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.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The First Rule of Book Club

It's okay. We can talk about Book Club.

The first rule of book club is actually the only rule: lose yourself in the story. It doesn't matter to me if the kids read the book themselves, hear it on .mp3, or listen while mom or dad read it. I just want them to wrap themselves in the story and then tell me what they think.

I got the idea for our kids' book club three and a half years ago, at the end of my daughters' first grade year. Penelope was a voracious, confident reader, yet Emma clung to her Step-one readers, reluctant to trade them for the beckoning stack of Step-twos. Witnessing her twin zip through the Geronimo Stilton series and anything else she could find, left Emma feeling forlorn, jealous, and more than a little hopeless. She had a collection of American Girl books that she wanted to read, but was too afraid to try. The letters were too tiny. The long blocks of text may as well have been Mt. Everest. One evening I found Emma in bed, crying because she wanted to read a book she'd chosen about a magic puppy. It was written at a third grade reading level and there was no art.

I decided that not being able to read at grade level yet was no reason for Emma to not enjoy the stories that interested her. I would read them to her, and she could read ahead whenever she wanted. But wouldn't it be even better if a bunch of Emma's friends read (or heard) the same book and I got the kids together to talk about it, just like a regular book club?

I started researching kids' book clubs and at the time, there wasn't much guidance. Everything was either story time ideas for preschoolers or Socratic method guidelines for high schoolers. Then I found Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. The Goldstone's model was a little weightier than what I had in mind but it gave me someplace to start. It also gave me the confidence to move forward, no longer worried that it was a crazy idea. Once I mentioned it to the girls, it was all they talked about whenever we were near a bookstore. They chose Guardians of Ga'Hoole: The Capture as the first book.

Our first year was rocky. I set the age range a bit too wide and made the mistake of giving the kids full control over the book selections. Some months I got books that were meaty, but other months I got books with no inciting incident, no tension, and no reason for me to keep turning the page. The following year, I narrowed the age range and turned to lists of Newbery Classics from the past 60 years. We always had something to talk about, even if it was how some books don't hold up over the decades or what constitutes too much of a suspension of disbelief. Now I keep a running list of books my daughters love and books people recommend. Each spring, I type those titles into a few search engines and see what else comes up with similar themes. I pull together a list of 30 to 40 titles, provide a synopsis for each one (usually the back cover blurb), and let the kids vote. Each kid in the book club gets to pick and prioritize the four titles they're most interested in reading. I work some ranking and weighting magic that ensures everyone gets their top pick, and fill in the holes with other high-ranked titles. I never said I wasn't a geek.

Because we're a group of homeschoolers, we meet in the middle of the day. Officially, we meet for 90 minutes. Unofficially, people hang out as long as they want...or until I kick them out so I can get the girls changed for their sports. Our meetings have a loose structure: we talk about the book for 20 to 30 minutes, then break for snacks and social time. Early on, we started matching the snack to the book. For Pippi Longstocking, we baked pepparkakor. For Mr. Popper's Penguins, we brought in a tray of fresh sushi. Some books require more creativity with snack planning because either food is rarely mentioned or it's simply unappetizing, like the bland canned food that sustains the citizens of Ember. Occasionally there are foods we must avoid: serving ham for the Charlotte's Web discussion would have been disturbing.

Parents are free to join the conversation as long as they don't dominate it. Discussion points range from kids sharing their favorite or least favorite parts, to making observations about a character's motivation or the author's style, to talking about literary techniques and terms and analyzing their use in a book. When we read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I found a few films by Georges Méliès on YouTube and pulled them up for everyone to watch. The discussion is never what I expect, but it always leads down rabbit-holes and often results in the kids discussing fairly weighty issues.

Our book club is in its fourth year, and Emma is reading almost everything on her own. She still reads slowly, but is a lot more confident in her abilities. Now Emma self-identifies as a reader, knows that she loves fantasy stories, has favorite authors, and spends her own money on books. Sometimes she even stays up late to finish a chapter.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Raina Telgemeier's novel Smile was the perfect read for the holidays, and not just because it was set in San Francisco, which got our located-in-New-England book club thinking of places without snow.

Okay. The truth. I chose it as the holiday book because I knew it would be a fast, engaging read. My daughters each read it in about two hours and other book club moms reported similar results.

Smile is a graphic novel and an excellent opportunity to teach kids that "graphic" does not necessarily mean "full of excessive, gratuitous violence and generally inappropriate content." It's also a memoir, which means you get a two-for-one on the vocabulary lesson. Most of the book club members had never read a memoir before and were surprised and delighted to find that this actually happened to the author. Oh! No! Not in the Schadenfreude sense! With braces either just going on or just over the horizon for many of these kids, Smile resonated with them all from the beginning.

