A new movie adaptation?

I read some interesting news today. It seems that Danny Devito is preparing to start production on a movie based on The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  Charlotte was one of my favorite characters as a kid, so I am very excited!  I think the story will make a great movie and will also turn a new generation onto Avi’s older works.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Danny DeVito will direct Saoirse Ronan, Morgan Freeman and Pierce Brosnan in the family adventure “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.”  Filming is set to begin in September for 2009 release.

Summer Literacy Packets and Summer Reading

At the end of the school year I handed out a Summer Literacy Packet to my students.  I told my students it was completely voluntary, and I am very happy to say that a few of my students have been sending me weekly emails detailing their progress.  And come August I expect a few more to pop their notebooks in the mail to me.  It’s been awesome being able to continue our literacy dialogue through the summer months and I am enjoying the deeper conversations we have been having over email.  But today I received a letter essay from one of my students that only further fueled my anger with required summer reading lists.

This particular student is a very strong reader, and an avid one.  She is currently reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  (Three of the six books on our summer reading list are classics).  The email I received from her today broke my heart.  This girl loves to read and shouldn’t be forced to read a book that she is hating.  All year long I preached choice, choice, choice.  I taught my students to choose books on their level, and to be aware when books are not on their level.  Tom Sawyer needs a good deal of scaffolding for 7th graders, and that scaffolding can’t happen over the summer, when students are on their own.

I want to share a few quotes from her letter:

Today, I read chapters 15 and 16 in Tom Sawyer.  So far I rate this book a three out of ten.  this book is really boring and I do not understand it.  Every chapter talks about something different then the last chapter.  It doesn’t flow very well.  It also shocks me that it is considered a classic because I am not enjoying it.  I expect more from a classic than this book has to offer

Is this how we want to introduce the classics, the canon of English literature to our students?  How long will this attitude stay with these student?

Also, they talk in old southern accents and use older words and use old fashioned tools and devices.  Finally, it is boring because the print is small, it is hard to read, the characters are boring, the adventures are boring, and basically the whole book is boring.

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!  This should not be happening!  The vocabulary is difficult, the accents are hard to decipher, and a lot of the “adventures” require a good deal of historical background knowledge.  All things students are not being supported with during summer reading.  Ridiculous!

I would recommend this book to no one except older people from the South.  This book is boring and a waste of time.  I can’t wait to finish this book and be done with the required summer reading!

The only thing these required reading lists is doing is making our students despise the classics.  There is nothing wrong with the classics, but forcing students to read them independently, without the background knowledge and support they require is practically cruel.  It really is a shame.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a modern-day thriller, akin to 1984 . To be honest, I enjoyed Little Brother a great deal more than 1984 ! The story is action-packed, with thrills around every corner. It’s also extremely frightening, set in not-so-far-off future. You spend much of the novel debating whether the setting is now, 5 years from now, or a hundred years from now. It is so very realistic, with references to the life and times of most world citizens today, but you want more than anything for the story to be from the far-off future. Otherwise, it is too frightening. Doctorow has written a rousing call to arms for a new generation, warning them that giving up their freedom can sometimes be more frightening than the alternative.

nullMarcus is a geek and a typical teenage kid. He loves computers, programming, and hacking. Nothing major, just fun stuff. What he really loves is his online/real world computer game. He and his friends have formed a team and are competing in a worldwide scavenger hunt for the grand prize. Unfortunately, a lot of the clues are released during school. And his high school tracks students, butnot just by their computerized schedule. Oh no- there are “gait cameras” that scan your gait and try to match it to known students. Makes skipping class a little harder than normal. Not to mention the software on their school-issued laptops which tracks every keystroke, website visited, and program opened. Luckily, Marcus has figured out a way around most of the technology employed by the school.

When he and his friends cut class one day, they end up on the streets of San Francisco during the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by the United States- the Bay Bridge explosion. Picked up in the aftermath, Marcus is treated as a hostile enemy combatant and interrogated in a secret prison off the coast, all because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he is finally released, practically under threat of death, he realizes that San Francisco has been turned into a police state, under the control of the Department of Homeland Security. When Marcus decides to fight back and save his city, he uses his technology skills to help his peers work around the new laws and regulations put into place by the new Patriot Act.

