Posts filed under 'Hi-Low/Quick Read'

“Hatchet”

“Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen

195 pp.

Brian’s parents have divorced and he is going to visit his father in Canada, flying in a small Cessna with a middle-age pilot whose name escapes him (Jim or Jake) The trip is alternately exciting and boring until the pilot has a heart attack and dies. Brian tries to call for help over the radio, but he does not know his flight number or location. Eventually his cries are not heard. When the plane runs out of gas, Brian has been preparing mentally to land as close to the edge of the lake as he can manage to steer.

Brian’s survival in the wilderness is never a certain bet. The book depicts the difficulty of his situation. The only useful tool he has is a hatchet his mother insisted he take. Things that work in the movies don’t work for him; whenever something does work, it is though patience and persistence. Lighting a fire or gathering food can take all day. Mosquitoes nearly eat Brian alive; he is sunburned and blistered and always hungry.

Some of Brian’s first food is raw snapping turtle eggs, and the details of his eating them provide a context for understanding what true hunger is. However, he learns new survival techniques each day and become more aware of his environment. Eventually he is able to spear fish and shoot ruffed grouse with a bow and arrow. When a tornado strikes, Brian’s “house” is ruined, and it’s easy to understand how basic live can become.

This is a good tale of maturing, of survival. It is a detailed description of all that Brian must do to continue to exist and seems very realistic. Many students read this one before they get to high school. If you haven’t read it, do so, just so that you have same experience in reading a good adventure book as the rest of your classmates. (It’s a ‘cultural literacy’ thing.) I don’t like when Paulsen seems to imitate Hemingway’s style, but it may appeal to others—and who knows? Maybe there’s a literary criticism essay on ‘style’ just waiting to be written.

4 comments May 15, 2009

“The Giver”

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

180 pp.

Jonas lives in a future utopia in which everyone seems to behave well and apologizes when they hurt someone’s feelings or do something wrong. In the evenings, families share their days, expressing their happiness and frustrations. In the morning, they dutifully report their dreams to one another.

There are many indicators that children are growing up. All children are presented with jobs or tools at the yearly Ceremony. Jonas’ sister, at 8, will start her volunteer hours and at the age of 12, Jonas receives his assignment for life. Rather then become the usual such as an engineer or nurturer, Jonas is to be the receiver, the most important job in the community. He will go to the current Receiver to be given communal memories which individuals don’t know about. Memory is considered too powerful and painful for the general population. The communities, encased in an artificial and perfect environment, know nothing of the heat of the sun or the cold of the winter snow. Jonas is disturbed by many of the memories he receives–of war especially. But he also receives a memory of love that that is more deep and binding than possible in the rational world of his community.

Jonas’ father is a nurturer. He accepts babies from the birth-givers, and works in a nurturing center where babies are kept until they turn one year old. One baby, Gabriel, is not very healthy, and Jonas’ father gets special permission to bring him home to sleep at night, hoping the extra care will help him gain a little weight. If Gabriel does not do better, he will be “Released”. Jonas helps Gabriel sleep by giving him memories, which is strictly forbidden.

Gabriel does not do as well as Jonas’ father had hoped and is scheduled for Release. Jonas and the Giver hatch a plan to bring memory back to the community, but to do so, Jonas must flee “elsewhere.”

I know that many people read this novel before they get to high school, but if you haven’t read it, do so. It is often censored and would make a good read for “Banned Books Week.”

Add comment May 15, 2009

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief”

“The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas” by John Boyne and “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a few months since I’ve read these books—one after the other—but I felt like I needed some space away from them before recommending them to you. Though students often ask for “Holocaust book” recommendations, it’s pretty depressing to read too many at once. However, these two deserve to be read. Unlike many ‘young adult’ books that are for kids in the fifth grade and up, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief” are truly for high school and beyond.

The main character in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is Bruno, a small inquisitive nine-year-old living in Berlin, Germany during World War II. Though the narrative is third person, the point of view is Bruno’s. Although his father is a high-ranking officer, and Hitler (whom Bruno calls “the fury” because Fuhrer is a word he doesn’t know) comes to visit Bruno’s home, the boy has no knowledge of the war, nor any understanding of the Holocaust.

Bruno’s innocence is the one big problem I have with this novel. It’s not that he should understand the Holocaust—at that time, who could have imagined it, especially a little boy? It’s that he has no knowledge of Nazis or anti-Semitism. I gather from several other books on the period that being in the ‘Hitler Youth’ was vital for children if their parents were not to be ostracized. Bruno would have had a little uniform, gone to meetings, marched, and have been indoctrinated. He would have addressed others by saying “Heil Hitler” and he would have known who the Fuhrer was.

But seeing the story of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a total innocent helps the reader to see how truly out of balance Bruno’s world is. When his father is promoted to ‘Commandant’ and the family moves to ‘Out with’ (as Auschwitz sounds to the boy), Bruno can see a death camp from his window, only 50 yards away, but he doesn’t know why the people in it wear striped pajamas. As there are no children to play with (except his twelve-year-old sister, who plays with dolls), Bruno goes exploring and meets a boy who is on the other side of the fence, Shmuel. Though on opposite sides of the fence with very different lives, the boys maintain a friendship through conversation and imagination.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” made my thoughts jump all the way back to a story I read in third grade (and believe me that’s a big leap!) entitled “They Grind Exceedingly Small,” in which a father, through his own acts of selfishness and disregard for others, loses all that matters. (I guess that wasn’t an appropriate story for a third grader, but my teacher thought I was a good reader and gave me a high school literature book to read from.) This quiet book of two boys’ lives ends horrifyingly, heartbreakingly.

Perhaps there is no other way to end a book that takes place in Germany (or Poland) during World War II, but “The Book Thief” is another heart breaker. Even so, I loved reading it—it’s one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read—because the writing is so good, the form of the narrative is creative, and the characters became so important to me.

“The Book Thief” is narrated by Death—and he’s not the cruel being you’d imagine, but he witnesses plenty of cruelty and pointless suffering as he arrives to take souls on their journeys. He becomes fascinated by a little girl, Liesel Meminger. He first ‘meets’ her when she is on a trip with her mother and brother to Molching, Germany, where the children are to live in a foster home because their mother has been branded a “Kommunist.” Liesel’s brother dies on the trip, and it is at his funeral that she steals her first book, a gravedigger’s manual.

Liesel can’t read. However once she is living in her foster home in a poor working class neighborhood, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her. He is a gentle man and helps Liesel through her nightmares about her brother. He plays the accordion and sleeps in a chair so that Liesel won’t be alone. Rosa, Leisel’s foster mother, is much more gruff—and yet, she has a kind heart, too, despite her use of pejorative language.

We readers not only love these people, but also the neighbor boy Rudy, who wants to be like Jesse Owens and becomes Liesel’s best friend. And when Max arrives, we are riveted, knowing that little good can come to those who refuse to join the Nazi party or to those who are Jewish.

Though Max had a friend who was helping him to escape the Nazis, he has been drafted into the army. Max’s one chance for survival is to get to Molching and find Hans. Years before, in World War I, a Jewish man saved Hans’s life. That man was Max’s father, and Hans had promised him that he would do anything for him. So with Max hidden in the basement, Liesel, though young, must keep the secret.

In the meanwhile, Liesel has learned to steal books from the library of the mayor’s wife (who allows this because she, too, cares for Liesel, a reader.) It is by reading that Liesel calms her terrified neighbors in a bomb shelter. Through all, Max and Liesel become true friends, helping each other to survive their losses. In a beautiful and ironic gesture, Max paints the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf so that he can write a story and paint pictures for Liesel—a gift of a book, a most meaningful choice.

I rarely love characters more than I did these. I wanted them to survive—all of them—but of course, this is Germany in World War II.

I, along with some friends who’ve read “The Book Thief” think it might be a good replacement for “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the eighth grade curriculum. If you have the opportunity, you should read both “The Book Thief” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” If you are short on time, you should read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (which is a small book). If you have time for one longer book, and you want to remember it for the rest of your life, read “The Book Thief.”

1 comment May 7, 2009

“Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli

Mrs. M. tells me that some of her students in READ 180 classes have completed some of the novels available in the course and might like to comment on them. I hope that if you’re in the class, you’ve chosen to read “Stargirl.” I love this book.

Stargirl is a true nonconformist, a deeply compassionate one. Unlike the ‘nonconformists’ in most books I’ve read who are secretly cool or quite disturbed, Stargirl is a sweet girl whose quirky behavior makes her, by turns, loved and then hated by her classmates at Mica Area High in Mica, Arizona.

The novel’s narrator, Leo Borlock, is fascinated by Stargirl—the way she carries a ukulele to the cafeteria and sings “Happy Birthday” to classmates, cheerleads for her own basketball team and for the opponents as well, and meditates in the desert. He can overlook the fact that she dresses in a very weird way and has a pet rat. When he starts to fall in love with Stargirl, Leo begins to wish that she would just be normal so that he doesn’t have to be an outcast for dating her. He has to decide whether to be loyal to her (and thus to himself) or to fit in with other students.

If you have read “Stargirl,” then follow it up with “Love, Stargirl.” This is a sequel, but the point of view is Stargirl’s rather than Leo’s. “Love, Stargirl” is touching as well because it details the musings of a broken heart, as Stargirl writes “the world’s longest letter” to Leo. As she baby-sits a clever neighbor child and befriends an agoraphobic townswoman, Stargirl shows us that it’s possible to get to the other side of love-grief–and still be kind.

It’s funny because, usually, this sort of lighthearted whimsy is not my thing. I think that says something about the author’s ability to tell Stargirl’s story.

April 22, 2009

NOTE: COHS Titans–The following review is excerpted from the Junior Library Guild. (Meaning that I didn’t write it and don’t want to take credit from something I didn’t do!) We belong to the Junior Library Guild and purchase four books from them each month, so we have access to these reviews. I’m going to start posting excerpts from the reviews in the hope that you will see what great books we get from JLG–and come check them out! If you want to read the whole review, ask your English teacher. I have made copies for him or her to post in the classroom.

Some of you enjoyed reading Hoot and FlushScat is by the same author.

Ms. W

Scat
by Carl Hiaasen

Mrs. Starch, the cruelest teacher at the Truman School, humiliates Duane Scrod Jr., an extremely volatile student. Then Mrs. Starch vanishes during a biology field trip to Black Vine Swamp. The authorities initially suspect Duane, but they can’t question him; he’s been missing since the day before the field trip. Certain that something strange is going on, Duane’s classmates Nick and Marta investigate the disappearances. What they discover is definitely strange—it involves endangered panthers, a sleazy oil prospector, and a rampant environmentalist named Twilly Spree.

JLG Review: Carl Hiaasen specializes in accessible and engaging stories with an environmental bent. As with his previous novels for young readers, the conflict in Scat plays out between those who are committed to protecting Florida’s wildlife and the corrupt businessmen trying to profit from it. . . .

Nick and Marta are average kids who just want to know why their teacher suddenly went missing. As they investigate her disappearance, they stumble upon a plot far bigger than they expected. . . .

. . . Combining humor, intrigue, and a dash of danger, Hiaasen has created a fast-paced adventure that will captivate and entertain a wide range of readers—and might even teach them a few things about biology along the way.

April 14, 2009

This Full House
by Virginia Euwer Wolff

LaVaughn, a high school senior, is finally seeing her hard work pay off . She’s just been accepted to WIMS (Women in Medical Science), a prestigious after-school program for girls from impoverished areas of the city. At first, Dr. Moore, the program’s founder, takes a special interest in LaVaughn and agrees to write her a college recommendation letter. But when LaVaughn uncovers a dark secret from Dr. Moore’s past, their relationship quickly turns sour—and LaVaughn sees her chance at a college education “falling through the air.”

JLG Review: Told in verse, this final novel in Virginia Euwer Wolff ’s acclaimed Make Lemonade trilogy is a tender rumination on the themes of motherhood, responsibility, and endurance.

From the beginning, readers have known LaVaughn to be a studious go-getter, a young girl determined to rise above her circumstances and attend college. In This Full House, LaVaughn’s goal is finally in sight, but several women in her life—each dealing with the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy—test her focus and temporarily send her moral compass spinning.

This Full House never offers easy answers.  Throughout the trilogy, LaVaughn’s tenacity has made her unique, but it’s her capacity to face ambivalence, self-doubt, and change that makes her a true heroine—a character worth growing with and toward.

NOTE: COHS Titans–The above review is excerpted from the Junior Library Guild. (Meaning that I didn’t write it and don’t want to take credit from something I didn’t do!) We belong to the Junior Library Guild and purchase four books from them each month, so we have access to these reviews. I’m going to start posting excerpts from the reviews in the hope that you will see what great books we get from JLG–and come check them out! If you want to read the whole review, ask your English teacher. I have made copies for him or her to post in the classroom.

Ms. W

April 14, 2009

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is the next book for the Teen Book Club here at the library, sponsored by the Ontario City Library, Colony High Branch. Since the discussion date is quickly approaching (January 26), I moved this title to the top of my list and read it last week. I can see why it’s a ‘cult classic.’

Charlie, the protagonist, sends letters to an unnamed ‘friend’ without giving his identity away. He discusses what it’s like to be in high school. He’s a wallflower in the sense that he is an observer of all that goes on, yet he is not a participant. Something about his writing style made me think of the narrator of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” a character with Asperger’s Syndrome. Charlie is much more average on the scale of normal interaction, but still, he doesn’t quite understand social situations in the same way that most people would.

Despite the strikes against him, Charlie befriends a small group of misfits—and the novel makes clear that just about everyone in high school is a misfit, even the most popular cheerleaders and football stars. Though “Perks” has been compared to “The Catcher in the Rye,” partly because it deals with teen depression, the subject matter is more contemporary—the characters must deal with current sexual attitudes, parties and drugs, date rape and teen pregnancy. Not that they don’t have fun—some of the most poignant passages in the book are on how carefully Charlie chooses gifts for his friends, how well he ‘reads’ their hearts and how much he loves them—and receives love in return. This is a truly engaging and honest book for mature readers. It’s also a quick read, so if you’d like to check it out before the discussion on January 26, come by the reference desk and pick up a copy!

