Wednesday, July 20, 2011

REVIEW: Vordak the Incomprehensible: How to Grow Up and Rule the World

Vordak/Scott Seegert.  (2010).  How to Grow Up and Rule the World.  New York:  Egmont.

196 pages.

Appetizer:  Evil Vordak the Incomprehensible has some advise for all of us "inferior" ones:  How to grow up and rule the world (in case you didn't figure it out by the book's title).  While regularly asserting his superiority, Vordak provides essential information about any potential evil villain's behavior, costume, lair, laugh, plans, etc., as he or she seeks world domination.

This how-to guide includes contracts, quizzes, commandments, scenes that could be acted out, question and answer sections, charts and illustrations that will amuse readers.  (I could particularly see third or fourth-grade boys who have just finished Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants or the Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series loving this book.)  I think this book's varied structure will keep kids engaged.  (Although, every now and then, I did happen upon a page that confused me a little.  Like this one from page 43...

It took me a minute to realize that the "no" and "yes" weren't a part of the dialogue on the page and were instead noting which was the appropriate response.  I would have preferred if the 'no' answer were crossed out or something.)

I did also have trouble with the way gender (and nerds!) were presented.  Scientists were picked on (I would have preferred if they were championed since mad scientists want to rule the world too!).  But much worse, there really was no possibility presented that a female villain would want to rule the world (We have ambitious goals too!)  I was willing to overlook this problem until I hit page 130.  In this section, Vordak was recommending villain-types to include on a terrifying team.  The last addition is:



I know there are some people out there who would say I'm reading too much into this page (I know this for a fact, I occasionally get comment/email spam from such people who not so kindly request that I relax and not take little kids' books so seriously.)  But for real, peeps.  Children's literature is how young people make meaning about the world.  The subtle messages are the ones that can be the most dangerous (as opposed to "promoting evil" which is repeated over and over again throughout the handbook and is easier to consciously critique).  Pairing a supposedly beautiful woman with the suggestion to include her on a team based solely on appearance with the stipulation that she needs no skills is not cool.

I'll stop myself there.

I'd hate to get caught ranting.

For the most part, this is a fun bit of escapist reading for any reader who loves superheroes.  One of the book's greatest strengths is Vordak's awesomely large vocabulary.  While lots of young readers will not get every word, they'll be amused enough to keep reading and (dare I hope?!) look up the meaning of a word or two to add to their vocab to intimidate and prove their superiority to the "imbeciles."

Plus, one of Vordak's commandments involves playing with language:

Having said that though, I could see some parents having a problem with the book.  Early on, Vordak asserts that all people have at least a little evil in them.  Plus, a lot of Vordak's evil advice is on a small scale, like possibly saying, "Wow!  You are one fat cow." to a lunch lady (p. 29).   While I fully believe most young readers will find this hilarious and will simultaneously realize that this is not appropriate to actually say...there is also a small minority I could picture *actually* following through with some of Vordak's suggestions.

I'd still keep How to Grow Up and Rule the World on my classroom bookshelf though.  I would probably mark the offensive "hire the woman because she looks good" page with some explanation points and even a "Not Cool" written in the margin to make my stance clear (and hope my students ask why I marked that page *fingers crossed!*).  I think the book has great potential to get a reluctant reader enjoying reading!  (I'd just also be ready to say, "This book is just for fun!  If you *do* let any of the messages in this book--subtle or obvious--influence your behavior, do the exact opposite of what Vordak suggests!  Mmm, kay?")

Dinner Conversation:

"Greetings, inferior one.  I am Vordak the Incomprehensible.  Who you are doesn't matter.  What does matter is my dastardly decision to add the world of book publishing to my growing list of conquests.  Without even trying very hard, I have created a book of such unbelievable brilliance that it dwarfs all other literature preceding it throughout the course of human history" (p. 1).

