Jul 31, 2011

Harry's 31st!

Harry Potter (if he were a real person and it pains me to type that) is 31 today!! I'm so glad that Rowling decided to give Harry a birthday so far in the past.  This way, he'll always be older than the majority of his readers who won't have to be jealous of the fact that he saved the world at 17 and can instead wonder what it's like to peak at 17. 

Review: Monsters of Men

Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking: Book ThreeI have the problem of not knowing when to abandon a book.  I have the strange belief that maybe I have to read it all the way through in order to fully appreciate the novel or that it could get better in the next chapter.  Even if it's clear that the book is horrible, I am still overcome by a strong sense of guilt and feelings that I owe it to the book and/or author to finish.

Sometimes this annoying habit of mine to have to finish books can be rewarding.  I would have never finished The Hunger Games if I didn't feel guilty about not finishing a book my sister actually loved.  Because as much as I love that book now, the first few chapters are bloody AWFUL. 

It even took me awhile to get into The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking Trilogy that I finally finished this afternoon.  I ended up absolutely loving the novel and expected to fly through the series to see how it all ended.  The second novel, The Ask and the Answer, wasn't horrible, but it lacked the power of the first, most likely because not much could have lived up to the amazing cliffhanger that ended the first.  But the third, Monsters of Men, was just.plain.brutal.

If I wasn't so invested in finding out how the war in the series came to an end, this might have been the first book I've been able to read halfway through and forget about.  But I decided not to let myself eat breakfast this morning until I finished it so I could clear my curiosity and take the book of my "Shelfari Reading Now" section of my digital bookshelf.  Crazy? Yes. Effective? Yes.

The first book had a disjointed first person perspective through the main character's "Noise" which enabled the reader and other characters to know his every thought.  The second added the perspective of a girl, without noise, to give voice to another side of the war.  It was a little busy, but the book worked.  This last one added in yet another voice, and through that voice, another who could hear everyone's voice.  Confusing? Yes.  Eventually the book reached a point where every perspective seemed to be saying the same thing over and over and instead of adding drama and intensity, added redundancy. 

Will young adults love it though?  Most likely.  It still maintains the theme of instant information, which speaks loudly to them as it's almost all they know.  It has adventure, love, betrayal, mind control, fighting, etc.  It's like the Princess Bride without the sarcasm and sword fights.  So it's nowhere near as good, but it'll get the job done.

Jul 27, 2011

Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

This book is amazing.  Choldenko's book won the Newbery Honor in 2005, and though I haven't read the winner from that year, Kira-Kira, I want to say that this "Tale from Alcatraz" deserved the win.  Not that the win actually determines the worth of a novel.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is set in the Depression era, when everyone was dazzled by criminal antics.  The Flannagan family has moved to Alcatraz as a result of the father's new guard/electrician position\y.  Obviously, the job was hard to come by and it becomes necessary for the family to adjust to life on an island full of the most dangerous criminals in the country.

Al Capone Does My Shirts
There is so much more to this story.  When I first picked it up, I thought it would just be a simple comedic story.  I mean, the title makes it seem like it's just silly.  The story starts off with a hilarious scheme to sell students in San Francisco the opportunity to have their shirts washed by Al Capone.  But the novel quickly becomes so much more.  Moose, the protagonist of the novel, has an autistic sister, Natalie, in a time where the usual treatment was institutionalization.  Throughout the novel, he goes to great lengths to protect her from their surroundings and from herself. 

The ending is wonderful.  I can't get over how much I loved the ending to this novel.  It reminds me so much of Richard Peck's A Long Way From Chicago, another work of historical fiction set in the Depression with a great ending.  The strong characterization is similar to Peck's award-winner as well.  The family is well-defined and the relationship between brother and sister is incredibly moving as the story progresses.  So why the use of Alcatraz as a setting for this novel about living with and attempting to hide an autistic sister?  Symbolism!  Moose is trapped from his previous life and Natalie is often imprisoned inside herself, just as the convicts are locked away in the actual prison.  Kids will eat this stuff up once they figure that out.  At least, the dorks like me who love symbolism will. 

So this novel can clearly be used in the classroom or the library for its historical and psychological elements.  It's a great discussion starter and can lead to further interest in works of historical fiction or even nonfiction accounts of the Depression.  I'd say this book is best for pre-teens (tweens) and young teens.  But honestly, it's a great novel and definitely worth picking up regardless of age. 

Jul 23, 2011

#TheList, No. 964: Troy

TroyI was legitimately surprised when I saw that this was on "The List."  I had picked up this book in high school because I was semi-obsessed with mythology and needed to study for a national mythology test (I got a medal...).  Because I rarely read the back covers of books, I never realized that this was such an award-winning book.  Adele Geras' Troy was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, a Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year, and many, many more.  Granted, being an award winner doesn't necessarily mean it's any good, but for some reason I was under the impression that this wasn't a known novel.  
Basically, Troy details the end of the Trojan War with a little bit of extra love affairs mixed in for good measure.  Geras conjures up a love rectangle set against the whole Hector-Achilles-Paris-Trojan Horse debacle.  She uses the Greek gods as characters; they appear constantly throughout the novel, interacting with the mortals to offer explanations of what is going on in the war and how the gods are helping each side.  In the novel, the characters forget these interactions immediately, fitting because the purpose of the god characters is primarily to give uninformed readers a clear image of mythological background.  

