Monday, February 29, 2016

February 2016 Wrap Up

My month of reading books where the protagonists were significantly different from myself was a definite success.  I got to every book on my list, read most of my bonus round books, and found a few new favorites.  I traveled to Africa, India and China.  I saw gay relationships and polygamous ones.  I explored historical fiction and absurd fantasy.  At the end of this long literary journey, I arrived at a rather simple conclusion.  Whether you are a gay superhero, an African slave, a Nepalese child prostitute, a Chinese farmer, or a boy raised by wolves, we all just want to be happy and loved.  If we could only support each other and find ways to build each other up, the world would be a much happier place.    

Books Read
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Sold by Patricia McCormick
Hero by Perry Moore
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by  Becky Albertalli
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Best of the month: Sold
Worst of the month: The Jungle Books

Books that I didn't get to, but am saving for later:
After realizing that I already read Nectar in a Sieve a few years ago, I got to everything on my list except The Scorch Trials by James Dashner.

Book with the most gratuitous use of the word "horny": Grasshopper Jungle

New favorites: Sold, Copper Sun

These theme months are undoubtedly one of the best things I've ever done. I'm having even more fun reading than usual, and that's saying a lot for me.  On to the next month!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

I remember when our new principal arrived three years ago, the kids did an interview with her and decorated a bulletin board in the front hallway with information about her.  The reasoning behind this, of course, was to give the students a little bit of a preview of what the new boss was like.  One of the questions placed on the bulletin board was, "What is your favorite book?"  I honestly can't think of a better question to ask someone you are just getting to know.  What a person loves to read can tell you a lot about their character.  I'm sure you can tell where this is going by now.  The new principal's answer to this question was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  I'd never read the novel before, so I couldn't infer much from her answer at the time, but the fact that she loves this novel has always stuck in my mind.  Since it fits in well with my reading theme for the month of reading about characters who are different from myself, I decided to make this Pulitzer Prize winner my last book of February.

The Good Earth tells the life story of Wang Lung, a rural farmer in the late 1800s/early 1900s in China.  The novel begins with the young man going to the house of a rich family from his area to pick up a slave to be his wife.  From there, the plot follows the course of Wang Lung's entire life as he attempts to support himself and his family by farming his piece of land.  The reader watches Wang Lung in times both good and bad as he suffers failures and reaps successes from the earth.  The narration style is simple and unadorned, making the novel feel like a parable about the dangers of wealth and excess. Ultimately, The Good Earth delivers a message about how important it is to stay connected to your roots and appreciate where you came from.

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  The writing style was lyrical in its simplicity.  I liked reading it, and I wanted to see how things turned out for Wang Lung at the end. However, I was also consistently appalled at many of the plot points in the novel, especially at how the protagonist treated his wife.  I get that women were considered as little more than property during this time period, and Wang Lung's actions were most likely normal when viewed in the proper context, but I was having a hard time divorcing my own feelings and opinions from the work while reading. 

Wang Lung's wife O-Lan is perhaps the most hardworking and dedicated woman I have ever seen in a work of literature, and as repayment for her unwavering loyalty she endures a life full of emotional abuse. Among other slights, her husband complains that she is ugly, complains that her feet aren't bound, takes a prostitute as a second wife, and fails to notice that she has a tumor the size of a man's head growing in her stomach for several years, until she can no longer serve his food and clean the house without moaning in pain.  Wang Lung feels sorry at the end of O-Lan's life, but I'm not a fan of plot devices in which a woman must be sacrificed in order for a male character to grow up. The novel tells the story exclusively from Wang Lung's perspective, but I couldn't help but consider how O-Lan must have felt throughout the novel.  It was disturbing to consider what she had to go through, and I didn't enjoy reading about her mistreatment.      

One of the aspects The Good Earth is praised for the most is how it gives the reader a glimpse into what life was like for people in China's past.  I question the authenticity of this novel.  The simple narrative style in which it is written makes it seem historically accurate, but how would I know if it wasn't?  I don't know anything about the history of China, so I can't tell for myself.  Pearl S. Buck spent a huge portion of her life living in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, so a lot of this is probably accurate.  On the other hand, however, she assuredly wasn't living in mud huts with farmers during her time there, so I don't think that the fact that she lived in China is incontrovertible proof that she got every detail right. The back of my version of book contains excepts from different critical reviews of The Good Earth, so I read through those, hoping for some answers to my accuracy question.  Some of the reviews praised its historical accuracy and others claimed that Buck got a lot of details wrong.  Well, which is it? 

