Gonna Start a Revolution, Hey, Hey

Stitching together eclectic elements from several genres like 1960’s lyrics and photojournalism essays, biographies, news clippings, non-fiction, and adolescent historical fiction, Deborah Wiles has almost created a whole new genre with what I consider to be the best book of the year so far, Revolution. The second installment in her Sixties Trilogy which started with Countdown (which I haven’t yet read, but which uses the same format), Revolution takes us deep into the heart of Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and immerses us in the not only the sights and sounds of the decade, but more importantly into the passion, confusion and tension that ignited a generation.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world “Gonna start a revolution, hey, hey, ya’ know
We all wanna change the world, ya’ know

--The Beatles, “Revolution”

Told from two different viewpoints, that of 12-year-old Sunny, a white girl of ordinary privilege and Raymond, a frustrated black teen with a talent for both baseball and trouble, Revolution explores the juxtaposition of two cultural agendas when a flood of volunteers comes to town to register black citizens to vote. Confused and resentful, Sunny’s animosity towards her new step-mother mirrors the white community’s antagonism towards the volunteers who they consider invaders. The story begins when Sunny and her step-brother, Gillette, are caught by the local sheriff sneaking into the city pool one night. They know they are in really big trouble, but both hide the fact that a black kid (who we soon discover is Raymond) was also on the premise. As the summer heats up, so does the trouble in town as negro residents are fired from their jobs for trying to register, stalked by members of the “Citizen’s Committee”, and harassed in their homes. Although she wants to be just a passive observer until the whole thing passes over, Sunny finds herself increasingly connected personally to the Civil Rights struggles in her town, until a final act of unimaginable brutality forces her to choose a side.

A Horn Book reviewer sums this amazing novel up best, Revolution is “an ambitious, heady endeavor that succeeds wonderfully in capturing the atmosphere of that pivotal and eventful summer, with the documents offering a broader context.” I was enthralled by this novel, but so disgusted by the bigotry that I had to keep putting it aside until I could calm down. Although the novel recounts both adolescent’s stories (Raymond’s told powerfully in 1st person Ebonics), Sunny’s experiences are explored more fully. However, both characters are masterfully dynamic and evolve throughout the story as they both try to determine not only what is right, but how to stand up for that belief. This book is probably the best example of how setting impacts plot and characters that I have ever seen. And the pathos of the novel is thick. By including primary source materials like the text from a KKK pamphlet and actual news articles from that summer, Wiles pumps up the reality factor and you can’t help but remember that these happened to real people. Because Sunny is hurting you can’t help but empathize with her, but then you are spun into the other side (the Negro side) of the story, and you get angry at Sunny’s selfishness, and lack of insight. In short the story gives readers a close up experience with conflict, not just because they characters are experiencing both internal and external conflicts, but because you, the reader, are conflicted.  Your homeostasis becomes skewed and you are also faced with re-examining your own sense of right and justice. I’m a firm believer that great literature should invite a reader to explore a broader view of the world; to become reflective about their own values; and to move us towards a better understanding of how our own actions impact culture and values. Revolution is just such a book!

FIVE HUGE STARS: Recommended for teen readers in grades 7-12 or as a classroom book study or book club novel. Historical fiction fans, Beatle-ophiles, those interested in the Civil Rights Movement, or students of sociopolitical impacts will definitely want to read this book. Also recommended for those who enjoy coming of age stories, intense internal conflict, or tales about fitting in with a step-family. The literacy lessons in the book are legion, but the most powerful elements are characterization, how setting effects character development and theme, point of view, and comparing of non-fiction accounts to fictionalized accounts. (This is a fabulous example of what a Common Core mentor text should look like.)  Teachers who are using Beers and Probst’s Note and Notice methods will find many obvious examples of all the signposts. Companion reading listCountdown by Deborah Wiles; Bud Not Buddy, Watson’s Go to Birmingham and Elijah Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor ; The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell; The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine; Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood; Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson; Paper Boy by Vince Vawter; Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos; Wonder by R. J. Palacio; Wringer by Jerry Spinelli; Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor; Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White; Hoot by Carl Hiassen; and Lizzie Bright and the Buckmister Boys by Gary Schmidt.

