small thing called the war, and Cassie's own judgment of "those people" who live in Iraq. The author, Mary Sullivan, brilliantly connects Cassie with an Iraqi teen who also struggles with the war's effects on her actual daily living. Blue Sky's reality: the war is outside (and sometimes INSIDE) her own increasingly blown-up home. The two communicate electronically for much of the book, and Blue Sky offers Cassie a completely different way to hold and consider the war. Life changing, view changing, and compassion opening, this book really names some of the great struggles we often have with war and don't take the time to uncover it all, much less deal with it.

I really loved this book. When an author writes in ways that I can naturally bridge into an unfamiliar  experience and then help me continue connecting with characters and the actions they take, I know I have a keeper. I will definitely recommend this book to others. In fact, I know of several past kindergartners who family members may still be in Iraq. I think this might open some conversations....thanks to Mary Sullivan for writing this important book.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tex by Dorie McCullough Lawson

Picture books rely on the reader's immediate and definitive engagement. The balance between text and illustration must be balanced and continuous, inviting and particularly directional. Color-filled illustrations that take the reader to their own dreamed mind-space. When a picture book works, I feel my own small worlds of focus, life experience, memories, and professional knowing come into alignment, this inner converging and calming.

Alright, so that might be a pretty gigantic task for one solitary picture book. But stick with me here: I used to dream of being a cowboy. I always struggled with the title because I could see me with the whole western get-up but not the leather-fringed skirt. Now you see why cowboy and not cowgirl. But I digress. I dreamed of horses and land, barns and poop, hay and chores...the whole nine yards. I read Little Britches by Ralph Moody so many times I know some of the words by heart still. And Tex took me right into that big, unlived dream from my childhood. Size matters, and the photos of the boy out in the fields, riding horses, working the ranch...all took me right back there. My dream may not come true but his just might.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Running on Eggs by Anna Levine

Are you looking for a book that makes you...
look at running through a different lens?
wonder about life split by a no-man's zone?
rethink the words and friendship?
think about the conflict between the Jews and Israelis?
think about said conflict through the eyes of two teen girls?
and a well-intentioned, compassionate brother?
explore blame?
consider friendship?
catches you from the first sentence?

Read Running on Eggs. You will be glad you did. Really. Just read it. Find it. Then maybe sneak me a line and tell me what you think.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin

I wasn't sure about reading this one. I loved the cover and the title, and I felt a keen engagement with the opening lines. But then, for just a few moments, I got lost, right when she was in the diner with her parents. I just felt like I kept missing important pieces-- which I obviously did as I reread the first chapter just now! When this Margaret character (who ends up becoming really important to me) shows up. I decide to stick with it. I actually told Alysa some fib about how I wasn't ready to read Insurgent yet because I was just not ready when the fact is that I HAD to figure out why I wanted to read this book that I usually would put down and something inside of me know what I mean. Next time I will tell her that I am stuck in a book that I totally don't understand. That ought to go over well. 

"...None of us are superheroes. These sadnesses that we have never fully go away. And sometimes they rear up, and if we're not careful, if we don't find ways to remind ourselves of what we know--who we know we can be--they make us forget what we've learned, and take us back to the dark place where we started. The place where every decision is a wrong one." (Page 333)

Every so often, this book offered me a little glimpse of how to get through some of the trials life always offers. I mean the deep and dark trials most of us face some time in our life. I think that is why I keep reading these young adult books that have some pretty gruesome story lines in them. I keep wanting to understand how we do it, how do we make it through these dark times. This fabulous, albeit dark, daunting, and important read is one of the most engrossing I have read in a long time.

Short hint at the storyline: Lida has some pretty painful losses she is carrying around inside. Her new high school is out in the beautiful sticks of some national forest--like place way out in the middle of nowhere called the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Because of some of her actions at home, her father and stepmother send her to this wilderness high school for troubled teen girls (yep, the ones where inevitably someone screws up and gets hurt in real life). Amidst some rather tough gals, Lida finds her way albeit in with a few surprises all the way to the end. If you like stories with tough girls figuring out how to survive in the rather surprising environment of "No Return," you just might like The Girls of No Return.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Path of Stars by Anne Sibley O'Brien

This beautiful story of a grandmother, a granddaughter, and the lives we live together and apart is such a keeper. I read this book this morning early, right after my morning writing time. Now, a half hour later, I keep turning to the book sitting beside me, its beautiful cover seeming to call me. I felt transported in this book, entering the lives  of two people whom I don't know but totally could. This Remarkable.

Dara's grandmother, Lok Yeah, is a refugee from Cambodia. Lok Yeah loves to tell stories to her granddaughter, and Dara loves to listen to them. Lok Yeah tells of gorgeous moments, of flowers and fruit, of growing up with her brother like Dara is with her own brother. Sometimes Lok Yeah tells the painful story of war in Cambodia, of loss, of how she and her brother survived, toting Dara's mother along in the war-torn fields and forests. When the grandmother receives word that her brother has died, she is devastated. It takes the miracles only a wise child brings to recenter her dear grandmother as she grieves.

I feel so fortunate to keep finding these books. This one, like so many, keep informing my life, my questions, my foundations.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan

Looking for a beautiful book that focuses on colors and culture of Islam? Accomplished author Hena Khan offers us another insightful and centering book here.  A new author to me, I picked this book off the shelf at the library because of the subtitle, A Muslim Book of Colors, and the lovely cover. Engaged from the start, I read slowly, allowing my eyes to lead me from illustrations to words to illustrations. As I read, I felt this calm settle over me.

