Sunday, April 28, 2013

REVIEW: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

You know those mystery books where you can tell whodunnit before the end of the fifth chapter? Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game is not one of those books.

When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be Turtle Wexler.* Although Turtle was an afterthought to her parents, she was cool. She played the stock market, snuck into haunted houses, and got away with kicking people. As the oldest of three, sometimes I wanted to kick people. Turtle also slept in a closet years before it was all the rage.

I recommend reading The Westing Game with your child; you'll have fun comparing theories and sharing suspicions. As in any good mystery, everyone has a secret and nobody is entirely who they claim. However, it can be a difficult book to read aloud. Raskin lets you peek into many different minds, and sometimes the point-of-view shifts are sudden. When I read it to my daughters last year, I often had to redo the internal dialogue once I realized it had shifted. That's what I get for trying to give each character a unique voice without reading ahead first.
Safe to look. No spoilers.  :)

It's the disjointed nature of the story, though, that makes it such an exciting read. You know you're not getting the whole story...and also that you are. In spite of the head-jumping, this is Turtle's story and I promise, all the clues are there. But I'm betting you won't figure it out.

*I also wanted to be Harriet M. Welsch, Meg Murry, Mary Lennox, and Lucy Pevensie, but that's another issue.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Love that Dirty Water

We live about forty minutes outside Boston, and were relieved to find that none of our friends or their families were wounded in last Monday's bombing. Okay, that's an understatement. Still, watching the news this week was different in our house than watching past tragedies for one reason: our daughters watched the news with us.

Sandy Hook was just a few months ago, and neither of our kids wanted to know what was going on. At six weeks shy of age ten, they were scared and what little they did see and hear gave them a few nights of bad dreams. This week, they wanted to watch. They asked questions. They evaluated the actions of the police as well as the news crews. It mattered. I try to follow their lead, especially when scary stuff is involved, so I let them watch. As they went up to bed Friday evening they called down, "Come up and tell us what happens. Tell us when they get him out of the boat." Then they both commented that they hoped nobody else got hurt.

All week I wondered if they'd have nightmares, but they didn't. What made the difference? I don't know. What I do know is that at some point, our children begin paying attention to the world around them. One day, a terrible event on the evening news is something they want--and need--to follow. For Dan, it was the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (he was ten). For me, it was the 1982 crash of Air Florida flight 90 (I was eleven). The world becomes simultaneously bigger and smaller not just because of the tragedy but also because for the first time, we want to understand.

The evening of the marathon, my mom called to talk about the bombing. I told her we'd been at a friend's house when the news broke and in the car when our friend texted to say there had been fatalities. When I'm driving I toss the phone into the back seat and have the girls read and respond to any texts, so we found out together. My mom wanted me to talk to Pen and Em about the importance of not attending events that could draw out disturbed people, but I couldn't let her continue. I said, "Mom, that's the exact opposite of what I want them to learn."

Embracing life and each other.
What Dan and I tell our daughters is that the goal of terrorism is to incite terror. It's right there in the name. We tell them that when something horrible happens, it's okay to be scared. It's okay to cry. People who are sick, who take pleasure in hurting others, are out there. They're not going away, and they're not going to play by the same rules the rest of us use. But don't let those people stop you from doing the things you love. Don't give up on your dreams, or walk away from your passions, because of what they do. In fact, don't let any of the scary things that happen stop you from embracing life. It's one thing to say it, and a harder thing to live it, but living is the most important part.

Devastating events rock us all in some way, even when they're far-removed, but our reactions shape our futures as much as they are shaped by our past experiences. If your tween hasn't already poked his head up and noticed the world around him, he will eventually. Someday, something horrible and scary on the television will matter. He'll need to watch and understand. Because as we grow up, one by one we wake up, look around, and have to decide what we think and how we'll react.

After Emma's surgery a few summers ago--once we had the house to ourselves again and a few days to breathe--we looked around. We had one daughter who'd just had her life irrevocably altered and another who'd been scared she would lose her sister and best friend. Dan and I had reeled through the days feeling like marionettes in a windstorm. Vacation was out. So was summer camp. Normal kid activities like biking and skating and horsing around were off limits while she recuperated. But Emma needed to feel like a kid again. She needed to know that she was okay and the things that made her life, life weren't gone. So we threw a Harry Potter Film Festival.

Every night for the week before Deathly Hallows Part Two opened, we showed the first seven movies in order, one film each night. We invited all our local friends. We made Knickerbocker Glories and put out dishes of lemon drops, licorice snaps, and Every Flavor Beans (with a spittoon). One family brought butterbeer. Penelope and Emma came with us to see the last film in the theater. It was exactly what Emma needed to feel normal again, which means it was exactly what our whole family needed.

What are we doing this time? Dan and I are getting our enormous butts off the couch so all four of us can take part in the Harbor Walk and Run. This fundraiser benefits the hospital where our daughters were born and which has saved Emma twice. Two sick men blew up people in Boston, so we're heading in. Boston, you're our home.

