Category Archives: Realistic

August Round-Up: NPR Book Recommendations (30 before 30)

So, I listen to National Public Radio.  Yes. I’m one of *them.*

There are lots of wonderful things about NPR. For starters, I feel like I show up to work a smarter person because I’ve already heard the news. I often have “driveway moments” finishing up an interesting story.  My husband and I don’t always agree on politics, and it’s nice to get news from a mostly impartial source. In fact, I loved that while the other media outlets were going crazy during the Boston Marathon bombing (for example), NPR’s correspondent said, “We are not saying anything that has not been confirmed. So far we know xyz and that’s it. We’re not speculating.”  You have to respect that.

Another great thing about NPR besides their reporting is that they interview authors to get the story beyond the book, ask good questions, and really get you interested in their works.   The books this month are mostly nonfiction that I got interested in by hearing about them on NPR.  I originally heard about these books from The Diane Rehm Show, Fresh Air, and Talk of the Nation/Science Friday.  If you wish, the transcripts/shows/articles are on NPR.org if you search the book title.


The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Melanie Benjamin 

While this is technically fiction, it is based on the extraordinary life of Lavinia “Vinne” Warren, aka Mrs. Tom Thumb. She was a proportionate dwarf who became famous by touring with P.T. Barnum and his other dwarf act, General Tom Thumb.  It talks about her family life– how she felt stuck until a shady cousin comes around seeking fame and fortune.

I originally heard about this book on The Diane Rehm Show.  This was an interesting book, to say the least.  It’s good, but I won’t be re-reading it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Wow. Just wow. This is the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1951.  Her doctor took some of her cancer cells to do research (without permission). And they keep growing. These cells, known as HeLa cells, are extremely unusual and have been key to discovering several medical breakthroughs. However, the family had no idea until the ’70s, and when they did find out, they didn’t understand what was going on.

Skloot’s book writes about both the history and the breakthroughs of the cells but focuses much of her book on Henrietta’s family. I listened to the audiobook and it was a great book. Fantastic research.  This has been on my list of books to read since I heard an interview with the author ages ago. In fact, I was pretty certain I heard about this book twice on NPR– Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air.   Very good.

Beautiful Souls, Eyal Press
This is a beautiful book. This is written by a journalist who wanted to explore why people did good. Not just didn’t do evil, but why they actively went against the evil that was being done.  What does it mean, and what does it cost, to follow your conscience? He profiles four incredible people: one Swiss guard that falsified Jewish reports to allow them in the country;  one unique Serbian soldier who “sorted” Serbs from Croats (and allowed many Croats to avoid beatings and possibly death); an Israeli soldier who refuses to occupy land; a whistle-blower from Stanford (a financial company).

I first heard about this book on Talk of the Nation. (Man, I’ll miss that show.) This book was short, and I was able to read it in a day.  It was fascinating and a worthwhile book to read. It makes you wonder what you would do in their place. I don’t know if I would have been so creative in my problem-solving, so bold in my actions. It was a lot to take in.

I thought the chapter on the whistleblower was very appropriate after the Edward Snowden stuff. Here are some interesting quotes that go with that:

  • “To judge by Time’s cover story back in 2002,  whistleblowers were harassed and vilified until proven right, at which point they morphed into folk heroes.  In reality, being right not infrequently made things worse. For if the person who blew the whistle was justified, what did this say about all the people who didn’t? About the team players who’d profited handsomely by remaining silent?” (167)
  • According to a 2006 study conduced by Claude Fischer, 45% of Americans said people should on occasion follow their conscience even if it means breaking the law. Compared with Europeans, Americans “consistently answer questions in a way that favors the group over the individual… should follow a boss’s orders even if the boss is wrong… defer to church leaders.” (152).
  • Continuing with that study, “precisely because [the U.S.] was so free and open, many Americans viewed expressions of dissent as superfluous– or worse, indulgent, an abuse of the tolerance and liberty for which citizens ought to be grateful…. a higher proportion of U.S. citizens agreed that ‘people should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.'” (152-153).
  • All this to say, no wonder Snowden is going through what he’s going through.

In conclusion, my stuff this month was a little heavy.  I will continue to read books I hear about from NPR because if nothing else, the interviews I hear give me a better background about the book. I admit, the books I read this month were good, but Death Comes to Pemberley  got a huge thumbs down (and NPR got me excited about it :-( .)

