Thursday, December 31, 2015

It Said WHAAT?! Part II

My friends and family read my blogs, but seldom post. They prefer to just talk to me about what I've written. (Do you see where this is going? No? Well, look at the title and think about what I just wrote.)

Can you guess what I've been asked about my previous post on December 23rd?

"Have you told anyone at your school about this book?!"
"Have you tried to get the book removed from your school library?!"

The answer to both those questions is, "No. Absolutely not." The "why" part of it is a bit more involved, and I should have added it in when I wrote the original blog about the book Proxy. Forgive me, and allow me to explain it here:

Children are drawn to what's forbidden (which is why I question if labeling would be a mistake). Don't mention it, and they don't notice it. Sadly, there are many children who walk around my school with a big book in their hand, and they have no intentions of reading it. It's just for show. Sad, isn't it? And, yes, it's important I notice such things. It's my job. You thought I was a reading and writing teacher? Oh, that's just a very small part of it. I'm also a detective, a snoop, an observer, a fake-finder, and a lie detector. I'm quite good at it. I consider myself a stealth and lethal fighter in the war against illiteracy. And I fight the good fight, all in the name of growing better readers.

Now, I know that of all the sixth grade children who have checked out Proxy from our library, maybe five of them have actually read the whole novel. Maybe. And, truthfully, that may be a high estimate. If you knew the number of children who have checked out the Harry Potter books and claimed to have read it, you'd be astonished. They've seen the movies, not read the books. It takes very little observation and questioning to figure this out.

I said in my original blog, about all this, that I do not like censorship. I don't believe in it. I'm aware that many of my students are exposed to far worse things than anything that book exposes them to. I'm also aware that most students who actually read the entire novel are students who are good readers and have read other good books for comparison. They will have a more mature way of handling the contents of the book because reading exposes you to a variety of worlds. They are usually more empathetic young people, as well. Like the student I referred to previously, they may not like what they read - may not like the book, but they will dismiss it and go on.

Now, if I make a big deal about the book, it becomes a big deal. Students who might have ignored the book before may be intrigued as to why it was taken from our library's shelf. And God help us if some well-meaning, uninformed adults go running rampant through our hallways with their cries of concern. Students who aren't avid readers may choose this one to get curious about because of all the ruckus and not be prepared for what they encounter. Not to mention, if a struggling reader finally takes an interest in a book for the wrong reasons and doesn't like it, it may be a very long time before they try again - if they ever make a genuine effort to try again at all.

So, what, if anything DID I do?

Well, my students saw that I was reading the book and tabbing it. I model for my students when we read silently in class (what we call SSR - silent, sustained reading time), and they see me do what good readers should do by interacting with the text as I read. When I was done with the book, I purposely left it on my desk with the tabs on it. When my students asked me if I liked it, I told them the truth. I said it was weak. I told them it was, in fact, a weak and watered-down version of some great original books. I told them what those original books were and encouraged them to check those out.

That's it. That's all I did. That's all I needed to do.

Censor? Nah.

Teach? Absolutely.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Different Debut

Let's just jump right in, shall we?

    "Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the pre-dawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.
     She was smiling."

How does that grab you?! It certainly grabbed me! Wow!

Actually, let me back up a minute, the first thing that grabbed me was the title: The Library at Mount Char. I just liked it. Then, I saw the cover of the book and loved it (still do). After that, I noticed it's a debut novel by the author, Scott Hawkins. I love to read debut novels! So far, this book was hitting on all my favorite things. Needless to say, when I opened it up to the first page and read what you just read, I was completely in and moved it to the top of my holiday reading stack.

While I liked the book, it is not one I would recommend to just anyone. It's dark and more than a bit warped. It is a fantasy with a different spin on gods and how the universe works. There is death and destruction and abuse, but those kinds of things are often at the center of any tales involving gods. If you're a fan of Greek and Roman mythology, you may not find this novel quite so warped as other readers may.

The premise of the novel is that there is someone called "Father" who is raising twelve orphan children to be librarians,...but not like the librarians we think of. Each child is being trained to be an expert in a particular field or "catalog" - and they are not allowed to learn outside their catalog. Carolyn, for instance, is required to know all the languages in the universe. She should be able to communicate with anyone or any thing. Father is harsh and abusive in his training, but claims it is necessary so they are all completely prepared for what they must do to help run the world. I guess you could say Father is head god, and the children are gods.

When we meet Carolyn, on page one, she is already grown. There appears to be a situation of some sort, and she's trying to get back to the library. That is what you begin with. As the story unfolds, you learn more about how they all were raised and trained in Father's library. The story moves forward as you get pieces of the backstory a little at a time. I thought the author did a good job, and he tied up all the loose ends in the end.

This is a bit of a complex story, so I wouldn't suggest you read it in bits and pieces. You'll lose the thread of thought if you put it down for too long. I read it over three days. Of course, there's no need to read it that quickly, you just have to keep with it. Don't let it gather dust on a shelf between chapters. Of course, to be honest with you, I had a hard time putting it down. I wanted to see where the story was going. Yes, it lulled in a couple of places, but not for too long. I realized, at the end, the little lulls were there on purpose.

This wasn't a book I was crazy about, but I did like it. I liked it because it was different. I like an author who takes a risk and shows me something I didn't expect. Hawkins does that. He's also good at descriptive writing and paints vivid pictures in your mind. The difficult part is when he's describing something that's horrible, something you may not want to picture. I believe that's why some people might struggle with the darker side of the novel.

One last thing, I'd like to defend the author a bit against a few bad reviews I read today. I read reviews that claimed the pieces didn't fit. For instance, they said if Carolyn was supposed to know all the languages, why didn't she know a round piece of bread with cheese on it was called a pizza? They claimed it just didn't ring true to the story. Obviously, these people have never taught English as a Second Language, or ever tried to learn a language that was not their native tongue. Just because you learn a language from a book (which is how Carolyn learned) doesn't mean you understand it completely in practice.

I will say again, I don't think this book is for everyone. If reading about death and dark things brings you down, then don't read it. I said it was dark and warped and it is, but it also holds a few precious jewels of thought I won't soon forget. If you like mythology and fantasy, I definitely think you'd find this interesting. And if you're like me, and welcome trying a bit of anything new and unusual, I say go for it!

Happy reading!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It said WHAAT?!


It's not a word I like, to be honest. I never have. Especially when it comes to books. I don't believe in it for adults at all. For children, however? I think one of my sixth grade students put how I feel about it best when he said, "My parents believe I can read anything I'm interested in, as long as they know what I'm reading. Sometimes they read the same book so they can talk to me about it and answer any questions I might have."

It's a lovely thought, isn't it? I would love to think every parent is that interested in what their children are reading and would be there to help if they had any questions about the content of the books they read. Sadly, I've found that isn't usually the case.

Why do I think this is a problem? Well, I've questioned a few young adult (YA) books in the past, but not to the extent I am now. I'm starting to feel like authors who can't make it on the bestseller list for adult books have decided to try their hand at young adult books for a fan following (I actually read an few interview where one author admitted it). It's either that, or they are a best selling author and hope to be the next J.K. Rowling to make more money merchandising and movie making than from book writing. Trouble is, I don't think what they're writing about belongs in the hands of middle school students. And I definitely feel it doesn't belong in the hands of my sixth grade students (who are 10 and 11 when they enter sixth grade).

We're not talking about blood and guts and horror here (although I'm not crazy about too much of that, personally). I'm talking about sex and sexual feelings and sexual innuendos. Society is already over-sexualizing everything children see. Is there now no escape from it - even in books?

I believe the trend started with that "paranormal romance" series about the stupid girl who wrapped her whole life up in a dead vampire (oh, except for when she couldn't decide between the vampire and the werewolf. Seriously?) even though there was no actual "sex" until they were married.  I refuse to name the series. I didn't like it then, I don't like it now. It's poorly written, and I'm embarrassed for the author. She, however, will be reaping the financial benefits for the rest of her life, while an entire generation of young people think what they read in her books is good literature. (I shiver and get nauseous just thinking about it...)

Were there books about teenage romance before that? Absolutely. And better written. It was the marketing that propelled the book series, not the great writing. It reminds of the "boy band formula" that sucks in teens every time. It just breaks my heart that now there seems to be a "tweener/teen formula" for lukewarm novel writing. And I'm being generous using the term "lukewarm" when referring to the overabundance of "romance" books in the YA section of bookstores. Ugh.

Sorry. I got sidetracked. Tis the season. ;)

Back to my target (and, yes, I have one)...

I had a former student of mine (currently in eighth grade) to tell me about a book I just "have to read" and that I'd love it. I took a photo of the book she handed me so I would remember it and told her I would read it for my next book. A few days later, I saw that one of my sixth grade readers was toting around the same book. I asked how he liked it. He said, "So far, so good. I'll let you know when I'm done if it's really good or not."

I read the book in one day, on a Saturday, a couple of weeks ago. I didn't blog about it right away because...I was marinating. I didn't want to be reactive. I did a little research. I asked a few trustworthy adults what they thought about some of the passages. I marinated in it some more. I asked myself what I found offensive about it. I still don't know if this will come out right, but here goes:

The book Proxy by Alex London is supposed to be a modern, sci-fi, dystopian novel that is a new take on The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. London even quotes Fleischman's book on the page before the first chapter. The comparison is even touted in the book trailers I've seen for Proxy. I've read The Whipping Boy numerous times. I understood the premise of the book.

As an adult, I see nothing wrong with the book...other than the fact I don't find it very original. I enjoyed the story, but I also enjoyed reading The Hunger Games, Ender's Game, The Whipping Boy, and watching the movie "Mad Max" (starring a very young Mel Gibson...back the midnight movies). I could name a few others, but those instantly came to my mind as I was reading Proxy.

 (Now, this is the difficult part...)

Reading through the eyes of my sixth graders, however, I have a big problem with the overt sexual banter and bullying between characters and the offensive thoughts expressed by the 16 year old "prince," or spoiled rich kid character, Knox. Not only does he objectify women, and can't even remember the name of the one he is with in the very first chapter because he's been with so many, he doesn't even try to hide it. And it almost seems to become one of his 'endearing' qualities later on. In other words, 'at least he's up front and honest about how he is and admits it'. Really? Really.

The 16 year old "whipping boy," or proxy who is punished for any and all of Knox's sins and mistakes, is Syd and he is a homosexual. He hasn't actually put into practice what he's been thinking about, but he's known for some time how he feels and who he is attracted to. Readers know his thoughts and feelings on the matter. I don't have a problem with Syd's sexual preferences (to each his or her own), I do have a problem with the slang terms and bullying words and labels used in the book against Syd.  I'm concerned young people will start using them. My first thought when I saw what one character said to Syd was that I hoped I never heard a student say that to another student. My second thought was about how offended I was that even Syd's heterosexual friends make strong innuendos and double-meaning phrases to tease him.

I read about the author after I read the book (which is how I usually do my research). He is one of several authors who is heralded as stepping out to write books for the young adults in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community. I use "LGBT" because that's the label used in the interviews and articles I read about the author and the book. As I said, I don't have a problem with characters having sexual thoughts and feelings about their preferences, I just don't think the topic of sexual preferences of ANY kind belongs in a book for sixth graders.

Now, what age do I think this book would be appropriate for? That's a good question. I am really good at knowing sixth graders, but I've not taught other ages. To answer this question, I went to the best source I know: a student.

Remember the student whose parents let him read anything he wants? And remember the sixth grade student who was reading Proxy? It is the same student. He is a voracious reader and a well-spoken young man. When he finished the book, I simply asked for his opinion of it.

First, he asked me if I'd read the book, and I told him I had. This enabled him to talk about certain characters by name. He told me about a certain scene he really liked (the one that was very Mad Max like), and he liked the technology angle (like Ender's Game), and he thought the two main ideas of the novel were interesting (the same ones from The Whipping Boy and The Hunger Games). I asked him if there was anything else about it he liked. He said, "That's about it." This is a young man who can go on and on and on about a book he loves. The review was too brief and uncharacteristic.

Yellows mark my, "WHAAT?!" moments.
Purples are great passages/adds to novel.
Blues are high vocabulary words.
So, I had to casually ask...

"Was there anything you didn't like about the novel?"

My student looked uncomfortable and said, "Well,...I really didn't like all the...kissing and stuff."

"I want you to know I value your opinion as a good reader. Do you think this is an appropriate book for sixth graders?"

"No," he said, "I think maybe high school...or...maybe eighth grade? I don't know what eighth grade is like yet, but maybe it's okay for them? I definitely don't think it's for sixth graders."


Maybe not, but...perhaps a content/ratings label on anything promoted and sold as YA?

I don't know...

All I do know is that I host a movie club for sixth and eighth grade girls at my school once a week. I am not allowed to show anything over PG - that means no PG-13. Do you know what is in many of the PG-13 movies that causes that '13' to show up at the end and prohibits them being shown at my school? Sexual innuendo and a couple of cuss words.

Just something to think about. That's all.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Disturbing Treasure

I read a book, not too long ago, that I did not write a review for. Not because it wasn't good, but because I wasn't sure how to describe it or how to describe how it made me feel. The book has stuck with me for some time now, haunting me in the oddest ways. Most recently, I took a little vacation to a nearby town, and I kept thinking about passages from the book and the characters in the story. Please allow me to explain.

If you read my blog, you know I love to find random books I've never heard of. In one of my treasure hunts through a bookstore, I came across The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Helget. I loved the cover (because I am a cover lover), and the title of the book seemed odd when compared to the picture. It pulled me in, and I read the back cover. The hook was complete.

I don't usually do this, but I'd like to just quote the back of the book...

"In the tumultuous days after World War I, Herman Richter returns from the front to find his only sister, Liesel, allied with Lester Sutter, the "slow" son of a rival clan who spends his days expertly trapping lake turtles. Liesel has sought Lester's friendship in the wake of her parents' deaths and in the shadow of a dark secret of her own. But what begins as a yearning for something of a human touch quickly unwinds into a shocking, suspenseful tragedy that haunts New Germany, Minnesota, for generations. The Turtle Catcher is a lyrical, vibrant, beautifully wrought look at a fascinating piece of American history - and the echoing dangers of family secrets."

I couldn't say it better myself...without giving something away. It is a story you need to unfold for yourself. I won't lie, there are parts that show the horror of many things: war, betrayal, cruelty, secrets. There were times I found my hand covering my mouth in disbelief, as I shook my head from side to side, to think such things could happen. And they did. Yes, it's fiction, but it's also realistic - particularly for that time in history.

The book played out even more vividly in my mind when I took a little vacation to Fredericksburg, Texas, for a couple of days over Thanksgiving holidays. The small town is rich in history. It was founded by Germans in 1846 and their culture is everywhere. I didn't mean to associate it with the book I had read, it just happened. In my mind, the town was very much like the one described in the novel. As I walked up and down the main street in town, I could imagine what it would have been like in the days after World War I.

While I warn you that parts of the novel will disturb you, as the reality of human cruelty is always disturbing, the novel is very worthy of your reading time. It is well-written, interesting, and pulls you in from the very beginning.

It also does what is most important for a book to do: it makes you think.