"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bless Me, Ultima---A Banned Book Selection

During Banned Books Week each September the Office of Intellectual Freedom announces the top ten most frequently banned or challenged books for the previous year. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya made that list for 2013 which is completely shocking since the book was first published in 1972. It is hard to believe that anyone is still making a fuss over a book published more than forty years ago.

I selected Bless Me, Ultima as my banned book read for the year in part because of its inclusion on the list mentioned above, but mainly because of a personal experience that indirectly involved me. Several years ago an English teacher at my school assigned Bless Me, Ultima to her class of Honors students. She was a tough grader and it seemed that everything she assigned drew the ire and scrutiny of parents. I can still see in my memory the long queue of parents lined up to speak to her during back-to-school night. While most teachers had two or three parents in their lines, she had fifteen or twenty. It seemed that everyone was mad at her for something. The next day, an administrator asked if I'd ever read Bless Me, Ultima. District officials were considering pulling the book from the curriculum because of all the complaints and they wanted my opinion. Of course, I was opposed to any such action. I hadn't read the book so I had to do a little research before making a recommendation. The district ultimately decided we would stick with the book but would allow alternative books for students whose parents had objections. That's unfortunate because few books do such an amazing job of highlighting positive aspects of Hispanic culture in the U.S. Bless Me, Ultima is also a remarkable coming-of-age tale. It offers so much to contemplate, to chew over, to learn from. This is a perfect book to teach because it would generate great class discussions.

Author Rudolfo Anaya grew up in a small town in New Mexico. Bless Me, Ultima was his first novel. Anaya said he grew up listening to the magical stories told by the old people in his community. In Bless Me, Ultima the young narrator, Antonio (Tony) tells of:
"his experiences with his friends and family, his schooling, and his special friendship with Ultima, a curandera (curer) who comes to live with his family. Anaya weaves myths and legend into his tale of family life and follows Antonio's spiritual quest to reconcile the existence of evil with God. Antonio learns of the existence of other gods and forces such as sorcery. It also contains expletives (mostly in Spanish), but it reflects the pride and dignity of Chicano life. (Foerstel 228).
Antonio is a very introspective and thoughtful child who has deeply disturbing experiences at a young age, such as witnessing a man's death. With Ultima's help he learns he can gain strength even from negative experiences and that good is always stronger than evil...messages all of us need to hear.

What a pity that some parents try to "protect" their children from reading this book. Young Antonio has questions about his faith and God and he has an adult, Ultima, with whom he can discuss his concerns. Don't all children have questions of a spiritual nature? This book could provide a launching pad for great family discussions. Parents erroneously think that by preventing their children from reading information different from what they believe, children won't question their faith. More likely, children will go out and find answers to their questions elsewhere just as Antonio did when he explored the myth of the golden carp. Censorship has the exact opposite effect of what parents want.

Bless Me, Ultima catapulted itself onto my top twenty all-time favorite books. The language is so rich and evokes such beauty in my mind. I highly recommend that everyone, both young and old, read it.
“I made strength from everything that had happened to me, so that in the end even the final tragedy could not defeat me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart." --Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima 
One more thing:  I listened to the audiobook of Bless Me, Ultima. Listening to Robert Ramirez, the voice actor, enhanced my reading experience because of his marvelous work. (Recorded Books, 1994).

Source:
Anaya, Ruldofo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1972. Print.

Foerstel, Herbert. Banned in the USA. New York: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.

Monday, October 27, 2014

TTT: Ten Characters from books I'd like to be for Halloween

art by Lady Katsa

  1. Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore with her two different colored eyes and spectacular skills she is graced with.
  2. Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia with her gift of devotion to Aslan.
  3. Seraphina from Seraphina by Rachel Hartman being half dragon, half human would be a cool costume.
  4. Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bones by Laini Taylor series with her beautiful blue hair.
  5. The Disreputable Dog from the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix, my favorite character in the series. Who doesn't love dressing up like a dog when they get a chance?
  6. Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings series by JRR Tolkien. I think dressing up as a hobbit would be a kick.
  7. Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling for two reasons: 1. She has frizzy hair, I have frizzy hair, 2. When she wants to know information she goes to the library, so do I.
  8. Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. Her hair is gold. How cool is that?
  9. Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables by JM Montgomery. I think I could actually pull off this costume without too much trouble.
  10. The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. "If I were king of the forest...."


Unfortunately, I won't be dressing up for Halloween. I will be answering the door to those who are costumed. Over 100 children will ring our bell.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Salon, October 26

Location: Eugene, Oregon

Weather: Rainy and blustery. Yesterday en route to Eugene we drove through a tremendous wind storm.

Wedding: we are in Eugene to attend the wedding of my oldest nephew, Jeffrey. He and Alyssa are getting married today at 2 PM. Jeffrey is an alternative-type guy so I anticipate alternative-type wedding. For example, I understand that they have a fog machine. The rehearsal dinner was at a pizza parlor. I'm sure the day will be a fun celebration though.

Calm week: after last week which was crazy-busy, I had a very calm time this past week. I was actually able to catch up on some tasks in the library which hadn't been attended to since the beginning of the school year. What a relief to occasionally have time to think.

Soup: my daughter made a huge pot of vegetable beef soup this week. It was delicious. It is time to go back to the soup diet now that the weather has turned.

Progress on "Moose-a-muffin" project: The sod has been dug up and removed in the back yard making a space for the concrete pad. Of course, it rained like crazy so we will have to wait until it is dry before pouring the concrete. ("Moose-a-muffin" projects are those where one thing leads to a whole chain reaction of necessary projects.  Ours started with the purchase of a new car, which led to cleaning out the garage to make space for it, which led to the necessity of a shed to put our stuff in...)

Books read this week:

  • A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman---another YA book written in verse.  I REALLY enjoyed it.  Check out my review.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero---a YA novel under consideration for inclusion on our Mock Printz list. The "voice" of the narrator was very authentic.  Stay tuned for the review. I am almost done writing it.
  • Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya---this books falls in to the category of a book that everyone should read but with a caveat: it is not an easy read. I was enthralled. An audiobook.
Currently reading:

  • Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis--- a YA half-fantasy book on our Mock Printz list.
  • Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy---the audiobook selection for our car trip south. Don is enjoying it since the main character is in the National Guard. 
 A book club first: my RHS book club met this week to discuss the book The Hotel on the Place Vendome and nobody liked the book at all.  In fact, I think a few of us would use the word "hate".

Prayers: for a dear person with recently diagnosed cancer.

Gotta run and get ready for the wedding. Enjoy your week.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Quotes

Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Rose City Reader
The Friday 56 is hosted at Freda's Voice

Check out the links for the rules and for the posts of the participants each week. Participants don't select their favorite, coolest or most intellectual books, they just use the one they are currently reading.

I'm reading....

 
Book Title: Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Book Beginnings: 

My mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who---coincidentally---didn't want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY times how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty five.

Friday 56 (from page 55):
I really don't get why my mother doesn't trust me and has to listen to my phone conversations or why she doesn't think I'm responsible. I get good grade and try to help around the house, and I don't get in trouble at school. Which is more than I can say for Beto who is currently failing P.E. How do you fail P.E.? I don't know, but apparently my brother does. Yet I am labeled the irresponsible and lazy one.
Comments: I just finished this delightful book about Gabi and her senior year in high school: how she finds love, deals with friends and parents, and copes with grief. She is a Hispanic-American girl and it seems there is a huge double standard in her home between what is expected of her compared to her brother, Beto. I love her voice. I think the opening lines are so authentic. 

 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman is a celebration of life

 
When the team of my colleagues and I assembled to select our Mock Printz list of books, none of us had read, or at least completed, A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman. Because of this we based our decision to leave the book off our list partially based on the cover art. It is not the type of book cover that would attract today's teen readers. In fact, it is likely to have the opposite effect on them.

Unfortunately, our decision to leave it off our list was premature. The book's content is lovely and quite inspiring. Written entirely in verse the book is about Veda, a classical dance student in India.  She is quite talented and even wins a local competition before tragedy strikes and she loses her leg. Now Veda must fight to regain her talents as a dancer and find balance in her life. Along the road to her recovery the reader is treated to sights and sounds of her India and learns about about how the Hindu faith is the wharf and weave of daily life. I was transported by the poetic prose and all the cultural and religious references. Below is an example of the type of writing. In this scene Veda goes to see a famous dancer perform. She is suddenly aware that it is not about the dancer but about the dance.

She sings, "What Your name is, I do not know or care.
Because I feel you everywhere I dance."
Her notes rise into the air.
She follows her voice with her body,
turning slowly, her arms outstretched like beams of light
reaching upward  from the earth.
Her palms carve a staircase into the sky.
I watch her skirts swirling around her ankles.
her hair is flying around her face,
whirling faster than the rest of her.
She is the edge of a spinning circle.
She is the stillness at its center.
She is light as a petal rising in a spiraling breeze.
She is a petal dissolving into flower-dust.
Disappearing.

On the stage,
there is no dancer.
there us only dance.

Whether or not this book wins any awards this year is beside the point, this book deserves to be read and read widely.


 

2014 National Book Award YA Finalists


The National Book Award organization announced its finalists on October 16th.  Here are the finalists for the Young Adult Literature category:

NBA 2014 Young People's Literature List

Finalists:

  • Eliot Schrefer, Threatened (Scholastic Press)
  • Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
    (Roaring Brook Press/ Macmillan Publishers)

  • John Corey Whaley, Noggin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/ Simon & Schuster)
  • Deborah Wiles, Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two (Scholastic Press)
  • Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/ Penguin Group (USA))
I have read three of the five books (highlighted in yellow) and hope to have a peek at the other two soon.  I always push AWARD books for two reasons: 1)someone else has done their homework and has determined that the book is worthy of praise and worthy of my time as a reader. 2)Usually I agree with the selection committee finding the books well-written, engaging, full of complex characters and colorful descriptions. When I read AWARD books I usually feel like I have grown, that my life has changed in a small way.

Congratulations to the authors. My deepest hope is that your books will find their way into the hands of readers everywhere!

 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines

If there is one book that all teens should read today it is Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman. Using simple, straight-forward language, plenty of photos and charts, and tons of references, the book is a veritable treasure trove of information to help make sense of all the environmental headlines in the news today.

Fleischman, who admits that he is not an environmental scientist, became interested in putting together this book for a personal reason, bees dead on his driveway. His stated goal for writing the book is to "give the reader a foundation under their decisions." What I appreciated most was the tips for identifying the wolf in sheep clothing, companies that pretend to be green, but aren't. I was also glad to read what is often not spoken about frankly, political ideologies and how they influence environmental legislation. There was no name-calling or finger-pointing, however. He explores the connection between money and our current problems. "Science explains what nature is doing; often money explains what we are doing."

The looks at the history of environmental issues to give context to where we are today, but the reader is left with a sense of hope for the future if we take action.

As I turned the last page I determined to fight for including this book on our 2015 Mock Printz reading list. Why? Because I want as many teenagers as possible to read this book and this seemed like a place to start.

I'm not kidding. Everyone, including you, should read this book AND take action.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Salon...A lovely October day

Our backyard trees set against a lovely blue sky (Mountain Ash, Sweet Gum, Oak)
Weather: beautiful day, unseasonably warm and muggy.

Ordination: Our Youth Director was just ordained today and will be moving to another church as their Family and Children's Pastor. The ordination service was designed by Brett and was a wonderful celebration of his life and his ministry. His parents and family played an important role in the service as did other pastors from neighboring churches. We will miss Brett tremendously but are so excited for him as he moves on to another phase of his ministry.

Scripture: The scripture Brett chose for his service was I Samuel 3:1-11
A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.
What wonderful words of challenge for all of us: "Here I am, Lord, speak to me!"

Putting the garden to bed: we spent some time in the yard today raking leaves, pulling up summer annuals, and planting bulbs and chrysanthemums, We were dressed for fall weather but just about roasted to death it was so warm in the sun. It was a lovely day to be working in the yard, really glorious.

Cello: Carly accompanied the choir on her cello today in church. It has been so fun to have cello music back in our lives after a four year hiatus while she was away at college and not playing it.

Piles: This week I've noticed all the funny piles of books and magazines I have lying around the house. Piles that have been in place for years.  One pile has magazines from as far back as 2008 in it. Another pile has a copy of the magazine  announcing the 1st inauguration of President Obama. I must set things down and never think of them again. Time to clean house!

Mock Printz roll-out: On Friday during lunch periods I rolled out the list of books for the 2015 Mock Printz workshop. Currently we have 16 books on the list, with three books still under consideration. Thirty students signed the pledge to join up. We are off and running.

 Book finished this week:
  • The Hotel on Place Vendome by Mazzeo---The history of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, especially concerning its residents during WWII. Interesting but also boring. It was a chore to read.
Currently reading (and progress):
  • Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero---one of the three books still under consideration for Mock Printz. Page 79 of 284.
  • Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis- a Mock Printz selection. Page 51 of 387,
  • Bless Me, Ultima by Ruldolfo Anaya---my banned book selection of the year and an audiobook. Disc 6 of 10.
  • A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman---a lovely YA novel set in India, written in verse. I am enjoying the cultural  and religious references. Page 280 of 320.

Lovely cello music of the song Say Something...enjoy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Say What You Will---I like it

On my Mock Printz  roll-out event yesterday I described Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern as a "romance" which is only partially true. It does have a romantic aspect but it is SO much more than that. Let me attempt to explain what I mean.

Characters: Matthew and Amy, both are seniors in high school.
     Amy is a beautiful, intelligent girl who has cerebral palsy. She can only speak with the help of a talking computer and needs assistance with things that most teens take for granted like getting from class to class and eating. Yet her brains, especially her writing abilities, have brought her a sense of notoriety in school.
     Matthew is a loner who has found himself in a world given over more and more to his compulsions. At this point it is not diagnosed as OCD yet. He worries about everything and tries to figure out how he is going to navigate through his day without drawing attention to himself. Oddly and out of character for Matthew, it is a comment that he makes in class that causes an interaction with Amy for the first time.

