Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Short Takes: The Power of the Short Novel

There's a lot to be said for a short novel. If you teach beginning readers or reluctant readers, it is imperative to have an arsenal of these treasures. The best part of a short novel is...well...its shortness. I hate to be obvious, but when you're 16, and you can't read, a 98 page books seems more manageable and a lot less scary than something like a 700 page Harry Potter. That students can move through them quickly helps to build confidence and a feeling of accomplishment. Maybe, just maybe, you can encourage the budding reader to pick up another. If you're lucky, you can choose one slightly longer and slightly more difficult the next time. Repeat. Length, however, is not my only motivation for seeking out the short novel. Much like short poems, short novels must convey powerful themes, with few words, in a limited space. I love that juxtaposition of the deep and powerful in the seemingly simplistic.

One of my favorite short novels is Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. It is told in a prose format; the text is large (but mysteriously not babyish) and well spaced. When students open it for the first time, there is an almost audible sense of relief.  This, they may think for the first time, I can do. This deceptively simple story is told in Jack's journal as he works through his teacher's poetry unit. Though initially reluctant to read or write poetry, Jack develops a passion for the work of Walter Dean Myers. Through Jack's journal entries he explores his feelings about poetry, develops confidence in himself as a learner, explores his feelings about a personal tragedy, and, ultimately, find his voice.  (Click to see inside)

128 pages of large, well spaced text. You can read it today. And you should. And if you have TWO hours, you can read the sequel, Hate That Cat!
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So I was wandering about Oblong Books and Music with three gift cards and saw this book. The physical book is beautiful. The cover is an elegant green with texture and delicate ivy twining about. Then you open the book to beautiful paper, delicate green ivy on every few pages and beautiful illustrations of signs and headstones about once per chapter. I know they say to never judge a book by its cover, but this one was too pretty to put down.

The story itself begins with a young family with a daughter, Courtney, who move to Murmur, MA. They move into an ancient and imposing house adjacent to the cemetery and immediately notice the encroaching ivy all about the house and the cemetery. The story quickly evolves into a mildly creepy ghost story about long deceased parents trying to protect their long deceased daughter.

While this story is fairly predictable, it has the feel of a more mature book while still being innocent and readable enough for a middle school student. I think a more precocious student would be quickly bored with the book, but it would be wonderful for a high-skilled 4th grader to a relatively low-skilled, innocent 8th grader. The ghost story is not terribly scary or complicated, but it has a nice flow to it, and the characters are quite endearing. Don't be afraid to give this book to a student who needs a little mystery to keep them reading!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Take a Bite out of the Forest of Hands and Teeth

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We have all experienced the weekend when we should be doing work, but instead we get sucked into a book that we simply can't put down... meet my weekend with The Forest of Hands and Teeth. So much work, yet I couldn't put it down! So I should premise this review with the fact that I am terrified of zombies- to the point that two students once had to stand outside with me armed with a cleaver and an ax in order for me to walk my dogs after they had forced me to watch I am Legend. And those were wimpy zombies! Yet, despite my fear, I am inextricably drawn to books about zombies and must then put furniture against the door and sleep with the lights on for weeks.

So my summer's obsession with post-apocalyptic books has spilled into the school year and I subsequently stumbled upon The Forest. It is a mixture of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village and the new Dawn of the Dead (talk about nightmares!). This story begins generations after a zombie plague has ravaged the earth and one small civilization exists surrounded by fences. A highly religious group run by The Sisterhood, they have guardians who patrol the fences and protect against "The Unconsecrated" (zombies) as well as a loyal town of several hundred who don't ask many questions and whose sole purpose is to marry and reproduce to continue the living human race.

Mary, the main character, cannot accept that this is it for humanity. Her mom has told her of oceans and wonders she couldn't possibly imagine in this race for survival. Mary is torn between wanted to be dutiful to her civilization and wanting to know what exists beyond the fence. When the fence is breached and a few are forced to flee down "the forbidden path of fences," Mary gets her chance to see what is really out there. But is it what she hoped for?