A full sensory experience of the story compiled by the author from YouTube clips is available on the Pinterest board: http://ow.ly/vBGTc

Middle School Wild and Crazy

Tribe 2
Weirdly enough this book is a cross between the classic Lord of the Flies and Captain Underpants. No really! The Tribe: Homeroom Headhunters by Clay McLeod Chapman takes a group of unsupervised damaged adolescents who have been left to their own devises, drops them into the situation of being secretly living at a middle school, and melds it with the all of the little irreverences that kids think set adult teeth on edge: gym pranks, farts, paperclip piercings, swirlies, drooling torture, and making teachers’ lives hell.

\Seventh grader, Spencer Pendleton is the penultimate bad boy. He burned down his last school (although he notes that it wasn’t entirely his fault), and he has a sassy attitude that knows no bounds. When he enrolls at Greenfield Middle he is hoping for a new start, but he doesn’t make it through the first hour without running into trouble.  He eventually discovers that a “tribe” of runaway kids is living in the air vents and boiler rooms at the school. The group tags Spencer as a kindred soul and recruits him to join in their mission to inflict vengeance on their former tormentors. But who are they really? And are they any better than the very thing he wishes to escape? Peashooter, the Tribe's unbalanced captain, is a serious reader: Call of the Wild, Peter Pan, "The Most Dangerous Game." But it's his willful misreading of Napoleon that tips off Spencer that this revolution might not be so pure. Their campaign culminates in the gym with the entire school poisoned via a tainted holiday lunch, devolving into a miserable free-for-all of flatulence, vomit, and diarrhea.

Aimed a middle school boys, Tribes is meant to be a comic, anti-hero approach to the twin problems of bullying and disenfranchisement. Chapman clearly knows his audience because the book drips with every unpleasant nuance of middle school culture, and brings to life some of the revenge fantasies every pre-teen has experienced. Kids will appreciate the humor and the middle school register of the characters. But the book has a dark undertone, and real cruelty surfaces more than occasionally. For example, in a recreation of Poe’s climatic scene in the “Pit and the Pendulum”, Spencer is suspended above a running table saw and gradually lowered towards it as part of fealty challenge. The other tribe members watch passively as the horror unfolds. Although Spencer’s nose ends up remaining intact, another gang member ends up losing part of his finger to the saw. No one in the tribe is horrified. The plot spins on Spencer’s inner conflict which is well-crafted. He can’t make up his mind whether to join these crazies or turn them in. He wants so much to “belong” that he vacillates wildly between the two extremes. In spite of the plethora of literary allusions, and Spencer’s internal struggle, disappointingly there is no evolution of this protagonist. In fact, all of the characters are static. The tribe members are cartoonish caricatures of bullies and misfits that seem to have been lifted right off the pages of classic literature. Oh look, there’s Holden Caufield, and there’s Peter Pan, and over here is Fagan. That’s another sad, ineffectual aspect of the book: teens aren’t going to recognize any of the literary allusions. The tribe’s war cry is “Claw and Fang!” lifted right from White Fang. In fact, the whole tribe structure is modeled after Jack London’s pack. I kept wondering if Chapman was hoping that young people would be so entranced by his allusions that they would run out and grab copies of the real things. Sorry…not goin’ happen.

THREE STARS (with the caveat that middle school boys will love it): recommended for readers in grades 5-9 who enjoy books about middle school drama, undermining of the status quo, or potty humor. Literary lessons could be tied to the plethora of literary allusions, and I think it might be interesting to have students explore the things in story that challenge credulity. Students might also consider evaluating the characterization and then reformulating one of the tribe members with a richer characterization. This book is the first of a trilogy. The second installment, The Tribe: Camp Cannibal, is already in print. Companion reads: Ungifted by Gordon Korman, Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda (and others in the series) by Tom Angleberger, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos, and Twerp by Mark Goldblatt.

