Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Book Thief...

The book thief

     I have to admit that I read The Book Thief in the worst possible way. I sat down and read the whole thing in one sitting. Yep! Six hours of nothing, but reading. Unfortunately, I know that I cheated myself out of some of the understanding of the book and my mind didn't have enough time to process all of the things that took place inside the story. This is a book that you need to read a chapter or two and then process the information you have learned before you move on to the rest of the story. Since I wasn't able to do that I am going to focus on the things that I questioned the most and then plan on rereading the book sometime in the future to figure the rest out. 

     The Book Thief is the story of a young girl that loses everything, and is placed with a foster family. We know that her brother has died, that her mother disappears, and that her father was a "Kommunist," a term that she did not understand. We never learn of her background or what happens to her parents, but we suspect it wasn't good.  After arriving on Himmel Street, Liesel learns to trust and love her new parents, makes friends, and most importantly learns to read. In the background, Hitler is marching Germany and it's people into World War II. A young Jew, Max, comes to be hidden in the family's basement and he, along with her Papa help her understand the meaning and importance of words. As the was rage around them, Liesel continues to fight for survival even when Max is forced back out into the violent war and Papa is drafted into the army. When Papa returns from the battle field, Liesel feels that her life is repairing itself. Unfortunately it only takes a few planes with bombs, and Liesel love of words to turn her whole world upside down again.     

     Since someone had announced that Death was the narrator in the class, I started the book knowing that he was telling the story. I liked him as a narrator, he had a subtle sense of humor, and he seemed to have more compassion than many of the humans in the story. At the beginning of the story he has "A Small Theory-People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to to me its's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellow, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them." (p. 4) He then goes on to say that as Death, he could not take a real vacation so "Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors." (p. 5) He then goes on to talk about when he reflects on his meeting with the main character Liesel, three colors resonate the most: red, white, and black. Then throughout the story he mentions the colors when he comes to claim the souls. I keep expecting to figure out what the colors represented. Was white for the death of an innocence,? Was black the color for the damned? What about red was that the color of massive deaths? Why were colors so important? What did they symbolize in the story?

     One issue that I noted was that Death liked to talk about the past, present, and future in his narrative. He often slipped between time frames making it difficult to follow the story at times. I also noticed that some chapters had the date included while others did not, and some just gave a vague description such as "spring" with no year. I found myself rereading passages and going back chapters looking for the time frame of when this particular section occurred. At the end of the story Liesel begins measuring time from her father's return, but the story then jumps to the march of the Jews through town and Liesel getting whipped for refusing to leave the parade of souls. There were also large parts of the story that happened at one point in time, but then time would skip for months or years to the next section with little notice to the reader. One part that I could not believe was that Max could have served two years in a German Concentration camp; I know that could have never happened. I guess it was Death's fault that the story is told in such a jumbled way. He has plenty of time, he has seen and will see everything that happens in the world. He says "There's a multitude of stories (a mere handful, as I have previously suggested) that I allow to distract me as I work, just as the colors do. I pick them up in the unluckiest, unlikeliest places and I make sure to remember them as I go about my work. The Book Thief is one such story". (p.549) Things make perfect sense to him.  

     The last thing that I didn't understand in this story was how could humans be so cruel to each other. How could they turn on those who choose the right path instead of the easy path. Death give us "the thought process of Hans Hubermann--He was not well-educated or political, but if nothing else, he was a man who appreciated fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and he couldn't forget that. he couldn't join a party that antagonized people in such a way. Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many of the Jews believed, he didn't think the hatred could last, and it was a conscious decision not to follow Hitler. On many levels, it was a disastrous one. (p. 100) Hans Hubermann lived his life being kind. He repainted a Jewish shop owner's door when slurs were left there, he didn't join a party of hatred, he took in a homeless child of questionable background, and he lost his only son over political ideology. This goodness in him actually increased his families danger when he handed a piece of stale bread to a Jew on parade. His caring action caused Max to have to flee from their home, and got him quickly drafted to a dangerous military rescue assignment. Even once he was in Hitler's dreaded  army, he chose to do the right thing. He shared the cigarettes that he won at cards, and even gave up his seat on the truck. That act of kindness saved his life. How could doing the right thing not the easy thing end up costing he and those he loved the most their life?

     I know that this is a beautifully written piece of young adult literature, however I can't get past the great sadness that it has caused me as I read it and reflect on it. It serves the genre of historical fiction perfectly. It represents a period in time that we can not and would not want to live through and allows us to experience it through a fictional character. 

The Watson's Go to Birmingham--1963...

The Watsons go to Birmingham--1963

     I had never read The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 before, but I was aware that all fourth graders in Newport News Public Schools are required to read it when they study the civil rights movement. It is a 1996 Newberry Honor Book, a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, and an American Library Association Notable Book for 1996.  I understand why! Now I am sorry that I waited so long; it is currently  my favorite book that we've read so far in this class. I love how Christopher Curtis use humor to deal with a tragic situation. 