This is a wonderfully written book and though the zombies are an ever-present threat, it is more about hope in a time of pure desperation and survival. It is well-written and uses the zombies more as a back-drop than the focus. It isn't for the blood and gore folks who want brains and body parts to be chomped on, but rather for those who like a great story with a hint of danger in the background (ok, so the undead aren't exactly a "hint of danger"). It is mild with the violence but high on desperation and survival. Great read! Just make sure you leave the lights on and stock up on canned goods!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A People's History of American Empire

A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn, Paul Buhle, and Mike Konopacki is a fresh perspective on United States history. With its graphic novel format, it unveils fresh complexities about “traditional” historical narratives. Too often history is taught and presented from the dominant and hegemonic perspective.

A People’s History of American Empire is a very different comic book history. Based on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (as well as Zinn’s own life ) this is a graphic depiction of the times in American history where the nation failed to live up to the standards of liberty and equality for all. Mainly this concept involves the quashing of people within the United States (Indians, African Americans, immigrants, and laborers), wars in foreign lands (Phillipines, Vietnam, and Iraq) and intervention into the self-determination of other nations (Iran, El Salvador, and many more) for the benefit of powerful and wealth American elite. A comic version of Zinn narrates the book frequently turning over the story to characters contemporary to the events described. Scattered in this narrative are stories of the social movements in America such as Civil Rights, labor, and anti-war.

I tutor a senior who is interested in politics and history and will have him read this book (This could be an appropriate book for the right 10-12th grader). This book causes the reader to question the history they have learned from most textbooks. While I did not agree with all of Zinn's perspectives, I felt challenged about the ways that I think about U.S. history and teach history. This book could also be the source of many essay topics and future research papers for tutoring. I found myself wanting to do research about some of the new events that I knew nothing about (talk about cultural memory erasure).

While I enjoy reading young adult fiction very much, I discovered while reading this book that I do not read enough non-fiction books that are suitable for middle or high school students. Hmmm. Look for more LmC blog posts on non-fiction materials. Got any suggestions for me?


I'm not a football fan; I picked up this book because of its cover and because Gordon Korman has a reputation for writing books that can engage adolescent boys. I'm so easily drawn in by the world of girl books and their drama, relationships, and dysfunction that I often have to force myself to delve into something that will appeal to young men. Pop is captivating in a "boy meets old guy who teaches him how to mow down boys in pads in pursuit of a pigskin leather, ovoid shaped ball" sort of way.

When Marcus Jordan and his mother move to New Paltz, New York, to pursue her photography career, he is excited to try out for the football team. He spends the summer practicing by himself, until he meets an older, charismatic man who teaches him how to tackle and how to vandalize the local stores. Marcus eventually discovers that his new friend is Charlie Popovich, "the King of Pop," who is enjoying retirement from his career as an NFL linebacker. Marcus is curious about Charlie's attention to him but dedicated to making the football team so he keeps quiet about his questions.

When Marcus starts school, he discovers that the football team, undefeated in its last season, is reluctant to make any changes that might affect their magic. He meets a lot of resistance, particularly from Troy, the starting quarterback. We soon discover that the former NFL star who had devoted so much time and attention to Marcus is none other than Troy's father, and conflicts ensue as Marcus and Troy disagree about football, about Troy's ex-girlfriend Alyssa, and about what is best for Charlie.  As Marcus uncovers the Popovich family secret, he is forced into a confrontation with Troy that challenges our ideas of family and friendship.

Pop was well worth a read. To be honest, the football didn't thrill me, but I know it would to appeal to many young men who are interested in sports. The relationship between Marcus and Charlie was far more engaging to me as I'm interested in out of the ordinary family relationships that often develop between people who are not blood relatives. There is a bit of a love story as Alyssa decides whether Marcus or Charlie is her true love; it's not enough of a love story to turn off the boys and maybe just enough to interest the girls. It's a fairly fast-paced book with a lot of tackling, some vandalism, a motorized scooter, a little kissing, some kidnaping, and family drama; there's a little of something for everyone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hunger Games leaves me craving MORE!

I picked up Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins at a local bookstore solely because the recommendation was written by a former colleague with similar YA tastes. It sat on my shelf until one day I picked it up and couldn't put it down until it was finished. Hunger Games is the type of novel that can convince people who aren't fond of reading that books really can hold you captive.

It starts out describing the post-apocalyptic world Katniss Everdeen lives in, complete with starving people and a controlling, malicious government. She is then swept into the Hunger Games in an effort to save her sister. The Hunger Games are a yearly event where each of the 12 districts that make up Panem must sacrifice one boy and one girl to a deadly battle that only ends when there is one child left alive. This grisly battle takes place in arena controlled by the Capitol, who can manipulate the playing field anytime the action slows.

