Monday, July 25, 2011

Unicorns as the Ultimate Cure All?

Diana Peterfreund's first unicorn novel was amazing. Her sequel, Ascendant, was just as good, but took some surprising twists. It took the life of Astrid, a unicorn hunter, in a new direction. Since unicorns are no longer sweet, sparkly myths with this series, we see Astrid struggle with her role as a hunter of these terrifying and majestic creatures and an admirer of the animals they really are.

Astrid continues to live in the Cloisters and hunt with the other girls, but things aren't progressing well. They are having trouble finding new recruits, and the Cloisters becomes a focus of attention for both the world at large, once people finally realize unicorns are real and deadly, and the Catholic church, from whom the convent they live in comes from. Astrid's mother Lilith has been in her glory touring talk shows and raising awareness about unicorns (and embellishing her own and her family's role in the unicorn world). Meanwhile the girls fight the deadly fight every day. When one girl gets sick and loses her hunter powers, Astrid agrees to go to England with her for protection. Before she goes to England, though, she stops in France to pursue a lead on the boy who raped her cousin Phil (Philippa) and disqualified her from being a hunter.

Once in France, Astrid quickly finds out she wasn't following the boy who hurt Phil, but rather her ex-boyfriend, the one her mother saved with the last of the world's Remedy (anti-unicorn). Brandt is still the guy who spread rumors about her in her high school, but she can't help but be drawn to him. When he takes her to the pharmaceutical lab that has been studying the unicorns (and tried to kill the hunters), she finds it is being run in a new way since the guy who plotted against the hunters was gored to death by a unicorn. Now his estranged wife is running the lab, and she wants Astrid to stay and manage their unicorn herd. Astrid agrees, but she quickly realizes the job isn't what she thought. When a baby unicorn is born right in front of her, Astrid hides it from the scientists, but they find out about her secret. Unable to bear the thought of what they will do to the baby, Astrid abandons the lab to return to the Cloisters. It is there she discovers the Cloisters is falling apart and they are down hunters. With only four working hunters, things quickly become very dangerous for Astrid. But she can't stop thinking about the herd she left behind. With unicorns in her head, things can quickly go downhill for Astrid. Will she survive the most dangerous job in the world?

This was a very interesting sequel, but it took some turns I was surprised by. Although the first book had some dark and gritty details, I wouldn't qualify it an overwhelmingly "dark" book. But this story got very disturbing. The descriptions of the treatment of the unicorns at the lab was almost too much to bear at times. When the secret of the Remedy is revealed, it is a plot twist I totally did not see coming, and am kind of stunned by! I was actually taken aback by some of the twists in this story, but they kept me reading! Sometimes the story seemed a little lost between "chunks", but overall it was a very intriguing follow-up.

Like the first book, I would probably give this to an older student, in particular one interested in fantasy and mythology. The history behind the hunters is really interesting, but my concern is that all the elements are never revealed. There are always gaps to the history and the story that are never fully explained. They don't keep you from understanding the story, and maybe they will be revealed in another book, but I wish they weren't given so sparingly. I would have like to have the full picture. In all, though, great sequel! Who can resist fanged, poisonous, flesh-eating unicorns?!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dark and Murderous Mermaids

Lost Voices (Lost Voices (Trilogy))
After reading Tera Lynn Childs' mermaid series, I was expecting this to be a light, fun story about cute mermaids. Couldn't have been more wrong! Don't be fooled by the beautiful cover on this book. It is dark and sometimes disturbing. This is not a mermaid story for the sensitive readers out there. Sarah Porter took her mermaids to a whole new level in Lost Voices.

Luce is only fourteen, but she has had a tough life for a girl so young. Her mom died when she was little and her father was a nomad and a thief, dragging Luce from ratty motel to ratty motel, barely letting her stay long enough to enroll in school. She didn't mind it, though. Then her father decides to move to Alaska so Luce can have a normal life and be closer to his brother. When Luce's dad's boat is lost at sea while fishing, she is left to her uncle's protection. Her uncle is a mean, abusive alcoholic, but when he goes to far and actually tries to rape her, something happens to Luce. She changes. She becomes a mermaid.

Mermaids are young women who are given a second chance after being hurt and tortured by human beings. Every girl mermaid Luce meets has her own horror story of how she got there- burned alive, thrown from a moving vehicle, sold by her parents, etc. Most of the mermaids are between 5 and 16, but there are baby mermaids- babies hurt by humans who become mermaids and are stuck as babies, never growing old, unable to defend themselves. The other mermaids call them larvae and know there is no way to help them. They will never grow up and can therefore never survive in the cruel ocean. Most of them are eaten by orcas, but there are always more to replace them. The larvae are the hardest thing for Luce to accept... until she learns what the purpose of the mermaids.

Mermaids sink ships. Their song is so beautiful it draws ships into the rocks and breaks them apart. People ob board are so enchanted, they leap into the water to be closer to the the mermaids, jumping to their deaths. Luce struggles with this, even though she is the second best singer and instantly propelled to Catarina's, the Queen of the tribe, second in command. As a large group of mermaids come and then one of the mermaids convince Catarina to turn a girl on a yacht, things begin to change. Catarina loses her authority to control the mermaids and only take down small ships in places where the humans won't become suspicious. Soon Anais, the girl from the yacht, is getting girls to take down boats to get jewelry and clothes and useless electronics. They are endangering the mermaid way of life, but can Luce and Catarina save the tribe before they call too much attention to themselves?

This is an incredibly dark, and sometimes morbid (especially with the ever-present larvae) story. It is not for delicate readers who can't handle dark stories. The most interesting aspect of this story for me was the fact that, although vengeful, the mermaids were given a second chance at life. For Luce, it was the first time she had real friends and the first time since her father's death she felt loved. It is a beautiful idea that after so much pain, they could find peace somewhere. I also like the idea that while the other mermaids took down ships to get vengeance on evil humans, Luce couldn't bring herself to do it- she remembered that while some humans like her uncle were evil, others were good to her. It is a nice twist to the story that gives hope for people and mermaids alike.

Because this story is full of some very serious and violent situations, it might be best left for an older student. I would recommend grades 10-12 unless you know a younger student who is comfortable with darker material. The book might be best used in conjunction with non-fiction material and discussions about the situations in the story that lead to the girls changing into mermaids. The book will be a great catalyst for some serious discussions on vengeance and violence.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Deep and Horrifying Graphic History

Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda
There is something about a graphic novel depiction of a horrible situation, war, genocide, etc, that stays with you for a long time. I think it might be the fact that "comics" are assumed to be fun and light-hearted, but graphic novels and even comics have take a whole new approach. They don't limit themselves to fun, slight stories. They can be dark, serious, and very, very real. Jean-Philippe Strassen's graphic depiction of the Rwandan genocide will stay with you long after you have read the last frame. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda is a powerful book.

The story is told in two parts. It shows the life of Deogratias, a young Hutu man who has been driven mad by the genocide, and it shows his life before the genocide in constant flashbacks. Deogratias was in love with with Appollinaria, but when she turned him down, he started dating her younger sister Benina. He loved both girls. It didn't matter to him that they were Tutsi and he was Hutu, or how their mother made her money to support them. When the President's plane is shot down and the genocide begins, Deogratias hides Benina in his house, but she cannot stay there without knowing what happened to her mother and her sister.

The present time show Deogratias, or what is left of him. He is still a young boy, but he has been driven mad by the things he has seen and the things he has done during the genocide. The people in the village treat him like a pet, a dirty stray dog. At night is when his demons haunt him and he drowns them with local banana beer. It isn't until the very end of the book, after witnessing Deogratias' flashbacks and loss into madness, that you see the return of a foreign priest who fled before the genocide got really bad. With his return, you learn the truth of what happened during the genocide to cause Deogratias' madness.

The illustrations in this book are dark and scary. There are times at the beginning where it is hard to tell what is happening, especially when you see Deogratias start to transform under the stars into a dog. The flashbacks give you part of the story bit by bit, and you have to puzzle everything together. Because you have grown to care and worry about Deogratias, learning the truth about his time in the genocide is very painful. Unfortunately, this is a very true depiction of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Hutus who lived and worked with Tutsis for their entire lives were forced to kill their family and neighbors to avoid being killed themselves. It is hard to digest, but not because it is a graphic story (although it is), but rather because it is a true story.

I think this story is an incredibly important story for any young adult to read. Because of the horrifying nature of the genocide itself, it would need to be handled with background knowledge and sensitivity for the reader. The introduction by the translator gives a wonderful summary of what was happening in Rwanda during the time before, during and after the genocide. It is perfect for any student who isn't familiar with the events in Rwanda in 1994. The story can be violent and sexually explicit, but that is simply the nature of a genocide where rape was a tool for torture and murder was committed on a scale that is unheard of- 800,000 people in a few short months. So while you might be worried about giving this to a younger student, I understand your concerns, but think the benefits far outweigh the possible concerns, especially if it is taught well and with a strong purpose. I plan to use this graphic novel in my Rwanda unit this year, and am interested to see how my students handle it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Don't Miss the next Big Trilogy!

Sometimes you read a book and just know it is going to be huge. It happened for me with HarryPotter, Twilight, Hunger Games, and a few others. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, you just know this book is going to be big. When my cousin recommended Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini, I picked it up because she has never led me astray. Then I read it and knew... just knew... it would be huge! You will be seeing more of this trilogy. Mark my words! Once this trilogy picks up steam, it is going to be as big as the others!

Helen's mom left her and Jerry, Helen's dad, when she was young. When she left, she took every picture and keepsake they had from her, but she left behind some memories. Helen tries to be normal, but on a small island like Nantucket with odd strength and speed like she has, that takes some effort. Lucky for Helen, her good friend Claire keeps her straight. But when a new family comes to the island, Helen wants to kill Lucas, one of the sons. She has never met him before, has no idea who he is, but she can't suppress the blind rage and drive for murder she is filled with every time she sees him. After she tries to kill him in the hallway and is sent home, she is sure she has gone crazy, especially when she sees three creepy ladies egging her rage on every time she sees Lucas.

When Lucas saves her from a fall when Helen (in a blind panic, running for her life) learned she could fly and fainted mid-air, something stops the voices of the three ladies. She and Lucas lie on the beach, bones mending, and they realize they don't want to kill each other anymore. He tells her the Furies have gone, and it must be because he saved her life. It is then that Helen learns the true nature of her strengths, which are because she is a demigod. Of the four houses of demigods, there was only supposed to be one left, Thebes, Lucas's family's house, but Helen is from a different house. Lucas's family explains there is an ancient pact the Gods struck after the Trojan War, that said the Four Houses must never join together, nor should there ever be only one house. If so, a war with the Gods would be struck. Some from the House of Thebes want to kill Helen, as the end of the other three houses will allow them to raise Atlantis and become immortal, but Lucas's family wants to keep her safe in order to stop the war. Unfortunately for Helen and Lucas, their lvoe for one another will also start a war, by bringing the two houses together. It seems Lucas and Helen are star-crossed lovers- doomed to live apart, doomed to love one another forever. But are they really?

Oh Good God(dess)es. This book just rocked. It gave me the same feeling I got from my beloved Harry Potter, and Twilight, and Hunger Games. I just loved everything about it. Lucas was simply irresistible. He was beautiful, deeply devoted, and protective. Helen was headstrong, loyal, and funny. The supporting characters, every last one of them, were fantastic. There wasn't a single piece of this story I didn't like... well except for the end... I didn't want it to end! And trust me, neither will you!

The story is about 500 pgs, which might be intimidating for your less skilled readers, but the story is tight enough and exciting enough to hold the attention of most kids. The content is appropriate for a wide range of kids, and the love scenes are very innocent. This is a great book for those kids (and adults) who love those epic trilogies and have been lost without a new one. They might want to kill someone when they realize they have to wait a whole year for the next book, but they will still love you for recommending such a great story! Don't wait- pick up Starcrossed NOW! You need Helen and Lucas in your life!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

13 Reasons Why You Should Read This Book

Thirteen Reasons Why
It is hard to write about this book now that I have finished it. I am sad. I am angry. I am blown away by both the premise and the execution of this book. Jay Asher wrote a book that would be hard pressed to find someone it didn't change deeply. I know Thirteen Reasons Why left me a different person. And here are thirteen reasons why you should read this book, and then pass it on...

1. Because when a girl wants to tell you why she committed suicide, everyone should listen. Hannah Baker is gone, but she left behind 13 stories about why she made the decision. She instructed the listeners, who are all mentioned in the tapes, to pass them on to the next person. She warned them that if they didn't, a second set of the tapes, full of their dirty secrets, would become public. And so a group of people, some more guilty than others, but all with a hand in the final outcome, passed their dirty secrets to one another. They needed to hear how they played a part in her decision to commit suicide.

2. Because you never know what the consequences of your actions will be. Not all the stories are as horrible as the others. Sure there are some that will disgust you, but it is the small things that hurt Hannah the most. For instance, a boy she didn't encourage when he came on to her after another boy tried to force himself on her in a diner (she was basically stunned and in shock) proceeded to take all her notes from her bag in Peer Communications. Since the teacher acknowledged it was hard for them to give each other compliments, she made them all bags where they could leave anonymous compliments. Hannah needed those. They were like a lifeline. When she realized it was him who was taking them, it hurt her more than the boy who tried to force himself on her.

3. Because bullying goes farther than the immediate incident. When a "Hot or Not" list placed Hannah in the "Best of" list for a specific body part, it seemed to make boys felt they had a right to objectify her. She wasn't even the real target of the mean-spirited list, but the consequences were long lived.

4. Because even someone with genuine intentions can be too late to change the direction things are going. Clay, the narrator listening to the tapes, really cared about Hannah, but his appearance in her life was too late. She had been hurt by so many boys that Clay seemed too god to be true and Hannah felt too damaged to give him a chance if it meant opening herself up to more pain and suffering.

5. Because there are some really bad people out there. One guy who repeatedly sent Hannah over the edge was known for this kind of behavior. In fact, as Clay listened to the tapes, he knew exactly who Hannah was talking about before she mentioned his name. So why did it take a suicide before this guy was called on his actions? Why didn't someone stop him?

6. Because there are always signs. Teens, or anyone for that matter, don't just kill themselves without warning signs. Change of appearance. Giving away items, especially those they care about or use every day. Saying goodbye. Don't overlook the signs. Don't make excuses for them. You can never be too careful.

7. Because even rumors and verbal bullying hurt. There is a misconception that rumors are just part of human nature. We are social creatures and we like to gossip, that's the justification, right? Well, why do we need to justify hurting someone for entertainment? Bullying isn't always physical. Many times, rumors and gossip are the most painful and the longest lasting, especially with technology today.

8. Because suicide happens, even if we don't hear about it. Many times the news keeps coverage of suicides to a minimum, out of respect for the family left behind. Just because we haven't heard about it, doesn't mean it isn't happening right outside our doors. This isn't a problem contained in after school specials and teen novels. It's real and it's killing our children.

9. Because everyone has a story. Hannah had a lot of them. Clay had his own. Everyone had their stories, and some of them were on the tapes. Hannah wasn't the only victim, she was just the one with a voice. Sometimes people just need their stories to be heard. Listen to Hannah's. She needs you to.

10. Because the best way to stop something like suicide is to talk about it. The more shame and guilt attached to these feelings, the less likely kids are to come forward with them. Opening a dialogue in a safe place is the first step. Is it hard to talk to your kids about suicide? Good. It should be. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

11. Because these characters are real people. Sure they are fictional for this story's purposes, but I'll bet you can think of someone you know who reminds you of Hannah. Someone who you think of every time you read Clay's story. You know a Bryce, a Marcus, and a Justin. So what are you going to do about it?

12. Because it is about time teachers and adults were made uncomfortable when it comes to the emotional lives of our children. We have a ridiculous notion school is just for learning subjects like math and science and history. Wrong. Dead wrong. Our kids are at war from the time they start school until they graduate. It is high time they had some allies in the adults in their lives. We might be uncomfortable getting involved in the emotional lives of children, but if we don't try, how will be help them? Hannah might have been helped had one single adult known what to do to help her.

