Monday, October 31, 2016

October 2016 Wrap Up



My month of reading banned books is over now, and boy was it a good month of reading! I was able to power through 10 books, and several of them were five-star reads. I guess the key to finding new favorites is to court controversy.

One thread that ran through all of my reads this month was that of truth. These books all discuss topics that aren't very nice. They take a peek at the uglier side of life. They shine a light on things we don't necessarily want to think about. This can make some of these books tough to read, but this is also what makes these books important. We must have literature like this to open our minds and loosen our tongues. Censorship, especially when targeted at children, is a travesty.

Books Read
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
House Arrest by K.A. Holt
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
...plus one more, once I finish it!

Best of the Month: The Chocolate War, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, All-American Boys

Worst of the Month: Orbiting Jupiter, An Abundance of Katherines

I can't believe we are almost at the end of the year already. Time is just slipping away. I'm already starting to think of a reading plan for next year and plan out my next set of New Year's Resolutions.  There's something very satisfying about sticking with this blog for almost an entire year. In two more months, I can call this reading experiment a complete success.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely


As my month of reading books that have been banned (or probably will be soon) was coming to an end, I picked All American Boys up off my shelf. It's fairly new, so I don't think it's had a chance to stir up much controversy yet. However, it's liberal use of profanity and controversial topic of police brutality will surely ruffle some feathers eventually.

The story is told from the points of view of two high school boys, and the perspective alternates throughout the novel. The first boy, Rashad, is an African American JROTC student. He makes decent grades and keeps himself out of trouble. His father, a former member of the military and retired police officer sees to it that he keeps himself on the straight and narrow. As the novel opens, it's a normal Friday afternoon and he is fooling around with his friends. On his way to a party, he stops off at a corner store to pick up some snacks, and that's when the world as he knows it changes forever. A white lady accidentally trips over him, and a nearby police officer assumes that she stumbled because Rashad was trying to steal something from her. Instantly, he handcuffs Rashad, takes him outside, and beats him so badly that his ribs and nose are broken and he has internal bleeding.

Someone captures the incident on their cell phone and soon, Rashad's story is national news. Tensions rise in his community, with some people taking his side and others defending the police officer, who they say was "just doing his job." Caught in the middle of this injustice, Rashad must find a way to move forward with his life and take a stand for what is right. He knows he is lucky to have survived his encounter with the police. He also knows that many other African Americans who were in similar situations were not. Although he is scared and hurt, he knows that he must use his story to help bring change to his community, and the country at large.

The other half of the story is told from the point of view of Quinn, a white student who is a basketball star at the school both he and Rashad attend. He doesn't really know Rashad, aside from seeing him around the hallways, but he becomes connected to his story when he witnesses him being beaten outside the corner shop. He is immediately conflicted about what he sees. He doesn't know if Rashad was guilty of anything (he wasn't inside the store), but he sees that the beating was brutal and beyond what was necessary. To make things even more confusing, he knows the police officer doing the beating personally - he is the older brother of his best friend. He can't reconcile the kind, caring person he knows with the seemingly mindless brutality he witnesses.

Things start to become difficult for Quinn at school as a result of this. With tensions running high, he is expected, as a white kid, to be on the side of the police officer, and by extension, his best friend. It would be easy for him to align himself with the other white students and remain outside of the situation, but what he witnessed eats away at him so deeply that he is driven to speak out and support Rashad. He comes to realize that he is an inheritor of a broken system that favors people like him, as and such, he has a responsibility to help fix it, despite any personal costs he encounters.

This novel was, to put it simply, incredible. It spoke about racism and the police in unflinching terms, and had enough statistics and facts sprinkled throughout the narrative to lend weight to the plot and tie the events of the novel to reality. Both Rashad and Quinn were distinctive and well-developed characters. As a reader, I understood where both were coming from and cared about how things turned out for them.

It was a very effective strategy to examine the story from the perspective of an African American and a white person. I think it was especially illuminating to watch Quinn's journey. It can be very difficult for a white person to acknowledge institutional racism, both because it can be difficult to understand for someone that it doesn't affect and because they quietly benefit from it in ways they might not be fully conscious of. It's much easier to remain silent about incidents that might seem a little bit off or to buy into racial stereotypes and let the police off the hook. Watching Quinn come to understand the situation and stand up for Rashad was beautiful.

All American Boys is a huge literary achievement and honestly, it should be required reading for students today. I love it when young adult fiction tackles socially relevant topics. I think that if our world is going to change the way it thinks, books like this will be the catalyst.

I'm tired. I'm tired of hearing about unarmed black men and women being killed by the police for no good reason. I'm tired of seeing the small percentage of black students at our school earning almost all of our behavior referrals. I'm tired of hearing my coworkers speak ignorantly about topics they don't remotely understand. I'm tired of biting my tongue to avoid offending white people. I'm tired of people assuming that because I am white, that I agree with their racist viewpoints. Most of all, I'm tired of waiting and tiptoeing around people and pretending to respect their ignorance. Racism is alive and well in this country in ways that are sneaky and vile and we NEED to talk about it. We need to make serious changes in the ways we think and act. This book is a wonderful bridge towards beginning to understand some of these issues.


Friday, October 28, 2016

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin


I broke away from my banned book theme for a few days to read Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story. I bought this book for my classroom library, and wanted to preview it before putting it on the shelves. Having been a high school student during 9/11, I remember vividly what that day was like, and how the world has changed since. My students today weren't born before 9/11. They only know the world as it was afterwards - hyper-vigilant to threats of terrorism and not-so-friendly to the Islamic faith. It is to this younger audience that Nine, Ten is aimed. Through these fictional stories of four different middle-school students, all of whom are connected to the attack in some way, Baskin aims to convey the stark difference between how life was before this terrible event and how life was forever changed after it.