     The Watson's Go to Birmingham--1963 is told from the point of view of the middle child of the Watson family, Kenny. He tells the story of a family trying to raise children and stay a float in 1960 Flint, Michigan. Kenny is the book worm, Joetta is the caring little sister, and Byron (By) is "officially a teenage juvenile delinquent" (p. 2). At their wits end of what to do with By and his increasingly ridiculous behavior, the Watson's decide that the only thing left to do is to leave him with Grandma Sands for the summer, maybe even the whole school year. Kenny is thrilled with the thought of a road trip and no By for the summer, however events that happen while they are in Birmingham will change the family forever.   

     The book is set in 1963 Flint, Michigan and then travels south to Birmingham, Alabama. At this time in the country's history many African-Americans had already fled to the North to get away from the racism and segregation that was the norm in the South. The Civil Rights movement had started the decade before, but there were still many battles to come before segregation was broken. The bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Church on September 15, 1963 where 4 children were killed was on of the many violent acts against African-Americans. It was also a turning point that made many Americans wake up and realize that segregation and discrimination had to stop. The Watsons represent millions of African-Americans that were just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. 

     The story opens with the Watson's snuggling under blankets trying their best to stay warm on a "super-duper-cold Saturday" (p. 1) in Michigan. The heat was on, but the furnace was unable to keep the house warm. Momma, an Alabama-born girl, was arguing with Dad about whether moving to Flint was a good idea. She says, "You know Birmingham is a good place, and I don't mean just the weather either. The life is slower, the people are friendlier--". (p. 5) With a great deal of sarcastic humor Dad tries to remind her about the problems there, "Oh yeah, they're a laugh a minute down there. Let's see, where was that 'Coloreds Only' bathroom downtown?" (p.5)  Momma replies, "things aren't perfect but people are more honest about the way they feel....folks there do know how to respect their parent." (p.6) This comment makes me wonder if they faced hidden prejudice in Flint. Their house wasn't able to keep them warm. Dad calls the landlord and says "That snake in the grass has got his phone off the hook" (p. 6), was it a low-rent house? The story tells us that they start running a tab at the local grocery store, they we were receiving welfare food, and the children at school were bullies and thugs. I think Momma meant that in the South you know the face of your enemy, yet in the North the enemy was the unseen urban blight.

     Very early in the story you being to feel sorry for little Kenny. He says that in his neighborhood "I had two things wrong with me...The first thing was because I loved to read, people thought I was real smart, teachers especially." (p. 22) and "The other thing that people would have teased me a lot more about if it hadn't been for Byron was my eye...ever since I'd been born one of my eyeballs had been kind of lazy.(p. 25)" He seems to be the target for consistent bullying. Yet you see another side of him when the new kid, Rufus, comes to town. Kenny is compassionate enough to share his lunch with him and his brother, but he laughs along with the others when Larry Dunn says, "Country Corn Flake, I noticed how you and the Little Flake switch off on them pants, and I know Fridays is your day to wear'em, but I was wonderin' if the same person who gets to wear the pants gets to wear the drawers that day too?"(p. 43). It reminds me of the scene in Wonder when Auggie overhears Jack saying mean things about him. Interestingly both Auggie and Rufus react the same way, they walk away from friendships with out a fight. When confronted Rufus tells Kenny "I thought you was my friend. I didn't think you was like all them other people...I thought you was different." Like Jack, Kenny has to figure out how to apologize and to show that he was different from the other kids.
     Any parent can understand the Watson's frustration with Byron's behavior. The first part of the story is littered with his poor choices. He pushes his mother to the edge by playing with fires. To make her point, she attempts to set him on fire. After announcing that he is spending the summer in Alabama, Momma lists his transgression for the year. "You've cut school so much that Mr. Alums has come here three times to see what's wrong with you, you've been lighting fires, you've been in fights, you had that trouble up at Mitchell's food Fair, you had that... that... problem with Mary Ann Hill, you set mousetraps in the backyard for birds, you fell out of that tree when you were trying to see if that poor cat always landed on its feet, you got that conk, you joined that gang...There's just too much, Byron. We can't have all this nonsense going on." (p. 118) You have to respect Mr. and Mrs. Watson, they know that Bryon is out of control and they are willing to do anything to get him straight. Mr. Watson tells Kenny "we think it's time Byron got an idea of the kind of place the world can be, and maybe spending some time down South will help open his eyes." (p. 123) Fortunately Byron does see and learn from his trip South, he has to save Kenny from drowning and thinks that his youngest sister may have been killed in the church bombing. I think of all the characters from the story Byron grows and changes the most. While he does occasionally protect Kenny at the beginning of the story, he is also one of his biggest tormentors. After the trip it's Byron that steps up and helps Kenny to heal from all that is haunting him. He in a way becomes Kenny savior again.

     I appreciate they way that Christopher Curtis presented such a tragic event in the context of a family that loves each other. I think that this makes the topic feel safer for children. I also enjoyed his web page and his video on how he became a writer. He too lived in Flint, Michigan and saw the same problems in his neighborhoods that he now writes about in his books. He saw writing as a way to escape the issues going on around him and to save himself for the life of an assembly line worker. I look forward to sharing this book with others and reading more of Christopher Curtis's work.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Giver...

The giver

     While I have been aware of The Giver, it wasn't a book that I sought out to read; I am not really a science fiction kind of girl. Even now, after reading it only once in a short period of time, I am not sure that I really understand it. So this blog is going to be more about my process of understanding the story, rather than a review.

