Monthly Archives: August 2010

Talking ‘Bout Mockingjay

There are massive numbers of posts and reviews and conversations, understandably, about Mockingjay.  Here are a few that I found particularly interesting.  By all means add your own in the comments.

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BookFest @ Bank Street!

Celebrate. Discover. Discuss.

Bank Street College of Education is pleased to announce

BookFest @ Bank Street!
Saturday, October 30, 2010
9:30 a.m. – 3:00 p .m.

Speakers scheduled to appear:

  • Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Mac Barnett
  • Leonard Marcus
  • Stephen Savage
  • Jon Scieszka
  • David Yoo
  • . . . and more!

BookFest @ Bank Street 2010 is the 39th year of the program previously
hosted by New York Public Library, Teachers College, and Columbia
University. Bank Street is proud to be part of this tradition and
thanks everyone who has produced this program in the past. BookFest @
Bank Street is intended for adults who love literature for children
and teens.

For more information about Book Fest @ Bank Street and to register, please click here.  Space is limited; registration closes Friday, September 10.

Thanks to our sponsors for their support of BookFest @ Bank Street:
Walden Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; School
Library Journal; EarlyWord.com; ShelfAwareness.com; and Scholastic,
Inc.

Bank Street College of Education | 610 West 112 Street | New York, New
York, 10025 | (212)-875-4400

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Welcome Huffington Post Readers

So last week I noticed a sudden spike in traffic and figured out that it was because of this over at the Huffington Post.  Long story short — I’ve now got a HuffPo blog! There are a lot of bloggers over there, but I think only Rebecca Serle and I are focusing on children’s literature.  Hope you new visitors come back as I will be posting more frequently here than at the HuffPo blog.


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The Horror of War in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay and Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men

Reading about war, reading about young people in war, reading about the realness of combat and armed conflict is a journey into the heart of darkness. It is not for the faint-of-heart.  In a recent interview, SLJ’s Rick Margolis asked Suzanne Collins, author of Mockingjay (the final book of The Hunger Games series) and the daughter of a career military man, what she hoped young readers would take away from her books. She responded:

One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.

That war makes monsters of men is the gut wrenching theme of Patrick Ness’s forthcoming Monsters of Men, the final in his Chaos Walking series. Also the child of an American military man, Ness is fierce and uncompromising in this intense book.   As in Mockingjay, there is a horrible, hard-to-make-sense-of conflict going on in a dystopic future. While Collins’ takes place on Earth Ness’s takes place on a planet that has been colonized by people from Earth — at first the war is a civil one among the colonists (a terrorist against a megalomaniac), but in the final book it becomes one against the planet’s indigenous people.  In both books war is hell. There are rebels, terrorists, and enormously complicated characters, adult and young adult alike.  While both address issues of today — Collins’ Hunger Games are reality television of the nth degree while Ness’s Noise (the curse males on the planet have of being able to hear each other’s thoughts) is clearly a statement about our plugged-in world — most of all they are addressing that ancient conundrum — why war?

And when I say war, I mean war.  In your face war.  Body bag war.  (I’m old enough to remember seeing those body bags on television coming back from Vietnam — something we don’t see today, I should point out.)  Mockingjay opens with protagonist Katniss on a killing field.  The first word of Monsters of Men is war.  Dreadful things happen in both books because of war.  Innocents are slaughtered.  There is horrific emotional and physical pain. There is heartache of the sort that seems almost impossible to bear.  People are broken. Some are healed completely and some are not. People fall in and out of love.  People question. Some forgive. Some take vengeance.  That all is fair in love and war is utterly beside the point if not completely specious.

The books, each in their own unique ways, are harrowing reads.  While I know others have read these books without pause, I needed breaks.  It took me days to complete Monsters of Men as I had to take psychic breathers from it.  Mockingjay was a bit easier, but as I wrote here, I knew I couldn’t finish it before bed.  Again, these are not for the faint-of-heart.

Joseph Conrad may have had something different in mind when Kurtz died shouting about “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness, but there is no doubt in my mind that war is horror.  I lived in Sierra Leone in 1974-76. It was a beautiful country with wonderful people and it was unimaginable to me that it could become something different.  But it did — somehow people in that country turned into something else, into brutal killing machines. For some reason I cannot fathom; I do not have the imaginative ability to do so.  Real or not real?  is a question posed in Mockingjay. Real as it feels, the real thing is worse, real war is worse.  That people we love, admire, respect can kill other people seems impossible to me.  No matter what.  Yet it happens.  And we need to think about it.  In Mockingjay and Monsters of Men Suzanne Collins and Patrick Ness push young readers to do just that.

Crossposted at the Huffington Post.

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Learning About Africa: Naipaul on African Beliefs

Aminatta Forna is one of the most thoughtful writers about Africa that I know. (Check out this splendid essay about a vet in Sierra Leone for a taste.)  And today she’s reviewing VS Naipaul’s latest work of nonfiction, this one on African belief, in the Guardian.  Highly recommended.

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Clay Men

At the Guardian Imogen Russell Williams reflects on the allure of the golem, considers a few titles, and asks for more. Off the top of my head, here are three:

  1. Jonathan Stroud’s The Golem’s Eye.
  2. David Almond’s Clay.
  3. David Wisniewski’s Golem.

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In the Classroom: Reading Aloud as Community Building

My students won’t be in school for a couple more weeks yet, but I’m slowly starting to turn my mind back to the classroom.  I’m thinking about how I want to set up the room when I can first get into it on Monday.  I’m thinking about changes in curriculum.  I’m thinking about the new fourth graders I’ll be meeting in a few weeks.  And I’m thinking about what I’m going to read aloud on our first day, that magical story that will help connect us all and turn us from a bunch of strangers into a tight and unique learning community.  And so that first book has to be the right book.

It has to be a book that I can feel confident will be embraced by all.  And so it can’t be too long.  Or the slightest bit scary.  Not that first book. After all, I don’t know the kids yet and I don’t know what they can tolerate in terms of scariness or book length.  It does have to be funny.  And ideally it needs to be a book none of the kids have read yet.  It has to be a book that hooks them right away, one that I can dive into that first day that will help that bunch of shy (with me and with each other), nervous, and uncertain kids start to claim the room and space as their own, start to gel as a classroom community.  Sure, I’ll do some ice-breaking and community-building activities before this, but for book-lover me, it is the read- aloud that works best.

At one time I started with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Grand Escape. This is a charming story of the small adventures of two house cats.  The children and I loved their misunderstandings, their distinctive personalities, and the wit of the book.  Who knows?  Maybe I should go back and try it again.  Another was Barbara Robinson’s The Best School Year Ever with the shocking Herdmans.  Both fit my requirements: short, funny, and immediately engaging.  For the last two years I’ve started with Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic. It didn’t come out in the US till this year and so I’d read from a copy I’d gotten from England.  (You can read my rave review here.)  I’m tempted to start with it this year as I suspect it may still be under their radar and I know that it will be a sure-fire hit.  But I’m still mulling things over and may pick something spanking new.

While I love reading aloud too much to cede it to anyone else, I do know that there are folks out there who use audio books.  And so let me put in a plug for one I had a part in, the Lend Your Voice recording of The Wizard of Oz which I was part of along with many others and is now available for your listening pleasure here.  At some point I’ve got to figure out just what page I read, go find it, and listen to it.  But in the meantime, anyone who feels they don’t want to read aloud themselves to a group of kids, may I recommend they give this book a try.  I’ve been teaching Baum’s for years and can assure you that it holds up as a grand and engaging adventure.

Reading aloud — after all these years it is still one of my favorite aspects of teaching.  If you want to know more about my thoughts on this teaching method, the particular books and experiences I’ve had with kids (as often the books I read inspire us to do all sorts of cool things), please check out these posts.

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My One-Word Spoiler-Free Review of Mockingjay

Real.

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Slow Endings

Fans shouldn’t be so focused on endings. The Hunger Games series–like most quality books–has been about much more than simply uncovering some central secret. It’s been about characters, cliffhangers, and a cautionary message about entertainment and obedience. If all a work has is an M. Night Shyamalan “Sixth Sense”-like twist, then it doesn’t have much. That’s why people aren’t clamoring for “The Seventh Sense.”

It’s better to enjoy a book as you’re reading it, rather than to be focused on tearing through pages to see how it all winds up.

That’s from this WSJ columnist who is taking his time with Mockingjay.  I agree. Always a fast reader there are books I charge through and others are books that cause me to slow down, say series finales.  With Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Snicket’s The End, and Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the further along I got the slower I read.

Like many others I began Mockingjay yesterday morning expecting to be done the same day.  I stopped at points to do other things and returned to it in the evening, going slower and slower. And then I got to a point (page 298 to be exact) where something stopped me — I had a feeling if I finished it then that I’d not be able to sleep.  So I put it aside and did go to sleep, but woke up repeatedly all night with very strange nightmarish dreams.  I’m planning to go hear Suzanne Collins this afternoon so will finish the book before then, but I’m still in no rush.

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Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

The quaint Hudson River village of Cold Spring, where I just spent a month, is deserted on weekdays and so I couldn’t help wondering about the Orthodox Jewish couple, the woman with her hair covered by a scarf and the man in a formal-looking white shirt and black pants, I saw on the otherwise empty Main Street one morning.  I got my answer a little bit later when, on a walk along the river, I heard cheerful voices and looked out to see the same pair, waving at me as they paddled about in kayaks.

While no kayaks show up in Barry Deutsch’s remarkable graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, plenty of other things do — a pig, a witch, some nasty bullies, a wise step-mother, knitting, and that sword.  I knew nothing about this book, but after reading Betsy Bird’s rave review, I requested it pronto. (Thank you, Jason Wells at Abrams, for sending it so quickly!)  I’m not sure I can add much to Betsy’s review other than to say — it is all that and more.  This graphic novel is bright and fun and clever, the characters real and multi-faceted, and the art spectacular.  Deutsch uses comic vernacular perfectly — expressions, movement, panels, speech bubbles — all in the service of his warm, wise, and wonderful story.

It is the story of Mirka who wants to fight dragons.  While  I’m not going to reveal if she gets to fight anything I will say that how she gets that sword is exciting, smart, and fitting.  Kids are going to snap this one up, I promise you, boys and girls alike.  Some will go for the delightful Mirka. Others will eat up the adventure.  There will be those who will especially enjoy the relationships in her big family.  Others will appreciate the peek into Orthodox Jewish life.  It is a book that can be entered and enjoyed in these ways and multiple more, I have no doubt. Superb.

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