Centering on colors, Khan's book introduces her readers to the religious world of the family in the text. The young girl begins the day  kneeling next to her father as he faces toward Mecca and prays. Mom's hijab offers us another entrance into objects and colors of their lives. Gold, orange, black, brown, purple, yellow, and more shower the reader with gentle yet powerful examples of the gorgeous purpose of these objects and practices in the life of one girl's family.

I can imagine using this text as a wonderful diverse welcome to the millions of books focused on color. I often shy away from using color-themed books because I find they often dumb down the issues. Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns presents a completely different way of looking into the lives of people in our world. I am well aware of the power of texts that touch purposefully on cultural practices; this book might just welcome in a young person who has been waiting to see themselves somewhere on the pages of the books in your classroom or home.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Case Of The Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence

Looking for a kid-sized western.mystery with tons of voice, a young male character who finds his way, some treacherous suspense just right for a pre-teen reader who would much rather be living in the 1800's than now? Add in the high likelihood of the main character being labeled these days on the autism spectrum, some dirty scoundrels trying to steal everything away from him, and some good adults to help support him in a very round-a-bout way, and you come up winning. This one swallowed me whole, and it was just the summer read I needed to disappear into a book. No stress, just a good solid story line, some fabulous character development, a collection of interesting details involving playing poker and reading body language, and some crazy old West .... all that and a cold drink were all I needed to simply be consumed by this book.

Pinky Pinkerton has had a tough go of it recently. His foster parents die a gruesome death, Pinky walks in right as his mother is dying, hears his mother's dying last words and figures it all out: the killers are actually out to find him and a certain "make you a millionaire" paper that PK has in his medicine bag. Yea, PK is part Lakota and part white. So the chase begins. The story wanders and races the killers' chasing him, with PK only occasionally choosing the right people to trust. The paper that is so important (seems it is a deed to a mine of silver-rich land!) changes hands several times, but PK never gives up. A card shark kindly takes PK under his wing, and ends up being a good guy in the midst of his cheatin' ways. True to pre-teen form, it all ends well in this one, but PK had to do some fancy footwork to make it happen.

This is a keeper, for sure!  A western mystery: who knew?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Open by Andre Agassi

Our family watches the Olympics every chance we get these early days of August. The stories, the action, we love it all. The sound of the theme music initiates a memory line in me that fires open when I hear it; I can remember as a child watching the few televised hours each night of action and just loving it. I can hear Jim McKay’s voice right now: that’s the power of memory and emotion I think, glued to that action, to what was going on at the Olympics.

I am totally into reading memoirs these days, and when a friend suggested reading Open, I jumped on it. Andre Agassi has always been an amazing athlete to me, and I figured his autobiography (I know, I know: not memoir!) would be rich. And it is. A solid read telling the story of his hating tennis, his coaches, his constant desire to quit tennis, and his staying power to continue to seek perfection and personal satisfaction. I found the read a pretty clear example of the humanity of life from an professional athlete’s perspective.

He aptly tells the story of his life in Open. Agassi is a surprisingly good writer, even though he never got engaged in schooling and escaped from it as soon as he could. He writes about developing lasting friendships and maneuvering the challenges he experienced within his family. Some of the stories will likely make you cringe but I have to say I would like to see what this “monster” his dad created looks like. Sounds like quite the nightmare-inducing machine. That being said, I way more want to see his trainer Gil’s idea of a good workout. Agassi entertains the reader with stories of resilience, of finding his way from despair and decisions of quitting to hope and trying new training techniques. Much of his book explores his ongoing need for trusted friends supporting his quest for internal greatness: it is from his finding the proper supports that he ends up becoming the great tennis player he was. Mostly I think I liked how his story sounds so familiar, common, like living through the trials of life hit all of us, and how we have to find our way, alone and with others.

I really enjoyed this read. If you are looking for a calm, engaging sports story, wanting to know a little more about Stefanie Graf and Andre Agassi (or even Brooke Shields), this might be a good summer read for you! Particularly before the closing of the Olympics.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

"Look, nobody's beating us. They're not even yelling at us. It's not like that." I sighed and shook my head. "You asked me if I trusted them, and like, I trust them to drive the vans safely on the highway, and I trusth that they'll buy food for us every week, but I don't trust that they actually know what's best for my soul, or how to make me the best person with a guaranteed slot in heaven or whatever." I could tell I was losing him. Or maybe I'd never had him to begin with, and I was mad at myself for being so inarticulate, for messing up what I felt like I owed to Mark, even if he wouldn't see if that way, which he probably wouldn't."     (Page 399)

I cautiously read gay and lesbian YA. You see I don't get too jazzed about the sex scenes in any books, and sometimes, like all forms of fiction, some authors push the boundaries too much for me. Gay and lesbian YA can occasionally do this (like I said, like ALL YA fiction. I stumbled onto The Miseducation of Cameron Post on a Lee Wind's blog and figured it was worth a shot when I ran across it at the library. BINGO! The very next week, that gem landed right in my line of vision at the good 'ole Belmont branch library, and it was mine!!  Must have been fate because this read was meant to happen.