Unexpected Heroes and Cheeky Dragons

Will wonders never cease! I have finally discovered a movie that I prefer to the original book. Although the book How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell is an adorable hoot, I actually think the story line in the movie is more engaging. The movie plot doesn’t take much from the book—mostly names and the setting—but it does preserve Cowell’s tongue-in-cheek humor and the novel’s pseudo-historical tone.

In the book the protagonist, Hiccup, is dubbed “Useless” by his fellow Vikings-in-Training. When the lads go to capture their dragons, Hiccup ends up picking Toothless, pathetic, cheeky little Common Garden dragon who refuses to obey commands and is lazier than a lizard on a cold day. Hilarity ensues as Hiccup tries to train the stubborn creature. Eventually the pair save the day when they come up with an ingenious scheme to defeat a pair of gigantic marauding dragons bent on the annihilation of the entire Hairy Hooligans clan.

In fairness, I listened to the Audible version, vivaciously performed by actor David Tennant of Dr. Who and Harry Potter fame, so I missed out on the illustrations which are reportedly charming. I love the pace and the farcical tone of the novel, the antics of the young Hairy Hooligans and their hilarious names (i.e. Snotface Snotlout, Fishlegs, Dogsbreath the Duhbrain), and the twisted, irreverent dragon language called Dragonese. Young readers will eat this stuff up! Additionally, I think the characterization is terrific. Considering the melodramatic tone and structure of the story, Cowell has really managed to bring these characters to life. Even though Toothless is shiftless and sarcastic, his faults are tempered by his insightful observations of humans and their foibles, and of course, his wry sense of humor. My favorite part of the book though is the hero Hiccup who subtly weaves the theme that manifestations of courage and machismo to defeat one’s enemies often come in unexpected ways. Well-written, laugh out loud funny, and fast-paced, How to Train Your Dragon was destined to become a classic even before Hollywood got ahold of the title.

So you may be wondering why, with such a glowing review, I prefer the movie. First off, they are two completely different stories. In the movie version, Hiccup and Toothless are outcasts who work together to overcome their own weaknesses. Through his commitment to being true to himself, Hiccup teaches his tribe mates that physical brutality isn’t near as effective as thoughtful intelligence. A protagonist’s evolution, in this case Hiccup’s growth, is often the basis of powerful storytelling and that is what made the movie slightly superior in my opinion. Plus, I loved the dragons in the movie!

FIVE STARS: Because of the short chapters, clever illustrations, and subject matter, How to Train Your Dragon is highly recommended for readers in grades 3-6 who enjoy fantasy, adventure, and tongue-in-cheek humor. Boys in particular will love the sword play, the school yard taunting, and the occasional potty humor. Also recommended as a read aloud for early elementary students. Our 7-year-old granddaughter laughed all the way through our Audible version. The book is perfect for exploring literary skills such as theme, character development, puns, word play, and foreshadowing.  Similar books: The other How to Train Your Dragon books by Cressida Cowell, The Little Wolf series by Ian Whybrow, Regarding the Fountain by Kate Kliese, The Trouble With Chickens and The Legend of Diamond Lil by Doreen Cronin, Guinea Dog by Patrick Jennings, My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, the Humphrey books by Betty G. Birney, the Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka, The New Kid at School (Dragon Slayers' Academy, No. 1) by Kate McMullan, and Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo.

A Book to Get Lost In

“Finding your way doesn’t mean you always know where you’re going. It’s knowing how to find your way back home that’s important.”
Sprinkled liberally with pithy bits of wisdom, Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, is one of those rare young adult novels that takes the genre into the realms of literary classics. With beautifully wrought characters, exquisite writing, and tightly interwoven theme development, Vanderpool transports back through time to a quiet quest of navigating life when you have lost your way.

