Thursday, September 27, 2012

Read-Aloud Derailed

My husband and I read books aloud to our children, ages 11 and 13. He usually picks classics, like The Secret Garden. I usually read current middle grade fiction. When picking a new read-aloud I go by reviews and word of mouth. Usually this serves me well.

Usually, but not always…

A case in point is The Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. I’d read Pennypacker’s Clementine aloud when it first came out. Gypsy Moths got several starred reviews. Plus, it takes place on Cape Cod, where my family and I were going to be vacationing. It should have been a great, magical read.

Instead, I’ve been so reluctant to read this title that I’ve been stringing it out over weeks and months, long since that Cape Cod trip. As read-alouds go, this one is a slow, hard journey because:

·      Even though I knew there was going to be some disturbing content (an adult dies and is buried by the children in the garden), reviews had not prepared me for the creepy munching noises made by gypsy moths in that same cemetery/garden. Creepy insect munching noises aren't conducive to sleep, so I edited them out of my nighttime readings. The death and burial, in contrast, are treated in a matter-of-fact way by the author and were not at all problematic.

·      The two children in the book are meant to be distinctly different: main character Stella is from old Caucasian New England stock, while secondary character Angel is Portuguese-American. I struggled to find clues in the text (apart from a few Portuguese phrases) to set the two voices apart--and finally gave up. 

·      After the very dramatic death and burial of Stella’s Great-Aunt Louise, and the decision by the girls to carry on as caretakers of the rental cottages next to Louise’s house, the story’s action slows considerably. There are small highs and lows of action, but not a steady build-up to the story’s conclusion.

·      The theme of the absent mother simply didn’t ring true for me on an emotional level. Because Stella’s mom is always absent, we see her neglect only in flashbacks. Contrast this approach with Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal, a much better read aloud and much more emotionally resonant book about problem parents, where we see the neglect as it happens.

·      I was bugged by the main character’s hero worship for Heloise, from the newspaper advice column “Hints from Heloise.” Even though I learned that the main character spent considerable chunks of time with her older grandmother, I didn’t buy that a modern kid (otherwise unlikely to encounter print newspapers) would care about an old-time advice column. Pennypacker previously used the old-time advertising jingle “the heartbreak of psoriasis” in Clementine, also clearly anachronistic. Yes, this is nit-picking, but when you’re reading contemporary fiction aloud to your own contemporary kids, you shouldn’t have to stop and explain: “This is an old thing from when Mama was little; I’m not sure why it’s in the book.”

While Pennypacker's writing in Gypsy Moths is often lovely and lyrical (hence the starred reviews), I’m very, very glad to be close to the end. Now I just need to find a new read aloud.

Any ideas? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Little Romance

As we head into the book award handicapping season, I’ve been reading and reflecting on teen romance. This week’s readThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green—is a strong contender for the Printz Award for young adult writing.

Green has already been honored by the American Library Association with Printzes for An Abundance of Katherines (honor-winner) and Looking for Alaska (award-winner).

This time around he’s written a smart, funny romance set in the world of…brace yourselves…mostly terminal teenaged cancer patients. Not exactly a typical or cheerful setting for a romance, but it serves to do a number of great things for the story:

-it intensifies the feelings of the main characters. Living as they do in a world of “battles won amid wars sure to be lost,” they know deep in their bones that life is short.

-it speeds up the action, so that, in the words of Hazel, the narrator, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

-it allows a sense of bittersweet tragedy to hang over the story, making it easy to compare Fault to a classic like Romeo and Juliet. (The title is a quotation from a non-romantic Shakespearean tragedy, Julius Caesar.)

-it makes the feeling of hyper-reality that you’ll find in all good romances seem totally artistically justified. Of course the boy and the girl in question are unbelievably smart, witty, and well-read, as well as physically attractive. They’ve been facing death for years. As readers we can’t begrudge the author for making these characters better than the rest of us.

While I loved The Fault in Our Stars, when recommending it to readers (in grades 8 or 9 and up), I’d want to have in my other hand a different sort of romance: The Big Crunch. This title by American Book Award winner Pete Hautman didn’t get a Printz award when it came out last year, but it’s still great.

What’s special about Big Crunch is its non-specialness. The characters are not unbelievably smart, witty, and well-read, as well as physically attractive. They feel real in a way that characters on a page rarely do: they’re entirely believable reasonably smart and attractive teens who happen to fall in love the way real people do.

So, ready for a little romance? You can’t go wrong with either The Fault in Our Stars or The Big Crunch.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

 It’s that time of year: a pile of books has formed under my bedside table, like a paper-based stalagmite. It’s inching up toward me, challenging me to read all the recent Newbery and Printz award contenders.

Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan recently made it to the top of the pile, and I’m glad I read the book. This novel reminds me of a recent silver medalist: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Not that the stories are at all alike. It’s just that both have short, accessible texts, great topics (this one’s about animals in captivity, while Inside Out was about the immigrant experience), good writing, and space on the cover for a possible award medal.

Perhaps most importantly, these books demand to be shared. Whether or not The One and Only Ivan takes home awards, it’s an extremely “share-able” book, one I might recommend to readers from fourth grade all the way through middle school.

The story is simple: a gorilla named Ivan lives with a small menagerie of animals housed in a rundown shopping mall. He dreams of being an artist, he enjoys the company of his fellow animals, and he tries to forget his captive status by calling his cage a “domain.”

What makes the book so easy to share with young readers?

·      Short chapters give readers of all abilities a quick sense of accomplishment, while also packing in a lot of meaning and emotion.

·      The straightforward narration—the story is told strictly from Ivan’s first person point of view—keeps the structure simple yet compelling.

·      The theme of human and animal interaction is beautifully explored through Ivan’s interactions with Julia, a human girl, and Mack, Ivan’s owner.

·      The differences between life in the wild and life in captivity are shown from the animal’s point of view, and as readers we’re made to feel the smallness of Ivan’s cage-view of the world.

·      Ivan should ignite some pretty powerful classroom discussions. For example, what does it mean and how do you feel when Ivan’s friend Stella says, “A good zoo is how humans make amends”?

·      The theme of arts ability to liberate the spirit is shown in a very literal way in this story (Ivan’s art helps him and the other mall animals find a better life), but being literal doesn’t make the “lesson” simple. Ivan’s a simple and complex tale.

There are definite flaws to Ivan. At times the gorilla point of view is much too adult in tone, and the story initially reads a bit like a (very good) writing class exercise. This made it hard for me to get into the book at the beginning.

That said, Ivan is still a powerful, share-able book that should find a wide audience.