Monday, March 30, 2009

REVIEW: Journey to Jo'Burg

Naidoo, B. (1986). Journey to Jo’Burg: A South African Story. New York: HarperTrophy.


Set in historical South Africa during the time of apartheid, Naledi and her brother Tiro worry about their sick younger sister. Certain that their sister needs a doctor, they decide to disobey their grandmother’s wishes and leave their small town to journey to Johannesburg where their mother works as a servant to get her help.

While on their journey the children are helped by several other black people along the way, but are cautioned about the rules of apartheid that are strictly enforced in the city. They also are exposed to the class and power relations and learn of the hope and rebellions for social change, most notably the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

While the narrative is both short and fast-paced there are some plot holes. For example, at the very beginning of the story, Naledi and Tiro decide that because they would get in trouble for asking for money to pay for a telegram, they should walk to Johannesburg, a city over 300 kilometers away. Now call me crazy, this could be my own cultural background speaking, but wouldn’t Grandma be a little more upset that you go on a journey to a strange and dangerous city without help or money than ask for some money to send a telegram? Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know.

Published during the height of Apartheid in the mid-1980s, this book was banned in South Africa until 1990. This would be a wonderful book to use to help students think globally about issues of power and class. It could also be the basis for doing a comparison between Apartheid and segregation in the U.S.

Activities to do with the book:

In a social studies or history class, Journey to Jo’Burg could be used to compare and contrast the history of South Africa with that of the U.S.A. Similar themes include class divisions by race, segregation and apartheid, police abuse and brutality, the fight for civil rights, protests, health care and dietary needs etc. It could specifically trigger a lesson on protests like the Soweto Uprising, in which students protested the structurally racist and oppressive education system and were killed.

Favorite Quotes:

“Naledi and Tiro were worried. Their baby sister, Dineo was ill, very ill” (p. 1).

“Why shouldn’t we use the bus? When our buses are full, their buses are half empty. Don’t you be sorry!” (p. 26).

“All those lesson on writing letters…for jobs as servants…always writing how good they were at cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening…always ending with “Yours obediently.”
Naledi had never thought about it before tonight, but never, never, had she written about wanting to be…say, a doctor. Yes, that’s what she’d like to be. Image how useful it would be if she became a doctor, especially in their own village. She could even look after her own family.” (p. 72)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Certified Resolution Writing Endeavor Review Report: Week Thirteen and a Second Self-Imposed Writing Retreat

Okay, so I made it in terms of the Resolution Writing Endeavor of 09.

My Self-Imposed Writing Retreat was a major FAILURE, however.  (That is, unless within the next five hours I do nothing but write...possible, but given my previous tendency to procrastinate, unlikely)  Plus I plan to watch a movie.

Don't get me wrong.  I worked on the certain story I'd been hoping to finish.  But most of my work involved revamping what I had already written.  If I were to consider the amount of work I'd intended to do on this story in terms of child-rearing, I basically yelled at Baby-Story, "Crud, Kid.  Potty-train yourself and then go out and get a job--a good one with benefits.  And bring Mommy a beer."  Not the best approach.

On the plus side, avoiding everything post-potty training in the writing world, served this blog well.  You will notice I finally added labels to the left.  Fancy.

I also became an Amazon Associate, so if you're ever tempted by any of the books I'm reviewing or would be interested in other children's books, you can shop my happy little ideal Amazon store, which has books and other media I've selected.  (When you go to check out, you'll be kicked up to the BIG Amazon store)  If you're interested, there's a link in my blog description (above left) and in the links to other sites (below left).  Plus, if you purchase through my little site.  It means I'll be able to fund buying more books in an enjoyable but vicious cycle.  So that was fun.

Also, I want to give you (my few but dear readers) the option of making review suggestions or book recommendations.  I tried finding an widget/link/application that would allow for this on blogger, but didn't have any look.  So, feel free to comment with your own recommendations at any time, on any post.

REVIEW: The Vampire Diaries

Smith, L.J. (1991). The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening and The Struggle. New York: HarperTeen.


Tell me if you’ve heard this plot? Teenage girl is strangely attracted to the smart, dangerous, supernaturally-powerful and rich outsider at her school who initially resists his special attraction to her. The eventual and tentative relationship is challenged by another equally powerful and attractive male love interest, forming a love triangle that will drive the rest of the series. Who will she choose who will she chose? Oh yeah, and the writing about all of this conflict, it’s mediocre. I wonder if Stephenie Meyer has read The Vampire Diaries. (It’s possible the answer is no. other (adult) vampire books tend to have the same love triangle themes as well (See Anita Blake Vampire Hunter, Sookie Stackhouse of The Southern Vampire series, etc.)

Published over ten years before the Twilight series, Vampire Diaries has a lot of similarities. But where Bella was angsty and co-dependent, Elena is obsessive, manipulative and the self-described “queen of the school” somehow causing me to dislike her even more than Bella. I didn’t find Elena relatable or redeemable until the end when she was actually contributing to fighting-the-good-fight (unlike other mortal female protagonists in other vampire series).
Still, Elena’s repeated thoughts about possessing Stefan (vampire love interest #1) or dying annoyed me. Her tendency to develop plans to get him and spread false rumors didn’t exactly impress me either. I could see some twelve or thirteen-year-old girls managing to see past all of this in their desire to become a popular high school student. Eventually, I was able to get over my dislike for her when the plot picked up and the dramazz started and Elena decided to make the effort to be less self-involved. But that was around page 150. Now I know part of the point of a novel is that a character changes. Learns. Becomes a better person. Whatever. But I gotta still be able to engage with the character pre-change. And I personally had trouble doing that with Elena. Of course, this could all just be me. Anyone read it? Got something to say? Did Elena float your boat?

The series starts with Elena, arriving home after spending the summer in France. She lives wither her aunt and young sister, since her parents are mysteriously dead. (Yet somehow the way this fact is presented somehow managed to prevent me from sympathizing with the character. Hard to believe, I know). When she returns to school she reclaims her title as “Queen,” and becomes fascinated with the new boy, Stefan, who is also secretly attracted to her, in part because she looks almost exactly like a girl he and his older brother, Damon, had loved when they became vampires during The Renaissance in Italy. Throughout the book, the reader is positioned with Elena, reading from her diary. From time to time, though the reader also gets to see into Stefan’s mind and see his past, including how he became a vampire. Readers will find that the end of the book does not resolve any of the conflict, but that they must continue on to The Struggle and then to The Fury and Dark Reunion.

The reason I chose to start reading this series is because the CW has chosen to turn it into a TV series. They’ve turned a bad YA book series into a successful TV series before. I couldn’t read past page six of the first book of Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series, but I will only slightly-reluctantly admit to enjoying the TV series. So, I actually find myself looking hopefully (but still suspiciously) forward to the fall for a couple of reasons. Honestly, it’d take a lot of effort on the CW’s part to make the series worse. Plus, there are a lot of good conflicts and themes to work with, once Elena stops being self-involved. And after all, the CW (formerly the WB) did give me Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series that started my fascination with vampires and helped me survive high school.

In terms of reading the Vampire Diary series, I stopped after The Awakening even though there was no resolution and The Struggle was incorporated to be in the same giant book when the books were republished. Of course, I put down Twilight and didn’t think I’d continue on to the rest of the series. That turned out not to be the case. The conflicts at the end did entertain me, so I’ll probably end up picking up this series again down the road.

Rambling done.  For now.  I promise.

Activities to do with the book:

This is a good book recommendation for students who have fallen in love with the Twilight series. There are a lot of the similar themes and plot devices throughout both series.

Favorite Quotes:

“Dear Diary,
Soemthign awful is going to happen today.
I don’t know why I wrote that” (p. 3).

“Interesting things happen in the dark…sometimes” (p. 164).

REVIEW: Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude

Winter, J. (2009). Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude. New York: Atheneum Books
for Young Readers.


Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude Is Gertrude (four Gertrudes there) is a biographical picturebook written in the style of, and about, Gertrude Stein. This is a book that needs a lot of background information to get completely. Also, because of it’s prose style, a teacher will need to read this book aloud multiple times (or encourage rereading) to help students get the meaning. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just sharing the book for enjoyment of the words and the way they flow either. It all depends on your goal for the day)

With some beautiful lines, this book would be great to accompany sharing some of Stein’s writing.

The illustrations are fun and colorful and compliment the text well. They help to provide a sense of fun and play with perspective.

Activities to do with the book:

After sharing this book, a teacher could encourage students to write freely, whatever thoughts go through their heads.

There are a number of ways a teacher could use this book with larger individual or group projects. A teacher could assign research papers or presentations based on Modernism and the artists and writers of the school (including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso), their art and the historic events.

While this book could be used with a number of age groups, if a teacher chooses to share it with the upper grades, at least a few students will assume the unseen narrator is on drugs and the teacher will have to challenge students to think more deeply.

Also, if any teachers out there happen to be as nerdy as me, he or she may want to try having a tea party after sharing this book by taking an hour to two to have the students go to the school library or other homey school space, dress in period clothes (maybe for extra credit) talk about literature and art of the period and maybe even read Stein’s poems and others’ works aloud in small groups.

Favorite Quotes:

"And now it's time for tea. Teatime is teatime. And look who's here, in time for tea."

"Pages and pages and pages with words all over the pages. My goodness, what fun. What fun to write whatever words occur."

"You see Miss Gertrude is a genius. And a genius is a genius. So what if no one understands a word she writes. Some day they might."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

REVIEW: The House in the Night

Swanson, S.M. (2008). The House in the Night. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.


This gentle poem was inspired by the classic nursery rhymes collected by the Opies in the 1950s. And it has that old-school feel. So do the illustrations, which, while mainly black and white, also feature the intentional use of yellow. The text is warm, attempting to create a sense of home. But the illustrations do have a decidedly rural feel.

The objects and illustrations mentioned and shown in the text are interconnected and come full-circle, allowing new readers to begin to develop meaning and connections. Plus the rhythm of the lines will appeal to young readers. It has a similar feel to Wood’s The Napping House (1984).

This is the 2009 Caldecott winner.

Activities to do with the book:

Students could write their own poems or create their own illustrations in response to the book. This is a great book to have new readers follow along with using their finger or to read aloud for the first time.

Children could also be asked tentatively why certain objects and creatures are yellow or how all of the pages are interconnected.

This would be a good bedtime read.

Favorite Quotes:

“Here is the key
to the house.”

“The house in the night,
a home full of light.”



McDonnell, P. (2008). South. New York: Little, Brown and Company.


With an initial plot similar to the movie Home Alone, one little birdie sleeps in and is left behind when his flock flies south for the winter. A friendly cat guides the little bird in the right direction to be reunited with the other birds.

This almost wordless picturebook (there is a little weeping), uses a few neutral colors to show the transition of colors between fall and winter. While children will immediately sympathize with the bird and the experience of being lost, what was most endearing for me was that the cat takes the bird by the wing and guides it with her paw (think holding hands, animal style). Added to this, part of their journey takes them into a human city and both the bird and cat seem small and childlike, perhaps sending the message that children can help children.

Activities to do with the book:

This book can trigger a discussion of the experience of being lost with young children. A teacher or parent could make suggestions of who a young person can approach if they find themselves lost or left behind.

To go another direction, a teacher could also discuss the seasons and their influence upon birds and other animals.

If a classroom pairs with a class of older students, this book could be used to help introduce the mentor-mentee relationship.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

REVIEW: Getting the Girl

Juby, S. (2008). Getting the Girl: A Guide to Private Investigation, Surveillance, and Cookery. New York: HarperTeen.


