Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Let's never forget that Laurie Halse Anderson is the queen.

Four years ago, I went through a huge Anderson binge where I read and reviewed all her books. I think because Speak is such a classic and Anderson has written so much (did you see how many links there were?), I mistakenly placed her alongside Judy Blume in the "writers I love who wrote a long time ago." Not so. The Impossible Knife of Memory deals with an extremely modern issue: a father who is suffering from PTSD after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hayley has never had it easy: her mother died when she was little, her father, Andy, is unpredictable and dangerous, and she has blocked out much of her painful childhood. After years on the road, she and her father settle down, and like the cracks in the ice on the cover, people and memories slowly start to break her protective shell. The biggest incentive to open up is Finn Ramos, a boy who isn't put off by Hayley's bizarre behavior and social aversion. The slow development of their relationship is a sweet contrast to the nightmare of Hayley's daily home life. Of course, Anderson doesn't write fairy tales, so although Hayley meets the right guy, there is a lot of drama from start to finish.

For the first time, Anderson also gives the reader a peek inside the mind of a parent. Interspersed throughout the book are Andy's flashbacks to the horrors of war. I was brought to tears in a scene where he dresses in his uniform and interacts with Hayley's classmates, knowing how difficult it is for him to reconcile the two sides of himself. This is bravery, I thought to myself. It reminded me a lot of the scene in "The Hurt Locker" when the veteran is grocery shopping and the simplest things are so difficult after surviving the war.

Fans of Anderson's books will love this entry in her canon. I tried to think of which of her books it would pair well with, but it is so different from everything else she has written. This is the beauty of Anderson. All hail the queen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Godstars, can Laini Taylor write.

I mean this in every sense of the phrase. Her writing is so beautiful that I spent much of Dreams of Gods and Monsters marveling at her talent. Beautiful descriptions abound, like, "…She shone in their midst like a jewel in a rough setting. Like a star in the cupped hands of night." I'm greedy for her writing and wish it were for a 6th grade audience, since there are some serious mentor sentences here.

Taylor is great at hooking the reader throughout the novel, not just at the beginning. A typical chapter ending sounds like, "So they watched Eliza closely for some small sig that it might be taking effect. There was no small sign. That is to say…the sign was not small. Not even a little bit." This a master class on how to keep the reader wanting more.

At 614 pages, Taylor has written a lot. Two full pages were dedicated to how a character (Zuzana, my favorite) arches her eyebrows. When read in snatches while hosting house guests, the novel can seem overwhelming and dragged out. Sometimes, the only thing that managed to happen in one day of reading were two characters sharing a glance across a room. So, while I am greedy for Taylor's writing, I wish she were as adept at editing, because if the novel were two hundred pages shorter, I would have loved it even more.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Other Side of the Sky

Farah Ahmedi's memoir was the hottest book among the Pre-AP classes during our nonfiction unit. We have two copies and the girls were flying through it, so I knew I needed to read it so I could discuss it with them and my future students. The most impressive part of The Other Side of the Sky, for me, is that Farah is still a teenager and she was able to describe her difficult childhood so clearly and maturely. Having lost her leg to a land mine and most of her family to the Taliban, Farah has many reasons to grieve, yet she is optimistic and hopeful.

My main takeaway, though, was to be upset with her useless mother. Yes, she was probably suffering from PTSD, but she did absolutely nothing to help her daughter, so Farah was thrust into the role of caretaker at the age of ten. Many scenes have the same occurrence: "My mother sank down onto her bundle and started wailing in despair. I put my arms around her and tried to comfort her, but when I felt that frail body of hers shaking and trembling in my bony embrace, my own heart dissolved and I started to cry too." While I felt sorry for the struggles that Farah faced after losing a limb, I felt worse for her because she did not have a competent adult to care for her.

The mother aside, this is a good way for students to learn about Afghanistan, and on a broader note, to be kind and welcoming to new students in their school, who may be too shy to reach out.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What I've Been Doing...

One of the few photos of me in Brazil…I was so busy!

I crossed "Go to Brazil" off the top of my Life List last week; I traveled there to co-present at the AASSA conference. My presentation was on building a culture of literacy at your school and it was the best possible environment for my first conference presentation! I was in a classroom, the attendees chose to be there, I was working with a good friend, and talking about my favorite topic! To check out the website that accompanied our presentation, please visit Resuscitating Reading

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


After reading so many dramatic books, Shug reminded me that there is plenty of drama in the daily life of a middle schooler.

Shug is a southern girl who is struggling with the changes that come with growing up. She finds herself always one step behind: still wearing a one-piece when everyone else is in a bikini, still hoping for fried chicken when all the other girls are on a diet. Adding to her confusion is a crush on her lifelong best friend, Mark and increasing marital issues between her parents.

That's it. No zombie viruses. No tragic parental deaths. Just the challenging business of being twelve. When a writer is as talented as Jenny Han, that's enough. This middle grade novel is different from her usual books, but her insight is exactly the same. She knows her audience when she writes, "Losing a boy best friend is one thing, but losing a girl best friend, your true best friend, is a whole different story. It's like losing a rib. There's something missing inside of you that you didn't even realize was there, and it makes it hard to breathe." It's passages like this that will really connect with my students; it's passages like this that made me order multiple copies for next year.