This novel switches perspectives between its four different characters regularly throughout the story. The plot covers the dates of September 9th through September 12th, then has a brief flash forward to a year later. Before the attack the characters are show to experience little everyday challenges - Aimee is starting at a new school and missing her mom, who is away on business in New York City. Sergio is enjoying spending time with a new mentor - a New York City firefighter. Naheed has just started wearing a hijab and is annoyed by the extra attention it brings her at school. Will is still reeling from the unexpected death of his father a year earlier, but hopes to start healing in his hometown of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All of their lives are disrupted when the September 11th attack comes. Each one is hurt in their own way, each one grows from the experience, and each one will never be quite the same again.

*Spoilers past this point*

This novel was sweet and touching. The writing was solid and the characters were well-written, each one having their own, unique voice. It is most definitely appropriate for a middle school audience, but I felt like it was a bit too tame. It could have had a greater impact if some of the characters had been more deeply affected by the tragedy. Oddly, for a book about an event which caused a horrific loss of human lives, none of the characters (or anyone they knew) died. Naheed, as a Muslim, hears a few ugly comments about her religion, but does not experience any of the true, vicious hatred that sprang up from this event. Sergio's firefighting mentor is fine. Aimee's mother miraculously doesn't attend her important business meeting at the World Trade Center that morning, opting instead to speak on the phone with her daughter. Will sees United Flight 93 careen wildly over his head, but seems to suffer no real psychological issues because of it. Everyone is doing great a year later.

I appreciate that Baskin handled this topic with sensitivity and showed how people with varying degrees of connection to this tragedy were all affected in some way, but overall, this novel could have been better. It would have struck a deeper emotional chord if she wasn't quite so nice to all of her characters. Ultimately, I feel like she failed to capture the sadness and fear that everyone felt that day.

What Nine, Ten is successful at, however, is presenting an awful, life-changing day to young readers with tact. There isn't much crossover appeal for adults here, but this is an accessible novel for middle grade readers that will help them begin to understand what September 11th meant to the United States. I did enjoy it, but I wish it had more teeth.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

House Arrest by K.A. Holt


House Arrest is about a twelve-year-old boy named Timothy who is spending a year under house arrest for theft. Part of his sentence is to maintain a journal about his feelings, and the story is told through his free verse journal entries. Through Tim's journal, we learn that underneath his gruff exterior beats the heart of a good, caring, loyal kid. He stole someone's wallet only to pay for medicine that his infant brother, Levi, desperately needed. He was trying to take some of the overwhelming financial stress off of his mother, who is the sole provider for the family after his father up and abandoned them shortly after his brother was born.

Levi was born with a malformed trachea, meaning that he cannot breathe on his own. He uses a trach to stay alive, and this breathing apparatus must be meticulously maintained by Tim, his mother, and, when one can be provided, a home nurse. Tim's journal entries highlight the frustration and fear that surround caring for a very sick family member. Levi chokes, vomits, and struggles to breathe on a regular basis, and must be monitored by someone at all times. Providing what he needs to survive is nearly breaking the family, financially and emotionally. Mixed in with the difficulty, however, is the deep love Tim and his mother have for Levi. They stick it out and take excellent care of him, despite the many hardships they encounter along the way.

As Tim's journal entries move through his year of house arrest, his writing becomes more emotional and descriptive. As he changes and learns from his mistakes, the reader comes to empathize with his situation, and root for him to succeed. Tim begins searching out better (i.e. legal) ways to help his family, and comes to learn that asking for help can take more courage that trying to solve things alone.

I enjoyed this novel, and it was a pretty quick read due to the free verse structure. Tim is a likable and well-developed character. I found his portrayal to be pretty realistic for a middle school boy, although perhaps he's a little too mature at times. The descriptions of Levi and the requirements for his care are unflinching, and definitely made me think about difficult it would be to have to take on that role of caregiver for a family member.

The ending felt a little bit unsatisfying to me. Without spoiling anything specific, it leaves Levi in much the same situation as he started in. As a character, he experienced a lot of growth throughout the year the novel takes place in, and to see him fall into similar circumstances at the end seemed wrong. It was an odd choice for me, and left me feeling a little unsettled during the closing journal entries.

Overall, this was an entertaining read. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, but I think middle grades readers would really like this one. House Arrest doesn't have the crossover appeal to adult audiences that other young adult novels have, but the audience that it is written for will enjoy it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt



I've run through my stock of banned books this month, so I'm moving on to read a few novels that contain themes that some would consider to be controversial. Books that are ripe for a future banning, if you will. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt, with it's depiction of a 13-year-old father from an abusive home, definitely fits the bill. This slim little novel promised to be an emotional read, so I dove in expecting to be get sucked into the story.

The novel begins with Jackson Hurd, a sixth grader living in Maine, learning that his family is going to be taking in a foster son with a troubled past. He is told that this young man, named Joseph Brooks, has been to prison for attacking a teacher at his old school while under the influence of drugs. He is also told that this boy, who is only thirteen years old, has a baby daughter whom he has never met.

Despite this troubling news, Jack and his family welcome Joseph into their home with open arms. At first, Joseph is very quiet and standoffish, but eventually he opens up and begins to flourish. However, even though he is turning a corner and starting to straighten out his life, he still longs to see his baby, named Jupiter. When his pain becomes too much to bear, he tells his foster family the story of how he became a parent and begs them to help him meet his daughter. Eventually, they agree to try and help, and this promise sets a chain of events into motion that will change everyone's lives.

There was a lot to like in this novel, and I was completely absorbed in the story right up until the last 20 pages or so. The bond between Joseph and Jack was touching and well developed. I was rooting for them to be okay and to stick together. I also really enjoyed the rural and snowy setting of Maine as the backdrop for the novel. Schmidt's description of the intense cold served to isolate the boys and emphasize Joseph's sadness. Combined with the sparse, simple writing style, Orbiting Jupiter was successful at taking me someplace else for a little while.