Monday, April 15, 2013

REVIEW: My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian

My daughter Emma chose My Life as a Book as her book club selection because like her, Derek only wants to read Calvin and Hobbes or other cartoons. The opening scene is hilarious with Derek's mom sailing over laundry piles as she chases her son, who is determined to avoid even a discussion about reading. Derek is very real: he could be my kid or the boy down the street. Like Calvin at his best, he often asks the questions adults would rather not answer. Reckless and goofy, passionate and clever, Derek sometimes takes things too far, but never out of malice.

Derek's big beef with reading is that he'd rather live all those adventures himself, not hear about someone else's amazing experience. As it stands, he's facing a long, boring summer with the required reading booklist when his best friend Matt heads off to Cape Cod and Derek gets sent to Learning Camp. The summer turns out better than expected as Derek gets caught up in solving a decade-old mystery and finds friendship in unexpected places.

The illustrations in the margins of My Life as a Book further personalize Derek--who clearly has a good sense of humor--and liven up reading for kids like my daughter. As we read, we scanned the sketches in the margins and looked for the corresponding words on the page. Emma had an easier time staying engaged in the story knowing there would be two or three breaks from the text, especially when reading on her own.

During our book club discussion, the kids pointed out that the comics Derek prefers have something in common with camp counselor Margot's visualization technique: they both make reading more accessible to people who are stronger visual than verbal learners.

The verdict? We aren't waiting to put the sequel on next year's book club list: we've already ordered it. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Story of a Reader

I have a new book review all ready to go, but earlier yesterday I found out about Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, on Shannon Messenger's blog, so everyone's going to have to wait (including me). Starting next week, I'll post my Middle Grade book reviews on Mondays.

In the meantime, I thought I'd talk a little about myself as a reader. I was the kid in elementary school who never knew what was going on in class. It was during the fourth grade that I fine-tuned my strategy and began sitting cross-legged in my seat, my binder and textbook on the desktop and a novel in my lap. If someone said my name (three or four times) I'd look up and attempt competence, but for the most part I was about as attentive as Calvin was in Miss Wormwood's class.

Okay, so I usually knew what subject we were on. But I bumped into plenty of things (usually walls or people), because I rarely put my book down. When I was forced to close it (like at the breakfast table), I substituted whatever was handy and continued reading. (Note: the back of the Cheerios box gets boring after a few days. It may very well be impossible to get through the jumbo-sized boxes fast enough to keep your brain from going numb. Even if you add bananas and keep refilling the bowl with cereal, then an attempt to finish both at the same time.) The walk to school was an opportunity to read in peace as long as I glanced up every few paragraphs and before I crossed the street. At night, after my sister was asleep, I'd duck my head under the covers and read by flashlight. Night after night, my parents pulled the still-blazing light from my hand, marked my place in the book, and laid them beside my backpack on the desk.

Over thirty years later, nothing has changed. I still take a book with me everywhere, and I often read on my Kindle. I love having a virtual library in my purse, but there's nothing like burrowing deep into the blankets with a book bent back upon itself just shy of the spine-cracking point. Yes, I do still fall asleep reading almost every night, only now it's my husband who slides the bookmark into place and clicks off my reading lamp.

I continue to read adolescent literature because it's alive in a way that little else is. Don't misunderstand: I enjoy grown-up material as well, both contemporary and classic. I stayed up all night one January 1st reading Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. (I spent the next day at Magic Mountain with my future husband, where we rode Superman five times in a row until they closed it due to rain. Best January 2nd ever.) Kids, are deep in the trenches that most of us would never again dare to enter. They're artists, shaping and molding themselves like clay figures, and the process is intense and desperate. Reading adolescent literature is like peeking into the kiln, hoping that none of them crack. But even when they do--because none of us escape without a few fissures--the end result is inspiring.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

REVIEW: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

I never read George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square as a kid, but I wish that I had. First published in 1960, Selden's book may not be a modern kid's first choice, but it's a sweet story about friendship, loyalty, and integrity. Chester Cricket finds himself in New York City because a liverwurst sandwich proved too scrumptious to pass up. Once there he is rescued by Mario, whose family runs a small newsstand in Times Square Station, then befriended by Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat. Mario adopts him as a pet, even procuring a cricket cage from a shop in Chinatown.

There are lessons in friendship (New York City cats and mice have worked past the age-old rivalry), integrity (Chester refuses to abandon the newsstand after an accident that will surely be thought his fault), and loyalty (Harry and Tucker help Chester fulfill a deep longing, even though it means they may never see him again).

Adults may be uncomfortable with the linguistic caricature of Mr. Fong and the fact that Mario seems to work a lot of late night shifts on the weekends, but these are excellent discussion points. How do modern authors deal with foreign accents? Why is Mario, an elementary-level student, working until past midnight on Saturdays? A little exploration of child labor laws and cultural stereotypes can lead to a lively discussion and an excellent opportunity for children to practice their critical thinking skills. It is the combination of weighty discussion material and positive lessons in The Cricket in Times Square that makes it a superb choice, especially for a kids' book club.