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Filed under 30 Before 30 (Themed Monthly Updates), Realistic

Rissa Bartholomew’s Declaration of Independence, Lynda Brill Comerford

Synopsis:  Rissa feels like she’s not on the same path as her friends. She’s had the same BFF Beth since birth, as their moms ran into each other in the maternity ward the day they were born. Rissa gets Beth’s hand-me-downs and while they’re really friends, it’s definitely unequal. Besides that,  Beth, Kerry, Angel and Jayne were way more interested in boys, shopping, and getting into mischief than Rissa was.  They aren’t considerate of her at all: they held the annual joint b-day party at a pizza joint when Rissa has a tomato allergy.  When they tease her about Brian, the nice nerd that walks into the restaurant during their party, Rissa tells them off. She hides out in the bathroom for the remainder of the party, essentially dumping her only friend group a week before middle school.

Rissa starts trying to figure out who she is.  She rejects the birthday gift of ballet lessons (that she got because Beth was taking them),  and asks to have violin lessons. (She is just as surprised as her parents.)  She dyes some of Beth’s “gorgeous” clothes so she isn’t stuck with bright pink junk. She tries to make a new friend, Violet, but Violet’s more interested in books than friendship. Beth does a few friendly things, like save Rissa’s gnome from being trampled, but mostly, it’s just awkward.

Violet and Rissa work together on a project. Rissa accidentally eats a tomato and they have to take her to the emergency room, which is a pretty awful start to a friendship.  After the near-death experience, the old posse tries to make nice with Rissa, but Rissa chooses Violet over them.

Halloween means a costume contest, Rissa’s mom sews her a fantastic Statue of Liberty costume.  Rissa’s only competition for best costume was Brian, who dressed as a knight. When they tie for first, the jerks in the audience taunted them to kiss. In case he was thinking of it, she poked him and accidentally knocked him off the stage. Woops. She gets suspended, but her mom is angrier with the principal than Rissa.

Rissa and mom go shopping for a recital outfit and run into Beth and her mom. The reunion is nice, except we find out that Beth’s mom suggested to Rissa’s mom to get counseling for Rissa’s “anger issues” (blowing up at the party, poking Brian). The other girls in the “group” have fallen apart after Angel had a make-out party where Beth and Jayne felt uncomfortable.  Beth also gives level-headed advice about apologizing to  Brian.

At the violin concert, everything comes together. Rissa apologizes to Brian, who is just impressed that she thought he was the type to kiss her. Violet and Beth were cheering her on. And, well, for a moment anyway, everything was as it should be.

Bookworm’s Commentary:  

Here’s the deal: When I was in middle school, I was handed a list of classics every college-bound student should read. So, why did that become my reading list when I was 13? On occasion with this blog, I forget that I can pick up a book without a medal on it.  I can pick up a book just because I like the title or because there’s a gnome on the cover. I’m allowed to pick up books just for fun.  And,  I forget how much fun reading a realistic, slice-of-life book about teenage life can be.  I really enjoyed reading it. I read it in about 2 hours and it was just sweet. Why don’t I read more short, sweet, and cute books? I hope I’m not still a literary snob. Alas. I probably am still a snob, but I’m trying to break free. :-)

I really felt for the characters. It’s tough growing up, ya know? Kids grow apart and ya can’t really do much for it. If it’s true friendship, it’ll last through the hard times.  In my reading of YA/intermediate books, I’ve noticed: there’s always that one friend who’s going to be a jerk, no matter what. Then there’s always that one friend who always gets picked on. I didn’t say in the synopsis, but Angel is no angel. She’s usually the trouble maker: beer at a make-out party, playing keep-away with Rissa’s gnome, etc.  Clearly, Rissa was getting dumped on. I was pretty proud when she dumped them first. :-)

Class Stuff:
Grades: 4-7.
Grade: A  
This reminded me a lot of Judy Blume, where Comerford just *got it*. It’s a hard thing to get in the head of a teenager, and she nailed it.

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Filed under Middle school (6-8), Realistic

Flipped, Wendelin Van Draanen

Five second summary: Boy meets girl.

Girl terrifies said boy.

Boy spends his life from second to seventh grade hiding/trying to discourage said girl, etc.

And then in eighth grade, things flip.

Full summary: 

Seven-year old Bryce Loski moves into a new neighborhood, and his neighbor Juli Baker instantly falls for him. She swears he’s holding on to her first kiss.

Bryce’s surly widowed grandfather Chet moves in with his family the summer before eighth grade, and life begins to change.