After his mother dies unexpectedly, 13-year-old Jack Baker is uprooted from his Kansas home and dumped into an all boys’ boarding school on the coast of Maine by his father who has been absent for the last four years while serving as a soldier in World War II. A stranger in a strange land, Jack struggles to make sense of the sideways direction his life has suddenly taken. When he meets the “strangest of boys” Early Auden who reads the number pi as an unending story and sleeps in a custodial closet in the school’s basement, Jack believes it is best to keep his distance from such oddness. However, fate intervenes (as it often does in Jack’s life) and he gets swept up into Early’s quest to find the great Appalachian bear, timber rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as Fish who everyone believes is dead. As the pair sets out in tiny row boat, Jack tells himself that he is just going along to keep Early safe, but eventually the adventure (and misadventure) intertwines with Jack’s need to find his own life’s bearings. On their journey, the boys encounter a cast of truly strange characters, several of them dangerous, but all of them lost in some way, and each becomes a part of the pi story Early continues to weave. Wandering deeper and deeper into the wilderness, the pair becomes disoriented and soon their survival depends not so much on getting their physical bearings as it does on finding forgiveness and way to navigate the complexities of truth.

Just like in her earlier Newbery Award winning novel, Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool has once again made literary storytelling accessible to young people. Navigating Early is masterfully multilayered, alternating between Jack Baker’s narrative, and the fanciful, but extremely symbolic, story of Pi. Although the book could be read as just a sweet story about two boys lost in the woods, the novel’s strength comes in its literary depth and complexity. Every detail of the book seems carefully chosen to develop the themes. Symbolism abounds and wraps continuously back on itself making the life lessons crystal clear in spite of the tale’s complexity. Characterization is another of the book’s strengths. Both boys are complex. Early, whose behavior suggests he is on the autistic spectrum, has moments of brilliance tempered by the foibles of being so singularly minded. Jack, just like real adolescent boys, vacillates wildly between feelings of grandeur and feelings of despair.  My one criticism is that some of the resolutions and connections in the book are a little too pat. I know they serve the purpose of pulling the theme together, but I think I would have liked just one or two surprises along the way.

As to using this book as a mentor text: When I started this book I had just finished reading Note and Notice by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst which offers a framework for teaching students how to read literature critically. As I read I applied the strategies they suggested and discovered just how easy it is to find hidden meanings and connections simply by watching out for several reoccurring signposts. Navigating Early is packed with these signposts. It was easy to spot the interwoven-ness of plot and character development, the impact of setting on theme, and the way internal conflict parallels the development of that theme. All of which are essential elements of literary curriculum standards like the Common Core and the Texas Essential Knowledge guidelines. This is the kind of book that makes English teachers like me shout for joy. Now if I could just get my students to read it that way!

FIVE STARS: Highly recommended for thoughtful readers grades 6-12, or as a mentor text in a classroom. Less sophisticated readers may need guidance understanding the connection between the two parallel stories. Teachers can use the book to reinforce or teach concepts of critical reading, theme development, symbolism, the effect of setting on theme, and internal conflict. Books with similar themes and stories include: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Tangerine by Edward Bloor, Paperboy by Vince Vawter, The Underneath and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt, One Came Home by Amy Timberlake, Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz, A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff, Walk Two Moons and The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech (actually almost anything by Sharon Creech, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford, and Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.

A Tale So Dark

dark and grimm
Reformulations of classic fairy tales has become a hot trend in young people's literature, and I have found quite a number that are worthy of acclaim. However, I won't be recommending this latest reworking of the Hansel and Gretel story, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, because is indeed so awfully dark and grim that it begs the question of whether it can even be classified as adolescent literature.

The basic premise: Hansel and Gretel walk out of their own story and into eight other classic Grimm (and Grimm-inspired) fairy tales. Written in a read aloud style, an irreverent narrator leads the pair through encounters with witches, warlocks, dragons, and the devil himself. As the siblings roam a forest brimming with menacing foes, they learn the true story behind the famous tales, as well as how to take charge of their destinies and create their own happily ever after.

