Archive for the ‘Drama’ category

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

September 4th, 2011

I have a lot of respect for Kathryn Erskine. It takes quite a bit of skill to write from a first-person perspective when the narrator’s autistic. Mockingbird does not come off as gimmicky or disrespectful and Caitlin’s autism is an extremely engaging way to look at grief and loss.

The book starts with Caitlin staring at her brother’s unfinished Eagle Scout project. Since the story’s from her perspective, I was a little lost as to what was going on. The second chapter came quickly and the audience is able to see Caitlin at a funeral for her brother. She’s trying desperately to figure out what’s going on, why people are saying the things they do, and why her brother is dead.

The Eagle Scout project represents Closure (she capitalizes it because it’s so important) and continuing with life despite an event that hurts an entire community. Seeing it through Caitlin’s eyes is really interesting because she does not understand empathy. As she learns how to feel what others are feeling, we as an audience learn more about what happened to her older brother.

It’s a beautifully simple book that had me growing in empathy alongside Caitlin. The short length of the book helps – too much longer would be too much of a good thing (or too emotionally exhausting, depending on your perspective). I’m excited to booktalk this to students. I don’t think the cover sells the book at all, but it definitely deserves a read.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

June 8th, 2011

I had not read The Wednesday Wars yet, but after finishing Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt at the end of the school year, I brought the book home in my summer hoard.

Okay for Now does not deal with race issues, but it reminds me of the same style as To Kill a Mockingbird in that the second half of the book tackles some pretty difficult issues.

Okay for Now is set in the late 1960’s like Wednesday Wars. We see the town through Doug Swieteck’s eyes as his family moves because his dad switches jobs. Doug runs into trouble at school and the first part of the book is him dealing with bullying, both by students and staff. In real life, Schmidt tested poorly and was tracked into a lower group at school. He could have stayed in that lower group, but a teacher mentored him and helped him with his academics, especially reading. It makes sense, then, that he draws on this experience when Doug is taken in by a teacher who coaches him in reading.

The second half of the book, though, involves Doug’s older brother coming back from Vietnam. There are some huge surprises there, though, so I don’t to give away too many spoilers. The book has a plot, yet most of the fun is hanging out with the characters. They are very believable and I feel like I know them. It may be obvious for those that know me, but I attached to the awesome librarian who is the first friendly interaction Doug has in town. The guy teaches Doug how to draw from Audobon’s Birds of America. The town is tearing out pages from this rare book and selling them to keep the town running. Doug is on a mission to regain the pages in a great metaphor of his own journey to completeness.

I do have have one complaint about the book, but it is a semi-spoiler, so I will put this picture of a paper bag face here so those that don’t want to continue on won’t accidentally read my complaint.

My complaint? The ending. For being a book that delves into spousal abuse, child abuse, veteran trauma, and school corruption, the book resolved way too quickly. Doug’s dad says he’s sorry and then everything’s cool. We just move on, which is really the only option we have, but it seems like a switch was flipped and then everyone decided to get along with each other.

Yes, Schmidt set up some of the changes, but I expected some things to be left unresolved. To my recollection, everything is wrapped up with a nice bow on top. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book; it’s just an observation about style. It’s like how I complain when not enough characters die in a story. The English teacher part of my brain has something wrong with it. Hamlet much?

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

February 28th, 2011

Today I thought I would put up a review of I Am Number Four, check out some books, and help a class with iMovie. I’ve done that, but I also read Love That Dog. I read it in under an hour and while completing those previously mentioned tasks.

Love That Dog is great. It’s a simple story about a boy writing poems in class and his teacher’s reactions. We have to infer her reactions because we’re only getting one side of the story.

The entire book is in verse, which helps make it a quick read. What I especially loved, though, is the inclusion of eight other poems from published authors. The main character makes commentary on each one. My favorite?

…who wrote about
those snowy woods
and the miles to go
before he sleeps –

I think Mr. Robert Frost
has a little
on his

So great. I sometimes see in YA fiction references to other YA works. Avi’s reference to The Outsiders in Nothing but the Truth is a prime example of this. In Love That Dog, the main character reads a poem from Walter Dean Myers. He loves it so much that he writes to Walter Dean Myers to see if he can visit their school. I think I’m just as much of a fanboy as the fictional protagonist and would love for Myers to visit our junior high. (Just like in the book, we have a clean school full of mostly nice kids.)

