Monthly Archives: August 2011

What’s Your First Read-Aloud of the Year?

Someone on one of my lists just asked for suggestions for a beginning-of-the-year book to read-aloud to her new class and, of course, we all chimed in with our opinions. Since many of you are already back in school and some about to start, I hope you will tell us what you’ve chosen and why.  I’m still considering what I’m going to start with.

Last year my first book was The Invention of Hugo Cabret because I was doing a year-long study of silent movies (focusing on Charlie Chaplin) and it turned out to be a great choice (which surprised me as I wasn’t sure about how the image sections would work, but the did).  This year I’m still considering my options.  Maybe I’ll go for Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic which my students have always adored. Both are gender-neutral and aren’t particularly scary.  (For more recommendations, I’ve a bunch of posts about books that worked well for me here. )

My preference is to start with a book that is brand new so the kids are unlikely to know it and so right now I’m leaning toward Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cat Cheese.  I’m a hard-sell on animal stories, but was completely charmed by this one  and since we will start the year with a close look at Charlotte’s Web I’m thinking this may be just the ticket for a first read-aloud.

So enough about my choices, what are yours?

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Schools That Work Because…

…its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around.

That’s from Smithsonian Magazine’s  “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”  There’s more too; the whole article is wonderful if sad in the sense that Finland feels like in a country in another universe from ours.

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The State of Fantasy

I’m a fantasy fan and while I may not like everything out there I’m never going to complain that there is too much of it. My great thanks to Ms. Rowling for changing the US publishing landscape in that regard — BHP there was mighty little — many of my fellow gatekeepers preferred realistic fiction and so that is what mostly got published. And then there were others who had problems because it was against their religion (really).  So, first of all, hurray for the popularity of fantasy!  May it never wane.

Since I love the genre  I read a lot of fantasy books and have had in mind a few posts on some recently read books, but they are complicated (thematic rather than straight reviews) and I’ve yet to complete them.  Unfortunately, what with school looming and some other pressing projects to get done first, I fear that it may be a while till they see the light of day (or light of the Internet? Whatever). In the meantime, I figured I’d at least provide you with some recently published and forthcoming fantasy titles that I’ve read and feel are worth seeking out for yourselves. These are titles that my students and I liked, a few I’m especially mad for, others my students are mad for, and a few we are all equally mad for. Most would probably work for an upper-middle-grade-fantasy-buff, but a few are very definitely YA.  That all said, here you are, in no particular order:

Already Published

Coming Soon

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Literary Feral Children

Reading this Roger Moorhouse piece on the eighteenth century German feral child, Peter of Hanover, reminded me of Victor of Aveyron who showed up a few decades later in France and became a tabla rasa for thinkers of the period as they contemplated what it meant to be human.  And then I started thinking about literary feral children and, especially, the mad crushes I had on two of them.  Yes, I confess that as a young reader Mowgli and Peter Pan made my heart race. I found those two feral boys to be brave, headstrong, and delightfully free, free, free.  But as I tried to think of more recent feral children in children’s fiction I came up short. A search came up with this broad list which included Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins and Jane Yolen’s Passenger, but that seemed to be it.  Can you think of others?

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Jack Zipes on Recent and Forthcoming Fairy Tale Films

The films that have impressed me a very great deal are the ones I discuss in the last chapter of my book: Jan Svankmajer’s “Little Otik”; “Pan’s Labyrinth” is also absolutely brilliant; and Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall” — a remarkable, colorful, unbelievable fairy-tale film. All of these, by the way, are live action. [I also like] “How to Train Your Dragon,” which is a lovely animated fairy tale. Totally — not anti-Disney — but not like the Disney animated fairy-tale forms.

From this very interesting interview with fairy tale maven Jack Zipes. (via surlalune)

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Camilla Salander Redux

Last year, after finishing Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest I wondered about Camilla Salander, Lisbeth’s twin. Yesterday, thanks to commenter destiny, I went searching and came across this in the Guardian’s report on Larrson’s friend Baksi’s recent talk.

