Tuesday, December 31, 2013

REVIEW: The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett (might make you cheer for Jabba)

Angleberger, T.  (2013).  The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett.  New York:  Abrams.

208 pages.

Appetizer:  *The author of this blog insists you hum or listen to the opening credits of one of the Star Wars movies as you read the following*

It's the start of the spring semester, and Dwight has returned to McQuarrie, but it is still a dark time for the middle school.  The evil empire of school administrators have implemented a new program called "FunTime" to ensure students learn the fundamentals of the core subject areas for standardized tests that are months away.  The actual video-based lessons prove to be anything but fun.  All electives, like music and art, have been abolished.  It falls to a rag-tag band of seventh graders to try to maintain the culture of creativity and Star Wars fandom that they have worked so hard to create.  They must search for other brave students to start a rebellion.
I love this series so much!  It's not just because of all of the Star Wars puppets.  I love the way Angleberger addresses major issues in education (like the ridiculous over-emphasis on standardized testing!) in an accessible way.  Such an important critique.

It does seem that addressing the issues of testing, overuse of worksheets, and test prep programs are taking over this series.  My biggest critique of this particular book is that it seemed to struggle to find a balance between taking on the fight against standardized testing and dealing with the usual issues of the middle school social scene.  A few "does she like me?  Does she like him now?" scenes were forced in.  There should have either been more attention to those concerns near the end (which is the route I would have preferred), or the initial scenes probably should have been cut.

While there is a small resolution at the end of the book in regards to the Origami rebels fight, the characters are left gearing up for a larger battle and I'm very curious to see how Angleberger will take it on in the next book:  Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue.

One of the reasons I love showing this series to my education students is because all of the books are framed as being an inquiry.  In The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett, one of the main characters, Harvey, who is often the nay-sayer of the group, attempts to do an experiment to track the learning of himself and his cousin.  At one point, Harvey's dad pipes in with a critique of the experimental design.  The plot also features several of the characters doing a variety of calculations to determine how many students have to get certain scores for their testing rebellion to have an impact.  So many across-the-curriculum connections!

As always, the end of the book provides the how-to steps to create finger puppets.  This time both an illustrated guide for Jabba AND an Ewok are included.  Here's a picture of the Jabba I made from the cover page of a draft of my tenure-track portfolio for work.  I'm thinking of handing it in with the final portfolio:

Dinner Conversation:

"Me and Kellen knew we would be starting a new case file when Dwight got back.
We just didn't know what it would be about.
I mean, you never, never know what to expect from Dwight." (p. 2)

"Today was January 6, the first day of the spring semester.
We found out that there are going to be a lot of weird changes at school.
Judging by how excited Principal Rabbski was about them, they could not possibly be good.  And judging by the posters that were going up around school--"Get Ready for a Fun Time with FunTime!!!!"--they're probably really, really bad." (p. 3)

"Instead of going to your elective classes each day, you'll be assigned to a new classroom, where you'll use the FunTime system to prepare for your upcoming state Standards of Learning tests." (p. 13)

"The first thing on the worksheet was the exact same problem that the Professor had done on the video.  Then there were nine more very similar problems.  It took about twenty seconds to do the whole thing.  Like I said, we all learned how to do these a long time ago.
When we were all done, Mr. Howell hit the play button and Gizmo went over the answers....very, very slowly...and showed us how to do each one...very, very slowly.
And then he sang!" (p. 20)

"By the time we all met in the cafeteria for lunch, we were all thinking the same thing:  How is Origami Yoda going to get us out of this?" (p. 22)

"'It is time for faithfulness...solidarity...courage...all the qualities of a Jedi.'
"But for what?" Kellen and I asked at the same time.
Origami Yoda looked at each of us...even at Dwight.  For a second I thought about how crazy it was, all of us sitting there staring at a finger puppet and then the finger puppet staring back at us watching while the finger looked at the guy who owns the finger.
But something else told me it wasn't crazy.  When Origami Yoda looked at me with his crinkly eyes, I knew what he was going to say.  And I knew I was going to agree.
"Come the time has...." Origami Yoda said slowly, "for rebellion."
Snort," snorted Harvey." (pp. 25-26)

Tasty Rating:  !!!!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I'm Alive I Swear! And REVIEW: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Hard Luck

*Brushes the dust off the blog.*

Oh, hello there!

Please excuse the lack of posting.  It proved to be a crazy semester.

Whenever I wasn't reading for my classes, I was reading for the Cybils YA fiction award.  I've been sharing all of my thoughts on the books with my fellow panelists.  Let me tell you, we have some wonderful contenders for the book award this year!

As the book judging winds down, I hope to focus in a little more on reading for the blog.

On to my first review in the post-crazy-semester haze:

Kinney, J.  (2013).  Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Hard luck.  New York:  Amulet Books.

Appetizer:  In the eighth book of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Greg spends March and April dealing with the fact that his best friend, Rowley, is in a relationship (the boy-girl kind!), and no longer has a lot of time for Greg.  Left alone, Greg struggles to shape another friend into the best friend that Rowley had been to him.

He also must deal with an impending visit of relatives from his mom's side of the family (including one aunt who hates children, another whose children are monsters, and yet another who relies heavily on a psychic).  During the Easter visit, most of the relatives engage in a desperate hunt for a missing heirloom that has pitted sister against sister.

Frustrated with all of the difficulty little and big decisions he faces, Gregg turns to an old Magic Eight Ball for answers.  What could possibly go wrong?

As with other installments of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, I'm impressed by Kinney's ability to access issues that are currently huge in elementary and middle schools.  (In this case the positive reinforcement movement in anti-bullying campaigns and the "Find a Friend" station on the school playground come to mind.)

At this point, you should know what you're getting if you pick up a Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  Hard Luck maintains the selfish protagonist, humor, fun perspectives, and amusing drawings that readers have come to expect for the series.  Hard Luck isn't my favorite in the series, but it's still an enjoyable read.  It definitely made me chuckle out loud a few times in the cafe where I was reading.

This page was the main chuckle culprit:

You'll have to read the book to find out how Greg's Dad got in this situation.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Lord, C.  (2006).  Rules.  New York:  Scholastic.

200 pages.

Appetizer:  Catherine is looking forward to the summer, especially since she learned that another girl her age is moving-in next door.  Catherine has her hopes set on making a new best friend.  She's also worried that her 8-year-old brother, David, might get in the way of any friendships she hopes to form.  David has autism and sometimes struggles to follow the rules his big sister has made for him.  On top of that, Catherine starts to get to know another boy while waiting for David at his speech therapist's office.  Jason cannot move most of his body and must rely on pointing to cards to speak.  Catherine may be the perfect person to help him find his voice.

I assigned Rules to my Diversity in Education course.  After a few students declared Palacio's Wonder to be one of the best books ever, I wondered whether Rules would take the other book's place in their hearts--or best of all, would their hearts expand to equally love both?

My students definitely enjoyed the book.  Our discussion focused heavily on Jason.  Since Rules contains hints that he has quite the crush on Catherine, their attention focused on the romantic future of a teen with Jason's condition.

A great read!

Dinner Conversation:

"'Come on, David.' I let go of his sleeve, afraid I'll rip it.  When he was little, I could pull my brother behind me if he didn't want to do something, but now David's eight and too strong to be pulled.
Opening the front door, I sigh.  My first day of summer vacation is nothing like I dreamed.  I had imagined today warm, with seagulls winging across a blue sky, not overcast and damp." (p. 1)

"He might not understand some things, but David loves rules.
I know I'm setting up a problem for later because Dad's always late, but I have rules, too, and one of mine is:  Sometimes you've gotta work with what you've got."  (p. 4)

"Sometimes I wish someone would invent a pill so David'd wake up one morning without autism, like someone waking fro a long coma, and he'd say, "Jeez, Catherine, where have I been?" And he'd be a regular brother like Melissa has--a brother who'd give back as much as he took, who I could joke with, even fight with.  Someone I could yell at and he'd yell back, and we'd keep going and going until we'd both yelled ourselves out.
But there's no pill, and our quarrels fray instead of knot, always ending in him crying and me sorry for hurting him over something he can't help." (p. 8)

"And there are only two people I haven't already drawn:  Jason and his mother.
I worry that glancing will turn into staring too easy for Jason, and I hate when people stare at David." (p. 18)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Mercy, I.  (2011).  a + e 4 EVER.  Maple Shade, NJ:  Lethe Press, Inc.

Appetizer:  Ash is the new kid at McMillan High.  He's attracting a lot of attention due to the fact that he looks very effeminate.  The only friend he manages to make initially is Eu, a fellow artist.  Any potential romantic relationship between the two is complicated by the fact that Ash fears being touched (aphenphosmphobia!) and also has a slightly too touchy-feelie relationship with his sister, Lena.  As Ash has his first sexual encounters, experiments with drugs, and starts acting in a play, it becomes uncertain whether his and Eu's friendship can survive.

I was really excited to read a + e 4EVER because of the beautiful art work, but when I actually sat down and did it, I was a little overwhelmed.  Generally, I consider myself to be very good at reading graphic novels, but some of the fonts were hard to decipher.  At times, I couldn't tell who was talking or thinking.  This was unfortunate, especially since a + e 4EVER is a little more text heavy than many other graphic novels.

I personally also had some trouble relating to the content.  The drug use and the fact that a character's first sexual encounter occurred while on drugs (and was essentially rape), were really hard for me to read.  I completely understand that these are the realities of some readers and I'm so glad they're depicted here, but it made the book difficult for me to read.  Even the consensual sex was more explicit than in most YA novels.  (It really made me wonder if this was more of a crossover book, intended for adults but picked-up by teens.)

So, my concerns with this book are kind of major, but I'm also passionate about some of a + e 4EVER's strengths:  It demonstrates the inadequacies of labeling people, it gives voice to many experiences that are ignored in most books, it's brutally honest and realistic, and as an extension of that, the graphic novel's ending is 100% believable.

So, yeah, I left the book with mixed feelings.  But it's a book that I'd love to hear others' thoughts about.

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: The Catcher in the Rye

Salinger, J.D.  (1945).  The Catcher in the Rye.  Boston:  Little, Brown and Company.

Appetizer: 16-year-old Holden Caulfield is about to be kicked out of his prep school.  Rather than waiting for the letter to reach his parents' house in the dorm, he decides to take the train to New York City to spend several days in the city before arriving home to face his family's disappointment.

His trip is far from a lighthearted skip through town, rather he feels lonely and depressed as he contemplates his boardings school acquaintances, the girls he's almost slept with, and his siblings.  He seeks out people from his past, has a run-in with a young prostitute and her pimp, and seeks out his little sister, Phoebe.  His few days in New York won't quite be the vacation he'd been hoping to enjoy.

This is my third time reading The Catcher in the Rye (once as a high school sophomore or junior at my father's recommendation, once as required reading when I was in my MFA program, and now, for the first time, as a teacher.  I have joined The Catcher Cult!)  I absolutely hated this book both the first and second times that I read it.  This time around...I can't believe I'm typing this, but I enjoyed it more.  It's still a book that as I read, I quietly wonder when a plot will develop, and contemplate what exactly is Holden's damage.  But this time, his voice did feel honest as I read it.  So many contemporary YA novels try so hard to capture an angsty, quirky, YA voice.  The Catcher in the Rye just *is* that voice, with Holden's unwillingness to shy away from the darker aspects of his character.

During this reading, I was struck by all of the subtle ways Holden desires to help others maintain their innocence.

I was still far from crazy about the way all of the female characters were depicted.

But now I'm left to ponder if it's my ever advancing age that has changed my mind about The Catcher in the Rye.  All of my students, who range in age from about 19 to somewhere in their 40s, gave the book mixed reviews.  There was one person each at the extremes of loving and hating the book and a scattering of everyone else along the spectrum.

Also, just this past weekend NPR's Weekend Edition just reported on a new biography of Salinger.  Part of the broadcast focused on the creation of and the reception of The Catcher in the Rye.  It's a good listen.  I'd planned to show it to my students, along with John Green's comments about the book, to get the conversation going.  But, when it came time for my class to meet, it was the absolute *perfect* weather to have class outside.  So, we went "old school" and technology free to have an intense discussion of the book in the shade of a tree that sits beside a pond on campus.

Dinner Conversation:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to now is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." (p 1)

"I forgot to tell you about that.  They kicked me out.  I wasn't supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all.  They gave me frequent warning[s] to start applying myself--especially around midterms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer--but I didn't do it.  So I got the ax.  They gave guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey.  It has a very good academic rating, Pencey.  It really does." (p. 4)

"All of a sudden, I decided what I'd really do, I'd get the hell out of Pencey--right that same night and all.  I mean not wait till Wednesday or anything.  I just didn't want to hang around any more.  It made me too sad and lonesome.  So what I decided to do, I decided I'd take a room in a hotel in New York--some very inexpensive hotel and all--and just take it easy till Wednesday.  Then, on Wednesday, I'd go home all rested up and feeling swell.  I figured my parents probably wouldn't get old Thurmer's letter saying I'd been given the ax till maybe Tuesday or Wednesday.  I didn't want to go home or anything till they got it and thoroughly digested it and all.  I didn't want to be around when they first got it  My mother gets very hysterical.  She's not too bad after she gets something thoroughly digested, though.  Besides, I sort of needed a a little vacation  My nerves were shot.  They really were." (p. 51)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

I'm Back! (And I'd like to share about what I did and read while I was in China)


 I am back state-side and (slowly) recovering from my jet lag from the 12-hour time difference.

 My adventure in China was awesome.

I had wonderful students:

I was teaching conversational English to English teachers.  Some of the highlights of working with them included visiting one of their schools and speaking to a class of high school students, watching students barter with sales clerks to help us clueless Americans get decent prices, teaching them idioms and slangs (I have videos of some of the skits I made them do for practice!), discussing pedagogy and customs in our different cultures.

I also got to tour around and see some beautiful sights:

 Although there wasn't much in the way of down time, I did manage to do some reading:

How dare Jo not personally tell me that she'd written another book!  I totally would have kept her secret.

I enjoyed the quality of the writing in The Cuckoo's Calling, but I did feel as though the book was too dialogue-based and that it included a lot of mystery-genre cliches without really twisting them or challenging them.  I wanted some more action!

I did think the characterizations were very well done.  I really liked the evolution of the relationship between Strike and Robin.

After taking on The Cuckoo's Calling, I returned to YA literature and read Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg.

I'd previously read The Lonely Hearts Club by Eulberg and had really enjoyed it, so I began Prom and Prejudice with some hope.  Alas, my hopes were dashed and I found Eulberg's modernization of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice to be very disappointing.

There were a lot of class tensions that I think Eulberg handled well, but the mentions of how Lizzie Bennet (who is a scholarship kid bullied by all of her rich classmates) was constantly being pranked wasn't very effective.  I also found the actual writing to be mediocre--like worse than the average work of fan fictions.  Characters were under-developed and I didn't really believe Lizzie's voice.

For a beautiful adaptation, just want The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on Youtube:

I can't wait for the DVDs of this series to finally arrive!  Love!


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