Not to be confused with (My future husband) Markus Zusak’s YA novel Getting the Girl which focuses on the relationship between two Australian brothers, THIS Getting the Girl is set in a school where girls are occasionally declared “defiled” and considered ghostly outcasts. Fearing that his crush may be the next girl to be defiled, ninth grader, Sherman Mack decides to investigate who does the defiling and why.

Humorous and well written, this mystery reminded me of the works of John Green (another would-be husband, but alas, he didn’t wait for me and has already gotten married), but a little younger and a little lighter. The book includes quirky characters, many great lines and some social commentary.

One of the other things that I also like about this book is that not all of the characters are assumed to be middle class. Sherman doesn’t know who his father is and his mom is a bartender interested in burlesque dancing (Quirky!) who got pregnant when she was sixteen.

Juby seemed to do a good job of writing from a boy’s perspective. Of course, my ability to judge this is limited, what with not being a boy either. Most of Sherman’s masculinity is expressed through being attracted to various female characters. Despite that, this book is begging to be examined in terms of the way gender is constructed.(particularly since girls are often considered potential victims).

While I think this book would be perfect for eighth or ninth graders, the length of the book (341 pages) could scare a lot of students that age away. But at the same time, not many eleventh or twelfth graders will want to read about a ninth grader. Plus a few secondary characters smoke pot, another character is a dealer.

Activities to do with the book:

Since the word defiled is used to describe the girls cast out of the high school social scene, a great project would be to research the significance of the word defiling among different cultures and ethnic groups. Who or what gets defiled in different societies and why? Does the fact that only girls had been ‘defiled’ previously at the start of the novel seem significant thinking both historically and in contemporary society?
(As a side note, I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary: the super-dictionary for super-nerds which considers word origin and shifts in meaning). Apparently, the word ‘defile’ has been around in English since the 1400s.)

Also, after reading this book and given the right context, maybe a teacher could provoke an honest conversation about school cliques in schools within literature circles. They can consider how socio-economic status influence the popularity and power of various characters.

This book could start a discussion on the theme of transgression in literature, since Sherman transgresses gender roles and social groups.

If a teacher ever examined mystery and detective novels with high school students, this novel could be paired with a Raymond Chandler novel, the movie Brick, or the TV show Veronica Mars, or other detective narrative.

Favorite Quotes (There were a lot to choose from, so I went with those quotes that made me chuckle, giggle, laugh out loud, cackle, snort, etc.):

“I am very interested in girls. I actually study them. I am almost like a scholar of women. My friend Vanessa says I’m a scholar of stalking, but she’s quite cynical, probably from all her crime reading which has given her an abnormally dark view of life” (p. 15).

“You’ll be happy to hear that Sherman is finally going to do something useful with his life” (p. 64).

“My masculine esteem didn’t appreciate that very much” (p. 66).

To help pass the time, I tried meditating. Our health teacher says deep breathing can help with the stress of being an adolescent, but in my experience it just makes me think about girls” (p. 70).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

REVIEW: Graceling

Cashore, K. (2008). Graceling. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc.


Kasta is graced with a skill for killing, one that her uncle, King Randa, has taken advantage of since she was a small child. Marked by her beautiful and mismatched eyes, Kasta’s killing reputation extends to all of the seven kingdoms.

Kasta’s killing ways begin to change when she encounters a stranger with another grace during a secret mission to rescue the kidnapped father of one of the other kings. Leaving the stranger alive, Katsa later learns that he is Po, the grandson of the kidnapped man and a prince. As Katsa continues to question her role and allegiance, she joins Po in the search for who is behind kidnapping his grandfather.

I had expected to enjoy this book more than I actually did. I’ll admit Graceling was given high praise by a friend of mine and was compared to one of my favorites, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. It wasn’t that Graceling necessarily fell short of expectations, I think my problem was with how long the book was. I found myself mumbling, “four-hundred pages left…three-hundred pages left, two-hundred and ninety-nine pages left….” I felt like a lot of the conflicts could have been condensed. There was a lot, A LOT of traveling and practice fights. While this was where the majority of the romance was, I felt it could have been done more quickly. But then, it’s also possible I have the reading mentality of a nine-year-old boy. So, judge for yourself.

With less action than many fantasy novels, Graceling considers the role of women within a society as Katsa seeks freedom and notices the roles and dangers presented to other girls in the medieval-esque society. It is probably for the best that fighting isn’t used to build the tension of the novel, after all, when your protagonist is undefeated and known to be able to outfight any group, no matter the number, it is not going to add to the tension to see her fight. The novel does however include both subtle humor and a subtle mystery.

My other problem with the novel involves Katsa’s desire for freedom. While she doesn’t want to serve a man, she takes on the responsibility of protecting a child. Without hesitation While Katsa still chooses where and how to go places with her charge, her charge’s safety and well-being are always Katsa’s first priority. Which, in my mind, challenges Katsa’s freedom. But then, that may tell you less about how Katsa views freedom and more about how I view freedom.

*Spoiler Below*
Sticking with the exploration of freedom for one more comment, much of Katsa’s consideration over freedom, comes when she contemplates whether or not to begin a relationship with Po since marriage would mean he’d have power over her. (The answer: Become lovers, of course! With a sex scene, which, while not explicit, pushes more than most books.)
*End Spoiler*

Activities to do with the book:

This is a great book to use to begin a discussion of women’s roles in imagined societies as well as in real societies.

Students could create their own maps of the layout of the seven kingdoms.

More than anything this may be a good book recommendation, particularly for teenage female readers who love strong female characters or fantasy.

Favorite Quotes:

“It was a land of seven kingdoms. Seven kingdoms, and seven thoroughly unpredictable kings” (p. 17).

