Sunday 24 December 2017

More children's books... yikes!!

On this wintry “White Christmas-y” morning, I was going to enjoy my steeped chai tea in a festive, seasonal mug, but decided that, in light of the book I’m going to talk about today, I’d dig out my “banned books” mug.

I read (or I should say “inhaled” - it took me just two days!) a new book by Alan Gratz this week, one that I recently purchased for my schools, Ban This Book.  It tells the story of Amy Anne, a grade four student who loves to read.  She is not popular, but has one best friend, Rebecca, and two younger sisters, Alexis and Angelina.  She lives in a crowded house and her mom works alot of overtime, so in order to make some time for herself, she goes to the school library after classes have let out and reads, telling her parents that she is taking part in various clubs after school.  When she goes to find her favourite book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and discovers it is not on the shelf, she turns to Mrs Jones, the librarian, for answers.  What she hears is unbelievable - this book has been withdrawn from the school library because a parent decided it was unsuitable for elementary school students.  And not just this book… a whole stack of them, fiction and non-fiction, have been deemed by this parent to be unsuitable.  This parent is an influential member of the PTA from a fairly wealthy family and supports many school board initiatives.  How is our book-loving heroine going to deal with this?  Shy, meek, never-speaks-up Amy Anne, along with Rebecca, devises a plan to keep these books available for students at her school - she forms the Banned Books Lending Library (B.B.L.L.) which she keeps hidden in her locker.  Soon more students join this fight against censorship as it threatens to grow beyond its bounds.  Can Amy Anne bring the school board around to her way of thinking and save the school library’s collection (and the school librarian!) before everything is ruined beyond repair?  If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that Freedom to Read week is my favourite week of the year.  Scheduled for the week of February 25-March 3, 2018, it is a week I celebrate with my students by putting up a big display of many of their favourite books that have been banned or challenged somewhere, for some reason, in recent history, books like the Harry Potter series, Captain Underpants, Junie B Jones, even some of Shel Silverstein’s poetry collections, and I read a challenged book aloud to my students as well (I think this year it will be The Lorax by Dr Seuss, banned in a California school in 1989 because it portrayed the forestry industry in a negative light and would turn children against forestry.)  Anyway, now you can understand why I had to use my “banned books” mug!  This book was entertaining and humourous, but it also tackled a serious topic in a realistic and positive way, demonstrating that even kids as young as ten can make a difference if they stand up for what they believe in.  It was a fabulous book, a real celebration of all things books and reading, which explains the concept of censorship and freedom to read so well in a way that children can understand and appreciate. It will make a perfect read-aloud selection for my grade fives once I finish The Bad Beginning, and it's perfect timing, too, as I’ll be reading it during Freedom to Read week - how ideal is that?!

That’s all for today.  I hope to have an adult book to tell you about next week, although I’m in the middle of a Young Adult book right now that is well-written and engaging, too.  And also next week, a list of my favourite books from 2017. Merry Christmas!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday 17 December 2017

Children's books on a blustery morning...

At this time of year, I usually try to read a few books for school, especially while I have time off over the Christmas holidays.  Since I’ve just been promoting the Forest of Reading Red Maple nominees with the Intermediate students at my schools, I decided to start with one of those.  

The Winnowing by Canadian author Vikki VanSickle immediately caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  I loved the title. "To winnow" means to blow a current of air through grain to remove the chaff. Such an ordinary word, though not one we come across often, but in the context of this novel, it is very sinister indeed. I loved the dark, brooding, mysterious cover.  I’ve read other books by this author, coming-of-age romantic novels which were very good, but this seemed completely different and I was curious to see how she handled it.  And since I’d just done book-talks for these ten nominees in four classes, many of the books were checked out, but this one was available at one of my schools, so I took advantage of the opportunity and started reading.  This novel is set in Darby, a small town famous for finding the cure for the Infertility Crisis and saving humankind. Marivic is a young woman who is just reaching puberty, which is signalled by the nightmare-ish dreams and extraordinary running ability she has recently begun experiencing.  But these are so much more than just nightmares and sudden physical ability; Marivic is “going ACES” (Adolescent Chronosomniatic Episodes) and has developed imps (Adolescent Physical impairments), something that happens to everyone in town at a certain age.  These are things young people both look forward to and also dread.  Once someone begins “going ACES”, they are sent to a hospital, where they will undergo a procedure called “winnowing”, which will alleviate these nightmares and remove the imps, but it may also affect memory.  Marivic’s best friend, Saren, has just been admitted to the hospital for winnowing, and Marivic is anxious to join her there.  Once admitted, she finds Saren and together they discuss what they expect will happen to them during this procedure.  Saren doesn’t want to be winnowed, which Marivic can’t understand; why wouldn’t she want these horrible ACES to stop and go back to being her normal self?  When they receive a message inviting them to a meeting at the pool in the basement of the hospital in the middle of the night, Marivic agrees to accompany Saren, but only to ensure her safety.  At the meeting, they encounter a young man who suggests that the government is behind the Infertility Crisis, and that the winnowing procedure is designed to keep people from remembering their past and also to thwart their newfound physical abilities, which, he claims, are not, in fact, impairments, but rather natural physical enhancements.  Marivic is ready to dismiss this as nothing more than conspiracy theory, but after she receives tragic news and she has glimpses of something sinister from her past, Marivic must determine how far she is willing to go to find the truth.  I love a well-written dystopian novel, and there are many Young Adult novels in this genre out there, but they are not all appealing to me.  This one, however, grabbed me immediately and kept me riveted until the very last page, which took me just two days to reach (I had a grade 8 student who was waiting for it).  Imagine The Giver (Lois Lowry) meets The Maze Runner (James Dashner) with a dash of X-Files thrown in.  I was struck by how well-written and polished it was, no stumbling around to keep the pace or tone consistent, which I expected, given that this is such a departure from VanSickle’s usual fare.  It explored her usual themes of friendship and coming-of-age, but in a completely new and fascinating terrain.  I was very impressed, and will recommend this to students (and adults!) who enjoy gripping dystopian novels.

That left me with less than a full week to read something else, so I picked up a short Juvenile novel that I had sitting at home for a while.  I’m always on the lookout for an interesting read-aloud that I can share with the grade 4 classes - right now I’m reading The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, the first book in “The Series of Unfortunate Events”.  I’ve read this to classes in the past, and it’s fabulous, but sometimes I like to change it up a bit.  Hide and Seek by Peter Legaris is the second in the “Spy X” series, which I guess I didn’t realize until just now, as  I probably would have started with the first one, The Code, if I had known earlier.  This short, fun, engaging novel follows Andrew and his sister Evie as they relocate to a new home in San Francisco after their mother’s disappearance one year earlier.  They are sure they’ll never see her again, but on their first day at their new school, they begin receiving coded messages, and hope that their mother is alive and will find them is renewed.  But can they decode all the clues and find her before she meets with an unhappy end?  Filled with word puzzles and coded messages that need to be solved, this quick read was an entertaining way to spend a few distraction-filled evenings, and I would recommend this to middle-school students who are interested in reading lighthearted espionage chapter books.  It would not, however, be a good read-aloud, as there are many word puzzles and coded messages that would be difficult to share, but are integral to the story.

And I’m halfway through Black Water Rising by Robert Rayner, another Canadian author.  I received copies of this book from the author himself at the big library conference I went to last year - he even autographed them!  One of the students in a grade 6 class took it out and told me it was pretty good, but another student pointed out that there seemed to be quite a bit of swearing in the book, so I decided that I should read it to determine if it is appropriate for grade 6 students, or any students in my K-8 school.  This novel is set a small town in Newfoundland which sits on the banks of Black River.  The rains have been steady for days, threatening to flood the town if the hydroelectric dam isn’t opened, but the company that owns the dam, TransNational Power, is ordering the local manager, Willis Frame, to keep the dam closed.  Frame knows that flooding will occur in about 36 hours, and that the company sees the funds offered to help the townspeople repair any damage caused by flooding, as well as the environmental and ecological impact of flooding, to be a small price to pay for the extra power they can generate, all in the name of greed.  Frame’s son, seventeen-year-old Stanton, is caught between loyalty to his father, a man he believes is trying his best to do the right thing, and his love for his girlfriend Jessica, a young woman who is passionate about stopping the power company and keeping what remains of the river bank's natural ecology and environment intact.  When she gets involved with a radical eco-group from British Columbia, Stanton must decide what to do to save the town, his father, and his girlfriend, before time runs out.  So far, I’ve decided that the book is suitable for my library, and that the occasional swearing is included to enhance the setting and to portray the spirit of the characters.  I have colour-coded all my Young Adult novels to reflect suitability for different grades, so I think I’ll just change this one from grade 6 to grade 7 - the use of swear words isn’t excessive, just enough to jar the reader, making it effective, but still not a great choice for 11-year-olds.   I’ll finish it today and make a final decision at that time.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 10 December 2017

Tea and treats on a snowy morning...

Big fat flakes are drifting outside the windows this morning as I sip my steaming cup of steeped chai tea and nibble on a delicious Date Bar.  The temperature has dropped significantly this past week or so, and it seems like winter is here to stay… not a bad thing in my opinion, but I know that not everyone would agree with me.  So if you hate winter weather, just think of it as a good excuse to stay inside with a hot beverage and read!!

I read two books for school this past week, one for my student book club and one that everyone is reading because the movie just came out.  My student book club just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  These kids are in grade 8, and I thought it was somewhat mature for their age, but they wanted to read it, and I think they enjoyed it.  I won’t summarize the plot, since I’m fairly sure most people know about this book.  We are a group of three students plus me, and all but one of us enjoyed the second half of the book, around the time of the trial and onward, better than the first half.  But one of the boys said he enjoyed it all, right from the first page, the characters, the setting, the exploits of Jem and Scout, and he especially liked Dill… well, we all really liked Dill, his quirkiness and vulnerability.  Since we have just two weeks before Christmas break, which is not really enough time to start a new book, we’re going to watch the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which only one student has seen before.  One of these students is moving away at the end of December, so we’ll need to recruit new members - we thought that maybe if we called it the Book and Movie Club, others may want to join!  Our next book is going to be A Wrinkle in Time, which we will hopefully finish in time for the release of the movie in March.  (See, we really are a book and movie club!!)

And because everyone has been reading this book for the past four or five years, students and teachers alike, and because the film adaptation was just released in November, I finally read Wonder by RJ Palacio.  This novel tells the story of August Pullman, a fifth-grader who was born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, causing him to have severe facial deformity.  Due to his many surgeries in his early life, he has been homeschooled by his mother, but since his health has stabilized, his parents decide that it’s time for him to enter a local middle school, Beecher Prep.  Of course this is a difficult adjustment for him and for the students at the school, and he suffers significant ostracization and bullying, but he also manages to form some real and lasting friendships, too.  His experiences are equal parts positive and negative, and along with his supportive parents and older sister, he manages to make it through his first year at school, weathering all the ups and downs along the way.  There is much more to the plot, but I’m not going to get into the details.  And I’m not going to write much about my reading experience, either.  I get why teachers love it, I get why kids love it, but I just didn’t love it.  It was a super-quick and easy read, and I’m glad to finally be able to cross this off my list of “books I should read because everyone else has read it”, but… well, that’s all I’ll say about it.

Which leads me to think about why we read books, how we choose what we read.  I was talking about this with my sister-in-law recently, and it also came up yesterday while I was talking to one of my oldest friends.  Both of these people are avid readers too, and through each brief discussion, we determined that there is more to reading than just choosing books we “love”.  I thought about what would happen if I took a year off from all of my books clubs and didn’t read any books for school that I didn’t really want to read, and how that would change my “year of reading”, and I realized that it would be impossible to find enough books that I absolutely loved to keep me reading for a full year, that I would need to find 50+ books, and if I discarded every book I began just because it didn’t grab me and draw me in immediately, I would be left with very little selection, and would have to resort to rereading my favourites much more often than I already do.  And let’s not even consider audiobooks!  So why do we read what we read, and how do we choose, and stick with, books, even if we don’t love them?  There are many reasons to choose a book:  it’s a new one by a favourite author; it’s a book about which you’ve read great reviews; it’s one that everyone is reading; it’s a book you’ve been meaning to read for ages; or it has an interesting cover (yes, I’ll admit it, I really do sometimes judge a book by its cover!).  These are just a few reasons to choose books, but why do we finish books we don’t love (or as my friend says, books that “don’t change my life or my way of thinking”)?  Well, we might think it will get better by the end, that it will be worth the effort; we’ve already invested x amount of time reading it, time that would be wasted if we gave up; we don’t have anything else on hand that we would rather be reading; or we want to understand what all the fuss is about (this for bestsellers).  After considering all of this, I’ve determined that my year of reading would not look much different if I gave up book club and reading for school, so I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 3 December 2017

Book club highlights on a clear, mild morning...

I have a delicious Date Bar from City Café and a steaming cup of steeped chai tea on the table in front of me, and of course a copy of the book we discussed at yesterday’s meeting, Sweetness in the Belly by Canadian author Camilla Gibb.

This bestselling 2007 novel is set in Ethiopia in the 1970s and England in the 1980s and early 1990s, and tells the story of one woman’s attempts to find peace and a sense of belonging.  The main character, Lilly, is British-born, and spent her very early years there, but her nomadic parents uprooted their family and traveled around the world, ending up in Ethiopia.  They pass away while Lilly is still quite young, and she is taken in and raised as a devout Muslim by the Great Abdal, a disciple of a great Islamic saint.  As a young woman, she spends many years in the ancient walled city of Harar, where she immerses herself in Ethiopian culture and Muslim traditions.  It is here that she meets the handsome Dr Aziz and falls in love, but this love calls into question not only her faith, but her entire way of life.  There is also great political unrest within the walled city and within the country as a whole, and everyone must do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and those they love.  Fast-forward  fifteen years, and Lilly is a nurse at one of London’s hospitals, a white Muslim woman who is doing her best to immerse herself in the Ethiopian culture in this British city where refugees struggle to make their way in this new reality while holding onto their traditions and beliefs, and also trying to reconnect with relatives who have disappeared during the revolution.  How will Lilly reconcile her faith with the reality of the conditions she sees all around her?  OK, this was not an easy read, not a Christmas- or winter-themed book, in fact, not at all the type of book I usually choose for us to read at end of the year, and I’m not sure why I put this one on the list.  When I started reading it, I groaned inwardly at the heaviness of the subject matter, sensing that my book club members would not appreciate another long-ish, heavy, probably-depressing book.  But as I read further, I was surprised at how much I anticipated moving forward in Lilly’s story, how beautifully Gibb wrote, and how quickly I read her words.  I felt that I learned so much about Ethiopian culture, Islamic faith, and the experiences and trials refugees face every day.  While this book was written ten years ago, I think it's still worthwhile to read today since we have so many refugees entering our country even now, and while they may be from other countries, I imagine their experiences are much the same.  I was very happy to have read this bestselling novel by Gibb, who based the story on her own personal observations and experiences during the time she spent in Harar as a young woman while conducting research for her thesis.  My book club members did not unanimously enjoy the book - well, “enjoy” isn’t really the right word.  I guess I should say that they were not unanimously as happy to have read it as I was, although they didn’t dislike it either.  One member said she preferred the sections set in Ethiopia more than the ones set in London, that the storyline in the London sections got tiresome after a while.  Interestingly, I really enjoyed reading these London sections because I felt that they seemed more hopeful than the parts set in Harar.  We discussed female circumcision, obviously not an uplifting topic but one that is important to acknowledge and learn about.  We discussed Lilly’s lack of belonging, the difficulties she faced in both countries because she didn’t really fit into either one.  We discussed the sense of family and community that existed in Ethiopia, that everyone takes care of everyone else, and one member commented that this still happens with the refugee communities here, that they see one another as part of a bigger family, and what challenges this may cause as it clashes with our own culture, beliefs and laws.  We also discussed the ways that political unrest can affect everyone and cause significant changes to one's traditions and way of life, something that we just don't think about here in our own insulated country. I think overall it was a successful choice for our group, just maybe not the best time of year, but I would definitely recommend this book for any book club, as it is filled with great discussion mpments.  For me, the best part about this book was the amazing writing.  When she writes about Dr Aziz, she says:  “For all his self-assurance it was such a humble smile, with a hint of sadness around the edges:  it was a smile to cup in one’s hands.”  And later:  “If she knew that I had kissed Aziz.  That I craved being in the dark with this man, that I daydreamed him into the pauses between sentences.” What brilliant expressions...

That’s all for today.  I see the sun is peeking out, so I’m heading out to enjoy the afternoon before I settle in to finish reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my students' book club meeting on Wednesday.  

Bye for now…