Although reviewers from Kirkus to The New York Times raved about this book and awarded a plethora of stars, I just couldn’t get through it. I finally stopped listening about two-thirds of the way through the book because I found it disturbing. The narrator keeps interjecting that “little children should leave the room” because the next part is really inappropriate for little ears, got it right. I think this book is really inappropriate for young people. I realize that the original Grimm’s tales were gruesome and brutal. My problem with this book is that I think its whole focus is on gruesome and brutal rather than on storytelling. Every parent in the book is portrayed as fatally flawed, and along the way there are beheadings, dismemberment, betrayal, and even a trip to hell. One reviewer said that kids won’t mind the gore a bit. Well that may be true, but I think that the adults who will be paying for the book should mind and steer clear of this particular volume of “fairy tales.”

ONE STAR: Intended for ages 10 and up; written in a read aloud style that would make it a good fit for shared oral reading…probably as a bedtime story (might give the kiddos nightmares!) Might have some literary value as a comparison to original and other versions of classic fairytales. This is the first book in a series of (so far) three other books. Books with a similar flavor: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Grimm Sisters series by Michael Buckley, Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Zel by Donna Jo Napoli, Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac, and Doll Bones by Holly Black.

Thievery and Adventure in the Vanished Kingdom

Peter Nimble
Sometimes I just have to disagree with the professional book critics, and this review of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier is one of those times. A fairytale style adventure complete with an imprisoned princess, a magical castle in a faraway kingdom, cut-throat thieves, and a young orphan boy to the rescue, this book has lots of entertainment potential but the storytelling just doesn’t match what I think should be the target audience.

Orphaned at birth, blind Peter Nimble is forced into service as a thief by a Fagen style character. In spite of his handicap he becomes an extraordinary burglar who picks pockets with aplomb, can make himself nearly invisible, and can open every type of lock ever invented.  His life changes when he steals an intricately locked book that contains three pairs of magical eyes. The first set whisks him away to a kingdom on the edge of nowhere where he is charged with a mysterious quest that leads him not only into danger, but also to unforeseen discoveries about himself.

Sounds like it would be good, doesn’t it? It’s got all the elements for a clever, swashbuckling tale: heroes, monsters, magic, a really despicable bad guy, and a clever sidekick. But that’s just the trouble. It’s too formulaic. Auxier tried to throw some twists into the mix (the bad guys really aren’t the bad buys after all), but it just plods along for 300+ pages which is much too long for a fairy tale fashioned for fourth graders. One of my biggest problems with the book was that I had trouble buying into this magical world. I adore slipping into magical realms like Hogwarts or Oz when the conventions of the place can be depended on.  The Vanished Kingdom is too full of anomalies.  And to make it worse the plot was ploddingly predictable. The only thing I did like was the oral tradition/serialized tone of the book. I can see this working as a classroom read aloud or as a bedtime book (providing your youngsters aren’t creeped out by animal cruelty and an occasional death along the way).

TWO STARS: Intended for readers 10 and up, or for a read aloud for upper elementary students. In fairness, 79 amazon.com readers gave this 5 stars and lots of rave reviews.  A follow-up book, The Night Gardner, a Victorian ghost story, was released last month and is also getting good reviews.  Literary concepts that can be explored with this book are a hero’s journey, comparison to classic literature, and diction. Similar books: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, Alcatrez vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman,  the Wondla series by Tony DiTerrlizza, Science Fair by Dave Barry, The Peculiars by Stefan Bachmann, Jinx by Sage Blackwood, the Sisters Grimm series  by Michael Buckley,  and Spindlers by Lauren Oliver.

Of Mice and Men...The Teen Version

We were hereI recently had the opportunity to listen to Matt DeLaPena, popular teen author of Mexican White Boy, speak at the North Texas NCTELA conference. He generously provided each of the attendees one of his novels and I was fortunate to receive We Were Here the tale of three young men who go on the lam from a Juvenile Detention Group Home. Paralleling Steinbeck’s famous novella Of Mice and Men, Miguel and his buddies navigate life on the street from the beaches of the California coast to the San Joaquin valley as they try to convince themselves that their lives really matter.

As the story opens, Miguel is being sent to live in a group home for a crime that he refuses to speak about (and which remains a mystery until the very end of the book—although there are plenty of hints along the way so the reader can figure it out). He ostracizes himself from the other boys in the home by reading (books that DeLaPena says were extremely influential in his own life) and refusing to participate in the counseling sessions. His attempts to keep himself aloof almost work until he strikes out with the two craziest kids in the lock-up: Mong, an Asian American who has a hair-trigger Berserker personality, and Rondell, a mentally challenged giant who rocks the court in basketball and appoints himself as Miguel’s protector. Living off of money stolen from the home’s petty cash box, the trio head to Mexico with plans to get jobs and start a new life. But it turns out that Mong is suffering from a life-threatening disease, and people who live on the edges of society can’t always be trusted, and soon their dreams of freedom lie in shambles. In an odd permutation of a Hero’s Journey, Miguel discovers that running away from trouble is sometimes the quickest way to end up right back where you started.

This book started off slow for me, and because of that, and DeLaPena’s commitment to have these boys speak exactly like incarcerated teens talk, I almost abandoned the book. I’m glad I stuck with it because I now have a book that I can highly recommend to some of my boys who are extremely reluctant readers. It isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but I know these characters and these situations are definitely going to resonate with a particular group of students. The characters are real and dynamic. Miguel’s armor of ambivalence is coupled expertly with his underlying grief and guilt. He’s a real (forgive me, but it just works here) smart ass, with a tear in his heart, and DeLaPena’s portrait of him is spot on. I also loved the theme development. DeLaPena, who once worked in a group home, said that his whole purpose for writing the book was to help the world understand that most of these young offenders just want people to see what lies beyond their crimes. During one particularly poignant scene, the characters scratch messages in the cliffs beyond the beach proclaiming that they “were here.” And talk about symbolism: the restless, unstable presence of the sea, the constant walking with no apparent destination, and the browning old tooth Mong wears as a necklace. DeLaPena has chosen to space out the big reveals judiciously making for well controlled tension, and a great motivation for readers to keep going.

FOUR STARS:  Cautiously recommended for mature teen boys (9-12 grade). A warning: the language in this book is coarse—it’s not gratuitous, it’s simply realistic and it will probably offend more sensitive readers. I can envision this book being used as a shared read with troubled youth, teens who are exposed to gang activity, or students who are into edgy, realistic fiction. Teachers might consider having students read both this and Of Mice and Men, and then doing a side-by-side analysis. Other teaching options include development of theme and character, and symbolic analysis. Similar books: Monster or Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt,  Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier, Runner by Carl Deuker, Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings, or Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher.

Surviving Siberia

between shades of grayWhen we think of genocide and oppression during World War II we usually think of the Jewish holocaust in Europe. But in her wonderful bittersweet novel, Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys pulls back the covers on another dark chapter of the war and reveals another gruesome genocide perpetrated by Stalin and the Soviet Union in its bid to expand its political power into Northern Europe.

Lina’s story begins with her family's deportation from Lithuania because the Soviets consider all intellectuals a threat and her father teaches at the university. Lina is a gifted artist who captures life’s details with her sketches and that talent becomes her lifeline.  Fortunately she and her brother, Jonas, are able to remain with their mother during the long trek to the Siberian work camps. Crammed into cattle cars with no food, heat or sanitation supplies, the prisoners endure the 42 day journey to the Arctic tundra by learning to work together and by stealing from the dead. Lina is relieved when they finally arrive at squalid frozen village which will become her new home through the fast approaching winter, but her relief is short lived as the brutality and unbelievably harsh living conditions reveal themselves. Lina endures hardship after hardship fighting just to stay alive only to discover that there may not be much left that is worth fighting for.

