Monday, January 23, 2012

Leaves by David Ezra Stein

A simple, quiet story of a bear, the seasons, and interacting with nature, Leaves left me with a warm feeling inside. Each page has just a few words on it, so it would be a spacious read- aloud for young readers. The illustrations are just right, colorful and inviting, simple yet rich. I finished this book and wondered if it might be true, if bears really might create some sort of small relationship with leaves. This is a sweet read, one that I can imagine returning to with a variety of readers. Sweet.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Burn by Suzanne Phillips

What might you do if your own son or daughter killed someone as a result of bullying? How would you stand by them? How would you want your child to heal? What would you want their future to hold? Realistically? Truthfully? Painfully but honestly? And then, if you are like me, you are left with the emptiness of your own world of feelings, completely separate from theirs, but massively overwhelming just the same: how do you feel? And what are you gonna do about it?

This book is only about the first seven of those questions. The remaining in that list are simply part of what I was left with after I finished reading Burn. I still don't know my answers to the last questions. I do know that bullying is brutal, unpredictable, and wicked, and this book centers much of the storyline with those three adjectives in mind.

Burn is written by a special education English teacher; knowing special education teachers, I am guessing she has witnessed at least some of what she writes about. At the least I imagine it easy mental steps to create the story line in this book from what her students experience. I should know: my mother was a special education teacher for part of her career. While I am sure she sheltered me from many of the brutal stories her students carried and lived, I know it takes a special kind of compassion for holding that kind of living. In Burn, a teenager is bullied mercilessly by a schoolmate, a wicked/football playing/can-do-no-wrong-to-adults-and-torment-whomever-he-wants-particularly-the-scrawny kind of punk we all have examples of. After the abuse hits an ugly high, the protagonists' brain goes kinda wonky, off-center because of how the trauma of the abuse (and this is abuse) affects him. Funny how prevalent innocent until proven totally guilty rules in high schools; of course that makes sense until we return again to a story like this one. Something bad, nasty, painful, hateful, unbelievable happens, and silence is so, so, so often the response. Ugh. The phrase "he runs the school" is a common one in books like this one and in many of the coming-of-age fiction that keeps landing in my hands (ahem, I know, yes, I pick it up-- okay, I will own that). What makes this book unique is Phillips' transparency in the protagonist's thinking. As I read, I often wondered if I was in his head, particularly as he grew further and further into his traumatized state. Denial is a large river, some say, and this character effectively denies most actions to the very end of the book, to that point that at times, I wasn't sure what really just happened and had to reread.

I liked the writing style of this book. I appreciated the storyline. Sadly although I wish it weren't true,  I can easily imagine a number of high schoolers finding great truth in this story. Check it out if you are interested in that category of seeking truth for some of the young people in our lives.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Sisterhood Everlasting

A few years ago, I read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares and absolutely loved them. I loved how it was told from all four different girls perspectives and they each had such different, yet the same, stories. So, I was very excited when I found out that Ann Brashares had released a sequel to the series called Sisterhood Everlasting that was the girls ten years later. I was completely shocked at how it turned out. In the end, I think that it was just as good as the other four books were. 

The girls are all about to turn 30. It's a huge year. Bridget has been happily living with Eric, and spending her days ridding her bike around San Francisco where they live. Carmen has become a famous New York girl and has a role on a popular crime show. She also happens to be engaged to Jones who has helped guide her through her TV show life. Lena is teaching at RISD and living in a small apartment. Her class is very famous and she has a very long waiting list, but she hasn't spoken to Kostos in many years. She has watched him become a very wealthy business man. As for Tibby, none of them really know what her life has been like. Two years ago she moved to Australia with Brian and hasn't really been heard from since except for a few emails. 
So when a letter arrives in the mail from Tibby saying that they all must meet in Santorini Greece at Lena's grandparents house, Lena, Bridget and Carmen are shocked. As soon as possible they are on a plane to Greece, anxiously waiting to see their beloved Tibby's face. 
Except she's not there. 
Her stuff is in the house but she isn't there. 
They wait.
They continue to wait. 
After a while they call the local police.
The next day the police show up at Lena's grandparents house to tell the girls that they have found a body that could possibly be Tibby's. And it is. 
Lena, Bridget and Carmen must follow the instructions in letters that Tibby has left for them while trying to figure out what Tibby's life was like for the past two years. It will take them on many journeys they would never have taken otherwise and opens their eyes to the truth that has been there all along.

If you liked the first four books, I think that you will very much so enjoy the sequel that goes into their lives ten years later. I strongly recommend this book.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Little Britches by Ralph Moody

If you are like me, you have a number of books that you read growing up that live somewhere in the recesses of your reading heart/brain waiting to be remembered and read again. There are several especially from my teen years that beg returning to. Little Britches was one of those.

It took me a couple of weeks to land on the title again. I have a mental image of the cover but couldn't find it online. I had a vague recollection of the story but was unable to be specific enough to actually articulate an effective search. But after wandering around my brain and the web, I finally found it. Thank goodness for internet!!

Little Britches is the story of a boy growing up in the early 1900's just east of Denver. Denver was a teeny city at the time, especially compared to now, and Colorado was still The West. Moody, the author, relives his childhood through his tales of growing up. I have keen mental images of neighbor Fred Autland, of Hi the cowboy, of Mother, and particularly of his father. I well recall being a teen and so wanting to change places with Moody, to live out among horses and cows and wide-open plains and the life of a rancher. While that transition never really happened, I can guarantee you it happened in my heart many times. I wonder how many times I read Little Britches as a teen: the number is at least in the 20's. I believe I received this book from my mother who shares my love of reading and whom I know I learned about the dire importance of place-based reading, of living into the written stories of the physical place we lived. Now that I think about it, I realize that when I rode horses then I actually brought a little of Little Britches with me onto that horse.

This autobiographical story telling actually extends through a number of books (surprise: I have more reading to do!!). If you are looking for a sweet, simple read with the 1900's, Colorado, and The West in mind, this might be a great read for you. I enjoyed rereading it again.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Neville by Norton Juster

Do you ever find those books that make you a believer? I started reading this book, figuring I wouldn't like it. I dunno why: boys yelling, some kid named Neville,...doesn't make sense but I was wrong. I loved it. I laughed on almost every page, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, and I was completely drawn in by the storyline. Swallowed.

Neville is the story of a boy who just moved to a new neighborhood. He has no friends. His mother forces him out to go find some. That is just what he does: hunts for friends. Calls for one actually. Pretty soon, kids show up and help him hunt. Kind of like a snowball rolling down a hill and picking up snow, this story picks up kid-hunting energy throughout. No spoiler alert here, you just have to read this book to learn the ending. It is a winner of a story, simple, engaging, and totally realistic. As a dear literacy leader I know of says to her students, happy reading. I know you will want to find this one.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Faraway Horses by Buck Brannaman with William Reynolds

There are times when these blog entries just blast out of me. This is not one of them. I had a strong emotional response to The Faraway Horses, and I wanted to represent the power the book inspired in me here on the pages of this blog. I have a feeling that parts of this book may show up in future entries as I process what I read. I know my book pile has changed: more of the books waiting to be read have horses in them. I hope you will forgive me for this somewhat jumbled entry: I am too connected to this book to hold clarity for the moment.

I have long loved horses. As a girl, I was introduced to horses in a way that changed me. I learned to ride then, but it was the connection I discovered that still affects me. Someday I hope to reconnect with horses more regularly. Reading The Faraway Horses allowed me to do that in some small ways. I find some of what Buck Brannaman does with horses simply remarkable. Greater I feel his truth, his gentle, compelling presence with them as a way of being to be true for those of us who seek honest, trusting relationships with others. I believe Buck would say he does that with horses.

"The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see..Sometimes you will."

His work is based on relationship. Often referred to as a horse whisperer, he invites horses to connect with him, and with the horse, he works from a place of respect and trust, absent of control and coercion. He has a unique way of listening to the horse and being aware of each time the horse makes a behavior change that connects with him. In the book he explains how horses are herd animals and how the horse trainer/rider can train the horse to view the rider as the herd. Buck's upbringing was pretty brutal, and throughout the book, he writes about how his father's way of doing things became counter to his own. He sees his work with horses to be the opportunity to not do what his father did to him, to give back to the world what is possible, and to offer humans and horses the relational connections that he witnesses and experiences each time he is with a horse.

"Every time I work with a horse- or a person--that's troubled or scared, I think of how the problems and solutions relate to a human's life, including my own."

I found myself hearing Buck's voice as I read. It is a deep voice, somewhat gravely, definitely cowboy-ish with that accent I associate with my relatives from the South and with wide open terrain of fields. That voice I hear comes from seeing the movie Buck, the documentary film about Buck's work with horses, more than once. The film won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Audience Award in 2011 and has been nominated for an Academy award. While in many ways parallel, the book offered me a chance to listen in to his words more care-fully and hold them closer inside of me.

The endless depth of respect Buck extends to horses mirrors that of close human friends. I know I'll never forget Dottie, the horse I rode as a teen. Although she was not my horse, I felt an honest connection with her. I remember a transparency in her eyes that surprised me and confirmed me. I wonder now what she saw in me, and I wonder what she felt when she was around me. Greatest I wonder what it might be like to have the kind of relationship Buck has with horses with my own horse. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Stick by Andrew Smith

I loved this book. Loved it. Looking to disappear into a compelling, realistic coming of age novel about brothers, fighting for your life, and finding your truth? Might want to check this out.

The basic storyline lies in the relationship between two brothers, one gay and one straight, growing up with wickedly abusive and neglectful parents and how the boys find their way to changing their lives. Broader storyline: older brother gets tossed out of house for being gay, lives on the streets until younger brother runs away from home, steals Dad's car, keeps the faith in humanity, his brother, and Aunt Dahlia, the boys' mom's long-lost sister. Let me tell you: it gets ugly before it gets better, but Smith convinces his readers that there are reasons to keep the faith.

I would love to meet this Aunt. She sounds fab, fab, fab. Her ways of inviting relationship is dreamlike to me, with consistent kindness of course but even more with this centered, balanced, unwavering presence. I mean she never apologizes for her actions: granted, she doesn't need to but it just isn't part of her vocabulary (unless, I am sure, there is a real reason to apologize). She doesn't apologize for how awful her sister is, how bad the boys' lives have been, how she wishes she could do more. She never comes from a place of 'poor me' or 'poor boys'. She is just flat-out authentic all the time: what you see is what you get. Who wouldn't love that in an adult? I don't want to give all of the story away, but she is just one reason why I loved this book. Stark, nicknamed Stick, is the centerpiece of the story which is told through his voice. His vision and his compassion are of course remarkable, particularly given the parents he has been dealt. The way the author develops his characters is rich, and the way he told the story kept me engaged throughout. The only parts I didn't like were the teen-boy-sex-drive- exploration parts, which never have engaged me in young adult books. But the way Smith ties this into the story seems pretty realistic. The author's decision to include this in the book was an important decision for the story, and I can't imagine it not all being in the story. And, truth be told, even though I feel complete license to skip over the sexual parts I am not interested in reading, I didn't skip too much in Stick. The story was that realistic to me.

Stick is one of those books where I feel fortunate to have read it. I will definitely be recommending this to my interns at school and to readers who are interested in a coming of age novel focused on teen boys finding their own integrity. It was a great read.