This is not an easy book to summarize. So much happens, and so much of it is very difficult to read. It clearly based on current events and Doctorow has written a call-to-arms for a new generation of teens (and adults). What are we willing to sacrifice for our safety? Do terrorists succeed when they fill our daily lives with terror? Is the safety of all more important than the privacy and rights of one? These are tough questions, and the book will leave you thinking long after you put it down.

The book also has fantastic crossover appeal. I see it being a big hit with adults and teens alike. I wouldn’t recommend it any lower than 8th grade, honestly, due to some true-to-life teen sex scenes. However, I think high schoolers will devour this book. It will also make for some great discussions!

Mulling things over

Count on a review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow tomorrow.  I literally just put it down, but I need some time to digest it.  Know this though- I loved it.  And I wish it had been in print when I was in high school.  I plan to tell all of my techie high school classmates about it.  I just need more time to mull over the ideas and the afterwords.

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

Last night I had trouble falling asleep. I place the blame for this entirely on Mary Hooper’s creepy novel, Newes from the Dead, which I finished right before bed. Just look at that cover! It’s enough to give you nightmares!

The entire time you are reading Newes from the Dead you have the chills. You know, those involuntary shudders that take over your body, making it hard to turn the pages?

Anne Green is a servant girl in 17th century England. Her family is poor, so she lives in the big house a few villages away. While life is not easy, she is content. She even has a suitor, young John the blacksmith. However, when the teenage son of her master begins flirting and making promises to her, she is flattered and sometimes even flirts back a bit. However, she knows he is only being silly, until the day that he makes an unwanted advance against her. He promises her that he loves her and will raise her up to new heights…he will even make her a lady! All she has to do is give him the one thing he wants. It’s just a silly little thing, not even an issue. He fills her head with promises and wild dreams, and she succumbs. However, this begins a torrid one-sided affair, which she immediately regrets. There is no passion, no sweetness, no love in their encounters. Her young master continues making promises, and is also very jealous of her suitor, John. She is forced to break John’s heart when she ends their relationship. Only days later, when her young master, Geoffrey, heads back to school, Anne discovers she is pregnant.

Though she tries to eliminate the pregnancy, knowing that the stain of losing her virginity will forever humiliate her and her family, she is not successful. She is determined to hide the pregnancy until Geoffrey comes home, when she will tell him and he will set things right. This thought keeps her content, until Geoffrey does come home, but not alone. He has brought his new bride-to-be and Anne realizes he is a liar and she is doomed.

All of this would make a wonderful book on it’s own. However, it doesn’t stop there! When Anne gives birth to a stillborn, premature baby alone in an outhouse, she is discovered and accused of infanticide. When she tells her master that his son is responsible for her condition, she ends up in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder. Anne is a simple girl, who believes that the truth will prevail and she will be set free. She is naive and trusting, unaware that Master Reade is a magistrate and holds her fate in his hands.

Anne is found guilty and hung for her crimes. Her body is donated to science for dissection, as is the normal custom for the poor. However, her story only begins there. When the doctors begin the dissection, it is discovered that she is alive!

The story is told in alternating chapters by Anne, in a coma of sorts, reliving her experience, and by Robert, a scholar with a stammer who is struggling with his own views of life and death.

I can not accurately describe the creepiness of this book. Mary Hooper has captured a perfect voice for Anne, and you really do believe you are right alongside her when she begins to awaken in her coffin. You feel for her and are outraged by the rash judgement of the judge and jury in her trial. It seems hundreds of women were prosecuted for infanticide in the past, because proving they had not killed their newborn was harder than saying they had!

Even creepier is the fact that Anne’s story is true. Mary Hooper includes a great author’s note and even a copy of one of the pamphlets made announcing Anne’s miraculous resurrection.

This is a great book for reluctant YA readers. It deals a lot with sex, so I am not sure I would recommend it lower than 8th grade, but I could definitely see it being used in high school history classes. It is very high interest, fast-paced, and frightening!

Summer Reading continued

Thanks to everyone for the great responses to my summer reading rant!  I am so glad to see that I am not the only person who is upset with the static, stagnant lists handed out by too many schools across the country.  I am also thrilled to hear from so many others that their districts are not like that. I love hearing about what is and isn’t working in your schools.