Juli loves a 100-year old sycamore tree in the neighborhood.  She’s on top of the world when she climbs the tree, and she feels alive.  She finally understands her dad’s saying that sometimes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” where little bits of things come together and make magic. When the owner decides to cut down the tree, she refuses to get down from the tree. She begs others to take a stand with her, but they don’t. It’s an all-morning event until her dad shows up to get her down.   Reporters interview her for the paper and get pictures.  Chet tells Bryce to read the article, saying that Juli is someone he’d like to know. Bryce ignores Chet, as Juli is certified crazy in his book.

Meanwhile, Juli raised chickens for a science fair, and she began to give eggs away when the egg situation at their house was getting out of control. She got paid by some of the neighbors, but gave some to Bryce’s family just because. Well, Bryce was (pardon the pun) too chicken to tell her to stop when the family raised fears about salmonella, so he tossed her eggs.  When she asks why, he gives a list of excuses: their yard was unkempt and trashy so how did they know the eggs weren’t the same?

This exchange upsets Juli. Her family can’t afford to fix the yard due to her uncle being in an assisted living facility, and she begins to fix the yard with her egg money. Chet comes over and befriends her. He tells Juli that she reminds him of his wife in her spirit, claiming that “Renee would have stayed in that tree with you. She would have stayed there all night.”  She tells Chet about her mentally challenged uncle. Chet asks Juli to look beneath the surface of Bryce’s “dazzling eyes” and see what’s inside.

Bryce’s dad (who is a total jerk) asks Chet why he’s spending so much time helping white trash, and Chet gives him the short version of having a handicapped brother. When Mr. Loski continues to make jokes at their expense, it causes Mrs. Loski to burst into tears. Turns out, Bryce had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck when he was born and could have easily been the one Dad was making fun of.  Mrs. Loski invites the Bakers for dinner, in an act of repentance for her husband being an ass and feeling horrible over everything from eggs to the uncle.

Bryce begins to take a second look at Juli, and he finally recognizes that she’s got something special about her. Juli’s starting questioning what makes her like him.  When she overhears his friend making fun of her uncle and him not doing anything about it,  the illusion is over for her. She confronts him about it, and they barely make it through the family  dinner.  By the end, she semi-forgives him, but mostly because she sees that Mr. Loski “was clean and smooth on the outside, but there was a distinct whiff of something rotten buried just beneath the surface.”

Bryce becomes a basket boy, where the girls bid on baskets with delicious lunches in them (and have to eat lunch with the boy who brought it). Juli refuses to bid on Bryce, but bids on the boy before Bryce that no one was bidding on and she thought was a nice kid. Bryce actually goes for over $100 with two popular girls going in the bid together.  Bryce gets disgusted with the popular girls during lunch and attempts to kiss Juli.  Juli runs and avoids Bryce for a day or two, while he essentially tries to stalk her.

When he comes over to plant a sycamore tree, she doesn’t exactly flip… but she’s open to give him a chance.

Commentary 

Cute, cute book. It flips from points of view, so, my apologies if there’s any confusion in my summary. It feels long to me, and I really struggled getting this review out. But since I took the cynical view of Valentine’s Day last year, I thought I’d go for a first love story this year.

  • There are many lines that are essential to this book, but I couldn’t fit them in and sound coherent.
    • Chet of Juli: “Some of us  are dipped in flat, some in satin, some in gloss… But every once in a while, you find someone who’s iridescent, and when you do, nothing will ever compare.”
    • The theme of whole being greater than the sum of its parts comes up several times. The opposite, the whole being less than the sum of its parts, is more terrifying.  When she looks at her classmates, the majority are less than the sum… but she can’t decide about Bryce.
    • “One’s character is set at an early age, son. The choices you make now will effect you for the rest of your life. I’d hate to see you swim out so far, you can’t swim back.” Chet to Bryce, because really, Bryce has a high chance of becoming his father and that would be awful.
  • Rob Reiner directed a film adaptation which is awesome. He set his movie in the 60’s, but the book takes place from ’94-2000.  Flipped  fits really well with the ’60’s but the story is timeless.  (Rob Reiner also did the film adaptation for The Princess Bride– therefore, I trust him to make fabulous movies based on books. )  I really liked it. Chet is played by John Mahoney of Fraiser fame, and the kids are great in their roles.

Class Stuff:
Grades: 5-7,8
 May be a little young for eighth grade, but I first saw it when three sixth grade girls returned it at the end of the year. Yeah.  I hadn’t seen the book because it was out so often.
Grade: A  It’s timeless,  innocent, and sweet. It effectively does the he says/she says storyline. And we need more iridescence in the world.

Be iridescent. Happy Valentine’s.

