Thursday, July 31, 2008

Song of the Trees by Mildred D. Taylor

Taylor, Mildred. (1975). Song of the Trees. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 48 pp.

Genre: Fiction

Awards: New York Outstanding Book of the Year in 1975, the Council on Interracial Books Award in the African American Category

Summary: A beautifully written story about a young black girl, named Cassie Logan, living with her family in Mississippi during the depression. Food and work are both scarce and force Cassie’s father to leave the area to search for a job. Cassie is left home with her mother, Mama, Big Ma-the grandmother, and three brothers. Barely scraping by becomes impossible when the last money sent home by Papa is stolen before it arrives to them. When two white business men pressure them to sell the trees on their land, Big Mama hesitantly agrees. The deal being offered isn’t fair, but with hardly any food in the house, there isn’t much choice. Cassie is heartbroken because the trees that shelter her and sing to her each day are like family and she can’t bear to lose them. In no time, the trees begin to fall like soldiers on the battlefront mortifying Cassie and she attempts to save them. Her actions only anger the workmen and she finds herself in a dangerous situation. Papa arrives, having been summoned by Mama, just in time to save his children from harm, though not in time enough to save the beautiful trees and their songs are silenced.

Characters: I loved all the characters in this short, easy read. Mama is so quiet and serious, always worrying about how to keep the tummies of her babies full and worrying about how to keep them safe. Big Mama is strong and wise about the ways of the world. Both Mama and Big Mama demonstrate great strength and courage when they are forced to deal with the white business men. When bartering with the men, the white men grow angry, and they’re wise enough to stop before tense becomes something more. They keep their pride in check in the name of safety. The brothers play parts in the story, but their characters aren’t well developed. Cassie, however, is. Cassie is an amazing little girl. She’s smart and spunky, yet quiet and reflective. Cassie is very connected with their trees and believes they sing to her when the wind swooshes through the leaves. Her connection to nature is beautiful.

The themes in this story are poverty, racism, and growing up. Though the story is a historical piece, it still would apply to today’s students.

The plot of this story is simple and many students will be able to predict what happens but its simplicity allows us to focus on other features of the writing. When I read it, I noticed how beautiful the descriptions were. Taylor’s words flowed and created these images in my mind that I loved! I could feel those trees and the wind and I could hear the deathly silence once they were gone. It was very moving. I would recommend this book for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. I’d like to read it and focus on the descriptive writing sections so that students could give that type of writing a try. Of course, it could be tied to a study on the depression era, as well as, racism. I would use it as a small group read or share passages with a whole group in a mini lesson on descriptive writing.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Thompson, C., 2003, Blankets,Marietta:Top Shelf Productions, 567pp

Genre: Fiction

Awards: Winner of three 2004 Harvey Awards for Best Artist, Best Graphic Album of Original Work, and Best Cartoonist and two 2004 Eisner Awards for Best Graphic Album and Best Write/Artist

Summary: Blankets is an intimate and touching story of growing up, of first love, and of a search for spiritual truth. Craig, the main character, shares the emotional and painful experience of growing up in a world where religion is more law to be obeyed rather than a belief to give hope. Instead of finding comfort in the spiritual teachings he’s surrounded with, Craig is haunted by fear of sinning and of being punished so he’s growing up to feel guilty about himself, his thoughts, and feelings. At school he’s bullied and cast out as a misfit. Loneliness and confused feelings make up his world until he meets Raina at a church camp. Craig recognizes Raina as a fellow outcast and is instantly drawn to her. The chemistry between the two is electric; they connect, and develop a relationship. At the end of camp, they separate physically but maintain their relationship through mail sharing intimate poetry and drawings. With some manipulation of parents through both of them, Craig and Raina arrange for Craig to come and spend two weeks with her. When he first arrives at her home, Raina gives him a gift. It’s a blanket she’s made from special patches of fabric. Craig is touched by the thoughtfulness and intimacy of her gift and wraps the blanket around him. During these two weeks, Craig’s eyes are opened to another kind of family and another kind of world. All that he sees and hears while he’s there is seen and heard through his eyes of love for Raina. Their connection, even when not physical, is extremely intense and when it finally does become physical, it transcends into an almost spiritual experience and changes Craig forever. The end of the two weeks comes and the two must separate and go back to life as it was before the trip. However, the intensity of their feelings and relationship has forever changed them both. Though they try to stay in touch and to be friends, it doesn’t work. Craig finally says goodbye and they move on in their lives.

In most novels, we get to know the characters through their actions and thoughts given to us in the text. In Blankets the characters are developed, not so much through written words, but through amazing drawings. Craig, the main character, is an introvert who struggles to understand himself and his world as he grows up. His fears and confusions surround him like the cold snowy weather in the setting. Craig’s loneliness is so real we feel it when we look at the bare trees standing in the cold frozen ground with nothing to shelter them from the wind. When Craig meets and falls in love with Raina, we can see Craig’s character and his perspective on the world change. There’s still snow and it’s still bitterly cold, but there’s something different in him and that’s hope. Raina is another character who struggles with her feelings. She has concerns and worries about her family. Two of her siblings are Down syndrome children adopted by her parents and she is very protective of them especially since her parents are divorcing. Raina’s world and her sibling’s world are shaken and they are filled with insecurities and sadness. Ben, one of the special needs siblings, seems to understand what’s happening more than the other and is quiet and withdrawn. Laura, doesn’t seem to understand. Her immaturity allows her to be easily distracted by amusements. Perhaps she isn’t mentally old enough to truly understand what’s happening. All of the characters in this book have issues they must battle, even the parents. All characters are very real and you’re drawn into the story of their lives, feeling their sorrows and happiness. Upon finishing this book, you will feel like you know these families and you’ll find yourself , at least I did, wondering what even happens to them.

I loved this book and was totally blown away by how powerful a graphic novel could be. It left me wanting to read more of them but also wanting to share this experience with others like myself who haven’t tasted an adult graphic novel. I think the appropriate age range for this book is ninth grade and up. The themes and characters seemed more mature though I’m sure younger students could connect with this book. I would not choose this book to be used in the classroom as a whole group read or as a small group read. I think the content is very intimate and I think it would be best read independently. I would have it in my library and I would refer to it when appropriate. The drawings in this book, for me, are what make it so profoundly moving. So, I would refer to it to show how much can be felt and inferred with the use of only black and white ink.

Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop

Winthrop, E. (2006). Counting on Grace. New York: Random House Children’s Books, 227 pp.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Awards: Honor Book, Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, A Vermont Reads Selection, IRA-CBS Children’s Choice, and an NCSS-CBS Notable Social Studies Trade Book Award for Young People, a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee, and a Massachusetts Book Award Honor Book for Children’s Literature

Summary: This story travels back in history to the early 1900’s to the beginning of the industrial age in America. Grace, who is twelve years old, is about to embark on her first job as a doffer in a mill. Though she’s excited to go to work and somewhat relieved to be free of school, she’s too young to understand how this will impact her life forever. She is old enough, though, to understand the importance of money when there isn’t enough and family members are starving. Grace is excited to soon be contributing to the family and its needs. Arthur, her best friend, also must leave school to work in the mills but he does reluctantly as he has no choice.

Once in the mill Grace discovers work is not easy. Long tedious hours are spent standing on her feet worrying about making mistakes with the bobbins on her mother’s frames knowing each mistake will cost her family money and disappoint her mother. She desperately wants to do a good job, but it’s much more challenging than she had imagined. Grace suffers from exhaustion, cuts all over her hands, and swollen legs and feet. Arthur works the frames for his mother, just like Grace, but all the while he’s devising a plan to escape and a means to seek help. Arthur has continued his education by spending Sunday’s with their old teacher, Miss Leslie, and Grace soon joins him. It is with Miss Leslie’s help the plan is hatched and set into motion by writing a letter to the Child Labor Board asking for help.

Arthur’s letter is soon answered when Lewis Hines, a photographer from New York, arrives on a train with all his equipment. Hines goes to the mill and explains he’s there to photograph the machines, but that’s not what he’s doing. Mr. Hines is there to photograph the children in the mill and to expose the child labor law violations. He makes friends with Grace and she becomes his secret assistant. Grace records the names and ages of all the young workers at the mill and she organizes them for the photographs he needs. Grace knows she must be careful about getting caught because it would cost her and maybe other family members their jobs. Though she doesn’t want the mill to close because it would mean losing jobs and losing a means to live, she still assists in the undercover project.

It’s through the help of Mr. Hines and her teacher that Grace is eventually able to quit the mills and work as a teacher, though no child law reformations come about in this story.

Characters: The characters in this book are true to life and easy to identify with, especially the main character, Grace. Grace is like most young girls as she’s full of spirit and hope for the future. She also desperately longs for the approval of her family, especially her mother, and she is always trying to earn it. Sadly, her mother has no time to offer Grace for such trivial concerns, as she is struggling herself to keep her family fed and alive. She is constantly exhausted and mentally drained by the working conditions she endures. There’s no rest for her, though, because if she slows down there’s always someone else to replace her who is more productive. Grace finds solace and comfort in her relationship with her grandfather who is mostly bedridden. Though sickly and partly senile, he does have time for Grace and they share intimate thoughts and dreams as they spend time together. Sadly, his death comes while under Grace’s care and she feels both heartbroken and responsible. Grace’s character grows and changes throughout this story. She learns lessons about the importance of education, life and death, growing up, and the cruelties of the working world in which they all live. Even though there are so many difficulties facing this child, her youthful optimism does not fail her, and she’s able to look to her future with dreams and aspirations. She never succumbs to depression or resigns to a life of dullness. I loved both her youthfulness and her ability to deal with grown up issues. Grace’s character could almost be described as a hero. She embarks on a dangerous secret mission with Mr. Hines and though it is a small part she plays, she does contribute to eventual reformation and enforcement of child labor laws.

This is a great story that could be read by both girls and boys fourth grade and up. It would be good to use in conjunction with Social Studies if you were studying the time period in America’s history when children provided cheap sources of labor. Mr. Hines is a real life character that could be researched as an extension. His photographs speak volumes about how young these children were and how dangerous the conditions were in which they worked. A possible creative writing activity could be done in conjunction with Mr. Hine’s photographs. Students could assume the personality of a child in these pictures, conduct more research about this period of time, and write about their experiences and feelings.

Surviving Hitler: a Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren

Warren, A. (2001). Surviving Hitler: a Boy in the Nazi Death Camp. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York: 127 pp.

Genre: Biography

Awards: Robert F. Sibert Honor Book,
ALA Notable Book

Summary: Twelve year old Jack Mandelbaum is living a normal life in Gdynia, Poland in the year 1939 when he begins to hear rumors of impending war with Germany. His parents and other adults are discussing Germany’s possible invasion into Poland as well as other countries. Following these rumors, Jack, his mother, and two younger siblings are sent by Jack’s father to live with relatives in the countryside away from the city. Just weeks after they’ve left, Hitler invades Gdynia and Jack’s father is sent to a concentration camp. Jack and his family are safe while staying with relatives but only for a few weeks more. Soon Hitler and his troops arrive here too. Fate and the Nazis separate Jack from his family and he is sent to the concentration camps. During his three year imprisonment, Jack lives in a state of constant fear knowing death could be at any time and could come without for any reason. Though he’s terrified, Jack knows in his heart he’s meant to survive and he refuses to fall to the Nazis. Jack decides that in order to survive he must work hard, be respectful, be cooperative, be likable, and to stay positive in his mind. Jack’s plan worked because he does survive. Most of his family was not so lucky and Jack is left with only a few uncles and cousins. But Jack’s amazing story doesn’t end with his freedom, though; he goes to rebuild his life while dedicating himself to issues related to Holocaust Survivors. This is a real life hero.

Characters: You can’t read this book or look at the photographs inside and not be amazed at the characters. These characters are not just characters; they’re real live human beings who experienced something so horrific it’s hard to believe it really happened. Jack is amazing throughout his story. He’s strong, resilient, clever, courageous, and inspirational. Though others around him succumbed to the circumstances, Jack never did. He persevered and his dream to survive became a reality. Once out of the camps, he soon found himself in another kind of battle to survive. This battle would take place inside him as he struggles to come to terms with what happened to his life. Jack goes into the camps a teenager but he soon becomes a man.

Plot: The plot of this story follows a timeline of Germany’s invasion into Poland, its years in German occupation, and the end of the war.
Jack’s story is a memoir that chronicles his life in the Nazi Concentration Camps during the war. We learn about his daily duties, events, and how he managed to survive until the arrival of the Russian liberators.

I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust. I know it’s a horrible event and many people would rather not remember too much about because it makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to even imagine the number of people, just like us, that were gathered up from their daily lives and simply disposed of as if they never really existed at all. These kinds of things should not happen.

I definitely would use this book in my class. It could be used with middle school students and up. I think it would be a great small group or whole group read depending upon your group. I would like to use it in conjunction with studying WWII, but I would also like to compare and contrast the Holocaust to more current genocides. Why are these kinds of things still happening? I would like to see young people become educated as to not only what’s happened in the past but what’s currently happening. I also could pair with this with other books such as The Diary of Anne Frank or others.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson, L. (1991). Speak. New York: Penguin Group, 198 pp.

Genre: Fiction

Awards: A Michael L. Printz Honor Book, A Nationalist Book Award Finalist, An Edgar Allen Poe Award Finalist, A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, A New York Times Bestseller, a Publisher’s Weekly Best Seller, An ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, An ALA Quick Pick, a Horn Book Fanfare Title,

Summary: In the summer before her freshman year in high school, Melinda Sardino alienates everyone she knows by calling the police to a party where everyone is underage and under the influence of alcohol. The party is broken up and several arrests are made and everyone is furious with Melinda. What no one knows, including the police, is the actual reason Melinda called them. Something unspeakable happens to her and she places the call to get help for herself, but once the police ask the nature of her call, she’s freezes and from that point on, cannot say what really happened. The horrific incident becomes trapped inside her. She is ostracized from her friends and becomes an outcast in the world because of a misunderstanding she is unable to clear up. Melinda’s life begins to fall apart and she is incapable of stopping it. The real world is too difficult for her to face on most days and she cuts school so her grades take a dive. The only class Melinda does enjoy is her art class. Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, is the only person who seems to be able to communicate with Melinda. He pushes her to express meaning in what she does and her art project assignment becomes a means for her to understand and deal with what happened. Because her grades are low, her parents become concerned and seek help from the school counselor, but none are able to reach her. No one is able to sense how deeply troubled Melinda is. No one sees her as anxiously bites through the flesh of her lips. Her self mutilation is a way to vent the awful words she cannot say and must hold back. Melinda’s big break through comes from spontaneous writing on the walls of the girl’s bathroom. She writes a warning for other girls to stay away from “The Beast” who ruined her life. Melinda receives several responses from others who validate her feelings and she finally realizes she’s not alone. She realizes that what happened to her was not fault and she is not to blame. Finally, Melinda has the opportunity to tell friend what really happened. From this point, Melinda begins the healing process and is able to move forward with her life.

The main character, Melinda, is a well developed character. When first introduced to her, she seems very typical. She’s nervous, uncomfortable, and full of dread at the prospect of going back to school because everyone believes she is a snitch and that she ruined a big end of summer party for them all by calling the police. However, after we read more, we discover that her fears and anxieties are caused by something much more monstrous than being shunned by friends though that alone is traumatizing. Melinda feels confused and guilty and struggles to understand what happened to her. I think guilty is exactly how many girls would feel in this situation because she was initially so attracted to Andy. Because of those feelings as well as guilt from the drinking, it’s natural she might feel partly responsible though she definitely said no. I understand and believe that many girls, sadly, may be just like Melinda and something so awful secret. I think Melinda is realistically portrayed. The other characters were much less so. It’s hard to believe that Melinda’s friends “hated her” for this one act though it did ruin an awesome party. Wouldn’t they be more believable if they at least tried to talk to Melinda and see why she had done what she had done? And her parents, teachers, and counselor, did they not notice the bloody scabby lips? Was her mother not alarmed when she found her in fetal position hiding in her closet? At the very least, I felt the counselor should have been able to sense from her silence that she was holding back. Maybe the author did not feel we needed to see the depth of concern from others for Melinda because she wanted us to see feel the isolation Melinda must have felt.

Speak is well written and I can see the appeal it would have for adolescent girls. It does address concerns relevant to their lives. I would not use it as a whole group read. Instead I would prefer to use it in a small group made up of all girls. I would also keep it on my shelf and recommend it to individuals. I think Speak is appropriate for grades nine and up. I do think parents should be informed about the subject matter and give their permission as it’s very sensitive material. The thought of ape is frightening and I think reading this book could help some girls work through some of their fears. I’d like to see how they respond to Melinda and how she handles her experience. There are healthier ways to work through these kinds of trauma. I would want my students to learn a bout the resources available for rape victims and to discuss what Melinda could have done differently.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Bael, I,(2007). A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.New York: Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus,and Giroux, 217pp.

Genre: Biography

Summary: The enthralling and horrifying story of Ishmael Bael's life. Ishmael begins by sharing how happy his life was as a young boy living in Sierra Leone. Ishmael lived with his mother and brothers. His parents had separated earlier and his father lived in another village. Ishmael visited him often and though he was sad his parents were not together, his life was happy. He went to school, he played with friends, and he was known affectionately as a troublemaker. Though Ishmael often heard rumors and stories of war in the village he never dreamed it would touch his life. He was typical twelve year old boy living a typical life that is until the Revolutionary United Force unexpectedly overtook his village in a brutal attack. Ishmael's life was forever changed as panic consumed everyone and they scattered like mice in the night running away from flying bullets and dodging bayonets. Families were torn apart and lost children cried for help with no one to answer. The terrifying event resulted in a separation of Ishmael from his mother, father, and a brother. He never saw them again. Ishmael and his other brothers were left no choice but to try to move to a place of safety. Along their journey, Ishmael is traumatized over and over again by the grotesqueness of war. Dead bodies, mutilated bodies, burned, shot into pieces begin to mean nothing to Ishmael as he grew accustomed to them The instinct to survive and escape the nightmare consumed his thoughts both sleeping and waking. Eventually, Ishmael found refuge in a village guarded by government army soldiers. When it seemed inevitable that the rebels would take the village, all young boys were called to fight. The choice, either fight and keep the village safe or leave. Leaving, of course, would have meant death because of rebels hiding in the forest around them. The decision to become a soldier was not difficult to make. Ishmael chooses to fight and begins training, as well as, brainwashing that would eventually make killing other humans easy. Ishmael's first kill sets him free and he unleashes the anger and pain he's held inside for so long and from that point on killing is as easy as breathing. Ishmael eventually is rescued by workers from UNICEF who take him to a rehabilitation center for child soldiers. After intense treatment, counseling, and reconditioning he is placed with an uncle to live. Later, Ishmael is chosen to be a speaker at the United Nations in New York. He flies there and at the meeting he meets many other young people like himself only from different countries and slightly different situations. However they all share the same experiences of being young children fighting in brutal wars. Ishmael and the other speakers aspires to uncover the atrocities happening to children in their war torn countries. Ishmael makes friends and enjoys this experience but is glad to go back home. Soon after he returns to his uncle, the unbelievable happens. The rebels invade his village again. He's forced to run. Ishmael is desperate to not to return to the life he once lived. Others have fled and some that have been rehabilitated rejoin the army and begin to fight again. Ishmael knows he cannot stay and makes arrangements to get back to New York City to live with a friend. Ishmael returns to the US where he finishes high school, then college, and begins life as an advocate for the human rights of children by serving in multiple organizations and on various panels.

Characters: There are many characters in this book, though, the entire story is truly Ishmael's alone. Ishmael's thoughts and reflections are very understandable. We can't identify with him in that we've actually shared the same experiences, but in a very light way we have. We experience the brutalities of war and the gruesomeness of the casualties through Ishmael's words. We understand choices he makes without judging him harshly. Ishmael begins as a young boy and emerges as a man in this story. He faces struggles to eat, to find water, and to stay alive daily for years. He's resourceful, strong, courageous, and determined to save himself. It's through the course of his life that Ishmael becomes the person he is. A person who despite the worse traumas life could deal out, not only escapes death, but escapes his old life to build a new one. Ishmael is a survivor. In that respect, he's a hero. Yes, he killed many people, but he did what he had to do to survive. Many, many others who walked beside did not share his strength and perseverance and they did not survive.

I would recommend this book for older adolescent students, probably tenth grade or higher. I think the vivid details of violence could be disturbing to many students and content very mature. I don't think I would teach a literature class using the book either in a small group or large group setting because it doesn't really address the needs of students as other book would. Yes, Ishmael grows up, but it's hardly the experience an American student could share. I would recommend it for individual reads. I don't mean to underscore the value of this story because there is value in having this book in the library or classroom. If I were teaching subjects that might be related to this story, I would refer to it. Current events, other human genocides, human rights, etc. would be just a few instances it would be relevant. Although his story plays like a horror movie, the fact that Ishmael was able to survive, speaks volumes about human nature. Also, I'd like students to see that although horrible things happen to all of us, we can survive them, we can rise above our pasts and continue living.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Penny from Heaven

Holm, J. (2006). Penny from heaven. New York: Random House Children’s Books, 265pp.

Awards: Newberry Honor Book, ALA Notable Book IRA notable Book for a Global Society, A Bank Street college of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year, A New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing Selection, A Sons of Italy Book Club Selection, Charlie Mae Simon’s Children’s Book Award Grades 4-6

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Summary: A nostalgic feel good story that takes place in Brooklyn, New York during the fifties. Penny, who gets her name from the Bing Crosby song “Pennies from Heaven,” is beginning the summer of her eleventh year of life. Penny lives with her mother and grandparents in a two story house. Penny’s father died when she was very young and the manner of his death has been kept a mystery to her. Though close to her mother, her maternal grandparents, and her paternal grandmother, no one shares the answers she seeks. To add to the mystery neither side of the family have spoken to each other since her father’s death. Penny, full of questions, spends the summer discovering the truth about her father and she also discovers that her mother is dating another man. Amidst all that weighs on her mind, she shares hilarious adventures with her cousin and some tragic events which will drastically alter her life.

Wonderful, colorful characters fill the pages of this book. Details are so vividly written the characters almost come to life in. Penny is a sweet young girl desperately yearning for the father she never had or at least answers to what happened and it tore her family in two. Her maternal grandparents, white and Methodist, are contrasted in a warm funny way to her paternal grandmother who is Italian and Catholic. I can't forget to mention the slew of Italian uncles who dote on her, especially her favorite Uncle Dominique who lives in his car and wears only house shoes wherever he goes. Her best friend is cousin Frankie. Frankie is mischievous, makes bad choices, gets into trouble but has a good heart and Penny knows she can count on him. All of these characters are interesting and seem so wonderful and so real that the more you read the more you wish you could really be a part of their lives.

I definitely would use this book in my classroom because it has endless possibilities and it would appeal to both girls and boys. I would use it in a small group setting, as an individual recommended read, or possibly as a read aloud. Each chapter is an adventure in itself and would be great for making predictions and inferences. The cultural diversity is rich and it would be fun to study the differences between Italian and American traditions. Also, researching how WWII affected Italian Americans would interest and enlighten students. The themes of death, loss of a loved one, family secrets and squabbles, and friendship are all addressed throughout this story. I would recommend it for upper elementary and middle school students, though; I think many others would enjoy it too.