     The Giver is a story of a young boy who has reached The Ceremony of Twelve. He and all the other twelves will receive their Assignment or adult job in the community. Life in the community is perfect, words are selected precisely, rules are followed without question, and families are units meant to produce children that become good citizens. Jonas has been a model citizen and is selected to be the "Receiver of Memory" (p. 60). His new Assignment opens the door to a life that will be lived alone, and more importantly, new information that will change him and maybe even the whole community.

     According to our textbook one of the important elements of a modern fantasy is the setting. An author must create a believable fantasy world with only his/her words. Usually this is done with rich language that invokes all of the senses. However I felt in The Giver that Lois Lowry used her words to do the opposite. Without flowery language she creates a fantasy world that was orderly and tidy, but it also lacked something that I couldn't put my finger on till the end of the book. When she is writing about Jonas' life in the Community, it's familiar to our own lives.  He goes to school, plays with friends, and has a family. But there's a steady stream of odd concepts that, after a while, the reader starts accepting as part of a new society. Things like public apologies, the sharing of feelings, being a Nurturer, and young children learning interdependence stop sounding foreign after a while and they even seem to start sounding like things that might help our current society. In the beginning of the book she makes the Community feel like a wonderful place to live and work.

     The Giver begins with Jonas, the main character, thinking about "The Ceremony of Twelve" which is the beginning of Jonas' life as an adult. He and the other twelves are looking forward to moving to a new part of their lives. Jonas is concerned about what his assignment will be even though he has some understanding of where others in his group will end up. At the ceremony Jonas is skipped as the assignments are passed out to his school mates. The Chief Elder then informs the audience that "Jonas has been selected to be our next Receiver of Memory." From this point on Jonas starts to become an outsider to his own community. He now has special privileges such as being able to ask any question from any citizen,no dream telling, he may lie, and strangely he may not ask for release. At this point I began to feel for Jonas; he immediately notices that his friends are pulling away and that his parents can't or won't answer his questions.

     Once he meets the The Giver and begins his training, he finally has someone that can answer all of his questions. This made me wonder if Jonas was the only one with so many questions? Has he always been different from the rest of the community? As The Giver begins giving Jonas memories, Jonas takes on an a new awareness of his community and he begins to see things as they really are, the sameness. I think one of the hardest parts to read is when Jonas questions the  process of "releasing" and watches his father on video with a newborn twin. With his new memories and feelings he begins to question everything about his life and world. At that point Jonas and The Giver begin to make a plan to help bring memories, feelings and color back to the community. Unfortunately the news that Gabriel, the baby that Jonas family had been raising, was going to be released, forces Jonas to act alone. Before the planned time, he kidnaps Gabriel and flees the Community searching for Elsewhere. I am really not sure if the book ends on a good note or a sad note, but I hope that Jonas was able to save himself, Gabriel, and the Community.

     There are still  numerous things that I didn't understand in The Giver.  One thing is how Jonas talks about how "he had been frightened" (p. 2) by the strange plane, and is "apprehensive" (p. 4) about the upcoming "Ceremony of Twelve." How does he know about feelings? Is he special? Another thing I wondered about is why did Jonas, Gabriel, and The Giver have light eyes? Are they related? Does it give them special powers? Why wasn't it taken care of with "the Sameness."  How can Jonas give memories to Gabriel to help him sleep, yet he can't pass them on to others? One thing I do know is that The Giver is a book that needs to be read and reread and discussed with others.                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The One and Only Ivan...

The one and only Ivan

     Every once in a while you come across something that reminds you of forgotten memories from your childhood. The One and Only Ivan is one of those things. I grew up in Atlanta, and as a child I remember going to the Zoo. At that time one of the main attractions was Willie B., the resident western lowland gorilla. Just like Ivan, he lived alone in a concert cage with a TV. I clearly remembering thinking like one of the young boys in the story, "he must be the loneliest gorilla in the world." (p. 21) I am glad to say that I have since had many opportunities to take both my children to Zoo Atlanta and see both Willie B. and Ivan in a more natural habit. As Stella says, "A good zoo is how humans make amends." (p. 64)

     Ivan is a silverback gorilla that is the main attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. To pass the time he has made several friends. Stella and aging elephant that came to the mall when she was injured during a circus stunt. Bob, a stray that managed to live through a night on the interstate, now lives off the leavings of humans. Times have changed and the mall is barely staying in business so Mack, the boss brings in a baby elephant to bring back the crowds. With the arrival of baby Ruby, Ivan realizes that his destiny is to protect his troop. This is the story of how Ivan comes back to life.

     Most of The One and Only Ivan takes place across several decades from 1964 until 1985 when he joins the Atlanta Zoo. Unfortunately during this time humans did not understand the need to keep animals in naturalist setting. Ivan and his friends were kept in small concert cages that did not provide them with physical or intelligent stimulation. Ivan states: "My domain is made of thick glass and rusty metal and rough cement. Stella's domain is made of metal bars. The sun bears' domain is wood; the parrots' wire mesh." (p. 7) Ivan has three windows where he "can see the whole mall and a bit of the world beyond: the frantic pinball machines, the pink billows of cotton candy, the vast and treeless parking lot." (p. 8) It reminds me of the run down "South of the Border" area that you drive past on I-95 when you go to South Carolina. Fortunately the story ends at the Atlanta Zoo. Ivan can only list the wonderful things that he sees there "Sky. Grass. Tree. Ant. Stick...." (p. 277) and finally a family to protect. He has saved himself and Ruby.  