But Smile isn't only about braces. It's about bullies and self esteem and bravery. It's about dating and puberty and finding your passions. We talked a lot about what made Raina's friends behave the way they do, and whether or not they would have treated her differently if she hadn't knocked out her front teeth. The kids brought up the fact that Raina dismisses Sammy the same way that Sean dismisses her. They empathized with her loneliness not only once she stands up for herself, but also while she deals with being alone-in-a-crowd. Our members also noticed that the art provides visual clues to the story's subtext that would normally be described in words, and that the book both begins and ends with a photo session and the word "smile."

You can find several resources for Smile online. The blog The Classroom Bookshelf has an activity guide here, and Scholastic's Mother-Daughter Book Club has a page of discussion questions here which you can download as a pdf. There is also an excellent post up at The Graphic Classroom.

If, like us, you can't get enough of Raina Telgemeier's work, you're in luck. She has a second book out, titled Drama, and her third original book, Sisters, is due out in September of 2014. Raina has also illustrated four graphic novel adaptations of The Baby-sitters Club. Her website, Go Raina! includes her blog, a list of upcoming appearances, comic-related links, and more. And it's all right here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

REVIEW: Tucker's Countryside

Tucker's Countryside by George Selden is the sequel to A Cricket in Times Square. So, most of you probably haven't heard of it or read it. But you should read it, because it has all the sweetness of the first novel with more realism and more issues that are pertinent to a kid's life, like moral dilemmas. Lots of moral dilemmas.

This time, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse visit Chester Cricket in his Connecticut home, the Old Meadow. It's not just a visit, though: Chester and his friends are in danger of losing their home to developers. Where have we heard this story before? Oh yeah, Hollywood. But Chester's story came long before Hammy and Vern. While you won't guffaw, you will chuckle and you will hold your breath a few times.

Because of the pastoral setting, Selden's narration is even lovelier; his description of the rainstorm made me wish I was tucked into a porch swing, reading outdoors during a late spring rainstorm. In addition, the setting results in the tension in Tucker's Countryside feeling less contrived. Not only are the animals trying to save their meadow, but so are the kids that play there. Adult assistance doesn't come from expected quarters, though, which makes for excellent discussion. The most uproarious comment during our meeting? Vlad's* opinion that "they should only destroy the meadow if there was a bearpocalypse."

You won't find any teacher-made study guides or discussion questions out there for Tucker's Countryside, so I read with a notepad beside me and jotted down a few questions for each chapter. You'll find my questions below (or by clicking here). A unit could include research and activities on picketing, boycotting, civil disobedience, conservation lands, nature preserves, and natural disasters in addition to discussion about what constitutes a "benign deception." Who gets to decide when human progress is more important than preserving nature? Where do we draw the line between truth and lies? Tucker's Countryside gives kids an opportunity to explore questions that will stay with them as they grow.

*a pseudonym, of course. And don't feel sorry for him. I ran the name past his mom and she loved it.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Tucker's Countryside

  1. How could you tell the species of John, Tucker, and Harry even if we hadn’t been told? What clues are in the story?
  2. Do the animals avoid people? Why do you think the author chose to have them observe and interact with people, or have people notice the animals? Do you agree with his decision? Why/why not?
  3. What little things do the animals (Harry, Tucker, and Chester) do throughout the book that show they care for each other?
  4. What is Chester’s big concern about the meadow and the houses? Why is Tucker’s first idea not likely to work? Why are all the animals of the Old Meadow so utterly disappointed that Tucker has no other plans? What did you think of their reaction?
  5. Who is Ellen and how is she important? What happens between Ellen and Harry?
  6. Chapter six (Flood) starts off with language that’s soft, gentle, quiet. How do the descriptions of the rain and water change throughout the chapter? Why did the author do that?
  7. What happens because of the flood? Did you expect something good or something bad to happen because of the flood? Why?
  8. What happens the day the steam shovel begins ripping up the Old Meadow? What does that say about the workers? Did you expect them to react that way?
  9. Why do the little kids not get bored with the picket line? How do those people who drive past react? Why do the mothers not head over to town hall like they talked about? What do you think the moms should have done?
  10. What did you think of Tucker’s plan? What could go wrong?
  11. Harry Cat tells Chester to think of the plan not as a Lie but as a Benign Deception. What is a Benign Deception? What do you think: is the plan a Lie or a Benign Deception? Are there other Benign Deceptions in the book? Where is the line between lies and not-lies? Who gets to decide?
  12. What almost happens once all the people see the sign and the Bible? What is Ellen’s reaction? What do you suppose she thinks about how the Meadow was saved?
  13. Did the book end the way you expected? If not, what did you think would be different?
  14. Why do the humans save the Old Meadow? What changes do the humans now have planned for the Old Meadow? What kind of changes would you make?
  15. Why was preserving history more important than apartments when preserving nature wasn’t important enough?