Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading, Reading, and More Reading

In the two weeks since my last post, I've finished Riordan's The Lightning Thief, Gerstein's The Old Country, and Stead's First Light, and am almost done with Anderson's The Game of Sunken Places.  

Ha, ye of little faith, who do not think I will reach my goal!  Actually, I am quite worried, but I'm having a good time doing it.  I have yet to run across a 'miss' in any of the books by these authors, which just reinforces my joy at having them come to the conference in March.

At least a quick bit about each of these books is in order.  First of all, I picked up The Lightning Thief, oddly enough (and truly unplanned), the day after my husband and I had watched the remake of Clash of the Titans.  I have to say - that really enhanced my enjoyment of the book, although I would have loved it otherwise as well.  I was just already in 'titan' mode, I guess, and really liked connecting the dots, so to speak, as I read about the beings that I had just seen in the movie.  I'm sure everyone knows about this book by now, especially since it was made into a move (I need to see that, too).  But bear with me as I add just a few notes for those few folks who may not be familiar with it.  First of all, this book has GOT to appeal to middle school boys; the main character is a boy about 12 years old,
one who has spent most of his life sent away to boarding schools.  He has dyslexia and does not necessarily enjoy school.  Turns out there's a perfectly good reason for the boarding school bit, and it has nothing to do with the dyslexia.  He also has a creepy stepfather.  That said, I can also see the book appealing to girls.  There are a few girls who figure into the plot, but that shouldn't matter, as far as I'm concerned.  I don't think the gender of the main character of a story should necessariliy impact anyone's enjoyment, but maybe I'm being naive.  Anyway, as with other fabulous reads, the author creates wonderful mind-pictures so that the reader can connect easily with what's going on in every scene.  Anyway, it turns out that this middle school boy, who is not very successful in school, and isn't happy about the fact that he doesn't have a lot of friends, since he goes to a different school every year, is in fact quite significant to the fabric of the world.  He has a quest to complete that has tremendous implications for humanity.  I love the fact that the underdog, someone who is not the most popular kid in school, suddenly gains remarkable importance.  I also like the fact that there are factors worked into the story that might seem trivial but that really do have a point, like the fact that Percy's mother is married to a creepy stepfather.  There's a reason.  But to return to the reason I am reading this book in the first place, I want to remind you that this author is NOT coming to the conference, but the illustrator, John Rocco, is.  I found a site with lots of illustrations he's done about the Percy Jackson series.  They're beautiful and you can purchase them from that site.

On to Mordicai Gerstein's The Old Country.  I picked this up not long after finishing the last book in Patrick Carman's Land of Elyon series, and found an immediate connection between the two.  First of all, a bit of a plot summary: a young girl unwillingly changes places with a fox.  And when I mean changes places, I mean her heart / soul / personality / spirit goes into the body of the fox, and vice versa.  Yup.  And this is not something that makes the girl happy, but it sure makes the fox happy.  Much of the story is devoted to the girl-in-the-fox trying desperately to get back to her family.  The connection with Carman's series is that there exists an ability to communicate between animals and humans.  Whereas in the Land of Elyon, one must have possession of a Jocasta stone, in The Old Country the communication must take place in a certain meadow.  There must always be a condition for such a magic to happen, and these two authors just used different conditions.  But on to the story.  For me, there are two characteristics of this book that make it special.  One is that it was told in a fashion close to "Once upon a time," set in 'the old country,' although the reader never knows what country that is, specifically.  This is done purposefully, I'm sure; that kind of anonymity is part and parcel of fairy tales of old.  The other is that it really does require the reader to consider "...the question of what it is to be human" (quote taken from the back of the book).  I'm an animal lover, so there you have it.  And of course there's a surprise ending - love those!  But truly, this book was a joy to read.  While The Lightning Thief kept me on the edge of my seat a lot, this book made me snuggle into the covers at night, in anticipation of joining Gisella in her quest to return to her family.

I've written far too much for one entry, so I'll save First Light for the next one, when I'll also talk about The Game of Sunken Places.  But I did want to post a picture here, too.  It's of the Conference Shirts and my display for the 2011 Illinois Reading Council Conference!  While I don't love pictures of myself, I love the shirts and the display and wanted to share them with you.  Don't forget: you can order shirts online!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Required Reading for Elementary Teachers

Just a quick aside before I talk about what I'm supposed to be talking about here ... my husband found this walking stick on our property the other day - just look at him!  he's about five or six inches long: I wish I'd measured him to see if he set a record!

Okay, on to the reading.

Sometimes I run across a book that I swear offers a window into understanding children - well, okay, people in general.  But children are often trickier because after they get to a certain age, many of them don't feel they have the right to explain their thinking out loud to us adults.  So every elementary teacher and preservice teacher should pick up Sara Pennypacker's Clementine series and read, read, read!  Not only are these books hilarious, they do help to explain what's going on in that brain; not that every third-grader is thinking along the same lines as Clementine (yikes!) but Pennypacker's take on the third-grade psyche at least reminds us that what we suspect or assume might be a student's motivation is not necessarily the case, and we need to keep open minds ourselves ... and ask them what they're thinking.

Here's a picture of the three I've read - there are five in all, and I'm so looking forward to reading the other two!

Here's a snippet of the hilarity: first, you need to realize that Clementine spends A LOT of time in Principal Rice's office.  One day, while her teacher is planning a talent show and she is privately lamenting the fact that she thinks she has no talents, she raises her hand in class ---

"Yes, Clementine?  Would you like to be in the cooperative group for refreshments?"

"No, thank you," I said, extra politely.  "What I'd like is to go to Mrs. Rice's office."

"Clementine, you don't need to go see the principal," my teacher said.  "You're not in any trouble."

"Well, it's just a matter of time," I told him.  (page 3, The Talented Clementine)

Something else I like about these books is the way Pennypacker characterizes the parents.  Mom is a work-at-home artist, and Dad is the building manager for their apartment building.  Not the most glamorous jobs, and ones that are not often included in children's literature.  It reminds me of 'blessing a book:'  for young folk anyway, if the teacher reads a book, especially to the whole class, well, then it must be good.  If these two occupations are good enough to be included in a book, then they really are attainable occupations.  The more occupations we introduce our students to, the more options they realize they have in life.

In looking for reviews for the Clementine books, I ran across this web site that reviews children's books for parents (and of course teachers).  I have not delved in too deeply, but what I see up front looks quite helpful.  The site rates books on several criteria, including content, sex, bad language, violence, etc.  I'll have to explore a little more, but I decided to include it here for now so that you could explore it as well.

Right now I'm over half way through Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief (from the series Percy Jackson and the Olympians), NOT because Riordan is coming to the conference (he is not), but because John Rocco is the illustrator, and HE IS!!!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Armageddon Summer

While my husband and I were 'vacationing' for the last two days, I had some reading time, so I finished up another of Jane Yolen's books.  This one is Armageddon Summer and was co-written with Bruce Coville.  The copyright date says 1998; how did this one slip by me?  I had never heard of it until I started trying to read all of the author's books by conference time and picked this one up.  Okay, I hate to keep gushing about these books I'm reading, but what a great book!  If you want to read what Jane has said about getting the idea for the book, you can click on this link.  If you'd like to read the first bits of the book, you can read a preview here.

The general gist of the book is this:  Marina (nearly 14) accompanies her mother and multiple younger brothers to the top of a mountain with her mother's preacher and several others who refer to themselves as 'Believers.'  Jed also goes, to accompany his father.  Jed's not a Believer, but Marina is.  Both of their parents have been separated (not amicably) from their respective spouses, so Marina and Jed are in somewhat similar positions in their young lives.  So of course they're going to get together somehow on this mountain.

Armageddon Summer

What do I love about this book?  Well, three major things.  One, it's written so that alternating chapters are from Marina's point of view and then Jed's point of view.  Books that are written this way really help the reader get inside the characters' heads and understand multiple perspectives.  Since religious cults typically are quite sensitive topics, multiple perspectives really do help the reader make sense of what's going on.  Second, it's very easy to visualize what's happening in this book.  When an author creates people, settings, and action that are easy to picture, the story lives more deeply and specifically inside me and is more plausible, whether it is historically accurate fiction or there are unicorns gamboling across a meadow. I appreciate that kind of writing.  But what really blew me away about the book was that it represents just how a 'good' thing can go so terribly awry.  We 'hear,' through the characters, about how perfectly intelligent, well-meaning people can be led astray, even by someone with the best of intentions.  For example, Jed, who really does not consider himself one of the true Believers, says of Reverend Beelson ... 

     "I have to say that even when he was spouting nonsense there was something fascinating about him.   His voice was rich and powerful, and the rhythm of his language rolled over you until you were caught in the surge and the pull of it, strong as a tide, carrying you out into the sea of what he believed."  (page 134)

Something else that is amazing about this book is that I don't believe the authors' intent was to 'bash' religious cultism; the story actually helps to explain any faction's possible genesis.  We know that many cult leaders simply have a yearning for power and dominion over others, but that is not necessarily always the case.

Whew!  Serious stuff there!  But the topic of the book truly is serious.

Anyway, I have more books to write about, too - I've been a BUSY reader!  But this is all til next time.  It is dusk on Labor Day Saturday, and I have labored enough for now.  Time to relax by a camp fire with the neighbors'!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New Rooms!

Hey, folks, we got to see some of the newly renovated rooms at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel this week, and they are beautiful!  Last year during the conference, there was an easel in front of the registration desk showing the fabrics and colors they were going to use, and it looks like they are going to have most of that beauty installed in the guest rooms by the time our conference rolls around next March.  So once registration opens, I'd suggest you get yours in quickly, and request one of the rooms at the A.L. if you can!