Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison

What a mystery masterpiece! I would recommend keeping notes on the different Tibetan sects such as ragyapa's, purbas, and so on; plus, the complex Tibetan Buddhism theological elements that define culture and make people act the way they do. I got so caught up in the mystery that I quit taking notes and then forgot which sect was responsible for what and had to backtrack to refresh my brain. Of course, you readers who don't forget details (I hate you) won't need any notes. That said, this is one heck-of-a-complex story and Pattison pulls it together in an exciting climax that is satisfying and enlightening.

Shan Tao Yun was an investigator for the Ministry of Economy in Beijing before angering the Party when he tried to expose corruption within the Party. Now he suffers in a Tibet prison with fellow monks. He adopted their religion that helps him not only survive the horrors of prison-life, but has given him friends in unlikely places. When the work crew find the corpse of a headless man, Shan's unique skills learned in Beijing are discovered by Colonel Tan who pulls him from prison temporarily to investigate the murder. Tan is a hot-tempered, ruthless man who does not care about the truth at first, but who finds his behavior changing as he deals with Shan, the Tibetan monks, and the investigation.

Shan's mantra is to seek the truth no matter what the consequences; a rare trait in a society that has experienced the revolution of Communism and the baggage that goes with it such as suppression of truth, dissidents, and Tibetan culture. The silk scarf rising on an updraft at the start of the novel symbolizes the complex China/Tibet struggle that victimizes the population on both sides of the argument. Pattison not only shows the Tibetan conflict but the Chinese officials who struggle to carry out the orders amidst corruption and greed. A strength of the story is the complex development of the protagonist and supporting characters who change as they deal with these issues and it adds great depth through the exploration of cultures who conquer other cultures and go on to eradicate their history and people.

Clues are laid out in such a way that it feels as if two mysteries are being solved. It is unpredictable in so many ways and on so many levels. The complexity of plot, the terrific development of character make it rise above your normal everyday mystery novel. The loose ends are tied up and I loved the twist at the end. The only question I had was Yeshe. His story doesn't seem to be over and I wonder if he pops up in the sequels. Or maybe I didn't want his story to be over because his internal changes made me sad in his hopeless view of events that had transpired in the investigation.

I am sitting in Bali trying to write this as fast as I can because the Internet is somewhat unstable and my netbook battery is even more unstable. Perhaps I can come back and revisit this review because I'm not really doing this book justice. It was terrific and I'd read it again in a heartbeat. I think I really should read it again to understand the intricate plot. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

One Year in Coal Harbor by Polly Horvath

Dang, I was confused reading this book. Granted it wasn't all the author's fault. I've turned into a loopy menopausal reader which means momentary brain shutdowns. At least that's my excuse. I also DESPERATELY NEED SPRING BREAK! First, I thought Quincehead was a parrot. He ain't. He's a gawl dong blasted dog. If you read too fast the word, Cockapoo, is quite similar to cockatoo. Then I read Bert and Evie as Bert and Ernie. Their spitfire dialogue made me think they were hyperactive ten-year-old twins (I've been teaching a few lately). They ain't. They're a husband and wife who like to use the word "ain't" and quirky sentences such as "No people is different, is all." The description of Ked made me think he was a special needs kid. He ain't either. Some terrific lines and oddball characters kept me flipping the pages, but I was left scratching me head when it came to plot and I skimmed parts.

I think the main point of the story was that Primrose doesn't have a best friend and she makes one in Ked... not that I was on my top reading behavior. The subplot is her playing matchmaker with Uncle Jack and Miss Bowzer. This goal gets lost at times as the plot wanders. I wasn't sure why the teacher Miss Conner had to go and Miss Larkin had to replace her except that the author loved the awful poems Miss Larkin wrote. They are funny but they don't advance the plot. The theme of teachers having such tough jobs that they get mental illness lacked authenticity and kind of irked me.