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Filed under Middle school (6-8), Realistic, Romance

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton

I’m continuing with my theme of the outcasts with one of my favorites and probably one of the most obvious choices for this category, The Outsiders.  I may do one more post in this series (probably Stargirl… ?) and after that, no guarantees. :-) 

Since this book is a classic, I’ll  talk more about the plot and will probably say spoiler-type things. But if you’re looking at this blog entry to get out of reading it for class, STOP. This book is amazing.  You will hate yourself if you skip reading it for a hack blogger’s interpretation.  

Synopsis: There are two types of people in Ponyboy Curtis’ world: the Greasers and the Socs.  Ponyboy is the youngest in the gang of Greasers and one of the more sensitive of the group. While he’s daydreaming about a movie he had just watched, a group of Socs jump him. This is especially terrifying since Johnny, Ponyboy’s closest friend, was seriously injured a few months back by some Socs.  Everyone freaks out, saying that Pony should go to the movies with someone, and hey, tomorrow night Dallas is going to a drive-in, so he and Johnny should come.

This gang is family. Darry and Sodapop Curtis are Ponyboy’s older brothers. Their parents died a few months ago, and Darry has to take care of the boys at age 20. He’s pretty tough on Ponyboy because he’s young and raising two teenagers, and sometimes Pony can’t see how much Darry loves him. Sodapop is ridiculously handsome, charming, and loves to steal the show. Soda’s best friend Steve is an angry guy and kind of a pain. Two-Bit can’t keep his mouth shut as the jokester of the group. Dallas is the hardest of the group, having been kicked out of his home ages ago and is the local jail’s “usual suspect.” Johnny is like the lost puppy of the group, abused by his parents and protected by the gang.  He’s the sensitive one in the group, and he and Pony can see things others can’t.

Dallas takes Johnny and Pony to the movies, where they hit it off with two Soc girls, “Cherry” and Marcia. Pony opens up to Cherry about a lot, including Johnny’s attack. She figures out it’s her boyfriend Bob who beat up Johnny. She tells Pony things are rough all over. Pony, Johnny, and Two-Bit drive Cherry and Marcia home, or drive them until Bob catches up to them at any rate and Cherry goes with the Socs to avoid a confrontation.   Johnny and Pony fall asleep in the park, and when Pony gets home way past curfew Darry hits him. Pony freaks out and runs back to the park, where  Bob and his gang corner Pony and Johnny. When the Socs are drowning Ponyboy, Johnny kills Bob to save Pony. They have to make a run for it, so they go to Dallas for advice. He gives them directions to a church a few towns away, and says to lay low.

They jump a train and follow Dally’s instructions. They cut their hair and Pony gets his bleached.  (That’s the worst part, in Ponyboy’s opinion.) They buy Gone with the Wind and pass the time reading that, playing poker, and watching the sunrises.

Dally comes by to give them an update.  Johnny tells Dally it’s time for them to come home, because it’s not fair for Darry and Soda that they don’t know what’s going on with Ponyboy, and he’s tired of hiding. Dallas is really upset, because he knows jail hardens a person and he doesn’t want it to happen to Johnny.  (Johnny’s probably the only person that Dally cares about.)  They go back to the church to get their stuff, and the church is on fire. A class was having a picnic at the church and some of the kids were inside the church. Johnny and Ponyboy run in to save the kids. Johnny gets hit by a fiery timber. Dally knocks Pony out since he was on fire and goes in to save Johnny.

Separate ambulances take them to the hospital.  The teacher Jerry is with Ponyboy and is not put off one bit by the fact that Pony, Johnny, and Dally are wanted for murder– they’re heroes for saving the kids. When Pony asks about the others, Jerry hesitates, because while Dally is okay, Johnny is not good at all, and he’ll probably be paralyzed if he lives. Pony has a tearful reunion with his brothers, and he finally realizes that Darry’s worst fear is losing another loved one.

So… day or so after that… there’s a rumble that that the Greasers win, and after the rumble Pony and Dally run to the hospital to see Johnny.  Johnny says the fighting’s not worth it, tells  Ponyboy to stay gold, and dies. Dally loses it, and commits suicide by cop.  Pony goes through some post-traumatic stress, believing he (not Johnny) killed Bob and Johnny’s still alive, letting his grades slip, etc. His English teacher lets him write a semester theme, his choice, to bring his grade up to passing.  He struggles with it until he opens up the copy of Gone with the Wind  Johnny had in the hospital: Johnny wrote a note to Pony saying that he knew he was dying, but it was worth it to save the kids, and Pony shouldn’t be worried about being a greaser, and to stay gold– unaffected by the violence and hate they’re surrounded by.  Pony’s theme becomes his therapy as he writes out their story.