     The plot of the story is fairly simple. Ivan and the other animals live at the Big Top Mall and their job is to bring in customers with their tricks. Ivan doesn't know any tricks so he spends his time eating, napping, throwing me-balls, watching TV and sometimes he draws. To pass the time, he asks Stella, the elephant, to tell him stories. Stella remembers every day of her life. All the sights, smells, the day she was captured, her life in the circus, and that humans can be bad and sometimes hey can surprise you. For some reason Ivan can't remember anything about his life before the mall. However times are changing and there are fewer and fewer people stopping by the mall. The arrival of a new star attraction, a baby elephant, stirs maternal feelings in both Stella and Ivan. When Stella realizes that she is at the end of her life due to a untreated injury, she asks Ivan to promise "to save" Ruby and allow her to have a different life than her own. This promise and the needs of a young offspring force Ivan to re-evaluate his life and create a plan to keep Ruby safe.

     Ivan is a silverback gorilla, his life job is "to maintain order and warn his troop of danger, except here in my domain there is no one to protect." (p. 10) So in order to survive, he has forgotten his past life except the fact that he has always been an artist. Over time Ivan has pushed down his feelings and reactions. He feels nothing when the seal dies from eating pennies, he is concerned when Stella's leg pains her, but he does not allow himself to get angry. He says "mostly I think about what is, not what could be." Stella, the elephant, is the conscience of the book. She remembers life before she was captured and all of the injustices she has seen along the way. Ivan thinks of himself living in a domain; Stella reminds him that it is a cage and that "memories are precious, they help tell us who we are." (p. 53) The arrival of Ruby changes the dynamic of the Big Top Mall. Stella takes on a maternal role, but is disturbed that Ruby will suffer through the same life that she has endured. On her death bed she makes Ivan promise to get Ruby to safety. Trying to comfort Ruby forces Ivan to remember his own painful past and even the moment when he looked at his sister Tag and realized to survive he had to forget. This is a turning point in the story, Ivan now has someone to protect and he creates a plan to get Ruby to a zoo. With the help of the custodian's daughter and his new found ability to paint what's in his head, he attracts the communities attention in a new way. Public outcry against the living conditions at the Big Top Mall brings in experts that find new suitable homes for all the animals. Ivan receives a true domain with his own troop and Ruby joins the herd of her dreams.  

     Katherine Applegate used the structure of book to give you the feel that the story was being told by a gorilla. She uses short simple sentences to get across Ivan thoughts and feels. Early in the book he states "Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot." (p. 2) The chapters are short and the headings are brief and clearly identify the topic. At the beginning of the story all of his comments are observation of the things around him with little depth. As he changes over the course of the book and he becomes the protector he was meant to be he begins to have deeper thoughts and he has to become angry. He realizes not only Ruby deserves a better life, so does he. His battle to save Ruby is also the battle to save himself. Her writing style makes you believe that you are reading a story written by a gorilla that is facing the universal struggle of good triumphing over evil.

     The One and Only Ivan is a partially true story. There once was a western lowland gorilla named Ivan that lived in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. He and a meager group of animals lived in what we now consider inappropriate conditions and were the main attraction for the mall. In the mid 1980's the shopping mall went bankrupt and Ivan moved to the Atlanta Zoo where after twenty-seven years he was once again able to experience the outside and life with a family. Katherine Applegate has created a story that give Ivan a voice to his story.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014



     An important part in reading any book is to be able to make a personal connection to the story. Oddly, I had a big connection to Wonder. At one point I worked as a Special Education Teacher Assistant, and I worked with a child that also had Treacher Collins Syndrome and suffered from many of the same issues as the main character. So in some cases the book seemed very real to me, however based on my experience and research I did to help introduce my special ed. student to her peers, I struggled with the fact that Auggie was suppose to be such a normal kid.
     Wonder is the story of fifth grader Auggie Pullman and the trials and tribulations that he goes through attending his first year of school. However Auggie isn't just the new kid, he was born with severe facial deformities. He has learned to ignore people staring when he walks by but when the class bully starts a full assault, he and his new friends have to learn to stand together.

     August (Auggie) Pullman desperately wants to be a normal kid, and he is in a lot of ways. He has an Xbox, rides a bike, plays ball, and loves ice cream. But as he says "I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go." Auggie was born with severe facial abnormalities and survived twenty-seven surgeries by the time he was in fourth grade. At the beginning of the story he is faced with attending school for the first time and the first chapters are written from his point of view. He worries about all the typical problems associated with attending school the first time. How will he make friends? Who will he eat lunch with? But he also has to worry about what kids will say about his face. He knows the names "rat boy. freak. monster. Freddy Kruegor. E.T. Gross-out. Lizard Face. Mutant."  He has heard them all. This year he faces more than name calling, he has to deal with the whole grade playing a game called "The Plague" where no one would touch him, Julian the class jerk making classmates take sides against him, and a gang of mean seventh grades wanting to do physical harm. Auggie learns to open up to new friends, to hold his head high, and most importantly to start to grow up and look forward to his future.