Many criticize Hunger Games for being gratuitously violent (which it is), and a rip-off of Battle Royale (which it kind of is). However, the violence is steeped in true post-apocalyptic themes that can be a spring board for students who might enjoy such a genre but read at a lower level than most post-apocalyptic are written at. Let's face it- there aren't many willing to take on such a genre in YA lit, but this book is written carefully while still holding true to such a terrifying situation.

While the story is similar to Battle Royale (junior high kids forced to battle to the death), it is much more reader friendly for teen readers and it is less daunting in size (Battle Royale is over 600 pages!). That does not mean BR isn't an amazing book, but Hunger Games might be just the book to get your toughest students reading. And don't discount its appeal to adults either! It is creative, captivating, and a new spin on a terrifying story. Give Hunger Games a try. I promise you won't be sorry! (Plus the second book, Catching Fire, just came out too!)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Double Entry Journal

I often use a double-entry journal in my classes or tutoring sessions. It is a wonderful tool to get students to write their reflections about a text. Usually to start a double entry journal I will glue text on one side of the page of a composition notebook. On the other page, I will divide it in half (up and down). On one half students will write general notes or a summary about the text. This summary might include key ideas or definitions to vocabulary words. You could also have them write specific notes about a character or person in history (I do this in my history class). On the other half of the page, students write their own thoughts, responses, questions, confusions, personal reactions about what the information means to them. Double entry journals take note taking a step further. Instead of just asking students to consider what the text means, the process requires students to draw implications from the text, analyze the text, and wrestle with the prose. An interesting twist that you can take with this exercise is to have your tutoring student complete an entry and you as the teacher complete and entry and then share your writings.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Subjects Matter

I know this is a blog about young adult books, but I wanted to mention a great resource that helped me teach reading in the content area of history. Subjects Matter by Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman provided me with fresh ideas to help my students become active readers and how to get students to critically analyze a boring textbook. The strategies presented in this book include: a KWL chart, Anticipation Guide, Dramatic Role Play, Post-it-note questions, Coding text, Bookmark, Double Entry Journals, Sketching your Way through Text, Exit Slips, Writting Conversations, and many more activities. I think about many of the activities outside of "school" that my students excel at. Some are talented artists. Others are skilled athletes. The process of learning their skill sets was not neat, easy, or passive. Learning how to read needs to be active and messy. I am all about marking up texts. (Then again, I was the kid who colored outside the lines.) In tutoring, I tend to have my students loop syllables of words, underline key vocabulary words, or write author responses. In history class, I photocopy parts of texts and have my students react to what they read using some of the the ideas mentioned in Subjects Matter. How do you create active readers in your classrooms or tutoring sessions? Please feel free to share ideas.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Graveyard Book

Many of the books I was assigned to read in school were selections from the Newbery award winners. (The Newbery is awarded by the ALA to an author who has made a significant contribution to children’s literature. ) Each year I still continue to read the newest Newbery selections. Last spring, I read the Graveyard Book and found the prose simply delicious. Neil Gaiman’s style of writing each chapter as a short story is quite clever. The twists of murder and mayhem over boil throughout the text. I desired to have some of Bod’s abilities to dream walk or fade from mortal sight and float through his adventures with him. In terms of the ghost genre, I think the Graveyard Book might be one of my favorite reads since Harry Potter. Have you read any ghost-genre/fantasy books that compare to Harry Potter? Please post and share.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Summer Reading

As summer makes the slow descent to fall, my thoughts turn to new students and new teachers. During the early weeks of the school year, much of my time is devoted to helping my new students find books to read and helping new teachers find books for their students. I also spend a lot of time policing the summer reading program, divining which students completed their reading requirements and who did not. Although it can be tedious to contact non-compliant parents to track down their children's summer reads, it is also exciting to see just what our students DID read last summer. I'm always excited to see that teachers and students have taken my recommendations and more excited when they have enjoyed them. If you're looking for a good read, here is the list I offered to the Kildonan tutors last spring as they prepared summer reading lists for their students. I hope we'll be up and running with some book reviews soon.

