Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fighting Ruben Wolfe, by Markus Zusak

I liked both of Markus Zusak's other two books that I've read (The Book Thief, and I Am The Messenger) so I gave this one a go and finished it fast and enjoyed it quite a bit. The narrator, Cam Wolfe, reminded me of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. The whole set up, with these two tough teen boys and the more sensitive of the two telling the story of the other, was also very similar to Walter Dean Meyer's Autobiography of My Dead Brother. There is an amazing literary essay waiting to be written comparing these two fanatastic works of fiction: one about white, working-class Australian brothers, the other one about black teens in Harlem--both about masculinity, identity, fear, and love. One of the things I like best about Zusak's style is that he can put the corniest moral statements into the voices and plots of these very believable characters and stories and so the morals don't come off trite or dumb--in fact, they come off as powerful truisms. In Fighting Ruben Wolfe my two favorite examples of these kind of statements were: "A fighter can be a winner, but that doesn't make a winner a fighter," and, "Love the people, hate the situation." I'm sure these just seem like corny one-liners here, but they totally work in the book. Read it and find out.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs, by Sharon Draper

I just discovered this incredible new series. I'm surprised I haven't heard anything about it on all the kid lit blogs I'm always reading. I found it after my librarian sister Lisa told me that Sharon Draper had some other books, besides Copper Sun, which were worth checking out. I really loved Copper Sun, but it isn't a book I could ever share with fourth and fifth graders, so this series was a very surprising find. Ziggy and his three friends have a club called the Black Dinosaurs. They are these curious, smart, funny boys who have adventures and solve mysteries.

Here are some of the reasons I am so excited by this series: I think the characters will engage many of my students, both my boys and girls, cuz they are so cool. Ziggy is Jamaican and ends lots of sentences with "mon". He's also funny, eats things like broccoli and potato chip sandwiches, and is always misplacing his homework. The books are only about 100 pages each, but the writing is rich, elegant, playful, and at moments quite poetic. There are zesty adjectives, strong verbs, and great dialogue. The second book, Lost in the Tunnel of Time, is full of interesting, true information about the history of the underground railroad. But it's also a very scary adventure that climaxes with the boys caught in a collapsed tunnel. It's a fast-moving mystery that's hard to put down. I haven't read all of the books in the series, yet, but for my own reading pleasure and for the literacy development of my students, I am glad that it's a series and I hope it's a series that keeps on growing.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Every Living Thing, by Cynthia Rylant

This book is the single best short story collection I've ever used to teach comprehension strategies. The stories are incredibly rich, with universal themes that have managed to capture the interest of even my most reluctant readers. I'd estimate the text level at a DRA 40, but the stories are complex and poetic enough that I've found them a great fit for readers whose decoding ability is much higher, but who need support in learning to infer, reflect, and think deeply about metaphors, imagery, and characterization.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Adventures of Odysseus, by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden

Odysseus leaves Ithaca to fight in the brutal Trojan War, but it is on his return journey that he endures a series of harrowing ordeals and adventures. This telling of the epic journey is full of strong, poetic language and paints the story in rich, vibrant detail. I've never read the original epic, so I can't say with certainty, but the details and tone all seem to be very much in keeping with the ancient tale. I would love to couple a whole class reading of this book with the Percy Jackson books in a sixth grade classroom. There's some pretty gruesome, violent images, but nothing sixth graders can't handle. I wish I had read this at the same time I read Edith Hamilton in 12th grade. The storytelling is much better, here.

Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers

I read the Alex Haley ghost-written Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 16 and a junior in high school. I can't remember which book I discovered first--Roots, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but these were the books I was reading the same year when I watched LA burn and disintegrate in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. This was when I stopped standing up for the pledge of allegiance, swearing that I wouldn't repeat those words until there really was "justice for all" in America. I still remember the sting I felt when Malcolm told some well intentioned white woman that he had absolutely no use for her support in the struggle for black liberation. I remember admiring this powerful orator and imagining the fierce love that fueled his anger and work. I was devastated and full of sorrow when I reached the end of the book and read about his assassination. I am certainly a gen x-er in that I have very few people that I admire or consider heroes, but Malcolm has always been my one exception. Ever since I read his autobiography, when I was 16, Malcolm X has been a hero of mine. My raw, adolescent idealism still shapes this admiration, fifteen years later.

Walter Dean Myer's elegant, eloquent biography of Malcolm X is a wonderful introduction to this great man. Myers is a poetic storyteller who I believe captures the incredible spirit of this leader and also represents the broader social and historical context of the civil rights movement far better than Spike Lee in his 1992 movie. The content and prose are very accessible and appropriate for kids as young as 11, although it's rich and complex enough of a narrative to keep older readers engaged as well. Esme talks about how the best children's and YA authors are folks who know how to take the hand of a child and walk with them across a terrifyingly busy street. Myers has accomplished that delicate balance with this book and it is my hope that many children that I love will meet and begin a relationship with Malcolm and his ideas through this outstanding book.

Radical Reflections

Mem Fox, an Australian educator, writes passionately about teaching reading and writing in workshop settings--using real books, and getting kids to write for real audiences, for real reasons, about topics they care about. Many of Mem's reflections struck those chords of resonance in my teaching soul that I first remember feeling when I discovered Herbert Kohl, about eight or nine years ago.

In addition to insightful discussions of strong pedagogy, Mem also recognizes how the best learning and growing happens within the snug nets of loving relationships. Her playful, gentle, gracious voice reminds lovers of books, words, and children why we must constantly reflect about our work and continuously renew our practice.