Posts filed under 'Literary Read Alike'

“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

A Kiss in Time
by Alex Flinn

Talia is a beautiful royal princess whose minor rebellion against her overprotective parents results in the very thing they fear most. She pricks her finger on a spindle and sends the entire kingdom of Euphrasia into a sleep that can only be broken by true love’s kiss. Jack is a twenty-first-century American slacker who has been sent by his parents to spend the summer in “sucky” Europe. Jack has an idea of what happens when you kiss a sleeping princess, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready for the result in this modern take on the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty.

JLG Review: A funny, irreverent romantic adventure, A Kiss in Time manages to skip between two very different characters’ points of view while still remaining sweet and engrossing. Alex Flinn handles the voices of her main characters (selfish, sulky Jack and spoiled, temperamental Talia)—and their subsequent transformations—with affection and good humor.

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.

April 21, 2009

You loved Speak–and Wintergirls is by the same author!

Ms. W

by Laurie Halse Anderson

On Saturday night Lia ignores thirty-three phone calls from her ex-best friend Cassie. On Monday morning Lia learns that Cassie has been found dead in a motel room. Lia has always been skilled at hiding her emotions, and her ongoing struggle with anorexia has taught her how to keep secrets—she sews quarters into her bathrobe to trick the bathroom scale and simulates eating by smearing ketchup on her mouth and making a mess in the microwave. But hiding her guilt over Cassie’s death will push her to the edge—and visions of Cassie’s ghost, beckoning Lia to join her, might push her over it.

JLG Review: “It’s not nice when girls die.” So opens Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, a powerful exploration of the distressing world of teen eating disorders. Almost as soon as Lia learns about the death of her former best friend, she becomes haunted by her memories of Cassie. Convinced that she is complicit in Cassie’s death, Lia quickly descends into a familiar pattern of self-destruction. Anderson takes her readers along on Lia’s journey, using a stream-of-consciousness narrative that allows them to understand first-hand Lia’s thoughts and experiences.

This book contains no easy answers. Instead, Anderson precisely details the physical and emotional effects of Lia’s disease. The metaphors she uses are intense, violent images that bring Lia’s inner demons to life.

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.

April 14, 2009

“A New Life” by Ramsey Campbell

For senior students who are reading “Frankenstein” and then comparing it to other works of fiction, “A New Life” is a great story. I understand that those of you in Mrs. Gebhart’s class have read it.

Campbell’s fiction takes “Frankenstein” and looks at the story from the point of view of the ‘monster’—who isn’t a monster at all, but rather, the brain and intellect of a serious philosopher placed in a body that feels too big, “bloated.” The philosopher—who taught in a university and reflects on Pythagoras, Plato, Kant, von Herder, and Goethe—had tried to save a little girl from drowning in the Danube and himself drowned in the effort. Upon awakening in a pitch-dark cell, he moves through a series of thoughts. Is he alive and saved? Is he dead? Is he in hell, with demons coming in to torture him?

Anxiety turns to deep fear of his condition. This works well with the ethical questions on ‘creating life’ that you are being asked as you study “Frankenstein.” After reading about the philosopher turned monster, I wonder whether you stopped to think about humankind’s responsibility in creating life. Could you discuss these question which you will later debate in class?

1. What is a soul? Does a soul differ from a spirit?

2. Where does a soul come from? Does it only begin to exist at the time of birth, at conception, or possibly before conception? Does it ever cease to exist?

3. Do other animals have souls or are they unique to human beings?

4. In man’s quest to study and manipulate the natural process of reproduction and the creation of life, does man have an ethical or spiritual responsibility to protect, advance, or abstain from scientific experimentation with human life in any form, or should there be no limit to experimentation in the name of science and medical advancement?

March 18, 2009

Whirligig by Paul Fleishman

In trying to kill himself, Brent causes an accident that kills Lea Zamora, a high school senior whose life is very promising. Brent was drunk and had just been humiliated at a party by the girl he is lusting after. His actions were thoughtless and now a wonderful person is dead. How can Brent atone—how does he seek forgiveness?

Lea’s mom, though grieving, is the person who helps him, oddly enough, by asking him to make reparations. As part of a program for victim’s families, Lea’s mom requests that Brent make whirligigs and place them in the four corners of the United States—Maine, Florida, Washington, and California. She asks this because Lea loved whirligigs and seeing these blown by the wind would make people happy. Brent is not required by law to do what Mrs. Zamora asks, and his parents raise all sorts of objections, as if to protect him. But Brent is very sorry about what he’s done. He NEEDS to repent and so agrees to the request. Mrs. Zamora gives him a 45-day bus pass good all over the country and a disposable camera to take pictures of the whirligigs when he finishes them.