Danforth weaves a fabulous and mostly realistic-to-me tale of a teen figuring out how to deal with the adults in her life who can't handle her attraction to girls. After her parents are killed in a car wreck, her born-again aunt comes to live with her and grandmother. Time beats on their relationship relentlessly, and the aunt decides the best way to deal with her neice's "issue" is to send her to reform high school. Reform for gays that is, Christian gays....Cameron's freshman year of high school finds her at God's Promise Christian School and Center for Healing. The gays, lesbian, trans, and otherwise unlabeled but obviously sexual deviants according to the Church are just like high schoolers at any school: some rebelling, some eager and engaged, and some flat out just trying to find their way to survive. Cameron indeed finds her way, but certainly not as the loner she entered the school as nor as the outcast.

Cameron's goals ring true for what I know of most of us: trying to find our way to discovering who we are and who we believe will most help us journey with clarity and peace. I appreciated most how respectful of her audience this author is; over and over, I felt some welcomed as a reader, as if she knew just when to lay down another rung in the bridge of story telling for this book. This is a rich one, and I encourage you to check it out if you are in the mood for a solid, respectful, not-too-sexy, realistic lesbian YA novel. Let me know what you think, will you?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Laundry Day by Maurie J. Manning

Are you looking for a read aloud that folks of any age would enjoy? One that might just speak to the powerful possibilities of community? A book that has stunning illustrations and a surprising storyline? A GRAPHIC NOVEL PICTURE BOOK perhaps? Welllllll, if this is what you are looking for, I may have just the ticket, er book!

I love, love, love Laundry Day. Set in early 1900's New York City in the tenements, this is the story of a young shoe-shine boy who starts his day like usual only to discover a red scarf drifting down to his neck from somewhere above. But where? We travel through his moments trying to find the owner, as he meets and greets friends known and new from many different lands. The simplicity of the story captured me the moment I opened it in the library last week. Immediately my mind started identifying ways to use this text: first with kindergartners and next with the adults I teach.

This is one of those "OMG, who will I share this with first?" books. My friend Ruth was the first recipient this time; she loved it!!! What a brilliant book by Maurie Manning, what a gift she has offered us! Go find this gem. Really, you will not be disappointed at all!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Hey everyone! I am so sorry that I haven't posted a blog entry in so long! The end of the school year got very busy for me. But anyway, on to the book!

The book that I am going to be sharing today is called Divergent by Veronica Roth. I just finished reading the book Insurgent which is sequel to Divergent and I thought it was even better then Divergent which I didn't know was possible. I will be writing a blog on Insurgent soon. I thought this book was incredibly detailed and I really felt like I was the main character. I finished it in about 3 days. 

There are five factions. Abnegation, Dauntless, Amity, Candor and Erudite. All of them believe different things for the way things are, and all serve a different purpose in society. Abnegation believes in being selfless, and they do everything for the good of others and nothing for themselves. Dauntless are fearless and chance takers. They help protect the society and are "hard core". Amity are peace keepers. They believe in equality and peace among all. Candor believe in honesty and telling the truth. And Erudite search for knowledge and the world is a classroom. When citizens turn 16 they choose a faction. They take a test to see which would be the best fit for them. Sometimes it's the faction you are born into, and sometimes it's another. And then there are the people that are called "Divergent" which means they are eligible for more then one faction. The people who are Divergent often keep it a secret because there are serious consequences when discovered. Many end up faction-less. These people are feared by the government because the factions have no way of controlling the people since they often show personality traits of other factions and don't always work under certain simulations and serums. That is what the main character Beatrice is. She was born into Abnegation and then found she was divergent and could be in Abnegation, Erudite, or Dauntless. Surprising everyone and herself, she chose Dauntless. Usually people from Abnegation do not choose Dauntless. While she goes through the gruesome trails to secure her spot in the Dauntless faction, there is a terrible plan brewing in the background as Jeanine, Erudite leader plans a simulation attack. Beatrice (now Tris) has to figure out what "divergent" really means and how important she could be in saving millions of peoples lives. And of course there is the mysterious Four (yes, that's his name) who seems to have a terrible secret hidden in his past and a personality that is different from the other Dauntless. Maybe Tris will find love while she is trying to save the world. 

I loved this book. If you have read the book Matched by Ally Condie or liked the Hunger Games, I think that you would really enjoy this book. Personally, it is one of my favorite books now and I cannot wait until the next book comes out. I believe the book store is calling you. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Your Moon, My Moon by Patricia Maclachlan

Alysa and I just returned from an extended weekend at my mom's: a little grandma time is often a terrific gift to children. This time, I experienced the sweetness of my mom being surrounded by her three children (my brother, sister, and me) as well as five grandchildren (Will Grey, Harry, Molly, Amelia, and Alysa). The grandchildren range from Harry as the youngest at 4 to Amelia as oldest at 18. I loved watching the little and big interactions, the moving in closer for the always- ready hugging arms to the simple glances and connections.

You already know how much I love some of Maclachlan's work. Here she has written another goodie, and this one always makes me think of my mother. The subtitle of this book is "A Grandmother's Words to a Faraway Child." I don't recall other books with that intent-- to connect from a distance with such clarity, grandmother to grandchild-- but here is Machlachlan again naming truths. She must be at an amazing point in her life where her experiences of grandparenting inform her writing. At least that seems true to me. I mean here is this book and I think of Kindred Souls which I reviewed earlier as examples that make me wonder what else she has waiting for us.

