Friday, September 30, 2011

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Mildred D. Taylor

Summary:  With the land to hold them together, nothing can tear the Logans apart.  Why is the land so important to Cassie's family?  It takes the events of one turbulent year -- the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black -- to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family's lifeblood.  It is the land that gives the Logan's their courage and pride -- no matter how others may degrade them, the Logan's possess something no one can take away.  ( Summary from book - Image from childrensbooks.wikia.com )

My Review:  Mildred Taylor’s novels are based on stories her father and other relatives told her.  She says, "My stories will not be 'politically correct,' so there will be those who will be offened by them, but as we all know racism is offensive.  It is not polite, and it is full of pain."  Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in 1977.  It was also named the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year and an ALA Notable Book.  

Since the novel’s publication in 1976, it has been the subject of numerous ban attempts.  In 2004, a family wanted it pulled from the classroom because of its “harsh depictions of racism and its use of racial slurs.”  You can read more of the story here.  While this book does contain somewhat “harsh depictions of racism and use of racial slurs,” I feel that the potential for increased understanding, empathy, and growth far outweighs the words and situations used to convey this story.    

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is set in Mississippi during the 1930s.  For those who perhaps aren’t history minded, this is the middle of the Depression, after the abolition of slavery but before the major push of the Civil Rights movement.  At the time, many black families scratched out a living through sharecropping.  They were forced to endure appalling racism on land that was not their own and left at the mercy of the rich, white land owners.

Cassie Logan and her family live on their own land -- an almost unheard of occurrence for the times -- in a county rife with racial tension.  Cassie and her siblings are forced to walk to a black school each morning, when white children are allowed to take the bus.  They notice when they are given text books only when they are no longer deemed suitable for white students, and they worry that the  “night riders” will strike again.  

While Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry clearly raises the issue of racism, it does so without going into more detail than a child could reasonably understand.   It is told from the perspective of a young girl named Cassie, who struggles to understand the cruelty and injustice of the world around her.  In spite of daily reminders of her “place,”  Cassie is still idealistic, though indignant, and unwilling to submit to the idea that she is a second-class citizen.   I loved several of the characters in this book (Mr. Morrison, Little Man, and even T.J. … a little bit).  Their experiences were engaging, with tremendous teaching potential and plenty of room for discussion. 
One of my favorite quotes from the book (some advice Cassie received from her father) highlights the importance of standing up for what is right and respecting yourself:  “There’ll be a whole lot of things you ain’t gonna wanna do but you’ll have to do in this life just so you can survive… . But there are other things…things you can’t back down on, things you gotta take a stand on.  But it’s up to you to decide what them things are.  You have to demand respect in this world, ain’t nobody just gonna hand it to you.  How you carry yourself, what you stand for – that’s how you gain respect.  But…ain’t nobody’s respect worth more than your own.” 

You just can’t argue with a message like that, though it seems some people will try.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Repeated use of the "N" word, though historically accurate and necessary within the context of the story.  Some violence towards the end, but not overly graphic.

Sum it up:  A wonderful read on the importance of equality and for standing up for what is right, regardless of the cost.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Night Kitchen - Maurice Sendak

Summary: A young boy named Mickey sleeps in his bed when he is disturbed by noise on a lower floor. Suddenly, he begins to float, and all of his clothes disappear as he drifts into a surreal world called the "Night Kitchen".

He falls naked into a giant mixing pot that contains the batter for the morning cake. While Mickey is buried in the mass, three identical bakers (who most likely resemble Oliver Hardy) mix the batter and prepare it for baking, unaware (or unconcerned) that there is a boy inside. Halfway through the baking process, the boy emerges from the oven, protesting that he is not the batter's milk.

To make up for the baking ingredient deficiency, Mickey (now wearing a bodysuit of batter from the neck down) constructs an airplane out of bread dough so he can fly to the mouth of a gigantic milk bottle. Upon reaching the bottle's opening, he dives in and briefly revels in the liquid. As his covering of batter disintegrates, he pours the needed milk in a cascade down to the bakers who joyfully finish making the morning cake.

Naked again, and with the dawn breaking, Mickey crows like a rooster and slides down the bottle to magically return to his bed. Everything is back to normal, beyond the happy memory of his experience. Summary and photo from Wikipedia.

My Review: I admit, my first thought after reading this book was, "That was the weirdest childrens' book I have ever read. Perhaps the dumbest." Because I'm a big fan of Where the Wild Things Are, I was disappointed in this award-winning (?!) book. 

Let's start with why it was banned in the first place and then touch on some positives. Like the summary states, Mickey is nude in most of the book, and Sendak didn't make an effort to encourage modesty. His genitalia looks like an extra finger, to be honest. Not a lot detail there. As I was reading this book to my young girls, ages 2 1/2 and 4, I expected them to point and ask questions, but they did neither. They were more interested in the fact that he was covered (sometimes) in cake batter and flying around in an airplane made of bread dough.

There were a couple of things about the book that I found delightful, including his cake batter suit and the "city" skyline behind him made from pantry items. That's about it. The story itself, as well as the illustrations, are very whimsical, which is expected in a book about a child's dream. However, I found it to be a little too whimsical, bordering bizarre, and wondered if Mr. Sendak was under the influence during its creation. The text was often strange, "I'm in the milk and the milk's in me. God Bless Milk and God Bless Me!" Huh? The three bakers also had identical faces (creepy). After a couple times through the book I wondered if Mr Sendak was alluding to political or societal issues in this book, but I couldn't figure out what it was.

And from the perspective of a mother who tries to encourage healthy eating in her house, I really don't like the whole point of the book -- making cake for breakfast every day. If my kids were to read this book often, I wouldn't be worried about them being influenced Mickey's anatomy, but from his eating habits. 

