Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sahara Special

Oooh, Sahara Special is a keeper.

I don't know what took me so long to read this, as I loved Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, by the same author. While Sahara Special is fiction, it would be very easy to read it as a student's point of view of Esme Raji Codell as a teacher. I (happily) recognized many of Miss Pointy's quirks from Ms. Codell's teaching days.

Sahara Jones has been pegged by her school as "special", and not in the good way. Dealing with her parents' divorce, she has withdrawn into herself, been held back a year, and struggled to find her place in the classroom. Sahara also has a rich inner life, full of literary ambitions and charm. In her words, "...let me tell you, working in the hallway with the teacher is like being the street person of a school. People pass you by, and they act like they don't see you, but three steps away they've got a whole story in their heads about why you're out there instead of in the nice cozy classroom where you belong." The novel is full of gems like this which show true insight into children as people with the same feelings as adults.

I love all the characters in the book, but as a teacher, my favorite is Miss Pointy. She is eccentric and wise, but not perfect. There is a spiky quality to her and she makes teaching disciplines that could be questionable to the less imaginative. Still, I wish that all children could have a Miss Pointy every year, a teacher that sees them as the best versions of themselves. I'm going to try to incorporate more Miss Pointy into my teaching life, starting by recommending Sahara Special to everyone who will listen.

Monday, May 23, 2011

American Born Chinese

People have been recommending American Born Chinese to me for years. Somehow it never seems to be around when I am able to read it. When I finally got it out of the library, I saved it as a "treat" for after the emotional wringing of Tender Morsels. Perhaps it is all the anticipation that <quiet voice> made me not enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

I wanted to love this book! I believe in the powers of the graphic novel and am desperate for more diversity in my bookshelves. Unfortunately, I was hoping for an Asian American The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (read it, read it, read it) but that is a lot to ask.

Gene Luen Yang's book tells three different narratives: the story of the mythical Monkey King, of Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants that struggles to fit in, and of a sitcom-like teen whose visiting Chinese cousin exemplifies every stereotype of an Asian. Each of the stories has a different tone, but they work together nicely because of the beautiful illustrations and the intersection of all the narratives at the climax.

Despite not shattering my YA mind, it is a good book. I think there are many ways that it could be used creatively in a classroom. I've been searching for a scan of page 96 but haven't come across one. On this page, three teens of Asian descent are having fun and laughing in a park until two boys walk by and say a few racial slurs. The three teens sit quietly, their cheeks burning. These few panels would add so much to a discussion on tolerance, bullying, and ignorance. I love the book for that page.

This review is a bit wishy washy. I say that I was disappointed, but also that it is a good book. Would I add it to my classroom library? Yes. Am I still waiting for the book about the Asian-American experience that will blow me away? Heck yes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tender Morsels

Two pages into Tender Morsels, I realized I would not be comfortable putting this on the shelf in my middle school classroom. I figured I should set it aside and focus on books for 6th graders. Then I was suddenly on page 20. Then I was on page 60. Then it was all over, I was hooked. (I also think it was brilliant to put material that readers might object to at the very beginning of the novel. If you don't like what you see, stop reading!)

Margo Lanagan's epic novel is like nothing I've ever read. She manages to blend magic realism, time travel, dreadful and wonderful family relationships, fairy tales, magical animals, and about a thousand other elements into an amazingly affecting story. At several points, I wondered if Lanagan had a plan when she started writing this novel, and I mean that as a compliment. The scope of Tender Morsels is overwhelming. In the briefest of summaries, Liga raises her two daughters in a fantasy world after suffering horrifically as a young woman. Gradually, the fantasy world and reality clash and the women need to adjust to a life where there is darkness as well as light.

Lanagan is a gifted writer and I have added Black Juice, her book of short stories, to my library list. Each of the characters is fully developed, often with their own dialect, and written gorgeously. One of my favorite lines describes Branza, who struggled to adapt to the real world, "She was full of wolf-teeth, wolf-love of herself, wolf-rage on her behalf". I am greedy for more young adult literature with writing of this quality.

I have been thinking about the fact that I have read so many YA books lately that tackle subject of incest. I'm curious if this is a subject we readers are more open to, if writers recognize a need to be addressed, or if it has always been common and I just happen to be coming across books on incest lately. There's no way to answer that, but I admire the way that Lanagan approaches the subject of incest and rape (in several permutations). I did not find it gratuitous and thought it was clever to front-load the novel with it, so that the plot centers more around healing and moving beyond tragedy. There is a powerful message for the reader: you can survive and grow to be a good person with a good life.

I felt very sad when I came to the end of Tender Morsels. While there are many fairy tale elements to the novel, it did not have the typical ending I was expecting (or hoping for). Still, the characters we love have grown and after reading the author's response on her blog, I am satisfied with the ending. This is a book I would have loved in high school; it's a book that I love today.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Foiled

Jane Yolen's graphic novel, Foiled, starts out with such promise. It is the story of Aliera, a gifted fencer who doesn't fit in at her school and is happiest when she is fencing or role-playing with her cousin. I love the idea of a heroine who embraces two atypical hobbies and introduces them to the reader as options. While not popular, Aliera is definitely cool.

The plot starts to go downhill when Aliera develops a crush on her handsome lab partner. There are many hints that there is something "off" about him, but it takes far too many pages to find out what it is. The climax of Foiled comes far too late in the book; suddenly there are fairies and creatures everywhere, and then the book ends. I've read that there will be a sequel to Foiled, but it seems to make more sense to tell the entire story in one book (and maybe skip a few of the frog dissection scenes).

I was really impressed by Mike Cavallaro's art and thought it was brilliant to keep the illustrations colorless to emphasize Aliera's colorblindness. Rather than add Foiled to my library, I will be checking out other graphic novels that Cavallaro has illustrated.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sisters Red

I had to make the cover larger for this review because it really is one of the best that I have seen in a long time. At various points in my reading, I closed the book just to look at the cover again. It also jumped to the top of my reading list once that cover was in my house!

I just learned that I will be teaching 6th grade next year, which means I should focus on lower level books. But I can't help it! My favorite books are written for fourteen year olds who wish they were eighteen, also known as "racy books" by some former, hilarious students.

Jackson Pearce's novel has some racy elements, but is actually tamer than I expected. A modern retelling of Red Riding Hood, Sisters Red tells the story of Scarlett and Rosie March, orphaned girls who hunt the werewolves of Georgia with hatchets and knives.  The novel centers around their sisterhood and how their childhood roles have defined them. Scarlett, who lost an eye and was covered in scars while defending her sister, is the Hunter who is brave, passionate, and obsessed. Rosie is the gentler sister, a skilled fighter but interested in life outside the hunt. The sisters are often described as two halfs of the same heart, which turns out to be very interesting when Rosie falls in love with Silas, Scarlett's hunting partner.

There is a lot of controversy over the idea of the sisters using themselves (with makeup, clothing, and perfume) as "bait". To be honest, I never thought of this as I was reading the book and doubt that my students would either. It would be an interesting conversation topic with advanced readers: is Jackson adding to the ridiculousness of "asking for it" or are her characters owning their sexuality? When viewing the novel with this lens, there are parts that are questionable. Still, I really enjoyed Sisters Red; the writing was tight, the action was gripping, and the characters were fascinating. I can't wait for someone I know to read this so we can discuss it!