This is a book that deserves to be read! Superb writing coupled with masterful suspense keep Between Shades of Gray right on track. Lina's story is based on actual events from the Siberian work camps of World War II, and that makes the story even more compelling. Sepetys' characterization is fairly strong and she treats us to a one man "Greek chorus" who serves as the voice of doom and carries some of the foreshadowing and symbolism. Although Lina's character is sketched beautifully, many of the minor characters, including her young brother, are rather flat. However, since the star of this novel is the finely wrought plot, the characterization flaws are easy to overlook. 

FIVE STARS: Highly recommended for individual readers grades 7-12, or as a book study for middle school students, university students or adult book clubs. Young people who enjoy historical fiction, particularly about the World War II era, tales of survival, or the healing power of art will be captivated by this story. Between Shades could be used not only to expose the inhumanity of this forced relocation program, but also to explore the concepts of plot progression and suspense, theme development, and how author’s use setting to extend the motifs of a story.  Readers who enjoy this novel might also enjoy: Out of Easy by Ruta Sepetys, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig, The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars by Lois Lowrey, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The White Darkness by Geraldine Mccaughrean, Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, and The Stone Goddess by Mingfo Ho.

Sensory Poems (Part I)

I just had to share some of the beautiful poetry my 8th graders produced this year after a lesson on sensory imagery. After reading a couple of really great poems chalked full of sensory imagery (Oranges by Gary Soto, Deer Hit by Greg Loomis, and Lineage), I had the students fold a piece of paper into fourths and label the quadrants Sights, Sounds, Taste-Touch-Smell, and Emotions. Then, using the graphic organizer, I modeled for them my own thinking about a specific emotionally charged event in my life (stealing raspberries from our neighbor's garden when I was 6). I just jotted down images that came to my mind. I talked to them about "zooming in" on details like the bugs crawling on the leaves of the raspberry plants, and the feel of the sweet, bumpy berries in my mouth. I then asked them to think about a memorable event in their own lives. I asked them to concentrate on just the most important 5 minutes. That turned out to be the secret to their amazing poems because they were able to focus on just a handful of powerful images.

Here a some of the results. See what you think.

Gripping the warm metal chains,
I push off the ground
Like a rocket
Hurtling through space
The wind
Whistling in my ears,
Caressing my face,
Tickling my toes,
Under the cloudless
Blue sky.
I am a bird,
Flying higher and
Tasting freedom
Watching the world
Spin and blur
Beneath me
I can feel the
Metal chains,
Rubbing against my palms,
But they do not bind me.
Back and forth,
Back and forth,
Higher and higher
And higher still,
I touch the sky
And I softly float there
For what feels like forever
With the smiling sun
And whistling wind
Begging me to stay
But the world is
Calling me back
And I release the
Chains that were my
And as I look down,
I see the gentle green grass,
Welcoming me home.
--Madison S.

The Dock
Carried asunder by a forgotten wind,
I look around at these waving walls.
A L O N E.
A sodden tomb awaits beneath my feet.
Clawing atop,
To drag me into its depths.
A monster, mouth gaping, I meet.
With cold, hungry eyes,
It bounds forward with stifling speed.
It devours me whole,
I am left to weep.
Spine crushed,
I slay the beast,
Bursting atop with gasping gulps.
I view past my boundaries,
Stealing a glimpse beyond.
I discover a place of peace,
That will steal me away from this abyss.
These borders block me,
And they will forever hold strong.
I will die here,
In this hell,
Peace is beyond my reach,
Taunting me like home,
Making me feel weak.
I feel the cold seeping through me,
Tying knots in my muscles,
Whispering treachery into my soul.
I will die here,
Without a second glance,
My body will turn against me,
I wish it would be fast.
I Will fight my fate,
And if I die,
It would Not be by this.
I Will come to arms,
I Will fight to the end,
And I Will not be pulled under.
I fight for my body,
Choke for every stroke,
I gasp under the weight of my assailants,
But I push on.
I reach my walls,
And they crumble under my feet,
I reach my place of peace,
And now I am forever free,
I reach my place of peace,
And now,
I c a n s l e e p.
--Joshua U.

