Adolescent LitBlog 7

Boy, what a beginning of a discussion on Alexie's Absolutely True Diary we had today in class. Among the topics I'm sure will come up again this coming Wednesday and next Monday is how to use this book in a secondary classroom. There is the issue of langauge and content, what one student described as graphic (not overly-so; though just enough), that are likely to keep this title from an all class read in public schools across the country. In spite of these issues, we agreed that it's a worthwhile title to introduce students to, but how? is the question. Any ideas?


Adolescent LitBlog 6

Freeman, Yvonne and David Freeman. "Connecting Students to Culturally Relevant Texts." Talking Points 15.2 (April/May 2004): 7-12.
Among other of the Freemans' ideas like culture being more than one's enthicity, the following struck me especially: "Readers like Francisco can more easily construct meaning from a text that contains familiar elements because their background knowledge helps them make predictions and inferences about the story" (7). Especially helpful is I'm not pigeon-holing culture; that is, insisting that culture is nothing more than just his/her race and or ethnicity. One's faith, for example, makes up part of his culture. His politics. His geographic locale. Where he grew up, around whom versus where he lives now, and with whom he interacts. So many more criteria go into who a person is well beyond who he is in the context of his ethnic/racial group. But to get back to the Freemans' very valid assertion: it's these familiar elements that make for engagement with a text. So a kid who grows up loving to play football will be more inclined to read stories (fiction and nonfiction) and poetry that has to do with football and less interested in an awesome book like Hattie Big Sky that has nothing absolutely to do with football but with a girl taking charge of her life by trying to handle her now-deceased uncle's several hundred acre stake in Montana. Someone, though, who grows up in a more rural area, guy or girl I'd argue, would better appreciate Larson's novel because of the man-handling of the land. You see how that would work. Find out what is a child's culture, introduce him/her to stories that respectfully and accurately represent that aspect of a child's life, and you're more likely to help that kid on the path toward true literacy.


Adolescent LitBlog 5

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. NY: Little, Brown, 2007.

This'll be my second go-through this novel, and I can't believe how much I'm seeing this time than I did the first. I'm referring specifically to all the religious and mythological allusions: the wacky eyesight (one near-sighted eye and the other far) brings to mind Tireseus and other like prophets (weirdo vision is what I mean: blind prophets, heads turned backward prophets, etc. that allow for a different sort of vision from your regulrar, run-of-the-mill prophets, you know); from the Bible, Christ's statement about prophets not appreciated by their communities; and also from the Bible, Christ's talking to Nicodemus concerning begin born-again, and Nicodemus wondering, incredulously, that he could return a second time into his mother's womb. I don't know that Alexie (like most other writers) does all this on purpose, but because these folks are so well-read, learned, they're able to throw it subconciously into the mix, which makes for a richer and fuller story experience. (pp. 1-53).

Book Talk on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Sherman Alexie, better known for his fiction and poetry for adults, ventures into the young adult market with his latest novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, in which he explores identity as it works itself out in the life of Junior, who considers himself “a zero on the rez,” and whose best friend, Oscar, is a mixed breed dog that one day gets so ill that he’s got to be “taken care of,” an all too common euphemism for “shot dead to alleviate his suffering.” His home life is no better: his parents are poor, too poor to have a right to even think they ever had a choice to choose otherwise. His “best human friend” is named Rowdy, whose drunken father beats on him so badly and so regularly that he’s taken to calling his bruises “war paint.” Junior has long looked forward to getting into high school, and when that day comes, he is utterly disappointed: he sees that his Geometry textbook used to “belong” to his mom, some thirty years prior. Angry at the afront, he chucks the book in the general direction of the front of the classroom and hits his white teacher, Mr. P, on the nose. Junior is summarily suspended. He is a “big, goofy dreamer,” though, in spite of it all, so he decides to take Mr. P’s kind advice after the book incident—Junior will follow after hope, but to do so he has to leave the reservation to attend high school in Reardan, a small hick, racist town some 22 miles off the reservation, but a great school, never the less. This decision causes a rift between Junior and Rowdy; and to make matters worse, he begins to feel “like two different people inside of one body.” At Reardan High he finally knows what it means to feel Indian; on the rez, because of his seemingly traitorous act, he feels white. While some on the reservation call him a warrior for stepping foot off the safety of their land, others shun him, Rowdy included, physically going after him during a basket ball game between Junior’s new team and his old. The book is about the self divided, but how this sort of dichotomous existence doesn’t have to mean a negative one. As soon as this title appeared, it caused some excitement, and a couple months back it won the National Book Award for Young People. Surprisingly, though, it was passed over for the ALA's Printz Award, not even getting an Honors nod. How disappointing a decision on that committee's part. This book is gads better than anything on the Printz list this year.

Reading Life 21

Terry Trueman's done it again, but in the unlikeliest of ways: absent in Hurricane is the gritty darkness of his other books. In his latest novel (originally published in the UK back in 2003), Trueman once more introduces us to strong characters and an uplifting tale that is set in Honduras right smack dab in the middle of Hurricane Mitch (1998), which obliterates Jose's small, rural town. Jose is forced into the position of "man of the house," as his father and older brother, Victor (along with their sister) have left on business right before the storm strikes. When the boy steps out of his home on the morning after to survey the storm's damage, he sees and hears complete and utter destruction. A mudslide and category 5 winds have torn apart his pueblo, leaving standing only his family's house and a lean-to on the town's edge belonging to a family recently moved in. Jose considers the several meanings of pueblo: the nation (as in the people), the town proper (that is, the place called thus and such), and the folks themselves (who make up the town and the nation, much more close-knit, in one anothers' lives daily, those in whom we place our trust); Jose concludes that a hurricane, even one that kills off a huge portion of the townspeople cannot destroy the heart of the people, el pueblo. Some, undoubtedly, will argue that the story suffers from a Hollywood ending, that so much suffering concentrated on such a small area must affect even Jose's family directly, that at least one member of his family has to die as a result of the hurricane. (You'll be happy to know that even their dog survives.) Well, I'm glad for a happy ending like this; we've gotten, recently, inudated with just the opposite kinds of stories with dark and dreary endings, nothing uplifting, nothing to look forward to, it seems (realism, some will say, though I'd argue that even these more realistic tales are never the less made-up tales which serve as escapism; it is all fiction). I say it's time to make room for these happy ending sorts of stories; because in real life, we experience joy in addition to sadness.


Children's LitBlog 1

Wong, Janet S. Apple Pie 4th of July. Illus. Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Orlando FL: Voyager Books/Harcourt, Inc., 2002.
Our young narrator doesn't understand exactly why her family is keeping their store open on the 4th of July while everyone else in the neighborhood attends the Independence day parade taking place just down the street, so close in fact that the unnamed girl can see and hear it from the front door to the family business. And when she smells apple pie wafting from an upstairs neighbor's, the chow mein and sweet-and-sour pork smells coming from their kitchen seems just that much more out of place, and she becomes ever-more-so frustrated because according to her, "No one wants Chinese food / on the Fourth of July" (5). Never mind that folks do drop in throughout the day: they are not there for the food, she reasons, but for "soda and potato chips" (9) and other items for their own celebrations. All the while, she and her family are missing out on the parade! And having to eat the food that no one came in to buy. She dismisses her parents' steadfastedness because they are not American: her parents were not born in the States and so it makes sense then that "they do not understand all American things" (14). But oh, the lessons she'll learn by night's end. Perhaps what I find most appealing about this picture book is how the illustrations by Chodos-Irvine so perfectly mesh with Wong's text from beginning to end. The girl's frustration is so very obvious in the opening illustration. She just doesn't understand why day in day out her family just cannot blend with American customs and celebrations, instead choosing to stay open for business except on Christmas. Her look softens toward the end; as a matter of fact, she must have learned her lesson (that sometimes we have to think of others rather than ourselves) because even though we see she is present, she disappears into the background: we see her hand turning the sign on the door to Closed and later into the shadows on the rooftop with so many other folks.

Wong, Janet S. Buzz. Illus. Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Orlando FL: Voyager Books/Harcourt, Inc., 2000.
Buzz I love because it is so very playful (did you catch the color of the mother's socks there at the end and the visual and textual circle we travel as a result?) and for how both poet and illustrator teach us that there is art in the common, the every day. Furthermore, can you see, as future teachers (and parents and older siblings or aunts and uncles) the myriad ways we can use this book to teach a ton of stuff to our kids in and outside of class. Don't be fooled into thinking this is an overly-simple book. It is deep, the kind of deep I don't mind getting into way over my head. I love it!

Tunnell, Michael O. and James S. Jacobs. Children's Literature, Briefly. 4e. Upper Sadle River NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, 2008.
Most impressive about tonight's reading, I feel, is the distinction the authors make between unengaged and engaged reading, classifying the former as "the reading of necessity," the latter as personal motivation (4). In my own experiences as a reader, I want to recall that as a child I loved to read, in and outside of class; I was benefiting in so many ways, especially in my language literacy growth; but man, I was also having so much fun: See Pug Ren, Wet Albert, and other titles. Reading became a chore when my teachers failed to marry necessity and enjoyment. Instead, I got the impression that, in terms of reading, the fun was over. And now, having read a ton of literacy theory and conducted some informal research on my own, I can see clearly what Tunnell and Jacobs mean when they speak to the differences between being an engaged reader and an unengaged one. If we, as teachers, encourage this sort of engagement in our own students.


Adolescent LitBlog 4

Soto, Gary. Canto Familiar: A Poetry Collection. Orlando FL: Harcourt, 1995.

With Soto's works, for me anyway, it's an on-again-off-again affair. One book I'll absolutely love, the next I'll despise. When I come across one I don't much care for, I think, Man, this guy is over-rated. He's among the first Mexican American writers teachers brought into the classroom, and so this is why he's publishing even this drivel. But then I come across a book like Canto Familiar, and I'm floored by its beauty and its power. This is a book of poetry! I love the seeming simplicity of the poems. Not a one reads like it's very deep and inaccessible, like a ton of poems I was exposed to (a better word: over-exposed) as a middle and high schooler. Had I been made aware of this sort of writing when I was younger, then perhaps I would've enjoyed the form some, at a quicker pace. I would've understood, perhaps, the power of my world expressed through poetry, because this is the very lesson Soto is teaching us in this book: that we are allowed to write about the everyday, the silliness of today in my life, the heartbreak but in terms I can grasp or wrap my brain around. For example, in the poem titled "Music for Fun and Profit," a boy makes instruments of the most common of house-hold objects: "an oatmeal box," "a comb and waxpaper," "a coat hanger," and other various and sundry things. It is a fun and funny poem, but the theme runs deep; the poem's about family dynamics: kids getting on parents' nerves, kids discovering one way after another to get on their parents nerves, and more importantly, how to manipulate this newly-uncovered information to their benefit. It doesn't have to speak in dark and dreadful language; it doesn't have to be about death and blackness and bleakness. But about the everyday, the common, the me. So thanks to Soto for that. And just get a load of the magical language and imagery in this collection!

Other books of Soto's worth picking up: Mercy on these Teenage Chimps (read note below), A Fire in My Hands, Baseball in April: Stories. Ones to avoid: Poetry Lover, The Skirt.

Adolescent LitBlog 3

English, Cathie. "Finding a Voice in a Threaded Discussion Group: Talking about Literature Online." English Journal 97.1 (Sept 2007): 56-61.

I very much appreciate English's suggestion that any sort of online discussion is an extension of the in-class discussion (57 and 58), a forum that serves the majority of our students, with a few exceptions (those who do not want to participate period will not do so in class nor in any other venue we offer up, but as educators we must provide as many opportunities to our students to succeed; we never know which format will work for this student or that one; and if these ways don't work, well, we tried, and sometimes that's all we can do). But in a class there will be those quiet students who hardly ever will throw out an answer, or a well-developed one, or another student will interrupt, or an unscheduled announcement from the principal will break the flow. Quiet doesn't necessarily mean unintelligent; it doesn't necessarily mean genius either, but how would we know unless we have the chance to assess a kid's understanding? Because of the confidence due to this format's near anonimity (that is, the threat or anxiety that comes with the face-to-face or very public participation allows for the near-invisibility) a student is more likely to take a risk, it allows for students to "really flesh out their ideas" (Douglas, qtd. in article), and requires "students to reflect a little more and not just give a spur-of-the-moment response" (59).

I wonder what other ways (technology-based or otherwise) can we come up with to encourage the sort of particpation that English and we teachers dream of for our students? Any suggestions?

Reading Life 20

Mercy on these Teenage Chimps by Gary Soto

Gary Soto hits another out of the ballpark with this hilarious novel about boys growing up, finding love, and building up their friendship. Ronnie and Joey, best friends and recently turned 13, have devolved into U-G-L-Y, ugly! They look in the mirror and their noses are flatter than they were before, their ears a huge, they love to climb trees, and they eat bananas any and every chance they get. Ronnie can down a banana in three bites, even. So it makes sense for them to think they've turned into chimpanzees--not monkeys, you understand, because monkeys have tails and Ronnie and Joey don't, so chimps it has to be.

Oh, like boys will, they find trouble around every corner, and when Joey climbs the rafters of the gym to retrieve a balloon for a girl he's taken a liking to, the coach embarrasses the fire out of him in front of everyone attending the sports banquet, which means, for a chimp, that he will climb a tree in his front yard and hide. He's got it easy up there, though, with his IPod, a small tv set, a bowl of fruit, and inflatable mattress, and so many more ameneties; the only thing missing, just about, is the kitchen sink. Ronnie is on a quest, then: and how funny the messes he finds himself in.

This is the best Soto's written in a while; I'd argue it's his best and funniest ever! A must read, and a great title to add to your Soto reading unit; might even be good enough to replace Baseball in April. Maybe.


Life 4

My brother read the blog and he wanted me to add that his best 10K time is 41:06. He does very well in his particular age group, and I bet one of these days he'll actually come close to catching up to the lead pack. Maybe. Love you, Bro.

More ALA Awards Announced! More of My Two-Cents

This year marks the first for ALA to hand out the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production. And the prize goes to Jazz (by father-son team, Walter Dean and Christopher Myers), the audio part of which is produced by Arnie Cardillo; the audio product is described on Live Oak Media's website: "original music was composed for each poem and performed by a live jazz ensemble, while two outstanding jazz vocalists alternate with narration and song." Booklist Magazine is sponsoring the award.

This is a very exciting award because it is helping to redefine "literacy." It used to be easy, right? Words in books and the ability to decode them, to make meaning out of them. But with this award, this other kind of "reading" is validated. Several months ago, I was instant messaging with my brother, Eddy, and we were discussing what all we were reading. In my mind, before I knew how my brother was reading, I knew we were having one of the best talks on literature ever. I forget the details of the talk (what books, what topics, etc. and I know I can always check the history of an IM, but man, I'm so lazy), but it was deeper than he and I had ever gone before in terms of this kind of discussion. I mean, for a numbers guy, the kid was really impressing me. Me, a PhD in Literature, right? Come to find out, every time he said, "I'm reading this title or that," or "When I finished reading this or that title," or any number of other phrases in which he used the word "read" and its variations, he meant he was listening to the book in downloadable MP3 format. My baby brother is constantly training for 10Ks and so when he's out at night running, he's listening (read "reading") to books, and our talks about these books didn't suffer as a result. Had I not known he was listening to them and had he been a student in one of my lit classes, I would've given him all As, and not just because he's my brother and I love him, but because he knew what he was talking about.

Sure, some folks might argue that it's shortcut reading, much like watching the film version, but rare is the time that in film that you reproduce the book entire, without one blemish, without once straying, or having to make allowances for creative freedoms on the part of the screenwriter and or director and or editor and or actor(s). When you've got the audio version of the book, you've got, usually, some 7 hours worth of book, unabridged. And the only allowance you have to make for creative freedom is who's going to read it and how. Actors interpreting a writer's words, but they're the same exact words. And if a kid's having a hard time reading through a book on his own but he wants to do it, why not supplement the event with the voiced version? Why not, if a kid's a voracious reader, let her listen to yet another book (read "read") while in the car going back and forth to school or to the mall or on a long trip? It can't be the only thing a student "reads" (read "listens to") for class. He actually has to read read and show not just proficiency but improvement. But this format just might be what he needs to get on the ball.

Adolescent LitBlog 2

Wong, Janet S. Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving. NY: McElderry Books, 1999.

What I enjoy about Wong's poetry is that she plays with voices. I have to be careful or I'll miss it and miss the point of the poem. In "Plain and Simple," for example, the poet asks, "…would you know who I am?" after describing the car she drives: a "…rusting Civic, bland / nothing much to shout about--." Immediately following is the car's response: it may not be the Land Rover, the Avanti, nor the Citroen the poet dreams after, but it is a car to be counted on. If I read without paying mind, I'll think the poem stinks because it just doesn't make sense. Something else I appreciate is that much of the poetry is in free verse*. In the next poem, "Prisoner," Wong relies on sound and rhythm rather than rhyme or other more traditional poetic devices. There is a quickness in the repetition of the phrase "and you don't know" that mimics the mother's confusion and anxiety. In "Restraint," Wong is not writing from her vantage point but from that of a student who spent the day at a writing workshop with the poet who "…came / to visit our school / to make us write some poetry." The rest of the poem describes how this student is awed by a peer's use of imagery: parents as seatbelts, always wrapped around the kid, but perhaps there for safety's sake: and all the persona can come up with is parents as airbags, waiting for trouble to hit, and then they strike out, "in your face." There is a hidden depth to many of these poems. We just have to look for the treasures.
*Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (1994) argues that free verse "is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn't fee from some kind of design" (67).

ALA Awards Announced! and My Two-Cents

The Newbery Medal goes to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Meieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick), while honors are given too Christopher Paul Curtis's Elijah of Buxton, Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, and Jacqueline Woodson's Feathers. A surprise indeed that Schmidt didn't take the medal or Curtis since much talk on different blogs and boards have mentioned them over and over. No one had mentioned the Schlitz work. Never the less, congrats to these writers.

The Printz Award this year goes to The White Darkness (HarperTempest) by Geraldine McCaughrean (while I thought Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was a shoe-in; just goes to show how little I know). Honors were doled out to Dreamquake: Book Two fo the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox, One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke, Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins, and Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath. Again, kudos to these authors.

The Caldecott Medal was awarded to Brian Selznick for his massive book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a pleasant surprise because one normally thinks this award will be given to a more traditional picture book (that is, a 32-pager, large format; while Selznick's is a book, looking more like a thick novel), encouraging like last year's Printz award given to Yang for his graphic novel American Born Chinese, forcing teachers and librarians to rethink the novel, and now the picture book). Honors were given to Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (Kadir Nelson, illustrator), First the Egg (Laura Vaccaro Seeger, illustrator and author), The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (Peter Sis, illustrator and author), and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity (Mo Willems, illustrator and author). Disappointing is that Christopher Myers didn't get the nod for his wonderful and magical Jabberwocky: The Classic Poem from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There: Reimagined and Illustrated by…."

The Belpré Award, sadly, was not given to me! Boo hoo boo hoo. Bring out the violins. For illustration, the prize went to Yuyi Morales for Los Gatos Black on Halloween (though I think her own Little Night goes to show her worth as author and illustrator and is more deserving of this particular honor, though I guess it can't get the recognition because it isn't particularly Latino in nature). Margarita Engle received the prize for author for her The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. This would be the only title on the list that isn't a picture book, per se. Which seems odd to me (and might seem like sour grapes to you) because it was a good year for novels by and about Latinoa/as: Gary Soto wrote a hilarious novel, Mercy on These Teenage Chimps; Malin Alegria penned Sofi Mendoza's Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico; then there's La Linea by Ann Jaramillo; and (here're the sour grapes) my own The Whole Sky Full of Stars; plus several more, I'm sure.


Adolescent LitBlog 1

Crowe, Chris. "Young Adult Literature: Rescuing Reluctant Readers." English Journal 88.5 (May 1995): 113-16.
In speaking of his son, Jonathan (a self-described "reluctant reader," Chris Crowe writes, "…I know that, unfortunately, he's not all that unusual.…" (114). That is, Jonathan, who is very intelligent and academically successful in all his classes, classifies himself among those who stereotypically are not so educationally adept, it makes sense that those "others," the not-so-smarts, wouldn't like to read. They come from this background or another, they are unfortunates for one cause or this other one. But not the smarties, right? They will love to read because they know how to read. And please, this Jonathan kid, he's Chris Crowe's son, for goodness' sake. Of all kids in his class, his whole school for that matter, Jonathan will love to read. But such is not the case. What does this say, then, about our methodology when it comes to exposing our kids to literature? But how rich an article is Crowe's: Jonathan gives us these awesome bits of advice that all teachers should keep in mind when assigning a book to read, among them number 10: "Don't decide what students have to read. Let them choose for themselves" (115).

Crowe, Chris. "Young Adult Literature: Dear Teachers: Please Help My Kids Become Readers." English Journal 89.1 (Sept. 1999): 139-42.

I love that Crowe encourages us "to work consciously to help my become readers" (139, italics mine). In other words, if our students are to fall truly head over heels in love with reading, we teachers cannot leave anything to chance. On the surface of our class, everything must appear seamless, smooth; I must never let my students see me sweat; beneath the surface, though, we must invest our blood, sweat, and tears so that our students get the impression that everything is cool with me, with the class, with the reading, and therefore with their reading in class and out. Now, this doesn't mean I over-plan; that will come through, and the kids will smell it on me if I do. But I can't rely on some kind of magic dust that will transform my alliterates, non-, and reluctant readers into honest-to-goodness readers in love with the act of reading. Oh, would that this dust existed, but it doesn't. Instead, we work at getting it done, day in, day out, year after year. It's that easy. It's that hard.


Reading Life 19

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

To be honest , I must admit upfront (to my shame) that I've had my copy of this book some 5 years, just sitting there on my shelf, first in my office in South Texas where I taught, and then in my office at Texas Tech University. I'd never felt compelled to read it, and yet, a couple of days ago for some reason I picked it up and haven't been able to put it down until now when I finished it. Come to find out, the book's part of one thread on a list I'm on: a principal in Texas didn't want her middle-schoolers to read the book because of stuff she'd read about it. Fortunately, she is a thinking principal (in my estimation), one of those worth their weight in platinum and gold and other various and sundry precious metals. Instead of relying on hearsay, she relied on the book itself, what Kevin (Freak) calls "a four-letter word for truth serum." Libraries are places "where they keep the truth serum, and the magic carpets." And in reading this book, both this principal and I have gotten our shot of truth. It's a wonderful book, and this administrator has realized it. So her students will be able to read it, from what I can tell in the postings. Thanks to her, thanks to the educator at the school who stood up for the book, for the truths in the book, for the characters, Maxwell, the freakishly gigantic boy, and Kevin, the boy born with a defect that keeps him small on the outside while his insides grown normally. These two are the unlikeliest of friends, but they bond, almost literally. Kevin rides high on Max's shoulders, and they become Freak the Mighty, knights of the old order out to hunt and slay dragons, to aide damsels in distress, and to go on one quest after another. I won't say more about the storyline. I'll say this, though: it was my mistake for not having read it a long time ago.