Monday, September 30, 2013

Banned Books Week, Belated

Last week was Banned Books Week, and though I was down with a head cold which rendered me mostly incapable of rational thought, I did read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. 

Persepolis was challenged then banned from the middle school curriculum in Chicago Public School system earlier this year. From everything I read, high school teachers were still allowed to teach it. Last Sunday, as the book lay on my kitchen counter, with crisp corners and an uncracked spine, I thought, I can understand parents of seventh graders wanting to reassurance about the contents of a heavy book before their kids read it, but by high school, kids need to know this stuff. Whatever "this stuff" was, I didn't precisely know. I hadn't read the book yet. 

Now that I have, I can say the thing that struck me most, is that Satrapi is about my age. What does that mean, exactly? 

It means that Satrapi begins her story with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when she was ten years old. My daughters are ten years old.

It means that in 1984, when I was swooning over the members of Duran Duran, Satrapi was fending for herself in an Austrian Catholic boarding school. And that while I was whining about having to read The Odyssey in verse and writing poetry instead of paying attention during AP American History, Satrapi was devouring essays by Freud, probably in German.

Most of all, it means that there was barely a two-page spread in Persepolis that didn't teach me something, and that in spite of the semester of Middle Eastern history I opted for in college, I know next to nothing. How does something like that happen? I'm still flipping back and forth in the book and Googling events and places to make sure I have the timeline straight for the fifteen years Satrapi chronicles.

I'm not sure if I should feel ashamed of or grateful for my sheltered upbringing. What I am sure about is that most seventh grade kids can handle the contents of Persepolis. Are violence and torture depicted? Yes. Much more than violence, though, Satrapi depicts her struggle to understand, to belong and to thrive on her own terms. What teenager can't identify with those desires?

I see no reason why our middle school students shouldn't read it, discuss it, and let it seep into their psyches. I've already decided to include Persepolis in the history curriculum for Pen and Em when we cycle back around to modern history. They'll probably be in the seventh grade.

What about you? What did you read for Banned Books Week? And what do you not know?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

REVIEW: Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

I'll admit, I was surprised at the bite in Carl Hiaasen's Chomp, probably because this is the first of his books I've ever read. (ducks barrage of paperbacks) Don't get me wrong: this book is hilarious, and will have your children chanting eee-ka-laro! and affecting Australian accents. They may also beg for eclairs. Amidst all the hijinks, though, Chomp deals with some serious issues, including adult responsibility foisted upon too-young shoulders, concern for animals and the environment around us, and child abuse. It's Hiaasen's use of humor that enables him to include such weighty subjects, but Chomp is far from preachy. In fact, Hiaasen never delves too deeply, instead leaving enough room for readers to ponder the topics as the story progresses.

The novel begins with Wahoo Cray accepting a job on behalf of his animal-wrangler father, who is laid up with lingering headaches from an iguana-inflicted concussion. Wahoo's plan is to work the job alongside his father, stepping in just enough to make it look like his dad, Mickey, is fit for wrangling. Add a buffoonish Hollywood "survivalist," an abused teenage girl, a terrified bat, a thunderstorm in the Florida Everglades, and try to keep up. Better yet, try to put the book down: Penelope kept reading ahead and Emma stayed up until eleven one night to finish it.

You can find an excellent free educator's guide here at the Random House site. There are also lesson plans available for purchase on the sites Teachers Pay Teachers and BookRags but I've only seen the previews so I cannot vouch for the quality of the full units.

I put on an episode of Man Against Wild so my daughters could get a better idea of the type of show Hiaasen mocks, but we could hardly hear the episode over our own laughter. We also did a little research about the Florida Everglades and watched some videos of airboats to get a feel for how they worked and sounded. Those things are loud!

The kids' verdict? All ten kids in the book club enjoyed Chomp tremendously, though Emma and her friend Jade* both felt it started slow, the pace picking up only when Derek Badger arrives in his motor coach. 

*a pseudonym 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Great Expectations

So it's fall, and I'm back, stressing out about the impending yard sale. But I'm not stressing out about the girls' schoolwork, even though we're starting fifth grade and stepping up our expectations. Another thing I'm not stressing out about is the kids' book club.

We had our first meeting this afternoon and kicked off the school year discussing Carl Hiaasen's Chomp. I'm a little annoyed that I forgot to take a photo of the bat on the cheesecake, but no matter. We've got a fantastic schedule lined up this year, and I'll post a short review of each book on the Monday after we've run our discussion. I'll even include links to discussion guides. In February, I'll talk about why and how I started our book club. Pssst! Because dissecting books with kids is freakish fun!

Just because we're homeschoolers and our meetings are in the middle of the week (and the middle of the day), there's no reason why you can't start up a book club for your own kids. Of course, I'm assuming that you're like me. Surely I'm not the only person accoutered with paperbacks, accosting people and demanding that they join me in analyzing a character's motives. If you're not like me, don't sweat it: you can throw your arms up in self-protection and drive me back with the threat of a reality show. As I cringe and back away, however, please consider making a deal with your best friend: you'll bring the snacks if she'll run the discussion. Elaborate cakes are not a necessity.

Here's what you can look forward to:
September - Chomp by Carl Hiaasen
October - The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
November - The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
December - Tucker's Countryside by George Selden
January - Smile by Raina Telgemeier
February - Running a kid's book club
March - Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
April - The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
May - Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
June - Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Cholenko