Archive for the ‘Historical’ category

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

December 2nd, 2011

Selznick’s Wonderstruck is in the same style as his Hugo Cabret. The massive illustrations contribute significantly to the narrative, although Wonderstruck switches it up a bit. For most of the novel, the text follows Ben, a young orphan in 1977 as he tries to find his father. The pictures, though, are of a young girl in 1927 running away from home. The two plotlines mirror each other in engaging ways and, since one is in text and the other pictures, Selznick can jump back and forth between time periods without too much trouble.

The book explores Deaf culture (lower case “d” is the condition, upper case is the culture) in two different eras. One thing I never really thought about before was that, during the silent movie era, both hearing and nonhearing audiences could enjoy the movie just the same. Once theaters added “talkies”, a whole people group was left out.

Side note: did you know that some movies offer captioning? Check out to search for captioned movie showings in your area.

The book moves quickly, although it feels like there is more text in Wonderstruck than Hugo. I also missed the photos from movies that Hugo had. We do get to meet Lillian Mayhew, an actress from the 1920s that went through personal scandals in Hollywood. We also learn about some of the inner workings of museums around New York.

It’s one to check out. I finished it within a 24-hour period. I really enjoyed seeing a Star Wars poster in the background of one of the drawings, since the book takes place the summer of 1977. One thing you’ll have to look for when you read it: all of the references to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai

November 3rd, 2011

This is a simple story on the outside that has a lot fine nuances in the way it’s told that make it a great story. Fadi and his family live in Afghanistan right before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The Taliban has gone from being the heroes who liberated the people from warlords to being the warlords. Fadi’s father is asked to join the Taliban, the father says no, and the family knows that they must leave quickly because no one tells the Taliban no.

Even though I knew ahead of time that the little sister would be left behind (that’s in the cover synopsis, so I’m not ruining much), it’s how Senzai tells it that makes it emotionally jarring. It’s third-person perspective limited to Fadi’s viewpoint. A middle schooler is not as naive as an elementary school student, but still doesn’t know all of the details of what danger awaits his family.

Fadi is able to make it to the United States and struggle with the traditional middle grade conflict of dealing with bullies. What sets this apart in Shooting Kabul, though, is that Senzai shows how bullying increased after the World Trade Center attacks. The types of slurs the bullies use are the exact same I heard uttered in 2001. Only once did the dialogue seem a little far-fetched: a janitor yells, “You ruffians!” It took a serious scene, where Fadi is alone and jumped by bullies, and made me laugh, which is not the reaction I wanted.

The photography aspect of the story is interesting. You can tell that either Senzai is a photographer or has done her research. Fadi’s father gives advice on how to take better photos that readers could apply to their own photos immediately.

Like I said at the start, Shooting Kabul is a simple story. There are no car chases, no life-threatening illnesses, and the controlling government is not the main antagonist. The book does have realistic interactions between Fadi and his family. Fadi’s motivation, winning a photo contest to travel across the world to find his sister, runs throughout the entirety of the story and never lets us forget just why we like Fadi.

Spies of Mississippi by Rick Bowers

July 23rd, 2011

I’m always on the lookout for nonfiction for my junior high students. Examples like Lost Boy, Lost Girl are fantastic and make me order multiple copies, which is a good problem to have.

Spies of Mississippi by Rick Bowers is another great nonfiction history for my students. It’s an overview of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The commission was a semi-secret agency created by the state of Mississippi with the sole purpose of keeping the state segregated (the races separate). That’s the whole “Sovereignty” part. Just like in the Civil War, the state was saying that its rights were being infringed by the Federal government.

The commission’s files are finally online. You can look through them here. It’s crazy that a government group was spying on citizens. Agents would show up to civil rights meetings, pretend to be supporters, and start writing down plans, addresses, and license plates. The government tracked movements of activists in a giant database. It’s like they were fighting the Soviet Union, but it was against United States citizens – people the government should be protecting.

The book walks through the history of the commission and puts a personal face to the issues through interviews and photos. It’s a very quick read, less than 100 pages, and is more than just a listing of facts and dates. It’s well worth your read. As the author points out, most of this stuff is a historical footnote, but the minute we forget, that’s when it happens all over again.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret Movie Trailer

July 15th, 2011

Every time I booktalk Hugo Cabret, I always say each page is like a movie storyboard. The pacing of the 540+ page picture book is amazing.

Well, now it’s going to be a movie for real:

It stars Jude Law, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee (Saruman/Count Dooku), and is directed by Martin Scorsese. Those are some big names. It looks exciting.

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?

True Grit by Charles Portis

May 18th, 2011

Brace yourself. I am about to say something un-American:

I have not seen either True Grit movie.

I fully expect John Wayne to ride up on horseback and punch me. I accept the consequences.

Chalk it up to my age, but I have never been one for Westerns. That’s stuff for my dad and grandpa. I am a product of post-Space Race entertainment. Star Wars and Star Trek are my visions of wild frontiers. Westerns sometimes are downright uncomfortable with their portrayal of non-White races and other times just seem so boring.

Then I watched Firefly.

Yes, I had heard Han Solo labeled a space cowboy, but it wasn’t until I saw the crew of the Serenity stroll around in dusters and laser revolvers that I finally showed an interest in Westerns. I wanted to learn more about Joss Whedon’s inspiration for the series and that led me to Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. This is a great book if you haven’t read it and makes the Civil War come alive.