However, all of this slow and careful world-building and character development was ultimately thrown away in the last few pages with an utterly nonsensical ending. Instead of arriving at a place of self-knowledge, compromise, and personal growth, as the style of the novel appeared to be building toward, Schmidt opted for emotional manipulation mixed in with things that just didn't make any sense at all. It was an awful way to end the story, and completely ruined the quiet, emotionally complex mood that the dominated the rest of the novel. It felt immature and disingenuous, and made me mad that I had wasted my time getting to it.

So sadly, Orbiting Jupiter just wasn't for me. This was my first novel by Gary Schmidt, and it will probably be my last. The jarring and ridiculous ending was a huge disappointment and was enough to turn me away from exploring his other novels (at least for now). In general, I love a good old-fashioned sad ending, but Orbiting Jupiter was sadness for the sake of sadness. It ultimately lacked in purpose and left me feeling annoyed.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Back to the Classics 2016 - Wrap Up Post!

Image from Karen K. at Books and Chocolate

Today is a very happy day, because today is the day I finished my Back to the Classics reading challenge!

I was able to read everything I planned out last December and complete all twelve categories in the challenge--with two months to spare too! That earns me three entries into the final prize drawing. It would be cool to win, but honestly, the real reward is getting to read so much classic literature this year (not to mention the satisfaction of sticking to a plan that I made almost a year ago).

1. A 19th Century Classic: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
2. A 20th Century Classic: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
3. A Classic by a Woman Author: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (1847)
4. A Classic in Translation: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)
5. A Classic by a Non-White Author: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
6. An Adventure Classic: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
7. A Fantasy, Science Fiction or Dystopian Classic: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
8. A Classic Detective Novel: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
9. A Classic which Includes the Name of a Place in the Title: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (1831)
10. A Classic which has been Banned or Censored: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
11. Re-read a Classic you Read in School: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
12. A Volume of Classic Short Stories: Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton (1934)  

So, now for some thoughts:

My favorite: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I will never forget reading this massive brick of a book! The Count's quest for revenge was ridiculously elaborate and endlessly entertaining. It was a long journey, but I'm glad I made it.

My least favorite: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This novel was Fitzgerald's first, and it felt underdeveloped. It was a portrait of the life of a privileged young man between 1910-1920, but it lacked a compelling story. It was an interesting read in a social-history sense, but not a favorite.

The biggest surprise: Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton
Who would have thought short stories could be so clever!  I'm still thinking about "Roman Fever" and "Xingu" months later!

Characters I'm glad I met:
Miss Havisham
The Phantom of the Opera
Edmund Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo)
Captain Nemo
Sherlock Holmes
Claude Frollo

Truthfully, I don't think I would have read this many classics this year without the motivation of this challenge. I really hope that "Back to the Classics" will be around next year so that I can do it all over again!

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair



The last category I have left to complete for my Back to the Classics Challenge this year is my "banned or censored classic." For this category, I decided to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  This novel is famous for its graphic description of the unsanitary practices of the Chicago meat processing industry in the early 1900s. Although the plot of the story is fictional, the description of what was going on in the factories was real; Sinclair meticulously investigated it himself. Upon publication, so many people were sickened by what they read that new laws concerning food safety were drafted and passed. In fact, The Jungle is credited with a long-term drop in the meat consumption of Americans that lasted for decades. A novel that had such an impact on the country is powerful indeed.

However, it wasn't the shocking truth of what was going on in the meat industry that earned this book its banning. Instead, it was Upton Sinclair's open advocacy for socialism that caused countries like Yugoslavia, East Germany, and South Korea to pull this one from library shelves. Curiously, the city of Boston also banned the book for its socialist views. From my research, it appears to be the only American city that did so.

Indeed, in writing The Jungle, Sinclair was explicitly aiming to bring people into the socialist fold. He was not trying to advocate for food safety. As a dedicated socialist, he wrote The Jungle as a way to show readers the abuses of a capitalist system. However, the public largely ignored that. Instead, they really latched onto the idea that rat feces and little bits of dead people were being processed into their cooking lard. In response to the public's reception of this novel, Sinclair once famously said, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

The Jungle follows Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, his fiance Ona, and his ten other assorted family members as they try to seek out a better life in America. They arrive in Chicago excited to make a new start for themselves, away from the poverty and political corruption of their homeland. At first, they are very impressed with the scale of the meat processing factories in the district where they settle and are proud to be living in such a modern and efficient country. Most of the adults in the group are able to find factory jobs right away. However, it doesn't take long for their visions of wealth and prosperity in the United States to crumble. They are swindled by corrupt businessmen and law enforcement at every turn, are forced to work under unsanitary and dangerous conditions, and are barely able to scrape together enough money to survive day to day despite performing back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk six days a week. They become, "...harried all day and nearly all night by worry and fear." Sinclair goes on to observe that, "[they were] in truth not living; [they were] scarcely even existing...They were willing to work all the time; and when people did their best, ought they not to be able to keep alive?" Inevitably, injuries, illness, and deaths begin to take a toll on the family and they gradually sink into total despair. It's a grim depiction of "The American Dream" indeed.

