Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Wow. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's both sad and hilarious, and I read it straight through almost without stopping. Arnold Spirit, also known as Junior, is a Spokane Indian living on the reservation ("the rez"). He has a big head, huge feet, loves to draw, and is a target for bullies. He's also very bright and he figures out that he needs to leave the reservation to fulfill his life's dreams. This is the story of his first year attending Reardon high school, where he's the only Indian. He loves his family and his culture, but he is not blind to the problems that alcohol causes in his community. In fact, it is the cause of numerous tragedies in his own family circle. Arnold makes new friends at Reardon, becomes a basketbal star, and struggles with his old best friend who feels betrayed by his departure. It doesn't sound funny, but it really is. Some people might think the innermost thoughts of this 9th grade boy are a little mature, but they are certainly nothing you wouldn't hear on TV. Recommended especially for 8th grade guys, but also for anyone (young or old) who appreciates good writing. (Just so you know, this is fiction but it is taken straight from the author's life.)
I could not put this book down. It is the story of one month in the lives of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. Annie was only 20 years old when she took the train to Alabama to become Helen's teacher. Six-year-old Helen's family loved her but had almost given up on her—she was blind and deaf and had no way to communicate, and so she behaved like a wild animal. Annie Sullivan knew what it was like to be blind and lonely and desperate for human connection, and she was also a tenacious and gifted teacher. When she arrived she realized what Helen needed—discipline, love, and words, which are the key to human thoughts and emotions. Annie tried to discipline Helen, but she fought fiercely, physically, and with great intelligence. Helen knew that her parents would give in to her slightest tantrum and she pulled all the right strings to get her own way. Annie had to take her away for a week in order to begin to civilize Helen's behavior. But even when Helen's behavior improved, she didn't immediately understand the concept of language that Annie was trying to teach her. I was amazed at the courage and talent of this young woman. It is a fiction story, but it's closely based on the letters of Annie Sullivan, and I imagine that the emotions and events are very true to life. Sarah Miller did a fantastic job of writing this historical fiction novel.
Caitlin is an opera singer, but it's not cool at her high school to let people know she doesn't care about cheerleading and all the other usual high school stuff. After shedding extra weight and leaving behind an abusive boyfriend, she secretly auditions to attend a high school for the performing arts. She gets in and attends the new school (in spite of her mother's objections) and Diva is the story of how she takes on new challenges and begins to become the person she dreams of becoming. One hurdle to overcome is her own mother, who dresses like a teenager, dates a married man, and is unsupportive of Caitlin's music. Another hurdle is the memory of her abusive boyfriend (whose story is told in the book Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn). One big benefit of her new school is that she is among kindred spirits—artistic teenagers capable of becoming true friends. I think any teenage girl could relate to Caitlin, but girls with an interest in singing will definitely want to read her story. It's well-written, thoughtful, and most importantly, an enjoyable read.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
What does it mean to be a good friend? Should you keep a promise no matter what? Those are the big questions in this funny/sad book. Rusty and Joey are best friends. They do lots of "guy" stuff like catching frogs, harassing their older sisters, and shooting at tin cans. Every time they do something they might get in trouble for they "swear to howdy" that they won't tell a soul. Then they hammer fists, punch knuckles, prick their fingers, and mix their blood to seal the pact. Joey is the wild one of the two, but he always means well. Unfortunately he has a father with a drinking problem who is a dangerous man. So when Joey makes mistakes, he really needs Rusty to keep his secrets. This short, funny book takes a big turn at the end that will really make you think.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
I'm not sure what I can say about this book. I'm sure it's already been discussed to death. I liked it, as I have liked all of the Harry Potter books. I should confess that I have never actually read a Harry Potter book. I listen to them on CD and I absolutely love listening to Jim Dale do all the voices. Here's what I liked most about this book: the focus on the friendship of Harry, Ron and Hermione. What great friends. I also like the other Hogwarts kids—Ginny, Nevile, and Luna. And I particularly enjoyed learning so much more about Dumbledore—he's one of my favorite characters. Rowling really made him into a complex person in this book. And Harry, almost in spite of himself, consistently chooses the honorable path that stems from his inborn sense of right and wrong. I like that he is so real and so good, but not in a preachy way. Now for things I didn't like. The story dragged a bit in the middle when they were living in the tent and didn't know what to do. I thought the ending with Snape was very predictable—I knew all along he was going to turn out to be good (or at least not evil). The part I really didn't like was the epilogue. It made Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione seem so BORING! So they fought off evil and now they just raise kids and send them off to boarding school. I'd like to think they have more excitement in their lives than that. (It reminds me of how I felt reading the later Anne of Green Gables books—grown ups are just so dull!) In spite of my few criticisms, I really did enjoy the book and I'm looking forward to listening to the entire series again from start to finish.
If you have to read a biography of a scientist, make sure you find one by Kathleen Krull. She digs into the lives of famous people and finds the things that normal people (like me!) find interesting. Yes, Marie Curie was a great scientist who won the Nobel Prize and discovered radioactivity, but Krull tells us all the other interesting stuff that we really want to know. How did this smart girl from Poland overcome the prejudice against women that kept women from studying science? How did her love affair with her employer's son almost get her into trouble? What was her relationship with her husband like? What about the affair she had after he died? If you read this book you will know all about Marie Curie the scientist and Marie Curie the human being. And she was amazing in both categories! You can't go wrong with the Giants of Science biographies. Sigmund Freud and Isaac Newton are also part of this series.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Cap (short for Capricorn) is an 8th grader who has spent his life in a 1960s-style commune living only with his Grandmother. He's never had a friend his own age or watched TV or gone to school or done anything that most other kids have done. When his Grandma is injured, he is sent to live with a "normal family" and to go to public school. Right away the popular (but mean) guy in school pegs him for the biggest loser in the 8th grade. And at this middle school the tradition is to elect that loser class president in order to humiliate him. But Cap is so oblivious they can't figure out how to embarrass him. It's a light-hearted, funny book where the so-called loser ends up on top. In a way, this book is Stargirl for guys. I'm a big fan of Gordon Korman, and while I don't think it's his best book ever, I think lots of middle schoolers will enjoy this book.