Normal/Unusual teenagers: both Matthew and Amy just want to be normal teens but their disabilities handcuff them to a degree.
      Amy wants to make friends yet recognizes the adult assistant assigned to help her at school are barriers to this goal. What if she has student assistants help her navigate through the school day rather than adults?
      Matthew is also lonely yet fascinated by Amy. He is secretly pleased to be selected as one of her student helpers. Will he be able to hide his obsessions from her and her parents?

The Plot: on the surface it appears that the book will unfold like most romances. Boy meets girl. Boy woos girl. Girl challenges boy to find his better self. Love ensues. 
     The first half of the book appears to follow the above pattern. When the senior prom happens near mid-book it became obvious this book will now veer off the pattern into uncharted territory. The plot twist kept me reading and interested.
   
The author: Say What You Will is author Cammie McGovern's debut YA novel. As a mother of a child with autism she understands more than most the challenges faced by children living with disabilities. In an interview with USA Today she says
As the parent of a 17-year-old son with autism, I know all too well about loneliness and isolation for kids with disabilities. As is often the case with kids on the autism spectrum, his communication may be halting and awkward, but he is, at heart, a social creature who delights in activities and the company of others. The best thing I did in the lonely, hard years after Ethan was first diagnosed was connect with a group of mothers of kids with disabilities and start an organization called Whole Children. 
Her experiences with her own son and with children she met through the Whole Children organization must have really helped her understand teens. The language and the situations in the book are quite credible and authentic.

Mock Printz selection: because of the above reasons we selected Say What You Will to be on our Mock Printz list of books this year. I will be interested to see how teens react to it. If yesterday is any indication, the reaction of teens to it will be favorable. The cover flap, which mentions John Green, will be reason enough for many teens to read it, "John Green's The Fault in Our Stars meets Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park in this beautifully written, incredibly honest, and emotionally poignant novel." I don't know if I would go so far as to compare this book to those two mega-wonderful books but I do like it.

Read it yourself and let me know what you think. Say What You Will---it's good.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Czar Nicholas II played dominoes."

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming is a book with a fabulous subtitle: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. The above quote, from the Wall Street Journal review pretty much sums up the last days of Czar Nicholas II, blithely playing cards and dominoes while his country was falling apart.
Here is the riveting story of the Russian Revolution as it unfolded. When Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, inherited the throne in 1894, he was unprepared to do so. With their four daughters (including Anastasia) and only son, a hemophiliac, Nicholas and his reclusive wife, Alexandra, buried their heads in the sand, living a life of opulence as World War I raged outside their door and political unrest grew.  Deftly maneuvering between the lives of the Romanovs and the plight of Russia’s peasants—and their eventual uprising—Fleming offers up a fascinating portrait, complete with inserts featuring period photographs and compelling primary-source material that brings it all to life. History doesn't get more interesting than the story of the Romanovs.- Candace Fleming
As a young teen I was captivated by the story of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, his family, and how they were killed in cold blood. I was fascinated by the very creepy Rasputin. And I wondered if Anastasia was still alive and actually kept my fingers crossed that she was. That was the depth of my knowledge about the Romanov family and condition of peasants in Russia prior to the revolution.

Now, finally, a book has been written about the last Czar of Russia that is perfect for high school students. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia is not too easy and childish for teen readers, nor is it overly long and tedious. It gives lots of information without over-simplifying or overwhelming the reader. Fleming, known as a scholarly yet engaging nonfiction writer, makes great use of primary documents---diaries, letters, telegrams, eye-witness accounts. The book fairly crackles with authority while remaining accessible.

Every year I try to find the perfect nonfiction book for high school students who honestly will not read adult nonfiction but get turned off on the more childish junior books which are full of sidebar columns, and disjointed artifacts on each page. The Family Romanov is just the book I've been looking for and I predict that students fascinated with Russian history, like I was as a teenager, will find it worth their time. And they will learn a lot if they read it including the proof that Anastasia was definitely killed along with her family.

We are including The Family Romanov in our cadre of books for our 2015 Mock Printz for the above reasons and more. It has a plethora of starred reviews and just plain great reviews like this one from the Washington Post:
Candace Fleming’s latest book has the elements of an overheated dystopian thriller —political repression, malevolent figures, a protracted war, endangered children— but no prospect of a triumphal ending. Focusing on the last czar and his family, Fleming, who has also written books about Amelia Earhart and the Lincolns, delivers another engaging and insightful work of history, giving young readers a clear sense of the complicated world in which the Romanov family lived and died. She presents imperial Russia as full of problematic extremes, and Nicholas II as a leader incapable of handling them.
The only thing I disagree with in this review is the mention of young readers. Yes, there may be young readers who will be able to read this book but I think it is better suited for the teen readers, or for adults who like to read their history in accessible formats. Either way, just read it. I guarantee you will learn something and unlearn a few things you thought you knew but had wrong all these years.