Maclachlan organizes her writing around the two homes of characters: one of the grandmother, living somewhere where it snows, and one of the grandchild, living somewhere hot. She uses the great distance between the two characters as a starting point, exploring all that the two humans have in common from shared experiences, and ends with a significant connection: the shared moon. On the back cover, she has written "Your moon is my moon too."

I can imagine reading this to children to invite connections with grandparent experiences. But really, I can totally see grandparents reading this to their grandchildren. Lovely as is so often true with her work, I love this book by Maclachlan. I wish I had thought to bring it to Colorado with me, just to see if my guess of intrigued audiences is really true.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

 I loved John Green and David Levithan's Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I reviewed it here

And then this book, The Fault in Our Stars, kept popping into my mind. Some crazy thing about the New York Times Bestseller list and a bunch of blogs across the country from amazing literacy leaders: I obviously needed to read this book. And I am so glad I did.

If you haven't put it together, I love reading books with teen characters struggling and finding their way to living a life that feels right. I mean, being a teen is hard enough, add in the challenges of dealing with confusing parents (ahem: I should know...) and the threat of figuring out how to earn money as an adult (read: career!) and life gets pretty full. Then there is all of that craziness about being true to yourself, right in the midst of trying to conform to society. Wicked, isn't it, what we put our teens through?

Well actually, these teens do have it wicked. The three main characters have some form of cancer. And it is life threatening for all of them. Brutal. Unbelievable. And so true. Readers enter this book through a female teen, Hazel, who struggles with thyroid cancer that has moved into other body parts that make breathing very difficult. Isaac loses his eyes during the story to cancer. Augustus enters as a friend to Isaac and becomes crucial to Hazel, as is obvious is this quote: "I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."

Augustus battles vehemently throughout, leading Hazel and Isaac through the ultimate challenges of living and dying. He tells Hazel early on, "That is the thing about pain. It demands to be felt."

What I liked most about this book, beyond the storyline, is the writing: Green is profound in his humor. More times than my partner would like to count, I was rolling in laughter, reading in my chair while she read the dry, dull newspaper. Hysterical and to the point, Green's writing style is just spot on, exactly what I have either heard or would guess I would hear from teens. Remarkable.

Just in love with this book... you gotta read it. If you are in the mood for a jugular-level, heart-felt, teen-accurate story, with a significant amount of cancer realism thrown in for support, this is the book for you. Trust me though: don't let the cancer part throw you. If anything, that subject plays clean up in brand-new ways.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Zachary's Ball by Matt Tavares

I know adults who are rabid Boston Red Sox fans. Every time I see the "B" on their ball caps, perched just so on their heads, a little smile creeps into my mind. Such dedicated sweetness.

As a kid, I liked baseball. I would do almost anything physical, so if someone wanted to throw the ball with me, usually I would. Even if it was my brother who threw about ten times harder than me and made it a point to burn a hole in my glove with his blasting throws. That smack of ball on leather and resulting "oooowww!" makes me laugh now, but not then. I think I might have loved baseball more if there were a stadium like Fenway nearby and if I had a family member who loved baseball and took me to games. This story by Matt Tavares focuses on the "magic" of baseball, and in particular on the magic of the balls from games like those played by the Red Sox.

A young boy sees his first ball game with his dad. His dad just happens to catch a foul ball and hands it lovingly to his son. The boy's mind takes him into playing on the field as he holds that sweet leather ball, and he decides it magic. The story takes the reader into that magic in sweet story and rich black-and-white illustrations. I really liked the rhythm of this book, and I can imagine reading it to all sorts of young readers who are interested in sports and the magic the world of movement can offer us. Zachary's Ball: it's a keeper!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Words that speak to truth

Up til now, Alysa and I have written about all of the great books we are reading. But I want to change that today.

I also am a huge blog consumer. I read biking blogs and literacy blogs and educator blogs and survivor blogs and parenting blogs and more. Earlier this week at one of the blogs I list on our short blog list to the right of the blog page, I read an entry that stopped me. It is because of Lee Wind's entry that I am changing reviewing only books.

What he wrote-- or linked to-- is that important. Read this post.

Now read this one.

Yep. Real-life important stuff. Like how to learn from and with our own children. How to listen into them, even when it is so wicked difficult we forget to breathe. 

I consider myself lucky in that when I did figure out I was gay, I was mostly accepted. I didn't experience bullying much, and my family seemed to take it okay. I did experience a decent amount of homophobia in college but that is another story.  Yes, it still was a struggle but nothing like what this kid writes of. I was lucky to grow up in a family where acceptance was key to life, no matter what. For the last few years, I have followed lots of stories about the losses gay youth and young adults experience. The suicides pain me deeply. When I read stuff like this, I realize how far we have to grow as a community.

I am gonna stop writing and let you get to the links...I really think these are the beginnings of honest conversations. I can tell you that it was within my own family, just earlier this week. Deep breath in, I learned more about the pain my family members carried in those early years. See where this all takes you. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mary's Penny by Tanya Landman

My partner works her buns off at her parent's farm. She grew up there, she feels a tremendous connection to the land, and she would love some day to live there again. When I watch her work (or work beside her as is more frequently the case), I see how hard she works and how much she gets done. Routinely she outworks me by accomplishing at least twice what I get done. Relentless and never resting, she is always on the lookout for jobs to accomplish on that beautiful piece of land.

Mary, the main character in Mary's Penny, reminds me of Laurie. Smart, hard working, and ever-invested, Mary figures out how to to outwit her brothers without even trying. Greater she proves again to her father, the witless dud, that girls can do what they set their minds to. Granted, of course, the father and brothers love Mary, but set in a time long ago (or not so long ago) when girls were seen as unworthy for many tasks, she was just a worker. Mary finds how to accomplish the father's task with ease and grace, and he adequately offers the prize to her.

This is a lovely, simple retelling of a common tale from years' past, but Tanya Landman brings new words and ideas to the table. The illustrator, Richard Holland, brings new light into this common story as well with his brilliant drawings. I loved this book, smile when I see the cover, and am scheming over who to share it with next.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

I happened to run across this book at the library of the college where I teach. I was drawn by the private high school, snobbish boys finding their way idea, and I loved the idea of a sailing theme drawing richness into what the book might be for me. I used to teach at a private all-girls' k-8 school in San Francisco, and I so grew from the experience of teaching in that school culture. The school was established more than a hundred years ago, and the cultural history continues to be so rich. To this day, I treasure going to the school's website and seeing who I might know and who might still be connected to it. I grew up in far different waters within my family; I know the only way I could have ever been a student at a school like the one I taught at was through a full scholarship. I remember when I was exploring colleges that my mother wanted me to try to attend the small, private, liberal arts college she attended. Believing the possibility impossible, I didn't even try. Teaching at Burke's offered me a beginning chance to understand a culture that I had never known. I had hoped to unpack this a little in this book, but I hadn't realized how boys might too be looking to understand how they fit and jibe with a culture.

A short synopsis of the book: Jason gets booted out of his first private high school and his rich father donates a ton of money to get him into a different one for Jason's senior year. Jason knows a few folks at this new school, but he seeks distance from them and the partially tragic/ partially heartbreaking past that trails him. He has no idea how the past will follow him. The story takes him through finding and losing friends, making friends by bullying others, and discovering how his heart leads him into truths and loss that he doesn't believe he knows how to carry. Sailing offers him an out while the ocean remains a calming resource that helps him find his way.

I really enjoyed this coming of age story. I appreciated the author's rhythms within the text, and I really liked the way she writes. She is not overly dramatic in her work, and she seems to encourage us to add in just what we need to in terms of emotional engagement. What I most appreciated was how she writes with this idea of a truth source not yet available to the main character, like it is just out of his reach if he will only get out of his own way. Sounds quite familiar to me at least.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

Every once in a while, children’s authors nail a story. Their work ending in the final sentence, the images floating through the reader’s head come to a sad close, and us, the reader closes the book slowly, wanting more and knowing the end really has come. Bittersweet, yes? This is exactly how I felt about this book. 

I usually fly through books. I read so much, I gave myself permission years ago to read what I want and how I want in most of my reading. I mean, the book is there to fill us, to inform us, to change us, yes? I give myself permission to read quickly, to skim. Not this book. I noticed about a third of the way in that I was taking my time. Granted it might be because I was in between teaching courses, but still, it surprised me. And I am so glad I did. I recently read The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk--totally awesome read, on my top books of all time list--and in The Lions of Little Rock, I continued digesting Newkirk's stance on reading. He spoke of how we have to bring this deep trust to the works we read, that we have to slow down and really journey with the author by trusting ourselves as readers. Well, I found by doing this that I got to know and connect with the characters more, I found myself more compassionate toward some of the characters whom I didn't like, and I found myself more peaceful in the read (as in slowing down). 

This book centers on two teen girls, one African-American and one white, in 1958. They became friends at school. Because of the utterly awful racism that was occurring, the girls weren't allowed to be friends. Of course that doesn't stop them, bad things happen, and still they follow what is true about each other and themselves and eventually teach the adults around them how to show up in one's truth. The author writes a compelling story of these girls, their personal issues, their family struggles. That would be enough for a story. But the addition, the centering on racism and hatred, catapults this story into great possibility. The author stays true to the historic tensions that have been well documented, but she also took liberty to synthesize those times through the lens of high schoolers. What might it have been like to witness older brothers and sisters not able to attend school because of segregation and the need to desegregate? I can only imagine, and I am glad this story opened my lens of looking into the Little Rock 9, racism in the late '50's, and what might have been truth for some people then. Skin color matters not; who you are inside is gold.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

We March by Shane W. Evans

When I taught kindergarten and when I was a reading specialist, I was always searching for books that invited young readers into life experiences in gentle and genuine ways. I can guarantee you if I had found this book then, it would have been in my classroom within the week. As it is, my graduate students (all of whom are teachers) may just be seeing this one next week at our first class session.

Based on the March on Washington in August of 1963, this is a picture- rich exploration of what it was like to walk, breathe, and hope for civil rights for African Americans. The illustrations literally lift off the page in welcome and truth. They are bold, stark, and brilliant. Few words are included on each page; sometimes only two words grace a two-page spread. And the entire simple concept serves as a threshold into understanding the power in each moment of that miraculous day. The tension of the times is palpable within the book. I believe that this will become a key text for young readers who seek to make sense of a direly important time in our country.

I was 5 months old when the March on Washington occurred. I have heard my mother tell stories of that time in my family's history, of relatives and friends of my family marching, of folks pushing back in Texas, my birthplace, and in the South, where I lived for the first 10 years of my life and where my family has extensive and continuing roots. At my first teaching job, I grew speechless listening to a fellow teacher speak about her experience walking with Martin Luther King to Selma. This book serves as a critical re-centerer for me, for my teaching, and for my parenting. Racism continues here in the Northwest, like it does everywhere, and books like this one are yet another important gemstone that keeps me focused on the reasons why brave people took the risks they did for social justice over almost 50 years ago. It also reminds me how I must continue to "march" for social justice in my teaching, parenting, and living.