My Rating: 2 stars

Sum It Up: A little too whimsical and bizarre for my taste. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes - Chris Crutcher

Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes has been challenged in several states for it's language, "pornographic and sexual content" and negative portrayal of Christians.  While the book does have a fair amount of profanity, its "pornographic and sexual content" was hardly worth mentioning, and its "negative portrayal of Christianity" had a purpose that becomes evident as the book progresses.

Summary:  Sarah Byrnes and Eric have been friends for years.  When they were children, his fat and her terrible scars made them both outcasts. Later, although swimming slimmed Eric, she stayed his closest friend.

Now Sarah Byrnes -- the smartest, toughest person that Eric has ever known -- sits silent in a hospital.  Eric must uncover the terrible secret she's hiding before it's dark current pull us both under.  (Summary from book - Image from http://www.chriscrutcher.com/)

My Review:  Many banned children’s and young adult books have one thing in common; they have the potential to influence children to think for themselves, to make difficult choices, to question authority and even, occasionally, to stand up to it.  Add that to some profanity and a few minor sexual comments that are found in this book and I can see how certain people would get very upset. 

From my perspective, this complicated issue is very simple.  This world can be wonderful, but it can also be cruel and complicated.   At some point our children are going to have to come to terms with reality.  Every book can’t end happily ever after and they can’t all be sugar coated.  If they were, we certainly wouldn’t learn anything from them.  Part of our job as parents is to teach our children to think for themselves, rather than be swayed by popular opinion.  Yes, we want to protect our children.  Yes, we want them to stay sweet and innocent, but I would rather have my children discover and question their beliefs when I am there to guide them.  I would rather read this book and talk about it with them, than have them pretend that bad things don’t exist.  

There is a lot to love about Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  It has received several awards, most notably the American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults.  I instantly related to Eric's insecurities and Sarah Byrne's tough facade, and I think that many young adults might see something of themselves tucked away inside these characters, their complicated lives, and their relationship.  Eric's concern for Sarah Byrnes's well being and his dedication to her was inspiring.  As the story progressed, it was far more suspenseful than I expected and taught a strong moral lesson about friendship, compassion, and the power of family.    

I adored Eric’s Contemporary American Thought class.  The teacher, Ms. Lemry, did her best to encourage honest and rational discussion about relevant and controversial issues (e.g. abortion, suicide, and religion).   It forced me to examine my own beliefs and defend them, at least inwardly.  It would be an excellent choice for book club, as long as your book club is capable of discussing hot-button issues without throwing things.  Do I agree with every argument presented in the class?  Heck no!  But I do wish we had more conversations like that going on, and more people who are willing to examine both sides an argument and engage in thoughtful, respectful discussion about the issues that society finds most troubling.

I think that one of the most controversial aspects of this book was its initial representation and vilification of Christianity.  One of the characters, Mark, is an evangelical Christian, but not an accurate representation of what Christianity purports to be.  The majority of the book makes him look like a judgmental, hypocritical jerk, and a more compassionate representation of Christian beliefs doesn’t really enter the picture until much later in the story.

While plenty of books on the YA shelves are meaningless drivel, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not one of them.  It is a powerfully riveting and emotional story that grabs hold and it doesn’t let go. 

Sidenote: Here is an excerpt from a letter the author wrote to a school district that was contemplating banning his book:
I'm not a person who believes all books are worthwhile. There are lots of books I wouldn't recommend. But I'm only smart enough to choose for myself, not for everyone. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, one of the tough things about standing up against censorship is some of the (crap) you have to stand up for. (And yes, I edited myself - or Mr. Vonnegut - in deference to the complainant.) But I have been an educator and I have been a therapist for families in particularly tough circumstances and the characters and situations in this book come from real places. When we ban books about kids who feel marginalized and diminished, we ban the kids themselves. We say, "Your life is not worth examining, not worth being brought into the light. You don't matter." I would want to think long and hard before allowing my school to be perceived in that way.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars 

For the sensitive reader:  A fair amount of profanity, some mild sexual comments, and discussion of controversial issues.

Sum it up:  Much better, and much more, than I expected.  An important and relevant read.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Earth, My Butt, and other Big Round Things - Carolyn Mackler

Summary:  Virginia Shreves has a larger-than-average body and a plus-size inferiority complex.  She lives on the Web, snarfs junk food, and obeys the "Fat Girl Code of Conduct."  Then there are the other Shreveses: Mom is an exercise fiend and a successful adolescent psychologist; Dad, when not jet-setting, or golfing in Connecticut, ogles skinny women on TV; and older siblings Byron and Anais are slim, brilliant, and impossible to live up to.

Delete Virginia, and the Shreveses are a picture-perfect family...until a phone call changes everything.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://carolynmackler.com/)

My Review:  I saw this book at my school's Literacy Carnival Night and thought: I have to have it!  At the time, I didn't even realize it was on the banned books list.  Being on the banned books list did not deter me from reading it, but I'm afraid it failed to live up to the title quite as much as I'd hoped. 

My overall feeling about this book was lukewarm--it just wasn't as funny as I'd hoped it would be. The storyline was ok; it followed Virginia through a painful early high school year as she navigated the artificial social chaos that is high school.  While Virginia is sympathetic on some levels, she's also very extreme, which led me -- though perhaps not all readers -- to step back and want to scrutinize her actions.  As a result, I couldn't place myself completely in Virginia's shoes.  I knew her life was supposed to be a very painful experience, but Mackler wasn't able to make me forget that it wasn't me going through it.  I did feel badly for her, but I couldn't completely justify all her actions, making the book only slightly painful during parts you know are supposed to be excruciating.

There were many aspects of this book that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I believe the depiction of Virginia's family was very real: her mother not wanting to talk about anything therefore being the ultimate hypocrite; her father's hurtful, but fairly oblivious comments about what a female should look like; her brother's self-centered persona; his fall from grace when he pushes past the limits of what is ever acceptable; and her distant older sister who saw the family for what they really were, but runs away instead of staying.

