Thursday, July 17, 2008

July Authors

Authors of the Month
Authors who have birthdays this month include these:
July 12 -- Joan Bauer, author of Hope Was Here, Stand Tall (a seventh grade whole-class book), and more. Warm, funny stories that deal with real problems.
July 21 -- Ernest Hemingway -- famous, famous. Try The Old Man and the Sea.
July 22 -- S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, another seventh grade whole-class book, Tex, That Was Then, This is Now, etc.
July 26 -- Jan Berenstain -- Read a Berenstain Bears book to a little brother or sister!
July 28 -- Beatix Potter -- Sit down again with that younger child to read any of her books -- maybe Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle Duck, or just read her books on your own!
July 29 -- Sharon Creech -- You might read Walk Two Moons in class in seventh grade. She has lots of good realistic fiction novels.
July 31 -- Lynne Reid Banks -- If you haven't read the Indian in the Cupboard books, you should. Or try some of her other books. I, Houdini is "The life-story of a highly intelligent hamster, whose determination never to be imprisoned leads him into every kind of comic and dangerous scrape - and out again."
And here's a description of The Fairy Rebel from Banks' official web site:
"When Tiki, a feisty rose-fairy, gets earthed on Jan's toe, they strike up a forbidden friendship that links the fairy and the human worlds. When she gives Jan magic help to have a baby, the tyrant Fairy Queen steps in - with terrifying results."
July 31 -- J.K. Rowling -- Enough said.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Movie Recommendation

I just watched and truly enjoyed the movie American Pastime. Because I've read and taught about the internment (imprisonment in isolated camps) of Japanese Americans during World War II, I was interested in this film, and can now recommend it.

Books you could read about the internment include Journey to Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, The Journal of Ben Uchida (a My Name is America novel by Barry Denenberg based on true events), Caged Eagles (about internment in Canada) and a picture book titled Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee.

To learn more about the internment camp in Utah, go to

The following is a quote from Production Notes... at

The film, "American Pastime," tells the story of Japanese Americans herded into the “Topaz” internment camp near (Abraham, Utah) during WWII, who turn to baseball as a way to deal with their plight. The film is based on actual events about a baseball team that arose out of the camp. (The camp set was built in the Utah desert not far from the original Topaz site).

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Summertime 2

How do I choose the books I read?
Recommendations: My adult daughter was reading The Book Thief, borrowed from one of her friends, and she and other people told me it was a book I should read. She had it at our house, so when she finished it, I borrowed it.
Awards and recognitions: The Book Thief is a New York Times #1 selling novel, and it has won several awards.
An author I like: I've read Words By Heart by Ouida Sebestyen with seventh grade English classes. It's about a black girl whose family is the only black family in their Texas community. When I saw another book by the same author, because I like Words By Heart so much, I figured it was worth a try.

I just finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It's categorized as adolescent (for kids your age) and the lexile level is only 730, but the subject matter is heavy, there are some special challenges to comprehension (such as the story skipping around instead of always being told in chronological, which means time, order), the characters use harsh language, and the book is over 500 pages. The main character of the book is a girl growing up in Germany during World War II, but there is also an important boy character. Something very different about this book is the point of view. The narrator is death -- the one who comes to carry away souls. This is a unique book, and one with powerful emotional impact.

When I finished reading The Book Thief, I started reading Out of Nowhere by Ouida Sebestyn. Sebestyn is the author of Words By Heart, which we read in English class last year -- and probably will read again this year. Out of Nowhere is about a thirteen year old boy who is left "in the middle of nowhere" by his mom and her new boyfriend, a dog who is abandoned by his owners in the same area, a woman who has just been abandoned by the man she's been married to for over 40 years, a cranky old man who collects everything (but nothing that seems worth much), and a teen girl who reminds me of the title character of Jerry Spinelli's Star Girl because she is comfortable with being different, she works hard to help people, and she could use friends.

These are reviews I wrote in 2005 for a class I was taking.

Van Draanen, Wendelin

Mystery – Adolescent
Van Draanen, Wendelin,
[Start with Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief.]
Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man.  Yearling, 1999, 176 p.
Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy.  Yearling, 1999, 240 p.
Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes
Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy. Yearling; reprint edition, 2002, 288 p.
Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception
Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief.  Random House, 1998, 163 p.  (I haven’t read this one yet.  It was always checked out at the library, but I just bought it.)