***Still in conversation with Alysa about her writing here. She tells me her friends don't read (sound familiar, middle-school and high school educators?). She still wants to write for the blog but I had another idea. What if in between her entries which may be more spread out than we originally agreed to if I sort of interview her or write up a few sentences on a review? Just thinking. Will let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hannah's Way by Linda Glaser

The inside cover of this book reads "After Papa loses  his job during the Depression, Hannah's family moves to rural Minnesota, where she is the only Jewish child in her class. When her teacher tries to arrange carpools for a Saturday class picnic, Hannah is upset. Her Jewish family is observant, and she cannot ride on the Sabbath...."

One of the things I most love about picture books these days is how authors and publishers are smacking home runs in the subject departments. I mean seriously, what a superb tension to write about, in a community that most of us can identify with, and with questions that all of us, young and old can connect with. Children (and we adults at times) are always trying to find bridges between tensions and joys in our lives.

I love the illustrations in this book. The illustrator, Adam Gustavson, is new to me, but I loved how he portrayed the aloneness in the main character's eyes. I really enjoyed the teacher in this book, but hey, I am a teacher and am immensely committed to the craft of teaching so I am an easy sell. I loved, loved, loved the ending.

When I read this book at the library, I found myself shaking my head, surprised again at the treasures around me. Books: filled with gifts for all of us.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Exposed by Kimberly Marcus

Marcus writes the story of two best friends who lose their friendship over rape. Challenged to stop reading mid way, I just finished and though I don't have much time, I just finished and had to write this post. I loved this book, and I hate that it needs to be written.

Liz and Kate are best pals in their senior year in high school. Plans about college, dance, photography, and boys percolate about the entrance to this book, until a party, underage drinking, and a boy sexually assaults one of the best friends. The boy: the other girl's brother. Oops, wait: he didn't assault her. Rather the question is did he. Was it consensual or not: the question that follows so many situations these days. I found the way the author continued to turn directly into the dark light of this story engaging. She pulls no punches; I often felt the energy of the girls as they continued through their losses, particularly that of Liz.

This is a first book for Kimberly Marcus, and I can only hope she keeps writing more that engage and storytell through this lens. The subject matter, while challenging, remains crucial for our time.

***Still working on Alysa. Yes, I know: I am not being terribly successful, am I? Urg. Ideas? Yes, I know: maybe this weekend....

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud

Did you know that two mules were specially selected to pull Martin Luther King's casket from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College? I had no idea. And that Doctor King was the one who wished to have "mules pull the farm wagon that would hold his burial casket"? (If my mother reads this entry, she will likely mutter because I think I just goofed on the order of the quotation marks and the question mark. None of it looks right: sorry about that.) Thank goodness for these authors who knew I for one needed to know about this story; it is spectacular.

Belle, the Last Mule at Gees' Bend starts as a story of a boy in the small town of Camden, Alabama waiting for his mom to come home. He notices this mule eating greens in a garden and questions a woman sitting near him about the freedom to graze that this mule has. She proceeds to tell the story of Dr. King's visits to Camden years before, about how he inspired residents to take gigantic risks and register to vote: in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement! Belle, along with a number of other mules, pulled adults who wanted to register across the river when a huge flood came and made the river uncrossable. The story continues with the author framing how Belle and one other mule, Ada, were the chosen ones and selected to pull the casket.

I totally loved this book. The storyline surprised me, I loved the illustrations, I learned something brand new, and I fell more in love with historical fiction. Brilliant, simply brilliant! One of the authors also wrote Ruth and The Green Book, a picture book that I reviewed here Go to your library or fave bookstore and pick up this wonderful book. And then email me and tell me what you think.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Life in the Ocean by Claire A. Nivola

On National Library Day (thanks to my good buddies at Lit for Kids for that amazing info!), I celebrate my local library for bringing me another amazing picture book. I love the book about Wangari Maathai, Planting the Trees of Kenya, so it is no surprise that this new read about the oceanographer Sylvia Earle wins my attention. But Nivola does one more thing in Life in the Ocean that caught me: she infuses Earle's current language and quotes into the book itself in a rather remarkable way.

This Sylvia Earle gal sounds amazing. I can well recall my own explorations out in nature growing up, and Nivola does a sweet job of connecting her reader's life experiences with Earle's. The way she starts the story with Earle's childhood invited me to look back gleefully-I loved exploring as a kid--but I can imagine young readers taking on the persona and experiential practices that the author writes of in this book. The illustrations draw readers in instantly. If you liked the illustrations in the Maathai book, you will love these drawings. The ocean is literally on the page, and it is easy to disappear into the details and imagine yourself swimming and observing right beside Earle.

But I loved the quotes from Earle the most. For instance, close to the end of the text, Nivola writes, "One expedition, 3,000 feet down, was, Sylvia says, like 'diving into a galaxy.'" Really. I am telling you, this is a keeper. I loved this book. The illustrations completely match the images in my head and extend them. The story captured me from the start. After I read this book, I wondered about my own love of science and couldn't help but consider what might have changed in my professional career if I had read this book and learned more about Sylvia Earle when I was young.