Bookworm’s Commentary 

  • I never read this book as a kid, and I really wish I had. I think I read it for the first time when I started my M.Ed. and I think I have read it once a year since. And I cry every single time.
    • The movie is mostly true to the book, and it’s highly enjoyable– granted, I haven’t seen it in a while.  Most of the people in the movie are up-and-coming stars, and that makes me smile.  It’s like they rose up from the streets and made something of themselves! All right!
      • When I was student teaching in eighth grade, someone asked who Patrick Swayze was since he had just passed away. I asked the obvious, “Have you seen Ghost or Dirty Dancing?”
        “EVERYONE asks me that, and I haven’t!”
        “Um, have you seen The Outsiders?”
        “DARRY DIED?”     All right, so when referencing ’80s superstars, go with the literary movie!
  • Hinton wrote this when she was sixteen. SIXTEEN, people! Never mentioned specifically, which made me curious, but this takes place in Tulsa, Ok…  which also explains the rodeos and horses mentioned sporadically through the book.
  • The best thing about this book are the characters, especially Johnny and Ponyboy. Everyone is so protective of them and they don’t want them to be “tough”, which seems to be a requirement of being a Greaser.
    • Dally’s protectiveness over Johnny and Johnny’s admiration for Dallas is really touching. Johnny’s the type that watches sunrises and reflects on Robert Frost. He wants to be a gallant Southern gentleman like Rhett Butler, and this is how he sees Dally. It’s clear how much having Johnny means to the gang if hardened, bad boy Dally is devastated when he’s gone.
    •  I love this particular scene when Pony gets cornered by Socs, and he breaks a bottle and threatens them with it.  After they leave, Two-Bit says, “Ponyboy, don’t get tough, you’re not like the rest of us and don’t try to be… what in the world are you doing?”  Ponyboy looks up and says, “Picking up glass,” like, duh, broken glass on the ground, don’t want anyone to get a flat tire.   This calms Two-Bit right on down, because clearly, anyone worried about a stranger getting a flat is not going to use a broken bottle in a fight.
  • Truly, I don’t know what else to say to give this book justice.  It has a lot to say about appearances and becoming who you want to be.  It deals a lot with feeling too little  or too passionately.
Class stuff:
Grades: 7 & up.
 A lot of 7th and 8th grade reading classes include this book. 
Grade: A+  
Um, I read a lot. I don’t re-read something on a yearly basis four years running.  I’ve mostly done that with this book because of where I’ve been and when I’ve seen it (subbing and needing something to do, for example), but still, I could have found another book and didn’t. It’s good for reluctant readers since it’s action-packed. It does have references to tobacco and alcohol; probably important to note that “getting high” is drinking, and the “weed” they’re referring to is cigarettes; like I said in my Misfits posts, the kids should probably be mature enough to not giggle when they read something like that.  This is another book that can help the outsiders feel like they’re worth something and the insiders can understand that what matters is the heart.
Stay gold.

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Filed under Action, Middle school (6-8), Realistic

The Misfits, James Howe

**In honor of school being back in session in my area, I will attempt to blog about a few books that are about the kids on the periphery. We’ll see how it goes!**
**Also, the “other f word” is used in this post and in the book. I do not condone name calling, neither does the author.  In fact, that’s the whole point of the book, but we’ll get to that…**

Synopsis:    The “Gang of Five” consists of four seventh graders who have no friends but each other (or it feels that way, anyway):  the tall Addie, the chubby Bobby, the effeminate Joe [JoDan], and the “greaser” Skeezie. Addie, the brainiac of the group, runs these forum meetings, where they discuss issues pretty much chosen by Addie. Lately, her main issue has been free speech. She refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance until everyone can have justice.  When the school elections come up, Addie wants to create a third party, “The Freedom Party.”

Addie’s Freedom Party is unsuccessful. First, she wants the party to represent minorities, but frankly, the black students are not taking to the party kindly. (DuShawn joins and runs as President, but Addie can’t take the hint that he likes her.) Plus, the principal Mr. Kiley and the teacher running elections (Ms. Wyman) aren’t buying that the Freedom Party can’t work within the two-party system, especially without a good election platform.

DuShawn said something along the lines of even though he’s black, he hasn’t met much adversity, and he feels more sorry for the Gang since they are the real “minorities”… picked on, etc. Bobby hears the bully Kevin call the stutterer Darryl a dweeb. Bobby and the gang realize that their platform should be no more name calling. Their slogan is “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirits.” They put up posters with the “no loser,” “no fairy,” etc.

The posters get everyone talking, but they are also taken down. Addie and Bobby have a meeting with the Mr. Kiley and Mrs. Wyman to discuss what they did. Addie almost blows it with her temper, but Bobby very diplomatically explains the party’s purpose and why there’s a need for the No-Name Party.  They convince the administration they’re right. And what’s even better? The kids are starting to think before they speak. When Joe breaks out into a West Side Story song, someone yells, “Shut up you little—” and stops.  That by itself is an accomplishment, that Joe doesn’t get called a name.

On election day, Bobby gives a brilliant speech: We are more than our names.  They don’t win the election, but they earn respect and they get awareness. They even get a school event called “No-Name Day.” They’re going to make it, after all.

Other drama within the book:

  • Bobby has an after-school job selling ties, and his boss helps him understand what it means when we carry a name with us through life. (“If I hadn’t been called ‘sissy’ and believed it, would I be braver?”)
  • Bobby’s mom died when he was in second grade, which is part of the reason he’s chunky– fluffernutter sandwiches.
  • Addie and Joe like the same guy.
  • Bobby likes a really shy girl but doesn’t know how to handle it.
  • Skeezie is apparently a love guru who is cynical about it for himself, but that doesn’t stop him from liking a waitress they call HellomynameisSteffi.
Bookworm’s Commentary: 
  • The reading teacher next door when I was an intern used to use this book in her anti-bullying unit.  It was “banned” — a parent complained about the book having a gay character, and the school system refused to argue about it. She has it in her classroom but can’t teach from it anymore. I wish it weren’t the case, as it’s a beautiful book.  I know that this book touched a lot of lives that year.
  •  I’ve only read and reviewed one other James Howe book, The Watcher. 1– He is GOOD! 2– I find myself in the same predicament now as I did then. So much happened in this book that I haven’t written because it wasn’t a part of the “main plot.” I want to quote all of Bobby’s speech because my words don’t do it justice. (I won’t.)
  • Unlike The Watcher, though, this book can make you laugh AND cry. My favorite LOL line was when Skeezie calls the waitress “HellomynameisSteffi”, she replies, “You don’t have to call me by my full name! Just call me Hello.”
  • Even the coming out scene between Joe and Skeezie has a charming humor to it. Joe says he’s gay, and when Skeezie doesn’t quite believe him, Joe tells him to look at  his bedroom: an antique floor lamp, pink flamingos, a butterfly chair, posters of Madonna and Cher…
    Skeezie: So? So you’re a little weird. We all are. That’s why we’re friends.
    Joe: There are different shades of weird, Skeezie. Mine’s pink.
  • I hate, hate, hate with a passion saying something is “gay” and I hate words like “faggot” worse than other derogatory names that are out there. When the Gang tally up names they’ve been called, they end up with 72 names all together, and Joe’s been called 26 names to Bobby’s 17. But Joe is pretty strong about the whole thing: When someone vandalizes Joe’s locker with “fagot” he yells at the usual suspect Kevin that “if they’re going to call names, they should at least know how to spell them.”   Go, Joe!  I mean, obviously, stuff like that hurts a lot. It hurts a little less when you know the people calling you a name are morons.
  • I find it a little weird that they have a two-party system in a school government. 1– we all know the popular kid wins, period. 2– do we really have to let our screwed-up political system trickle down to the school system? Does Dem/Rep really matter in school government?!?!
Class Stuff: 
Grades: It depends.  I think the reading level (def. middle school level) plus the kid’s maturity level (the language is limited to the names, but let’s face it, some kids aren’t ready to read the word “fag” without laughing) would have to be factored in. Sixth grade at the earliest, esp. if they are being bullied. It was taught in eighth grade at the school I interned at.
Grade: A  It’s a great story about friendship and being yourself. For those who can’t relate to the misfits, it  gives a little bit more insight to people who don’t fit into the mold.
Happy new school year, to those who have started– here’s hoping that you can be yourself with pride.

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Filed under Middle school (6-8), Realistic

Enthusiasm, Polly Shulman (Alternative title for my post: This is how it’s done.)

Synopsis:  Julie has a very enthusiastic best friend, Ashleigh– when she gets into something, she is immersed in the topic. And her new obsession? Jane Austen.

Ashleigh decides to crash the Forefield (boys boarding school) dance so that she can land her Darcy and Julie can get her Bingley. (Julie= not thrilled.)  BUT Julie’s crush (aka”The Mysterious Stranger”, hereby known as Grandison “Parr”) covers for them and says he and Ned, his roommate, are their dates. Each girl dances with Parr and Ned a few times each, and there’s definite potential for double dates later .

The next morning, Ashleigh is rambling about “her Darcy”. Julie figures out too late that Ashleigh has a crush on Parr. It’s shocking, since Ned clearly admired Ash’s enthusiasm. The events that pointed to Parr liking Julie (he ran all over the school to find her a ginger ale, dancing together, chased off the school’s womanizer, flirtatious comments) were read differently by Ashleigh (he dragged her and Ned all around the school getting ginger ale, he danced the first and last dance with her, he wrote his email on her hand– we won’t mention Ash dragged him to dance and she offered her hand). Julie second guesses her evening, but won’t get in the way of Ashleigh… other than saying she doesn’t Like Ned, please don’t try to match-make.

So, Julie’s in a lot of inner turmoil because of Parr/Ashleigh/Ned, her mom has some financial trouble, and her stepmom and her dad are complete drama all the time.  And, Ashleigh has new scheme to get closer to the boys: the Forefield musical, which Parr and Ned are heavily involved in as the lyricist and musical director, respectively.  They get cast in  Midwinter Insomnia  (Midsummer Night’s Dream  reinterpretation). Julie has a small part and gets to observe and hang out with Parr, who is playing opposite their friend Yolanda. (Ash is super jealous).

Meanwhile, Julie becomes a boy magnet. She gets a chocolate turkey on Thanksgiving,  a kid from her English class is head-over-heels (but let’s just call him the “Mr. Collins” of this book),  and she gets her first kiss (non-romantic) from the hottie-next-door (dad’s neighbor) on her upsetting 16th birthday.  There was also a  sonnet left on the tree between her and Ashleigh’s house.  She thinks the poem is by Parr but doesn’t know if it was written for her or Ash.  Later that month, Parr is at “the tree” in the middle of a snowy night. Julie invites him up so he doesn’t freeze to death.  It was pretty innocent encounter: no kissing, fully clothed, some cuddles. He writes her a quick little poem before he leaves in the morning– same handwriting as the sonnet. (Confirmed identity, FTW!)

The play is successful, and Parr gives Julie flowers on closing night (and Ned gives flowers to Ash). Ashleigh panics  because Ned kissed her and she really likes him, but thought (despite Julie’s protests) that she would ruin Julie’s chances with him. Everyone’s conscience is cleared to like and date whomever they choose, and Julie and Parr finally start dating.

Bookworm’s Commentary: 

I listened to Enthusiasm on a long drive. I loved it. But I realized that I needed to look at the book, because there are some really cool things that Shulman wrote that need to be read vs heard. (I do recommend the audio book, the narrator was fantastic.)

I kept thinking to myself in the car, this is done right.  I know, I bash on Twilight more than this blog is meant to do, but the biggest thing I dislike about Twilight is that she compares the saga to great literature INCLUDING P&P, Romeo and Juliet, and Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, Enthusiasm covered all of the books that the saga tries to be (except Wuthering Heights).  I already commented in my original Twilight post that it’s not worthy of Austen.  We’ll comment on R&J in a few.

In my humble opinion, What Enthusiasm Did Right: 

  • Enthusiasm starts off with a line that makes all Austen lovers go, “Oh, another Austen-esque book.” Yes, BUT it’s not directly aligned with P&P.  In fact, despite its obvious love for P&P, it is actually more like Emma. Shulman also includes great references and  intelligent connections to other books, which aren’t “hit you over the head, learn some lit” type of thing. 
  • She backs up her characterization with actions, not with redundant adjectives. When you say, “Ned is a talented musician,” he writes music. When you say, “Parr is a romantic poet,” sonnets end up hanging on trees. There was no random adjective of anything that wasn’t useful to the plot. 
  • Julie is a bookworm, so she has lots of great conversations about English class. She’s not a quiet snob about her literature, except when she fears Ash or her teacher may ruin it for her.   
    • I loved their cynicism about how Romeo and Juliet were dumb teenagers! Yolanda points out, “Romeo’s already in love before he meets Juliet–with that Rosalind person, who’s her cousin– mega-ig. Then he sees Juliet and he’s all, ‘let me kiss your hand, I really mean it this time, you know I do ’cause I’m telling you in a sonnet.’ And Juliet’s not even fourteen yet. He’s going to kill himself over an eighth grader? Yeah right.”  (I may have gone off the road to laugh.) 
  • Romeo and Juliet speaking in a sonnet = love? Parr and Julie actually do have their first conversation in sonnet form. The sonnet on the tree was also an acrostic of Julie’s name. I love that Shulman actually makes use of literary devices!  It makes me feel reassured that when Julie claims to do well in English, the author doesn’t make you second-guess it.
  • This is TOTALLY high school.  This seems like a similar experience to what I had, which may have been on the innocent side, but still.  Sure, Parr is way too perfect, but it’s definitely accurate about the high school drama of BFF liking your man, daddy issues, etc. 
  • I’d also like to say: The perfect guy doesn’t just climb into your bedroom like he belongs there, HE GETS AN INVITATION.  (Which, don’t vampires need an invite anyway?) 
Class Stuff:
Grades: 7 & up 
I originally saw this when I was working in a seventh grade reading class.
Grade: A-  I enjoyed it a lot. This is definitely a light read. I loved the characters and related to the innocent drama. Yes, it’s predictable, but it’s smart in a subtle way. (I don’t think your average reader would get the connections to Midsummer, I’ve just been in that play three separate times.  The other references are thrown in as banter.) Cute little love story, great story about friendship. It’s done right.

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Filed under High school, Middle school (6-8), Realistic, Romance

Claudia and the Perfect Boy, Ann M. Martin (Suzanne Weyn)

Synopsis: Claudia is totally jealous of the fact that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but practically everyone in the BSC does.  Stacy and Claud find the personals section of a magazine, and she realizes that would be fantastic for the school newspaper.  She is put in charge of the new article.

Ads come pouring in, and Claudia learns how to use spell check,  and literally gets to cut and paste a few ads.  There was a cut-and-paste disaster for Mary Anne (who sent Logan a secret message in the personals, but she ended up getting mixed up with a girl who was trying to ditch her dud boyfriend. When they find this mistake, Claudia goes back to make sure she didn’t screw anyone else’s ad up. She realizes that she’s finding descriptions that complement each other. She ends up being a matchmaker.  However, she keeps missing her own love connection.  She goes on a few dates, which turn out to be duds. Why can’t she find the perfect guy who is cute, a few muscles, artsy, into fashion, athletic, extremely funny, sensitive, a good listener (but also a good talker)?

In babysitting news: the Barretts have to get rid of their dog because the baby is allergic.  The Pikes are happy to get a pet.

Bookworm’s Commentary:
I do remember this from when I was younger.  I remembered the whole Mary Anne personals debacle.

  • So, hilarity:  Claudia is learning to use the computer and the amazing tool SPELL CHECK. This just made me happy that the book is that dated.  What? Before 1994 we had to actually use the dictionary?
  • I was going to make a snide remark about her qualifications for her “perfect guy” (doesn’t exist, if he did he wouldn’t be playing on that team), but I realized my husband’s college roommates kind of fit that description. So, Claudia, if you get out of middle school in time, meet me in 2002. I may have two or three candidates.  Or, ya know, go to art camp. That may help you a bit.
  • What Claudia Wore in this book (dang, I’ve missed you, Kim H.  Glad you’re back!):
    • I also experiment with the way colors look and I combine them in ways that please me. (You’d be amazed by the colors that go together. Take pink and gold. You might not think to wear pink socks would go with gold stretch pants,  and then add a gold turtleneck under a pink sweater. But that’s just what I did yesterday, and I added blue jewelry. It was great! I looked like a human sunset. The outfit made me very happy.)
      • I actually remembered this outfit from before, probably because I was skeptical. But ya know, everything she wore looked great, etc.
    • Getting Ready for the Date, Exchange:
      “You’re not going to wear those, are you?” Kristy asked as I slipped into my new brown suede cloth pants.
      “Why not?” I thought they were the best thing I owned.
      “I don’t know,” said Kristy. “They just don’t seem right for a first date.”  I was not about the take fashion advice from Kristy, of all people.  (LOL!)
      so, sorry for this boring description, but it’s all I’ve got: lots of silver jewelry, yellow button-down shirt, brown-and-yellow brocade vest.
Class stuff: 
Grades: ya know, upper elementary, whatever.
Grade: B  Quick brainless read for me. Do personal ads exist anymore? I mean, yeah I know, dating sites, Craigslist, but I don’t know if kids today would be able to relate.  She just learned Spell Check exists.  Pretty funny. Good middle school stuff.

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