Saturday, June 7, 2014

REVIEW: Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, went over well with all the girls, but even the boys enjoyed it. Except maybe Vlad, but on principle, he minds anything his sister Norah likes. But both Ned and Kiki noticed that Ella's and Charmant's names were punny. The discussion (I used this guide, from Scholastic) was rollicking, with talk of insurrection and much sympathy for the newlywed giants. Afterwards, there was an enormous cookie.

As a Cinderella story, the basic plot of Ella Enchanted is recognizable enough for less confident readers to know what's coming, so they can focus on the nuances--and there are nuances. In a Harper Collins discussion guide that seems to be gone, now,* Levine mentions that she didn't want Ella to be a "goody two shoes," and creating the curse provided a way to add tremendous depth to her character. Ella is no damsel in distress. The relationship between Ella and her fairy godmother are different, as well. The real difference, though, is in the way Ella rails against the curse every day, even as she seeks a way to have it lifted or countermanded.

Both at home and at finishing school, Ella deals with situations kids can identify with: parents who don't listen or who dismiss kids' concerns, siblings who seem to get away with everything, and holding one's own in the face of peer pressure. How far can we bend the rules while still following them? What constitutes obedience? 

Ella Enchanted gives kids a chance to discuss the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law, and why we must sometimes make the choice to not do what is expected of us.

*(though I know it existed, because I still have the pdf version in my files)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Why We Need Diverse Books

When I taught high school in San Jose, California, I had a classroom library for my kids to use, because some of them needed the library brought to them. I bought the books myself, at used book warehouses. Though I tried to stock my library shelves with as much a variety as I could, I had to pick from what I could find and it was obvious that there were few choices which spoke directly to the half of my kids who weren't white. Or heterosexual. Or middle class. Or free of learning disabilities. Or free from mental health issues. Or atheist. Or not struggling with anorexia. Or not on the verge of dropping out. Or...

You fill in the blank.

What is it about you that you never saw positively portrayed in a book growing up? Is it something you can keep hidden? A secret you divulge when and to whom you choose? Or is it something everyone knows the instant they look at you or hear you speak?

Several days ago, I went to a hair salon (foolishly, not my regular salon) and got a haircut. I actually had to make the stylist stop, but not before he'd given me what I'm currently rating as my worst haircut ever: a masculine, one-length-everywhere disaster. I went home and almost cried. I'm trying to keep things in perspective. It's hair. It'll grow out. Fessing up to my regular stylist will be worse than the actual haircut.

But it reminded me of all the comments I got when I first went short, back in elementary school. I got called a boy often enough that I considered just going by Wendell so I could be done with it. Instead, I grew my hair out before starting junior high (that's what we called it back then), but gave up on the charade and cut it short again in the middle of the winter my eighth grade year. By then I (kind-of) had boobs, so it was harder to mistake me for a boy.

Still, my freshman year of college saw a surge of whispered judgmental comments resulting from my appearance and the assumptions that went with it. Of course, it didn't help that I was one of the few liberal students on a religious college campus. I wasn't on a crusade to change anyone, but after two years of defending myself against the status quo simply because I was different, I transferred to a large university so I could be lost in the noise.

But I still get excited when I see a celebrity brave enough to chop off her tresses, because I feel less alone.

We need diverse books because if a little white girl with a pixie cut is reduced to a literary fairy sidekick like Tinkerbell, how much worse is it for the girls and boys who can't find themselves anywhere? What about the kids who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Jewish, Muslim, or Native American? What about the kids who are gay or bisexual or transgender? What about the kids with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, autism, or dwarfism? Kids with severe food allergies or diabetes? What about the kids in wheelchairs or with arm crutches?

All kids deserve to see themselves as a main character in an adventure: a hero, a fighter, the one who comes through the struggle even stronger. It's not enough for us to tell them they're strong, they're fighters, and that they'll get through their childhood years. They need to see the success of someone just like them.

We need diverse books because people are diverse. Author Ellen Oh wants everyone's help fixing the problem. You can find out how right here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

REVIEW: Bridge to Terabithia

Let's get this out of the way right now: yes, Bridge to Terabithia is sad. Pen and Em knew something bad happens because they caught me sobbing at the kitchen table, the book conspicuously open in front of me.

The sad part happens in chapter ten, so don't let your kids start reading chapter ten unless there's time for them to at least finish chapter eleven as well before you make them set the table for dinner. Some tweens may need a hug or assistance processing their emotions. The kids in our book club range in age from nine to thirteen; only one member opted to not read this month's selection because of the emotional intensity.

The book club kids had mixed feelings about Bridge to Terabithia. There were several thumbs-sideways and a pair of one-up-one-down thumbs, but nobody gave it a complete thumbs-down.

The Scholastic discussion questions are here and though I didn't use it, the literature unit from Glencoe looks solid. As we talked, I asked the kids: What are the things Jess wants at the beginning of the novel? Their answers were quick, pointed. Jess wants to:
  • be the fastest runner in his grade
  • have someone encourage and appreciate his art
  • be close to his dad and 
  • have a friend.
Then I asked them: Does he have any of these things when the novel ends? They agreed that Jess gets everything he wants at some point in the novel, but doesn't get to keep it all. Those things he does get to keep come at a very high price. We talked about the torrent of emotions Jess wrestles with including--as Henri pointed out--his anger toward Leslie. Why does Jess deal with his feelings the way he does, from lashing out at others, to destroying gifts, to ultimately throwing open the gates of Terabithia? Which of the adults in Jess's life are able to help him through his grief and how can we tell those efforts resonate with Jess?