**Side note: I am still nudging Alysa. She has had a draft waiting for completion for a week but no luck yet. Fingers crossed....

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Hunger Games Movie and Teaching

Having a teen-age daughter really changes what I read.

I balked thoroughly at reading The Hunger Games when it first came out, but she won: I read it and mostly enjoyed it. I posted an entry on the third book. I really liked the books. But the movie was a no-brainer. With the lead actor from Winter's Bone, Jennifer Laurence, and with the mockingjay sound, I was hooked. So early last week, we trekked to the theater, doing our best to avoid the spring-break crowds by going to a smaller theater. OMG, that is a great movie. I loved the character development, and I loved how the screenwriters lifted up what was most important from the book. My mental images while reading the book appeared on the screen, similar and completely believable. I was living The Games.

One thread caught me the most and held on: two participants from each of the 12 “Districts” (areas where people live but are governed by the Capital) are selected and must fight for their lives in The Hunger Games. At one point during the Hunger Games, Rue, the youngest player in the 74th Annual Games, is killed. Katniss, the lead character and also a participant in the Games, weeps at such a loss. This girl had actually saved Katniss’ life earlier, solidifying a natural connection between the two. Katniss is unable to save hers though she tries valiantly. After a poignant burial with flowers, Katniss, knowing she is being filmed, salutes Rue’s district in a statement of solidarity.

I loved the movie! The folks who made the decisions on what to include in the movie hit the nail on the head. They included just what was important in the movie. Try it and see what you think. But first, read the book: see if you aren't swallowed by it!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When Grandmama Sings by Margaree King Mitchell

I called my grandmother Grandmama.

I rarely see that name written that way, so of course, right away I was caught by that title. I saw my grandmother, imagined what made her "sing." Looked at some of the paintings we have around the house and a couple of photos of the last few times I sat with her before she died. Since my mother's mother died long before I met her, this is the only "grandmother" I have ever had. It was a sweet relationship, one that matured as I did. Who knows: maybe she was waiting for me to grow up a little? I don't know; I just know this title sent me on a memory trip I really enjoyed.

The story itself was far different than my own stories of time with my grandmother. Belle, the young girl, goes traveling with her grandmother around the segregated South while her grandmother sings for churches and concerts. Racism was alive and well then, and the storyline addresses some of the challenges the grandmama and band experienced during their tour. The power of song outweighs the insidious judgment of the racist folks they encounter, and throughout the story, the band meets up with plenty of people willing to look beyond their own hatred.

I am not sure how close to a true story this story is, but it sure seems possible. I enjoyed the read and would definitely use it with kindergartners and primary students. The illustrations are just as engaging as the story. Score another one for our library: they led me to another terrific read in When Grandmama Sings.

***Side note: I am still in the midst of inviting Alysa to think a little differently about this blog. She is mid-way through an entry and hopefully we will see it posted in the next couple of days. Fingers crossed!!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kindred Souls by Patricia MacLachlan

You know those books that you read in one sitting, that you just can't put down, that hook you from several levels inside of yourself? This was one of those books for me.

Written from the voice of a young boy who loves his grandfather more than anything, we travel through the days and nights of Jake. Jake will do anything for and with his grandfather. When his grandfather starts talking about wanting to rebuild the sod house that used to be on the farm property where they all live, Jake considers it. But then the grandfather Billy gets sick and has to go to the hospital, the story takes a deeper turn into what we do for people whom we dearly love: we try to create ways to keep them around and alive. So Jake and his family build the sod house while Billy is in the hospital, and the hope for living looms large. I don't want to stop you from reading this terrific book, so I will not tell the ending. I feel certain that you will want to finish it for yourself.

The decision to make this book a children's book stunned me. The font is large and the paragraphs short, meaning it is written for someone newer to reading. It is common for books of readers this age and experience to hold a watered-down feel, a softening of the blows of life. Not in Kindred Souls. MacLachlan holds such great respect for her readers that she crafted this book in a way that they would know how important they are to her, how wise and thoughtful. Really. Read it and see what you think. I find it masterful. Brilliant.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker

Look what I found at the library yesterday! I stumbled across this gem in the children's section. Did I mention somewhere in this blog how much I love, love, love our Multnomah County Library system? Amazing....and here they are, offering me another book I had never heard of AND obviously needed to. The illustrations rock. The storyline astounds. Simple yet massively complex, quiet yet heart-pounding, this book made me stop and sit down in the library floor and read it. Seriously.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown is based on a true story. Slave Henry carries a song inside always. His song gets far quieter when his wife and children are sold. To survive his loss, he decides to try a gigantic risk, one that changes his name and life forever. This was a surprising story to me, and the documentation at the end of the book stunned me.

Looking for a picture book that sets accusations that picture books are for children only on its side or a historical fiction book that is sure to surprise? Look no further: this one is a keeper.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Room by Emma Donoghue and a side note...

Room has gotten pretty solid reviews over the last year and a half of so since being published. Seriously this was a tough read for me; the subject is grim and so realistic, so imaginable, I had a hard time allowing myself to keep reading. In fact, I started it last summer and then stopped, believing I wasn't ready to make sense of it all. I am glad I returned to it.

Donoghue frames the story around a mother and her five-year-old boy and the Room they are forced to live in. The boy had never been outside of Room, the mother held captive by a pyschopath for seven years and forced into motherhood. Like I said, grim. But the mom figures out how to get them both out and start their lives over, a powerful, compelling complement to an otherwise gruesome story. I am glad I returned to this story, and I can totally understand why the reviews for the book are stellar. Donoghue has a keeper here; just be ready for a rich, dense, emotionally- challenging read.

On a side note, reader: I wonder if you all have been noticing how often I post and how infrequently Alysa posts. As an educator completely immersed in literacy, I am somewhat familiar with the research that points to high- school students not reading for fun and at home and all. I am perplexed about what makes Alysa hesitate to write here for this blog. Is she just too busy? Is the format of this blog unexciting now? Would a format with more pictures and media variety be more interesting? I honestly don't know, but I have been thinking about it for a while now. Just know that I am exploring what she would say she needs to become more active again here. I know she is reading for pleasure, something seems to stop her before she brings her interpretations to this page.  I will keep you posted as I search forward of what she needs, what might invite her here again, and what we have to change to help her continue to share her wisdom with a wider audience.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Flyaway by Lucy Christopher

I loved the gentle, flowing story in this book. Christopher writes so calmly, even in the midst of great tension and trial. She is a new author to me; I haven't read her Prinz Honor book Stolen yet. Have you?

Flyaway is the story of a young teen who loves her father, swans, and feathers. While out birding, her father falls gravely ill and she acts powerfully to save him and get him help. While in the hospital, she meets another ill boy who ends up playing quite a powerful role in the book, offering both solace to her as she maneuvers the challenges of witnessing the treacherous times of a severely ill parent as well as inviting her to grow beyond what seems like a stopping point in her own love of birds. As a children's chapter book, this read ends fairly well, common with this genre, but the entire story feels very realistic to me throughout.

I can see a number of audiences for this one: young teens and pre-teens in particular. I know that I enjoyed it, but I am a total sucker for life-connecting texts written in realistic ways, with realistic and at least at times compassionate characters, and with a possibly true ending. This one rocked the boat for me, meaning I put down other books to read this one by itself. Yep, it was a keeper.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bird by Zetta Elliott

I loved this one. Bird surprised me by its instant catch of unique and powerful storyline, fabulous illustrations (by Shadra Strickland), and sweetly told text swept me along. The cover is an intriguing one for me, and it makes me wonder what this young man is thinking. Mentored by wonderful and present elders, Bird finds his own way to hold the loss of his brother due to drugs.

At one point in the story, Bird sits with Uncle Son, his deceased-grandfather's friend, talking about what had happened to his brother. Bird tells Uncle Son that he wished he could have fixed his brother. The next words offer a brilliant glimmer into some of the wisdom setting in this book:

"You can fix a broken wing with a splint, and a bird can fly again, he said. "But you can't fix a broken soul."

Boom. Maybe this doesn't speak so loudly out of the context of the book, but within it, the words and message lit inside of me. When I finished reading the book, I actually felt inspired to write, as if some truth was waiting to emerge from me. Seriously. 

I found myself nodding as I read Bird, like somewhere in me a part of me was confirming that yes, I should have read this and that more people should too. At our local library, staff can write a little blurb about their interpretations of the book to entice you. Someone wrote this: I just read this book and I think everyone else should too. The drawings are heartwarming, and emotional. You can really feel what he is thinking." I am guessing by the handwriting that this staff member is younger than me by a good few decades, and still they are spot on: this is a rich read. It won a number of awards, including the new Voices Award. You owe it to yourself to read this. Really. It is that good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jocobson

One of my family members is an elephant fanatic. Ever since our trip to India several years back, she has been seriously passionate about elephants. Not crazy rabid or anything, just totally faithful that they carry great wisdom and spirit, and for that and more, she loves 'em. Loves 'em. She has spent time here locally very near some elephants ( I am sworn to secrecy for that story), she always has her elephant pendant on, and she created a tattoo with an elephant (as in Ganesh) at the center: see, committed. So when I saw the cover of this juvenile fiction book, I wondered about if someone like Laurie would like this book. Turns out the answer is very likely yes. I am not an elephant-driven gal, but the story sure made me wonder about the possibilities.

The story centers on a young man whose mother desserts him in a campground. Yep, she has her own issues and she makes a big mistake. And Jack, being the upstanding and dedicated kid he is, like most kids, he decides to go find her. It is not an easy journey for him, but let's just be sure we remember that he keeps his eyes on the prize of possibility. He comes across some very kind people in his travels, he has stuff stolen, he steals stuff, he realistically doesn't trust the cops, his old friends, and his new friends. He struggles to figure out what to do until he realizes where he must go (yep, this is one key point where elephants come into play). The storyline holds merit and seems plausible, and I would love to believe that if I had been in his shoes at his age that I would have had enough gumption to do what he did. I doubt I did. But on the converse side, I grew up around adults whom for the most part I trusted to help me out if I needed it. I grew up totally different than the frame Jacobson writes from for Jack. And I guess that is where I would love to believe I would have enough gumption, wherewithal, guts to show up and act like he does. It's pretty powerful, and the greatest thing to me was how one key person figured it all out just about when he did. And that is what made this book worth reading for me. Yep, the elephant piece is powerful, but for me, I maintain hope in connecting deeply with others and this "other" does just that.

This is a keeper. I really enjoyed it and can imagine young readers swallowing it all down and then needing to talk about it. You would be offering yourself a gift if you read it with or before your child or student; then you too get to witness Jacobson's handy work and enjoy a sweet story about elephants, survival, and relationship.