Monthly Archives: March 2013

One Crazy Summer – Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer

WoW!  It’s been a great day’s reading…It feels like a privilege to have read this book, set in Oakland, California in 1968.  This is the time of the Blank Panthers, Sit-ins, Martin Luther King and Delpine, the eleven year old protagonist is struggling to come to terms with a mother who abandoned her and her two sisters, and who reluctantly has them to stay for a month over summer.  She is also struggling over what it means to be who she is – coloured or black, suppressed or oppressed, and how to deal with that.

Delphine is only eleven, but she is the mother that her mother is not.  She looks after her two little sisters, Vonetta and Fern with a determined resilience that is just too sad, and yet so powerful.  One Crazy Summer the girls are sent to live with their mother for a month.  Their mother that they have not seen since she walked out on them after Fern was born.  Delphine believes she left them because of an argument over Fern’s name.

In NZ the fern is a powerful image of new life and potential, symbolised by the koru.  New unfurling life, strength, potential and peace.  This feels right for the book.  That the name Cecile wanted to call Fern means mercy and protection, is also right for the story.

For me, while Delphine was a powerful storyteller, and she carried the storyline with a real dignity and truth, Cecile was the story.  Her poetry rocked!  As did Fern’s.  Strangely, while Cecile’s poem was about being the mother of the nation, Delphine symbolised and lived the self-restraint and subsuming of self that brings to mind oppression.  Delphine was the mother to her mother, the mother earth.  Cecile was the game changer, the rebellious, obstinant, bruised child.  Delphine has the strength to see many perspectives, and allow difference – to respect the different pathways to freedom.  And her strength means she can help it to happen.

This beautiful, upside down book does not resolve everything.  But it shows a pathway to understanding hurt and anger, deprivation and resilience that is ultimately hopeful, if not perfect.

I really felt that this book was not SET in the time, but OF the time.  The little touches didn’t feel forced, they felt true…I loved Delphine’s Timex watch, and the shows on TV, the music, and just so much else about this book.

I’m off to read more books by this author…

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Holes – Louis Sachar

Holes

‘If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.
That was what some people thought.’

Stanley Yelnats is not a bad boy, but thanks to his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great grandfather, he does have some pretty bad luck.

‘Stanley Yelnats was given a choice.  The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.”
Stanley was from a poor family.  He had never been to camp before.’

But, as he discovers when he gets to Camp Green Lake, there is no lake at Camp Green Lake…

This novel has been described as ‘groundbreaking’ – I can only hope that was a deliberate pun.  What I like about this novel is its down to earth (I know, I know), spare language, which generally leaves a lot more unsaid hanging in the air, than it says. It’s eloquent in its brevity.  For example, this is the description of Stanley’s first meal and shower at Camp Green Lake:

‘Stanley took a shower – if you could call it that, ate dinner – if you could call it that, and went to bed – if you could call his smelly and scratchy cot a bed.’

It doesn’t take many pages before kids are asking, ‘What’s up with the three thing?’  Oh!  You’re asking me about literary devices, now?  Well, if you insist!

In that sense, it’s a perfect boy novel – there’s not a lot of deep talk going on.  But it’s deep, for sure.

Four stories are woven together.  The stories of Elya, Stanley’s great-great-grandfather; Kissin’ Kate Barlow and Sam the onion man; and the Zeronis are peppered throughout Stanley’s story, at seemingly random points, with little clues thrown in to gradually make the reader aware of how they connect, and some pretty powerful imagery is thrown in, to boot.

Stanley finds himself in with a bunch of youths that may well have been the kind to bully him in his previous life.  They all have nicknames like Armpit, ZigZag, X-ray and Zero – although Stanley’s not entirely sure that Zero is a nickname.  The boys each have to dig a hole a day, and if they find anything interesting they have to give it to the warden.  Stanley starts out finding the digging hard, and getting along with the boys harder.  There are all sorts of codes he needs to figure out.

Stanley’s pathway to lifting his great-great-grandfather’s curse is both complex and simple, and stunningly wrought.  The first part of the novel leaves readers feeling a little confused, on the edge of understanding what’s going on, but not quite getting it.  The second part cleverly litters little clues and the bringing together of the clues is made immensely satisfying for the reader because there is a purpose to everything in the first half – even the bits that seemed irrelevant.  So satisfying!

Everytime I read this book, I find something else to love about it.  This needs to be on everyone’s reading list, and you need to read it more than once.