     Another important character is Auggie's sister, Olivia. She has been Auggie's protector for his whole life. After his birth, she took a step aside so that her parents could focus on all of Auggie's needs. Via says, "August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun." She has silently done all her homework, dealt with transportation to any activity, figured out how to put things together, suffered through bad days, and mean things because it is "nothing compared to what August has gone through. This isn't me being noble, by the way: it's just the way I know it is." Except this year she has started high school, some place that no one knows about Auggie and she has the opportunity to just be a nice girl, not the girl with the deformed brother. However things often change in high school and Oliva's friends also begin to change too. Unfortunately since her parents have failed to once again pick up on the things going on in her life, Oliva's resentment is pushed to the boiling point. She doesn't tell her parents about participating in the school play, and when they find out, she lets it be known that she doesn't want Auggie to come. This revelation pushes them to finally realize that Via has a lot going on in her life and that they need to allow Auggie to become more independent and support Olivia in her dreams.

     Mr. Browne's September Precept: "When given the choice between being right or being kind. Choose Kind" is the theme of this story. Auggie faces bullying throughout this story, and as you move through the story you see several of the characters choosing kindness over other things. R.J. Palacio gave each character a separate part in the book so that they were able to tell their story as it intertwined with Auggie's story.  Olivia discusses how she has spent her life defending and protecting Auggie and in the end including him in her teenage life. She choose kindness over her own needs. Part three is written by Auggie's friend Summer. She is the only character that stays true to him throughout the whole story. She takes the bold step to sit next to Auggie at lunch on the first day of school. She choose kindness. Part Four is written by Jack. He is choose by the teachers to show Auggie around school and slightly pressured into being the new kid's buddy, however over time he grows to like Auggie and suffers when he messes up their relationship. He chooses to face down most of the grade level and stick by Auggie's side. Once again he choose kindness. Throughout the story the characters are affected by Auggie's courage to face his issue head on and they choose to stand up for what they believe in. With their support Auggie is able to overcome his fears and conquer middle school.
     R.J. Palacio has created a wonderful children book that deals with learning to accept your life situation and that you need to stand by your friends. I would love to read more about Auggie's life.

R.J. Palacio

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

looking for alaska...

Looking for Alaska : a novel

     I had never heard of John Green before taking this class, however my teenage daughter and her friends were well aware of who he was and what he had written. My daughter quickly told me that her friends loved Fault of Our Stars, but it was probably too sad for me. She thought that looking for alaska would be a better choice.

     The novel is about Miles Halter, a teenage boy that is looking for more out of life. He convinces his parents that he needs to attend his father's alma mater, Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama. Once there Miles meets new friends that will help him discover what the dying poet Francois Rabelais called the "Great Perhaps."  

     What makes looking for alaska a great young adult novel is its characters and their relationship with each other. At the beginning of the book you are introduced to the main character, Miles Halter. He seems almost one dimensional, no friends, no life, just a longing for something more--a "Great Perhaps." Miles understands that he wants and needs more than what his current life is able to give him. I can see how many teenagers could relate to Miles. As the book continues Miles is finally able to make connections with real friends. These are people that share his love of academics, stand up for him, cover his back, and call him out when he is a jerk. Unfortunately by opening him up to living, they also cause him to feel the pain of death. I can see how many teenagers could feel a connection to Miles. It's quite common to feel like you are invisible in high school, and long to leave your current life behind. Miles is given the opportunity to reinvent his life something that most teens would love to do.

     Chip Martin, otherwise known as the Colonel, is another important character in the story. The Colonel is Miles' new roommate at Culver Creek. He quickly takes a liking to Miles, and makes it his job to show Miles the ropes. The Colonel represents the life that Miles wants, the confidence to stand up for himself, and a fearlessness to go out on great adventures. Over the course of the story the Colonel goes from being the lead hater of the "Weekend Warriors" to a young adult trying to determine if his friend's death was accidental or a suicide. His determination to find answers helps the group begin the healing process.

     A pivotal character in the story is Alaska Young, she's the one Miles desires. She's smart, recklessly sexy, and has a dark secret that she will never recover from. At first she comes across as a wicked party girl that provides alcohol and cigarettes to the other students. However as the book unfolds you realize that she has the deep pain of losing her mother and the unbearable feeling that she is at fault for not saving her. Alaska's fatal drinking and driving accident causes the whole group to question if they where at fault for not saving her. However they are unsure of what she needed saving from, was it her own mental health or was it her drinking and driving.

     The story takes place at Culver Creek Preparatory School just south of Birmingham, Alabama, and according to Chip Martin, it is "the best school in Alabama." Miles first days there are filled with the "still and oppressive air" that you can only find in the deep south during the summer. His description of the campus doesn't make it seem like the high end private school you would expect. He states, "I stared out over my new digs: Six one-story buildings, each with sixteen dorm rooms, were arranged in a hexagram around a large circle of grass. It looked like an oversize old motel." A boarding school campus serves as a perfect setting for the story, because it allows the characters to develop their relationships with little adult supervision. The fact that the characters spend 24 hours a day together give them the chance to bond deeper and faster, and allows them to have more freedom to explore forbidden areas. It also allows them to grieve together and to start the healing process without the interference or support of adults.