            A couple of months before the symposium, I sent my son to the library to check out Sammy Keyes books, and he brought back the five he found.  We knew we weren’t starting with the first book in the series, but I started reading, and so did my twelve year old daughter Emily.   It worked anyway.  Now that we’ve gone back to the first one, we realize it explains some things we were wondering about, and we did get more of a physical description of the infamous Heather Acosta than we’d thought was available, but the individual books are each good enough to stand on their own. 
Emily and I now adore Sammy Keyes.  In past years I’ve had several girl students turn in book reports on Sammy Keyes books.   I hadn’t read the books, so just thought,
“ Oh, here’s another girl reading one of these silly little mystery stories.”    Now that I’ve read several of the books I appreciate what Wendelin VanDraanen has done.  She’s written absorbing stories about this likeable girl who lives an interestingly unconventional life yet shares so many of the fears and worries of other kids her age.  She’s smart and brave enough to stand up for herself, help other people, and solve mysteries.
            Sammy is twelve years old and is just starting seventh grade at the beginning of the series.  She doesn’t know who or where her father is, and her mom has gone off to  seek stardom in Hollywood, leaving Sammy with her grandmother. A further complication in Sammy’s life is that Grams lives in a high-rise building exclusively for senior citizens.   So Sammy has to sleep on the couch and sneak in and out, often by way of the fire escape, as part of her regular leaving and returning “home.”   Her best friend Marissa, who does the McKenzie dance when she gets nervous but is willing to go outside her comfort zone for a friend, is also a character worth getting to know, as is Sammy’s grandmother, a certain policeman who gets very frustrated with Sammy,  and a senior citizen gentleman friend of her grandmother who also becomes a good friend to Sammy.   Then there’s Heather Acosta, another seventh grader and Sammy’s  arch enemy – one of those characters the reader loves to loathe.  
Sammy has a knack for getting into trouble, and for getting involved in other people’s troubles.   In the books we’ve read, Sammy puts out a fire in the spookiest house in town, unveils some con-artists parading as a group dedicated to charity, finds a home for a runaway, cares for an abandoned baby  (with none of the babysitting lessons some girls have had) and risks her life to save the baby’s mother, sneaks off to Hollywood

(with Marissa) and saves her own mother from a deadly situation, helps reveal deception within the worlds of art and human relationships, and foils the thief who knows that she knows.  As my daughter says, “Of course, Sammy always wins!”
            I don’t know how much my daughter has noticed this in the books, but I’m impressed that Sammy is learning about relationships and learning about understanding other people.   She’s maturing as I would hope to see my seventh grade students mature in being able to appreciate and relate to others, though I don’t really wish the extreme adventures for my students.   I suspect that these books have special meaning for my own
daughter since her dad hasn’t been in the picture since she was an infant.  Certainly she doesn’t worry that I’d run off to become a movie star, but I know she does worry about losing me.  Sammy shows here that even if that happened, she could manage and even thrive with a few caring adults and friends around and using her own strengths and gifts and determination.  
Realistic Fiction -- Adolescent
Van Draanen, Wendelin,  Flipped.  Scholastic, 2001, 212 p. 

More great characters and page-turning story from Van Draanen.  This one is told in two voices – the bright and willing-to-be different girl who’s had a crush on the neighbor boy ever since his family moved in “the summer before second grade,”  and the boy who is the object of her affections, but who definitely does not have a crush on her until. . .
 This is a story about growing up, about families, and about choices between valuing the superficial and applying an inner moral compass to difficult decisions.
A family member with profound “special needs” figures into the story.  When I read Flipped,  I’d just finished reading  Al Capone Does My Shirts  by Gennifer Choldenko. Al Capone Does My Shirts  is told from the point of view of a boy whose family has just moved to Alcatraz for his dad’s job as an electrician and guard, and so his sister can attend a special school in San Francisco.   Both books examine how families handle having someone in the family who is “different”  in ways that may require  special effort and sacrifice and difficult decisions that most families don’t have to experience.  Paired, these books could lead to discussion and consideration of the problems and joys that come to families that include these special people. 

Nix, Garth

Fantasy – Adolescent
Nix, Garth,  The Keys to the Kingdom – Mister Monday.  Scholastic, 2003,  361 p.
Nix, Garth, The Keys to the Kingdom – Grim Tuesday.     Scholastic, 2004,  321 p.

            My twelve year old daughter and I read these together.  I wasn’t sure at first if I would like this series because it’s so “far out,”  but as we got into them, we were drawn into the world Nix creates, into the story, and drawn to Arthur Penhaligon – and later to Suzy Turquoise Blue.   I was at first a little bothered that the “Architect” is female, that

the “Architect” has abandoned her creations, that “heaven” is such a chaotic, strange place, and that there is so much in the books that is dark and disturbing.  However, I’m
able to live with those aspects of the books because the story does pull me along, caring about Arthur and his quests, and wondering what Nix will come up with next.  Nix does create memorable scenes such as the clockwork woodsman and woman, the journey into the pit, and the anthropomorphic eyebrow.   Our most telling reaction to the books is that  we’re  interested enough to keep on reading – we’ll be at the library looking for a copy of Drowned Wednesday.

Novelization of X-Files Episode -- Teen Science Fiction
Nix, Garth, The Calusari.  HarperCollins, 1997, 100 p.    
            I watched and loved The X-Files for years.  Nix was asked to create a novelization of one of the episodes, so when I saw it in the library I grabbed it to read.  I felt that he caught the feel of the show and the main characters.

I also read a short story Nix wrote called “Hanzel’s Eyes.”  It was published in a collection of new versions of fairy tales by currently famous writers for young people – A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, published by Simon and Schuster, 2000.  I liked the way he updated the old story – Hanzel and Gretel are lured into a video-game store instead of a gingerbread house, and the witch is harvesting organs instead of cooking up the kids.   This is a dark, scary story -- guess what happens to Hanzel’s eyes! But it has a happy ending – sort of, almost,  well, the ending is strange enough that Nix could indeed continue the story.