“What’s the point of a public execution,” he said, “if the public misses the part where the fellow dies? I can see that when I give orders I shall have to compensate for your mental ineptitude” (p. 29).

“Normal. She wasn’t normal. A girl Graced with killing, a royal thug? A girl who didn’t want the husbands Randa pushed on her, perfectly handsome and thoughtful men, a girl who panicked at the thought of a baby at her breast, or clinging to her ankles.
She wasn’t natural” (pp. 32-33).

“She would knock his nose from his face. She would thump them both, and she would apologize to neither” (p. 90).

“Take care. She has a knife, and she’s willing to use it.”
“Good for her” (pp. 280-281).

REVIEW: The Giver

Lowry, L. (1993). The Giver. New York: Laurel-Leaf Books.


This book was one of my favorites as a child. I had it read aloud to me. I read it multiple times then. I’ve been assigned to read it once as an adult. I’ve had to reread it twice for some of my students’ projects. I’ve seen the play version that was created. I have The Giver memorized. Seriously. Ask me what went down on page 127. I’ve got an answer.

The scope of Lowry’s writing career is impressive, including historical fiction, realistic fiction, science-fiction and parody. The Giver has always been my personal favorite. The book shares the story of Jonas, who upon turning twelve with all of his classmates is chosen for a special career-path by his community, to receive the memories of lives different from those in the community. Experiences of pain, joy, love, war, death and color.

Jonas soon realizes that the choices made by the community are not the best for them. So he, along with his mentor, the giver, decides to return the memories to the community.

Lowry puts forth a lot of effort to craft the world and rules of the community. Some may argue too much effort. But since this may be many students first adventure into a society different from their own, it may be necessary.

The Giver is the first book in a loosely connected series. (The next book being Gathering Blue) But The Giver is commonly considered to be the best book of the series.

Some students may have trouble with the ending of the book. While the majority of students view it as a happy ending, some will see it as ambiguous or even sad, which can cause all manner of vocal reaction in class. If the ending upsets anyone, a good starting point is to have students create their own endings.

When this book was first read aloud to me as a child, I was totally blown away by the moment that the reader learns the members of the community do not see in color. Seriously my young little world was rocked. That’s when I realized that books can be well crafted. And this still tends to be a moment that many readers pull out as interesting.

Also, apparently the book will be made into a movie sometime around 2011. Do you think they’ll manage to pull it off? Who would you want to play the giver?

Activities to do with the book:

This book can be used it multiple ways—to discuss the way a society is constructed. To create an introductory lesson on utopias and distopias. To have students create rules for a society they would like to create (and then implement those rules for an afternoon). Scenes from this story could easily be dramatized. Children could also make illustrations of the text, paying special attention to the use of black, white, grey and red.

This book could be used to trigger a discussion of symbolism. Also, since the ending may be considered ambiguous to a few children, a teacher could encourage discussion of multiple interpretations being allowable.

Favorite Quotes:

“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant the deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago” (p. 1).

“There was absolutely nothing remarkable about that apple. He had tossed it back and forth between his hands a few times, then thrown it again to Asher. And again—in the air, for an instant only—it had changed” (p. 24).

“He is to be alone, apart, while he is prepared by the current Receiver for the job whish is most honored in our community” (p. 61).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

REVIEW: Joey Pigza Loses Control

Gantos, J. (2000). Joey Pigza Loses Control. New York: HarperTrophy.


Joey’s back and he’s facing a new challenge: Meeting his father for the first time and visiting his difficult grandma, whose health is declining.

This book deals more deeply with issues only touched on the first book: The results of a lifetime of smoking, parental alcoholism, the need for ADHD medication, parental pressure, the desire for a united family, etc. Also, this book may appeal to sports fans, since Joey spends a lot of time playing baseball while visiting his father in Pittsburgh. There are also fairytale elements to this story, since Joey’s father repeatedly uses fairytales as metaphors for his life.

What’s amazing about the second book in this series is how the reader’s perception changes of Joey’s mother. In the first book, I found myself wondering if Joey should be living with her. In the second book, when Joey visits his father, I found myself pleading, “Please, please, PLEASE send him back to his mother!”

Activities to do with the book:

This book can be used to have a number of conversations on visiting an absent parent, realizing parents make mistakes, the experience of being ADHD and needing medication, the health complications of smoking. And so on. If a teacher shares this book with a student or class, he or she must be certain to show sympathy for Joey and encourage personal response to the narrative.

If students have read the first book, a teacher could ask how their views of the characters have shifted. Do they feel more sympathetic toward Joey, his mother and grandmother?

Since the story ends rather abruptly, students could write a continuation of the story, letters to Joey and his family members or just go on to read the next book.

Favorite Quotes:

“That’s the one thing I liked about [my father] already. [Mom’s] mind was on him, him, him. Usually it was on me, me, me, and I couldn’t do or say anything that she didn’t notice, but now I was hiding inside his shadow like a drop inside an ocean, and he got to take the blame for her bad nerves” (p. 7).

JOEY’S MOTHER: “I’m sending you because you might like [your dad] and because I think—not with my heart—that it’s a good thing for you to have a relationship with your father. And now that he claims to have stopped drinking and has a job and has gone to court to get some visitation. I’m sending you to him because I think it’s the right thing to do” (p. 8).

“My patch is not a drug,” I pleased. “It’s medicine” (p. 93).


McCormick, P. (2000). Cut. New York: Push.


While ya gotta respect McCormick for repeatedly exploring some of the toughest issues for young adult girls out there, I feel like Cut doesn’t focus on cutting enough to warrant it making the title. Sure the narrator is put in a facility because she is a cutter, but her group mates who are there for an assortment of reasons interested me just as much, when I could keep straight who each one was. (Students may need to chart each character and track their characteristics. For reals, it’s so easy to get these girls confused!)

McCormick does a wonderful job of constructing Callie’s character, although I did expect her to have experienced more trauma than what was described in the book.

In this short book, there is a small commentary about the perception of cutter’s by most people and the medical community. McCormick confronts that general assumptions and misunderstandings by presenting multiple people and a second girl who cuts herself for different reasons.

Despite my extensive consideration of cutting here, the majority of the book is more focused on the aspects of life that are haunting Callie and her journey to deciding to get better.

My favorite part is that the entire book is written in second-person direct addresses to the reader, as though he or she is the psychiatrist working with Callie.

Activities to do with the book:

This book is good for starting discussions on issues of cutting, bulimia, anorexia, insanity, drug addiction, familial pressures, ways of dealing with problems, dealing with stress over a sick relative, expressions of emotions, etc.

Also, the ending is fairly ambiguous, so students could write letters to the characters asking how they are doing or they could write their own continuations.

Students could also write a letter as Callie’s psychiatrist as a response to the book. Or they could construct the character of “you” based on the few clues present in the text.

Favorite Quotes:

“You say it’s up to me to do the talking” (p. 1).

“The people at Sick Minds were still trying to figure out what to do with me” (p. 11).

“There’s a lot of crying here at night. Since there are no doors on any of the rooms, the crying—or moaning, or sobbing—floats out into the hallway. Sometimes I lie in bed imagining a river of sobs flowing by, leaving little puddles of misery on each threshold” (p. 27).

REVIEW: Wayside School Is Falling Down

Sachar, L. (1989). Wayside School Is Falling Down. New York: Avon Books.


Continuing with the Wayside Series, what’s interesting with the second book is that, while the majority of chapters are still character sketches, there is more overlap and continuation of conflicts among the chapters. (The same is true for the third book as well).

Students that liked the first book will undoubtedly like the second and third books as well (however, usually disappointments about with the fourth book). Readers get to see more into the mysteriously missing nineteenth floor, the school basement, learn more about the characters and their families as well as have fun with language.

Rereading these books, I always want to re-check Sachar’s biography. With his writing, I feel like he has spent more time as a teacher.

Activities to do with the book:

The entire series is great for dramatization or having students write their own chapters or stories in response.

An unexpected lesson of these books is best for teachers. Within the first three books of the series, multiple teaching styles are presented. Teachers can take away views of teaching and discipline from the child’s perspective, which is always a wonderful view to keep in mind.

Favorite Quotes:

“You don’t hate stories, Dana,” Mrs. Jewls told her. “You love stories. I wish everybody laughed and cried as much as you” (p. 65).

“Miss Zarves assigns us a lot of busy work so we don’t have time to think. She makes us memorize stupid things so that we don’t think about the important things. And then she gives us good grades to keep us happy” (p. 102).

REVIEW: Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

Rennison, L. (1999). Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confession of Georgia Nicolson. New York: HarperTempest.


It’s hard to believe this book is already ten years old. It makes me wonder if, I too, am old. I certainly hope not.

The diaries of British teen, Georgia, are essentially a young adult version of Bridget Jones’s Diary: Often funny, occasionally insulting, always frivolous. Georgia’s humor often emerges at the expense of others, including her best friends and parents. There are also multiple jokes describing lesbianism in negative terms.

Despite these drawbacks, Rennison has managed to capture the voice of Georgia well. Although the character often feels immature for her age, she can be used to describe the ways that media and other popular narratives influence young girls. And I always end up laughing out loud. At least a little.

Activities to do with the book:

This book is best for entertainment. If a teacher were desperate to turn this series into a lesson, they could pair it with Pride and Prejudice or Emma by Jane Austen and describe how plot points commonly present in most romantic comedies were first developed by Austen.

Favorite Quotes:

“I hope you like my diary and don’t hold it against me that my great-great-great-grandparents colonized you. (Not just the two of them, obviously…)” (A Note from Georgia).

“You’re fourteen years old. You’ve only had that hair for fourteen years and you want to change it already! How bored are you going to be with it by the time you are thirty? What color will you be up to by then?” (p. 13).

“Georgia, what have you done now?” (p. 21).

“Then [my little sister] Libby said, “Yes, I am the Queen and Georgia did a big poo this morning.”
I couldn’t believe it. He [Robbie, a love interest] could not believe it. Nobody could believe it. It was unbelievable, that’s why. He stood up quickly and I said, “Er, well, I’d better be going.” (p. 64).

REVIEW: Something Wickedly Weird: The Wooden Mile

Mould, C. (2007). Something Wickedly Weird: The Wooden Mile. New York: Roaring Brook Press.


Stanley, as the youngest living relative of his great-uncle, inherits the deceased man’s hall and all of the wackiness of the people who live in the town of Compton Rock. Stanley leaves home without his busy parents to take possession of the immense Candlestick Hall and is greeted by unusual characters and strange rules, one of which is “don’t go out after dark.”

The story includes a lot of humorous and quirky characters, including a talking fish, a mean candy-seller, and three disgruntled pirates. The pirates insist Stanley help them end the reign of a local werewolf, but Stanley soon learns that the pirates have more planned for him than that.

In terms of the writing, humor and illustrations, The Wooden Mile feels and looks a lot like A Series of Unfortunate Events, but with slightly fewer vocabulary demands. With illustrations included on every few pages, the book is a pretty fast read, building a young reader’s confidence (or providing an advanced reader with a fun break).

This book is, of course, the first in a growing series. Cause a novel can’t stand alone anymore. Ever.

Activities to do with the book:

This is a book that is probably best to be read for enjoyment. Although the series could lend itself to comparison with similarly themed books (such as A Series of Unfortunate Events) if a teacher really want to provoke a conversation. At the very least, Something Wickedly Weird could be a book recommendation for students who have finished all 13 of the Series of Unfortunate Events.

Favorite Quotes:

“This is not the very start of the story. It is simply a convenient place to begin. And you should be warned that when you delve into what has already happened and what lies ahead, you will find this a dark and twisted tale” (pp. 7-8).

“I always sleep well,” announced Stanley. “It’s the thing I do best” (p. 45).

“He couldn’t help thinking how ridiculous it seemed. Three vicious pirates, all wanting to get rid of one man—yet they needed the help of an eleven-year-old boy!” (p. 89).

Monday, March 23, 2009

REVIEW: Planet of the Dogs

McCarty, R.J. (2007). Planet of the Dogs. Barking Planet Productions.


Planet of the Dogs shares the story of a human world consumed by greed. To save the Earth, volunteer dogs leave their own planet and begin to improve humanity by befriending children, beginning with Daisy and Bean.

This book has the feel and language of a creation myth. Individual characters are not introduced for several chapters. All of this lends itself for the book to be read aloud.

The illustrations were detailed, but did not always match the images that I personally wanted to create for the worlds described.

The book is in moments choppy with the chapter transitions. It was also too didactic for my personal tastes. But more than anything, this book demonstrates a love for dogs and a metaphor for how they can improve people’s lives.

For more information on the book and series, you can visit

Activities to do with the book:

Since the book shares both examples of a distopia and a utopia, a teacher could encourage a discussion of what makes a society ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Students could create their own stories in response, incorporating their own favorite species of animals as heroes.

The book could also be used to initiate a conversation on respecting dogs and other animals. Or could begin to consider how pets can help people feel happier.

Favorite Quotes:

“Our story begins, long, long ago, before there were dogs on Planet Earth” (p. 1).

“Our plan is to begin with the children. They are more open to trust, love and learning new ways than adults. We will go to Planet Earth and work with the children” (p. 6).

“We dogs are happy and help each other because love is the most important part of our lives. When you give love,” she said, “You bring out love in others. If we come to Planet Earth, and people spend time with us, there will be fewer lonely people and more happy people” (p. 10-11).

Certified Resolution Writing Endeavor Review Report: Week Twelve and a Second Self-Imposed Writing Retreat

Is it Monday already?

How'd that happen?

One of the things I love about being on break is that I lose all sense of time.  For example, I wake up, intending to start my day with writing.  Right after I finish my coffee and newspaper.  And I put in a DVD and two to four hours pass and starting my morning with writing is no longer possible, because it's no longer them morning.  Oops.

I did manage to make my weekly resolution requirements.  But not because I was working on writing the story I intend to finish.  Because I was working on a few picturebooks.  But I'll do better now.  Right?  Right.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My desire to write outweighs my fear of technology

I'm testing out creating a blog entry from my phone.

Can you imagine typing a book on your phone?

Life is too short for that.

Because it would take forever.

Even if the book was a short one.

And mine isn't.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This Is Too Good to Be Written by Me

I just found this poem on a document where I store my bad attempts at poetry.

It is totally awesome.  Like, I really love it.  

It's funny AND well written.

I have no memory of writing it.  None.  Maybe a vague flash of sitting at my computer in my old apartment, but that's it.

I can't image copying someone else's poem into a document titled "My Attempts at Poetry."  So apparently I wrote it.

Go me.

While I attempt to figure out where to submit the poem first (and a few duds along with it, since most magazines prefer to look at several poems at a time), I'm also going to google a few of the lines.  Gotta make sure the poem is all me.  Cause it seems to good.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

REVIEW: Ready, Steady, Spaghetti

Broadhurst, L. (2009). Ready, Steady, Spaghetti: Cooking for kids and with kids. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.


Ready, Steady, Spaghetti goes out of its way to be child friendly. While initially flipping through the photos of all of the recipes, I found myself looking for that meal that would make any nine-year-old (or in my case 24-year-old) go “Eww! I’m not eating that!” I didn’t find many such recipes. (The Chicken Noodle Omelet did make me wonder a little) In fact, as I looked at the meals, I found that I wished I could cook. Or that what I can cook would look like the well-lit photographed versions of these recipes. Or that my mom and dad didn’t live so far away so they could make me some of these recipes. Or that I had a professional cook who prepared all my meals, drinks and snacks. Whichever.

This family-friendly cookbook does a great job of presenting many healthy meals and quite a few treats as well. I also found it was very vegetarian friendly. Which is saying something, as few mainstream cookbooks show love to us veggie-lovers.

While the recipes range in complexity, no matter the meal, this cookbook shares photos of most of the dishes as they are in process. This prevents fools like me from having to ask the nagging question of “Did I do this right?” Still, despite the ease to use this book, it would probably still be best to have adult supervision, especially if I’m the one doing the cooking.

Favorite Recipes: Cauliflower in Cheese Sauce, Moo Juice and Chocolate-Honeycomb Mousse.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Certified Resolution Writing Endeavor Review Report: Week Eleven and a Second Self-Imposed Writing Retreat

Has it been a week already?

How'd that happen.

I managed to meet the requirements of my resolution again.  I also managed to officially finish all of my work for the quarter as well (aside from waiting for a few more students to hand in their finals), meaning I can hopefully focus completely on my reading and creative writing for the break.

For the next two weeks, I've decided to do a Self-Imposed Writing Retreat:  Part II.  This time my goal is going to be to finish a certain young adult novel that I started right before I graduated from Chatham, almost two years ago.  Speaking metaphorically, this is akin to instead of slowly moving a three-story brick building over five feet by pushing brick by brick (and only managing to push about six or seven of said bricks so far), deciding to pick up the whole building and move it myself.  No forklifts.  No silly construction workers.  Just me and my kinda-defined-in-the-right-light arm muscles.   Perhaps I'm setting myself up to fail. Perhaps I'm crazy.  But perhaps I can achieve more than I think I'm capable of.  I'm hoping so...for the achieving, not for the being crazy.

And even if I don't make it, I'm at least hoping this writing retreat will involve watching fewer DVDs and more time in front of my computer than the last one did.

Let the Self-Imposed Writing Retreat:  Part II begin!





Ooh, I forgot!  My Netflix DVD arrived yesterday.  Better watch that.  

Sunday, March 8, 2009

REVIEW: The Case of the Missing Marquess

Springer, N. (2006). An Enola Holmes Mystery: The Case of the Missing Marquess.
New York: Puffin Books.


After her mother has gone missing, Enola Holmes must call for her two older brothers, one of whom is the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Threatened with boarding school, Enola instead decides to escape to search for her mother. She happens upon another mystery of a ten-year-old Marquess who is missing from his home. Enola’s search for both the Marquess and her mother will take her to London where she encounters a number of different characters and dangers.

Enola’s voice feels authentic to the time period. This is both a strength and weakness of the novel. While giving it an authentic feel, it may make it harder for some readers to engage with. The text is well-researched and gives a lot of sensory details to try to bring the reader in.

The experience of British women in the late nineteenth century is central to this novel. It shows the expectations upon women and the feminist experience and search for freedom within a restrictive society. And it serves as a strong start to the series of books showing Enola's mysterious cases that have followed it.

I am nerdy enough to have grown up, believing the character of Sherlock Holmes to be downright sexy. Springer, at least for a large portion of the novel, manages to challenge this perception by having Holmes wander around encouraging pity for his young sister due to her small “cranial capacity.” His perception of women, while authentic and humorous, angered my feminist sensibilities. Which, you know, is the point.

Activities to do with the book:

There are many lessons that this book could be incorporated into, especially those involving the history of Great Britain, the women’s movement, Western thought and philosophy, the meaning and significance of flowers or exploration of Sherlock Holmes as a character.

Students could create illustrations to accompany the story. This could take the form of portraits of the characters or even studies of flowers.

Favorite Quotes:

“I would very much like to know why my mother named me “Enola,” which, backwards, spells alone. Mum was, or perhaps still is, fond of ciphers, and she must have had something in mind, whether foreboding or a sort of left-handed blessing or, already, plans, even though my father had not yet passed away” (p. 5).

“I remembered Dr. Watson’s listing of my brother’s accomplishments: scholar, chemist, superb violinist, expert marksman, swordsman, singlestick fighter, pugilist, and brilliant deductive thinker.
Then I formed a mental list of my own accomplishments: able to read, write and do sums; find birds’ nests; dig worms and catch fish; and, oh yes, ride a bicycle” (pp. 29-30).

“What on earth was he saying? That Mum had abandoned me? I sat with my mouth ajar.
“Pity the girl’s cranial capacity, Mycroft,” Sherlock murmured to his brother” (p. 49).

REVIEW: Sideways Stories from Wayside School

Sachar, L. (1978). Sideways Stories from Wayside School. New York: Avon Books.


This is the first book in Sachar’s famous and much loved Wayside School series. While not lacking action, each chapter presents itself as a character sketch of the students and teachers on the 30th floor of Wayside School, which was accidentally built up vertically instead of the planned horizontally. Sachar (pronounced Sack-er) actually included himself as a character, Louis the yard teacher.

While this series may be best for allowing students to enjoy books that will make them laugh out loud, a teacher could also share a general lesson on metafiction and Surrealism. The teacher would be able to bring in other children’s books (such as Jumanji or Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg) that show absurd or dream-like qualities.
While I remember finding these character sketches immensely entertaining as a child (and I know I wasn’t alone) I had a very different experience reading the series as an adult and as a teacher. I remember as a child, thinking the young replacement for Mrs. Gorf was a good teacher. Reading it this time, I felt Mrs. Jewls still managed to fall short as a teacher when it came to communicating with students.

As the series go on, what initially are basic character profiles extends out into long running jokes and overlapping plots. All of the books demonstrate the fun a writer or student can have with language.
Also, this is a good series to share with undergrads studying to be educators. There are a number of commentaries about different approaches to teaching.

Scroll back up and look at the cover of the cover art of the recent edition.  Go on.  Do it.  Then scroll back down.  Now, it could just be me and my cold of doom.  But it is WAY too busy.  It gives me a headache.  I prefer the cover to the right.  Pleasant and it manages to incorporate the original cover art from the 1970s.  And no headache.  What more could a reader ask for?

Activities to do with the book:

This series is probably best to amuse middle grade readers.

However, if a teacher really wanted to do lessons with this book, he or she could lead students into a discussion of surrealism. As for activities, a teacher could encourage students to record their dreams and turn them into stories.

Also, since there are so many characters in the book, each student in a class could be assigned a character and he or she could play that character if the books were acted out or the student could write a continuation of that character’s story. Another option would be to write a story in which the student was one of the many characters.

Favorite Quotes:

“It has been said that these stories are strange and silly. That is probably true. However, when I told stories about you to the children at Wayside, they thought you were strange and silly. That is probably also true” (p. 9).

“[The student] were afraid of what their new teacher would be like. They had heard she’d be a terribly nice teacher. They had never had a nice teacher. They were terribly afraid of nice teachers” (p. 15).

“Class,” said Mrs. Jewls. “Let’s all thank Louis for his wonderful story.”
Everybody booed” (p. 124).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Certified Resolution Writing Endeavor Review Report: Week Ten

I haf a cold.

My brain iz full.

I cannot focus.

Drugz no help.

I ded manage to meet mah goal.  *Ah-choo*  But that'z cause I noticed the marjin on won of my paperz waz at .7 inch instead of at won inch.  Gained me two pajes. *Ah-choo*

Paper one:  Compleee ruf drafff.  Kinda.  *Cough*  

Paper Two:  Compleee ruf drafff.