     In Looking for Alaska, John Green creates a year in the life of a boarding school. He starts the story counting down to an unknown event foreshadowing that tragedy will occur. We follow Miles as he leaves home and begins to make new friends. There are on going pranks between Weekend Warriors and Miles' new group. We read about the friends getting caught smoking and then covering for each other. There are dull classes,a rowdy basketball game, first sexual encounters, drinking and ultimately the death of a friend. Finally, we read about the characters trying to move through their grief process with only each other for support. While most of John Green's readers have never been to a boarding school, he includes enough aspects to make it an authentic experience for readers.

     Looking for Alaska moves through numerous issues that are faced by high school students. The beginning of the book addresses a teenager's need to begin to separate from a parent, and to feel accepted by a social group of his peers. To help the bonding process John Green includes the rivalry between Miles' group and the Weekend Warriors. The pranks add excitement to the story and creates opportunities for the characters to prove their loyalty to the other members of the group. The need to feel accepted is reflected in Miles starting to smoke and drink, activities that he doesn't enjoy. They all turn a blind eye to Alaska's mood swings and excessive drinking, and they all risk expulsion in order to help Alaska leave campus with no more reason than she demand that they do so. "I JUST HAVE TO GO. HELP ME GET OUT OF HERE!" Unfortunately too many teenagers are faced with the death of a friend whether it is an accident or suicide and they end up questioning whether they could have prevented it. For many of them it is the first traumatic event in their life and they turn to their friends to help conquer the storm. I can only hope that this story shows them that they can also survive the pain and eventually go back to living.

     John Green's writing style targets the bright, slightly nerdy high school student. His characters talk about works of literature and how it relates to their life, but they can quickly turn the conversation around to typical teenage vices. They understand that education is valuable and that they need to work to succeed in life, however they still feel that they are invincible and can accomplish anything that they set their mind too. As with most teenagers they put the group before their own needs. John Green also ask his readers to think a little deeper with situations like  Dr. Hyde's finally exam question; "How will you--personally--ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? Now that you've wrestled with three major religious traditions, apply your newly enlightened mind to Alaska's question.", hopefully makes at least one reader think about how they will survive the issues in their life, not succumb to them like Alaska.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding....

Uncle Peter's amazing Chinese wedding

    One thing that this class has taught me is that I need to be more aware of my student's backgrounds and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in good literature. This year I have a first generation Asian student who is very private about her background. I know that she feels uncomfortable being the only Asian student in my class, and her reserved personality only makes the other students more curious about her. Unfortunately, that interest sometimes comes out in inappropriate ways. To help ease the situation, I am trying to educate my students about modern Chinese-American families so they can ask respectful questions, and show my Asian student that there other families just like hers.

     In my search for modern Chinese-Americans I came across Lenore Look's Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding. It was interesting to watch the book make the rounds in my classroom. I was pleased to see my Asian student shyly pick up the book and briefly smile as she read it...

     The story begins with Jenny, the narrator, describing her favorite uncle--"This is Uncle Peter, my father's baby brother, the coolest dude, a girl's best buddy." Jenny goes on to explain that she is miserable because Uncle Peter is getting married and she is suppose to be his "special girl". The rest of the family is thrilled with Peter's choice of a bride which only makes Jenny feel worse. The story quickly tumbles through a family packed wedding day--picking up and paying for the bride, family pictures, paying respects to ancient family members, the tea ceremony, Hungbau, the bed-jumping ceremony, and of course the wedding. Even with all the festivities Jenny cannot lose her sadness until Stella says "You are my first and only niece, I hope you know that I love you" and hands her a box filled with beautiful butterflies to release. Jenny suddenly feels the magic of the moment.

     Lenore Look's writing style is short and sweet. She doesn't waste words getting to the point that Jenny feels like she is being left behind. Every young child can relate to worrying about losing someone you love because they are getting married. One student who read the story commented that she had felt the same way when her mom got engaged. However something different about this story is that it is full of references to Chinese-American wedding traditions. Lenore Look does a great job explaining the tradition and how it is handled today, one hundred years ago, and even two hundred years ago. When it is time to pick up the bride, Jenny explains that one hundred years ago she would have ridden in a chair carried by his friends. Two hundred years ago he would have carried her on his back. Today, Uncle Peter uses his car.  Jenny uses The ancient tea ceremony where the groom's family welcomes the bride to the family is mentioned when Jenny uses it as away to show her displeasure with the wedding. It also talks about importance of the color red for good luck, gifts of money for health and happiness, and even the bed jumping ceremony so the couple will have "as many children as will jump on their bed". The story does a wonderful job introducing and explaining what seem to be odd traditions. I know I learned some new things; I hope my class did as well.