Love That Dog is a little bit older (it was published in 2001), but if you have it on the shelf and haven’t read it yet, it’s a definite must.

Annexed by Sharon Dogar

January 28th, 2011

Sharon Dogar undertook a huge project and I respect her for that. In Annexed, she attempts to add more perspective to a Holocaust story many people already know. The Diary of Anne Frank is studied in schools across the world and has been turned into a movie multiple times. There are generations of fans who know the intricate workings of the Secret Annex during World War II.

The catch is that those details are mainly from the Franks’s perspective. When I taught it in my 8th grade Language Arts class, my students routinely didn’t like the van Daans (the van Pels in real life). They thought that Hermann van Pels was a villain that should be kicked out on the street, thrown to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the Gestapo.That right there illustrates that we see the characters of the play as merely characters and not real people. (That assumption is on a spectrum of maturity and worldview.)

Annexed is from Peter van Pels’s point of view. Anne is seen as annoying at first and Hermann is a caring, sacrificing father. Many times Peter will say to Anne, “Don’t put this in your diary” to account for why Anne didn’t record it. That gives Dogar some liberty with the dialogue, but one of my complaints is the addition of Liese, a made-up girlfriend for Peter that the author felt was needed to represent the loss Jews felt. It’s realistic to have a girlfriend be called-up, but bugged me that she couldn’t demonstrate the call-ups in another way.

What I was thankful for was that the tension between Margot and Anne, which one Peter would fall in love with, didn’t sink to an Edward/Jacob, Gale/Peeta cliche. The love grows through their times sneaking off to the only places not occupied by the other six people in the Annex and it is helpful to think through what Peter would be feeling. It’s an abstraction and not always fact, but it does add depth to the situation.

The book is told through flashback as Peter is in the sick bay at Mauthausen. From time to time, the narrative breaks to have italicized thoughts from Peter drifting in and out of consciousness.

It’s almost like the book is two books. Up to the point when they are discovered (that shouldn’t be a spoiler), it’s all stuff I knew. (I taught the play at least 15 times and I know there are others who have done it even more than that.) It is a novel, so you expect tension and conflict, but it’s pretty predictable. Where the book did grab me, though, was right when the Gestapo is taking the families to the concentration camps. That’s where Dogar’s research really shines through and makes for an engaging read.

This week we had a World War II veteran speak and his experience liberating Dachau made Peter and Otto’s stay at Mauthausen very relevant.

Like I said at the start, I applaud Sharon Dogar for tackling such a big project. Not only is it a story we know, but it’s of a subject matter that requires precision in writing and respect for the dead. If Annexed ended at the Annex, it would have been a so-so novel. Shining light on the horror of the death camps turned it into a book that I will remember.

How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor

January 7th, 2011

“Sometimes the trail you leave behind you is more important than the path ahead of you.”

How to Steal a Dog is easy to read, yet spoke a challenge into my own life. So often I’m not thankful for what I have and this book, without making me feel guilty, reminded me of how fortunate so many of us are.

Main character Georgina starts out the book soon after her mother, brother, and her are thrown out of their house. They live in their car and have to park it somewhere new every two days so the police won’t hassle them. One day Georgina sees a reward poster for a lost dog and decides to steal a dog and wait for a reward to be offered.

Author Barbara O’Connor does a fantastic job of describing a hard situation without becoming preachy. We’re not guilted into liking Georgina; we care about her and yet we’re able to disagree with her decisions. O’Connor also adds very realistic details about what it’s like to have to take baths in the sink at McDonald’s or wash your clothes in the bathroom at Texaco. The adults are not portrayed as complete morons, which is sometimes a rarity in YA fiction, but the story still depends on the protagonist’s actions.

This book is another quick. enjoyable read. I don’t read that quickly and even I was able to finish it in one day. Definitely worth checking out. Also, if you’re interested in helping people in the same situation as Georgina, you might look at organizations like the House of Refuge or St. Mary’s Food Bank for a place to start.

24,550 students in Arizona were homeless last year.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

June 29th, 2010

I know that this book has been out for a while but I finally had a chance to read it. It’s always on hold at school.

I just finished the book, like, five minutes ago and I’m still reeling. Most students and teachers had alluded to a sad ending, so I expected that. But the way it ended still had suspense for me.

There are a lot of books about World War II out there. Many people are trying to make sense of what happened to so many families. Some think that it was a clear cut-good versus evil with the Axis and the Allies and want the excitement you see in Medal of Honor video games. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has no action scenes whatsoever but I’m willing to bet that once Bruno meets Shmuel, you will be hooked.

Because the issues are so complex it is beautiful that Boyne chose a nine year-old boy as the person to follow. His mispronounciations of key people and places in the Holocaust let the reader know where he’s at but clue us in to his naivete. You’ll probably figure out what he’s talking about early on, but a great scene is when Shmuel draws the symbol he was forced to wear, the Star of David, and Bruno draws the swastika from his dad’s uniform. They talk frankly about which symbol is better and wonder why they’re different.

Saying anything more about the plot will ruin the innocent exploration of a horrible concentration camp. Go read the book, plain and simple.

What I will challenge you to do is research modern day holocausts. Check out Darfur. Look at Rwanda. Get to know Bosnia-Herzegovina.

And then do something.

Arizona has an influx of refugees from war-torn parts of the world. Like Boyne says in his author’s note, there will always be fences like what separated Bruno and Shmuel. I hope that the students I interact with will tear down those fences and not build them up.

Girl to the Core by Stacey Goldblatt

March 8th, 2010

This is proof that I can and do read books that don’t have giant monsters and/or helicopter chases.

Girl to the Core is a simple story of Molly, a high schooler from a strong Irish family. Her mom passed away when she was little, so she has been raised by her dad and her uncles. Molly must stand up to a controlling boyfriend and a pushy best friend and figure out who she is.

This is a similar plot for many books.

But what makes this one stand out is that her boyfriend pushes her too far at the beginning of the book. Most books have this towards the middle to end of the plot arc. By having Trevor be a jerk up front, we now follow Molly on a journey of how to continually stand up to someone (more realistic than a single confrontation) while she redefines herself.

Another perk is Molly’s Irish family. Many different personalities try to give her differing advice on life with the common theme that they care for her. The family members are written in such a way that you want to be a part of their family.

An added bonus to the book is the collection of journal questions at the end of the book. Molly starts to journal and learn more about what she truly believes. Goldblatt gives readers questions to get their journal writing processes started.

This book is a sleeper hit. You won’t see big publicity for it but Girl to the Core is a necessary read for junior high libraries in modeling how to peacefully/respectfully stand up for yourself.

Schooled by Gordon Korman

August 21st, 2009

To call Schooled by Gordon Korman the guy version of Stargirl would be selling it short.

In the same tradition as Son of the Mob and No More Dead Dogs, Gordon Korman delivers another funny book. Cap Anderson has been raised on a commune for his whole life. When his grandmother, his only caretaker, breaks her hip, Cap must go to the local public school and see how the world has changed since the 1960s.

What I liked about the book is that each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. Cap, through his caring attitude towards everyone, changes the school one person at a time (he memorizes every student’s name from the school yearbook).

The especially funny parts are how Cap reacts to things that we take for granted, like lockers and television. He can’t figure out why we can’t share our possessions; he also worries deeply for the people on a teen drama show, hoping that they can sort out their complicated lives.

Schooled is a quick read that will entertain while challenging you to evaluate how you treat other people.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

October 8th, 2008

You need to read it. This will be one of those books people talk about for years. The pacing is amazing: when you have a question, so does the main character. The chapters are just the right length and there’s enough society-challenging that this may end up being a class novel. Great stuff, Suzanne Collins!

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr and Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

March 3rd, 2008

If you haven’t heard from Ally Carter or Standhart yet, you need to read Sweethearts

It’s funny (okay, so it’s a drama) that the book has some plot, but not in a giant way. 

It’s life, and that’s alright. How do we define ourselves? Can we/do we change from junior high to high school and beyond? This is a great follow-up to Story of a Girl. The characters and setting are very believable and the serious issues are dealt with in a respectful, and intriguing, way that doesn’t downplay but also makes it accessible to junior high students.

A first-time novelist, Polly Shulman succeeds with Enthusiasm. Even if  students don’t catch the Pride and Prejudice references, it’s still a fun book. “He said, she said, but does he really mean this?” situations make this a great romantic comedy. 

Librarians – get both of these books. Students – read both of these books. Authors – make more of these books.