And finally...
13. Because I need you to read this story. Like with any story such as Thirteen Reasons Why, I need to talk to someone about it! I am sure Clay felt the same way when he listened to Hannah's tapes. When something is that emotional, that painful you want to talk about it. I'm no different. So please, read this story. Yes it has some sexual content (mostly in rumors), and partying (not glorified), and uncomfortable subjects, but that is exactly why every adult and teenager should read this book. And when you do, you won't be the same. But that isn't a bad thing... not by far.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Steampunk and the Supernatural

Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices, Book 1)
Sometimes I am intimidated by the sheer size of Cassandra Clare's books. I have only read the first of the Mortal Instruments series because they are sooo big! But I was talking to my sister about them the other day and she made a very good point- they might be big, but they are so good you fly right through them. She was right! I am glad I picked up Clockwork Angel, the first book in the new Infernal Devices series, a prequel to the Mortal Instruments series. Had I not, I would have missed out on so much supernatural goodness!

Tessa comes to London to meet her brother. She hasn't seen him since he left New York and now that he is the only family she has left, she is anxious to reunite with him. Immediately she is captured by two vile women who call themselves the Dark Sisters. The Dark Sisters kept Tessa for months, forcing her to get control of a power she never knew she had: shape-shifting. But Tessa's is no normal shifting, she can actually become the person, thoughts and all. The Dark Sisters use her to tell them what happened to people they thought might be dead, as Tessa could relive their last moments. The shifting was terrifying for Tessa, especially since she thought she was dying along with the person she had become. Finally, when Tessa is finished training, they prepare her for her wedding (magical) to the Magistrar, the head of a very powerful supernatural group who wants to control London.

When Tessa sees an opportunity to escape, she takes it. Luckily it happens to be at the exact same time a wild young man named Will comes in to investigate a dead girl he tied to the Dark Sisters. He takes Tessa back to the Institute, a place where Shadowhunters are trained to control magical folks and if necessary, hunt and kill them when they threaten the mundanes (non-magical folks). There, Tessa finds people she can trust and who will help her find her brother, who is now missing. The people at the institute track her brother Nate to a mundane who dabbles in the supernatural. He directs them to a vampire who controls the most powerful London coven and seems to have forgotten the Accords, laws created by the Shadowhunters that prevent magical people from hurting non-magical people. When Tessa shifts into a vampire and goes with a Shadowhunter into the vampire's party, she finds evidence the Accords have been broken as well as her brother Nate, bound and ready to be eaten by the head vampire. The Shadowhunters break in and kill most of the vampires, but the head of the coven escapes. Now they must find him before he can give life using demon energy to his army of robotic clockwork minions, because he won't stop until he has Tessa all to his own, even if it means killing every last Shadowhunter.

For those of you who don't know, Steampunk is an interesting subgenre of science fiction. It involves alternate history with interesting technological advances for the time period (usually 19th century). The movie "Wild Wild West" was a type of Steampunk, as well as a lot of stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. This book is not only full of your typical supernatural beastlies like warlocks and vampires and werewolves, it also has these creepy automatons that are being created as a new, unstoppable army. The uses of clockwork cogs and wheels to led to the name "clockwork army". It is a really interesting subgenre, and one our kids might not have had any exposure to.

The story is interesting from start to finish and although it is long, it doesn't feel like it is long. Instead, you find yourself plowing through all 500 or so pages like it was a couple hundred, shocked when you get to the end. The story is a little sophisticated, but not in terms of adult content or language. Instead, it just seems like a grown-up story, which would appeal to kids who don't like "childish" stories. The alternate history, science fiction, and Steampunk might appeal to those a wide range of students, including quirky kids who are hard to find a book for. It is exciting and engaging. While the size of the book might intimidate some kids (or adults!), don't let that keep them from starting this series- it's too good not to give it a shot!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Witness to Bullying

Diary of a Witness
Bullying seems to be seeping into my world more and more lately. From the conference, to the last few YA books I have read, it seems to be everywhere. Sadly. So how do you make each book unique and special? Because you make it real. Catherine Ryan Hyde made Diary of a Witness as real as you could get with the lives of two young men who continue to suffer at the hands of their bullies even after they suffer and inconceivable tragedy.

Ernie and Will are friends, but they are each other's only real friend. Both are targets. Ernie is bullied because he is overweight and his mom is even more overweight and his father split long ago. Will is bullied because he is strange and has acne and his mother left with another man, leaving him, his little brother Sam, and his father to fend for themselves. Both boys like fishing, which is also a source of mockery amongst the popular guys at school. One day Will convinces Ernie to go fishing in the ocean with him and Sam. In a freak accident, the boat is sunk and Sam never surfaces.

After Sam's death, you would think the bullies would lay off Will for a while, but they do something worse. They use his brother's death as fodder for the torment. In fact, they beat Will down so much, he tries to kill himself. Ernie calls the ambulance and saves Will, but even this doesn't stop the bullies. Ernie and Will go to Ernie's uncle's house for Christmas vacation and they almost feel normal. When they come back to school, though, it is as if Will just can't take it anymore. He talks about hurting the bullies so much that it makes Ernie nervous. When the bullies attack Ernie and Will one final time, it seems as though Will has been driven to do the unthinkable. But can Ernie stop Will before he does something he can never take back? Should he care if the people who tormented him for years are going to get hurt?

This book is told from the perspective of both a witness and a victim. Ernie tells the story, but he is still a victim himself. The narration gives the reader an interesting take on how the bullying dynamic can affect children. An interesting aspect is when the bullies accidentally take it too far. One time, they tripped Ernie and he tripped too far, falling down the stairs. He was barely conscious, but he could hear the boys were scared- they meant to trip him, but not throw him down the stairs. Of course, their concern is for how much trouble they are going to be in, not Ernie's welfare. It shows how almost a frenzy is created when these things get going, bringing people to levels they would never reach independently. This is a scary examination into the world of bullied teens.

The story is short, only 200 pgs, and is appropriate for all ages, high powered elementary students through low-skilled high school students. The subject matter is tough, but so is school for kids of all ages. If a kid is able to read this book, then they have surely been involved in bullying somehow, as a bully, a victim, or a witness. To see the extreme of consequences bullying can reach is an important lesson to learn. This book is versatile enough reach so many kids, it becomes a great asset to any classroom or library.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Rage Against Preconceived Notions

Rage (Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Book 2)
Rarely do we read a book so raw with emotions that it leaves you speechless by the time you read the last page. Jackie Morse Kessler accomplishes this effortlessly. She knows how to bring a reader into the most painful lives of teens who are suffering from eating disorders, bullying, cutting, etc. With her second book in the Horsemen of the Apocalypse series, Rage, she has a cutter who has been bullied to the brink of sanity, become War, the Rider of the Red Horse.

Missy slept with Adam and he saw her for who she was- a cutter. He immediately dumped her and told everyone about her scars. Now she is tormented even worse than before. Now they all call her Cutterslut and other horrible names. Missy's only means of control over her own life is to cut. She can't control the pain she feels every day at home and at school, but she can control the blade. When Adam invites her to a party, Missy reluctantly agrees to go, but she goes to show them all they don't bother her. When Adam is uncharacteristically kind and kisses her, she forgets all her anger and pain. She follows him upstairs and takes off her clothes for him. Just as she does, he calls for everyone to come in. It is then, in a flurry of cell phones and cameras, that Missy's life changes forever. With her secret out and her picture and video all over the web, she chooses to accept Death's offer to become War... and her first stop is the party.

As War, Missy creates havoc in the party, making everyone's aggression and anger seethe to the top. When she leaves, she is conflicted about what she has done and what she might have done if Adam had been there. She starts to go out into her world to do the job of War, but she sees her destruction doesn't just hurt adult soldiers- there are innocent women and children there too. She fights the will of War, but Famine and Death explain the balance to her. When there is no balance, like when Pestilence took some time off, the result can be like the Black Death- centuries of consequences. When she returns to school and feels the consequences of her own bullies, she is torn between wanting to punish everyone in the building to knowing there are innocent people who don't deserve to suffer her wrath. But can Missy keep War until control in order to restore the balance?

This is a very dark and important story. When we consider bullicide (suicide as a result of severe bullying) and school violence like Columbine, it is vital that we look at the emotions of the victim. The pain, the humiliation, and the rage they feel is overwhelming. The result is often violence, either towards themselves or others. While critics attacked this book for being "too violent" and "too graphic" about a cutter, I would like to know why they don't acknowledge the bullying. If they are so worried about the cutting, perhaps an honest conversation about the impetus for the cutting is where prevention should start. Yes, this was a dark book, but it is impossible to write a book about such vicious bullying without it being real, raw, emotional, and dark.

I am bowled over by these books, but I will admit they might be too much for a more sensitive young adult. As parents and teachers, we know the type of student who can handle a series like this one. The beauty of this author is she doesn't take prisoners. She doesn't hold back or "write in code" to protect delicate sensibilities. She lays it on the line. And if you don't like it, then perhaps you should do something about stopping the behaviors that cause this kind of situation. perhaps it is time to do something about the bullies in order to save the victims.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Bridge Between Generations

The Cardturner
Louis Sachar is quite simply a genius. I remember reading the Wayside School series when I was a child, and now I use them for my youngest students. Over two decades later, they are still funny! And who can forget Holes? Stanley Yelnats was a hero to so many of us. So it only seemed appropriate for The Cardturner to be just as amazing. If you agree, I promise you won't be sorry!

Alton has a rich uncle. Uncle Lester Trapp. Alton's family have been trying to ingratiate themselves to Trapp for years, but he ignores all their pleas for visits and dinners. Instead he spends all his time with his ex-wife's "crazy" niece Sophie and her daughter Toni (well, Alton's parents swear they are crazy, but he isn't completely convinced). When Trapp starts to get sicker from his diabetes, Alton's parents actually seem anxious for him to die in hopes of inheriting all his wealth. When Trapp needs a "cardturner" for his bridge games because his diabetes left him blind, they are quick to volunteer Alton.

Alton doesn't mind spending time with Trapp. In fact, he grows to really love the cantankerous old bird. He even starts to understand bridge, which seemed impossible at first. The more time he spends with Trapp, the more he learns his mother's information about Sophie, Toni and Annabelle (Sophie's mother) is just plain wrong (and quite frankly, mean spirited). His mother never knew the real story behind the King women, or perhaps she wouldn't have been so quick to dismiss them as gold diggers. In fact, Alton has really gotten to like Toni.

When Trapp passes away suddenly before the national bridge championship, Alton and Toni feel they have to go anyway- as Trapp and Annabelle. Since Trapp and Annabelle were partners and cared very deeply for one another, it only seems right that Alton and Toni would enter the contest as Trapp and Annabelle. They sneak off to Chicago and take on some of the best bridge players in the world. But it seems Trapp and Annabelle are with them more than just in memory- they seem to be playing through Alton and Toni, taking one last shot at the championship like they couldn't so many years ago.

This was such an interesting story. I will admit, my family are gin and rummy players, so bridge is totally lost on me, as I imagine it would be on most young kids and adults as well. But the cool thing Sachar does is explain the rules as though Alton were explaining them- as simple as such a complicated game could be. It made me actually want to start playing bridge! I think the challenge of figuring the game out with these simple and exciting lessons straight from Alton would interest those students who love a puzzle or are good at math. The game is all about strategy and thinking multiple steps ahead of the hand you are on, so it would definitely keep that kind of student a puzzle to crack!

This is a perfect book for any middle school through high school student. As I said, it would be great for that kid who likes to solve puzzles and figure things out. The characters are typical Sachar characters- unpredictable, deep, and lovable. The story about Alton really caring for Trapp and learning about his parents' faults is a difficult lesson for him to learn, but it is handled well. I can't explain how much I loved this book, and I am sure you will too!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Killer, Man-Eating, Poisonous Unicorns

You know when you pick up a book and a few pages in you realize it is going to be AWESOME?! That was my experience with Rampant by Diana Peterfreund. This isn't a super new book, in fact the sequel is already out, but I just picked it up and decided to give it a try. I am so glad I did because this book was so exciting it kept me hooked all day until I finished it!

Astrid has always taken her mother's loony ravings about being a descendant of an ancient line of unicorn hunters with a grain of salt... until her boyfriend is attacked by a small unicorn. Astrid calls her mother and Lilith arrives with the ancient Remedy- the only known cure for unicorn venom. That's right, venom. See, unicorns are not all sparkly and adorable like every children's story would have us believe- nope, they are evil, angry, man-eating (and livestock) beasts with poisonous "alicorns" (their horns). Alicorn poisoning kills almost immediately, but the hunters are immune to it. That is why the unicorn didn't attack Astrid. She was born to be a hunter.

Unicorns were supposed to be extinct, but the new emergence has led to many attacks all over the world. It also leads to Lilith's barely controlled enthusiasm as she packs up Astrid and ships her off to Rome where the Cloisters exists- the home to the Order of the Lioness, a group of virgin unicorn hunters centuries ago. And the Cloisters looks like it hasn't been touch in centuries. When Astrid arrives, she is greeted by Cory, a hunter, and her uncle Neil, the man who took the responsibility of "don" or leader of the group. It becomes clear that Cory lives, breathes, and eats unicorn hunting and would have loved having Lilith for a mother.

More girls start arrive, including Astrid's cousin and best friend Phil (Philippa), and the girls start cleaning the Cloisters and training. When their first hunts go badly and result in many injuries, it becomes clear that something is wrong. The pharmaceutical company funding the hunters is making strange decisions and eventually disappears after a particularly disastrous hunt. More and more, the girls and Neil become suspicious of the situation, but they continue hunting. When Neil leaves to track down their contact, Lilith comes to supervise as donna. Under her supervision, Astrid almost dies and is instead approached by a karkadann, the largest and most fearsome of all unicorn species. The karkadann has a proposition for Astrid, one she can't pass up. Especially if she wants to keep her fellow hunters alive.

This was an A.MAZE.ING story and I simply couldn't get enough of it. I plowed through this book like it was life or death (and sometimes it felt like it was!). It was so well-written and a new take on old myths. The unraveling of the secrets and myths were so intricate and kept the reader enthralled (as did the fight scenes of course). The characters in the story were very interesting as well. They were a motley group of young women, from pampered princesses to a homeless drug addict. Their stories and backgrounds were just as interesting as those of the main characters, making the reader highly invested in all the hunters. There is clearly a sequel out already, but the book ends well. It isn't left with a cliffhanger, but definitely leaves the reader wanting more.

The target audience for this book is tough because it is definitely in the fantasy/mythology realm, which I find appeals to kids from early middle school through high school (and most fantasy is pretty clean so will work in this wide range of ages). But this book is dark. Very dark. The hunting scenes with the unicorns are bloody and gruesome, but imagine hunting something the size of an elephant with a poisonous alicorn! Perhaps the darkest part was when one of the hunter's was raped and it turns out someone may have set her up to lose her virginity and therefore forfeit her status as a hunter. I think this is a book that should be given to either older students or a younger high school student who is mature enough to handle the violence. A good rule of thumb might be if you think a kid could handle Hunger Games, then they could handle this story. None of the violence was overdone, but there might be that student who is too delicate to handle the more bloody scenes in the book. This was an amazing story, and I will be devouring the sequel as soon as it gets here (but not devouring in the same sense as the evil man-eating unicorns, of course!).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NYC in the 1980's!

Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel
It's tough to be young in the city... the city. But for Carrie Bradshaw there is a pull from New York City calling to her like nothing else ever has. She wants to be a writer and has one chance, a mere two months, to convince everyone she should stay in the city rather than go to Brown in the fall. In Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel, by Candace Bushnell, we finally get to see how Carrie's first summer in the big city makes her a New Yorker permanently.

Carrie is torn between the other kids in her writing class and the tantalizing life of one Ms. Samantha Jones. The kids in her class are a mix of New York savvy college kids who know their way around the restaurants and clubs and kids from out of town who still can't use the subway, but they are all her age, experiencing the same things she is. Samantha takes Carrie in when her landlady kicks her out and she has no where to go. She also takes Carrie out to her usual haunts, introducing her to New York's most important up and comers. When Carrie returns to her friends from class telling them how she is dating Bernard Singer, the most coveted new playwright on Broadway, and hung out with a bevy of models, fashion designers, writers, and artists, the others are clearly impressed.

But Carrie can't get herself to really write. When she finds out Bernard is recently divorced, she is inspired to write a play about a husband and wife. As she continues working on her play, she comes to some conclusions about herself and the others around her. First, some people just aren't cut out to survive NYC. Also, some people may seem like talented artists when they are really silly fools who are just as miserable as everyone else (just with better tables in restaurants). And finally, Carrie Bradshaw has changed. Everything she does and thinks now is clearly through New York City tinted glasses. When she returns home or a friend comes to visit her, they clearly know she has changed. Now all she has to do is realize it. But will she, before she has to go to Brown? I bet you already know the answer!

This sequel was much better than the first book for me because I got a chance to see Carrie in NYC, but it still wasn't a phenomenal book. it was entertaining and interesting, but only because I loved the show on HBO. I think if I gave these books to a kids who had never seen the show, they might quickly grow bored with the story. But knowing who Samantha and Miranda become made this much more interesting for me. This series might just be a YA series meant for fans and only fans.

There is quite a lot of sex in the story, but none of it is overly graphic or specific. Instead, it is mostly everyone talking about sex and virginity as opposed to Bushnell "showing" it. Still I probably wouldn't give this to a younger high school student, more for the slowness of the story than the sexual content. I am not sure if this is it for the Carrie Diaries, but if there is more, I will most likely read it. I won't drop everything to read it, but I will get to it eventually.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Darkenss Lit Up My Day!

Darkness Becomes Her
Greek Gods? Love 'em! Shape shifters? Can't wait to see what they'll "pop" into next! Vampires? Oddly intrigued, but hate to admit it. Witches, wizards, and warlocks? Put a spell on me baby! New Orleans French Cajun culture... oui! Put it all together and what do you get? No, not seven separate books, silly. You get Darkness Becomes Her, by Kelly Keaton, and you are going to love it!

Ari had a strange childhood. Given up at the age of four, she was bounced from horrible foster home to horrible foster home until she was taken in by loving bail bondsmen, Bruce and Casey, who not only love her, they teach her to kick some butt (and full weapons training of course). But Ari needs to know what happened to her mother, so she tracks down the mental institute her mother was committed in when she died. It is there she learns her mother committed suicide shortly after giving Ari up. Ari collects her mother's possessions and in the box, she find a letter from her mother telling her to run, and run fast. Ari ignores the letter at first, but when a big scary man speaking another language attacks her and is impervious to bullets, she knows her mother wasn't crazy after all.

Barely escaping with her life, Ari is determined to find out what really happened to her mother. So she ventures into New 2, what is left of New Orleans. Around the time Ari was given up, a wave of hurricanes all but destroyed New Orleans. The US wanted to abandon it entirely, but a group of 9 New Orleans families came together and bought the city from the country, making it the only privately owned city in North America. New 2 is rumored to be lawless and a paranormal haven, but not many people dare to enter (except a few silly tourists). The culture still exists, but as Ari arrives, she realizes so does a whole population of "freaks"- strange people who turn out to be as paranormal as the rumors said they were. Apparently the 9 families who own New 2, Novem, are made up of vampires, witches and warlocks, and shape shifters. They work together to take care of the city and keep it safe from the real nasties out in the ruins.

When Ari arrives, she is "adopted" by a group of freaks who live in an abandoned house. Sebastian, the leader, agrees to help her find information about her mother. Instead, they find Sebastian's grandmother knew Ari's mom and even paid her hospital bill when Ari was born. When they go to the Novem, of which Sebastian's grandmother is part of, they find there is a terrible curse on Ari's family where the women in her family all die by 21, but not before delivering a baby girl. Sebastian's grandmother agrees to help her fight the curse, but before she can, Ari is kidnapped by a supernatural soldier and taken to a hidden prison. It is there she learns the truth of who she is. She manages to escape and help the other prisoners- a harpy, a shapeshifter woman/spider, and even Sebastian's father, who he thought was gone forever.

The prisoners tell her it is the petulant Greek Goddess Athena who imprisoned them, and it is Athena who cursed Ari's family. It turns out, Ari's curse goes farther back than she or anyone else expected. Now she has the Novem who want to keep her as a weapon, an angry goddess who is simply a jerk, and Ari finds out she can be a real danger to everyone, her friends included, when she comes of age. But Ari won't just give up. She is determined to take control of her life, even if it means showing a Greek God who is really the boss!

This was SUCH an interesting book and it took so many twists and turns I had no idea what was going to happen. I read it in one sitting and was really annoyed when anyone interrupted me because it was so addictive! The interwoven myths and supernatural creatures are so cool, and the truth behind Ari's curse dates right back to Greek mythology. There is another book planned for next year, and I have already pre-ordered it! I can't wait!

There is some forceful language in the story, but most of it is totally deserved (wouldn't you throw out a curse word or two if an awful goddess cursed your family for countless lifetimes and is trying to cook your brain?!). The content can be violent at times, but is nothing gratuitous or violent for the sake of being violent. Instead, it is just the nature of such a story with life and death situations around every bend. This is a great book for almost any student, as it is fast-paced, exciting, and the characters are awesome. You won't be sorry if you pick up this book... but you might be trapped where ever you do because it is too good to put down until you reach that last page!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It's Now or Never

Between Here and Forever
I run hot and cold with Elizabeth Scott. The first book of hers I ever read was Stealing Heaven, which I LOVED! Then I bought just about everything she had ever written, because I loved that book so much. After that, though, I wasn't too impressed with her other books. Some were really dark, like Living Dead Girl, which was a hard book to get through because the content was so upsetting. Then there was The Unwritten Rule, which wasn't dark, but was just "meh". So I have struggled with buying her new books, but I decided to just go for it. While Between Here and Forever wasn't as good is Stealing Heaven (big shoes to fill), it was certainly one of her better books. It made me decide to give Elizabeth Scott another chance!

Abby has always been in her sister Tess's shadow, but since Tess's accident, Abby has been just as lost. Tess was always the together one, the gorgeous one, and the smart one. Abby was just, well, Abby. Now Abby and her parents spend every day in the hospital next to Tess's bed waiting for her to wake up. When a beautiful young man walks into the hospital room, Abby sees Tess's eye move a little. She is convinced this beautiful boy will bring Tess back and enlists his help to wake her up. While this boy, Eli, seems skeptical at first, he agrees to help.

Although it seems Eli isn't helping Tess, he certainly is helping Abby. For once, she isn't always thinking about Tess and is actually interested in someone (although she still swears he likes Tess more than her). While Abby is convinced Eli and Tess are made for each other, she soon learns there is more to Eli than she noticed earlier, and life isn't so easy for him, beautiful person or not. She also begins to learn the truth about who her sister was and what really happened at the end of her life. These revelations are important because they give Abby a chance to find her own life outside of Tess's shadow, as well as a chance at happiness.

This was a very interesting book because it explored how much a girl can know and not know about her own sister. Sometimes we keep our biggest secrets from those people we love the most. Here, we see a younger sister assuming her older sister's life is perfect and never realizing just how in pain she really is. The relationship between the two girls, told entirely in flashbacks since Tess is in a coma, is very realistic and sad. The good thing is you will be very excited for Abby as the book goes on and she matures. Eli and his grandfather are such lovable supporting characters, they will make you love the book even if you struggle to relate to Abby and Tess.

The language is mild in this book, but there are a few references to intimacy here and there. They aren't graphic or even talked about in any detail, just casual references used to flesh out the plot. The story would be appropriate for any girl, middle school through high school, who is interested in relationships and family. The secret Tess is hiding, her attraction and relationships with women, is developed in an interesting way, showing her inability to admit it to herself as well as her family. This might be a good place to have conversations about who we are and why we are proud of that in many different aspects of our lives. In all, this was a pretty good book, and I would pass it on to a student I thought it would appeal to.

I Dare You Not to Fall in Love

The Lover's Dictionary: A Novel
I had the honor of seeing David Levithan at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY this week. In fact, I survived nearly poking a hole in my gas tank, a very frustrated bout of roadside sobbing, and some ill wishes toward a local farm that left a veritable boulder in the middle of the road and was driving a tractor on the other side, causing me to ride over the boulder, in order to get to Oblong that night to see Libba Bray, Michael Northrop, David Levithan and E. Archer. While I was there, I had such a great time listening to these four YA authors, I picked up some of their books I hadn't read yet, including Levithan's Lover's Dictionary. I am so glad I survived such nonsense and got there. It was an amazing night and so far the books I snagged ROCK!

"balk, v.
I was the one who said we should live together. And even as I was doing it, I knew this would mean I would be the one to blame if it all went wrong. Then I consoled myself with this: if it all went wrong, the last thing I'd care about was who was to blame for moving in together."

"macabre, adj.
If you ever need proof that I love you, the fact that I allowed you to dress me up as a dead baby Jesus for Halloween should do it. Although, I suppose it would be even better proof if it hadn't been Halloween."

Lover's Dictionary is a strange book. It isn't your traditional novel by any means. In fact, it is arranged much like a dictionary with words A-Z listed at the top of the page. Then after the word and part of speech is a short story, reflection, or thought based off that word. All the "entries" center around the anonymous narrator's relationship. The beauty of this story is how honest, real, and amazing the relationship is. This isn't your average "romance" novel. This is a relationship in every real meaning of the term. It chronicles their meeting, their first few dates, realizing they love one another, moving in together, infidelity, and grief. The insecurities found in any relationship are described in such a real way it made me laugh, cry, and miss my fiance. This book is hard to describe because the impact it will have on you is so unexpected and heartwarming, you can't categorize it.

As I was reading this book, I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. I have a student who will be a senior and plans to take the SATs again. She has trouble with new vocabulary out of context, but it is hard to find a bunch of SAT vocabulary in one place. She is also very romantic and would love this story. I plan to take this book, have her read 3-4 entries a night, make a vocab card for the words, and then write her own entries for the words. I have a great feeling this will be a huge hit on so many different levels! I can't wait!

There is some references to intimacy in the book, but it isn't anything graphic. I think the relationship is clearly a mature relationship, but since this is actually adult fiction, that is understood. Therefore, I would only use this book with 11th and 12th grade students who were mature enough for the content (although the content is relatively tame). I just can't wait to share this book with everyone I can get to read it. It was so beautiful and sad at the same time. It was like Levithan looked right into all our relationships and splattered them on the pages! You won't be able to put this story down!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Confusing but Intriguing

Imaginary Girls
This is a hard review to write, because I can honestly say I am not sure how I feel about this book. In fact, I am not entirely sure I know what happened in this book. I read it. I paid close attention. I even reread parts. I am still not completely sure I understood it all. Let's see if I can explain it semi-coherently... Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma...

Chloe is enthralled by her big sister, Ruby. In fact everyone is. "Enthralled" isn't even the word; bewitched might be more appropriate. She doesn't pay attention to any traffic signs or lights, but all other traffic just stops and lets her go. She shows up to work when she wants to, leaves when she's ready, and gives away stuff, but she never loses her job. At any given time, she has a legion of love sick boys following her around doing her bidding. Ruby is quite a force in their small upstate New York town by the NYC reservoir. But no one can quite explain why. Ruby practically raised Chloe since their mother spent most of her time in the local pub, but their relationship is more than that. It's indescribable.

One night everyone is at the reservoir swimming (illegally) and Ruby convinces Chloe to swim across. Chloe does, as she always does what Ruby says she can, but something goes wrong. The reservoir has covered a number of towns when it was flooded, and Ruby always says there are still people living down there, beneath the surface, in the water logged streets of Olive. When Chloe gets into the middle of the reservoir, she feels something strange, possibly she is tired, but miraculously a boat appears. She grabs the boat to catch her breath and realizes she isn't along- a classmate named London is inside the boat, dead. After the commotion of being dragged out of the water, speaking to the cops, and it being announced London had ODed, Chloe is dragged out of town to live with her father in Pennsylvania (Ruby has a different father). After two years, Ruby comes to get Chloe and convinces her to come back to NY.

When Chloe arrives, she can sense something strange about the town. First, London is alive, but not fully there. She isn't a ghost, but she seems strange, not to mention she should be dead. Ruby makes Chloe promise she won't leave the town, but Chloe starts to feel the need to do the opposite of what Ruby says. When Ruby tells her to stay away from Owen, Chloe wants him more. She gets in a car with London and a bunch of boys and heads out of town for a party. When they get further from town, everyone's opinion of Ruby goes from awestruck to scathing. Then, just as they cross the line, London disappears. In fact, as people get farther from Ruby, her influence seems to fade. Chloe even goes to the reservoir, which Ruby forbade her to do. Curious, she sticks her toe in the water, and she realizes something is wrong. It is then that Chloe truly begins to realize the oddness surrounding Ruby and her control over people and places. But one thing is for sure... Ruby would die for Chloe... or kill for her.

This strange novel is written in beautiful poetic language. The descriptions of Ruby seem like something out of a fantasy, but then again, they kind of are. They can get a little tedious at times, but that is supposed to be the point- in Ruby's presence, she is always the center of attention. I think this language will lose most young readers, though. In fact, it almost lost me. I got a little tired of reading about some mysterious thing that I had no idea what it was. I spent a few hundred pages wondering what the heck was going on, and only stuck with it because I had to know. Of course, by the time I got to the end, I still didn't really understand what had happened. I did, in a way, but I also didn't.

I can visualize the kind of kid this book would be good for- that very abstract student who enjoys fantasy but is a little romantic. This is quite a narrow group of students (I can think of one or two), so this might not be a book you invest in for a library. Or, you might want to because it is perfect for that very specific type of student. Unfortunately, I think it will lose most other students. I know it lost me on many occasions. The author is at Oblong in August, so I am interested to meet her and hear her talk about the book. Maybe that will clarify some things for me. But one thing is for sure- from the cover to the relationship between Ruby and Chloe, this is one seriously haunting book.

5th Annual Girl Bullying Conference

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool--How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle (Updated Edition)
I had the privilege of attending this year's bullying conference last week. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but when I got there, it was clear these people had some great information and ideas. There are a number of different aspects for bullying, especially girl bullying, or relational aggression as it is called now (I just remember it as torture for most of 6th and 7th grade). You have to consider who is doing the bullying. These days, it isn't a big, scary-looking, mean boy with tattoos who smokes cigarettes as the John Hughes movies would have us believe. Instead, it is the popular girl, the smart girl, the girl who charms adults and knows how to torture her victims without ever raising suspicions. Who is the target? Could be anyone. Anyone who crosses the bully, has something she wants, or just has the pure dumb luck to be in the right place at the right time. The important thing to remember is the victim has done absolutely nothing to deserve this behavior. All too often we here "well, she is a weird girl. No wonder the other girls don't want to sit with her". This is called blaming the victim and is reprehensible on so many levels.

Another problem many schools face is where does the bullying occur? Well, as we all remember, it takes place int he hallways, the locker rooms, the school bus, etc. Barbara Coloroso said at the conference the bathrooms in a school were the single most dangerous place for a victim to enter. They are completely unsupervised space where the bully has total control. But the scarier and even less controlled than the bathrooms is the great land of cyber infinity. With all the social media we have at our fingertips, girls have taken bullying to a level we cannot fathom. If a girl moves because the bullying in her school is so bad, the rumors, lies, and torment only take a few keystrokes to follow her. Kids create Facebook pages about the perceived sexual activities of their targets. They text them. They video the target getting pushed, threatened, attacked, and then post it for everyone to see. This inescapable nature of cyberbullying has created a situation so dire kids are killing themselves. So what can we, as parents, adults, and educators, do about it?

Well, Barbara Coloroso will tell you conflict resolution isn't going to accomplish anything. Bullying isn't a fight, it isn't a conflict, so sitting down the bully and the target won't change a blessed thing. In fact, in this scenario, very often the bully will seem sincere, sorry, and beg forgiveness, while the victim will be angry and confrontational. The moderator may seem perplexed by this aggression and start to blame the victim, but would you want to agree to be friends with your torturer?! She went on to say people like Dr. Phil, who think the bully wouldn't hurt their victim if only they knew the pain they were causing, are so wrong they have left the reservation. Can we really think the bullies don't know the pain they are causing? Not only do they know how much they are hurting their victim, they enjoy it. They get pleasure from the pain. So telling them about the pain they inflict won't help the situation. It might make it worse, but it certainly isn't going to stop it. So what the heck can we do?

Well, first we have to recognize what the bullying has done to separate themselves from the victim enough to cause this pain with complete disregard. They have stopped seeing the victim as a person, and instead they see them as an "it". The victim is subhuman to them. So we must start early to create empathy among our students. They must feel for the people around them, including their victim. Now, I don't pretend to know how to do this, but if you have any suggestions, I am all ears. I have some ideas, of course, but I don't think there is any one formula or tactic that will work for every scenario. This is like a puzzle that can't be done the same way twice.

But the one thing so many presenters at the conference said is we can't be reactionary with bullying... we have to be preventative. How do we make our students care about each other so much they wouldn't bully? How do we create a sense of community where students protect one another instead of hurt one another? Once presenter created a year-long calender that focused on bringing girls together with various projects and community service efforts. They called it Chick Chat. It included some fun chick movies (and some serious ones), bake sales, clothing drives for battered women, and so much more. Each month was a theme like Breast Cancer for October, Family, Friendships, Relationships, etc. Each week there was an activity or meeting and they tried to include outside speakers for every theme. The presenter explained their girls weren't required to come, but bit by bit they trickled in until a community was born.

Punishment is important when bullying occurs, but there needs to be more than just punishment. I remember a student who damaged space in her dorm once, nothing too damaging, but enough to make a lot more work for the women in charge of housekeeping. Why did she do this? She didn't have empathy for them. She assumed it was their job to clean up after her, and their hard work didn't matter to her. The perfect "punishment"/exercise in empathy? Make her work with them for a couple of days, doing the same work they do. I personally think this made more of a difference with that young woman than any detention or suspension ever would have. Perspective is powerful tool.

Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide
Barbara Coloroso also write a book called Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide, a book that explains bullying behavior we see so often in schools across the world is very similar to the behavior and aggression the perpetrators of genocide display. They make their victim an "it", thereby negating any need for empathy or caring of their victim's pain. In Rwanda, the Tutsi were called cockroaches. In Germany, the Jews were called rats. Make your victim into something inhuman, and you can justify your actions and absolve your guilt. I have taught a unit about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide to students for a few years now, and the hardest thing I find is to make them truly understand the fear and pain these people experienced. It is so foreign and distant form their own lives, they have trouble imagining it. Sure, they understand genocide is awful, but they don't understand how awful. But every kid understands the reaction they felt to being bullied- the stomach clenching, sweat producing fear of seeing your attacker from a distance knowing what is about to happen. By connecting those emotions to the worst product of human nature, genocide, we can create empathy in our students. I have found this book to be an invaluable tool, and think any history teacher would count this as a valuable tool in their classrooms.

So we have a seemingly insurmountable problem that plagues our children. We have tried everything, and no solution is flawless. But if this conference has taught me anything, it is that our kids are too important to lose to bullying. We need to find a way to create empathy in our children. We need to never blame the victim and be savvy to the ways of the bully, including the charm, manipulation, and deceit they use when the adults are around. And most importantly, we need to create a community where they want to protect one another, not harm one another. It is a tough mountain to scale, but not impossible.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Funny Fins and Merry Mermaids

Fins Are Forever
Lily is really Princess Waterlily of Thalassinia, an underwater mermaid kingdom where her father is the king. But Lily has chosen to give up her throne in order to stay on land with the boy she loves, her next-door neighbor and once archenemy, Quince. Now, in Fins are Forever by Tera Lynn Childs, Lily prepares to officially give up her throne, graduate high school, take the SATs, and follow through with a life above the surface as a "terapod" (mermaid on legs).

It was only a short few weeks ago when Lily chose to be unbound from Quince in order to give him freedom from being a merman and solidify her life on land. When a strong earthquake hits her small Florida town, it raises suspicions when the epicenter isn't even on a fault line- it is close to Thalassinia. But Lily doesn't have time to worry about that with the SATs coming up and being her only hope for college and a future as an un-princess on land. When her annoying, self-centered cousin Dosinia arrives at her doorstep having been exiled from Thalassinia, Lily's father makes her responsible for teaching Doe to respect humans. Although Lily can't get out of Doe what she did to get exiled, she knows it must be bad since the king never uses exile unless totally necessary.

Doe insists on making Lily's life miserable in small ways, but really crosses the line when Lily finds her with Brody (Lily's 3 year crush until she realized he wasn't her type and she was really in love with Quince). Doe and Bordy had clearly made out which is of course in direct violation of girl-code, but more importantly for a mermaid means now Doe and Brody are bonded and Brody is slowly transforming into a merman. For a girl who hates humans so much, being bound to Brody seems like punishment for Lily rather than something Doe really wanted. Now Lily must take Brody down to Thalassinia to be unbound.

When she gets to the kingdom, Lily's father agrees to the unbinding, but tells Lily she must do it since both Doe and Brody must be present. While in the kingdom, Lily runs into a guppyhood friend, Tellin, who is a prince of a neighboring mermaid kingdom. He begs Lily to bind with him, in formality only, in order to bring their kingdoms together and allow her to keep her throne. Lily is tempted, but her love for Quince is too strong to bind with another man. When Lily returns to land, she realizes the best way for Doe to have respect for humans is to stay bound to Brody (the same "punishment" her father gave her!). Now she must find a way to help Doe (without strangling her int he process), study for the SATs, and stop feeling so sad about losing her place as the next Queen of Thalassinia. Can she keep it all together?

This was a very cute follow up to the first book. While these aren't ground-breaking stories that will win countless awards, they are certainly fun and exciting reads. It is a good book for a young middle school student or an immature high school student. The content is completely clean, as is the language. The story is engaging enough to hold onto even the most unengaged reader. This is probably more of a "girl" book, but the content might be fine for either gender. I love Tera Lynn Childs. Her books are like a good chocolate milkshake on a warm summer day- a perfect guilty pleasure that will put a smile on your face!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Once is too Often...

When I was in high school, I went to Germany on a school trip. In Germany, we went to Dachau, a concentration camp that has been turned into a memorial/museum. The emotions I felt at Dachau have never left me. The vast camp was completely silent except for the crunch of visitors' feet on the gravel. The pain within those gates was so strong, we couldn't even speak to one another. But more and more, I find my students are finding themselves disconnected from the Holocaust. Sure, they know the mass murder to millions of people is horrendous, but they really can't fathom the fear and agony felt by so many. We read books, we watch movies, but it is hard to grasp the same emotions I felt the moment I stepped foot into Dachau so many years ago. Therefore, as an educator, it becomes very hard to find quality books that will knock my students around emotionally the same way Night by Elie Wiesel did the first time I read it in high school. Once, by Morris Gleitzman knocked me around, and will certainly open the eyes of any jaded student.

It's 1942, and Felix has lived in a Polish Orphanage for 3 years and 8 months since his parents left him there. They are Jewish and owned a bookstore in town, but they made a deal with Mother Minka to hide Felix, but they told him they were just going to take care of some bookstore business and be back. They still haven't returned. So Felix passes the day writing stories about them saving people and being brave in the outside world. When Felix gets a whole carrot in his soup one day, he decides it is a sign from his parents that they are coming to get him. When Mother Minka sadly tells him it isn't a sign, he decides to leave the orphanage to find them. After watching a group of Nazis come to the orphanage and burn Jewish books, he is worried his parents' books are in danger, and he knows he has to go help.

On his way into town, Felix comes across a lot of puzzling situations. First, he tries to hitch a ride on a cattle truck that is full of people, but a soldier on top of the truck shoots at him. He assumes it must have been a mistake and actually feels bad for the soldier who must be upset he accidentally shot at a little kid. Then he goes to his parents' bookstore, but the books are all gone and a local Christian family is living in his house (and threaten to turn him in to the Nazis). Finally he happens upon a farmhouse in flames and discovers a mother and father shot (and all the chickens) and a young girl who is barely alive. He drags her away from the flames and the car coming back to the scene, saving her from whoever did this.

At first Zelda is upset, but then she is just plain difficult, arguing with everything Felix says. When they get caught by Nazi soldiers and taken to the ghetto, it is her determination not to lose Felix, though, that saves them both. When a Nazi soldier tries to separate them, a large Jewish man offers the soldier something in German and he allows the man to take the kids. Barney, the man, takes Felix and Zelda and hides them with the other children he has saved in the ghetto. It is hear that Felix begins to learn the truth about the Nazis and what they are really doing to the Jews. When the ghetto gets emptied, Barney and the kids have no choices but to be packed into the trains with the other Jews. You might think all was lost at this point, but at some point, Felix's luck has to change!

This was such a beautiful little book (150 pgs). I loved Felix so much I just wanted to gather him up and keep him safe. He is so sweet and innocent and just wants to protect his parents. His naivete about the Holocaust was so scary and endearing at the same time, it broke my heart. But something I think kids might relate to is the fact that he is just a kid. He does kid things like protect kids from bullies in the orphanage and make up wild, fanciful stories. Yet, at the same time, he is stuck in this time period that has been written about, talked about and filmed ever since it ended. I think kids can relate to his childish ideas and that alone makes this story more powerful than others. They can imagine how they might feel if they were in the same situation.

The story is very short and perfect for any middle school student, but its beauty lies within the multiple layers that can be pulled back for a wide age range of people. For a middle school student, this story might be a face-value story about a boy in the Holocaust, but for an older student, this can be a way to quickly examine the plagues of war, such as the loss of life and innocence. It gives them a chance to delve deeper into the consequences of war. This is quite simply a beautiful story and as sad as it made me to read it, it also made me hopeful for Felix and for the growth of the young people I work with each and every day.

Realistic, Honest, and Well Written

After reading Bumped, a dystopia about teenage pregnancy for profit, I had to prove to myself that my issues with Bumped weren't about the idea of teenage pregnancy. Instead, my issues were the silly way it was handled. So I picked up Hooked by Catherine Greenman with one purpose in mind- prove to myself I was open to all kinds of Young Adult novels- even ones about tough subjects. I have one ting to say- This book proved it.

Thea is the product of a now-sober alcoholic father and a flighty mother who is more concerned with her own life than that of her daughter she is supposed to be raising. Despite a somewhat absentee father (even when he was physically present) and mother, Thea turned out ok. She was doing decently in her competitive high school, was your average, well-rounded young woman, and had some good friends. When she met Will, it was your typical first love. She felt hooked by her love for him; she needed him to love her as much as she loved him.

When Will graduated, he decided to stay in the city and go to Columbia University. At some point in the beginning of the year, Thea becomes pregnant. At first, she is stunned, but she tells her mother and decides to have an abortion. While her best friend and her mom offer to go with her, Thea decides to do it on her own. When she sees the sonogram, though, she can't imagine getting rid of the little person inside her. She panics and leaves the clinic, but doesn't tell anyone about her situation. When it becomes too late for an abortion, she finally admits to Will, her mom, and finally tells her father the truth: she is still pregnant and plans to have the baby.

At first everyone is angry with Thea for a host of reasons, but most importantly for keeping this from them. But then they soften and realize she was determined to have the baby. Both sets of parents decide to help Thea and Will out, set them up with a cheap apartment, and are moderately involved in financial support. Will is still going to Columbia, so Thea stays home and takes care of the baby, Ian. At first, the arrangement seems cozy, but quickly the immaturity of both parents comes out. Thea accidentally burns Ian with water and rushes him to the hospital. When Will arrives, he makes it very clear he blames Thea (despite it being an accident). This tension continues until he pushes her to put Ian up for adoption. Terrified Will is going to take Ian and give him away, Thea moves in with her father and asks Will to leave them alone.

Life with her father, a man she barely knew growing up, is odd at first, but their shared love for Ian brings them together. They make a cozy little life together, but sometimes their ideas for Thea's future are very different. This causes tension between two parents in very different points in their lives, both trying to raise their children. While Thea must find out who she is and who she wants to become, one thing is always obvious. Thea loves Ian and wants nothing more than to be his mother.

This is an amazing story because the characters are flawed, caring, mean well, and are so darned realistic. Thea is a kid, but she is a kid who is determined to be the best mother she can. I have a cousin who had a baby when he was still a teenager, and it still amazes me to see him with his son- he is such an amazing father and he desperately loves his son. This is Thea. She is young. She makes mistakes (which is something we adults to all the time too!). She loves her child unconditionally. I love the way her parenting is told through the voice of an 18 year old woman, too. Instead of "nursing" her son, she "gives him the boob"! And when Will tries to give Ian to an adoption agency, she is too scared to seek help from the adults in her life but also too immature to know he didn't have the right to do so. This was a book that showed the real life of a teen mom- bumps, bruises, tears, joy, love, affection, and all. Nothing is spared here, from the time his belly button nub falls off, to the terror when she accidentally scalded him with hot water. This book is frank and honest. Sure the message is that being a young mother is hard work, means losing the "childhood" your friends get to have, and will change you for better or for worse... but the book also says, "Hang in there. It can be done. People will help you." I loved this message. Oddly, it makes me think of all the things we say to kids to scare them throughout their childhoods. "Don't make that face or it will stick that way." "Don't swallow the watermelon seeds or a plant will grow in your belly." We say so much to scare them, but we forget to just tell them the truth. Well, this book does just that. Truth, for better or worse, is what you will get with Hooked.

There is some sexual content in this book that might make it better for a high school reader. The moral is handled seriously, but with enough levity and individualism to make it not sound like a "moral" book. I suspect the cover might frighten away a number of parents and teachers, but I hope you give it a chance. This book doesn't glamorize teen moms, but it doesn't make them seem like a stereotype either. This is a wonderful book for any teenager to read in order to let them get all the information, good and bad, and let them make decisions and choices for themselves. Sometimes, like with Thea, the answer isn't what you first thought was the right answer, but it still might be the best one in the long run.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Will Steal Your Attention!

Uncommon Criminals (A Heist Society Novel)
When we last left Kat Bishop in Heist Society, by Ally Carter, she had reluctantly returned to the family business to save her father: high-end thieving. They steal what can't be stolen- priceless paintings, one-of-a-kind jewels, and items that have been horded by the rich, famous, and nasty for generations. She and her motley crew of teen masterminds managed to break into the most secure museum in the world and recover stolen paintings. But now Kat has fallen off the wagon. Once she started stealing again, she couldn't stop. The only thing that changed? Her motives for stealing. In Uncommon Criminals, Kat is a new kind of thief.

Kat finds priceless family heirlooms and returns them to their rightful owners. She specializes in art that was stolen during the Holocaust and returning it to the survivors or their families from the war criminals who absconded with them during the war. When a woman approaches her to help return an emerald her family uncovered in Egypt and were scammed out of, Kat can't say no. Even when she finds out the emerald is the famous and cursed Cleopatra Emerald, the jewel that has brought pain, suffering, imprisonment, and death to all those who come near it. Many thieves, including Kat's uncles, have tried stealing the Emerald and failed. But not even the curse can keep Kat and her friends from taking a chance at returning the Emerald to its rightful owner.

Somehow they manage to get the Emerald (no one ever suspects kids!), but after she returns it to the woman, Kat is in for the shock of her life. On the news, Kat sees the picture of the woman whose parents found the Cleopatra Emerald and had it stolen from them- and it isn't the woman Kat gave it to! Now Kat and her friends, who have already achieved the impossible, must find a way to steal the Cleopatra Emerald- again. To make matters worse, it seems the woman who conned Kat into stealing the Emerald is a con artist herself- on of the best! Now Kat and the crew have to con a con artist and find a way to get the Emerald back in one of the biggest jobs the thieves of the world have ever witnessed!

This was a fun sequel in this series that reminds me of a teen version of "Ocean's Eleven". The characters are fun and colorful, and the stealing is for a good reason (usually). I love Kat's crew. They are goofy and add some spice and laughter to the story. When Kat's cousin seems to have been cursed by the Emerald, her usual elegant demeanor is quickly sunken beneath trips, slips, falls, and tumbles. Even the two boys Kat cares about, Hale and Nick, are there to keep the excitement up and moving.

This is a wonderful story for middle school students because it is fun and exciting, but completely clean in language and content. It would also be great for a low-skilled older student, because the story is far from juvenile. I love the versatility of this series; it reaches such a wide range of children, making it a must for libraries and classrooms. My only silly complaint? I wish Carter would stop making her covers so cheesy and "girlie"! This book would appeal to both male and female students, but I doubt I could get an older boy to read it! Maybe I will just toss the dustcover and insist they read it anyway!