The fourth novel by Stieg Larsson, author of the 30m-selling Millennium Trilogy, is 70% complete, strongly features Camilla Salander, the twin of the series’ protaganist Lisbeth, and is set “between Ireland, Sweden and the US”, according to Larsson’s former colleague Kurdo Baksi.

However, the article goes on to point out that Larrson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, who has the disputed draft, claims it is far less complete.

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Some Great Adult Listening Books

I live in a city and haven’t driven in a million years so I only began listening to books when I figured out that I could do so while running. While slow of foot I’m a speedy reader and have discovered that certain books work better than others listening-wise. I think one reason is that I can’t skim, can’t dash through it as I usually do when reading, and so if the book doesn’t grab me at the sentence level I drift and stop paying attention. Another important element is the narrator and I now understand when people talk with avid enthusiasm about individuals they like.Finally, a well-realized setting and a tantalizing plot (mysteries seem especially appealing in this form) also work well for me.  That said, here are a few adult titles that I’ve found especially pleasurable. Hope you add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Charles Portis’s True Grit. Excellent. Donna Tartt’s narration and essay (written originally as an introduction to a 2005 edition) are also both terrific. Thanks to the Coen brothers and the various recent articles on Portis for drawing my attention to the book. I think because I was so NOT a John Wayne fan back when the earlier movie came out nor, especially, a Western fan, I somehow missed this book completely.
  • John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.  I read this many years ago and decided to revisit it after being in New Orleans in June, this time by listening to it. It was SUPERB. In fact, I think I appreciated the sentence level writing even more today than I did years ago. The way Toole uses language is outstanding. And for me, Ignatius J. Reilly, is one of the all-time great characters in literature. I can only imagine what he’d have to say about such IM speech as OMG.
  • Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  I’m a huge Dickens fan, but had avoided this title because I didn’t think I wanted to read about the French Revolution.  Boy, was I wrong.  I was sobbing so much at “It is a far better thing I do…” part that I had to stop running and sit on a bench till it was over.  (I’ve listened to a bunch of Dickens’ titles and they are pretty much always excellent. The only one I’ve taken a break from and I do plan to finish it eventually is Dombey and Son.)
  • Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.  Surprisingly wonderful. After listening to it I wrote:  “I believe it is the ur-country-house-British-mystery. I loved the different narrators, I loved the plotting, the settings, the characters — tremendous all around.” I also recommend for listening The Woman in White.
  • Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian.  Since I’m part of a literary sub-culture (Carrollians) that overlaps those who love Holmes, I totally got this book. Moore captures the intensity of literary society types very well and generally created an entertaining story.  Went on to listen to a bunch of the original stories, including A Study in Scarlet (which I inadvertently began with the second part and was mighty puzzled about all the Mormon stuff until I figured out my error).

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Back to School Books

Instead of teachers teaching you to make things,
The bad school teachers teach you how to break things:

That’s from “Nasty School” one of two poems by the one and only Shel Silverstein featured in today’s New York Times Book Review, part of their special Back to School section. There are a bunch of worthwhile reviews including (shameless self-promotion) one on a new Marissa Moss series by me.

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My Return to Sierra Leone: Stranded on the Sierra Leone River

From our intrepid leader, Amadu Massally:

47 Americans and 8 Sierra Leoneans Stuck


…in the Sierra Leone River and thereby discovered Friends of Sierra Leone Island.  This is newsworthy and in fact book-worthy.  The SL River, being the largest natural harbor in Africa (and 3rd largest in the World) holds hostage 47 Americans.

On Thursday June 23rd, I had the opportunity to take 47 Americans and 8 of us Sierra Leoneans to Bunce Island.  We used a ‘Pampah’ (local boat) rented from the most popular boat transportation company in Freetown today, Pelican, to travel the route as our American friends most of them former or Returned Peace Corps and Current Peace Corps volunteers wanted the authentic experience.  There were a few parents of current Peace Corp Volunteers among us.

So I led the tour of Bunce Island and we had a good time.  On the way back however, with two Captains from the reputable company, we got stuck on a sandbar (think dirt bar in this case).  And very quickly, by the time most people jumped out to push, the water went from knee deep to ankle to dry, dry…

I do not want to tell the rest of the story just yet, because it will be written by a few people I hope, in an article sooner rather than later.

But I wanted to share one of the photos and felt obliged to introduce what may have turned out to be the most memorable experience of the Friends of Sierra Leone return to the country for their own 50th Birthday of the program in SL and worldwide.  Arguably, even more so than meeting with President Koroma.

****

Here are three more photos from me, Monica (and I was one of the last off the boat, I admit, as I feared greatly messing up my sad knees and back jumping down and trying to get back in):

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Middle-Grade Favorites

Stacy over at Welcome to my Tweendom has asked:

So, I have a question that I ‘ve been wondering about for the past while.  I’ve been thinking deeply about tween reads and what makes them great.  I’ve also been thinking about the idea of tween / middle grade as a category.  My question(s) to you are as follows…What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of the past 10 years (and why).  What is your favourite middle grade/tween read of ALL time (and why)?

Since I teach 4th grade I’m smack dab in the middle of that tween/middle grade group* all the time and figured it would be easy to answer Stacy’s question.  But actually, it is hard.  First of all, no way can I do just one. Secondly, I have very particular tastes which mean my favorites are not necessarily the most popular among the intended age group (and they are mostly novels).  That said, I couldn’t resist coming up with a FEW (of many I’m having to leave out) favorite titles to help Stacy.

For her first part of her question (although I’m cheating as several of these are more than ten years old):

  • Rita Williams-Gracia’s One Crazy Summer because Delphine’s voice is spot-on and all three sisters are beautifully rendered.  The sentence-level writing is gorgeous and I love the way Williams-Garcia tells history, but doesn’t overdo it.  Yes, it is a time and place many readers are unfamiliar with, but she keeps the story of the sisters and their mother front and center.
  • Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it is captivating, original, and set within a place that is very familiar to middle-grade readers.  Trying to untangle the mystery even as Miranda tries to is right up their alley.  The writing is clear, accessible, and elegant — I think it is a book that will stand the test of time, an instant classic.
  • Kate Dicamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux because it is beautifully written, moving, funny and still works well for this age group.  I read it aloud last year for the first time in years and it was as fresh as ever.
  • Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Cosmic is a recent favorite.  I’ve read this aloud for the past four years and will probably again this year.  Kids of both genders love this book and often go read it again on their own.  The kids, their relationships with each other, the thoughtful-but-not-heavy-handed exploration of what it means to be a father, the fun aspects of preparing and experiencing space travel, and Liam’s emotional growth (moving into his physical growth) works beautifully for this age group.
  • Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.  These are both unique and absolutely riveting reads.  I’m listing both because as of this writing Wonderstruck isn’t out yet and so I have not yet seen middle grade readers engage with it. However, I have seen kids over the years read with great pleasure Hugo Cabret and had a great time reading it aloud to them last year.
  • More than ten years old is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which may be for the stronger readers in the age range, but nothing beats it for a fun and exciting adventure.  The books may go up in age range as the series goes on, but this first one feels solidly middle grade to me.
  • Also more than ten years old is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; creepy indeed, but for those middle grade kids who like spooky this one is terrific.
  • Jon Sciezcka’s Science Verse or Knucklehead, can’t decide, but he’s got an instinctual feel for a particular sense of humor that works perfectly for this age group.
  • Another more-than-ten-years title is Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, still my favorite of all his books. It is moving, hysterically funny in spots, and disturbing too.

And for the second part — my all-time favorite?  There I can go with just one,  E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  I’ve been teaching it since 1990 and I’m just more wowed by it every year.  As are the kids.  The writing, the themes, the characterizations, it is one of the most perfect books ever.

*I’d define it as grades 4-6 more or less.

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Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman