Archive for the ‘Society-Challenging’ category

Fantasy Election ’12

April 26th, 2012

MTV and PolitiFact are teaming up with a game to educate future voters (and maybe currently registered ones) about the candidates and the electoral process. PolitiFact explains it here and the game site is here. Thanks to Mr. Vales for the recommendation.

Poligraft – Tracking financial influence in politics

December 2nd, 2011

I recommend the Congress app for Android, iPhone, and Windows phones. It’s a very handy tool to stay informed about what your elected officials are doing.

While on Sunlight’s website, I found Poligraft, a site that helps you track financial influence in politics. You find an article online and paste in the URL or the selected text. The site then searches the article for political names and organizations. On the side of the screen it highlights those names and shows either how much money that politician has received from which organization or how much the organization has donated to politicians.

It can help you track influence when sifting out bias (which helps students meet standard 1.2.4 from the AASL’s Standards for 21st Century Learners).

Click here to learn where Sunlight gets its data.

Kizuna: Fiction for Japan – A Charity Anthology

October 5th, 2011

In March of this year, Japan was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. Rebuilding efforts are still in progress. One of the easy ways that you can help is by picking up a copy of Kizuna: Fiction for Japan. It’s an anthology of short stories from 75 different authors. The royalties from the sale will go towards care for children orphaned by the disasters.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

September 12th, 2011

If you read my review of Matched, you’ll know that I’m starting to get worn out by my favorite genre. I love dystopian sci-fi, but, like eating Hot Pockets for a month, it starts to get old.

With that in mind, Divergent had to work really hard for me to get over preconceived notions. Yes, there were maniacal government workers. Yes, there was a secret the protagonist had to hide on penalty of death. Where Divergent exceeds, though, is in what Veronica Roth did not do.

Tris did not have to choose between her childhood friend and the wild, mysterious boy. The development between her and Four is paced really well. The other boy that tries to make advances is awkward and almost provides a little comic relief.

So yes, many of the plot elements have been done before, and done recently (I could have sworn I’ve seen that ending before), but it’s still a fun story. Dystopian sci-fi used to be my favorite genre, but now the plotlines are very, very similar. There were still parts that caught me off guard, which is why I can give it my recommendation. The Dauntless scenes were great and I loved what Roth had to say about life. It was every jumping off of a train or diving into a simulation that kept me going.

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.

Matched by Ally Condie

March 25th, 2011

Dystopian stories are popular right now. You would think that would make me excited, the abundance of super-controlling societies being overthrown by the underdog. I love The Giver, Uglies, and all their Fahrenheit 451-esque classic cousins.

But once Hunger Games (another of my favorites) made it big, publishers began taking in Katniss clones like they were loveable wizards vampires zombies.

Matched by Ally Condie does follow some of the genre formula. The utopia promises a perfect existence (utopias are notorious for this) and main character Cassia has to break from what she has always known and forge a new path into the larger world around her.

There is the love triangle. One boy, the one the government matches her with to marry, is a childhood friend and a great guy. The other is an Aberration and is only introduced as a matching glitch. Cassia is torn and spends most of the book sorting this out.

It’s told from first-person perspective and I don’t think it would work any other way. There are not big action scenes. There are no hoverboard fights, crazy sled rides, or rats attached to her face. (The rats? 1984. Read it, kids.) The most physical activity from the protagonist is to go on a hike.

What grabs your attention is the person vs. self conflict. Cassia progressively realizes that the government actually has only a tiny thread of control over society. Even though I love books with cool machines, the technology in Matched is very subtle. Like in The Giver, there are pills for residents to take. Unlike The Giver, residents are given a choice. This adds to the suspense since there are some pills that no one has taken before. Cassia risks swallowing a lethal dosage.

The characterization in Matched is great. The parents are believable and work as a good team. My favorite scene is when Cassia realizes just how human and mortal her parents are. This is a big moment in anyone’s life.

Ally Condie did a great job creating a believable world. If you want a romance story with a tinge of sci-fi, Matched is a good choice. Crossed, book two, comes out this November.

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.

The Limit by Kristen Landon

February 9th, 2011

When you read stories like reporter Dan Harris going undercover to buy a child slave for $150, books like The Limit stick with you.

Main character Matt lives in a family that spends money faster than they earn it. This is a very realistic problem in the United States right now, since as a nation we owe billions of dollars in credit card debt (that’s different from the national debt). In the novel’s alternate future, the government has set up work houses for children to work as slaves to pay off their family’s debt. The children fight an uphill battle as every single meal they eat, item of clothing they wear, bed they sleep on, are taxed from their paychecks. The facility is hyper-controlled to keep the kids in and working for as long as they can.

It fits that Margaret Peterson Haddix is quoted on the cover. It’s similar to the Shadow Children series in that the children must uncover a deep conspiracy in a mega-organization. Even though it’s a concept we’ve seen before, Landon does a great job with making the children believable. Adding the economic twist was what made the book a winner for me.

It’s another dystopian world, but as long as the real world has injustice we will continue to see these dark warning books that challenge how we live our lives.

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.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

August 27th, 2010

Usually I give some plot points in my reviews but I will deviate from that for Mockingjay. I also try to recommend books for librarians to put on their shelves and this is a no-brainer, so we’ll get that recommendation out of the way.

What I will say is that Mockingjay is dark. Kat has always struggled with the isolation of life in a very tangible way. I love that, even though she may fight it, there are people who are willing to do the right thing to help her out. Yet, the sacrifices that have been made and will need to be made for peace compound in the final book of the trilogy, leaving her trying to figure stuff out on her own.

I’m intrigued to hear more reactions from students about the differences in this book from the other two. There’s no more glamor of the Capitol. There’s no “good guy group, bad guy group”. There’s war.

Mockingjay is a good end to the trilogy, maintaining the themes of the fragility of life and the lingering consequences of choices made. Both concepts were building in the first two books and, when added to Collins’ skillful characterization, we have a lot of emotions riding on the ending.

I enjoyed it. It met my expectations. I’m trying to think which one of the trilogy is my favorite.

Oh, yeah, and Kat ends up with… just kidding. No spoilers here.