If I am judging The Good Earth on it's own literary merit, then I suppose it doesn't really matter if it is an accurate portrayal of Chinese life during this time period.  The question nags at me though, because I get the sense that there are some stereotypes running throughout its pages.  Did Chinese women really produce one child per year, and refer to the act as "breeding?"  Were female children and wives really called "slaves?"  Did Chinese men regularly pluck second and third wives from among their slaves or prostitutes and all live together in one big house?  At times, I got the feeling that the descriptions of certain cultural practices in the novel were how a white person that considers themselves "above" the culture they are describing would say things.  I might be being unfair, however.  The book did win the Pulitzer and I have no special knowledge about China.  I do think that Pearl S. Buck loved China and the Chinese people.  I suppose I am at a bit of a loss as to how to take this novel.  It was very different.

In the end, I have to admit that I don't quite get the praise for The Good Earth.  I enjoyed reading it well enough, and I appreciate its literary significance.  Its message about the importance of hard work and the difficulties that come with wealth are still relevant. However, I don't know what a modern woman will gain from its pages, because everything is so sad and hopeless for the female characters.  Thinking back to that bulletin board from three years ago, I'm not sure what my principal found to love about this novel.  I will have to ask. I'm sad that I wasn't quite able to connect with this story.  I liked it, but didn't love it.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

I was never a huge fan of the Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book as a kid.  I didn't hate it, by any means, I just didn't especially like it either.  Lack of princesses was its main problem.  However, when I saw the trailer for the new, live-action Jungle Book movie, it knocked my socks off!  It's coming out in April and it looks AWESOME!  So, I decided that I ought to read the actual novel first because it fits into my reading theme for the month, and so I can be *that person* in the theater that loudly whispers about all the differences between the book and the film. 

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling are a set of two novels, each made up of several shorter stories featuring mostly animal characters.  The short stories are set up like individual fables, meant to teach the reader a lesson or to make some sort of comment on humanity.  Mowgli and company are in about half of the stories between the two books and the other tales feature unrelated animals from all over the world.  The stories are not in sequential order and only the parts that involve Mowgli follow any kind of larger narrative.  Sadly, I found this book very difficult to get into and I struggled to finish.

Since the Mowgli stories are what most people remember about The Jungle Book, I'll start there.  At the beginning of the novel, Mowgli, an abandoned child in India, is discovered by a pack of wolves and raised up in the jungle as one of their own.  He learns the laws of the jungle from Baloo, a bear who serves as his mentor.  He also bonds with Bagheera (a black panther) and Kaa (a snake), and has many adventures with them. His sworn enemy is the fearsome tiger, Shere Khan, whom his mother wolf tells him that he is destined to kill one day.  Most of Mowgli's stories center around the time he was ostracized from his wolf pack for being a man.  He lives in a village with other humans for a while, but they eventually turn against him when they discover his special relationship with wolves and assume he is some sort of demon.  As a child living between the human world and the animal world, Mowgli must work to discover a place where he belongs.

The Mowgli stories were by far the most readable parts of The Jungle Books.  The colorful cast of animal characters was enjoyable, and I couldn't help but root for Mowgli to succeed in his adventures.  These chapters of the novel felt like old-fashioned bed time stories, and they were reliably engaging, if a little slow at times.

The other stories in The Jungle Books were an exercise in frustration.  Long, boring, and disconnected from the most endearing characters in the novel, these chapters  were very tough to get through.  I regularly struggled to stay awake while reading.  A book that is essentially a collection of fables for children should not be a difficult read, but it took me much longer than it should have to finish the whole collection.  There is definitely a reason that Mowgli and his friends are the only things people remember about these novels.  Everything else is completely forgettable, with perhaps the exception of "Rikki-tikki-tavi," which is mainstay in middle school literature books.

I struggled to make sense of the lessons that Rudyard Kipling was trying to impart here.  Some of the stories show man to be a careless, violent creature, while other stories show man to be the master of all things in India.  I couldn't pin down Kipling's purpose, which bothered me while reading.  There was an intellectual inconsistency present that continually threw me off.  Also, the idea of British colonialism was somewhat glorified, with the white man being described as the most intelligent and dangerous creatures in existence, while the native Indian population is described as foolish, superstitious and cruel.  After reading Things Fall Apart earlier this month, I had little patience for this attitude.    

