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…

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