And now, the question adults tend to ask: Is Bridge to Terabithia appropriate for tweens? The nine kids in my living room said Yes. Yes, it was sad. Yes, it hit them like a punch in the gut. Max commented that even though he had to sit with it for a while--even though his first thought was it was all a dream and Jess was going to wake up--it wasn't something he couldn't handle. Norah pointed out that Jess recognizes Leslie's greatest gift to him and chooses to honor her by passing her gift on. By building the bridge.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mega Awesome Adventure in Wellesley

Wendy, Penelope, & Eoin Colfer
Yesterday, Penelope and I attended the Mega Awesome Adventure with Eoin Colfer, Ridley Pearson, Rick Riordan, and Jonathan Stroud. Included in the ticket price was an autographed copy of one book (chosen ahead of time) and a concert shirt. Yep. I'm calling it a concert shirt. Because it totally is.

Mega Awesome was basically the writer's equivalent to a rock concert, except we didn't have to promise anything untoward to shake hands with our idols afterward. Eoin, Jonathan and Ridley sat on the edge of the stage and took photos with anyone who wanted them.

Penelope meets Jonathan Stroud
Geeked to hear Eoin Colfer discuss his Artemis Fowl series and looking forward to picking up WARP, I was thrilled when he confessed he'd love to "mentally scar {our} children." I'm on board...after I've finished the book first. It's not that I want to preview it, but that I want to cackle mwa-ha-ha at appropriate times. Still, it's going to be a struggle deciding which to read first: Eoin's WARP or Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co., because Jonathan was charming, easygoing, and as eager to connect with his readers as they are to stay up late reading one more chapter. (Seriously, Dan. Why do you keep turning off the light? I know it's two in the morning but can't you see I'm reading? Again?) I should have taken a photo with him, too.

Penelope meets Ridley Pearson
Penelope walked in excited about hearing Rick Riordan speak and emerged--no less enamored with Rick's writing--an unabashed Ridley Pearson fan. About halfway through the first Kingdom Keepers book, she picked up the second from Wellesley Books yesterday. I'm certain if I check her wish list, the rest will be there. Ridley was engaged, animated, and clearly enjoyed meeting his fans. He even made his way along the line prior to the event, shaking hands and introducing himself.

At one point, the Mega Awesome director of onstage conversation asked how many writers were in the audience. As my friend Kristine and I raised our hands, I glanced at Penelope and nudged her. "You're a writer, too!" She exploded into a smile and raised her hand.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Discussion Questions for Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters

Oops. I forgot to include a link to the discussion questions I used for Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters. Scholastic has a strong set of questions right here.

Always check the Scholastic site. Their collection is solid and the questions are thought-provoking. They even include a note telling where each question ranks on Bloom's Taxonomy, which is awesome because it means they're thinking about getting kids to think.

REVIEW: Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters

Destined to be an even more exhilarating romp through Greek mythology than the first book, Sea of Monsters does not disappoint. But then, I have a daughter named Penelope. 

I'll admit (okay, brag about) my inability to read the table of contents without cackling in glee. Emma and Penelope walked in on my expressions of boundless joy, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: (emulating a pogo stick in the kitchen) Nobody Gets the Fleece! Nobody! Nobody!
Tweens: ...Um, Mom?
Me: (shoving the ToC in their faces) We're gonna meet Polyphemus! This is gonna be so cool!
Tweens: (clinging together like grapes in a bunch) okaaaay...

And it was cool.

If you have a copy of Homer's Odyssey, keep it handy. I used a kids' classic version that was shockingly disappointing in its brevity. Nevertheless, Penelope and Emma enjoyed comparing Odysseus's original encounters with each of the monsters Percy meets along his quest to rescue Grover. I found Riordan's version of the monsters accurate at the core, his adaptations clever and satisfying. 

Percy's growth in the second novel is considerably greater than in the first, as it should be. This time, he has a weightier challenge before him: accepting his place as a Son of Poseidon, despite the fact it's not what he expected. Percy is building a family at Camp Half-Blood, though not everyone in that family is someone he chooses to include. Sometimes it takes Percy a while to realize the relationship is there--and longer still to embrace it--but when he does, the emotional payoff is sufficiently deep and rewarding. (Translation: hang on a second, I've got something in my eye.)

Percy is nothing if not loyal to those who support him, guide him, and love him. Better yet, he's loyal to the sense of honor and dignity that Camp Half-Blood seeks to instill in its charges. As our hero, as a demigod, and as a teenager finding his place in the world, Percy has to grow. 

And he does grow.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Adventures in Knitting with Black Sock Yarn

Emma wants to go to Paris. Magnanimously, she's agreed to settle for an Ici Paris Beret in black. For now.

Actually it went more like this:
     Me: Did you decide what you want me to knit for you instead of a scarf?
     Emma: How about a beret, since I want to visit Paris?
     Me: I saw a pattern for an Eiffel Tower beret on Ravelry.
     Emma: swoon

Luckily, I have almost a whole skein of deliciously soft black Valley Yarns Charlemont left over from my Tardis Socks, so I cast on for the brim Friday evening. Stay tuned for progress photos.