Tag Archive | classroom library

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

Off the Shelf – Bookish Bits

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I’ve had a very ‘bookish’ few day…my colleagues and I hosted the seventh annual Write Stuff at the Saint John Arts Centre last week. We hosted about 120 students from six different high schools and launched our sixth literary magazine. This is an event that always reaffirms for me the power of the written word and that students want to share their thoughts with others.

I also attended the Eclectic Reading Club’s soiree last Wednesday night as the guest of Dr. Stephen Willis. For those who don’t know, this club is the oldest of its kind in Canada – established in 1870. It’s not a book club per se, it’s more like a throwback to the time when entertainment consisted of gathering in the warmth of someone’s drawing room chatting, and listening to readings, perhaps sipping a cup of tea or a glass of sherry. On the night I attended, the theme was pirates and privateers and those of us gathered listened to some interesting historical true-life accounts of pirates both close to home and in seas far away. It was a lovely evening. Everyone dresses up, there was the promised hot chocolate at the end of the evening and I saw people I haven’t seen in many years and met new friends. Other than that, of course, what happens in the eclectic stays in the eclectic. Top secret.

We’re only about six weeks away from the end of the school year and I am already thinking about the fall. I am very lucky to be offering a new course at Harbour View called Young Adult Literature. Like how could I not be excited about that?

The rationale behind offering a course like this is to give students who love to read an opportunity to read outside of the traditional English class and to, perhaps, make the experience slightly more authentic. I don’t mean to imply that what happens in traditional English classes isn’t authentic learning because it is – but when I‘ve finished reading I don’t write an essay or make a poster. Mostly what I want to do is talk about the book with someone else, maybe write a review so I can try to articulate my thoughts on paper. YAL is really my go at encouraging students to read widely and to share their reading experiences with others and to hopefully set them on the path to becoming life long readers – because truthfully that is what I think is the most important part of my job.

It’s pretty exciting to be thinking about a course devoted to a genre that actually had a fairly rocky beginning. Where does YA start? Think back to your own beginnings as a reader – not the books that were read to you, but the first books you selected on your own. In 1971, librarian Mary Kingsbury commented that librarians were acting like “frightened ostriches” with regards to accepting the notion of books for a young adult audience. By the 80s though, the genre was staring to take hold and names like Robert Cormier and Judy Blume were more familiar.

sehinton

Photo of a young S.E. Hinton from Penguin

It would be impossible to offer a course like this without revisiting where the YA movement – arguably –  began: S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders. Is there a person on the planet who has not read this book?

 

First of all – The Outsiders is 50 years old this year. Like – doesn’t that make you feel ancient? I really do remember reading it as a kid in the 70s. That’s a million years ago – so that’s the mark of a powerful book, a formative book.  S.E. Hinton was just 16 when she wrote The Outsiders because she said “there wasn’t anything realistic being written about teenage lives.”  It was published when she was 17.  Theoutsiders novel tells the story of rival gangs in Oklahoma the greasers and the socs – the socials. It’s a simple story, really, about Ponyboy Curtis and his best friend, Johnny, but something about those characters really resonates with young readers and when I recommend the book to students who haven’t read it – the reviews are unanimously favourable. S.E. Hinton said “Teenagers still feel like I felt when I wrote the book, that adults have no idea what’s really going on. And even today, that concept of the “in crowd” and the “out crowd” is universal. The names of the groups may change, but kids still see their own lives in what happens to Ponyboy and his friends.”

thatwasthenHinton wasn’t a one-trick pony(boy) haha either. Her second novel That Was Then, This is Now, is actually better than The Outsiders, in my humble opinion. If students have read The Outsiders – and a lot of them do in middle school, I always suggest That Was Then as a follow-up. Most of them have never heard of it and again – they always like it. It’s about two childhood friends, Bryon and Mark, whose lives diverge when one chooses to go down a different – more dangerous –  path than the other. I loved this book as a kid. Loved it. And for students who’ve loved The Outsiders, Ponyboy makes an appearance – although this novel is not a sequel.

So, I am going to spend my summer thinking about the course. There will be lots of room for self-selection, of course, the only time someone else chooses what I am going to read is for book club or when I am doing a review for a third party. That said – I have read so many amazing YA novels over the past few years, and btw, by 2014, 55% of YA novels were purchased by adults – and I am looking forward to sharing these titles and talking about them with my students.

Off the Shelf – Should we let kids read what they want?

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Um. Yeah. That’s the short answer. The long answer is a lot more complicated.

This is a topic we’ve tackled before, but it’s endlessly fascinating, isn’t it?  Just the thought of someone telling me what I can and can’t read gets my hackles up – but it’s an even pricklier subject when you start to consider younger readers. I deal with young adult readers every day and have a classroom library of more than 1000 books, several of which have been on a banned book list at some point, I’m sure.

According to an article in The Guardian, books are banned for all sorts of reasons including “Racism, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, gritty topics like suicide and drugs, and talking animals.”  C’mon, you’re going to tell me Winnie the Pooh is objectionable – some of my fondest childhood memories of are of my mom reading me Winnie the Pooh.

“According to the American Library Association, the most common initiators of book challenges are parents, and the most common settings for book challenges are schools, school libraries, and public libraries. In other words, we can assume that books are most frequently challenged by concerned parents, who believe materials are unsuitable for children or teens.”

Okay, we’re going to head down the rabbit hole now.

TwilightbookObjecting to reading material is subjective. I object to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series all the time – loudly – in my classroom, but I have the whole series in my library. My students know I think Meyer is a hack, but that’s about the quality of her writing, not about the subject matter and it’s a personal opinion.  If students want to read her books, they should read them. And then they should read other, better vampire books like Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town or the granddaddy of them all Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Young adult novels have definitely changed – but as much as things change they stay the same. So let’s have a quick primer.

Seventeenth Summer released by Maureen Daly in 1942 is widely considered the first ever YA novel. Fairly benign, certainly by today’s standards.

The first golden age of YA books happened in the 70s with novels by Judy Blume, Robert Cormier and Lois Duncan

Judy Blume’s novel Forever was an absolute a right of passage for anyone who grew up in the 70’s. The book has been on many, many challenged/banned lists since it was published in 1975, but as Ms. Blume says “How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them?”

Then there was a little lull before the baby boomers came of age in 2000. This second golden age in YA introduced readers to J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and, yes, Stephanie Meyer.

If  you ask me whether or not we should allow young people to make decisions about what they read my answer has to be yes. Because let’s face they have access to way more potentially contentious stuff than what they’ll find in my classroom library, or the school library and they’ve got the power right in the palms of their hands.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. Books that are potentially controversial (and the range is crazy, Who Has Seen the Wind? for goodness sake)  are the exact books that are worth talking about because those are the books that will help young readers learn about their own limits and tastes and viewpoints and by deciding for them what those things should be we are taking away their right to develop into discerning and well-read humans.

I have been at Harbour View since 2009 and I haven’t had any issues with parents objecting to the books in my classroom. I post an introductory letter at the start of each academic year telling parents about my library and that some of the books might be considered ‘objectionable’ and I would certainly respect any parent’s right to prevent their teen from reading a book from my library – but why? It makes more sense to let them read the book and then, you read the book and then talk about the book together. That’s what I do in class. Talk about the books.

I read an article titled “The Not So Horrible Consequence of Reading Banned Books” where  psychologist Christopher Ferguson was quoted from the journal  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. He noted that “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA.” However, it was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.”  Ferguson’s research went on to report that “Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or — better yet — to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way the books may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

And yes, there are some dark books out there. It’s a dark world. Burying our heads in the sand doesn’t make it any less dark. But I will say this – a book could save a life and Ferguson found that “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms.”

161426Allowing students to self-select reading material is important, but it is a skill and it starts at a young age. Read to your kids when they are young, take them to the library, talk about what they’re reading and read it, too. I know that when my daughter Mallory was about twelve she read a book called How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff…a book that I also read…quite an adult YA book and we actually did a mother/daughter review for my blog. Fantastic book and a powerful book for her and a book and conversation that we got to share. To me, that’s way better than any social media interaction I have with my kids.

Alice Munro talks about banning books, including her book Lives of Girls and Women here.

 

 

Off the Shelf – January 26, 2015

Listen to Off the Shelf here.

I was recently invited to submit a column to The Nerdy Book Club, a well-known book blog moderated by four teachers, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about classics – because that’s sort of what I wrote about.

The impetus for the discussion was actually a discussion I had with my tenth grade English class after we finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the book, of course, and while the majority of my students could see its merits they also wondered why we were reading something so – as they put it – old. So that lead us to a great discussion of what makes a book a classic.

What makes a book a classic?

First off we had to decide on the criteria we’d use to determine whether or not a book is a classic. In the end, we liked the list of qualities Laura Miller listed in her Salon article “What makes a book a classic?” She actually compiled her list from a Goodreads discussion. So, according to Miller via Goodreads a classic

  • Must have stood the test of time
  • Be filled with eternal verities
  • Capture the essence and flavor of its own age
  • Have had a significant effect on that age
  • Have something important to say
  • Achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection
  • Be challenging or innovative in some respect
  • Scholars and other experts must endorse it and study it (I guess that leave out 50 Shades of Grey)
  • It has been included in some prestigious series like Penguin Classics or Modern Library
  • It appears on lists of great books

Ultimately, though, our idea of a classic is probably defined by our own personal and highly subjective criteria…meaning, I guess, 50 Shades is back on the list.

So what happened to To Kill a Mockingbird based on this criteria. Well, of course, TKaM totally meets most of that criteria and my students could see that, for sure. Will this list make the book any more palatable for students who don’t necessarily want to read it? Like, is there anything worse than someone telling you you MUST read a book and write an essay? Unless you’re totally geeky like me, probably not, right?

My students wanted a crack at compiling their own list of classics. So, they had to pick a book – any book they’d read – and pitch it to the class. These are books that they really felt should be available for them to read in the classroom. Studied even. I’ve got 25 students in that class, so I’m not going to share all their titles, and truthfully I didn’t agree with all of them, but I will share three.

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

So some people might know John Connolly as the author of Charlie Parker mysteries. If you’re already a fan, you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s the story of 12-year-old David who goes on a magical quest to save his mother after she dies. And that’s the simple version. I read this book a couple years ago and I heartily recommend it.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

Now this is a book I haven’t read, but the student who pitched it, Chloie, totally sold it. Kirkus says the novel “uses a dog as narrator to clever effect in this tear-jerker about an aspiring race-car driver who suffers more woes than Job but never mistreats his dog.” Chloie said she’s read it several times and never gets sick of it, always sees something new in it. I think a book the bears up under repeat readings is pretty solid.

13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Now this one I have read and this one I do have some issues with, but what I like about the selection is that it demonstrated how impactful the book was for this student and there was a lot of agreement in the class about the books merits. Will it stand the test of time – or will other books eclipse it. I think probably, but what Asher did do is find a unique and original way to tackle a really difficult subject – teen suicide.

Other titles the students suggested included:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb

Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Freak the Mighty – Rodman Philbrick

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare

Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings

Ruby Red – Kerstin Gier

Playing with Fire – Theoren Fleury,  Kirstie McLellan Day

I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The interesting thing was the some of these books, by their advocate’s admission, did not stand up to Miller’s criteria – but they loved the book anyway. And that’s good enough for me.

Speaking of classics, Huffington Post recently posted a list of the 20 new classics every child should own. These are picture books geared for younger readers.

The Things a Brother Knows – Dana Reinhardt

brotherWhen  17-year-old Levi Katznelson’s brother, Boaz, returns from his stint as a marine in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, he’s a changed man.  This relationship between the brothers is what propels The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt along.

When Levi was a kid, he adored Boaz.

I used to worship him too. All little brothers worship their big brothers, I guess. It sort of goes with the job description. Think about it. Your brother’s face is one of the first you ever see. His hands are among the first to ever touch you. You crawl only to catch him. You want nothing but to walk like he does, talk like he does, draw a picture throw a ball, tell a joke like he does, let loose one of those crazy whistles with four fingers jammed in your mouth or burp the ABCs just like he does. To your mind, he’s got the whole of the world all figured out.

Levi didn’t really understand why Boaz, a popular high school athlete went off to war anyway. So  his homecoming is a complicated thing. The Boaz who returns to Levi and his parents is withdrawn, rarely speaks and won’t get in a car. He spends hours and hours in his bedroom studying maps and doing stuff on the computer. It frustrates Levi because he doesn’t understand and Bo doesn’t seem willing to explain.

Then Boaz announces that he’s going to walk the Appalachian Trail. Levi is suspicious and does a little snooping and discovers a map that reveals a different route altogether. That’s when he makes the decision to abandon his summer job and go after Boaz.

Although Levi’s figurative  journey is quite a bit different from his brother’s, that summer is pivotal on his journey to adulthood. And while it’s true that The Things a Brother Knows is a “road-trip” book of sorts, the real story here is one of understanding. Understanding each other, sure, but also understanding ourselves. What do we believe in? What matters to us? I think Reinhardt manages this without coming off too preachy.

Levi is a great character and so is his best friend, Pearl. an out-spoken Chinese girl Levi met in Hebrew school. Levi’s grandfather, Dov, is also  memorable. Spending time with these characters is no hardship.

At the end of the day, though, The Things a Brother Knows was just okay for me. The writing is fine. (There’s some swearing, for those concerned with that in a YA book.) The story moves a long, but I just felt it was sort of superficial and that, ultimately, the bow was tied a little too neatly. Still, it’s a book worth having in my classroom library.