The story shows how Brent’s odyssey changes him into a better person as he endures physical fatigue and becomes more skilled in carpentry. It also shows, through interspersed chapters, the effect that Brent’s whirligigs (all of them have Lea in them in some way) have on people who see and enjoy them.

This is a beautiful story about the need for forgiveness as well as about growing up and accepting responsibility for one’s actions–and the journey there. If you’ve read Homer’s “The Odyssey,” I wonder if you see a connection.

October 27, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Well, normally I write up a little review of the book, but since I know that this entry is primarily for those of you who are reading “The Secret Life of Bees” for a freshman honors’ requirement, maybe I can try a different tactic. As I don’t have to convince you to read the book (you are reading anyway), let me just mention that there’s a nice little summary of the book at the end under the title “Introduction to ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’” It’s much like what I would have to say in summary. There are also questions meant for a discussion group and you might want to ask and answer one of those here. So far I’ve noticed that the comments from incoming freshmen on summer reading have a great deal to do with whether you can relate to the character—put yourself in his or her mindset—and that’s important because the author has probably failed if you can’t. However, as you engage in the honors program in high school, you’re going to find that you’ll be asked for analysis of the books you read, and that requires deeper thought. Answering some of the discussion questions such as “Who is the queen bee in this story?” will be a good start on your analytical journey.

I first read “The Secret Life of Bees” when it came out. I was thinking that was a couple of years ago, but times flies, as they say, and it has been more like six years. So I needed to reread the entire book rather than take a quick glance. And although I think that this is a good book—and a perfect choice for ninth grade summer reading—I don’t think it’s a great book. The same things bothered me on the second reading as bothered me on the first. The story sewed up too neatly. I got a bit tired of the quotes about the lives of bees and then seeing how Lily’s life and the lives of those around her matched the bees. I also got tired of being knocked over the head with the ‘deep’ spiritual and emotional lives of the bee women and Lily’s connection to the power of all that earth mothering. It was just too heavy-handed for me.

I’ve always felt that the best discussion centered on this book would be a comparison to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Unfortunately, I doubt that any of you have read that book—and now that reading it is out of fashion (not very PC), you probably won’t read it in eleventh grade as students did at one time. But “The Secret Life of Bees,” either purposefully or on an unconscious level, is modeled after “Huck Finn” and I don’t doubt that some PhD candidate is writing about this at this very moment.

If you do get the chance to select a great work of American fiction and are asked to compare it to something contemporary, picking” HF” and “TSLoB” would be a blast. Lily and Rosaleen could be compared to Huck and Jim. Jim, the Black outcast (slave) on the run from a Southern society that takes away his human rights. Huck, the motherless child of a horrific father who physically and emotionally abuses him. Their dependence on one another to escape. Huck’s fluid lying to help himself and Jim. Jim’s need, even as the adult, to depend on Huck because the society gives more value to the child than the man who is black. Jim as a surrogate father and his love for Huck.

Obviously, I think that “HF” is a much better book—this is because the characters are more real to me; they are more deeply flawed. Huck helps Jim in the same way that Lily helps Rosaleen, but because of his upbringing in a racist society, he doubts that he is doing the right thing and believes he’ll go to hell for it. This is ironic, and irony abounds in the novel. It’s what could have made “TSLoB” great, too, but it’s missing.

As just a little sidebar, let me talk about the discussion question “Have you ever heard of ‘kneeling on grits?’” I was thinking as I read the book that, being Southern California kids, you may not even know what grits are. It’s grain (usually corn–hominy) that’s only coarsely ground. When boiled, it makes a sort of cereal. But when it’s still dry, it’s sharp and rock hard. I’ve only ever known one person who as a child was punished by kneeling, not on grits, but on split peas. The result was that when she grew up, she moved away from her parents and would NEVER allow them to see their grandchildren. I think that gives us a pretty good idea of the harshness of such a punishment.

Another of the discussion questions asks you to project into the future. I kept thinking about Rosaleen voting. The book ends on a happy note with Rosaleen registering, but at that time, and in that place, trying to vote might have cost her her life.

A penny for your thoughts.

(Earlier Entry)

Borders (the bookstore) is doing some promotional stuff that you might be interested in if you have chosen to read the novel for Frosh Honors.

Excerpt from the book:

Super quick interview with the author (Sue Monk Kidd) on making the book into a movie:

Video clip of the upcoming movie:

Ms. W.