This book has won a huge number of prizes.  For more information, go to: http://www.louissachar.com/HolesBook.htm

PS – the film version is one of the best book to film adaptations I have ever seen:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/holes/

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Classics, humour, Uncategorized, YA 14+

Bud, Not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud not Buddy

Bud, Not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis Anyone who knows me at all, knows that this is one of my all time favourite books. I love Bud’s positivity, his energy and his curiosity. This story is set in 1936 Flint, Michigan, USA, during the Great Depression. Bud’s Mama died when he was 6 years old. He spent some years in foster homes, but at the beginning of this book is sent to live with the Amos family. Toddy Amos and Bud fight, in a surprisingly hilarious chapter, which leads to one of my favourite moments in the book – when Bud is certain he has encountered a vampire bat…you REALLY have to read the book. Bud runs away, determined to find his father. He has only a few little clues that his mother left him – some rocks with strange numbers on them, and a flyer with Jazz musicians on it. Bud is certain his father is the great Herman E Calloway. This might seem a big logical jump, but as Bud explains it, “The little idea had gone and sneaked itself into being a mighty maple tree tall enough that if I looked at the top of it I would get a crick in my neck, big enough for me to hang a climbing rope in, strong enough that I made up my mind to walk clean across the state of Michigan.” (Chapter 9). The cast of characters Bud meets on his way to find his father are entertaining and thought provoking. This book won the 2000 Newbery Medal, and Christopher Paul Curtis won the 2000 Coretta Scott King Award.

Christopher Paul Curtis Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan on May 10, 1953 to Dr. Herman Elmer Curtis, a chiropodist, and Leslie Jane Curtis, an educator. The city of Flint plays an important role in many of Curtis’s books. One such example is Bucking the Sarge, which is about a fifteen year old boy named Luther T. Ferrel, who is in a running battle with his slum-lord mother. Curtis is an alumnus of the University of Michigan-Flint.

Christopher modeled characters in Bud, Not Buddy after his two grandfathers—Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro league baseball pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.

Curtis moved to Detroit, Michigan in January, 2009.

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Half Brother – Kenneth Oppel

Last year I bought a book called ‘The Discursive Mind’, which argued that the difference between humans and animals is, essentially, the ability to communicate. In parts, it talked about the experiments done with sign language and chimps in the 70’s, and the difference between speech and communication.  While it was a fantastic book, and challenged me to really think, ‘Half Brother’ asked me to do the same kind of thinking, without the need for ‘expert language’, wrapped in a story that progressively asks harder and harder questions.

Half Brother
Half Brother worried me for a start.  I felt the title was …well… twee.  I worried that it would be yet another story about the special love between a boy and his pet, that ended happily ever after.  I really worried that the parents were too two dimensional, and stereotypical.  I worried that we would get so caught up in the adolescent relationship thing that it would become a boy meets girl, boy learns to be in the right group, kind of story.  I worried that Mom would never complete her PhD.  I worried that Peter would lead Ben astray.  I worried so much, I couldn’t put  the book down.  Most of all I kept worrying for Zan.  It seemed to become less and less likely that there could be any kind of solution for Zan that was believable, ethical, hopeful or humane.

Ben is an only child. He is 13 years old.  His father is a researcher, in behavioural science, in the 1970s.  Which, of course, should ring some alarm bells.  Mom is also a researcher, but has put aside her study for now, or at least is trying to work it around family and all.  One day, Ben’s parents bring home Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee.
And I have to say, that despite all my maternal worrying for everyone and everything in the book, it grew up, and walked and talked and learned and ended in the most satisfying way it could; a finely tuned orchestration of events that didn’t excuse wrong decisions, but did pay some kind of recompense, imperfectly, as it is in real life.

I highly recommend this book.  It has so much to it that it deserves more than one read.  And it deserves a bit of background reading to learn about the behavioural scientists it talks about, animal experimentation, and chimpanzees.  Also, gender equality! 😉

 

For some information on the kind of research Ben’s father was undertaking, go here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/can-chimps-converse-exchange/?pagination=false

To learn more about Kenneth Oppel, the writer, go here:  http://www.kennethoppel.ca/pages/biography.shtml

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Wonder – R. J. Palacio

Wonder

There is no doubt about it, this book is a tear jerker.  I have to say that I really am struggling with rating it.  My initial reaction is that it was a four star book – I really liked it.  Then, when I come to write down what I liked and what I struggled with, I realise that there was a lot that I struggled with in this book, but there was a lot I liked too.  So, I am going to be kind and stick with my initial four stars, and I’ll explain why it could have been three stars.

August is 10 years old.  He has a terrible facial abnormality, which has meant serial surgical procedures for most of his short life.  Because of this, he has been homeschooled up until now.  August lives with his Mom, his Dad, his sister Via and his family dog, Daisy.  At the beginning of the book Auggie finds out that his Mom and Dad have been going through the process of enrolling him at a school, because Auggie needs to learn more than his Mom can teach him, and she’s not just talking about fractions:
‘”We can’t keep protecting him,” Mom whispered to Dad, who was driving. “We can’t just pretend that he’s going to wake up tomorrow and this isn’t going to be his reality, because it is, Nate, and we have to help him learn to deal with it.  We can’t just keep avoiding situations that…”
“So sending him off to middle school, like a lamb to the slaughter…” Dad answered angrily, but he didn’t even finish his sentence because he saw me in the mirror looking up.’

EVERY parent who reads that is going to be thinking about their own ‘letting go’ challenges.  All of us have had those moments where we are sending our children into the unpredictable and not necessarily kind world.  We know the instinct to protect, for just a little while longer, even as we know that we should let go.  How much harder is that choice in this case?

Readers in their early teens will know how hard it is to start a new school, wanting to get things just right, wanting to make the right impression.  How many books have been written about just that?!

Doesn’t it make us all feel a little bit ashamed of the days we haven’t wanted to go out in public because it’s a fat day/a big zit day/a bad hair day/an I said a stupid thing yesterday day…We all know that moment when we have to brace ourselves, be a bit more courageous than we want to be, and get on with it.  Most of us are dealing with something much less significant than Auggie, and yet we recognise an element of it.

That’s where this book has it over us.  Because, ‘whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’  We are, like Via, on the moral back foot.  Via is four years older than Auggie, and she can only remember glimpses of time without him being around.  Her story is equally as compelling as Auggie’s.  Via tells the story of what it is like to be Auggie’s sister.  It is hard for her to admit that she has needs, when – always – Auggie’s needs are greater. But moments of self-pity, and let me say that self-pity is normal for a teenager, when she sees Mom standing outside Auggie’s door late at night just looking in and wonders if Mom has ever done that at her door, paint a realistic picture of feeling a little bit less loved than her brother, of getting less time and attention.  However, when she gets to go to a new school, where the kids don’t know about her little brother, she revels in her anonymity.  She becomes Olivia, and makes some new friends, including a boyfriend.  None of this is without some fairly normal teenage challenges like learning to cope with not being in the popular group, and how friendships change.  All of which have been the MAIN storyline of many a book, but are peripheral in this one.  As Via says, ‘August is the Sun.  Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.  The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun…But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos.  The galaxy is changing.  Planets are falling out of alignment.’  Hmmmm…a useful, but well-worn, metaphor.

The story of Auggie’s settling in to school has its highs and lows, as might be expected.  Some fairly predictable plot devices are used, like the quirky girl who could be in the popular group, but chooses to sit at Auggie’s lunch table, the boy who struggles between peer pressure and conscience, and the boy who fakes nice in front of the adults.  I felt that the age of these kids was really indeterminate…they wandered from sounding between 8 – 10years (for example, Auggie often calls Mom and Dad Mommy and Daddy) and 12 – 14years.

I’m not sure, either, about some of Mr Browne’s ‘precepts’.  They felt contrived, and I’m not sure they entirely worked as a plot device.  Subtlety would have been better than smacking us in the face with the morals of the story.  And I didn’t even know how many of them I really agreed with, or felt like they were worth a month’s scrutiny.  For example, ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’  Ummm…since when could you be unkind and be right???  So then, are we supposed to be ‘kind’ (read patronising) to Auggie.  Since when is that kind?  Doesn’t he deserve true kindness, which would always be right.  For that matter, don’t we all?  I’m still struggling with that one.  So, maybe it is worth a month’s scrutiny!

Another plot device that seems to be popular at the moment, is the multiple perspectives device.  This works when all the voices are unique.  Books like ‘Bluefish’, by Pat Schmatz and ‘Because of Mr Terupt’, by Rob Buyea, do this really well.  In ‘Wonder’ the voices just don’t feel significantly well characterised, although it does allow the reader the chance to review scenes in the book to learn a little more.

But a good book provokes, doesn’t it?  And this book did provoke thought.  And I am sure it would be a great book to use in class, although it is somewhat clumsy with its morals.  Great discussion could be had over so many elements of the story.  So long as it doesn’t slip into being patronising, or over simplified.  This book had some heroic attempts at reminding us that we are all human, and we struggle to make the best decisions we can with the resources we have, and that we won’t get it right all the time.  And that’s a great message to remember.  I wish that had been a Mr Browne precept.

So, all in all, I liked the book.  Maybe I even really liked the book, but it wasn’t without its challenges.  Ultimately, though, I am still inclined to err towards a four star rating.

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My Name is Mina – David Almond

 

‘My Name is Mina’, published in 2010, is a prequel to ‘Skellig’, published by David Almond in 1998.  I read Skellig a very long time ago, and remember loving it, which is why I gave this book a go.
It is the story of Mina McKee – the way Mina plays with words in this book, it’s not too far a leap to hear her name in a ‘minor key’. The book is written as her journal, and it is presented with different typefaces for different experimentations and playings with words.  I wasn’t sure I liked this at first, but it actually works very well.  I like the way perspective is played with in this book.  Instead of there being more than one character’s perspective, we are told the story through Mina’s eyes, but she changes perspective at times, writing about herself in the third person.  Events are not told in a linear way, but as and when Mina feels she can tell them.
Mina is being homeschooled at the moment, because of an incident at school on SATS day. Mina is very open about her memory being slightly selective and admits to some embellishment of the incident.  I love the way that this means that we have to read it with our peripheral vision, in a sense – we cannot look directly at the scene to know what happened.  We need to look at the edges and the hints.  This lovely reveal/not reveal leaves scope for interpretation.  The incident involves her teacher, Mrs Scullery, and THE HEAD TEACHER, a piece of writing called, ‘Glibbertysnark’ and Mina’s mother being called in to school.  We are not told, but that must make Mina about 11 years old, since in the UK the SATS are tested at Year 2 and Year 6.
Mina’s father died many years ago, so that her memories of him feel, at times, like dreams…’I half-remembered the smell of his breath and the stubble on his cheek as he kissed me goodnight, the slight roughness of his skin as he stroked my cheek, his voice as he whispered me his Good Night.  And I lay with the books around me and the strange half-vague, half-intense memories* inside me, and felt very small indeed.’  The asterisk is for a footnote – I am not quite sure how I feel about these.  Sometimes they feel like they were written by an older Mina – sometimes they feel a bit contrived -but actually I think that’s OK, since this is Mina’s journal, and she is very much experimenting with language and who she is, and what everything means…and that can sound contrived at times.
Like one or two other readers of this book, I feel that I didn’t fully engage with Mina until about halfway through the book. She doesn’t make it easy for you.  While I felt her mother was presented as a loving and wise person, I really felt she was not developed at all as a character.  Again, this is appropriate – in the sense that children don’t question who their parents are, as characters, or their motivations, apart from how they affect the child.  There was one moment where we caught a glimpse of Mum’s real life, when Mina reflects on her day at Corinthian Avenue (an alternative school), where she ‘saw’ her father, and she realises it’s just possible her mother may have spent some time with Colin Pope.  ‘When I look back now, I suspect that Mum had her own secret that afternoon…I remember seeing her smile to herself as we drove across the river.  Was it Colin Pope?  Had she taken the chance to be with him that day, freed from her weird daughter?  I suspect she had.’ 
Once you do engage with Mina, she’s kind of stuck like glue…she’s very hard to get out of your head.  It is well worth taking the time…this is a great read.  In many ways I would like to give it five stars, but because it is so hard to get to the point where you commit to the book, I feel I can only give it four.        

 

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Monster – Walter Dean Myers

Monster

Written as a movie script, this book covers the trial of James King and Steve Harmon for the felony murder of a drugstore owner. King is accused of pulling the trigger and Harmon of being the lookout. As the trial proceeds, Steve takes notes in script style, being a keen and talented film club member.

Much of the story explores what truth is – who is telling the truth, what are their motivations, how fallible is their memory, what agenda lies behind the truth being told. Great questions. Steve reflects in jail, ‘we lie to ourselves here. Maybe we are here because we lie to ourselves.’

The line that really stuck with me, though, was from Mr Sawicki to the film club, about fancy camera shots, ‘There are a lot of things you can do with film, but you don’t have an unlimited access to your audience. In other words, keep it simple. You tell the story; you don’t look for the camera technician to tell the story for you. When you see a film maker getting too fancy, you can bet he’s worried either about his story or his ability to tell it.’

The film script is a clever device – using point of view metaphorically and ‘literally’ to position the viewer/reader. The quote above resonates – without wanting to give anything away – especially at the end.

I would think that most teenagers would find something fascinating in this book, and it should be a part of the core curriculum…there are so many things that are clever and thought provoking – especially morally, technically, legally, ethically, creatively, cinematically…

If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird; The Outsiders; That Was Then, This is Now… the list could go on
Highly recommended for 14+.
Everyone should read this book.

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