In the end, I didn't learn much from The Jungle Books. What should have been a fun set of stories was ruined by boring chapters and a suspect set of morals.  I appreciate that this is a classic of children's literature, but I don't really understand why. The final impression I have after finishing is one of vague racism and confusion.  This is one situation where the upcoming film adaptation will almost certainly be better than the original text.  What a disappointment.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


I ran a 15k this weekend.  That's 9.3 miles, and a tough thing to do (for me).  Overall, I was disappointed that my race number fell one digit short of being the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (two times).  Stupid husband and his stupid luck.  He's never even read Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy.  They gave us free towels after the race and everything. It would have been poetry.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake

I chose to read The Skin I'm In because the Girlfriends Club at my school chose this as their reading selection for the year. Since I help out with that group, I wanted to keep up with what they were doing.  The club coordinator (our assistant principal) commented that she used this book at her last school and the kids always liked it.  After reading it myself, I can see why the kids are fans. 

The Skin I'm In tells the story of Maleeka Madison, an African American middle school student attending a rough-around-the-edges public school.  She is smart, but is constantly teased over the dark shade of her skin.  Bullying, peer pressure and struggles at home have given Maleeka a tough outer shell. She runs with the wrong crowd and is constantly being taken advantage of by her "friend," the tough-talking Charlese.  Her life begins to change when Mrs. Saunders, a new teacher, arrives at her school and takes an interest in her.  Ms. Saunders has a discolored area on her face, and must deal with insults about her appearance, just like Maleeka.  Her kindness and strength serve as a good example and with her guidance, Maleeka begins to explore her talents and break away from the ugliness and negativity that hold her back.

This book strikes me as being very relevant and true to today's students.  The issues that Maleeka faces--the bullying, the violence, the peer pressure--are pervasive problems in the school system that I see everyday.  Kids will easily be able to see themselves in this story and will hopefully be inspired by Maleeka's growth and Ms. Saunders' determination. 

In addition to being realistic, the novel is set up to be easy for students to read. It contains large font and informal language that low readers will have no difficulty understanding. At 171 pages, it is also a very manageable length.  It took me about one and a half hours to read.  Students could probably breeze through this in a few days or weeks, depending on their reading ability.

While this book is very obviously for a middle grades audience, I found that I was able to learn from it as well.  It gave me a bit of insight into the behaviors of kids that don't necessarily put their best foot forward at school.  I see puzzling behavior and squandered potential every day at my job, and I admit that while I try my best to keep an open mind, I don't always understand what drives students to act out.  I still wouldn't call myself an expert at adolescent behavior (who would?), but reading about Maleeka did show me some possibilities.

While I do think this is a valuable novel that teaches important lessons, it is extremely simple.  I often found myself wishing for some deeper characterization.  Aside from Maleeka and Ms. Saunders, every other character was extremely one dimensional.  At times, the writing was so stripped down that I would get confused and feel like I was missing details.  Perhaps this feeling is unfair, because I was reading a novel meant for a younger audience, but I felt like this writing was a little too plain, even for what it was supposed to be.   

I liked this book, and would most definitely recommend it to my students who aren't enthusiastic or highly skilled readers.  It was a bit simplistic for me, but there is a lot to this novel for kids who don't often find literature they can relate to.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is one of those young adult books that you hear a lot of praise for.  As its protagonist is a sexually confused teenage boy, I thought it fit my February reading theme perfectly.  Having just finished it, I'm honestly not sure what I read.  I am, however, sure that I enjoyed it.  Beware, this review will contain minor spoilers.

The plot of Grasshopper Jungle is made up of two distinct parts--the realistic story of Austin Szerba's struggle to find his sexual identity and the not-so-realistic story of how his hometown, Ealing, Iowa is taken over by gigantic, genetically-modified grasshoppers.  Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann Collins, and his best friend, Robby Brees.  He fantasizes about them both and has sexual experiences with both of them throughout the novel.  Deeply confused, he doesn't want to hurt either Robby (who is gay) or Shann (who is straight), but he can't make a decision on who he wants to be with, or even how he defines his sexuality.  Making everything even messier is the advent of an army of unstoppable killer grasshoppers, who escape from their contained laboratory environment and begin to bring about the end of the world.  Caught in an epic struggle, Austin has to find a way to sort out his complicated feelings for his friends and survive the grasshopper crisis.

