Why "The Search for..."?

I got my title from the book The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt. where there is a wonderful quote--

" 'Of course it's silly,' said the Prime Minister impatiently. 'But a lot of serious things start silly.'"

This particular quote stuck out for me as I was reading The Search for Delicious to my kids this past fall, and I put it aside knowing that I would use it somewhere, sometime. It seems like the perfect subtitle to this blog as many of my musing probably are silly, but may turn serious at any moment!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Maureen Johnson novels

Another two-fer...Just like I found Jennifer Donnelly’s Northern Light through Revolution, I picked The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson off of the 2013 RI Teen Book Award list because I loved Devilish a few years ago.  Two very similar books in that both deal with the occult to a certain extent…

…the story of Jack the Ripper  is one that still resonates with the public over 100 years after the serial murders occurred in London’s East End.  Perhaps people still care because they were unsolved or because reports on the murders are incomplete and contestable.  With such sustained interest and the current adolescent interest in the macabre, it is not surprising that Jack’s murders show up as a plot element in a current novel. 

            Rory Deveaux is a young native Louisianan who enrolls in an East End public (in America that would be private—it is true that America and England are divided by a common language) boarding school when her parents take a sabbatical.  Her arrival is heralded by the first in a series of unsolved murders that mimic the famous Jack the Ripper killings. 

            While trying to adjust to the foreign world of the English school, Rory finds herself embroiled in the mysterious case in a way that she never could have expected.

            I particularly enjoyed this book because it reminded me of my own days trying to adjust to the English world.  Just like Rory, I very quickly discovered that American English is very different from British English.  My favorite American faux-pas story was when my husband and I took the children to the seaside.  We had a map of a National Trust beach area, and one part was labeled “naturist.”  I think our brains read “naturalist,” and we assumed that it was an area set off for nesting birds or wildlife observation.  What it really meant was a swimsuit optional area.  We had quite an eyeful before we figured that one out! 

Everyone who has had to adjust to new circumstances will identify with this part of the book, and anyone who enjoys a mystery will like the rest of it.  

The appeal of Devilish was twofold.  First, it takes place in Providence, and I always enjoy reading books set in places I know well.  Second, whether intentional or not (and I suspect it was unintentional), I found this to be a very Catholic book…not necessarily because it takes place at a Catholic school, which it does, but because it has, as a major theme, the importance of self-sacrifice and love in the face of evil.  Johnson gives evil a very real, and alluring, face.  As I always tell my students, if evil were not attractive, we wouldn’t be so attracted to it.  When I think of this book, I always think of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.”  If you remember the lyrics, “Please allow me to introduce myself /I'm a man of wealth and taste/I've been around for a long, long year/ Stole many a man’s soul and faith.”
Just what would an awkward high school student want that she would be willing to trade her soul for?  Read Devilish and find out. 
Both books recommended for students grade 7 and above.  


I just found this amusing...

I saw this sign out on Main St.  today.   I guess there is a big difference between a good book and a great book... How do you shelve them in the shop?  Do the good books go in the dark corner while the great books get window seats?  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Author--Jennifer Donnelly

Kate Chopin
            Mesh together

Theodore Dreiser’s   An American Tragedy,

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and any well-written YA title, and you get A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.  Ok, ok, I know that tells most people nothing since besides American literature majors, very few people read Theodore Dreiser or Kate Chopin, certainly not young adults looking for their next good novel. 
How’s this instead—Mesh together the sensational upstate New York murder trial of Chester Gillette with the stark realities of life for American women before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and you will get A Northern Light….Better? 

I found Jennifer Donnelly when the Rhode Island Teen Book Award committee placed Revolution on its nomination list for 2012.  I loved it.  Donnelly gives young adults a view of the complexities of the French Revolution  juxtaposed over the heart-wrenching story of Andi Alpers who is tormented by grief over her brother’s tragic death and her parent’s subsequent divorce.  Part historical fiction, part romance, and part realistic fiction with just a dash of fantasy thrown into the mix, this novel grabbed me from cover to cover.  A complex novel with many time shifts and alternating plots, it is a novel for advanced young adult readers, and, you can probably tell from my raving, crosses over to the adult audience. 
Chester Gillette
A Northern Light will appeal to a similar audience.  Set in upstate New York in 1906, young Mattie Gokey must learn to cope with the loss of her mother to cancer and a very distant father.  The oldest girl, she is responsible for both her younger siblings and running a farm.  However, Mattie is not just any girl, she is a gifted writer whose schoolteacher encourages her to dream about college in New York City.  The discovery of a drowned girl’s body in the lake makes Mattie question how she wants to live her life and whether she can live up to the promises that she has made.  Donnelly does an excellent and believable job of integrating the true story of Grace Brown’s death into Mattie Gokey’s quest to find her way into the world of words that she longs for.  
I can't wait to read Donnelly's other novels!

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Cautionary tales about drug use are as old as….well,  GoAsk Alice.  The 1970’s story tried to convince the reader that the diarist was a real girl who fell down the rabbit hole after being slipped LSD at a party.  I never was completely convinced that Alice was a real diary, but the sentiment behind the novel was real.  Drugs are dangerous, and teens should not mess with them.  All kinds of avenues can and should be used to open up the discussion about drugs with teens.  Books like Go Ask Alice can help parents and other concerned adults to do just that. 
But, how about an update?  LSD just isn’t the drug of choice anymore.  Enter Crank, and the subsequent series, by Ellen Hopkins.  Go Ask Alice meets methamphetamine.  I will admit I haven’t read the whole series, and I’m not sure I plan to, at least not now.  After all, it is summer and diving into the dark and seamy side of life can be too depressing for glorious summer days.  I must admit though, I learned as much from the pages of Crank about the dangers of meth as I did from browsing the pages of Faces of Meth or watching Frontline.  It scares me as parent, teacher, and citizen that the drugs de jour change so quickly that law enforcement can’t keep up.  It makes me wonder about the emptiness that both teens and adults are trying to fill by trying something they must know, on some level, will destroy their lives. 
Enter Kristina…no Bree….well, it depends on the mood that she is in.  When she is the normal, high-achieving high school student who lives to please her mother, she is Kristina.  When she snorts, smokes or flirts with boys, she is Bree.  With the drugs, Bree begins to take over her life, and the monster of meth, her drug of choice, controls Bree’s life.  The poetic style reminds me of so many students over the years who have used poetry as a release for sadness and distress.  My biggest complaint was the ending…there was just too much hope for this to be a realistic story.  However, from what I gather out of reviews of Glass and Fallout, that hope does prove to be a false one.  The monster seems to always win. 
Not a book for the impressionable young; it is gritty and realistic.  Too gritty for the young middle schooler.  I would recommend this one for students about eighth grade and above with healthy doses of parental discussion. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

The last unit I teach to the eighth grade is on the Holocaust. I like to joke with the kids that as graduation looms, I think it is time to get really depressing. One of the best speakers we had this year was a Holocaust survivor that I contacted through the Rhode Island Holocaust and Research Center. She had lived near the Black Forest as a young girl and had memories of Kristalnacht and the early persecution of Jews. Her father had been interred in Dachau but was allowed to leave the over-crowded camp when his family's immigration paperwork was processed. They were on one of the last steamships allowed to leave the country with Jewish immigrants. All of her grandparents died in concentration camps. My 8th graders didn't fidget, they didn't giggle, they didn't poke one another with pencils, or do any of the other annoying things they tend to do.  Nope, they listened!

Warsaw, Poland, 1941Yad Vashem Photo Archive
But, I digress. The relevant detail for the book Milkweed is a comment that the speaker made about the book Boy in the Striped Pajamas that I think applies here: it is a novel that doesn't portray the historical details of the Holocaust very well (and yes, I understand that it wasn't really intended to). In both cases, the unreliable first person narration requires the reader to approach the novel with a great deal of prior knowledge, or she will miss a lot of the historical allusions. Neither is a book for students who know nothing about the Holocaust; they will simply become confused.

That said, I like Milkweed better than Boy.  Neither book has a realistic narrator, but Misha, the narrator of Milkweed is at least not as epically naive as Bruno in Boy (I'm sorry to be harsh there, but I had a nine year old when I read the book for the first time, and she would not have been so obtuse).  Misha is an orphaned Gypsy boy who roams the streets of Warsaw perfecting the art of stealing.  He befriends other orphans as well as a Jewish family and finds himself forced into the Warsaw ghetto.  This is a story of Misha trying to understand who he is in the midst of a society intent on labeling him as an inferior.  A very interesting story, but one in which some loose ends don't get neatly tied up.  For example, a great deal is made about a necklace that Misha wears leading me to think that it would have some significance later in the book.  However, Misha's friend spitefully throws it over the wall, and it never comes up again.  It really made me wonder if Spinelli had had an idea about how to end, then changed his mind and needed to get rid of the "evidence."  Mention of the Warsaw Uprising is brief and would be missed by a reader not looking for it.

All in all, a very satisfying end to my yearly Holocaust reading.