     Yumi Heo does a wonderful job with the illustration in the book. From the front cover to the end of the book you see symbols and Chinese-Americans celebrating a modern wedding. The front cover has Jenny, Uncle Peter, and new Aunt Stella arranged in a triangle giving us insight to how the story will end. The end pages set the mood with a traditional Chinese symbol on a background of love birds. Yumi Heo continues to use the theme of background art throughout the book. When we see Jenny crying for the loss of Uncle Peter, the background illustrates the things that they shared; peanut, butter and jelly, extra butter for toast, hot dogs, and hot tea. She even includes a umbrella that is turned inside out to reflect Jenny's feelings. The pages are full bleed making you feel like you are part of the story. They are also filled with illustrations of happy, smiling faces that swirl around Jenny causing her even more guilt for her great sadness. The last page of the book is the most beautiful. It is a double page spread with the affirmation that Jenny needs to hear from new Aunt Stella-that she loves Jenny. Across the pages the illustration reflects Jenny's new joy. The background is bright yellow filled with swirling butterflies and a beaming Jenny at a diagonal because she's a little unsure about the future. 

     Something that I thought was interesting about this book was how little information I could find about it. Neither Lenore Look or Yumi Heo have official web sites. I could only find a blog for Lenore Look and a Facebook page for Yumi Heo. The book doesn't seem to have won any awards or honors, not even a multicultural honor. I would have loved to know how or if they work together to create books, what part their backgrounds play in the books they create, and how the illustrations were created.   

Lily's Purple Plastic Purse......

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

     I recently came across a copy of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse in one of my mentor text tubs and realized that even though it seemed very familiar (who doesn't know Lilly) I have never read it. Since one of my all time favorite picture books is Julius, Baby of the World, which also stars Lilly, I decided to read it.

    The story is simple enough--Lilly loves school. She loves everything about it. The supplies, her desk, the lunch "And, most of all, she loves her teacher, Mr. Slinger." That is until the day that she brings her new movie star glasses, three shiny quarters, and purple plastic purse to school. Lilly is unable to wait to show her prizes to her classmates so Mr. Slinger ends up taking them and putting them away. Lilly is crushed, so she turns her anger on Mr. Slinger by drawing an ugly picture of him at the "Lightbulb Lab" and slipping it into his book bag. On her way home she discovers that Mr. Slinger has also slipped a note into her purse that simple states "Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better." Lilly knows that she has to make amends and returns to school the next day determined to make things better.

    I am glad that I read this book as a primary teacher instead of while I was teaching in fifth grade. It would not have had as much meaning to me at that point in my career. Kevin Henkes describes Lilly as "Exuberant" which is the way many of my young students feel about their first years in school. They LOVE everything about school, especially you. They want to be a teacher just like you, they want to sit next to you, they draw you beautiful pictures of their devotion, until the day you have to correct them or even worse take away their prized toy. There's nothing worse than the crushed face of a seven year old that has lost faith in you. As a teacher you have to let the child know that some days are tough, but the next day you get to hit the "reset" button. Mr. Slinger does it beautifully!
     As a teacher I live this story every day, but wondered how Kevin Henkes got this idea for it. On his web site, he talks about being at an airport and observing a young girl with a purse driving her father crazy. At that point he didn't have his own children, and he naively found the situation quite comical. He also shares how he had some wonderful teachers that supported him and helped him reach his dream of being a author and illustrator. I love how he combined two very different things to create one great story.  I plan on using his Meet Kevin Henkes video with my students so they can better understand that authors use things in their everyday life for writing material.

     Kevin Henkes' illustrations do a fabulous job supporting and extending the story. The book starts with purple end pages with white stars because Lilly loves purple and she's a STAR! Inside the story he moves back and forth between cameos that give you the feeling of being a part of the story (such as the pictures of all the things that make Mr. Slinger a extra cool teacher) and framed illustration that make you more of an observer of the story (pictures of Mr. Slinger teaching and Lilly pretending to be the teacher at home with Julius). I especially love the illustrations that he does in sequence that help you "feel" her energy and joy.   


Later in the story he uses nine framed illustration in sequence so that you can see and feel Lilly's disappointment and anger develop over time. I especially love the "crazy" eyes and the idea "light bulb" that help get the point across. One of the best lines in the story, "Instead of watching her favorite cartoons, Lilly decided to sit in the uncooperative chair" is given extra meaning with a series of illustrations of Lilly fretting in the infamous uncooperative chair. I really enjoy the simplicity of his art work, it reflects how things are so black and white for young children. On one of his web videos he describes and demonstrates how he moves from pencil drawings to pen and ink to finally adding color with paint. You actually get to see him create Lilly!

    This is a must read for every class room. It lets children know in very simple terms that it's okay to make mistakes, because there is always a second chance.


ALA Notable Children’s Book
Booklist Editors’ Choice
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon
Horn Book Fanfare
Publishers Weekly Best Book
School Library Journal Best Book
New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
IRA Children’s Choice
American Booksellers Book of the Year Award
American Booksellers Association “Pick of the Lists”
Children’s Literature Choice List
California Great Reads Award
Zena Sutherland Award (Chicago, IL)

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Great Fuzz Frenzy....

