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Series’ that took me WAY too long to read October 21, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Nerd Line.
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Many people can tell you what a stubborn person I am. However, when it comes to books and especially series books that I have missed, ignored or specifically avoided, occasionally, I look back and just have to scream at myself WHAT WERE YOU THINKING??

A few of the wonderful series’ of books that took me WAY too long to discover and read.

1. Megan Whalen Turner ‘Thief’ series

We always had the first book in this series at the store, because it was a Newbery Honor. I can only imagine that I read the first paragraph and it didn’t grab me. It wasn’t until the fourth book in the series, A Conspiracy of Kings, was getting talked about online during Newbery season last year that I finally went back and read these. WOW. Turner’s fans are rabid and crazy and they have every reason to be. Some seriously amazing writing here.

2. Jeff Smith ‘Bone’ series

This one I attribute to my lack of comfort with graphic novels. My students were really into these books and it took me about a year to get on board. So my apologies to my student Javier from the 08-09 school year. You loved these, and I never managed to discuss them adequately with you. Now I know what a funny, enchanting world I was missing.

3. Rick Riordan ‘Percy Jackson’ series

Another series that I had to be bullied into reading by my students. In my defense, this one was marketed as ‘THE NEXT HARRY POTTER’ and there is no phrase more likely to make me put down a book. But thanks to the relentless nagging of Lauren, Richie and Isabel, I finally read the adventures of Percy and acknowledged that, while not the next Harry Potter, he was pretty special all on his own.

4. Tamora Pierce ‘Immortals’ series

I know I at least skimmed the Alanna series when I was in elementary school. But it took the character Daine to make me truly fall in love with Pierce’s worldbuilding. I have a very clear memory of sleeping on an air mattress in the basement the summer I was 12, while we were having work done on the house, and waiting until Danny fell asleep next to me so I could steal his copy of Emperor Mage and read it with a flashlight. This was one of the few series’ that I did not read in order.

5. Philip Pullman ‘His Dark Materials’ series

This one is truly unforgivable. I think at some point I just refused to read them out of sheer stubbornness, and no one I met was able to describe them to me in a way that made me feel they were necessary literature. When I was living in Scotland, however, and starved for books (I had little money, and less inclination to carry more weight home in my backpack) I borrowed Northern Lights (British title for The Golden Compass) from one of my flatmates. I pretty much didn’t let her have it back the rest of the summer and had to exercise a lot of self-control to save The Subtle Knife for the train ride back to London. And then of course, I just HAD to buy The Amber Spyglass to read on the plane home…

After writing this list, all I can say in my defense is: At least I was ahead of the game with Harry Potter!

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Books for the Beast: Multicultural October 19, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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It is perhaps not surprising that the books for the Multicultural group were more depressing than the books for the Romance group. Consequently, they took me a bit longer to get through. I had only read one book already out of this bunch (A Million Shades of Gray, which I hadn’t finished) so there were more new characters and authors to discover.

1. A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata 

I’m glad I had a reason to push myself to go back and finish this book. The Vietnam War is a subject that doesn’t get covered in as many children’s books as other historical time periods and many adults prefer to ignore that part of our nation’s history. So recognizing the sacrifices made by many of the different ethnic groups in Vietnam who helped the American army is important work for any book. That said, I thought the most compelling part of the story was the beginning, when we were introduced to the Dega people and the suspense once the village was attacked. Once we learn the result of the risks Y’Tin took, there was less to hold my interest.

 2. The Orange Houses by Paul Griffin

This book was heartbreaking in the best kind of way. Short glimpses of character’s lives add up to a picture of a community trying to make it through each day with little money and less hope. Switching perspective among the three main characters Mik, Jimmi and Fatima, Griffin provides sensitive portrayals of teenage war veterans and illegal immigrants. An extremely compelling read.

3. Tell Us We’re Home by Marina Budhos 

This one I didn’t manage to finish before it had to go back to the library. The story focuses on three girls in the same suburban town, all daughters of immigrants who clean for the rich people and their families. While I appreciate the premise of the book, it seemed like each girl was a little too much of a stereotype in personality (loud&dramatic, smart&artistic, quiet&pretty) and the theme of “these people do so much to help us and then are ignored by everyone” was a bit heavy handed. There was a lot that was stated directly that I felt could have been communicated through the actions or speech of the characters. However, I didn’t get that far, so maybe that was just the exposition in the beginning.

 4. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

This was the truly inspiring story of the bunch. How Kamkwamba, with little education and still struggling with his family to recover from famine, managed to construct a windmill to bring electricity to his family’s home is an amazing, true tale. I have, for several reasons, been trying to learn more about Africa, both the history of the continent and the daily life of people there today. Kamkwamba shares wonderful details of his family’s daily routines and explains thoroughly the causes and effects of the famine in his country of Malawi. The electricity parts were a little harder for me to follow (I’m not scientifically-minded) but they would be perfect for high school science classes and any student with an interest in how the machines so many of us take for granted are life-changing for people in other places.

