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.