Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fly on the Wall

Man, I love E. Lockhart. After enjoying Dramarama and naming The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks as my favorite book I read last year, I knew that Fly on the Wall would be an instant favorite. As usual, my fake best friend E. Lockhart did not disappoint.

Our heroine is Gretchen Yee, an outsider in a school of outsiders: Manhatten School for the Arts. While she is a gifted comic book artist, she is not as flamboyant as her nonconformist peers. She is struggling with feeling unnoticed by her classmates and her crush, her parents' impending divorce, and poor grades. In a nod to the Kafka novel she's been ignoring, Gretchen wishes she could be a fly on the wall in the boys' locker room...and somehow, it happens.

The science of Gretchen's transformation isn't explained, but it doesn't matter. What matters is the insight that she gets into the teenage boys that seemed so baffling to her. Through her fly eyes, she sees that they are just as insecure and confused as she is. Gretchen also spends a good amount of time examining their "gherkins" before she realizes that there's really no mystery involved in their nudity. There are a lot of sexual references in the novel, but they are thought-provoking and empowering for Gretchen (and hopefully, the reader).

I love E. Lockhart's writing style. Her characters are realistic and interesting, almost aspirational in their teenage coolness. The words she chooses are worth savoring and the plots always involve a teenage girl becoming more feminist. I highly recommend this book to students in the ninth grade and up.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I admire Sharon Creech as an author. She is a writer whose work is so beloved that readers who have outgrown her topics and target age range will still always get excited to see her new books. Even though Replay is about a young boy’s love of theater, I know several 10th and 11th graders who would love to get their hands on it.

Replay’s protagonist, Leo, is better known by his family as “Sardine” and “Fog Boy”. He’s trying to get by among the quirky characters that squeeze him into a tiny corner of the family. Unfortunately, rather than speaking up, he retreats into a dream world where he is a celebrity and constantly lauded for his performance skills.

While the dramatic daydreams are fun, it’s Leo’s relationship with his father that is the heart of the story. When Leo finds his father’s own adolescent diary (full of tap-dancing, poetry, and joy), he is shocked by the contrast from his angry, harried father. Creech beautifully describes how Leo hopefully reaches out to his father. Their ultimate connection shows Leo that he has a special place in the family.

If you put Replay on your classroom library’s shelves, it won’t stay there for long.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

How exciting to discover there's a Roald Dahl book I haven't read. I've loved him since I was a child, so was thrilled to find an untouched copy of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More in my school. Despite what the cover may imply, this is not a children's novel like James and the Giant Peach. What the reader will find here is a collection of short stories that are targeted to older readers.

My favorite of these enjoyable stories is "The Hitchhiker", in which a light-fingered travel companion amazes and saves the protagonist. Dahl loves to turn a narrative and surprise the reader. For my students who are working on making predictions in their reading, this would be a challenge, but a good way to enjoy unexpected twists in a story. Reading techniques aside, anything by Dahl is fun to read. These stories aren't classics like Matilda or The Witches, but I'd still rather be reading Roald Dahl that just about anyone else.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Abundance of Katherines

I've enjoyed John Green's work in the past and was looking forward to reading An Abundance of Katherines. Look at that gorgeous cover! Unfortunately, this book didn't match the unique fun of Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska. There is a formula to Green's writing: nerdy protagonist somehow manages to get fascinating, gorgeous girl, aided by his quirky, diverse friends. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The premise is a bit hard to take: former prodigy Colin has been dumped by nineteen girls named Katherine and decides to devise an equation to explain who will end a relationship first. What teenager knows that many Katherines?!

Colin and his best friend Hassan take a road trip to Tennessee, have various adventures involving girls not named Katherine, go on a hog hunt, get jobs at a tampon string factory, and that's about it. The banter that sparked the friendships in Green's other novels fell flat, weighted down by an excess of footnotes and the need to translate from all the different languages that Colin and Hassan share. The dreamgirl does not have the appeal of Alaska Young or Margo Roth Spiegelman, in fact, she doesn't even know who she really is. All of these elements, coupled with the constant whining of the protagonist we are supposed to root for, combine for the inevitable conclusion. On page 121, Green writes, "People are damn predictable". Sadly, sometimes novels are, too.

I found this novel to be too mature for a middle school audience, with cursing and many sexual references. Please read it yourself before recommending it to anyone...or skip it altogether.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Willoughbys

It probably goes without saying that Lois Lowry knows her children's literature. After all, she has written so many classics and won multiple Newbery Medals. Still, The Willoughbys, her sly take on traditional 'orphan' stories surprises with its references and commentary on the cliches of children's literature.

The familiar characters are all here: the grieving tycoon, the wise nanny, the precocious children--but they all have a twist. For example, the orphans aren't actually parentless, they just wish they were. The Willoughby parents' feelings are mutual, they just want to get rid of the four children. Lowry's mastery of children's literature gives her license to play around with the plot, and she really lets loose. Middle grade readers who enjoyed the recent crop of Victorian children's books (The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Penderwicks, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.) will be fans of this slim entrant in the genre.

As an English teacher, my favorite aspect of The Willoughbys is the vocabulary. Lowry peppers the book with words that would appeal to youngest child Jane, who wishes her name had more syllables. At first I was concerned that the words would scare off younger readers, until I realized there was a humorous glossary at the end. My favorite example reads, "Auspicious means that there are a lot of good omens indicating that something is going to turn out well. If you happen to see a large number of people wearing scarlet footwear in October, it is auspicious. It means the Red Sox are going to win the World Series. Yes!" (160) A charming way to learn words that readers won't forget.

The Willoughbys isn't for everyone, but you usually know the students who will embrace this quirky parody.