All those lessons about metaphor and symbolism and figurative language and poetic devices really sunk in! It's a beautiful thing when your students come to see the beauty in words. I'm going to miss this group of kiddos.

Lost Boys of Sudan

downloadI’m always thrilled when I find an adolescent book that exposes an injustice in the world, but at the same time is highly accessible to teens. Such is the case with A Long Walk to Water by Newbery Award winning author Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard). Based on the true story of Salva Dut, who eventually founds the Water for South Sudan project, Long Walk follows the decade long journey of Salva, as he goes from an orphaned victim to national hero. It is brutal, it is heart-warming, it is courageous, and it is hopeful. It needs to be part of every secondary classroom library.

In 1985, Salva Dut is only eleven years old when the Sudanese civil war reaches his village towards the end of a school day. His teacher tells the children to run into the bush and keep running and that is just what young Salva does, for the next 11 years.  Believing that his family has all been killed in the village raid, Salva walks with other members of his Dinka tribe through the barren landscape of southern Sudan and Ethiopia hoping to reach the safe haven of the Kenya refugee camps. Eventually, he meets up with his Uncle Jewiir who helps him endure the hardships by setting small goals on the trek. “See that group of tree over there? You can make it to those trees.” Then, “The hills are not that far. You can make it to those hills.” The small group suffers starvation, exposure, raids by passing rebels, and death, but finally makes it to the refugee camps only to find that the conditions there are more hard-scrabble and dangerous than trip from the village. Interwoven with Salva’s story is the tale of Nya, a girl from the Sudanese Nuer tribe (sworn enemies of the Dinka) living in a small South Sudan village in 2008. Every day Nya must walk to the local watering hole, a journey that takes her half a day. When she returns home around midday, she eats a meager lunch, then sets out again. This daily routine of fetching water is the only life she has ever known until one day a group of strangers arrives in the village and teaches the community how to dig a well.

Long Walk is well written and informative. Although it is technically fiction, it has an expository feel and manages to tell Salva and Nya’s story in a compassion evoking way. Park has managed to soften the brutality of the events with moments of hope, and you can’t help but admire Salva’s determination in the face of so many setbacks. Just when you feel like you can’t take another bad thing happening, along comes a spark that pushes both the protagonist and the reader forward. Long Walk also does an excellent job of putting a human face on a global tragedy.  After finishing the book, I was moved to become more aware of the human costs of world events and started to looking into recent human rights issues in Africa and the Middle East. Because the parallel narrative structure of the book might give younger readers some trouble, I suggest that the first part of the book be shared with a more proficient reader who can explicate the background and help the novice reader see the connections between the two narratives.

FOUR STARS:  Highly recommended for secondary classroom libraries and for middle grade and high school readers who are interested in history, Africa, genocide or survival stories. This book can be used in connection with any Holocaust or hero literature.  Consider pairing this with non-fiction accounts of the Lost Boys of Sudan and news articles about the events.  Here’s a rather lengthy list of books that might interest readers who enjoy this book:  A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’dell, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Septys, Iqbal by Francesco D'Adamo , Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson,  A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Dragon’s Gate by Laurence Yep, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth, Sold by Patricia McCormick, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan by John Bul Dau, Touching Bear Spirit by Ben Mikaelsen,  and The Maze by Will Hobbs.

Picture books: Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan by Mary Williams, Four Feet, Two Sandals Hardcover by Karen Lynn Williams, Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter, One Well: The Story of Water on Earth (Citizenkid) by Rochelle Strauss, Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams.