Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Very Last First Time by Jan Andrews

Imagine it is the middle of winter. Imagine you are with your mother going to find mussels. Imagine crawling through a hole in the ice, but instead of landing in icy water, you land on mud! The tide is out and your new-found ice cave has seaweed for  carpet and icicles that hang from the thick ice roof like stalactites in a cave. Your mother doesn't come with you as lower yourself into blackness, but she holds a flashlight over the hole like a beacon. You have to find mussels and you can't get lost or you will drown when the tide comes in. This is what Eva has to do on a frigid winter day in northern Canada at her Inuit village. And it is her "very last, first time" she'll do such a thing!

This is a fun book to read to grade 4 students. It is unpredictable and full of tension. The students are puzzled that it sounds like Eva and her mother are going for a swim because in the picture they are putting on their parkas. The students' faces continue to crinkle in confusion when on the next page Eva and her mother walk through the Inuit village pulling sleds. The watercolor illustrations are beautiful and Ian Wallace, the illustrator has hidden images in the pictures. This is one of those books I can read again, and again, and again.

There is an excellent guide from Pacific Publishing on how to read this book aloud or with a child. The author explains on her website that she based this novel on something that Inuits do in Ungava Bay in Canada.

Reading Level 4.3

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, September 23, 2011

Falling In by Frances O'Rourke Dowell

Isabelle Bean is a strange girl and at school she is bullied, teased, and quirky. A buzzing sound in class distracts her from the lesson and she is sent to the Principal’s office. Another student locks her in a closet where Isabelle “falls into” a different world. She lands in a school and the other students see her different clothes and red boots and accuse her of being a witch. She convinces them that she isn’t and follows a path out of town. She befriends Hen who has lost a group of children she was traveling with to camp. The villagers send their children to camp because of a witch that travels from village to village eating children for a crime they commited against her 50 years ago. Hen and Isabelle find the witch and discover that there is more to the story than a wicked witch.

The author inserts her voice in chapters to the reader like Lemony Snicket and Pseudonymous Bosch. Some of it is funny and some is annoying. It interrupts the story more at the beginning than at the end. When it doesn't work it slows the pacing. Shakespeare used monologues and soliloquies to show a major turning point or character's state of mind or true nature. He also used asides to bring the audience into the play and have the person empathize or dislike the character. Is this what these authors are trying to do? I think this is a difficult technique for an author to pull off and it doesn't always work for me.

There isn't a lot of magic in this book and it is more about the change in Isabelle as a person. This was well done and there were some interesting plot twists. The themes of prejudice, friendship, fear, and courage run throughout the story.

Some might find the witches story of what happened to her child violent and gory. There is some violence and bullying.

Reading Level 4.3

:-) :-) :-) 3 Smileys

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walking Trees by Ralph Fletcher

I discovered the author, Ralph Fletcher, three years ago. I decided to read the book, What a Writer Needs.

Loved it.

Then I picked up the paperback, Live Writing: Breathing Life into Your Words.

Loved it.

Next I read, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices.

Loved it.

I read, The Sandman, to five grade 1 classes.

The students loved it.

It should be no surprise that I loved the latest Ralph Fletcher book I picked up, a memoir called Walking Trees: Portraits of Teachers and Children in the Culture of Schools. I can't think of a nonfiction book like this - it has tension, suspense, and characters who change throughout a school year and others who don't. The book is a patchwork quilt of characters that creates a complex blanket of humanity from Fletcher's year as a writing coach or teacher trainer in New York Citys' school districts. His characters range from the bell banging Fern Resager who needs a voice transplant to Myrna Rabincoff who looks her students in the eye and listens when they speak. "She cares about children." p. 62. Eleanor Bosch reminds me of a Roald Dahl character (maybe aunt Spiker?) and the childrens' writing examples are inspirational. The book picks up the quirks and characters that cross paths with Fletcher as he weaves through school districts like a bee in search of pollen. Along the way, he finds teachers blooming, wilting, or almost dead (there's a jungle in one principal's office). Some teachers take to his new ideas, some resist them, but what is obvious is that he touches the lives of students and they in return, touch him. His observations are funny, precise, and poignant. He describes his day like a reporter:

At PS 414, the secretary in the Main Office gives me the guest book to sign and directs me down to the cafeteria to find Marlon Hauser, the principal. Entering the immense room, I am assaulted by a tremendous din made by hundreds of kids eating, laughing, goofing yelling. Decibel City. At the near end of the room, three stout, heavily made-up women in dark jackets (we dubbed them "Renta-Mommies" when I was in school), all toting bullhorns, keep unsmiling watch over the kids. From time to time, one of these women raises her bullhorn to bark something ineffectual at them:

"Brian Young, get off that table! Mildred, do you want to stay after school today? 4-322, I cannot believe the way you're behaving today... You ought to be ashamed of yourselves." p 34.

While Fletcher doesn't give answers to the questions he raises, he shows what good teachers and principals do in their classrooms and schools. I like how he avoids being preachy or slipping into a doom and gloom tirade over the state of education. The message is not one of hopelessness but hope that there will be those who love what they do and "care about children." An entertaining and inspirational read.