5. The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane 

This was the surprise of the group. I had never heard of Aristophane and had no idea what to expect from the story. I was blown away by the power of the artwork and the truth and humor in the story. Three sisters head out for the day on their tropical island in the French Caribbean, ready to run into ghosts, boys, fights and trouble. The conflicts and relationships are communicated perfectly through the posture and angle of the figures, and the charcoal-like brush technique is perfect. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in graphic literature.

Review: Big Wig October 17, 2011

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Kathleen Krull was probably one of the first non-fiction writers I really enjoyed as a kid. Her series of collective biographies (the Lives of… series) gave quirky facts about different famous figures, along with short, compelling overviews of their accomplishments. My interest in many writers and musicians, including Emily Dickinson and Clara Schumann, can be traced back to her books.

Krull’s latest book is a humorous, less in-depth look at various hairstyles throughout history. The title Big Wig and cover art showing various outlandish French hairpieces, are both very eye-catching. Krull takes us from prehistory in Africa through the present day, with a short paragraph of information combined with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek picture by Peter Malone. From the dyed wigs used in Egypt to miraculous cures for baldness, there are plenty of gross-out hair products for kids and interesting tid-bits about famous figures such as Elizabeth I and Shirley Temple. I can see children paging through this book and combing Malone’s paintings for every last tiny detail. I also really appreciated that the book included information about hair from nearly every continent.

While many of the anecdotes presented were funny and interesting, I wanted a little more information about each time period and how hairstyles were a part of the general style and social knowledge of that particular time and place in history. However, this would be a great read-aloud and a good book to engage readers who need short amounts of text. Krull includes ‘hair extension’ notes at the back of the text (some of which were a bit confusing, as I had to turn back to the paragraph they connected to in order to see how the information was relevant) as well as a list of sources.

Big Wig: a little history of hair by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Peter Malone. Published by Scholastic, Inc. 2011.

Books for the Beast: Romance October 14, 2011

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Books for the Beast is a one day Young Adult Literature conference first started in 1991 as a way of honoring young adult librarian Margaret Alexander Edwards. The title comes from a book by Edwards called The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, but the only creatures I’ve met the two times I’ve attended are crowds of rapacious librarians and teen readers, eager to talk to authors, debate the merits of different books and generally revel in the wonders of the genre known as YA. Each participant chooses two ‘discussion groups’ to be part of, which are divided by genre, and reads five books for each one. This year, in an attempt to break out of my somewhat narrow fantasy/historical fiction comfort zone, I signed up for Romance and Multicultural. Below are some basic impressions of the reading for the Romance group.

1. The Six Rules of Maybe by Deb Caletti 

I’ll start with the one book in the group I didn’t actually finish. I picked up this book awhile ago, I think because a reviewer compared it to Sarah Dessen, an author I enjoy. Unfortunately, I found the protagonist passive and her situation (older sister back home with a new husband, a habit of trying to fix everyone’s life) just not that compelling. Maybe I will check it out again before October 22 and actually finish it. Or I might just let other people in my group discuss this one.

 2. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

I bought this one for Ana when it came out, in an attempt to explain to her what I like most about Dessen’s work–her conversations and depiction of friendship. Although she is often pegged as a romance writer, I would argue that Dessen’s greatest strength is writing the romance of friendship: how a tight knit group of teens can support, infuriate and amuse each other even through the difficulties of dating and family drama. The characters Esther, Leah, Maggie and Auden in Along for the Ride have just such a bond and my favorite part of this book is watching how that bond forms and grows.

3. Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles 

In some ways, this book had the least amount of surprise in it. You know that when bad boy Carlos gets busted with drugs at school and is sent to live with the family of his older brother’s professor that he will end up falling for the professor’s daughter. And he will insist he’s not the type for a relationship, and she will try to prove him wrong and they will end up getting married and perpetuating the stereotype that SO many people meet their soulmate in high school. All ranting aside, I did enjoy this book. Great chemistry between the two leads, and just enough violence to keep the suspense going (don’t ask me how believable it is in terms of drug and gang operations, I don’t know these things).

 4. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Ok, I admit it: secretly, I signed up for this group just so I could discuss this, a book I love, by two of my all time favorite YA authors. I may have screamed out loud, in a public place, when I found out they were writing a book together. Green and Levithan alternate chapters, each writing from the point of view of a boy named Will Grayson: one straight, one gay, one with no friends, one with one giant, dominating friend named Tiny Cooper. My favorite part of this book was watching Green’s Will Grayson come out of his shell and take some risks. As a person who is very risk-averse, it gives me hope to read about characters who overcome this particular hurdle.

5. To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg 

The other reason I chose this discussion group was so I had an excuse to find this book as quickly as possibly. It was nice to have a real-life romance, with all it’s challenges, to contrast with the admittedly sometimes too-perfect storybook romances. As you may have gathered from my earlier review, I loved it. Enough said.

What My Students Are Reading: October October 12, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Classroom Books.
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A few of our current favorites

We are now in the second month of school, which means that my students have gotten used to the fact that there are too many books in my classroom and they have started to get demanding. “When will you get the new Percy Jackson?” “Why don’t you have Big Nate books?” “Can you get a book about lemurs?” are all common themes these days. Fortunately, there are still plenty of fun series’ to discover, so here are a few of the books my class is reading.

1. Babymouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. I think this brother/sister collaboration is adorable and this year both boys and girls are devouring them. The color scheme of the book is black and white and pink, so when one of my boys was reading it, a girl came up to him and asked “Why are you reading that girl book?” His response? “It’s not a girl book or a boy book. It’s just a book!” Amen, I say!

2. Calling on Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. I absolutely love this series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and I think it plays really well with fans of both the ‘complicated world-building Harry Potter’ type fantasy and the ‘more classic, fairytale retelling’ fantasy. They do have a lot of text though, so I’m thrilled I have turned my student Isabella on to the adventures of Cimorene and her companions.

3. The Boys Return by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I usually read a Beverly Cleary or Andrew Clements book for my realistic fiction example this time of year, but because so many of my kids were already familiar with those authors, I decided to try something different. I read The Girls Get Even, which, like this book, is part of the Boys Against Girls series. Naylor does a fantastic job of inventing silly pranks and keeping the laughs coming. My kids are begging me to read the next book in the series, but I’ve told them it’s their turn to read it on their own and most of the series is now checked out. Yay!

4. Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz. Halloween is right around the corner and ghost stories, vampire books and monster tales are on every kid’s mind. These creepy stories with even creepier illustrations are always popular and this year is no exception.

All in all, a solid start to the year. Now I just have to think about how I can turn them on to non-fiction. More on that later!

Top 5 Things We Love About Tamora Pierce October 9, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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Almost until I was in college, the majority of the fantasy books I read came from my brother Danny. When we were kids, I would read anything set in another time period (preferably pioneer days or World War II) and he would read anything with a sword on the cover. More than fifteen years later, some of the books he introduced me to have become old favorites, shared with Ana, quoted at length, argued over and read to pieces. The many books of Tamora Pierce are no exception. Pierce has a new book coming out in a couple of weeks, so it seemed a good time to list the Top Five Things We Love About Tamora Pierce. 

5. Overlapping stories.

Pierce has written five series’ set in the imaginary country of Tortall. Beginning with Song of the Lioness, ending with Trickster and including the prequel Beka Cooper, Pierce shows us a country in transition, growing from a feudal, somewhat lawless society to a more democratic nation with a vocal middle class. Characters from her later series’ encounter the protagonists from the early books and we see how their lives have affected those around them. We also get different perspectives on various characters and events, seeing heroes who are feared as well as lauded. One of the pleasures of reading Pierce’s later books is seeing glimpses of how earlier characters, large or small, grew up.

4.Romances

Song of the Lioness was originally written as an adult fantasy-romance, a fact which probably contributes to the somewhat trite loves scenes early in the quartet. Of course the heroine ends up with the prince, whom she has served faithfully as squire while disguised as a boy. Only….wait a minute. She doesn’t. Yes, Pierce has a habit of creating the perfect mates for each of her heroines, even if they sometimes come from unconventional places (when was the last time a YA fantasy heroine married a crow?). But she always makes sure that her leading men respect the women and even allows one protagonist to end her series single and happy with it. There is something for everyone, romantics, cynics and the somewhere-in-between with Pierce’s fiction.

3. Realism in fantasy

One of Pierce’s main complaints about writers like Tolkien and Lewis, is that they ignore basic realities of life, like going to the bathroom. No one could say the same thing about the Tortall books. Bathroom logistics, pregnancy, menstruating and cramps are all challenges her characters must still deal with, even in the midst of talking to griffins and battling Stormwings. Every now and then, she takes the easy way out and creates a magical solution for something (her anti-pregnancy charms, for example, are a great way to discuss birth control with teen girls) but for the most part, she sticks to reality, allowing us to see ourselves more clearly within her characters.

2. Conception of magic 

The downfall of most fantasy is the weak or elusive explanations of how, exactly, magic works. Even acclaimed, classic, or just plain well-written fantasy falls prey to this Achilles heel (witness Harry Potter, Narnia, and the works of E. Nesbit). By contrast, Pierce describes her characters using their magic (often for healing) as a calling up of something inside them. In Wild Magic, the character Numair explains to his student Daine, “What you must do on your own is apply your magic to the break and will it to heal…the strength of your desire is what will complete the task. You must want this to work more than anything, and keep on wanting it, no matter how weary you become” (184).

 1. Strong women

Pierce stated that when she was growing up, there weren’t very many teen books with strong female characters. By 1983, when Alanna, the First Adventure was published, little had changed. We had not yet met Hermione, Lyra Silvertongue, Cimorene or Katniss Everdeen. Whether they hunt down magical monsters, organize spies, fight in battle or spin thread, Pierce’s heroines never question their unique talents. When faced with the challenges of serial killers, arsonists, prejudice and malice, they persevere and pursue their goals single-mindedly. Anyone interested in thoughtful, complex, and adventurous role models for girls should start with a book by Tamora Pierce.