So I already loved this book for the mythology prior to The List Project, so this time through I read it through a high school/young adult librarian to see what I thought the book could be useful for.  My thoughts:

-Great book to have out if a librarian ever made a mythology display in the library.  Not everyone wants to read the Odyssey, Iliad or the Aeneid and instead prefer concise, clearer, explanations of mythological events.  This book is perfect for this audience.

-Any history or language arts teacher doing a unit on the Trojan War or Greek mythology could definitely use this as a teaching tool.  I might not use it to teach from, but it could definitely offer insight  on the topic when paired against the traditional classics.  

-Students struggling with the topics could benefit from reading this book.  The love story wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I loved everything that surrounded it and gave me a new perspective of the Trojan War.  The integration of the gods into the romance are great for learning opportunities. 

Jul 16, 2011

#TheList, No. 719: Inkheart

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (Hardcover)I was taught that reading aloud to someone else or being read aloud to is one of the greatest gifts a person can give or receive. In the case of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, it's a gift and a curse.  

In Inkheart, there are people who have the ability to make words literally come to life when they read stories aloud.  Their words can pull out items, beautiful creatures, and of course, villains.  Meggie and Mo, a daughter/father team, work with their knowledge of literature to rid their lives of villains and regain what disappeared into the books they read. 

This book is fairly well-written, but relies heavily on prior knowledge of classic classics and modern day classics.  Each chapter begins with a quote from one of these classics, my favorite being The Princess Bride, that sets up what's about to unfold.  If you're familiar with these tales, then it's a fun little reference, but if not, then they become somewhat of a nuisance.  It could be easily skipped over, but the references don't end with the quotes.  They are constantly brought up within the story itself.  Characters from classics become part of the Inkheart tale and specific classics situations are suggested throughout as options to emulate.  

This book is definitely one to pair with one of the classics referenced throughout.  If a student enjoyed that book, s/he may enjoy this one as well.  But Inkheart isn't for a novice reader; it's definitely geared toward one who, like Meggie, reads into the late hour of the nights and is familiar with all of the references. 

Jul 13, 2011

Dear Mr. Potter...

Early this morning, I brought in the 3 newspapers waiting by my office's front door.  Each front page boasted something about the HP craze coming to an end this week.  The rant about how that's not true is for another time.
One article lead me to Dear Mr. Potter, a collection of fan written letters to J.K., to the characters, to the actors, to anyone who made the experience of reading and/or watching the series a significant one.  Those who know me probably found out within 5 minutes of meeting me that the HP experience is something I hold near and dear to my heart.  Ask my boss, I once sent him quite the e-mail exchange (more like a thesis) defending how the series is amazing.  So I figure this letter business is something I should do.

Dear Mr. Potter (but technically Rowling, because c'mon, she's the strong woman who invented you):

Very, very often I think about how lucky I am to have had one of the best teachers ever when I was in the 6th grade.  Mr. Vendetti believed that being read aloud to was one of the greatest gifts a person could receive and give.  While we 6th graders were anxiously waiting to graduate during the last few days of the school year, stuck on the highest floor of one of the oldest buildings in the city (read: no AC), he read to us the most boring book in the world.  With only 3 days left, he decided to abandon whatever it was he was reading and switch to a new book he stumbled upon: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  We only made it through the first few chapters, but I was already sold (I think it was the Put-Outer...or what we later learned was called the Deluminator, but I digress). 

Within days, I was at the library and I took the book home with me to finish.  Honestly, I had read everything else on the children's side of the library and that's what was left.  No exaggeration.  As soon as I finished, I dragged my parents right back to the library to get Chamber of Secrets and snagged Prisoner of Azkaban at the same time.  Within 4 days I was ready for the next one and it broke my heart when I found out it didn't exist yet.  I had never encountered this problem before.  There was always an endless supply of Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, Baby-sitters Club, Anastasia Krupnik, Alice, etc. books for my enjoyment, how could there not be a complete HP series for me? Yes, I was already that selfish and thought in such ways.  Waiting for that book was the longest year of my life. 

#TheList, No. 332: The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs

The True Story of the Three Little PigsJon Scieszka's picture books are amazing.  Yes, Lane Smith's illustrations aren't pretty.  They're often disjointed and creepy, but that's kind of the point.  Picture books don't have to be all gooey with cutesy drawings.  This story, which, in case you couldn't gather from the title, tells the true story of the three little pigs, is supposed to be a dark tale so creepy pictures are a perfect fit.  It's a fractured fairytale and the disjointed illustrations add to that fractured fun.  

The gist of the story: the "big bad wolf" just had a cold, he wanted to borrow some sugar to bake his granny a cake, and the pigs are actually horribly rude and wouldn't share.  Or so he says.  Look at the pictures.  Should we side with the wolf when we see that all the cops are pigs and could be siding with their fellow species? Or do we notice that when the stick house falls, it falls into what resembles a dinner place setting, complete with stick forks and a knife and a pig in the middle?  

I think this story is the perfect example of how picture books are not just useful tools for pre-school storytime sessions.  They can be useful tools in the learning process for students of all ages.  Teaching a lesson about the right to a fair trial?  Use this book to demonstrate how in the U.S. legal system, the Wolf would be afforded the opportunity to defend his actions.  Want to teach your high-school literature class about trusting narrators?  This book, coupled with the pictures, demonstrates how readers must focus on multiple aspects of the story to make an accurate assessment of what's real...and how even then can never be truly sure.  You could even use this story as an introduction to other fractured fairytales (Ella Enchanted, Rapunzel's Revenge, The Graveyard Book) or as a way to invite children to create their own twists on classics.