Students with Reading Skills 5th Grade and Below:

Alexie, Sherman - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (GE=3.4) 
Creech, Sharon - Hate That Cat
Cushman, Karen - The Loud Silence of Francine Green (GE=4.3)
Frazer, Sundee T. - Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It (GE=3.5) 
Hautman, Pete - Rash (GE=4.0)
Hornby, Nick et. al - Click (GE=4.4)
Korman, Gordon - Born to Rock (GE=4.5)
Lyga, Barry - The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl (GE=3.7)
McLaughlin, Patricia - Edward’s Eyes
Meyer, Stephanie - Twilight (GE=5.0); New Moon (GE=4.7); Breaking Dawn (GE=4.3); Eclipse (GE=4.3)
Miller, William - Richard Wright and the Library Card (GE=4.8)
Sis, Peter - The Wall:  Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
Spinelli, Jerry -  Love, Stargirl (GE=3.3); Eggs
Winerip, Michael - Adam Canfield Watch Your Back (GE=4.4)
Woodson, Jacqueline - Behind You (GE=3.9); After Tupac & D Foster (GE=4.6)

Students with Reading Skills between 5th and 7th Grade:

Appelt, Kathi -  The Underneath (GE=5.4)
Brashares, Ann - 3 Willows 
Collins, Suzanne - Hunger Games (GE=5.3)
Crane, E.M. - Skin Deep (GE-5.5)
Draper, Sharon M. - November Blues
Gaiman, Neil - The Graveyard Book (GE=5.4)
Galante, Cecilia - The Patron Saint of Butterflies
Green, John - Paper Towns (GE=5.5)
Hiaasen, Carl - Scat (GE=5.3)
Kinney, Jeff - Diary of a Wimpy Kid (GE=5.3):  and others in this series
Knox, Elizabeth - Dreamhunter (GE=5.5) and Dreamquake (GE=5.5), both of the Dreamhunter Duet
Konigsburg, E.L. - The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
Kuhlman, Evan - The Last Invisible Boy
Lockhart, E. - The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (GE=5.7)
Lupica, Mike - Heat (GE=5.5)
Nelson, Kadir - We Are the Ship:  The Story of Negro League Baseball (GE=6.2)
Satrapi, Marjane - Persepolis (GE=5.8)
Schmidt, Gary D., The Wednesday Wars (GE=6.1)
Selznick, Brian - The Amazing Adventures of Hugo Cabret (GE=5.2)
Smith, Charles R., Jr. - Twelve Rounds to Glory:  The Story of Muhammad Ali
Woodson, Jacqueline, Feathers (GE=5.3)

Students with Reading Levels 7 and up:
Blundell, Judy - What I Saw and How I Lied
Brande, Robin - Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature
Chaltas, Thalia - Because I Am Furniture
Clarke, Judith - One Whole and Perfect Day
Cohn, Rachel and David Levithan - Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Curtis, Christopher Paul - Elijah of Buxton (GE=7.8)
Dozois, Gardner - The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection
Duey, Kathleen - Skin Hunger
Felin, M. Sindy- Touching Snow
Forman, Gayle - If I Stay
George, Madeleine - Looks
Hemphil, Stephanie - Your Own Sylvia:  A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath
Hornby, Nick - Slam
Jenkins, A.M. - Repossessed
Lanagan, Margo - Tender Morsels  
Law, Ingrid - Savvy (GE=8.5)
Lupica, Mike - The Big Field (GE=7.6); Summer Ball (GE=7.2) 
Lyga, Barry - Hero Type
Marchetta, Melina - Jellicoe Road 
Myers, Walter Dean - Game (and others by this author)
Pratchett, Terry - Nation 
Rowling, J.K. - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (GE=7.4)
Schutz, Samantha - I Don’t Want to Be Crazy (GE=10.4)
Stork, Francisco X. - Marcelo in the Real World
Tharp, Tim - The Spectacular Now; Nights of the Hill Country
Zarr, Sara - Story of a Girl
Additional Selections for Outstanding Readers:  The Alex Awards

The Alex Awards are given by the American Library Association to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year's publishing. 

Beah, Ishmael - A Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Iggulden, Conn - Genghis:  Birth of an Empire

Jones, Lloyd - Mister Pip

Kyle, Aryn - The God of Animals

Lemire, Jeff - Tales from the Farm:  Essex County, v.1

Lutz, Lisa - The Spellman Files

Maltman, Thomas - The Night Birds

Matthew, Polly - American Shaolin:  Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch; An Odyssey in the New China

Rothfuss, Patrick - The Name of the Wind

Ruff, Matt - Bad Monkeys