Jurgis quickly learns the way of life in America and becomes jaded after only a few months in Chicago, thinking,
He had learned the ways of things about him now. It was a war of each against all, and the devil take the hindmost. You did not give feasts to other people, you waited for them to give feasts to you. You went about with your soul full of suspicion and hatred; you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with. The storekeepers plastered up their windows with all sorts of lies to entice you; the very fences by the wayside, the lampposts and telegraph poles, were pasted over with lies. The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country--from top to bottom is was nothing but one gigantic lie.
His pessimistic point of view is continually justified throughout the novel, as one disaster after another befalls his family. Jurgis moves through many different ways of life, from working in a factory, to being sent to jail, to living as a tramp, to settling into a life of crime. This is a difficult story to read, because it's literally page after page of abject human suffering and injustice. To make matters even more poignant is the realization that what Sinclair describes for the working class of the time period was all true. The unskilled laborers living during this time, especially newly-arrived immigrants, were continually abused by a corrupt capitalist system designed to exploit them. They lived unimaginably awful lives, and The Jungle serves to shine a spotlight on that. As a protest novel, it is very effective.

Of course, also worth noting are the horrific descriptions of what went on in the meat packing plants. This is what the novel is most famous for, and Sinclair doesn't hold back on the gruesome details. For example, take this description of what went on in the sausage department of the plant:
There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one--there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.  
It's a miracle humanity survived into the 21st century eating meat processed in such a way. The passages about food (of which there are many) are still stomach-churning to read and definitely make you think twice about what you put into your mouth at dinnertime. It's not surprising that after The Jungle was published, people started paying much more attention to food safety and passed new laws concerning food purity.

However, despite its social importance, the novel falls down in the area of character development. Jurgis and his family could have been anyone. They had no real discernible character traits of their own. They were simply a generic immigrant family trying to make it in America. Sinclair was more interested in describing their suffering than in giving them their own personalities and desires. This is excusable, perhaps, when you consider the ultimate purpose of his novel, but as a reader, this left me a bit dissatisfied. At times, this felt less like a literary narrative and more like an informational article describing immigrant life in the 1900s.

Another low point in the novel is its ending. The socialism for which the book was banned in some countries takes center stage in the last fifty or so pages when Jurgis stumbles into a socialist meeting and becomes a diehard follower after listening to a rousing speech. Once he becomes a socialist, everything seems to turn around for him. He finds a job, his money problems become bearable, and he is able to start over in his life with a new sense of optimism and hope for the future. The last several pages consist entirely of transcripts of socialist speeches and ideological conversations. Jurgis mostly drops out of the story and the novel turns into a straightforward piece of propaganda featuring random political players that don't appear in the novel until these final pages. After reading over 300 pages of Jurgis' struggles, it felt odd, and disappointing, to end things this way. 

Nevertheless, I have a lot of respect for The Jungle after reading it. It is an important novel in the American literary cannon for its political impact, and I very much liked that aspect of it. This is a book that helped change the world for the better in concrete ways, and that's a pretty rare feat for a work of fiction. It definitely has flaws in some of its more literary elements, but Sinclair's writing is solid overall and the novel is well worth a read for its historical significance.

Monday, October 17, 2016

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green


 My next banned book is one that I've actually seen being pulled from the shelves. A teacher at my school once complained that John Green novels were inappropriate for middle school students, and our media specialist promptly made them disappear from our library.

To be fair, this teacher had a point. John Green books do contain a lot of swearing, sexual references, and other mature content. However, I deeply hate the idea of getting rid of young adult books that kids actually want to read from a school library. It just smacks of arrogance and condescension. Plus, kids in middle school have heard more than enough swear words and sexual references just by walking in the halls. They might as well improve their literacy skills with it.

I've already read (and enjoyed) most of John Green's novels, so my choices for which book of his to read this month were limited. Luckily, I had An Abundance of Katherines sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me to pick it up. I went into this experience expecting something similar to Paper Towns or Looking for Alaska. Unfortunately, this one ended up falling flat for me.

The novel begins with the protagonist, Colin, getting dumped by his girlfriend of almost a year, Katherine. He has a thing for the name Katherine - he's dated 19 girls with that name in his lifetime - but this Katherine was the one he loved the most. He's just graduated from high school, and this breakup has thrown his plans for the future into disarray. Unsure of how to pull himself out of his despair, he agrees to join his friend Hassan on a spontaneous summer road trip. He figures that doing something completely random and different might help him get over losing the love of his life.

However, this won't be a normal road trip, because Colin isn't your average teenager. He is a child prodigy, meaning that he can learn information quickly and remembers almost all of it. He rattles off lists of facts with a regularity that tends to annoy others; he even won himself a bit of money and notoriety by winning a kiddie game show when he was younger. But as smart as he is, Colin still struggles with insecurities related to his intelligence. He can memorize things, but not create anything new. He is only a prodigy, as he repeatedly points out, not a genius. He worries that other people will surpass him and become more successful in their lives. He worries that he might fail to leave his mark on the world.


So Colin, with all his intelligence and his many quirks and insecurities, embarks on his trip under a dark cloud. He and Hassan wind up in a small town named Gunshot and get a job interviewing the residents there for a history project. They stay with a wealthy woman and her teen daughter, Lindsay, who Colin immediately develops an attraction to, despite the fact that she is not named Katherine and has a steady boyfriend. Still brokenhearted over his ex, and feeling down about his future prospects, he decides to try and develop an equation to predict the length of a relationship. This, he hopes, will be how he leaves his mark.

As Colin works on the Gunshot history project, spends time with his friends, and works on his equation, he starts to figure out some things about himself and the way he should see the world. An Abundance of Katherines is a coming of age story about an unusual kid with a very usual fear - the fear of being left behind and forgotten.

This novel had all the normal pieces of a John Green novel. A quirky, impossibly clever cast of teens? Check. A love-obsessed male protagonist? Check. A popular girl who secretly feels empty inside? Check. A road trip that triggers character transformation? Check. All of his usual tropes were here, but for some reason, this novel wasn't enjoyable for me.

The primary reason for this was undoubtedly Colin's character. He was, to put it simply, completely unlikable. He is actually described as such in the text; Green directly states that people find Colin annoying and boring, that he has no conception of how to tell a story, and that he is incredibly self-centered. This is all true. Green was a little too successful in creating this character. It absolutely makes sense that he would be dumped a lot in his life. He's unbearable. For a work that is primarily character-driven, this is an issue.

The structure of the story is set up to mirror Colin's personality. It's stated that he doesn't know how to tell a story because he is too easily distracted, so the story is out of order and full of digressions. His penchant for spouting random facts is also included in the form of footnotes, which broke the flow of the story for me and didn't come off as cleverly as Green intended. So, since I didn't particularly like Colin's personality, I didn't particularly like his style of narration either. His relationship prediction formula, which took up a lot of pages, was similarly uninteresting to me. It was a boring idea from a boring character that was doomed to failure from the beginning, because one of the lessons Colin didn't already know was "people aren't predictable." You'd think that most people would latch onto that idea before graduating from high school.

In the end, An Abundance of Katherines was only okay. Colin might have been an annoying protagonist, but his friend Hassan was pretty enjoyable to read. There were some funny moments in the story too that helped break up some of the monotony. It wasn't the worse thing young adult novel I've read, but it was far from the best.

 Story issues aside, the truly disappointing thing about this novel is the fact that John Green wrote it. Knowing what he is capable of producing made this book seem especially weak. Even worse, this story made me realize that Green is basically writing the same book over and over again. His cleverness and emotionally complex writing covered for this sameness while I was reading his other works; I either didn't notice or didn't care about the repetition of plot points, characters, and themes. An Abundance of Katherines is missing Green's trademark wit and wisdom, and this unmasked him for me. I couldn't get lost in the story, so I started seeing the flaws.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


One of the categories left in my Back to the Classics Challenge is to reread a classic that you read in school. Since this is also my month to read banned books, I decided to pick a title that fits both themes. I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 11th grade. That makes it a full 14 years since I've picked this one up. I remember liking it at the time, since I was a pretty bookish kid, even back then. Did a new look at this old classic change my opinions on it?  Let's find out!

This novel begins with one of the most memorable scenes in literature. A woman is led from a prison cell to stand on a scaffold and face the judgement of the crowd below. In her arms is an infant, and on her chest is embroidered a red letter "A." The woman, we soon learn, is named Hester Prynne, and she has committed the sin of adultery - a crime punishable by law in Puritan Massachusetts. The first part of her sentence is stand on display in front of the crowd for a few hours, branded with the symbol of her sin on her clothing and the evidence of that sin cradled in her arms.

While Hester faces her punishment, members of the community implore her to name the father of her child, so that he can join her in the public shaming. She steadfastly refuses to do so, and suffers her punishment alone. Eventually she is allowed to come down off the scaffold and is released from prison, but the scarlet letter must always remain on her chest, as a reminder to others about the consequences of surrendering to temptations of the flesh.

Much of the novel is introspective, and explores Hester's complex thoughts about her situation. She acknowledges her sin and accepts her punishment, but struggles, at times, to understand exactly why what she did was wrong. She is deeply in love with the father of her child, but knows she is forbidden to interact with him in any way. To do so would reveal his identity and ruin his life the ways hers has been ruined. To add to the trouble, her daughter, Pearl, is an odd child. Wild, capricious, and almost otherworldly, Hester fears that her sin might have affected Pearl's soul.

To make matters even more complicated, Hester's husband, missing for two years and assumed dead, suddenly reappears in the colony. He had been waylaid by Native Americans and held prisoner for years. His captors decide to bring him to Massachusetts to sell him back to his people on the very same day Hester was sentenced to stand on the scaffold. After viewing her shame, he decided to live life under an assumed name, Roger Chillingworth, and vowed to figure out who Pearl's father was so that he could take his revenge.

This is quite a dark little book, and reading it for the second time proved to be quite a different experience. When I was in high school, I had no idea who Hester's lover was. I was reading for the plot, and was pretty shocked when I learned the truth of the situation. This time through, I already knew what was going to happen, so I could focus on other elements of the novel. Hawthorne's writing, I realized, is really quite beautiful. His sentences are substantial and meandering. You need to concentrate to read them, but the rewards for doing so are stunning imagery and deep symbolism. It's obvious why this is a favorite of English teachers - there's layers and layers of technique to analyze. The Scarlet Letter contains some of the most intricate and deep language I have ever read. If you can fall into Hawthorne's rhythm and style, it's quite an experience.  I was much better able to appreciate it this time around, although some passages were still a challenge.

Another aspect that struck me was the strength of Hester's character. For a Puritan woman, she's pretty brave. Much braver, in fact, than the father of her child, who doesn't reveal himself to the colony until the very end of the story. She's branded as a fallen woman by her community and becomes an outcast, but she doesn't run away from her problems and try to start again somewhere else. She sticks it out, provides for herself and Pearl through her embroidery, helps the poor as best she can, and eventually earns a grudging respect from the town. There's even talk among the elders of letting her remove the letter after several years pass by, although she chooses not to. Her thoughts also sound a bit feminist from time to time, when she wonders why her sin of adultery cost her so much. Her love for Pearl's father, she believes, had its own kind of holiness about it. How could that be a sin?

It's easy to see why some religious readers had an issue with this book back when it first was published in 1850. It was banned in some places because people thought that Hawthorne was too kind to Hester - they felt that she should have suffered more, or been more sorry. I really like the fact that there is some ambiguity to her feelings, and that she is still shown to be a good person despite her "sin."

The Scarlet Letter is certainly deserving of its status as one of the great American classics, and I really enjoyed reading it for a second time. It's gloomy, dark, and completely lovely; I appreciated it on a whole other level than I was able to when I was a student in high school. This may not be a favorite of those who enjoy happy endings, but for readers like myself, who like getting into a plot full of sadness and scandal, it's an old-school treat.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


I feel like I have discovered a fool-proof method for choosing books to read: pick them off a list of frequently banned books. Everything that I've picked up so far this month has been phenomenal, and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak is no exception. This book about a teenager struggling to survive in the aftermath of a sexual assault has been banned in several school districts for its uncomfortable subject matter, and it's a shame too, because it is one of the most honest treatments of rape that I have come across in literature.

Speak begins with Melinda Sordino's freshman year of high school. She is starting school as an outsider because she recently ruined an end-of-the-summer party by calling the police. Breaking up the party had serious social consequences--Melinda has lost all of her friends and has to put up with the scorn of the rest of her classmates. They throw things at her, insult her, and even become physically violent with her from time to time. No one knows the truth behind what happened at the party; Melinda called the police because she was raped by another student and didn't know what else to do. Terrified and embarrassed after making the phone call, Melinda fled the party before the police arrived. She's been keeping the assault a secret ever since, and her shame and fear over what happened are eating her alive.

 She moves through her days barely speaking to anyone and sinking into a deep depression. She loses the will to go to class, keep up with her grades, or participate in any activities. Her grades start slipping and she becomes labeled as a "troubled kid." Her parents, school administrators, and teachers don't understand what's wrong with her and she faces a barrage of well-intended, but harmful consequences, ranging from being grounded, to being lectured at, to being assigned detentions. The one bright spot in her day is her art class, where her rather unorthodox teacher encourages her to express her feelings through artwork.

Making everything harder is the fact that Melinda's rapist is a student at her high school and she is forced to see him nearly daily. He terrorizes her with leering and rude comments, acts which serve to remind her of the attack and throw her further into depression. Even worse, he begins dating Melinda's ex-best friend, forcing Melinda to struggle with her desire to keep her rape a secret. She wants to warn her former friend about this boy, but is afraid to reveal what happened.

Speak was brilliantly written, and deeply uncomfortable to read. Melinda doesn't speak much to anyone, but her inner pain cries out from every page. Anderson's depiction of her depression was realistic and heartbreaking. I wanted Melinda to be okay so badly, but at the same time, I doubted that she could ever be okay again. What makes the novel even more chilling is the fact that this story isn't just an invention designed to tug at the reader's heartstrings. Sexual assault happens to women all the time. Every day. Millions of men and women out there are suffering just like Melinda was.

Some sobering statistics are provided at the back of the novel. One in six American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to be the victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. Most teenagers are raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know. While I know that parents want to shield their children as much as possible from the harsh realities of the world, this is an issue that can't be swept under the rug and ignored. Young girls and boys need to be educated about rape, consent, and ways to protect themselves from becoming victims. Anderson's novel does an excellent job bringing awareness to this important issue and putting a human face on a terrible crime.

It feels strange to say that I "enjoyed" a book as serious as Speak, but I did. Its realistic treatment of a difficult subject was masterfully done. Melinda's story won't be leaving my mind anytime soon. I think this book is important to the genre of young adult literature not only for its literary merit (of which it has plenty), but for its educational value. To ban this book over concerns about sexual content is counterproductive to the book's aims. Speak could easily be an accessible tool to create dialogue on the issue of rape in our society.

In the back of my edition of the novel, there is an interview with Laurie Halse Anderson. In it, she makes the following observation:

Q: Have any readers ever asked any questions that shocked you?

A: I have gotten one question repeatedly from young men. These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused. They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.

This question, if nothing else, points to the absolute need for young people to read Speak. We can not let a desire to protect young people lead them into the sort of ignorance that that question betrays.


Friday, October 7, 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie



My month of reading banned books continued on this week with another really great young adult title. I'm on a little bit of a roll here! The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie has been banned in many school districts over the years for violence and sexual references. At the same time, it always pops up on "best of" book lists for young adults (as banned books tend to do), so I was excited to give it a try.


The story is about a teenage boy named Junior who lives on a Spokane Indian reservation. Junior, narrating in his own words, begins by explaining to the reader that he was born gravely ill.  He had too much water on his brain. He wasn't expected to survive the surgery he had to undergo to correct it, but he somehow pulled through without any major brain damage. However, he does have to deal with other health issues as a result of his illness. His vision is poor, his head looks oversized, he's all-round pretty gawky. He's an outsider in his tribe, but he does have a close friend in Rowdy, a kid with some pretty serious anger issues.

Life on the reservation isn't easy. Problems with alcohol, violence, and poverty run rampant within his community, but Junior is shown to be kindhearted and intelligent. He avoids trouble and proves to be a pretty good student. He is especially excited about starting a geometry class, because he is an artist and loves working with shapes.  However, when the textbooks for the class are distributed, Junior is disturbed to discover his own mother's name written in his book. It turns out to be the very same textbook she used when she was in high school on the reservation, meaning that it is over thirty years old.

Frustrated with always having the worst of everything, Junior snaps and throws his textbook across the room.  He accidentally smashes his teacher in the face with it, breaking his nose. This act sets off a series of changes in his life when his teacher, instead of being upset with Junior, encourages him to seek out a better life by transferring to a school outside of the reservation.

When Junior takes his advice and transfers to a nearly all-white high school, he becomes what he calls a "part-time Indian." Leaving the reservation, even just to go to school, is viewed as a traitorous act in his community. His only friend Rowdy is furious with him and stops speaking to him, which breaks Junior's heart. Similarly, he struggles to fit into his new school, where most of the white students can't get past his heritage. Caught between two worlds, Junior must try to make a better future for himself while maintaining his relationship with his people.

While the subject matter of Part-Time Indian is quite serious, Alexie's writing has humor and heart. The text is punctuated with Junior's cartoons, which add a welcome sense of levity to the story and provide additional insights into his feelings. This is a heavy story that doesn't feel very heavy, with well-written characters that worm your way into your heart. You want Junior to succeed while reading this. You really come to care about him.

The depiction of Native Americans and reservation life is a rarity in young adult literature, and I found it very interesting to learn more about this culture. The problems that plague Native Americans are well known--the alcoholism, gambling addictions, violence, and poverty that go on in these communities are common knowledge. What is not as well known are the people behind these problems. Alexie's depiction doesn't shy away from these issues at all, but he also shows the hopes, joys, and fears of the community; he shows the little everyday moments that you don't often hear about. He breathes life into a group of people that most of the world ignores and dismisses.

Part-Time Indian is a book that should most definitely have a place in schools, not just for it's well-drawn depiction of a little-known culture, but also for it's discussion of racism. Alexie doesn't spare the feelings of the white world in these pages, as Junior often comments on the ignorance and cruelty of whites. Alexie isn't shy to point out the hypocrisy and injustices that abound between Native Americans and white people. This is a discussion that should be had with students. We can only create a better world by understanding the feelings of other groups and examining our own actions and beliefs. To pretend that problems don't exist and that racism is a thing of the past is a misguided notion. Stories like this one can help open up discussions on difficult topics and help kids explore things from another point of view.

This novel is frequently challenged in schools on the grounds of violence and sexual references. Neither are particularly prevalent or extreme. It seems that the bane of young adult novels with male protagonists is any sort of discussion of masturbation or erections. As soon as either is mentioned, a book suddenly becomes inappropriate for kids (because, obviously, adolescents have no experience with either of these topics). Part-Time Indian has a couple mentions of both of those things, so it didn't stand a chance of staying in the libraries of the kids it was written for. It's a shame, because this book is so much more than a few sexual references.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was a National Book Award winner, and the honor was well-deserved. It is a funny novel about a serious topic, and one of the best coming of age stories I can remember. Its clever writing and lovable protagonist alone make it worth the read, but its cultural exploration and discussion of racism push it into the "important to read" category of young adult literature. This is a great one.

 

   

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier


*Please note - This review contains spoilers*

The first book I chose to read for my month of reading banned books was Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. I picked this one because it's always the example that is touted out in front of teachers when the discussion of using "controversial materials" in the classroom comes up. The Chocolate War is my county's chosen example of a book that needs a permission slip from home to be read.

Aside from being considered controversial in my school district, it has quite a history of being banned from school libraries altogether. The Chocolate War is one of the most challenged young adult books to this day. Critics point to its profanity, sexual references, violence, and bleak ending as reasons to keep it out of the hands of young readers. 

Accordingly, each time the this title came up, I'd make a mental note to read it sometime soon. I was intrigued with all of the caution surrounding it. Anything that has so many adults wringing their hands must be pretty good , right?

The Chocolate War is about a handful of students attending Trinity High School in the 1970s. Each year, the students at this Catholic school for boys sell boxes of chocolates to raise money. The boys are used to this activity, but at the opening of the novel, they are surprised to learn that this year, they are expected to sell twice the usual amount of candy at double the price. They grumble about the changes, but carry on with the fundraiser, as they always do.

Everything changes, however, Jerry Renault, an incoming freshman, sets off a war among the students when he refuses to participate in the sale. His small act of defiance disrupts the carefully balanced routines of the school, and sets faculty members and students at odds with each other. As the ripples from Jerry's refusal spread farther and farther, he struggles with the question of whether it's worth it to break away from the status quo and act independently.

I thought that Jerry was written beautifully and was developed well.  We learn at the beginning of the novel that his mother has recently passed away, and that loss begins to make him question what life is really about. As he feels the sharp edges of his own grief, and watches his father sink into a melancholy and boring routine, he wonders if this sadness, this sameness, is all there is going to be in his life. Cormier brings his thoughts to life with a haunting honesty:
"Was this all these was to life, after all? You finished school, found an occupation, got married, became a father, watched your wife die, and then lived through days and nights that seemed to have no sunrises, no dawns and no dusks, nothing but a gray drabness...Didn't a man have a choice?" 
His sudden desire to break free from his sadness and start really living is what drives him to refuse to sell the chocolates. It is, perhaps, the first truly independent decision that he's made in his life, and he stands by it, despite the incredible pressure that he faces from his headmaster and his fellow students. He is growing up and doing something for himself, and he senses that it is important that he do so, even if he isn't completely sure why he is doing it.

The forces acting against Jerry are similarly well written. The acting headmaster of Trinity, Brother Leon, is a true depiction of evil. He emotionally abuses his students in ways that are startlingly cruel, and his behavior becomes even worse when he is placed in control of the annual chocolate sale. In his zeal to appear like a hero, he uses unauthorized school funds to order an irresponsible amount of fundraising chocolate. If the students don't sell it all, his job could be at stake. When the sales start slowing down, he begins to resort to blackmail and threats to get the chocolate sold.

Teachers occupy a special place in most students' minds. We are responsible, kind, and trustworthy. Most students believe that we care about them, or at least, that we wouldn't do anything wrong to them. Brother Leon represents a shift away from this way of thinking, and brings the illusion of the infallibility of teachers crashing down. I was especially struck by the thoughts of one student whom Brother Leon blackmails with a failing grade:
"His stomach lurched sickeningly. Were teachers like everyone else, then? Were teachers as corrupt as the villains you read about in books or saw in movies and television? He'd always worshiped his teachers, had thought of becoming a teacher himself someday if he could overcome his shyness. But now--this...If teachers did this kind of thing, what kind of a world could it be?"
What kind of a world indeed?  The fact that Brother Leon is able to torture his students without feeling a shred of remorse was chilling. He was a cold character, and a very well-drawn one.

Another astoundingly cruel character is Archie Costello, one of Jerry's classmates. He is one of the leaders of a powerful and legendary secret society within the school, The Vigils. The Vigils are a select group of bullies that inflict torture on other students through the use of creative "assignments." When given an assignment by The Vigils, no one refuses to carry it out--to do so would be social suicide. Archie is in charge of selecting the student-victims and coming up with creative assignments for them to carry out. His ideas are sophisticated and horrible; his pranks are designed to hurt everyone involved for the amusement of the group.

Archie is the one who initially causes Jerry to refuse to sell the chocolates with one of his assignments. Jerry's job was to refuse to sell the candy for ten days only. However, as Jerry begins to resent falling into line with the expectations of others, his refusal becomes permanent, lasting long beyond the prescribed deadline. His defiance of the Vigils infuriates Archie, and he sets about bringing Jerry down through various means including peer pressure and outright violence. His final grand plan is to bait Jerry into a boxing match with a disturbingly violent boy in front of the whole school, which he pulls off according to his design.

While the book is peppered with swearwords, violence, and sexual references (mostly to masturbation), its most disturbing element is its ending. To put it simply, Jerry loses the chocolate war. He is beaten to the point of hospitalization in Archie's boxing match. The lesson he learns is not one of standing up for what you believe in. He learns what the rest of us who have become adults already know--that life is cruel, that good doesn't always win, and it's usually not worth it to stand out from the crowd. As he drifts into a bloody, unconscious haze at the end of the novel, his final thoughts were:
"They tell you to do your thing but they don't mean it. They don't want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It's a laugh...a fake. Don't disturb the universe...no matter what the posters say."   
I was deeply moved by this ending, and thought about it for quite awhile. I was expecting Brother Leon and Archie to get their comeuppance at the end, or at least for Jerry to feel that standing up for himself was ultimately worth it, even if he lost the fight. Instead, the fundraiser ends up being a massive success, Brother Leon and Archie get away with everything they've done, and Jerry ends up wishing that he just would have sold the chocolate. It's a heavy and sobering way to end the story.

When I think back to everything that happens over the course of this The Chocolate War, I understand why so many have tried to ban it over the years. We want to keep our kids in a little bubble of innocence for as long as possible, where life is happy and fair. Where they believe that they can achieve anything if they just work hard enough. This novel destroys that bubble. It shows a good kid fighting against a callous, evil world and losing spectacularly. However, this is precisely why this book should make it into the hands of as many students as possible.

It is ugly and mean and real. It provides endless starting points for conversations about ethics and choices. It will make students root for Jerry and then feel devastated when Archie wins. It will worm its way into their brains and refuse to budge for a long time. These are the marks of a successful young adult book. This is a book screaming to be read in a world full of increasingly self absorbed and overprotected children.

The Chocolate War is undoubtedly one of the best young adult books I've ever read. It's reputation as a classic of the genre is well-deserved. This was a phenomenal way to start off my month of reading banned books. I'm very glad that my county kept referencing it as "controversial," because it brought this gem into my universe. I'm only sorry that it took me so long to get to it.


      


October Reading List: Banned Books



For the month of October, I'm going to focus on reading banned books.  Banned books are books that have been suppressed by the government at one time or another for containing content deemed objectionable, such as swearing, sexual references, violence, or unpopular ideas.

I strongly believe that everyone should have free access to read whatever books they want, and that governments should not attempt to censor the creative voices of authors based on anyone's moral objections. As a teacher, I see books being pulled from our library all the time for being "inappropriate" in some way. This kills me inside. Books are a safe way to explore all sorts of different people, places, and ideas. Why limit that because someone says a swear word?

I have to send home permission slips to read To Kill a Mockingbird with my students. This novel is one of the most important books written on racism in our time, and I have to spend time worrying that someone might get mad because the N word is in it.  It's ridiculous. Those who want to ban books are missing the point of what reading is.

So, in that vein, I am reading books that others have maligned and tried to make disappear this month. If someone is enraged about the content of a book, that usually means that the books is pretty good, or at least thought-provoking, so I'm thinking that this will be a great month of reading.

Here's the plan:

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier - This young adult book is about a boy who dares to refuse participation in his school's annual chocolate fundraiser. It's always hovering near the top of the "most banned books" lists for its profanity, violence, sexual references and disturbing ending.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie - This book is about a boy struggling to get off of his Indian reservation and make it in the world. The was the most challenged young adult book of 2014.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - This book about the sexual assault of a girl is frequently challenged due to it's sexual content.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - This classic novel was scandalous when it came out in the 1850s due to its sexual subject matter and sympathetic treatment of its guilty protagonist. This will also be my "reread a classic from school" book for my Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair - This 1929 classic American novel about the meatpacking industry was banned in countries around the world (as well as Boston, at one point) for containing socialist views. This will be my "banned or censored classic" for my Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.


If I actually read both The Scarlett Letter and The Jungle this month, I will officially be DONE with my classics challenge!  That's nuts!

Okay, time to get those pages turning!

September 2016 Wrap Up


 My month of reading scary books is at an end, and I did pretty well for someone who is still trying to get the school year started off right. I don't have as much time to read as I'd like lately, but I'm trying to set aside as much time as possible!

I read books this month that were scary in two different ways. The Girl With All the Gifts and The Phantom of the Opera were classic, thrilling, on the edge of your seat horror stories. These books kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.

A Monster Calls and The Hunchback of Notre Dame had me exploring the terrifying depths of grief and human cruelty. These were stories that made you think about what scary things we all face as humans in our everyday lives.

Both types of "scariness" were great - I didn't read anything that I didn't like this month!

Books Read
The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Best of the Month: A Monster Calls
Worst of the Month: None!  I enjoyed everything!

Next up is October. If I keep on blogging like I have been, I might successfully carry out the whole year of themed reading that I planned out back in January. The end is almost in sight and that's pretty cool.