Primrose has long interior monologues and sounds like an adult more often than a twelve-year-old child. When she was fighting with Eleanor I thought she finally sounded like a child. Usually her humor is adult-like and I'm not sure if it will appeal to kids. Sure, I laughed, but is a twelve-year-old going to have that much wisdom? Particularly when it comes to romance? For example, "I forgot that Uncle Jack was a lefty and sat next to Miss Bowzer, where his cutting arm kept knocking into hers, which might have been a good thing if she'd been a sly, flirty, go-ahead-and-knock-into-me-with-your-knife-arm-you-big-lug type. But she wasn't. She was more the I'm-going-to-try-to-ignore-the-line-of-bruises-forming-up-my-arm type. If I was less invested in their future happiness, I might have found it entertaining. Well, all right, it was entertaining anyway." I laughed, but thought she sounded more like a fourteen or fifteen-year-old. Sometimes the audience felt YA with the touched on themes of drugs and abuse and romance, but nothing is gone into great depth so perhaps it is fine.

I liked lines here and there such as, "It is a terrible thing to have pockets of emptiness where something or someone should be. I felt it when my parents were missing," but I found other lines confusing or too many asides, such as when granny and the Hacky Sack boy were talking about him being a hair stylist. I kept waiting for the complete story regarding the parents being lost at sea for a year, but it is never elaborated on. How can you be lost at sea for a year and survive? I grew up in the middle of the country so perhaps this is a dumb question? I know that the "lost at sea" angle is used so that Primrose has empathy toward Ked, but Horvath emphasizes it so much, I thought there was more to it.

The use of mini-marshmallows as an object that has many different meanings for different characters is clever. Evie uses them to make people feel better. When a character is having a rough patch, Evie is always there with food. I ate more food reading this book because of all the food references. Horvath has recipes at the end of the chapters and many scenes take place in a restaurant. The end-of-chapter recipes reminded me of Hattie Mae's articles in "Moon Over Manifest." In both novels, I read them at first, then skipped them at the end. That's just me. I like sticking to the story. Make sure you read this on a full stomach or you'll be like me reaching for some snack every time you curl up in your favorite reading spot.

One last thing, and this is a SPOILER so don't read on if you don't want to know... the opening scene has a dog being put to sleep. Unless you are like me and think it is a parrot being put to sleep. Doesn't have the same emotional punch as a dog dying. Later on another dog gets hit by a car and killed. The deaths reveal Primrose dealing with the loss of her friend Ked and her mother giving her advice on dealing with death, but I think readers who are sensitive to the loss of an animal will be turned off. Just pretend it is a cockatoo, not a Cockapoo. My spell checker just asked me if I meant Kickapoo. If you like word play and understated humor, then give this book a go. If not, give it a kick-a-poo.

Reading Level 5.0
3 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, March 25, 2013

Real Revision by Kate Messner

"Author's aren't writers, we're rewriters!" Kate Messner would pump her fists in agreement with Linda Sue Park's statement. This professional book gives readers a glimpse into the labor-intensive process of making books and revising them, as well as, scaffolded lessons that show steps to achieve the goal of writing a book or becoming a better writer. Mini-lessons and larger units are presented that individuals or teachers can use in the classroom. Messner teaches a middle school creative writing course, but these are not just lessons for older kids, I found several lessons I want to try with the younger students. Our second graders do character studies and I could use some of the character idea sheets in the Appendix then follow up with Linda Urban idea web. An electricity of excitement is coursing through me - I cannot wait to try some of these activities. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the layout of the book.

The chapters move from revising content and ideas, to organization and language in writing, to conventions. At the end of each chapter is a mentor author and strategies employed for writing. This infusion of other authors' strategies gives the book a collective voice that adds a richness and depth to the novel as a whole. The chapters are short and easy-to-read and Messner's use of strong verbs highlights her point of writing strong sentences for interest. Stories strengthen points such as the time she grew worms as research for her Marty McGuire book. Messner doesn't mention picture books and while she has written one that my students really like, her examples focus on middle grade books and higher. I was hoping for her thoughts on picture books, but maybe they are so different they would have derailed the focus of this book.

I particularly liked the sections on creating characters, researching, and organizing the plot: "As an author, I know my characters are real when I start shopping for them." Messner tells the story of finding an art-themed pin in a store that she thought her character, Gianna, would love. The impressive photo of her "shrunken" manuscript with sticky notes all over it to make sure plot is balanced, will either inspire or scare would-be writers. On second thought... I take that back. I like how Messner balances the humungous overwhelming novel with smaller, more manageable lessons for the beginning writer. Many would look at the novel-writing and shout, "No way!" but then a study of the mini-lesson might lead to the thought, "I can do that." A nice balance is struck that makes the task seem possible.

Confession time. I really don't like revising. Gasp. I know... whoop-de-doo... me and 99% of the population. Linda Sue Park said she revised, "When My Name was Keoko," 37, or was it 38, times! Messner revised "The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z" 12 times. Time to embrace revision and stop being a whiny-head, AND realize first drafts are usually crummy. And seconds. And thirds. You get the idea. I went to Messner's website and asked for information because I'd like her as a visiting author. I don't have a whole lot of say in visiting authors at our school, but after reading this book I would love to have this teacher-author come and drop some pearls of writing wisdom. The best part of this book for me is its authenticity. Messner writes with experience and empathy for the struggling writer that rings true to those who love this difficult craft.

4 Smileys

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

I'm a fraud. I write children's book reviews and I'm an adult. In an ideal world children would write books for children, as well as, review those books, right? The child-adult dual audience dilemma (that's a mouthful) addressed in children's literature studies crossed my mind because the author says he wrote this book from a ten-year-old's perspective for adults, and not, for children. But I don't agree with him. The story reads like a children's book that addresses children and adults as its audience. The child appeal is throughout the pages from getting a new baseball glove, making new friends, seeing a baseball hero, and dealing with a new school, to name a few. The adult appeal is the memories of what it is like growing up, making bad choices but learning from them, and becoming a responsible adult. When Jim tries to chase away a memory he's ashamed of by repeating "please, please, please" I was nodding my head thinking of all the times I chased bad memories away in a similar fashion. What isn't going to appeal to some readers (both adult and child) is the slow pace. While the writing is gorgeous, the plot falls somewhat in the middle with the lack of tension. However, the patient reader will be rewarded by the strong ending.

Jim turns ten and on his birthday gets to go with his uncles to the corn fields to hoe. He is spoiled and self-centered but likable for it is obvious that he loves his uncles and mother. When he works in the fields he makes a mistake and tries to hide it by lying. He is also prejudiced toward Abraham, a black man. His uncle is disappointed in his choices and tells him to go home. Ashamed at first by his actions, Jim, like a typical kid, is quickly distracted by other adults that talk to him along the way. The voices of all the adults in this story care for Jim and nurture him in ways that will make him a good adult.

When Jim meets Penn at school he thinks of him as an ignorant hillbilly and doesn't really recognize his prejudice until he goes to Penn's home at the end. What begins as rivalry ends in friendship and laying aside jealousy on Jim's part. The relationship between Penn and Jim are the most dynamic and tension-filled scenes; whereas, the uncle scenes move the story forward as they show how Jim grows as a person. By the end, Jim has changed in subtle ways from self-centered to more aware of others as can be seen in his changed friendship with Penn to Abraham rescuing him from bullies to seeing his sick granddaddy. This truly is a coming-of-age story that emphasizes internal monologue over action, a start that deals with an emotional loss, and a journey into growing as an individual. Some might find the lack of action boring, but I found myself pulled along by the prose and characters for the most part.

I didn't care about the mother's story. Her characterization wasn't enough for me to be vested in her growth as an individual. I found the romance-that-never-was quite distracting from Jim's story and I was more annoyed with it than interested in it. The letters didn't seem authentic and while I found Jim's empathy for her well-done, "The death of Jim's father had broken something inside her that had not healed. She pulled the heaviness that had once been grief behind her like a plow," I could have cared less about her inability to love another man. Perhaps if she had been given more dialogue in the story or characterization, I would have picked up the breadcrumbs of her story. As is, I didn't bite; she is in the background and more like "the stray ghosts of fog" than someone of substance.

I liked how the uncles called Jim, "Doc," because like a doctor he healed their grief but the title left me scratching my head. Perhaps it is supposed to be so simple as to reflect the minimalist writing? I kept thinking of my school "Dick and Jane" primers which made me further dislike the title. At the end when Jim realizes the scope of life and death and how big the world is he comments to his uncles, "I'm just a boy." I think I would have liked that better than "Jim the Boy." Ah well. I'm probably missing something literary in the title.

Jim isn't always good and he makes bad decisions, but he always faces them either from an uncle pointing it out or something happening to make him realize his poor choice. He doesn't want to be mean like his granddaddy but he is at times whether that be to Abraham, Penn, or an uncle. When Jim asks his uncle why granddaddy was mean he replies, "All of us have got meanness inside us, I guess, but most of us don't let it come out." While Jim learns self-control, he also recognizes when he's been mean and he tries to fix it, such as with his fight with Penn. The optimistic adult and teacher in me likes a story that shows a character making good decisions. Some might find this too didactic, but I can't help myself, I like it. I also like Earley's descriptions and just when I think he's going to get too sappy, he reigns in on his prose and gets back to the story. If you like good writing and characterization, then I suggest giving this literary gem a chance.

Young Adult
Fountas & Pinnell: W
4 Smiley

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Plunked by Michael Northrop

I toss the softball straight up, eye its descent like a hawk, before swinging the aluminum bat hard while pivoting my hips; a satisfying thud shatters the silence as the ball sails into the net. I repeat the cathartic motion again and again: toss, smash, toss, smash, toss smash. I love sports... especially baseball. I got a chance to play slow pitch last Tuesday and had a blast just tossing the ball up and clobbering it into the pitching net. A peacefulness settles on me like dust on the field when I hit or play catch. Reading Plunked is like reliving the joy of playing ball all over again from the author's description of the pitching machine making "fa-chunk" noises to the excitement of coming from behind in a close game. If you don't love baseball, you won't love this book, so don't bother picking it up if you are expecting more. The story is somewhat short on plot, and the interesting parts take place on the field.

Jack Mogens is a sixth grader who plays baseball with his friends and has a crush on a girl on their team. He's trying to win a starting spot on the team against another player and his best friend, Andy, plays for the team as well. Malfoy used to be his friend but he's become a nasty piece of work that hates Jack.  When Jack gets hit by a pitch he has serious issues with being afraid of the ball and wonders if he'll ever play again. He starts to lie to others rather than deal with the problem and while he's trying to hide the fact, everyone seems to know what is going on. Or they are giving him time to deal with it.

This light-hearted novel has a great voice in Jack who sounds like a doofy 6th-grader as he tries to talk cool with his friends calling each other "dingus" and other dumb names. Readers will laugh at the "jerk-butts" and middle school humor. The friendship between Andy and Jack is quite real and I liked how Andy tells him to "deal with it" and move on but doesn't overtalk the problem. Malfoy is one-dimensional. I thought more would happen with him in the story or the two would confront each other but that never materializes.

I would have preferred more tension and depth, but some will like the simplistic plot. I thought the chapters were too short with not enough tension or depth added. When Jack is sitting with his family I got bored and didn't see how it advanced the plot. Maybe if there had been some foreshadowing to crank up the tension? I wanted more from the story. More about Jack's fear. More about working as a team. More about the friendships. Sport stories tend to focus on characters overcoming obstacles, the emphasis of team over individual glory, good sportsmanship, and so on. While this touched on that it didn't go as deep as I wanted. That said, I am an adult looking at a story for children and the topics I'm interested in are going to be different than a child's; I don't think students will care that the story isn't complex but will enjoy it for what it is.

At first I thought Jack's injury wasn't really serious enough, but then I thought about how fast and hard pitchers can throw in Little League and it is entirely possible for Jack to get that scared. My husband was 10 years old and had to lie immobile, in a hospital bed for a week, after a pitcher hit him in the eye. He almost lost his eye. I took a  fall off the high bars in gymnastics as an 11 year old that terrified me. I only knocked the wind out of my lungs but I'll never forget trying to suck in air and not being able to. I've knocked the wind out of my lungs many times since then, but it has never been as bad or as frightening as that high bar experience, and like Jack, I had nightmares about it. Sports force athletes to face fears in many ways, whether from accidents or learning new skills, and sometimes, those fears can be irrational. But they are very real and can be very crippling. This book explores that theme in a way that is satisfying and different, and for that reason, I highly recommend it.

Reading Level 4.5
3 Smileys

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles #2) by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet is action packed and entertaining. Shucks, I read it in one setting, but it isn't as clever as Cinder (book 1) and I lost interest in the character Scarlet toward the end. Cinder and Scarlet alternate stories, although most is from Scarlet's point of view. Her grandmother has gone missing and the police have stopped their search. Scarlet decides to find her grandmother on her own with the help of a teenager with incredible strength named, Wolf. Cinder, on the other hand, escapes from prison and gets help from Thorne, a teenager who has a stolen ship he agrees to fly for her to Africa if she lets him flee prison with her. Cinder's plan is to meet Dr. Erlinder in Africa to strategize how to defeat the Lunar Queen and prevent war on earth.

The dialogue between Thorne and Cinder is quite entertaining and was one of my favorite parts of the book. His likable, narcissistic behavior is quite funny when contrasted with the no-nonsense, brainy Cinder. The two make an unlikely pair, and yet, the author makes it work quite brilliantly. Iko is back but in a different "body" which creates some humorous scenes. Even though she is a machine, she has human traits. A complex anthromophic computer, Iko can comment on societies and cultures from an outsider’s point of view and perform feats superior to humans. She advances the plot and makes Cinder's escape scenes plausible.

The action is pretty much nonstop with frequent deaths of characters. Politically and psychologically, Kai is trying to figure out the war and rethink Cinder's crimes and actions. He doesn't have much page-time in this sequel and very little is spent explaining the political situation of the kingdoms. Kai represents stability of governance while the Lunar Queen represents instability. A reader who skips book one might have problems understanding all that is going on from the oppression of cyborgs to the plague that is threatening the human population. I'm not sure why the later doesn't get more play in Scarlet and I missed the tension in the storyline. The love story between the Kai and Cinder simmers in the background as Thorne and Cinder are thrust together; however, there is nothing emotional between those two except annoyance and friendship.

Wolf and Scarlet are another issue. They are physically attracted to each other in a way that seems to reflect a social hierarchy of a wolf pack. When Scarlet is introduced she acts somewhat crazy over comments made about a girl on the news media she doesn't even know. She jumps on top of a bar and unplugs the television causing an uproar from other patrons that quickly escalates into a fight. It makes sense that Scarlet's aggressive, alpha female actions are going to appeal to the alpha male, Wolf. What begins as an interesting character development wanes as Scarlet's impulsiveness becomes somewhat ridiculous near the end. I kept expecting her to show more brains and come up with a plan, but she bursts into danger with no thought for her well-being. Even an animal has more sense of self-preservation than her.

The use of familiar fairytales makes Marissa Meyer's plots somewhat predictable. I didn't care in Cinder that I could guess what was going to happen, because of the cleverness and humor used at the point of predictability. It was pretty darn funny when the clock struck midnight and Cinder tumbled down the steps, losing not only a shoe, but her entire foot - cyber parts and all. Meyer's had enough variation in the Cinder plot, along with the internal tensions of the main character, that I found it interesting. In Scarlet, some of this is lost and the plot isn't as cleverly tied to Little Red Riding Hood. In spots the romance was predictable and boring, like ripping petals off a flower: Does he love me? Does he love me not? except my chant was, Will she trust him? Will she trust him not? I like the strong female character of Cinder, who stands on her own; she is her own fairy godmother. But Scarlet doesn't do that. She mostly stands and shouts. Too much independence is lost as she relies on Wolf for protection and what began as an alpha female who will shoot even her boyfriend, becomes an overly rash girl during the grandma rescue episode. Scarlet does redeem herself some at the end when she saves Cinder from the bad guys. Wolf is tranquilized in that action scene. I would have liked him tranquilized in a few others. I really wanted Scarlet to figure her way out of the tangle in Paris on her own.

Characters that resist conformity and conventions have a long history of resonating with readers and this story does just that. The characters and plot are entertaining but it doesn't quite reach the potential I was expecting after the first book. The tension goes down a notch with the lack internal change in Scarlet's character. I found Cinder more fascinating because of the theme of isolation and oppression that comes with her being part human, part robot. Abandonment issues are touched on with Scarlet's father but it isn't gone into depth and I didn't get captured with it as much as Cinder and her step-mother's rejection. I suppose one of the problems with sequels is that inevitable comparison to the first. That said, this is quite entertaining and fans will not be disappointed.

Young Adult
3 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, March 18, 2013

Keywords for Children's Literature Edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul

Probably the best thing I took away from this book was facing my own biases when reading books and thinking about children's literature sociologically as well as historically. This book is a scholarly approach to children's literature in the alphabetized form of 49 essays by different authors that delves into the etymology, history, and meanings of keywords in children's literature, or put another way, it is an exploration of the social and cultural impact of certain words in children's literature studies. It is not intended to be read from A to Z, but to be read like hyperlinks of information found on the Web. Of course, I read it from A to Z because I'm a rebel at heart. Just kidding. Actually I don't know much about children's literature theory so I just plowed through the pages in a sequential way - from A to Z. I would suggest starting a warm-up lap with the essay, "Intention," by author Philip Pullman and jumping around like the authors suggest in the introduction. Pullman is easy-to-read and touches on many controversial issues in the field. I started with the essay, "Aesthetics," which reads more like a one mile run; a very interesting, if complex, take on children's literary scholars struggle to be taken seriously over the years.

The analysis of children's text is to study "the system of ideas that define a culture." All cultures have ideologies and I found the keyword "tomboy" interesting as this essay reflects the etymological change of the word and how the definition as we know it today shifted from boys to girls. The change to girls occurred in the 1800s and developed from the idea that parents didn't want sickly, weak young girls to become sickly, weak mothers. Girls were encouraged to be strong and independent as reflected in the novels of the time: "The Hidden Hand" (1859), by Capitola Black; "Lena Rivers" (1856) by Mary Holmes; and "The Wide, Wide World" (1850) by Susan Warner. Before this change, children's literature was more didactic and followed the romantic era of Wordsworth that stressed childhood innocence in need of protection. In the essays, "Childhood" and "Realism," the growth of the middle class along with an increase of leisure time led to a shift from didactic books to genre books and this development of realistic texts reflects not an innocent child but a "knowing" child, that is, a child in the process of finding out how to become an adult.

I found the history of librarians as moral gatekeepers interesting and disturbing. Am I a moral gatekeeper? I had an "ah-ha" moment somewhere in the midst of reading these essays. When I read Linda Sue Park's book, "Storm Warning" (39 Clues), I thought the drowning of the man in the book was too realistic and the emotion too raw. Yet, when Linda Sue Park was visiting our school she said it is her best-selling book. I read the book as an adult; a person who wanted to protect the innocence of a child. To some degree I am a moral gatekeeper. The parents expect me to protect their child, but I didn't realize that I was protecting their innocence. Is that really necessary? Are they innocent? Or are they knowing? These are some of the divisive issues touched on. Other essays bring up the inherent conflict of adults buying children books for an audience that happens to be powerless children; they cannot choose their own books when they are toddlers, which makes not only me a gatekeeper but parents and publishers as well. In a video where author Lissa Paul promotes her book, she tells the story of a children's book that was wonderfully written about an ogress who eats her children, she goes on to say that parents are not going to buy that book and it will not sell regardless of how well it was written; hence, publishers won't touch it. The essays explore these ideas further and explain how the moral gatekeepers reflect the cultural norms and ideology of the times and this is reflected in children's texts.

The essay on "Liminality," by Michael Joseph, was like being in a 10K race and I'm not sure my brain truly understood it properly. Liminality in folklore represents someone who is in transition, such as Gandalf in Tolkien's novel who is neither dead nor alive or Alice in Wonderland who is in a dream world.  I just read Marissa Meyer's, "Scarlet," book two of the Lunar Chronicles, that follows the folktale of Cinderella, except in Meyer's book, Cinderella is a cyborg. She's a liminal character for she is neither human nor machine but in a state of transition. Michael Joseph would include marginalized people as liminal characters; those who live outside of society or structure as found in novels such as, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie. Joseph applies liminality not only to characters in books, but to the book itself, giving examples such as the marginalization of comics. Comics have historically suffered accusations as being subliterary in the study of literature and Joseph would argue they are "inbetween"; they are neither art nor book, but a deconstruction of the picture book. Even though graphic novels have gained more acceptance he argues they are not conventional but reflect a reading experience that can often be subversive and critical.

I'm not sure about the arrangement of this book. On one hand, I liked the hyperlinked design idea, on the other, I wished the author had hyperlinked the context for me putting them in an order of natural inquiry - except that probably isn't possible because readers will come at it with their own knowledge and interests. I am a newbie to many of the topics versus a children's literature scholar who is going to be familiar with the keywords in a way that I am not because of my lack of knowledge. If scholars are the intended audience, and I'm sure they are, then it makes sense as is. I think both types of readers could be reached by creating hyperlinks to essays within the eBook. I can envision myself reading one essay then bopping over to another essay using a hyperlink (a built-in dictionary would be nice too). I guess I want a liminal book format. Or is that liminal? Like I said, I'm still figuring out what the heck that means.

I stumbled upon a blog that strikes up the conversation of children's literature with insightful comments on the contested issue of "Why is the study of children's literature important?" Low and behold the author of this book commented on the post: "Children’s literature is what we read when we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we want to become. Potentially, then, children’s literature may have a greater impact on us than any other books we read. Children’s literature is the most important literature we read. Period." The intention of this book is to strike up conversations about children's novels. It did just that for me.

4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy, #2) by Jennifer A. Nielsen

A plain 'o rip-roaring adventure ye won't wanna put down with crazy plot twists and turns, nonstop action and tension, and terrific characters. Jaron or Sage is back with his smart aleck bad boy ways where he can be quite unpredictable with actions, predictable with the girls (they react unpredictably toward him), and charming if he has to talk his way out of a tangle. Like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Sage is a character that is charming, cranky, good, and vulnerable; he sweeps you along with the storyline and you'll like him so much ye won't care about some of the unbelievable things he does because he'll spit out some funny line in a tight spot or use his wits when ye don't expect it. Add some strong supporting characters and some nasty 'ole pirates and ye got yerself a whole lotta fun! And don't worry, there is no pirate talk. I just couldn't resist having a little fun meself spicing up me review.

Jaron is trying to run his kingdom, but war is looming from his greedy neighbors who want the lush forests and natural springs that adorn the Carthya landscape. Except the pirates to the west. They don't care about the land. They want Jaron dead. Their failure to kill him four years ago plagues the Pirate King's ego. When Jaron's authority is undermined by his captain of the guard, who wants the regents to install a steward, Jaron is forced to flee and deal with his enemies himself. This impossible task teaches him that he must learn to trust others and find the meaning of true friendship. (He's working on the true love part, but we are not sure how that will go.)

I appreciate that the author pretty much wraps up all the loose ends, saving a few tidbits for the next sequel. The character, Jaron, uses his wits (loved the plague trick) as well as athletic skills; the girls  are strong-willed;  and Fink and Erick are a nice addition to the mix. The pirate Devlin is one-dimensional, but Roden isn't, which makes for an interesting character study even if his quick change of heart at the end was somewhat unbelievable. But hey, boys will be boys. Except these boys were awfully brutal to each other. And speaking of crazy, never mind that Jaron can climb a cliff with a broken leg and sword fight right after on one leg with the best sword fighter in the country. Like other archetypical heroes and their unbelievable feats, Jaron is typical of the well-loved monomyth.

So 'matey, while this book is a little more predictable in spots than the first, and unbelievable in others, it is still a fun read that won't disappoint fans of the first book.

Reading level around 5 (my guess based on book 1)
Fountas & Pinnell: around S (my guess)

4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Eyes tap-dance as Linda Sue Park explains the spur-of-the-moment decision to give her Newbery medal for A Single Shard to her dad at the ALA awards ceremony in 2002. The auditorium went from noisy to dead silent as I walked to the edge of the stage to hand Dad the medal. "I'm thinking to myself, why is it so quiet?" and wondered if the audience didn’t like the gesture so I joked at the podium, “Dad, you had better leave that to me in your will.” Later she found out it was quiet because people were so moved they were crying. "I heard Bruce Coville blew his nose in the tablecloth," she laughs. Some time later, Linda Sue’s mom called to complain that her dad was “out-of-control,” still showing everyone The Medal. Linda Sue told her mom that it was okay and the excitement would soon wear off to which her mom said, “No Linda. You don’t understand... He just showed the UPS man!”

This is just one of many unforgettable stories Linda Sue Park shared at a recent visit to our school where she inspired kids to read and write. A master storyteller who drops a trail of historical breadcrumbs, I learned that the Japanese kidnapped Korean potters because they would not share their trade secrets around the 1600's; the Thousand Crane vase that inspired her to write, A Single Shard, is owned privately by a museum that opens two times a year (and even then there is no guarantee you can see it because it is only shown during a ceramics exhibition); that first-time authors have to sell a minimum of about 5,000 books after publication in order to get a second printing, and more.

Now take a close look at the actual Thousand Crane vase on the left. The potters used an incising technique to carve out the intricate patterns, filling in each incision with different colored clay during the 12th century. The complex firing process is simplified for her book, but you get the idea. This craft required a high level of skill.  A Single Shard is about celadon pottery and focuses on the story of an orphan boy, Tree-ear, who desperately wants to learn this craft. He secretly watches the master potter, Min, then sneaks a peak at a piece of Min's work only to break it. The two come to an agreement that Tree-ear will work for Min to "pay" for the broken pottery. Thrilled, Tree-ear nurtures the hope that Min will teach him the craft, but this is a trade that is closely guarded and a potter doesn't share his skills with anyone, especially an orphan.

Tree-ear puts up with Min's verbal abuse and works hard to be respectful even when he wants to shout back at Min, instead focusing on the kindness of Min's wife, who gives him extra food. As thanks, Tree-ear does small chores for her around the house. At one point he loses hope of ever learning anything about becoming a potter, "How much slower the work when the joy of it is gone," but later he finds a new outlet. The homeless Crane-man is a cripple who has raised Tree-ear since he was a toddler under a bridge. Crane-man's wisdom and  love help Tree-ear deal with the reality that the potter doesn't want to teach him his trade. "My friend, the same wind that blows one door shut often blows another open." Tree-ear's determination to make his dream come true is not completely extinguished, "The flame of hope that burned in him was smaller now, but no less bright or fierce, and he tended it almost daily with visions of the pot he would make."

Min is such a perfectionist he only makes a dozen pieces of pottery a year. In order to make a living, he needs a royal commission. When Tree-ear travels to court on his behalf, all sorts of things go wrong starting with him spotting a fox, a symbol of bad luck to Crane-man and Tree-ear. The fox foreshadows Tree-ear's future suffering and through his experiences, Tree-ear decides to face the true meaning of family, courage, and responsibility.

The plot is beautifully written with interweaving action, symbolism and emotional turmoil. All the characters grow and change. Tree-ear's character is like the best Korean pottery that reflects the "radiance of jade and clarity of water." Tree-ear is like a shard of pottery; his family is broken but his character radiates all that is good in a person and he chooses kindness over hate, honesty over stealing, courage over fear, and respect over anger. Tree-ear could hate Min and feel betrayed that he won't teach him, but he chooses to focus on kindness in others. He could tell Min about Kang's new design but he got the information from spying, so he doesn't say a word. He could have given up going to Songdo but doesn't give into fear. Crane-man offers comic relief and changes internally by swallowing his pride to help Min's wife. Even the supporting characters such as Kang are likable and interesting. He does things fast, is not meticulous, and takes risks with his designs. He's not as good as Min because of his personality.

I am struck by Tree-ear's efforts to make his world a better place, and to make himself a better person. After spending the week with Linda Sue Park, this is a message she stresses to the kids. She ends all of her talks telling students to read because reading will give them knowledge and that they can use that knowledge to make their part of the world a better place. I know she makes the world a better place. Read her books - the simplicity and straightforwardness make for much thought and while that sounds contradictory it is also the magic of children's literature.

Reading level 6.7
Fountas and Pinnell: U
5 Smileys