And then there is Virginia, forgotten, ignored, pampered Virginia.  She had parts to her personality that were very mature for her age, and other aspects that were stunted far behind what I'd expect of a high school girl.  It's hard for me to really feel sorry for Virginia when her lifestyle is not that tough.  She lives in Manhattan, goes to a private school, doesn't have to worry about where her next meal will come from, and has the world at her fingertips.  What is realistic about Virginia is her self-centered view on life.  It was so fitting for her to only see how tough things were for her and not realize how much harder so many people have it.  Her realization, that life is hard for others, was necessary and refreshing, although I think she still had quite a ways to go.

For a more sensitive reader, I could easily see why this made the banned books list.  Not because there was so much risque, offensive content, but more for the message and the swearing.  I could easily see conservative parents not being comfortable with a character who questions her parents every decision, pushes the limits, talks back and has blow-out fights with her parents in public,  travels across the country without her parents initial consent, has a secret "friend with benefits," and wants to fool around farther than many parents would find acceptable, among other things.  There is also profanity.  Honestly, I can ignore quite a bit of swearing in a book, so this didn't bother me that much, but there were a couple F-bombs dropped and other various swear words used.

Ultimately, I believe there is an audience for this book, but I'd be very selective to whom I recommend it. 

My Rating:  3.5 stars

Sum it up:  A slightly painful peek into an adolescent girl's world who struggles with fitting in and her body size.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier

This review of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is part of our 2nd Annual Banned Books Week.  On all the banned/challenged books lists I've come across, this novel is one of the books that I saw most frequently.  According to Dangerous Books, The Chocolate War was banned "due [to] heavy use of profanity, sexual references, and references to bribery, distortion, and physical violence within the novel" and remains number five of the top 50 banned books. 

Summary:  Jerry Renault is pondering the question on the poster in his locker:  Do I dare disturb the universe?

Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity School fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do.  But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war.  Now the only question is:  Who will survive?  (Summary from book - Image from www.w3.xs.edu.ph)

My Review:  Jerry Renault isn’t anyone special. He just wants to make a difference, to be somebody, and to make his own decisions -- not be pushed around by his sadistic teacher or the Vigils, the bullies that populate his private school. When Jerry refuses to sell chocolates for the school fundraiser, his dissension has disastrous results. As other students begin to follow suit, chocolate sales fall, and the Vigils influence is threatened, Jerry suddenly becomes a target for harassment and aggression from all sides. 

On the surface, this book is offensive. It has all the things it is accused of having (see above), including a great deal more profanity than one would expect in a book aimed at children and young adults. There are a few sexual references, the kind you would expect to hear from teenage boys, and also an increasing amount of physical violence as the book progresses. However, closer examination (like actually reading the book, as opposed to just counting the swear words) reveals a deeper and much more meaningful message.

The Chocolate War is about standing up for what is right, regardless of whether it is popular. At first, Jerry goes along with The Vigils mandate that he refuse to sell chocolates, but he has a change of heart when he realizes that he no longer wants to just “go along” with things. He decides the he is willing to upset the status quo, regardless of the consequences, and not let others dictate his own decisions. There are several other characters in the book that are vile (and perfectly written) antagonists, and others who when faced with a similar decision, choose the easier path. The end of the book is fairly disturbing, as Jerry is given the choice to walk away, or stand and fight. I can't pretend to understand all of the meaning that can be gleaned from the final scenes of this book, but I do know that the end is not a neatly tied bow.  It’s messy food for thought that would make for an interesting classroom or book club discussion. 

Despite the profanity and sexual comments, I wouldn’t object to my daughter reading this book when she gets older, if it was assigned in school. Don’t get me wrong, we’d definitely have to talk about what she was reading, but I think the themes (standing up to peer pressure, the fickleness of popular opinion, the psychology of human interaction and bullying, the dangers of a mob mentality, etc.) offer the opportunity for valuable, relevant discussion, especially within a group of young adults. Any parent whose child is assigned this book would do well to read it with them, and at least attempt to see the real heart of this book before crying foul.

Side note: I do wonder if there are other books in print that offer a similar heartening message without the profanity, sexuality, and violence. Have you read any? Feel free and comment to let us know!

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  A great deal of profanity, some discussion of sexual matters, and an increasing amount of  physical violence.

Sum it up: A book that is both offensive and uplifting.  Is that even possible?  It would seem so.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Summary: Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he thought he was destined to live. Summary and cover photo from indiebound.org

My Review: This is the coming-of-age tale of Junior Spirit, a 14 year-old boy growing up on an Indian reservation. As Junior enters high school he makes the difficult choice to attend a school outside the reservation in order to receive a better education. This decision is seen as a betrayal to most of his tribe and Junior is the odd-man out at the school in the neighboring small farm town, leaving him to feel he is a part-time Indian.
Written in Junior’s adolescent voice, the raw emotion of the character seeps out of the pages. Full of emotional ups and downs you can’t help but feel for Junior as he strives to make something of himself, a goal unheard of on the reservation where no one ever leaves. Junior’s reveals his story with humor and wit despite all the hardships life has handed him. In combination with his hilarious cartoons one can’t help but read this with a smile on the face. 

Though I enjoyed the story of the most part, I did have a difficult time with the language. I felt that parts were overly crude for a young adult book. I also could have done without all the swear words. Surely Junior’s feelings could have been portrayed as effectively with some toned downed terms. Overall it was a good story about overcoming life’s obstacles while remaining true to yourself, yet unfortunately it’s not one I would feel comfortable recommending to the young adults in my life. Read the first 30 pages and decide for yourself. 

My Rating: 3 Stars

To Sum it up: A humorous coming-of-age tale better appreciated by a mature audience.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

RFS 2nd Annual Banned Books Week

In honor of
Banned Books Week 
(Sept 24th - October 1st)
Reading For Sanity will be posting our reviews of banned or challenged books each day
throughout the week. 
Check back to see
what books we've read and
 don't forget to enter our
banned books giveaway!

-------------------------------------------
A Banned Books Week Declaration
Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them.

Reading For Sanity celebrates the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, September 24th through October 1st, 2011 and encourages free people to read freely, according to the dictates of their own conscience, now and forever.

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy, and reading is among our greatest freedoms. Privacy is essential to the exercise of that freedom, and the right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one's interest examined or scrutinized by others.

The freedom to read is protected by our Constitution.  Some individuals, groups, and public authorities work to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label "controversial" views, to distribute lists of "objectionable" books or authors, and to purge libraries of materials reflecting the diversity of society.

Both governmental intimidation and the fear of censorship cause authors who seek to avoid controversy to practice self-censorship, thus limiting our access to new ideas.  Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of American society and leaves it less able to deal with controversy and difference.

Americans still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression, and can be trusted to exercise critical judgment, to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe, and to exercise the responsibilities that accompany this freedom.  Intellectual freedom is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture.  Conformity limits the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend; and

The American Library Association's Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read is observed during the last week of September each year as a reminder to Americans not to take their precious freedom for granted.

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Original Declaration found here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I want to be your Class President - Josh Lieb

Summary:  If you're reading this, I must like something about you.

Few are granted such access to my innermost thoughts.

So don't blow it.  Read.  Learn.  And keep your mouth shut.

I might let you shake my hand someday.

But I doubt it.  (Summary from back of the book and image from   http://www.ops.org/)

My Review:  I had really hoped this would be funnier than it was.  It starts off very catchy and got my hopes pretty high.  But no, it wasn't that funny.  It has moments of quiet, smug laughter.  The best parts of the book, for me, were the footnotes, specifically the ones aimed at the readers.  I felt the overall ending was predictable.  The protagonist is somewhat evil (like the title suggests), but on the middle school level of evil and even then, how evil can a boy be if he truly wants his father's approval so badly that he'll ignore his multimillion dollar company to run in an election.  For a seventh grade boy who struggles with fitting in, this just might be his read--it's a dream world where he eats all he wants when he wants, gets to slough off school and doesn't ever get in trouble for it, he has more money than he knows what to do with, and he always gets the last word.  Overall, I won't be suggesting it to just anyone. 

Rating:  3 stars

For sensitive readers:  Despite being for the middle school audience there is sprinkled amounts of swearing.

Sum it up:  Picture the dorkiest guy in your class and then give him a demonic, powerful dreamworld (middle school version) and you've got this book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep - S. J. Watson

Summary: “As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I’m still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me…”

Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, evens the people you love –all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may be telling you only half the story. Welcome to Christine’s life. Summary from book, cover image from indiebound.org

My Review: From the moment you open this book you will be drug into  Christina’s world of confusion – who is this woman in the mirror, who is the man she woke up next to in that strange bed this morning, who can she trust and who should never trusted? Can she even trust her diary, the words she wrote as memories, or are they fiction like the novel she once wrote?

Each morning Christine wakes without any memory of the last 25 years. She does not know where she is, does not recognize her husband and is unfamiliar with the face staring back at her in the mirror. Each day her husband, Ben, explains that she had an accident that took away her memory. He retells her life to her. Christine has no choice but to trust him. Yet as she rediscovers her diary she finds herself wondering if that is the worst mistake she can make.

Before I Go to Sleep is a fast-paced thriller. From the opening page the story grips the reader and refuses to let go. Christine’s journey for the truth takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotion. It twists and turns at the most unexpected times, leaving the reader on the edge the entire ride.  Though the pace slowed at times the story itself was impossible to turn away from.

Christine’s character leaps from the pages filling the reader with her terror. Christine’s last memories are from college. It is impossible not to pity her as she fills uncomfortable inside a body twenty five years older then she remembers. You will find yourself cheering for Christine as she has a memory even though that memory will be erased by the time she wakes.  Even if you figure the mystery out before Christine does, the end remains gripping.  

My Rating: 4.5 stars

To Sum it up: An entertaining mystery with high stakes sure to keep you up reading late into the night.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Every Last One - Anna Quindlen

Summary:  Mary Beth Latham has built her life around her family, around caring for her three teenage children and preserving the rituals of their daily life.  When one of her sons becomes depressed, Mary Beth focuses on him, only to be blindsided by a shocking act of violence.  What happens afterward is a testament to the power of a woman's love and determination, and to the invisible lines of hope and healing that connect one human being to another.  Ultimately, as rendered in Anna Quindlen's mesmerizing prose, Every Last One is a novel about facing every last one of the things that we fear the most, about finding ways to navigate a road we never intended to travel.  (Summary from book - Image from www.goodreads.com )

My Review:  Anna Quindlen is quickly becoming one of my favorite literary fiction authors.  She held me riveted with Black and Blue and ripped my heart out with Every Last One – a beautifully written and poignant tale of the joys and sorrows of motherhood, the unpredictability of life, and a woman who experiences a deeply painful and horrific loss.   Her writing is unique, effortless, and infused with subtle details that breathe life into the story.  Her characters seem unaffected and genuine – like more than just words on a page, but real people with their own feelings and histories.    

This book will hit any parent hard, and I doubt there is a mother in creation who will not identify, at least in part, with Mary Beth – an ordinary woman who is loving and imperfect, but trying to be a good mother.  Her feelings about her family and her hopes for her children echoed my own in so many ways, and I couldn’t help but see myself in her place even when the storyline went far past my experience.  Each page made it perfectly clear that the author understood exactly what it feels like to be a mother, to love children fiercely and know them individually, to worry about them and want to protect them.  Her depictions of complex family relationships and the daily aspects of mothering were insightful and delivered with stunning authenticity. 
The Latham family dynamic, the reality of their relationships, and their unique personalities was instantly captivating.  It wasn’t long before I was so enthralled with the characters that I couldn’t stop reading even when the story delved into significantly darker themes of grief and despair. 

While the summary indicated Mary Beth would face an “act of shocking violence,” nothing could have prepared me for it.  It was a sucker punch straight to the chest, that knocked the wind out of me and left me reeling.  Mary Beth’s devastation was palpable and my heart ached for her as she struggled to find meaning in a life so dramatically altered, and rejoiced when she began to emerge from her grief and live again.
Even though this book had moments of absolute horror and despair, it was also full of love, forgiveness, and renewal; I closed it feeling like I had been through a difficult, but ultimately uplifiting experience.  While I’ll never be able to categorize Every Last One as an “entertaining” read, it made an incredible, indelible impression and definitely earns its' place as a New York Times bestseller. 

My Rating:  4.5 Stars
For the sensitive reader:  Two instances of profanity, some discussion of violence, underage drinking, and passing references to sex.  This book contains some fairly horrific loss of life, though none of it is particularly detailed.  Do not read it if you are post-partum.  Just take my word for it.
Sum it up:  A bittersweet, inspirational, and harrowing emotional experience.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mockingbird - Kathryn Erskine

Also reviewed by Mindy.

Summary:  In Caitlin's world, everything is black and white.  Things are good or bad.  Anything in between is confusing.  That's the stuff Caitlin's older brother, Devon, has always explained.  But now Devon's dead and Dad is no help at all.  Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Aspergers, she doesn't know how.  When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs.  In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white--the world is full of colors--messy and beautiful.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://www.bookalicious.ca/)

My Review:  Caitlin's life is hard -- not just hard because of her Aspergers, but hard because of losing her mother and brother, and living with a dad who is struggling to deal with the grief himself. Combine that with a girl who doesn't understand her own grief, let alone her father's, and it's a recipe for emotional and social disaster.

I enjoyed reading from the perspective of a child with autism. Until you throw yourself into Caitlin's shoes, it's hard to remember or realize just how much of our daily conversation is filled with phrases or figures of speech that are not literal. For a child with autism this is a land mine of confusion. Caitlin was amazingly resilient, finding ways to bounce back from hard knocks that could drop anyone into a pool of depression. 

My favorite line in the book is not from the story itself, but from the author's note in the back.  It perfectly conveys the great overall message of this story:
If we all understood each other better, we could go a long way toward stopping violence.  We all want to be heard, to be understood.  Some of us are better than others at expressing ourselves.  Some of us have severe problems that need to be addressed, not ignored, no matter the cost.  Saving society money is a travesty if the cost of that savings is in human lives.  Ignore and ignorance share the same root.
Erskine's writing is simple and straightforward, though I disliked the italicized writing for dialogue (a pet-peeve of mine).  Quotation marks make it easier distinguish speech from thoughts.  Caitlin capitalizes words that are part of phrases she is trying to understand, and while the italicized dialogue bothered me, this did not.  From my experience with autistic students, this is the case.  They can fixate on something and until they feel they fully grasp it, they will doggedly pursue the information. 

Would I recommend this book for my students?  You bet.  Do I think it's rock-solid in its portrayal of autism?  Not so much.  There were parts, specifically the end, that didn't end quite right. I've never known anyone with autism to figure out so many aspects of grey-area within such a short time. Maybe it was Erskine's way of dealing with difficult subject matter in a children's book, or maybe it's because the book simply couldn't go on as long as it really would have taken for a child to deal with these issues and still appeal to a child audience. I'm not sure, but the rushed resolution made the book feel inaccurate. For all the trauma this little girl went through I can only imagine it would have taken her years to start understanding empathy the way she does in a few short months.  Still, it's a great message about empathy and compassion and all of us need reminders of that.

Rating:  3.75 Stars

Sum it up:  The overall message is great, but the depiction of someone with Aspergers doesn't sit quite right.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bunnicula - Deborah and James Howe

Summary:  Beware the hare!  Is he or isn't he a vampire?  Before it's too late, Harold the dog and Chester the cat must find out the truth about the newest pet in the Monroe household -- a suspicious-looking bunny with unusual habits...and fangs! (Summary from book - Image from smallanimalchannel.com)

My Review: I hold this book (and the person who read it to me) responsible for my long standing discomfort with rabbits.  The mere suggestion of a vampire bunny scarred me for life.  Since I have no intention of ever owning one of the furry little nightmares, I am determined to scar my children as well, and thus rid myself of their constant harrassment. 

Although the initial language was a bit over their heads, my kids were hooked as soon as Bunnicula started to mysteriously disappear from his cage and the word "vampire" was batted around.  They were fascinated by the idea that these humanized house pets could get into mischief and solve mysteries when their owners weren't looking.  My favorite part of the story was Harold's "voice" and his banter with Chester, the entirely too intelligent cat.  I also loved my children's anxious expressions over the mysterious white vegetables and Chester's hilarious attempts to vanquish the vampire bunny. 

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised.  My childhood memories of this book are pretty much limited to fangs and fluffy-tailed terror, but things actually worked out rather well.  I guess I'll have to figure out another way to scar my children.  I think the book cover blown up and hung under the nightlight might do the trick.  I'll let you know.

My kids' thoughts:    If you could tell a kid anything about this book, what would it be?  (Kaisa) I would tell them it was a good book, but it's a little scary in the beginning, but it wasn't scary at the end!  My favorite part was when the bunny turned cute.
What did you think of the book? (Sophie) I want you to read it all over again! Did you think the book was scary?  Noooope.

My Rating:  4 Stars

Sum it up:  A cute, fluffy little story.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Dry Grass of August - Anna Jean Mayhew

Summary:  On a scorching day in August 1954, thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts leaves Charlotte, North Carolina, with her family for a Florida vacation.  Crammed into the Packard along with Jubie are her three siblings, her mother, and the family's black maid, Mary Luther.  For as long as Jubie can remember, Mary has been there -- cooking, cleaning, compensating for her father's rages and her mother's benign neglect, and loving Jubie unconditionally.

Bright and curious, Jubie takes note of the anti-integration signs they pass, and of the racial tension that builds as they journey further south.  But she could never have predicted the shocking turn their trip will take.  Now, in the wake of tragedy, Jubie must confront her parents' failings and limitations, decide where her own convictions lie, and make the tumultuous leap to independence...

Infused with the intensity of a changing time, here is a story of hope, heartbreak, and the love and courage that can transform us-- from child to adult, from wounded to indomitable. (Summary from book - Image from www.mlive.com )

My Review:  The Dry Grass of August is a coming-of-age work of literary fiction.  It tells the story of Jubie, a young white girl growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement who endures her father’s drunken tirades and her mother’s indifference by relying on the sheltering compassion of Mary Luther, the family’s black maid.  When Jubie, her mother, and siblings sets off for a vacation they bring Mary along to help out, dragging her right through the heart of some of the nation’s more violently segregationist states.   

Although The Dry Grass of August has been compared to another bestselling book (The Help), it is more than able to stand on its own merit and earn its own praise.  The two books may have similarities in setting and theme, but they are very different stories. 

Jubie is an awkward but observant thirteen-year-old who is learning to navigate the minefield of adolescence.   As the story shifts between present day (1954) and defining moments in her childhood, Jubie begins to notice the garish threads of racism, intolerance, and hatred woven tightly throughout her world and struggles to reconcile them with her feelings for Mary, the one woman who has always shown her love, and Leesum, a young black boy that she befriends.     
Mayhew's supporting characters were fluid and ever evolving; they weren’t instantly pegged as good or bad, according to their racial ideologies, but rather as average people coming to terms with their own beliefs on a controversial issue.  It was easy to see how they felt through their behavior and how those feelings changed over the course of the book.   The racism portrayed in this novel ranged from unconcealed animosity to the more subtle (yet equally as offensive) assumptions and behaviors. Oddly, I was almost more disturbed by the characters who were pretending not be racist than the ones who were open about it.

This novel was rich in atmosphere, well researched, and skillfully detailed, which allowed me to really sink into the story -- and I do love sinking.  The plot had a well-paced and deliberate build.  I spent much of the book tied up in knots (the good kind), bracing for the inevitable racial confrontation, and straining to uncover the family’s secrets.  It took Anna Jean Mayhew eighteen years to finish this book and, in my opinion, it was well worth the wait. 

My Rating: 4.5 Stars
 
For the sensitive reader:  Some violence.  Very few instances of profanity, but pervasive use of the “N” word which would normally bother me, but I felt was necessary within the context of the story.  Some comments of a sexual nature either regarding Jubie’s physical  development or her accidental encounter with her amorous parents.   The incident was fairly awkward, but it was told from a fairly naïve perspective. 
Sum it up:  A coming of age novel that doesn’t need any Help to stand on its own.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago...

Ten years ago today, our world changed forever.

Never forget the innocent men and women who died.



...and never forget those who stayed behind,
risking life and limb to find them.

Never forget September 11th.


Please take a moment to remember how you felt that day
and pray for those who are still affected by this tragedy. 
If you'd like to learn more about how you can help those affected by 9/11,
please visit one of the following websites:


Feel free to leave further links in the comments sections.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Scumble - Ingrid Law

Summary:  Ledger Kale always dreamed of the awesome magical power he'd get when he turned thirteen--the day when folks in his family inherit an extraordinary talent called a savvy.  But Ledge's dreams are soon in pieces.  And so are the toaster, the television, and the wipers on the family minivan.

After the Kales decide it's safe to head to a family wedding in Wyoming, Ledge's savvy grows.  Worse, there's an outside witness to his monumental mess: thirteen-year-old Sarah Jane Cabot, eagle-eyed reporter and daughter of the local businessman.  Now Ledge has to stop Sarah Jane from turning savvies into headlines, stop her father from getting too close to Uncle Autry's astonishing ranch, and scumble his savvy into control before he causes everything to fall apart.

Starting nine years after his cousin Mib's Savvy journey, Ledge's story brings characters both fresh and familiar to the legendary Wild West for another rollicking, riveting, fantastical adventure.  (Summary from the book jacket and image from http://2jeremiahf.edu.glogster.com)

My Review:  I think Law really came into her writing with this book.  The descriptions and adjective use wasn't as distracting as it was in Savvy and the characters seemed more fleshed out.  This novel was longer and as such, it was more developed, but not to the point of being overdone. One of my favorite aspects to the Savvy books is the life lessons thrown into the crazy skills they acquire at the age of thirteen.  This book especially focused on overcoming fear and how fear can be debilitating.

I have to admit I didn't see the twist near the end. I probably should have picked up on it, but I didn't. And no, I won't tell you what it is. It's worth the read!

Law has a way of making something so unbelievable believable--having a savvy is unreal and although powerful and sometimes destructive, also very cool! She describes how the savvy starts and affects each character differently and to where it feels like you're experiencing the sensations along with the one overcome with a new ability. Wouldn't it be great if we all could have some fantastic ability, like being invisible, or moving the ground, or levitating? Actually, it probably wouldn't be a very good thing, but it's fun to contemplate!

I loved this book.  I do hope that Law doesn't stop with just these two books.  Because she's spaced out the stories between the cousins of a larger family, I believe she could go further and I'd definitely pick it up if she did.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Sum it up: A fantastic second installment in the Savvy family's exploration of their new-found skills and how they scumble (control) them.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

We're Not Leaving: 9/11 Responders Tell Their Stories of Courage, Sacrifice, and Renewal - Benjamin J. Luft, M.D.

Summary:  We're Not Leaving is a compilation of powerful first-person narratives told from the vantage point of World Trade Center disaster workers -- police officers, firefighters, construction workers, and other volunteers at the site.

While the effects of 9/11 on these everyday heroes and heroines are indelible, and in some cases have been devastating, at the heart of their deeply personal stories -- their harrowing escapes from the falling Towers, the egregious environment they worked in for months, the alarming health effects they continue to deal with -- is their witness to their personal strength and renewal in the ten years since.

These stories, shared by ordinary people who responded to disaster and devastation in extraordinary ways, remind us of America's strength and inspire us to recognize and ultimately believe in our shared values of courage, duty, patriotism, self-sacrifice, and devotion, which guide us in dark times.

The narratives featured in this book are part of a larger World Trade Center History Project that has archived more than 200 videotaped responder interviews and will be a permanent collection housed at the Library of Congress.  For more information, visit www.911respondersremember.org(Summary from book - Image from www.greenpointpress.org - Book given free for an honest review)

My Review: This book hit me hard, so you’re going to get more than a review.  Deal with it.  This book is worth it. 

We're Not Leaving is a brilliant collection of first-person accounts gathered from those who survived and responded to the September 11th terrorist attack on the Word Trade Center.  These powerfully compelling narratives offer revealing perspectives -- from the policemen, firefighters, and EMT's who managed to survive the collapse of the towers, to the pastors, podiatrists, and massage therapists who arrived soon after the attacks to offer aid to wearied workers.  Each account is a poignant and riveting chronicle of their own thoughts and experiences on 9/11 and their role in the many days of rescue, reconstruction, and renewal that followed. 

Most people remember where they were when they heard the news. I was standing in a towel in the middle of my one bedroom apartment. When the Towers crumbled, my legs gave out. I thought I understood what happened that day. That seems so silly now. We’re Not Leaving forced me to confront the sheer magnitude of this disaster – that it was more than just one day in history but rather the beginning of a long process of recovery. Just days after the tragedy, the EPA and various government agencies assured workers that the air was safe, when it was not, and they knew it. When the Towers fell, not only were thousands of innocent lives taken, but all those who responded were exposed to toxins that have led to chronic respiratory illnesses, cancer, and in some cases even death. These responders also saw things that no one should ever have to see,did things no one should ever have to do, and suffer from PTSD, depression, and a variety of other emotional problems as a result. 

September 11th, 2001 was a tragic day, made even more tragic by how we have neglected to care for those who ran towards the threat when others ran away, who dug through the burning rubble with their bare hands so strangers would have some part of a loved one to bury, and who comforted those who needed comfort. They were determined to leave no one behind – and then we left them when they needed us. They have had to fight for proper medical coverage and the government has made only token efforts to accommodate their needs.  Now that media coverage is reduced to a yearly memorial, many responders feel that despite our promise to "never forget," Americans have forgotten this tragedy, perhaps not as an event, but because we have failed in our duty to demand adequate care for those we once hailed as heroes.

Reading this book was my opportunity to bear witness to the events surrounding 9/11, and in so doing honor the lives lost and the sacrifices made by those who did what they felt they had to do. Emotionally, this was a difficult read. Physically, I could not put it down. Words, even their own, will never adequately describe what these people went through. It was horrific and unimaginable. I learned things I never knew about the attacks that shook me to the core. However, there were countless moments when I was overwhelmed with the compassion, kindness, and camaraderie of ordinary men and women who helped when they did not have to, and a nation that banded together during an indescribable moment in U.S. History. I was moved to tears by these revealing and bittersweet moments of courage and sacrifice -- committed to paper and bound up in a book that every American should read.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Some understandable use of profanity and unavoidable descriptions of death.

Sum it up: A must read for any American who has ever said, "We will never forget." You will never forget this book, or the sacrifices of the men and women's whose stories grace its pages.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Gregor and the Code of Claw - Suzanne Collins

Summary:  Everyone has been trying to keep Gregor from seeing The Prophecy of Time.  That is because the final prophecy calls for the warrior's death.  The warrior being Gregor, of course.

With an army of rats quickly approaching and time running out, Gregor must gather up his courage to defend Regalia and get his family back home safely.  There is a code that must be cracked, a new princess to contend with, Gregor's burgeoning dark side, and a war designed to end all wars.

The fates of the Underland and the great warrior, Gregor the Overlander, masterfully unfold this thrilling and suspenseful final installment of Suzanne Collins's Underland Chronicles.  (Summary from back of the book and image from www.paperbackswap.com/)

My Review:  I don't dare go into detail about this book because not spoiling the series is more important to me than writing an enticing review. I will say I liked the ending and wasn't anticipating some of the twists Collins threw in -- she's really good at that!

After reading the Overlander series and The Hunger Games series, it's obvious that Collins has a message she wants to promote and I feel like I've been hit over the head with  it (even though I agree).  These two quotes summarize the final installment and Collin's overall anti-war message quicker than I could.
"It's like this. You spend your whole childhood hearing about being nice other people and how hurting someone's a crime, and then they ship you off to some war and tell you to kill. What's that going to do to your head, huh?"
"You're really going to do it, aren't you? You're really going to go back to war?" Gregor said. He could feel something boiling up inside of him. "So, we'll just forget about what happened. The jungle, the Firelands, the Bane," His voice was rising and he could feel the rager side of him taking over. "Forget about everybody who's dead! Tick and Twitchtip and Hamnet and Thalia and Ares! And you parents, Luxa! And your pups, Ripred! Let's just forget about everybody who gave their lives so that you could have this moment where you could--could make things right again! So you could stop the killing! We were fighting for the same thing, remember?"
While our youth are innundated with violent video games, movies, and cartoons, I've been debating the consquences of adding another violent series to the mix.  There is a distinction between the video games, movies, cartoons and these books.  This book emphasizes the pain that is brought through violence, whereas many other forms of media do not.  Gregor's emotional trauma is evident throughout all the books and his reluctance to participate is refreshing.  Collins stresses that Gregor will never be the same, and that he feels like the walking wounded, not ever completely able to assimilate into society again. 

My only concern is that young children may not fully digest this information and get the desired message.  If the message is received and completely understood, I believe these books have merit for children.  If it is not, then the books are just another violent aspect to our society.  But, how else do you teach children the atrocities of war if not through an illustration, and such an easily understood one at that?  I haven't made up my mind just yet.

My recommendation for parents is to read the books for yourselves and then make a decision based upon your knowledge of your child.  I would suggest you read these books with your child if you do decide to allow them to read them and then have discussions.  Stop and check for understanding and make sure the right message is getting through.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: A lot of violence and death despite being a childrens book.

Sum it up: A satisfying end to a much anticipated final book.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The $64 Tomato - William Alexander

Summary:  Who knew that Bill Alexander's simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard would lead him into life-and-death battles with webworms, weeds, and a groundhog named Superchuck?  Over the course of his hilarious adventures, Alexander puzzles over why a six-thousand-volt wire doesn't deter deer but nearly kills his tree surgeon; encounters a gardener who bears an eerie resemblance to Christopher Walken; and stumbles across the aphrodisiac effects of pollen when he plays bumble bee to his apple blossoms.
When he decides (just for fun!) to calculate how much it cost to grow one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes, he comes up with a staggering $64.  But as any gardener knows, you can't put a price tag on the rewards of homegrown produce, or on the lessons learned along the way.  (Summary from book - Image from www.goodreads.com )

My Review:  The $64 Tomato is a cleverly written chronicle of a swath of land and a man obsessed with living the life of a gentleman farmer.  Bill Alexander writes with a charismatic voice as he shares amusing anecdotes and endearing family moments surrounding what he calls the “self-imposed purgatory of endless weeding, pruning, and harvesting,” otherwise known as small-scale organic farming.

I waited to read this book until well after planting season so that I wasn’t overcome with the desire to cultivate a massive garden.  It turns out, I needn’t have worried.  This book was terrifying.  Funny -- but terrifying.   My romantic notion of sun-drenched soil and a plentiful harvest was obliterated in a matter of chapters.  This book was brimming with gardening horror stories that would make the greenest thumb shrivel and darken: rampant deer populations, bizarre tree diseases, inept contractors, insect epidemics, masochistic groundhogs, and a variety of other gardening misadventures.  I admire the author’s fortitude in dealing with it all.  I would have thrown in the trowel in a matter of weeks and high tailed it to our local farmers market.

I found the author’s experiences in extreme gardening to be more informative than inspirational or instructive, and I didn’t relate as well to this book as I would have liked.  First, I wanted pictures -- of his home, his orchard, and his garden.  Call me snoopy or intrusive, but I'm a visual person and I feel that seeing the places he was talking about would have helped me connect to the story.  Also, despite his protests to the contrary, the author seemed to have a bit more money on hand than the average household would have for things like mulch, steel edging, and hand-powered lawn mowers.  Perhaps this was simply a matter of priorities, and the whole family was going without socks or something, but I know that our budget would never be able to accommodate the costs of small-scale farming, even with the reduction in our grocery expenses.   As a result, I quickly moved this book from “something I could learn to do” to “an experience I will never have” and I ceased paying attention to the more tedious details. 

While I sincerely enjoyed reading about the author’s life, and could feel his exasperation with (and love for) farming, the final chapters were a little too existential for me. I was bored with the arithmetic and he tended to wax entirely too poetic about his tomatoes.  I did leave this book with a little something, though.  First, RECIPES!  Second, did you know tomatoes are a lesser known member of the berry family?  I didn't think so!  Third, thanks to all that poetic waxing, I will definitely be planting Brandywines in my garden next year. 

For those of you whose food cravings run toward the whole grain variety, you might want to check out Bill’s latest book, 52 Loaves, that chronicles his quest to recreate the perfect loaf of bread.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  One mildly sexual reference (think pollination) and a handful of profanity, though not all of it is "biblical."

Sum it up:  A humorous account of the ups and downs (mostly the downs) of small-scale farming. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A "BANNED BOOKS" SWAG GIVEAWAY

Towards the end of this month, we are going to be celebrating Banned Books Week with a series of banned book reviews. 

I know you're probably dying to read them.  Too bad.  You'll have to wait.

Until then, here's some to hold you over...

The fine folks at CafePress are sponsoring a
"BANNED BOOKS"
SWAG GIVEAWAY

The winner will get their choice of one of the following bags:

Bag #1

which includes a bumper sticker, a hoodie (w/ size and color options) that says "Read Banned Books or the Consitution gets it!", and a book bag!

Bag #2

which includes an "I Read Banned Books" sweatshirt (w/ color and size options), and a book bag!

Bag #3
which includes an "I Read Banned Books" mousepad, a "The Worst Thing About Censorship is the ----" t-shirt (w/ size and color options), and a totebag that reads "The Most Important Speech to Protect is That With Which You Do Not Agree"
Interested? 

To enter to win you must:
  • Leave a comment with your contact info (This will only be used to notify the winner. I swear on my bookshelves.  That's serious.)
For extra entries (Please leave a SEPARATE comment for each extra entry. We're kickin' it old school):
  • Be, or quickly become a follower via GFC Google Reader or Blogged (see right sidebar)
  • Post about this giveaway on a social networking site like Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or your own public blog.
  • Head over to this CafePress link and let me know if there is any other Banned Books gear that you just have to have.  Who knows, we might be able to trade out something in your swag bag.
  • Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter.
  • Tell us what banned/challenged books from the last decade you would most like to read OR tell us what book you have read and loved.  See a list here.
A big THANKS to CafePress for sponsoring this giveaway.  They are a the world’s customization engine for funny t-shirt designs, coffee mugs and more!

Eligibilty:  This giveaway is open to US/Canada residents and will end on September 30th, 2011 at 11:59 PM.  RFS reserves the right to exclude entrants who do not follow the rules.  The winner will be chosen randomly, posted publicly, and contacted swiftly to arrange shipping.
$60 value from CafePress

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