Monthly Archives: December 2011

Equity First

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

From Anu Partane’s Atlantic article, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.”

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Coming Soon: T. R. Burns’ The Merits of Mischief

In a recent post Betsy Bird listed a few 2012 middle grade novels she is anticipating among them T. R. Burns’ first book in The Merits of Mischief series. I’m the friend she mentioned  — the publisher sent me the ms to read and I liked it a lot, but hadn’t seen the cover till I saw the ARC at Betsy’s.  (This post by the artist about the evolution of that cover is, to my mind, fascinating.)

It is a school story (yep, another one) a school for “special kids” (yep, yep, one of those), a boarding school story with odd and unusual things (yep, yep, yep), and so forth and so on. Thus it is very much a familiar trope  — the one that gets rid of the parents by putting kids in a school, a school with all sorts of kid wish-fulfillment stuff (food, activities, gadgets, etc).

The main character, Seamus Hinkle, is shipped off to this particular school after his accidental throwing of an apple at a substitute teacher ends up with very, very, very bad results. This school has all sorts of unusual places, things, teachers, students, and a — natch — mystery. There’s a lot going on — the students are all, it turns out, mischief makers, brought there because of their skills in this (some of them equal if not worse than Seamus’s apple-throwing disaster). There’s a bit of James Bond sort of stuff going on as well as a pretty dramatic ending that leaving you wondering as what you thought was true seems not to be. Oh, it is also funny in a dry and wry way. I found it a very entertaining read and am eager to see where Burns takes it.

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Andy Mulligan’s Ribblestrop

I am a big fan of Andy Mulligan’s Trashpublished last year in the United States to very positive reviews. (It also made it through two rounds in last year’s SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books; those elegantly penned decisions are here and  here.)  And now, having just read them, I’m here to report that Mulligan’s other two books, Ribblestrop and Return to Ribblestrop, are just as good (although as of this writing, they have not been published in the US and I don’t know of any plans to do so).  While I had the books on hand for a while it was the latter’s winning the Guardian children’s book prize that spurred me on to read it and then to go on to read the first one. Completely out of order and not recommended as such, but I admit that I quite enjoyed going backwards in learning about the characters and their circumstances.

The two books are part of a projected trilogy set in a most unconventional school, Ribblestrop. And so, yes, this is absolutely a school story and moreso a boarding school story.  There is a school song, uniforms, and so on.  But it is, in every way, a completely unconventional school and school story — there are lovely adults around who care about the students and do help in the end, but are also occasionally cluess. There are also hideous adults around who are out for absolutely no good as far as the children go.  These are serious badies, villains, meanies with no complicating factors to gain sympathy — they are completely and utterly bad, terrifyingly so at points.  More importantly, there are the students who can be considered in two parts.   First of all there is a motley group that includes Millie, a very angry thirteen-year-old and the only girl at the school; Sanchez, the son of a Columbian mobster; Sam, a sweet and vulnerable new boy; Ruskin (and, in the second book, his brother Olie) with his poor vision and smarts; and a few more. The second cohort are the orphans, a group from India, street children it seems (and somewhat related for me to the boys of Trash) who all seem to be incredibly capable at all sorts of things, not a weak one in the bunch.  Mulligan, a veteran international school teacher, on his website, writes of the orphans:

They are from India, with bits of Nepal thrown in. Like Millie, they are fusions of the various children I have met – especially the children I taught in northern India, with a work ethic so intense it was scary. And manners that used to shame my own.

Both books have intense plots; in both the children are put in tremendous peril. There are violent moments, very violent ones where children get seriously hurt.  While the good adults around them (the headmaster and a couple of their teachers) help, it is always the children in the end who save each other, working as a team to do so.  I’m not great at doing plot summaries by and large and with these two books the plots are complex and so I recommend going elsewhere for more specifics (and here to read an excerpt from the second book).

The books also have moments of absolute wonder and delight.  I don’t want to give too much away, but there are some wonderous places around and under the Ribblestrop estate, there is a ghost, there are glorious learning experiences, dramatic football games, remarkable acts of building and creation, wild animals, and delightful meals. Not to mention that they are funny in the best understated sort of way.

The first thing Sam noticed as he pushed open the laboratory door was a large pair of hairy knees sticking out from under a bench. He noticed them because in his exhausted state he tripped over them and, as he was carrying a box full of test tubes, the result was noisy.  (pg 117, Ribblestrop)

To my mind, the best description of the books is this one from Mulligan when accepting the Guardian prize:

“I never expected the Guardian to award such a stonker of a prize to a book that is dangerous, violent, irreverent, politically incorrect, joyously sentimental, anti-adult, pro-child and sometimes bizarre – but I’m very glad they have.

Me too.

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Love and Latkes

Christmas is just around the corner and Hanukkah is in full swing. One writer who manages to successfully consider both is Lemony Snicket, sometimes also known as Daniel Handler. Not so much (or at all to be truthful) in his latest, Why We Broke Up although I urge you all to read that too (if you need to know why and haven’t — blush — already, check out my NYTBR review), but in The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming charmingly illustrated by Lisa Brown. For those who may have missed it last year when I also posted it, here are the two of them presenting the book:

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In the Classroom: Charlie in the New World

As some know I’m a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and last year I brought him into my classroom for a year-long study.  We spent months studying this wonderful silent film artist before creating a film in his style.  Since we also do an in-depth study of the Pilgrims we had our Charlie travel on the Mayflower to the New World.  Unfortunately, because we used some background images that we aren’t sure of in terms of copyright I can’t put the whole thing here for you to see, but I can show you some excerpts to give you a taste.

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This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review

I’m going to be offline for the next few days and so wanted to give you all a heads-up that there will be children’s and YA book reviews in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review and one of them is mine.  I’m quite proud of it, I must say.

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Be Happy

The various writers of obituaries and recognitions for Russell Hoban have done a fine job of showing his range — everything from the delightful Bedtime for Frances to the dystopic Ridley Walker to my personal favorite, The Mouse and his Child.  This last is an enigma of a book. I’ve read bits aloud, but never the whole thing and in my many years of teaching have rarely recommended it to a child. Still I love it — whether the edition illustrated by Lillian Hoban or the more recent one by David Small.  It is about family, of bonds between parent and child, about philosophy, the world, art, and everything else.  And it ends on Christmas.

The tramp saw father and son with their family and friends about them.  He saw The Last Visible Dog in all the brightness of its lights against the night; he heard the singing and merriment inside; and he smiled and spoke to the mouse and his child for the second time.

“Be happy,” said the tramp.

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