Paper Three:  Haf not started.  Fail.  Stupid cold.  *Cough.  Cough*

Am now submeeting to magazine publisherz abroad.  Mayhap they'll a-a-*ah-choo*-ppreciate me more.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

REVIEW: The Blacker the Berry

Thomas, J.C. (2008). The Blacker the Berry. New York: Joanna Cotler Books.


The Blacker the Berry features twelve poems written by Joyce Carol Thomas complimenting different shades of skin color and connecting those colors with similes and metaphors of foods—mostly berries.

While the actual content of the picturebook is far from tense, there is building in the sense that the final poem incorporates all of the children previously described.

Issues explored through the poems include the ideas of ‘passing’ as white, ethnic identity, connection to the past, ways of peacefully resisting negative perceptions, etc. All of these could become points to discuss with a class.

This picturebook won the Coretta Scott King Award this year for the illustrations. The pictures feature African American children with a range of skin tones in natural environments, doing a number of activities, almost always smiling. The picturebook naturalizes blackness and presents as many different skin tones as possible positively.

Activities to do with the book:

Children could write poems about their own skin color and that of their friends and loved ones and create illustrations to accompany them. A lighter writing option could be to write about favorite foods and how people resemble them in physical characteristics and personality.

A teacher can also use these poems for examples of images and metaphors.

Students could also discuss the issues presented by the poems in class or small groups as well as offer their own narratives triggered by those discussions.

Favorite Quotes:

“Day couldn’t dawn without the night
Colors, without black, couldn’t sparkle
quite so bright”

“It feels absolutely fabulous
To be this brown
Anyway, I refuse to walk too long in shadow”

“We are color struck
The way an artist strikes
His canvas with his brush of many hues”

Monday, March 2, 2009

REVIEW: Mascot to the Rescue!

David, P. (2008). Mascot to the Rescue. New York: Laura Geringer Books.


Mascot goes beyond lighthearted imaginative superhero play to blurring the line between Josh having imaginative fun and psychological need to help deal with his parents’ recent divorce. After trying to save a new girl, Kelsey, from some bullies, Josh learns that his favorite character, the sidekick Mascot, is going to be killed-off from the comic book series. Having such a strong connection with Mascot, Josh fears for his own life as well as the character’s and takes his new friend Kelsey on a quest to the comic book’s publisher to save Mascot and himself.

More so, Mascot explores the experience of young outsiders, developing friendships and psychological support.

While it's clear that Peter David loves comics, the overall writing of Mascot to the Rescue! is mediocre, often telling in place of showing. The story follows multiple perspectives, including those of adults. But even when in the heads of Josh or Kelsey, the narrative doesn’t quite manage to feel as though it is in a child’s voice. This could, in part, be because of the emphasis on psychological well-being.

The story also includes moments in italics when Josh falls back on pretending to be Mascot.

Activities to do with the book:

As with other superhero narratives, students could create their own superhero narratives in response, creating their own heroes, challenges and illustrations.

This book could open up discussion on how to deal with parents’ divorce, or how while imagination may be a key to dealing with all matter of issues, it still must be balanced with other outlets or therapies.

A teacher could touch on the power that literature has to influence people’s or discuss where authors get ideas for their stories.

Favorite Quotes

“What’s so wonderful about the real world anyway? So many terrible things happen. At least he’s reading! At least he’s spending his time doing something other than hanging out on the internet” (p. 17).

“And the way I figure it,” he said, holding up the latest issue, “if Mascot can get through all the stuff that he has to deal with…then I can get through all of mine” (p. 31).

“Well, we’ve got to find out.”
“On the internet. That’s how you find out everything” (p. 44).

REVIEW: Roar of a Snore

Arnold, M.D. (2006). Roar of a Snore. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.


In the night, Jack has trouble sleeping because the sound of somebody snoring. He begins looking for the offending snorer by waking up each member of his family.

Roar of a Snore uses unpredictable rhyme to tell the story. While the rhyme is inconsistent, it does not feel forced, which is high praise.

The illustrations include a lot of darker tones, to portray nighttime. The colors are not threatening though and encourage this book to be used as a naptime or a bedtime read.

I chose this book for personal reasons. Growing up, I always had to deal with a certain somebody’s snores keeping me awake. I must admit, I rarely handled it as well as Jack. My method of waking potential snorers often involved kicking the bed, throwing pillows, pulling an offending snorer’s sleeping bag outside while camping. In fact, those are still my methods of choice. Nobody messes with my sleep patterns! Nobody!

Activities to do with the book:

This is a good bedtime story, but a teacher could do a lesson on manners and incorporate the fact that it is rude to wake up sleeping friends and loved ones, no matter how loud the snoring.
Also a teacher could reinforce all of the vocabulary present for the various types of snores and for fun could have all the students practice making the various snoring noises.

Favorite Quotes:

“The sky was dark. The stars were bright. Each Huffle fast asleep that night.”

“Jack heard a snore. A might snore! A clamorous snore! A thundering, ear-splitting, roar of a snore!”

“Each Huffle added snuffles, huffs, wheezes, whistles, grumbles, puffs. One giant snore sailed through the night.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Certified Resolution Writing Endeavor Review Report: Week Nine

Check.  Made it.

I must admit I did not get as much writing done as I had hoped to complete this weekend.  But I suppose having all three of my final papers and two novels magically done, printed and waiting for me on my front step with the morning paper was a bit much to hope for.

I do have some kinda-sorta-maybe good news to report.  This weekend, I got an email stating two poems that I had submitted to a magazine have been moved along to "further consideration" by the editors.  I submitted the poems in October.  I share this with you as a cautionary reminder that a response time of months and months is not unusual.  I also share this because all wanna be (gonna be!) writers/artists also share in the eventuality that personalized rejections, or "we're not rejecting you quite yet" deferrals are considered a wonderful achievement. So, kinda-yay!

Okay, I'm off to slack and maybe, just maybe, I'm going to try to write another paragraph or two of one of my three painful papers.


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