The great fuzz frenzy
     The Great Fuzz Frenzy is one of my favorite picture books! It's understandable why it is a Wanda Gag Award Winner for an outstanding read aloud book for young children. Sisters, Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel have created a funny loving book that tries to answer the question of "what do you do with unknown object in your home?"

     The story starts innocently enough with Violet the dog losing her tennis ball down a prairie dog hole. The ball bounces and rolls to a stop at the bottom of the tunnel in front of a group of confused prairie dogs. Big Bark, the bully prairie dog, immediately tries to take control of the situation. However, once little Pip Squeak snags some of the yellow tennis ball fuzz and uses it to decorate himself, all the the prairie dogs want in on the fuzz. The "Fuzz" party is on and everyone is loving the bright yellow stuff.

That is until "They picked and pruned and pulled and pinched. They pinched and pulled and pruned and picked. Until...the fuzz ran out. That big round thing was fuzzless. Naked as a plucked chicken." Then the "Fuzz Frenzy" truly begins as every prairie dog fends for himself to GET SOME FUZZ!!! Finally exhaustion overcomes the frenzy and all the dogs succumb to sleep. When they awake, all the fuzz is gone! As they frantically blame each other for taking the fuzz, they hear and see Big Bark yelling at the top of tunnel covered in yellow stuff, "I'm king of the fuzz! he snarled. Do you hear me? I'm king of the --" Suddenly an unexpected surprise occurs and the prairie dogs learn that they need to work together in order to survive.

     Susan Stevens Crummel does a marvelous job with the illustrations in this story. While I researched how she had created the cute prairie dogs and their unusual home, I never found any more information than this review stated: 

"The marvelously rendered mixed-media illustrations, with vivid blues, earthy browns, and that luminescent green, capture the true fuzzy nature and greenish glow of the ball. As in the author's popular Tops and Bottoms (Harcourt, 1995), this book employs both horizontal and vertical spreads, effectively taking readers deep into the underground realm."

     The illustrations have a softness that is similar to the use of watercolors, but they have slightly more detail than you usually see with the medium. The book is slightly over sized and the pictures spread all the way across each page so you imagine that they continue endlessly. The pages where the tennis ball bounces down the prairie dog tunnel is a vertical tri-fold so that you can see all of the "Boinks!', "Rumples!", "Hops!' and "Thumps! as it moves through the tunnel. Even though the dirt of the tunnels is dark brown you can still see the imagines of the other creatures that might inhabit the dirt. There are the outlines of ants, worms, grubs, and larva. The illustrations combined with their human characteristics help you connect with the prairie dogs. You cheer when they work together to save another colony member, and feel happy when even the hardest to love gets his deserved recognition.

     This is a great story to use as a mentor text for predictions or for author's purpose. Even the youngest reader will enjoy "predicting" what is going to happen to Big Bark. They will also understand that everyone has an important role in the group. I highly recommend this book for your classroom!



     After seeing that Locomotive had won a Caldecott Medal and The Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, I decided that I want to read it for my blog. However, it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. I expected a beautifully written picture book, but it's actually more of an informational text with nice writing and a fantastic layout with beautiful illustrations. I guess that's why it won the The Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, "the most distinguished informational book published in the United States in English."  Unfortunately, I didn't find it very interesting, and I've even lived in and experienced several of places that are mentioned in the book.

     The story starts with how the transcontinental railroad was built. Brain Floca writes,
"Men came from far away 
to build from the East
to build from the West,
to meet in the middle.

They cleared the rocks
and dug the tunnels.
They raised the hammers
and brought them down--

"Three strokes to the spike, 
ten spikes to the rail!"
Your trip starts waiting for the train in Omaha, Nebraska. It's the jumping off point to the sea. The story then goes on to discuss in great detail how the train runs on the tracks and how the employees work throughout the train. It is very informative, yet not so interesting. Next the story describes the places you see along the way, and the all the work that must take place to get the train across the country. Miraculously, you've made it across the country to Sacramento, California in just one week.

     The thing that I enjoyed the most about this story is the beautiful, detailed illustrations, and the wonderful way that it was laid out on the page. The book starts with end pages that give background information on the importance of the Transcontinental Railroad and how steam power works on a train. The text is organized in a poem like format that repeats the rhythm of the train on the tracks. It wraps around detailed illustrations of the train and the beautiful passing scenery. The book designer has creatively used different type and font size to enrich the train experience.  The trip takes you through high prairie, desert, mountains, rickety bridges and scary tunnels. It's an incredible visual journey that leads you to the waiting arms of your family in an exciting new city.

     Locomotion is a beautiful book for those who love trains or the westward expansion period in history. For the rest of us, it's really pretty to look at.

• New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year
• Wall Street Journal Top 10 Children's Books of 2013
• Orbis Pictus Honor Book
• Top 20 Children's Books of 2013
• Booklist's Top of the List pick for Youth Picture Book 2013
• Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013
• School Library Journal Best Books 2013 Nonfiction
• Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of 2013• Horn Book Fanfare
• New York Public Library 100 Books for Reading and Sharing 2013
• Huffington Post Best Picture Books of 2103 (Best History/Biography)
• Shelf Awareness Best Books of 2013 • Fuse #8 100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2013

• Winter 2013–2014 Kids’ Indie Next List Preview• Junior Library Guild selection