"I am tremendously proud of my heartless nature, and if you have any hopes of eventually becoming planetary dictator, you, too, will need to embrace your inner evil.  I'm not talking "break your mother's favorite ceramic egg and blame it on your little brother" evil.  I'm talking "willing to pull the moon into a collision course with the Earth by means of a powerful, nuclear-powered tractor beam in order to get your way" evil.  I'm talking incredibly evil.  Worse than your orthodontist" (p. 2).

Favorite illustration that I will try to find a way to use in one of my classes:

"We Evil Masterminds work long, grueling hours developing our organizations and concocting our brilliantly evil plans, patiently biding our time for the ideal moment in which to strike.  And then, in swoops the Superhero to thwart everything.  No preparation.  No planning.  Nothing.  He simply receives "the call" and off he goes, swooping and thwarting" (p. 73-74).

Tasty Rating:  !!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

REVIEW: Beauty Queens by @libbabray (Somehow, even more awesome than Going Bovine! It seemed impossible, right?)

Hi all!

Sorry for the lack of posting over the last few weeks.  I am teaching my first graduate class on multicultural children's literature and all the readings, the new class prep work and the super-awesome-AMAZING level of discourse among the students is keeping on my toes and striving to learn more and more so I don't drop the ball can keep challenging my students.

On top of that, I've also started training to do some part-time online tutoring.
(They actually had me teach a lesson on math!  EEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEE!)
So, I'm still working to adjust to the changes in my schedule.

ON TOP OF THAT on top of stuff, last week I also received a job offer for a year-long position that would require me to move to Louisiana within...oh, about three weeks time and begin teaching two courses (one of which the likes of which I haven't taught before).  So, yeah.  Crazy times for me.

But enough excuses, on to the review...

Bray, L.  (2011).  Beauty Queens.  New York:  Scholastic Press.

390 pages.

(An ARC was sent to my boss...AND I STOLE IT!)

   Hunger Games
   Lord of the Flies
   Some Feminist commentary
   The worst/best of reality TV
   Libba Bray
+ Fun                                         
Beauty Queens

Appetizer:  There has been a plane crash on a remote island.  The plane had been filled with 50 Miss Teen Dream Pageant contestants, their handlers, costumes and a few camera crews.  But after the crash, only a handful of the beauty queens survive.  They must determine whether they should continue to prepare for the big pageant as they await rescue or focus on survival.

As the days pass, the girls realize that there is something odd about the island and that they may have to work together and save themselves.

So, based on my love for the Printz Award winning Going Bovine and any interview that I've seen of Libba Bray, I fully expected that Beauty Queens would amuse me.

It did not disappoint.  (And actually, I think I like it even more than Going Bovine since it explores so many wonderful questions surrounding femininity and feminism. )  And by 'many,' I mean TONS OF ISSUES!  There is explorations of racial and gender stereotypes, transgendered and disability experiences, female desire for sex, many version of what femininity is.  There is also a lot of social and cultural commentary and criticisms about boy bands, beauty products, T-shirt designs, and ON AND ON.  I would love to teach this book in a feminist YA lit course!  (*Hint*  Somebody--hire me to teach a feminist YA lit course.)

In terms of classroom uses though, I would probably only do read alouds of select portions that could work as a stand-alone or short story.  (I actually used one chapter with my current students to discuss princess culture.)

Plus, both Miss Ohio and Miss Michigan survive the initial crash.  Since those are the two states I've lived in for most of my life, I was happy to follow my representatives, excited that the midwest was ON THE ISLAND!  (Of course, post-Louisiana job offer, I can't help but notice that a Miss Louisiana is missing in action.)

I did initially have some trouble with the omniscient narrator.  I wanted to stay with Adena, the first character the reader meets.  I also had trouble keeping track of who was who.  (It is worth noting that keeping track of or remembering names is a reoccurring problem in my life.  But it is also admittedly made more difficult when all thirteen-ish of a book's main characters are interchangeably referred to as Miss STATE-Name and So-and-so-first-name.)

But the more I read, the more I enjoyed the story, liking how the quirky aspects all came together.  I loved the critiques provided in the footnotes.  I also loved the way the author dove below the surface of each of the girl's characterization to break down stereotypes.  There are certain beauty queens on the island that it would have been easy for me to hate if they were presented as mere stereotypes (I'm looking  in direction of Miss Texas), but I wound up engaging with them all.  (On that note, I especially liked that the story didn't turn into a girls vs. girls massacre, which had seemed like a possibility in the early chapters.)

YAY, beauty queens!

Dinner Conversation:

"This book begins with a plane crash.  We do not want you to worry about this.  According to the U.S. Department of Unnecessary Statistics, your chances of dying in a plane crash are one in half a million.  Whereas your chances of losing your bathing suit bottoms to a strong tide are two to one.  So, all in all, it's safer to fly than to go to the beach.  As we said, this book begins with a plane crash.  But there are survivors.  You see?  Already it's a happy tale.  They are all beauty queen contestants" (p. 1).

"Okay, Miss Teen Dreamers, I know we're all real flustered and everything.  But we're alive.  And I think before anything else we need to pray to the one we love."
A girl raised her hand.  "J.T. Wooodland?"
"I'm talkin' about my personal copilot, Jesus Christ."
"Someone should tell her personal copilot that His landings suck," Miss Michigan muttered.  She was a lithe redhead with the panther-like carriage of a professional athlete.
"Dear Jesus," Taylor started.  The girls bowed their heads, except for Adina.
"Don't you want to pray?" Mary Lou whispered.
"I'm Jewish.  Not big on Jesus."
"Oh.  I didn't know they had any Jewish people in New Hampshire.  You should make that one of your Fun Facts about Me!"
Adina opened her mouth but couldn't think of anything to say."  (p. 7).

"Reality check:  We're stuck on a freaking island with only a few bags of pretzels to each and God only knows what kinds of dangerous animals or mega-zombie-insects out there, and you want us to keep working on our pageant skills?"
Taylor glossed her lips again and smacked them together.  "Correct."
"Don't be so negative," Miss Ohio said.  "I'll bet the coast guard is on its way to rescue us right now."
Adina shook her head.  "What we need is a team leader."
"I accept," Taylor said.
"Um, not to be rude or anything, but usually you put it to a vote.  It's a democracy, right?" Adina laughed uncomfortably" (p. 20).

"'I think you're missing the salient point here,' Shanti said.  "Miss Teen Dream is a girls' pageant.  You are not a girl.  Ergo, you are disqualified."
"Who says I'm not a girl?"
"You have a wang-dang-doodle!" Tiara squeaked.
"Is that all that makes a guy a guy?  What makes a girl a girl?"
And the girls found they could not answer.  For they'd never been asked that question in the pageant prep" (p. 99).

"The baton passed from girl to girl as ideas were discussed:  Huts.  Fishing lines.  Rain-catching tarp.  Zip lines.  Tanning booth.  By the time the baton came to Taylor again, the girls had a renewed sense of hope.  After all, they were the best of the best.  They had lived through the pageant circuit, which was no place for wimps.
"When they come to rescue us, they will find us with clean, jungle-forward, fashionable huts and a self-sustaining ecosystem.  We will be the Miss Teen Dreamers they write about in history books," Taylor said.
"Nobody writes about Miss Teen Dreamers in history books," Adina scoffed.
"They will now, Miss New Hampshire.  We will be the best ever.  This is my new goal.  And I am very goal-oriented" (p. 104).

"Mary Lou and Sosie gathered rocks and pebbles from the beach and spelled out the word HELP along the shore so that it might be seen from a passing plane.  At the end of the word, Sosie made an exclamation mark with a smiley face at the bottom.
"That way, they'll know we're friendly," she reasoned."  (p. 120).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!


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