Monday, January 18, 2010

The View from Saturday (1997)

My rating:  5/5 stars

At long last, I return with a review of one of my favorite books out of  all of the Newbery medalists and in general.  E.L. Konigsburg has a knack for writing characters with depth and humor, characters you wish you knew in real life, or maybe - if you're lucky - ones like people you do know.

The basic plot is told mostly in flashback.  The story begins with a statewide middle school quiz bowl competition, and we are told that the four competitors from Epiphany Middle School (great name) are the first sixth graders to ever make it that far.  The rest of the book tells us the backstory of each of The Souls as well as their coach and teacher Mrs. Olinkski, the journeys they make, how they become friends, and the path they take to get to the finals.  The mystery to be solved throughout is why exactly Mrs. Olinkski picked these four children for her team, and how it changes them all.

First of all, I love stories of kids who are intelligent, interesting, and above all, kind.  In fact kindness becomes a sort of theme of the book, but I won't get into that too much so as not to give away the ending. 

Secondly, I think I adore this book because it's about a group of friends, and deep down I've always liked the idea (and the fact) of belonging to a tight-knit group of kindred spirits.  Now that I live far from most family and friends, I find that I long for this - and both love and hate reading about it - even more than I did when I had such a circle in college.

But back to the book... it's filled with moments that make you want to cheer, funny exchanges between characters, and of course great vocabulary.  So without further ado:

Favorite quotes:
"The fact was that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further face was that she didn't know that she didn't know until she did know.  Of course that is true of most things:  you do not know up to and including the very last second before you do."  (p. 1)  I love this quote for two reasons:  The first sentence sets up the mystery of the story, and the second is such a true statement about life. 

"Mother then made a remark about how Western Civilization was in a decline because people of my generation knew how to nitpick but not how to write a B & B letter."  (p. 5)  A B&B letter is explained as a bread and butter letter thanking someone for having you as a houseguest.  I thought this exchange between Noah and his mom was hilarious, and it turns out that many people in the book give their reasons for the decline of Western Civilization, all of which are funny.

"When we finally got together, I thought we would have fun.  We did not.  Either I had changed, or they had changed, or all of us had.  I would not try again.  I conclued that many friendships are born and maintained for purely geographical reasons."   (p. 29)  This is an observation by Nadia, and really I wish I'd been that wise at the age of 12!  Sometimes we prolong a "friendship" past its expiration date because we don't realize that it was, as she says, purely geographical.  Smart to just move on.

"Ethan, who never said much, had a lot to say about camera angles and background music and described the star's performance as subtle.  Never before in all my life had I heard a boy use the word subtle."  (p. 40)  This is Nadia's comment about Ethan, and it foreshadows that they will become great friends.  I had to pause and reflect that I don't think I've ever heard a boy use the word "subtle" either!

"Inside me there was a lot of best friendship that no one but Ginger was using."  (p. 42)  Ginger is Nadia's dog, and I just love this expression of 12-year-old longing for a best friend, particularly since I know she's going to get not one but 3!

"What is there about an English accent that makes people seem more intelligent than they maybe are?  And was it catchy?"  (p. 67) This is what Ethan wonders when he first meets Julian, and I laughed out loud when I read it.  Why does an English accent sound smarter (or at least some versions of it)?  And do the British think an American accent automatically sounds dumber?

"Sometimes silence is a habit that hurts." (p. 70)  This is Ethan again, who is typically very shy and quiet, so he sometimes doesn't say the things he wishes he would.  I am not afflicted by a habit of silence, but having been on the receiving end of it, I know the truth of this statement cannot be denied.

"'I've never heard of someone giving someone a pet for a present without permission and then choosing that pet's name without even asking.Nadia said, 'Well, Noah, now you have.  In a single afternoon you have heard of both.'" (p. 83)  The full exchange between these two is one of the funniest scenes, but I love how self-confident Nadia is that she refuses to be convinced that her actions may not have been correct just because Noah is surprised by them.  Wish I'd been this self-possessed as a kid (or, well... ever)!

"She thought that maybe - just maybe - Western Civilization was in a decline because people did not take time to take tea at four o'clock."  (p. 125)  This explanation for the decline of Western Civilization seems a bit closer to the mark to me.  I think people are too busy rushing around to make deeper connections with the people near them, not to mention the face that we move so often that it's hard to maintain the connections we do have.

There were lots of great vocabulary words in here, too, but I picked so many quotes that I decided to let that section go for now.  Perhaps I'll come back and add some of the words in later.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sounder (1970)

My rating 3/5 stars.

I got Sounder from the library, and put off reading it. I could tell just from the dust jacket that it was bound to be a Dead Dog Book, and I tend to avoid those. I was right, but it was far more and far less than that.

First of all, Sounder is the only character in the entire book who is given a name. The rest are referred to as "the boy" or "his father" or "the red-cheeked man." This would make you think that Sounder is the most important character in the book, and yet he isn't. The boy is. I still can't quite figure out why the author chose to give the dog a name and no one else. Well, that's not true. I can tell why the people don't have names; it is meant to be a story that could apply to the experiences of many in the sharecropping days of the South.

So why is the dog special? I'm still not quite sure. He is loyal, of course, and waits for his master - the boy's father - to return from his sentence of hard labor for years on end. And he is symbolic of...something. Perhaps I just missed the point of the dog. Maybe it is that the book didn't really do it for me so I not only put off reading it for a while, but then I put off writing this review for even longer and now I have forgotten what I thought the author's intent was.

So it is more than a Dead Dog Book because it is about a human experience of waiting, longing, unfairness, love, learning, hope. It is less because unlike books like Where the Red Fern Grows, you aren't as attached to the dog and therefore it isn't as heartbreaking when he dies. That's as much of the ending I will give away, and only because the summary of the book reveals it as well.

Even so, I found that I read it quickly (a sure sign of a plot with good movement), and there were a few memorable parts of the book that I can share with you.

Favorite quotes:
"...a human animal, like Sounder..." (p. 30) I love this. Anyone who has had a cat or dog (or perhaps other pets, I wouldn't know) can relate to this idea that those animals have a human quality.

"The boy liked the woods when they were quiet. He understood quiet. He could hear things in the quiet. But quiet was better in the woods than it was in the cabin. He didn't hear things in cabin quiet. Cabin quiet was long and sad." (p. 51) I like this way of thinking about different types of silence.

"'Go, child. The Lord has come to you.'" (p. 101). This line comes from the mother to the boy after he has told her about meeting a teacher in his journeys who has offered to let the boy live with him while he goes to school. The boy is asking his mom if he may go. What speaks to me about what she says to him is the idea that God can work in our lives through other people.

The boy would not tell her that the teacher had told him that dog days got their name from the Dog Star because it rose and set with the sun during that period." (p. 103) I didn't know this! The dog star, I learned from J.K. Rowling, is Sirius. Yes, you can get smarter from reading children's books! :-)

"Everything don't change much, the boy thought. There's eatin' and sleepin' and talkin' and settin' that goes on. One day might be different from another, but there ain't much difference when they're put together." (p. 109) An interesting way to look at one's life. Reminds me of a quote I found on The Happiness Project: "The days are long, but the years are short." Any particular day has its differences, but the years go by fast because there is a similarity about the days when they are thought of together.

"'Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead.'" (p. 114) The boy reads this in a book he finds at the teacher's house. He doesn't understand it at first, but he does by the end of the story, for reasons I can't say without giving away the ending.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Graveyard Book

My rating: 4.5/5 stars

I must confess to not being a huge Neil Gaimon fan. The first time I read Coraline, I found it a little weird and creepy. I reread it as a literature circle book with my students, and found it slightly more enjoyable, but it does have the distinction of being one of the few books I liked less than its movie.

However, The Graveyard Book was wonderful (and incidentally would make an incredible movie if one were so inclined), and far less bizarre than I was expecting. There are all the characters that you'd expect in a fantasy novel - ghosts, werewolves, ghouls - but the story itself is one that feels familiar. Bod's family is killed in the first chapter, which is the only one that would almost certainly freak out my elementary students. He is a toddler at the time and wanders out of bed and into the nearby graveyard where he is adopted by two ghosts and saved from being killed himself. He is given the name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short. His guardian is the mysterious Silas, who I am guessing is a vampire, though that is never told to the reader specifically.

Bod has a number of adventures, most of which involve his brief forays into the outside world, all intertwined with the overarching plot of the man Jack who is still searching for him. I absolutely love the way his life growing up in the graveyard is described, how he plays with children who were buried there, is taught by those who were teachers before they died, and longs to learn more about everything. It's particularly great how the graveyard teachers want him to learn ghostly skills like Fading, which comes in pretty handy throughout the book. After all, who among us wouldn't want to be invisible sometimes? To get out of a sticky situation, to scare the bullies at school... it's the superpower I'd be choosing, that's for sure.

One clever strategy that Gaimon uses to put humor in the book is to tell us what the headstones are of the ghosts as we meet them. One of my favorite serious ones is from p. 140: "Miss Liberty Roach (What she spent is lost, what she gave remains with her always. Reader be Charitable). This one from p. 209 made me laugh: "Thomas R. Stout (1817-1851. Deeply regretted by all who knew him). I know it's supposed to be that they regret his death, but the phrasing suggests the opposite. Anyway, I thought the author must've had fun thinking up the epitaphs.

My only complaint about the book really is the way it ends. I find that I am torn between giving a complete review and not wanting to reveal the ending to those who like to be surprised (not you, Mom, I know - I'll tell you what happened later). I love the resolution of why Bod's family was killed and he was targeted, particularly the aspect of meeting one's fate in trying to avoid it. It's what happens when Bod grows up that I don't like. I'll let you read it and see what you think, because you *should* read it.

Favorite Quotes:
p. 104 talking to Silas about people who commit suicide
Bod: "Does it work? Are they happier dead?" Silas: "Sometimes. Mostly, no. It's like the people who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean." Bod: "Sort of."
This quote is great on so many levels. First, because it's such a great point about people trying to make changes in their lives. Superficial changes work only if the problem in your life is really external. Internal difficulties are much harder to fix. Of course most of us would rather believe our problems are external, but that's a different issue for another time. The other reason this quote is great is just the interaction between a boy and an adult. The adult says something wise and the kid doesn't quite get it, but also isn't really sure what he doesn't get about it. So well done.

p. 149 "There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas." I'm not sure why I liked this quote so much. I guess because I know people like this, and so do you.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Lightning Thief

No, The Lightning Thief is not a Newbery winner, but it was so good that I felt it deserved a review here anyway. This book is now my new favorite read-aloud book. It has action designed to hook you right from the start, engaging characters, hilarious dialogue, and a brilliant irreverence for the characters of Greek mythology.

The brief plot summary is that Percy Jackson, the hero of the series, discovers that he's a half-blood: half human, half god. First he has to find out what that really means and who his father is. Then he gets tapped to go on a quest to clear his name of stealing Zeus' thunderbolt and somehow avert WW3. Along the way he meets all kinds of characters out of the Greek myths and does clearly unbelievable things like battling gods, even if you do buy the premise that he's a demigod. The author makes it pretty easy to suspend disbelief, though.

Since it turns out that this is the first book of a series of five, I'll have to read on to see if the rest live up to the standard Riordan has set with this one. I hope so: I love to use a read aloud book to spur kids into reading not just one but a handful of them!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Gathering of Days (1980)

My rating: 3.5/5 stars

A Gathering of Days was a very quick read, being only about 145 pages and written in the form of a teenage girl's diary with frequent breaks. This would be a great book to read with elementary students who are learning about 19th century New England because it chronicles a year of a girl's life in Connecticut from 1830-1831 and deals with many relevant issues of the time. The main historical one is about fugitive slaves as Catherine and her friends come across one who needs help on his way to freedom in Canada.

Catherine deals with a number of other issues in this year in which she keeps the journal, and because it begins with a letter from her to her great-granddaughter, we get a preview of what's going to happen. I found that I didn't like this because it kept me wondering the entire time when her best friend Cassie was going to die (which is given away in the first page by the aforementioned letter). It made me feel unattached to that character throughout the book because I knew she wasn't going to make it.

One thing that I think is well-done about the book is the voice of Catherine as she tells what's happening to her. Not having researched how children thought, talked, or behaved in the 19th century very deeply, I can't attest too much to its accuracy. However, it felt accurate as I was reading it. I also liked how she makes it clear how she is feeling in very few words or sentences. It would be great for teaching skills on inferring from texts. (Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess).

I didn't give it a higher rating only because it didn't grab me quite as much as some of the other Newbery books have. I still zipped through it and enjoyed it.

Great vocabulary:

abcedarian (p. 63): noun. suggests that the current spelling of this is "abecedarian" who is someone just beginning to learn the alphabet. Great word!

dimity (p. 118): noun. "a thin cotton fabric, white, dyed, or printed, woven with a stripe or check of heavier yarn."

loquacious (p. 129): adjective. "talking or tending to talk much or freely; talkative; chattering; babbling; garrulous: a loquacious dinner guest"

Favorite quotes:

"Trust, and not submission, defines obedience." p. 139.
I like this one because it speaks to me as a teacher and as a parent. Sometimes I need the children to obey what I tell them or ask them to do, and it is clear that children follow more readily out of trust than fear of negative consequence.

"I wonder if it common to feel that never is a place so loved as when one has to leave it?" p. 142
I think this is entirely common, so I'm not sure why I liked this quote so much. Perhaps because I feel this way about Michigan every time I have to come back to Washington, which happens regularly these days.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959)

My rating: 4/5 stars

I am fairly certain that I originally read The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was in elementary school. As it's historical fiction, it seems likely that it was assigned to me to learn about colonial history. In any case, I remembered none of it, so I figured it was time to reread it.

It turned out to be the perfect chore book, which for me is a book that has chapters of just the right length with which to reward myself after completing some task. It feels like just the right length a break from housework should be: 10-15 minutes. It also kept me wondering what would happen just enough to encourage me to complete another task so I could get back to it.

My quick summary is that Kit comes on her own from Barbados to New England to live with her aunt and uncle, who don't know she's coming. She tries to fit in with the Puritan town, but is an outsider before she even arrives, due to her outlandish behavior and ideas, like knowing how to swim. (!) Of course she makes friends with those who are also outsiders, including Hannah who is the "witch" mentioned in the title. She isn't a witch but rather a Quaker and she helps make the year bearable for Kit, though a bit dangerous as well. There is also a bit of (historically accurate) colonial politics thrown in as Kit's Uncle Matthew and the other townsmen debate the potential dismantling of the Connecticut charter.

I decided to forgive the book its easy resolution of the difficulties Kit faces because a) I like happy endings, b) I liked the characters and c) it's a children's book and not required to delve quite so deeply into what would have actually happened to someone accused of being a witch in 17th century New England. Just seemed like a lot of characters did faster about-faces than they would have, but perhaps I am selling the Puritans short.

My favorite character in the book was Nat, but I suppose the best one in real life would have been Hannah.

All in all a good read, but I don't think I'll be assigning it to my fourth graders any time soon.

Great vocabulary word:

obstreperous: adjective. "noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children"

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rifles for Watie (1958)

My rating: 4/5 stars

Finished reading Rifles for Watie a couple days ago. It is about a boy from Kansas who joins up with the Union army because he and his family want the Kansas territory's slavery status to be determined by the settlers, not by people crossing over from Missouri to stuff the ballots. He begins by being very excited about the prospect of fighting in battle and is dismayed when his own involvement is delayed. Of course he comes to be in many battles, fighting on both sides (one side undercover), before the war is over and sees they are nothing to be excited about after all.

I enjoyed the book, and was especially hooked when he was undercover with the rebel forces. What I liked best was that it was about a faction of the war that I never really learned about before, namely the Cherokee nation's split loyalties to the North and South, depending on which side had offered them what they considered the best treaty. Their people were just as split as the white settlers throughout the nation. The author did considerable research for the book, which made me wonder what the Cherokee perspective is on the war and the book today.

I also liked that Jeff, the main character, maintains his honor and treats everyone with respect, regardless of which side they are on. I particularly like that he is able to see the good and bad that exist no matter where he is.

What I did not like is that in the end, though the author seems to be starting off by showing Jeff (and the reader) that war is awful, ends up glorifying it anyway. There is even a line about how Jeff "lived life more fully" than most people throughout his three years in the army. I suppose if one person had indeed done all of that, it would be true. However, I felt like there should have been more acknowledgment that war is ugly and brutal.

Overall likeable characters, great use of dialect, and important messages about what it means to be human in the middle of difficult times. The Yankee soldier, Rebel girl love story didn't hurt, either.