There are a lot of great ideas being kicked around in the blogosphere right now.  I think we, as bloggers, are in a prime position for affecting change when it comes to summer reading lists.  I am thrilled by the passion and ideas that my rant seemed to dredge up.  I am looking forward to working on a few of these ideas and seeing if we can make enjoyable summer reading an important part of growing up!

Summer Reading Rant

Over the last few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of questions from friends and family regarding summer reading. Many a parent has placed a list of 5-6 preselected books in front of me saying, “Which of these should my child read? Which one will be the least painful? Which one will help us actually enjoy our summer instead of making it erupt into a mass of screaming and fighting parents and children?!”

Ok, maybe those aren’t their exact words. But the look of fear in their eyes says more than their words ever can. And that’s a lot of pressure!

Yet, inevitably, the list that I am handed is dated, frought with “classics”, and BORING!

I do the best I can, pointing out books that the student can probably enjoy, but it’s usually a difficult task. Most of these summer reading lists look like they have not been updated in over a decade. And while I am all for kids reading the classics, like The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and Gulliver’s Travels , I am not sure summer reading is the place for them.

Most of the classics require a good deal of scaffolding- the vocabulary is difficult, the situations are usually unfamiliar, and the context of the stories has not always been explained. While these novels can certainly be enjoyed by rising 7th and 8th graders (the lists I usually see them on), without that scaffolding they do not enjoy or even necessarily understand the books! All too often I see students reading the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition of the story, slamming the book shut at the end, and calling it a day. That’s it! They consider themselves well-read and some will even make it to college telling those around them that they have “read all the classics”. Yes, the abridged, illustrated versions! Are we really doing them any service at all by requiring these books as summer reading when students will not get the support that need and might even be turned off to these books for the rest of their lives?

And if the lists don’t consist of 5 classics, they are made up of middle grade or YA novels published 10, 20, 30, maybe even 50 years ago. And the choices are few- maybe 4 books of which the students must choose two. And worst of all, they all seem the same to me! There is no diversity, the books are not high-interest, and heaven forbid we include ANY YA or newer middle grade novels. Not to say that the books on these lists are bad- in fact, it is just the opposite. It seems like someone, somewhere along the line, grabbed a list of award-winning books, looked for a few that were age-appropriate, and then put them on the summer reading list. The problem is that that list hasn’t been updated since then! Most of these books have great literary merit but they don’t always “fit” the reader. In fact, when you only offer 5 books, very few of those will fit the majority of your readers! The problem with only allowing students to choose from older award-winners is that they see these awards as old and stale, not at all relevant to their lives. They don’t even realize that books written this year will be up for the 2009 Newbery or Printz award. In fact, I would venture to guess most students don’t realize those awards are still given out today!

Summer is the time for students to expand their reading horizons. They should be reading all those books they didn’t get to read during school because of their homework, sports, and activities schedules. When we force them to read what we deem to be worthy literature, we all to often force them to hate the books, and by association, hate reading.

This is my plea to administrators, teachers, media specialists, and parents- revamp your summer reading lists! The best decision would be to do away with specific required books while letting students choose their own reading material during the summer. But if this is not a reasonable request, then I beg of you-update those stale summer reading lists! Put together a committee of well-read teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Have them come up with the list. And no list should be stagnant. It should be alive, and it should be allowed to change as the years go by.

Even better? Make up a suggested summer reading list and include the reasons why each particular book was placed on the list. Or just have each teacher from the next grade choose a book and write a quick paragraph explaining why they are recommending that book. This allows rising students to become familiar with each teacher’s personality through their choice of book(s). This will also ensure a varied list. I would be willing to bet you would see classics right alongside newer books, award winners next to beach reads. And the students would see that each teacher values reading in a different way, just like them! Some teachers would recommend fiction, others non-fiction. You would see a variety of genres. And a list like this could easily be updated each year!

Summer reading should not be a time of torture, arguing, and cheating (I’m talking to you, movie-watchers and Sparknotes-readers!). Summer reading should be fun and enjoyable. It should allow students to try new books, read the latest in their favorite series, or try out those great classics. Without any pressure. It shouldn’t be miserable. I firmly believe that miserable summer reading experiences are just one of the reasons we are raising a generation of bookhaters instead of booklovers.

For some of my favorites (and some that I recommended to my classes at the end of the year), check out my Amazon store here.

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