This novel is completely bizarre.  Realistic and science fiction elements are thrown together to create a very unique reading experience.  The story is narrated by Austin, who considers himself to be a historian of sorts.  He records his own history in a series of notebooks and speaks directly to the reader in a smart, witty voice as he does so.  While he conveys the main plot of the novel, he also explains every obscure connection between events and people, what is happening to other characters in the story concurrently, and the backstories of his ancestors.  This chaotic narration style is peppered with the raunchy and vulgar thoughts of a teenage boy, with swears and sexual references occurring on almost every page.  Somehow, all of these elements come together to tell a story that is comprehensible, original, and weird. 

Austin's sexual identity crisis was well written.  He is attracted to both his girlfriend and his best male friend, and has no idea which person he wants to be with.  He wants them both.  He doesn't think he is gay.  He doesn't think he is bisexual.  He just doesn't know.  I think this is a realistic approach to describe a teen struggling to define himself in the face of some conflicting feelings.  I also liked how his eventual decision is not to decide on a category for himself.  He finds peace with not knowing and simply living his life, taking things as they come. 

While I very much liked this novel overall, it definitely wasn't perfect.  The plot was slow and repetitive at times.  Austin's desire to show how events are connected and how history repeats itself leads to large sections of text that retread old information.  The secondary characters in the novel aren't well-developed, and Shann in particular is reduced from being a cool girl to a mopey cardboard cutout by the end of the novel.  The sheer amount of times I had to read the words "balls" and "horny" was ridiculous.  However, what Smith created in Grasshopper Jungle was so unlike anything I had read before that I was willing to forgive these annoyances.  It was nice to see something so creative and different.

So, despite a few problems, I still think Grasshopper Jungle is worth a read.  It's a coming of age story unlike any that I have ever encountered, and that counts for a lot with me.  Andrew Smith's compelling style created a surreal world that I'm glad I got a chance to explore.   

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Prior to this month, I hadn't read very much young adult literature featuring gay characters.  I view this as an unfortunate deficit in my reading history, so I wanted to make it a priority to read a few novels like this during my month of reading about characters who are different from me.  Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a title that I received as a Christmas gift this year.  I had heard a lot of positive buzz surrounding this novel on various blogs, so I decided that this was the perfect time to pick it up.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is the coming of age story of Simon Spier, a sixteen-year-old high school student living in Georgia.  Simon is smart, funny and well-liked among his peers.  He is also gay, but hasn't told any of his friends or family yet.  At the novel's beginning, Simon has been carrying on a romantic e-mail relationship with another boy at his school for months.  They've both kept their real identities secret, and this anonymity allows them to spill their hearts out to each other; Through their e-mails, Simon and the mysterious "Blue" are able to discuss subjects that they wouldn't feel comfortable speaking about to anyone else.  Their secret relationship is put in jeopardy when a moment of carelessness on Simon's part allows another student to see the secret messages he's been writing.  This other student uses this information to blackmail Simon- he threatens to out him to the whole school unless he helps him hook up with a girl he likes (one of Simon's best friends).  From this point on, Simon must struggle with trying to balance the loyalty he feels towards his best friends with the increasingly intimate relationship he is developing with his secret boyfriend.

This book was really good, in a quiet, cute sort of way.  Reading the plot description on the inside flap of the novel made me half expect a dramatic story filled with bullying and depression.  However, Albertalli kept the mood light and funny. Simon is struggling with the decision to come out and be himself, but he is surrounded by good friends that support him and family that loves him unconditionally.  It was nice to read a novel where a gay character didn't have to deal with those closest to him turning their backs on him over his sexuality.  The novel had the turbulent emotions of a teenager dealing with stressful situations, but a rational calmness was present as well.  It all just felt normal, or at least, how the life of a teenager should be.  

Simon's narration is consistently funny and relatable.  There were certain parts that had me laughing out loud and other parts that had me physically nodding my head because I so totally understood what he meant by something.  The correspondence between Simon and Blue was similarly well-written.  I found myself falling in love with their relationship.  I sometimes feel a little awkward reading about same sex romances, but everything here was so excellently written that I was able to get completely into the story.  I think that's one of the most important reasons that more literature needs to be focused on teens of different sexualities - to normalize these relationships to straight readers.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda was a funny read with a lot of heart.  At its core, it is a picture of a teen struggling to find himself--a story that is familiar to all of us.  This warm and smart novel is an excellent example of young adult fiction done right.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Copper Sun by Sharon Draper

Every year, the 8th graders in my school read Copper Sun by Sharon Draper in their social studies classes, and every year, they rave about it.  This seems to be one of the few novels that captures everyone's attention.  Boys, girls, those who love to read, and those who hate to read all seem to fall under its spell.  Since this historical fiction novel about the slave trade fits in well with my reading theme for the month, I figured that it was finally time I read it for myself.

Copper Sun is a historical fiction novel set in both Africa and America (or, more accurately, the British colony of Carolina) in 1738.  It follows the story of Amari, an African teenager who is captured by slave traders during an attack on her village.  She watches the murders of her mother, father and little brother before being taken and sold as a slave.  After suffering the horrors of crossing the ocean on a slave ship, she is sold to a rice plantation in Carolina.  At her new home, she meets Polly, a white indentured servant around her own age.  The two girls form a friendship while enduring countless indignities and abuses at the hands of their masters.  Together, they must learn to survive and hold on to some hope that they might become free again one day.  To say any more would spoil the plot, so I will leave my summary there. 

This book was phenomenal, and it only took me a few chapters to understand why my students love it so much.  The action is fast-paced and the plot takes several dramatic twists and turns that kept me turning the pages.  At the same time, Draper doesn't skip over including the emotions and thoughts of the characters (something that I find happens often in fast-paced novels).  The development of Amari and Polly is excellent - I was easily able to empathize with the characters and often found myself imagining what I would do if I were in their places.  These girls are characters you want to root for. 

Aside from the solid writing, another point in Copper Sun's favor is that it tells the truth.  Slavery is an uncomfortable period in our history.  It's difficult to talk about many aspects of what went on during that time period, but Draper doesn't sugar coat the facts.  Brutal beatings, continual sexual abuse and an unbelievable disregard of human life are all featured throughout the novel.  The events depicted in this story give readers a better feel for the cruelty of slavery than reading about the topic in a textbook would.  One of my students said it best when we were discussing the novel in class.  This child, who proudly states that loathes reading at every opportunity, came out and said, "It's really terrible what they did to those people."  Even though this particular student isn't one to pick up a book and empathize with it's characters, Copper Sun was able to reach him and help him understand the pain and trauma that the slaves endured.  That's very powerful.

In the back of the novel, Draper includes a long list of websites and other resources for anyone interested in learning more about slavery.  This is a helpful addition that was missing in Sold, another historical fiction work that I read this month.  I liked having a starting point for learning more about our history right at my fingertips after I finished reading.

While Copper Sun is a work of fiction, its roots in historical fact make it stand as a powerful example of how history and literature can combine to open a window into the past.  This is a book I would recommend to everyone, without reservation.  While the topic is serious and mature, it is an accurate picture of a dark time period in our history.  It is not only an entertaining and moving novel, it is an important novel.  Five stars.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Hero by Perry Moore

I took a break from reading about issues facing other countries for a novel set in the U.S. this time.  The protagonist of Hero fits into my February theme of reading about those who are different from me because he is a gay teen.  He is also a superhero, but that doesn't really count for what I'm trying to do here.  Sadly, I haven't read very many books featuring gay characters.  I want to change that, and I figured this would be as good of a place as any to start.

Hero follows the story of Thomas Creed, a teenage boy keeping two big secrets from his dad: he has superpowers and he is gay. When he is asked to try out for the League of Heroes, the same superhero league that his father was kicked out of in disgrace years earlier, he has to try and balance his outside life with his increasingly complicated secret life. Throughout the novel, Thomas struggles to reconcile his desire to help save the world with his desire to be the son his father expects him to be. Hero is a story about conquering your fears and standing up to do what's right, even in the face of bigotry and super villains.

This novel is an example of what happens when an amazing idea meets sloppy execution. You end up with a book that is okay, but could have been so much more. I wanted Hero to be a lot better than it was, and I feel like it could have been phenomenal if it weren't for its clumsy writing and dangling plot threads. However, let's save the negatives for last and first discuss what Hero does well.

The characterization of Thomas is very strong. I can't recall ever reading a novel with a male teen protagonist that showed so much depth. He is funny, sensitive, intelligent, and is shown to have thoughts that extend beyond the end of his own nose - qualities that YA male protagonists generally lack.  He can play basketball AND do laundry...what a concept! I liked Thomas and I wanted him to find a way to be happy and solve his problems. The supporting characters were interesting as well.  Thom's dad was an interesting mix of good father and angry jerk, while the band of misfits that made up Thom's superhero probationary team were a group of underdogs that I wanted to see succeed.   

Another point in Hero's favor was its subject matter.  I though it was a fantastic idea to mix a real teen issue in with the fantasy world of superheroes.  Thom is gay, and he struggles with bullying and being closeted, but that isn't what the entire story is about.  A book dealing with teen sexuality that doesn't define its characters entirely on that concept is rare and awesome.  I really enjoyed this combination.

The superhero world Thom lives in is campy and fun.  There are several obvious nods to famous superheroes like Superman and Wonderwoman.  It's easy to tell that Moore has a lot of love for the genre, and his novel really does read like a comic book.  

The language and humor throughout Hero stand out as well.  The dialogue is realistic to how a teenager would talk - lots of swearing and sarcasm.  Some of the lines were laugh-out-loud funny and Thom's sense of humor was well done.  

There was so much in Hero that was smart and excellent.  Unfortunately, the good moments were often derailed by writing that was confusing and poorly constructed.  A lot of contradictions popped up throughout the text that took me right out of the story.  For example, at one point Thom is on a bus that gets taken over by super villains.  Thom describes these villains as a non-famous, ragtag group that he didn't recognize.  Then, in the next paragraph, he somehow knows all of their names and powers.  There were lots of little moments like this that just made the narrative seem sloppy.    

Another issue was the action sequences, which felt overlong. The descriptions of what was happening during these scenes weren't clear.  I often had no idea who was where and had to go back and reread to clear up my confusion.  These sections lacked the flow that a reader would expect as the tension builds and they read faster and faster through the pages to get to the resolution of the scene.  I shouldn't have had to keep flipping back and forth.  It ruins the excitement.

Certain parts of the plot didn't really make sense.  There is a story line that follows a string of superhero murders that only gets partially resolved.  Similarly, the plot thread about Thom's mother is never fully explained either.  Thom's superpower, which is the ability to heal living things, is never clearly defined.  I still don't really know what his powers are.  The final fight at the end of the novel was poorly foreshadowed, and thus, didn't make much sense.  On the other hand, some of the foreshadowing regarding other elements of the story was so obvious that I was able to guess almost everything that happened in the novel well before I was supposed to know.  Honestly, it was a mess.  It was a compelling mess though, and I kept turning pages.

Despite several issues with the novel, I did still enjoy it.  It was just very frustrating because the concept behind this story was so strong that I think a little more polish and editing would have produced an amazing novel.  In doing some research on the background of the author, Perry Moore, I discovered that he had meant for this to be the start of a whole series of novels about teen superheroes with real world problems.  Sadly, Moore passed away in 2011, before he got a chance to write more books in the series.  What he accomplished in Hero, while imperfect, is still admirable for giving readers a window into the world of what gay teens have to struggle with in a way that is not too preachy or depressing. I would still recommend this novel as a unique adventure featuring a character a little bit different from your standard bland YA male protagonist. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sold by Patricia McCormick

In my continuing quest to read about people who are different from myself this month, I read Sold by Patricia McCormick.  Set in Nepal and India, this young adult novel focuses on a thirteen-year-old girl who is sold into sexual slavery by her stepfather.  While this is a work of fiction, it paints a heartbreaking picture of a very real issue in our world.  Hauntingly beautiful, this is my first new favorite book of 2016.

Sold tells the story of Lakshmi, a 13-year-old girl living in a remote village in Nepal.  Her life is difficult at times since her family is poor.  She endures drought, hunger and flooding as the seasons change, but she finds joy in the small things in life - taking care of her pet goat, playing with her baby brother, dreaming about the boy she is promised to marry, and spending time with her mother.  Her stepfather is a troubled and selfish man, who is unable to work due to an old injury.  He gambles away what little the family does have, regularly leaving them on the brink of starvation.  Eventually, his debts pile up to the point where he decides to sell Lakshmi to a woman who claims to be taking her to be a maid for a wealthy family in a big city.  Lakshmi goes along with this plan, since she believes she will be able to send her wages home to her mother and help support her family.  Soon, however, she discovers that she has been deceived.  She is not going to be a maid somewhere; she has been sold to a brothel in India.  Forced to work as a prostitute, Lakshmi struggles with depression, shame and abuse.  Despite her fear and sadness, she begins to make friends and learns to survive in her new world.  When she can bear the pain no longer, she begins to build up the courage to try and get out.

Sold is told through a series of vignettes, similar to House on Mango Street.  These vignettes are beautifully written, and do a wonderful job of helping the reader understand Lakshmi's pain.  While reading, I felt a sense of heaviness - almost as if something was sitting on my chest.  It was as if I could feel the weight of all the sadness heaped on Lakshmi's shoulders.  I was totally invested in the story and read through the book very quickly.  I wanted to know if Lakshmi ever made it out of the brothel, and if she ever found happiness again.

Aside from enjoying the writing in Sold, I found that I learned a lot about Nepalese and Indian culture.  In her author's note at the end of the novel, McCormick describes how she traveled to Nepal and India as part of her research for this book. Life in a remote Asian mountain village or in the red-light districts of Calcutta is completely alien to me, but McCormick's rich and descriptive writing helped me to begin to understand these far away places.  As I am focusing on the unfamiliar with my reading this month, I was very happy that the world-building in this story was so strong.  I felt like I was truly somewhere else while reading.

Underlying the experience of reading a book like Sold is the understanding that Lakshmi's experience is based on what happens to real young girls sold into the illegal sex trade.  Lakshmi is fictional, but her story is not.  Each year, thousands of Nepalese girls are sold by their desperate families to Indian brothels.  The knowledge that this is a real problem adds another layer of sadness to Sold.  While I knew that forced prostitution was something that happens to children, I didn't really know any specifics about the issue.  Reading this novel gave me some information to hold onto, and humanized what was, for me at least, a vague understanding of what happens to the young girls that get caught up in the horrifying realities of the child sex trade.  I wish McCormick had included some information in her author's note about where people could go to donate or otherwise extend some help to these girls, because Sold makes you want to act.

There was so much described in Sold that was heartbreaking, but McCormick's powerful writing brought a sense of hope and beauty to this dark story that made it impossible to put down. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in looking outside the four walls of their own comfortable existence and learning more about the darker side of the world.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

"'Does the white man understand our custom about land?'
'How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?  But he says our customs are bad; and even our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad.  How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us?  The white man is very clever.  He came quietly and peaceably with his religion.  We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay.  Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one.  He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.'"

My goal in February is to read books that feature protagonists who are different from myself.  Things Fall Apart, an African novel featuring a Nigerian protagonist, definitely falls into that category.  This is another book that I've had sitting on my shelves for years now and never got around to reading (I'm saying that a lot this year already and it's only February).  This is also my Back to the Classics book for the "Classic by a Non-White Author" category.

Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a leader in the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia.  The novel is split into three parts.  The first part is about Okonkwo's life and the customs of his village, while the second and third parts discuss the impact of colonialism and Christian missionaries on his country.  From the start of the novel, Okonkwo is shown to be a man of many accomplishments.  He is a wrestling champion, a successful farmer and a fierce warrior.  He is very wealthy and has three wives and many children.  Others in his village look up to him.  His success is all the more impressive because he had to earn it all by himself.  His father, whom Okonkwo considers to be a failure and a disgrace, didn't like fighting or wars, wasn't successful at providing for his family, and died in heavy debt.  His determination to follow a different path led him to become an extremely hard worker and to embrace the African idea of masculinity to the fullest.  He clings to this ideal to the point where he regularly beats his wives and children to ensure they live up to his high expectations.  Life in Umuofia follows set patterns dictated by the traditions of the various tribes, and the novel shows the reader many different daily routines, religious beliefs and government processes that take place in the village throughout part one.

Things take a dark turn for Okonkwo in parts two and three of the novel when he accidentally kills the son of an tribal elder when his rifle misfires. The punishment for this crime is a self-imposed exile of seven years.  Okonkwo loses everything he had built during his time away.  His farm and home are destroyed by the tribe and he loses his place as a leader for his people.  When he is finally able to return, things in Umuofia are different.  Christian missionaries have established churches and have begun converting villagers.  These missionaries have also introduced their own government, which they use to imprison, whip, and execute Africans who don't follow their laws.  Okonkwo, as a man who has always clung fiercely to African traditions, rejects the changes these intruders have brought with them.  He is completely unable to adapt to this new way of life, but it's too late to change anything because the missionaries have converted too many Africans to their side.  This realization inevitably leads to a sad ending.

I really liked this novel, but in a quiet way.  It's not exactly a page-turner because the narration is very neutral and detached.  As a reader, I didn't come to care for any of the characters in particular (and in fact, I actively disliked Okonkwo at times), but I found that that didn't matter so  much.  The descriptions of life in Nigeria were so completely foreign to me that I was continually learning something new. The desire to see outside my own culture was the main reason I choose this novel in the first place, so I was happy with that.

I quickly found that part of reading a novel set so completely outside of my own experience is learning to accept the practices and beliefs of others for what they are. I had to continually remind myself not to judge Okonkwo's culture by the standards of my own. This was a good mental exercise and I was mostly successful at it.  However, I remained uncomfortable with the violence against women and children that was shown.  A prime example is the treatment of twins in Umuofia.  The birth of twins was regarded as a bad omen.  If a woman gave birth to twins, both children would be placed into an earthenware pot and left in the evil forest to die.  This seemed ridiculous and cruel to me, but it was a deeply held religious belief in the village. 

Thinking about this led me to wonder how much of another culture's practices outsiders should tacitly accept out of respect for the differences between countries.   In the end, I reconciled my feelings by personally disagreeing with some of the traditions of the villagers, but acknowledging their right to live by their own belief system.  Not doing so only brings instability and heartache to a region, as when the Christian missionaries in Things Fall Apart began trying to control the people of Umuofia using their own system of laws. 

The ending of this novel was very powerful.  Without spoiling anything, it is constructed in a way that is stunningly ironic and encourages the reader to reflect back on the journey they've taken with Okonkwo throughout the story.  I was thinking that I would rate this novel a 3/5 as I was nearing its conclusion, but the final pages pushed it up to a 4/5 for me.   

Things Fall Apart illustrates the problems that many Africans faced throughout the 19th century as colonialism touched their continent. Its simple and poignant narration presents the reader with a picture of a rich and vibrant culture, then shows how easily it falls apart when outsiders arrive to exploit it.  This book is important to read as not only a lesson in Nigerian culture, but as a cautionary tale of what happens when one country forces its will on another. It shows us why we must make an effort to understand and respect those who are different from us.  I highly recommend this classic and important novel.  It you're anything like me and don't have a lot of experience with African customs, it will be a very different and rewarding reading experience.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

February Reading List: Protagonists who are Different from Me

During the month of February, I'm going to focus on reading books that feature protagonists who are different from me in some way.  They could be a different ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.; the main idea here is that the protagonist will not be a middle class white girl.  

I think it's important to expose yourself to people and situations that are different from you, and reading is one of the easiest ways to do that.  After poking around on my shelves for books that fit the bill, here's what's on my reading list this month:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe - This book about colonialism features a male protagonist from Nigeria.  It will also be my "Classic by a Non-White Author" for my reading challenge.

Sold by Patricia McCormick - This award-winning young adult novel is about a thirteen-year-old girl from Nepal who is sold into prostitution to pay her family's debts.  It's been sitting on my shelves for a while now, and I'm excited to finally read it.

Hero by Perry Moore - The premise of this young adult book sounds amazing.  It's about a teen who discovers he had superpowers.  He is also gay.  He is afraid to tell his dad either thing.  I've heard very positive things about this novel and I'm glad that I'm finally making some time for it.

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper - This novel about the slave trade during the Civil War centers around fifteen-year-old Amari, who is taken by slave traders from her African village and sold to a plantation owner in the Carolinas.  My students read this novel in their social studies classes each year and most love it.  I'm excited to finally see what all the fuss is about.

Bonus Round Books:
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake
Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becki Albertalli
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

 I was glad to find that I had a ton of books already on my shelves that featured such a diversity of characters.  It's time to roll up my sleeves and get reading now!

January 2016 Wrap Up

Well, the first month of my reading experiment has come to an end.  I spent the entire first month of January focusing on science fiction novels and I LOVED it.  This idea of doing themes is truly fun.  I got a chance to read some books I probably wouldn't have gotten to otherwise and I spent some time reflecting on how this genre has affected me as a person (and it turns out that science fiction was a bigger part of me than I gave it credit for).

I managed to finish six novels in January.  I wish I had time for more, but Aurora was pretty long.  Here's the breakdown:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Armada by Ernest Cline
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Best of the month: Aurora
Worst of the month: The Maze Runner

Books that I didn't get to, but am saving for later:
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure by James Dashner

A book from this genre that I really should have read by now:
Dune by Frank Herbert

New favorites: None this month

It's strange that something as simple as following a reading theme has been so fulfilling.  I'm ready for February - books with protagonists who are different from me.