Unbelievable!

Thanks to A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy for this link.

For those of who who did not click on the link (or only skimmed the article), Newsweek is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Anne of Green Gables.  I am a self-professed Anne aficionado.  I grew up reading everything from L.M. Montgomery that I could get my hands on.  Anne was one of my favorite heroines of classic literature, along with L.M. Montgomery’s Emily.  I read the books in each series over and over and over again.  One of my most prized possessions is a first-run copy of the Emily books that belonged to my grandmother.   I still read Anne and Emily’s stories when I want to relax and escape into a comfortable world away from my own.

No one recommended L.M. Montgomery’s books to me.  I found the Anne series on a bookshelf in one of my teacher’s classroom libraries in elementary school.  As I finished the first novel I searched for the second.  Then the third.  And the fourth.  I did the same with the Emily books.  I connected with both girls and their love of life, books, writing, imagination, family, and nature.  They were never extraordinarily popular with my generation, but occasionally I would find a kindred spirit among my peers.  In my own classroom, I recommend L.M. Montgomery’s books to a few of my students who I know will also connect with Anne and Emily.

The article does bring up a few good points.  Why isn’t Anne treated like other classic literature, i.e. the stories of Twain?  It’s most certainly an easier read than much of canon literature, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it on a suggested summer reading list.  Anne is fun, adventurous, and silly!  L.M. Montgomery succeeded in writing a timeless tale of growing up and growing older. The article also points out Anne’s similarities to women and well-known characters today- Carrie Bradshaw and Hilary Clinton, for example.  Another reason teens and adults today would enjoy reading her stories.  But she isn’t hugely popular.

However, one paragraph in the article made me absolutely furious.

That “Anne” has survived so long—and, with 50 million copies sold, so strong—is a small miracle considering the state of young-adult literature. It’s rare to find a best seller with a strong heroine anymore, in large part because, although girls will read books about boys, boys won’t go near a girl’s book, no matter how cool she is. Even in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, the strong, grounded Bella is willing to chuck it all for the love of her vampire boyfriend. “The literary smart girl is still showing up in literature, but she’s often the sidekick,” says Trinna Frever, an “Anne of Green Gables” scholar. “It is a reflection of a culture that’s placing less value on intelligence, and also treating intelligence as a stigmatized quality.” As smart as Anne is, you aren’t likely to find her in a classroom, either. She has survived largely through mothers who pass the book on to their daughters.

WHAT?!?

First of all, what is with the recent YA bashing going on in the media?  I was unaware that there are no strong girl heroines in literature these days.  And by these days, I mean since 1908, when Anne was first published.  Really?  REALLY?!  There have been no strong female heroines since then?  I had no idea!  Honestly, someone better run out and tell Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, Ally Carter, Cornelia Funke, Marcus Zusak, Avi, Karen Cushman, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Voight, Jeanne Birdsall, Kate DiCamillo, Meg Cabot, Trenton Lee Stewart, Ann Brashares, Lauren Myracle, E.Lockhart, Libba Bray, Esther Friesner, Jerry Spinelli, Ann Rinaldi, et. al. that they are writing weak female characters!

Seriously?  Seriously?  SERIOUSLY??  Why is it that journalists are suddenly lamenting the lack of “fill in the blank” in modern YA literature?  It is more than obvious that these reporters and bloggers are not doing their research.  One only has to google strong female characters to get list upon list of recent books.  Hell, just to find books published in the last 50 years!  It seems to me that a terrible blight of “woe are we, nothing is like it used to be, what happened to the good old days of real kids books?” is running rampant through our society.  Please, I beg of you, talk to a bookseller or a librarian or a teacher before you publish these ignorant rants.  Even better, talk to a teen!  They can tell you what is out there now and more importantly what they want to read.

Like I said, Anne is a classic.  it doesn’t need to be taught in elementary, middle, or high school.  Sometimes that just takes all the fun out of it!  :)  And don’t worry, some of us did discover her on our own, without someone recommending her to us.  And while we may recommend her to more kindred spirits, plenty of teens and kids will continue to find her on their own.  Anne should be read by those kindred spirits, not forced on everyone and anyone who is of a certain age.  Everyone needs to find their own kindred spirit in YA- whether it be Anne, Emily, Frankie Landau-Banks, Liesel, the Penderwicks, Dicey, Tibby, Gemma, or someone else.  Let’s let the kids find their own heroines!

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 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.

Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse has outdone herself with this one! I love her work, and The Music of Dolphins was one of my favorite read-alouds this year. Her verse novels are wonderful and Out Of The Dust is a Newbery award winner. Lately though, Hesse has been taking a break from writing novels. Her last novel was published in 2003. When I saw that there was a new Karen Hesse novel coming out this fall, I knew I had to read it, just to see what she had been up to. I did not expect the masterpiece that I encountered.

Brooklyn Bridge takes place in New York City at the turn of the century- 1903. Joseph and his family are lucky. They seem to have achieved the American Dream. You see, Joseph’s mom and dad are Russian immigrants. They were doing all right, running their candy store in Brooklyn and being part of the neighborhood. And then they saw the Teddy Roosevelt cartoon in the newspaper. That Teddy Roosevelt cartoon depicted President Roosevelt declining to shoot a baby bear on a hunting trip. Suddenly, Joseph’s life is turned upside down, thanks to his mother’s brilliant idea to make two stuffed bears inspired by the cute cub. Those bears catch on like wildfire and suddenly the family is spending every waking moment

You’d think Joseph would be happy to be entering the upper-middle class, to be achieving the American Dream his parents struggled to attain. Except that now his parents have no time for him. He spends his time watching his little brother, hanging out with his sister (who is pretty cool for a little sister), or being quality control for the burgeoning teddy bear business. It seems like his dream of visiting Coney Island will never come true.

Joseph knows he is lucky. And he is grateful. But he misses his parents. And he hates that the neighborhood kids look at him differently now that his family is making more money than average. I know it sounds like Joseph is a whiner, but his hurt and confusion ring true. I think a lot of kids will identify with his desire to have his parents around. It is all too similar to kids today who live with two working parents. And his desire to fit in with his peers without drawing attention to himself reminds me a lot of some of my students.

Interwoven throughout the chapters are shorter chapter which focus on children very different from Joseph and his family. The bridge children are the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They live under the Brooklyn Bridge, forging a strange sort of family. They congregate there every night to try sleep and stay out of harm’s way- for some that harm is their families, for others it is the police or City of New York. Some have nowhere else to go, others have run away from horrific situations. These kids watch out for each other, share with one another, and simply try to survive from one day to the next.

For much of the book, it seems like the bridge children are only mentioned as a foil for Joseph and his family. It is not until near the end that the tragic connection between them is revealed. I was swept up in this climax and turning pages at a mad pace, trying to tie together the clues in my head before the answers were revealed. Hesse is a master storyteller

Brooklyn Bridge is another one of those books that defies conventionality. It is clearly a historical fiction novel, but it also includes dashes of magical realism and a pinch of a ghost story. This is one of the reasons I think this books skews toward a slightly older audience, probably 12 and above. The dual stories and genres that are presented might be a bit difficult for a younger reader to grasp.

Hesse also touches on some heavy topics, including a terrible scene where a Cossack brutalizes a young girl in Russia. There are also horrible beatings, violence, and there a few allusions to suicide. While none of these scenes are over the top or even particularly detailed, they are there. This would make a great read aloud for a middle school class and I can even see some high schoolers reaching for this book. It will be great for reluctant readers because the protagonist is older (14) and the story skews to an older audience. And it doesn’t preach! It’s not that heavy-handed historical fiction that kids dread reading. The story flows and the historical aspects are an integral part of the story without jumping out at the reader.

Hesse has really outdone herself with this one. Dare I say I heard the word “Newbery” whispered over and over as I turned the pages? Hmm….I just may have.

Reading Recommendations?

My youngest sister is 9 years old and a voracious reader. She called me today for some recommendations- I gave her a few ideas and she immediately ran out to the library. She ended up with Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, Midnight (Warriors: The New Prophecy, Book 1), and Ivy and Bean and the Ghost That Had to Go (Book 2) (Ivy & Bean). These should appease her for a few days, but I need more ideas!

Admittedly, younger chapter books are not my forte. (I really need to work on that). I am looking for recommendations and your expertise. She reads at a high level, is entering 4th grade, and will give almost anything a shot. Some of her recent favorites include Frindle, the Clementine books, Oggie Cooder #1 (Oggie Cooder), and Lunch Money. Oh, and she read the entire The Spiderwick Chronicles series at the beginning of June. She LOVED them.

I am planning on recommending the Just Grace series next.  But I need more ideas!  I counting on you – do you have any recommendations for great books for 4th graders?

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