But what about Western fiction? Sure, I could watch a Western movie. Who doesn’t like The Magnificent Seven? But could I sit down and read a Western?

Thankfully, I began my experiment with True Grit by Charles Portis.

This book does not need me to recommend it. This one’s a classic. When older teachers hear me talking about it, they’re like, “Well, yeah!” So, older readers, you can sit back and enjoy your wisdom accrued over the years. This review is for the younger crowd.

Main character Mattie is a teenage girl on her own in the world attempting to right a wrong. This screams of YA fiction, so I don’t know why it hasn’t been pushed recently in secondary libraries. Mattie’s father was killed by the man he was trying to help. The killer, Tom Chaney, will probably be lost in the system and escape punishment. Mattie recruits washed-up Marshal Rooster Cogburn as her hired gun to track down Chaney. Portis will have to forgive me that, as I read, I pictured Haymitch from The Hunger Games as Cogburn.

I think a teen reader will appreciate the story, although the rising action part of the plotline does take a little bit as Mattie is trying to get Cogburn to help her. Those scenes develop Mattie as a character and show where she can hold her own with any adult, but they’re not action-packed. Her characterization is right up there with Katniss and Tally Youngblood. Some critics will try to convince you that Mattie is like Huck Finn.

Sure. They’re both:

  1. Young
  2. Fast-talking
  3. Southerners

But if I were going out into the badlands to hunt down a crew of killers, I would never take Huckleberry Finn with me. He’d be more likely to chew loudly on some straw, pull a prank out of boredom, and get us both killed. Mattie has the determination and purpose that makes for a strong female protagonist. (Yes, I do understand that Katniss and Tally get whiny. They’re not uber-heroes. They’re human.)(Well, fictional humans.) Huck Finn is more about fate and where The River will take you.

Get True Grit by Charles Portis. It’s worth the read, even if you’re not a big Western fan. Now that I’ve finished, I plan on getting the new version of True Grit on Netflix. The reviews have said that it stays pretty closely to the book.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl by John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech

February 14th, 2011

Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan is a nonfiction retelling of two people’s escape from war-torn Sudan.

Civil war has been going off and on in Sudan since the 1950s. In the early 80s, though, violence intensified and millions of Sudanese people were removed from their homes (the death toll from the fighting is two million). Two kids that fled were John and Martha. Both were separated from their parents and had to rely on the kindness of others to survive.

The book alternates between those two narrators. What makes their story that much more compelling is that they don’t exaggerate their story to make it more exciting. There are no embellishments, just straight facts. In one chapter, John describes what it’s like to choose to swim in a river infested with crocodiles because men in Jeeps are shooting at the refugee children. Martha describes life on miles worth of road as she takes care of her three year-old sister. Martha was six at the time.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan is a necessary read. Not only is it informative, but it is challenging. As much as we hear complaints about the United States, it was encouraging to hear both refugees say, “We need to get to America” to try and start a new life. That safe-haven is a reminder of what makes the United States such a great place to live.

John Dau is now an activist for health care in Sudan and has his own foundation that set up a clinic to help the people of his hometown. You can click here to learn more.

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.

Guest Speaker: Captain Jack Nemerov

January 25th, 2011

“When we’re called upon to sacrifice ourselves, we go in and do it. It’s that simple.”

With those words, World War II veteran Jack Nemerov started telling our students what it was like to prepare for something you can never prepare for.

Nemerov recounted conflicts that he had with superior officers, friendships that he made with people of diverse backgrounds, and the solemn nervousness felt by a boat full of soldiers seeing Omaha Beach for the first time. You can bet the students paid attention when he talked about soldiers under his command dying in front of him. For many years, he kept inside what he saw in the war and only in recent years has he started speaking about them in detail.

This is understandable when you hear his story of having to torch cliffside Nazi encampments. His experiences didn’t end there, though. When his squad occupied a BMW factory in Germany, they never expected to find a death camp ten miles away. Dachau was so close that the soldiers could smell the burning ashes in the air. Nemerov was one of the first to go in and make contact with the survivors in the camp. Something that he said really stuck with me: the prisoners were so used to death, they just walked around the corpses. If they kept moving, they could stay alive. That had to be a nightmarish scene to encounter. Nemerov was one of the soldiers who made the people around the camp who “didn’t know” dig ditches and fill them with the dead bodies. For those that would deny the Holocaust, it’s a very real thing that this man saw.

By self-admission, Nemerov is getting older (he’s 93) and he may not be speaking at schools any more. If you get a chance to have a veteran present to your students, take it. One place to start would be places like the Veterans of Foreign War or the Jewish War Veterans association (where Jack Nemerov is from). These stories shouldn’t disappear without another generation hearing it from a primary source and not someone’s second-hand knowledge. Once again, so honored to hear from someone who’s willing to lay it all on the line for his beliefs.

Verb Volley and the History of Oregon Trail

January 21st, 2011

I was reading an article about the history of the Oregon Trail video game and learned that it was the result of two Math teachers and a History teacher being roommates. All three were in their first years of teaching and wanted a way to grab students’ attentions when learning about western expansion in the United States.

They programmed the whole thing in two weeks. That’s what reminded me of Verb Volley, a game I created one Fall Break to help my students review parts of speech.

Here’s my game: