Friday, March 28, 2008

Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr


Sweethearts reminded me a bit of Fighting For Ruben Wolfe and I Am the Messenger, because it felt much more mature than lots of young adult literature; right at that crossroads into adult fiction. It wasn't mature because of any explicit content. It was the particular types of problems and the way the characters responded to things. It was all more on the adult side of the adolescent galaxy, the side where questions can stay open, where people are impossibly complex, and where resolutions aren't tidy.

This is a story about a girl and boy who were best friends in late elementary school. They were both the "losers" of the class and had a very deep and tremendously strong bond. Cameron disappears one day and Jennifer, who later turns herself into Jenna, has to figure out how to go on without him. She ends up abandoning the self she was at that time of her life and when Cameron shows up again when she's seventeen, Jennifer/Jenna has to figure out how to honor both their friendship and the little girl she tried so hard to bury.

This was a great read. Not really for most middle-schoolers, though. I just don't think they'd really get it. Also, I hate the cover. It doesn't even begin to represent anything meaningful about the story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Phone Call From Cameroon

"Are you there?"
"Yes, it's us! Hi Lauren. I'm going to put you on speaker phone."
"Okay, my whole class can you hear you now. How is Cameroon?"

A reverent silence descended on the room. And then, for about ten minutes, our very own Peace Core Volunteer partner spoke to us. My students raised their hands and asked many urgent questions: What animals do you see? What's the worst disease there? Are you getting homesick? Did you get our letters?

Her answers were so clear and patient and loving.

I ended the call by telling her the truth: we are so proud that she is representing our country in this capacity.

I've been thinking a lot lately about moral education and about teaching children ethics. I never thought such subjects would be all that important to me, as a teacher, but I'm coming to believe that digging for answers to the question, "How should I live my life?" is at the heart of much of my work with children. I come at this question from lots of angles, and hardly ever head-on. For example, we have a class motto that we repeat often: WORK HARD! BE NICE! (ROCK ON! was added by the kids this year.) My classroom management system is entirely based on making thoughtful choices. I have a growing repertoire of "little lectures" that are useful ways to illustrate important moral lessons about such topics as the harmful effects of gossip and the strength it requires to walk away from a fight.

Partnering with Lauren this year, however, has been my very favorite way to quietly teach my students to become more thoughtful young people. In September, before she left, Lauren visited our class. We all remember this young, nervous woman who left the shelter of her home less than two days after she visited us. And now her whole life is completely devoted to caring for other people. Hearing from her often and writing her letters has led us to think about people in another part of the world. It's helped us imagine our own futures as people who will work hard to help others. I want my students to continue becoming people who are kind and moral. I love having a partnership that so effortlessly helps all of us stretch in that direction.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dear Kadir Nelson

Mr. Nelson, if you're out there, I really want to tell you about this kid I love.

He lives in the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. He has a really rough home life. Dad's in jail. Mom's on drugs. This year, by some amazing graceful miracle, this ten-year-old has learned to LOVE books. I think reading has become his refuge. First, he read and took very good care of my precious, signed copy of Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers. It took him five minutes to read each page back in September, but he was so determined to read that book. Finishing it took him about six weeks. In December he discovered Darren Shan and has since read every single Cirque Du Freak and Demonata book.

Last week I handed him We Are the Ship and he carries it around school and back and forth to the shelter like it's a million dollar prize. He comes up and shows me the illustrations and stories and can barely contain his admiration for those players. His is a fierce admiration that is settling into the deep roots of his tender little soul.

I can only speculate here, but this is what I believe: I believe those stories, of determination and triumph in the face of horrible adversity and discrimination will give this kid deeper wells of strength than any other forms of "help" that I can imagine.

Teaching kids with such steep slopes all around them can sometimes be very difficult work, but with books like yours and children like this one, I consider it a great privilege to be working out in the trenches.

From the very bottom of my heart: THANK YOU!!!

(This true story/letter actually started out as a comment at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


My sister-in-law is also a kid lit aficionado and her biggest critique of this blog is that I don't write more negative reviews. I totally get it. Negative reviews are much more fun to write and more entertaining to read.

For this space, however, I simply want to share books that I think are worth sharing. I'll sometimes qualify my positive assessment of a book or specify an audience that I think will enjoy a particular book, but I don't slam or hate on books here, at all. The book blurbs here serve two main purposes: a resource where fellow teachers can come to browse some excellent titles, and a catalog for me, so that I can remember enough about a book to talk it up to my students.

I abandon lots and lots of books. If I don't get sucked in quickly, I usually don't finish books. I also, however, sometimes, read books that I don't like. I also read lots and lots of books that I just don't get around to writing about here. That's why I've totally fallen in love with Goodreads. It's a great way to keep track of ALL the books I've read and over there I write negative and more critical reviews. Each book gets 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 stars and my stars and blurbs over there are more about what I really think. The other great thing about Goodreads is that it's a social networking site, so you can see what your friends are reading and make comments and join book groups, according to your interests. Lots of good book fun, and not just for kid lit lovers.