January 15, 2009

“A Three Dog Life” by Abigail Thomas

Here’s a memoir that truly is poignant (a word very much overused). When a teacher assigns memoir reading, ask if you can read “A Three Dog Life.” It’s short at 182 pages—many teachers here require a minimum of 200—but has more to offer than many much longer works. Point out to your teacher that the writing is wonderful, exactly the type that English teachers want you to be exposed to. The figurative language is quite simply lovely.

The author, Abigail Thomas, marries her third husband when she is 46 and he is 57. She describes him as the nicest man in the world, and they live together for thirteen years. Their lives crack open one day when Abigail learns that her dog, Harry, is in the apartment building elevator by himself. Where is her husband, Rich?

The tragic answer is that Rich has been hit by a car while going after Harry, whose leash had broken. Rich suffers a traumatic brain injury and it’s permanent. This nicest man in the world then has short-term memory loss, hallucinations, and becomes paranoid and violent. I expected here to have a story about what a drag Abigail’s life became—or a rationale for why she had to divorce her husband, as he must be hospitalized due to his rages. But no. Thomas discusses how she moved from her Manhattan apartment in order to be closer to her husband. Rather than seeing herself as a martyr, she shows the reader what is still good in her life. She records the strange and beautiful way her husband speaks and finds that, though he never put any stock in such things, he now has a sixth sense that surfaces under the strangest circumstances.

The title is based on the idea of a ‘three dog night’—a night so cold that one has to cuddle with three dogs in order to survive. (I actually knew this because when I was very young, a popular band was named Three Dog Night!) And in the course of her years after Rich’s accident, Abigail does acquire two more dogs. Thomas wrote another memoir that discusses the death of her second husband entitled “Safekeeping.” At present, we don’t have it in our library, but it appears to contain the same wonderful writing and lucid understanding of life’s foibles, so I’ll try to get (afford) it.

January 8, 2009

“Before We Were Free” by Julia Alvarez

Life under a repressive dictator is hard for some of us to imagine. “Before We Were Free” shows us such a life—in the 1960s Dominican Republic—from the point-of-view of a twelve-year-old girl.

Anita de la Torre is the youngest child in an upper-middle class family. Although relatively safe and well-off, Anita’s family hungers for freedom, and both her father and her uncle are involved in a plot to overthrow “El Jefe”—General Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. The influence of the dictator is seen in Anita’s daily routine at school as well as in the social and political fabric of the country.

At the same time that Anita tries to understand the situation in her country, she worries as do most twelve-year-old girls: how does she succeed in school, which boy does she love, when will her period arrive? Anita’s beautiful older sister, Lucinda, has been singled out by El Jefe as a future romantic interest. In order to avoid the fate of becoming his mistress, Lucinda must flee the country.

As Trujillo’s regime becomes more repressive, the secret police are watching the de la Torre family and their American diplomatic friends move into the family compound as a measure to protect them. Spies are everywhere and torture is routine for prisoners. The schools close and Anita’s father and uncle are arrested. Anita’s brother must hide in the Italian Embassy. She and her mother go into hiding in a friend’s bedroom closet, where Anita keeps a diary. (The situation will remind you of Anne Frank’s life if you’ve read her diary.)

“Before We Were Free” is realistic—and that means that the book does not close with ‘happily ever after.’ But it does help us appreciate our own freedom and right of free speech.

November 18, 2008

“The Body of Christopher Creed” by Carol Plum Ucci

“The Body of Christopher Creed” is the story of a guy who doesn’t fit in with any group. After a note is emailed to the school principal—it might be a run-away note, it might be a suicide note—and it might not be—various members of the community start accusing one another for causing Christopher’s disappearance. He was so strange and so irritating that everyone made fun of him or hurt him—and now no one wants to be blamed.

Torey, a popular and smart athlete, is mentioned in the note. Some people in the community start to believe that he is responsible for Christopher’s disappearance. In an effort to find out what really did happen to Christopher, Torey starts to connect with kids he’s thought of as outsiders. Ali has a reputation for sleeping around, but is it justified? Bo is a juvenile delinquent; how can he be so concerned and kind? Christopher’s mother is very strange; maybe she just wanted to rid herself of Chris. Torey becomes convinced that Christopher is dead and buried in the Indian burial ground behind his house.

This novel has a lot to entertain you and keep your interest: a mystery, a ghost, community members that seem to be good and are secretly immoral. It also has something that matters a good deal: a hard look at how important it is to treat others with respect and how serious the consequences can be when we don’t.

November 18, 2008


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