June 24, 2008

The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan

 Book three in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series finds Percy, Thalia (daughter of Zeus), Grover and Annabeth discovering two new half-bloods or heroes. Unfortunately, Dr. Thorn of the school where the new orphaned heroes reside proves to be a monster. He kidnaps Annabeth. When the heroes team up with Artemis, goddess of the hunt, she too is kidnapped and her huntresses join forces with the heroes to effect a double rescue. Their search for Annabeth and the goddess takes them across the United States. Again this is fun with Greek mythology. Here we meet Apollo, whose sky chariot in now a red Maserati and who composes some really bad poetry. More adventure!

January 24, 2008

Sea of Monsters

Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

I loved The Lightning Thief so much that I had to continue the series. This is the second book in Percy Jackson and the Olympians. This time, Percy is finishing seventh grade and hoping to go back to Camp Half-Blood Hill for the summer. On the last day of school, Percy’s PE class is attacked by Laistrygonians—giant cannibals in Greek mythology—and Percy and a homeless classmate are saved by Annabeth (Percy’s best friend from book one). Immediately, Percy learns that the sacred tree guarding the camp has been poisoned and the camp is under attack. Another surprise is that the homeless boy, Tyson, is a Cyclops and Percy’s half-brother (Poseidon is also Tyson’s dad). Finally, Percy is having nightmares that his friend, the satyr Grover, is in danger.

With the scene set, Hermes sends Percy off on a quest to find Grover, who is the prisoner of the Cyclops Polyphemus (yes, the one that Odysseus fought). To do so, he must cross the Sea of Monsters (now called the Bermuda Triangle) and survive Scylla and Charybdis. At the same time, Percy must retrieve the Golden Fleece, which will heal the sacred tree. Always lurking in the background is Luke, the former friend who betrayed Percy and who is trying to bring the Titan Kronos back to power so that Olmpus can be overthrown.

This second book in the series is another fast-paced adventure, with more hilarious takes on the Greek gods. Circe now turns men into guinea pigs (real pigs are too much like real men and messy) and Hermes wears track shorts and a ‘New York City Marathon’ t-shirt. Oh—and he invented the Internet as well (sorry Al Gore!)

Add comment January 24, 2008

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

 The Lightning Thief is quick, easy, good fun. The protagonist, Percy Jackson, is a hero. No, not of the Rambo type. A hero in the Greek tradition—that is, he is the son of a Greek god and a human. Never mind that the story is contemporary. Mount Olympus has been relocated to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building in New York. The entrance to Hades is at DOA Recording Studios in Los Angeles. The gods and other immortals can be found interfering in daily human life, just as they did in Greece thousands of years ago. Of course, their look is up-to-date. Aeres looks like a Hell’s Angel and rides a Harley; Medusa runs a statuary shop (yes, her garden décor is so realistic that it is purchased from all over the world!). 

When Percy, aka, Perseus, is attacked by a monster in the form of his algebra teacher, his mom knows it’s time for him to go to Camp Half Blood Hill for safety and to find out his true identity—that Poseidon, god of the sea, is his father. Unfortunately, Poseidon has been accused of stealing Zeus’s lightning bolt and the fate of mankind rests in Percy’s ability to complete his quest and return the missing property. Check out the modern version of the Labors of Hercules and meet the new rendition of not only Aeres and Medusa, but Poseidon, Hades, Zeus, Procustes, Charon and the Eumenides (Furies). You don’t have to know much about Greek mythology to have fun with this book, but if you do, you’ll love the connections, both subtle and outrageous.

January 24, 2008

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund is the perfect book for the junior English project that starts with a work of fiction. It’s rich with historical as well as fictional characters and takes on several of the social issues of Antebellum New England and America—Transcendentalism, religion (in Unitarianism and Universalism), the rights of women, and slavery. Even so, it’s not a book that all high school students will be able to read. At nearly 700 pages, it’s much longer than the books most read. The old-fashioned writing style and the wood-cut images are delightful in that they pull the reader into the 19th-century New England of the novel, but it is a technique unfamiliar to many students.


For those of you who are good readers, do read Ahab’s Wife. You’ll find adventure as Una, the protagonist runs off to sea aboard a whaler, which sinks after a run-in with a whale (Yes, the book has a connection to Moby-Dick and Una is that Ahab’s wife). She survives the shipwreck, but must live with the dark secret of cannibalism. You’ll meet, if only briefly, many literary giants of the period—Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne, disguised as one of his own characters (“The Minister’s Black Veil”). Any of them will make an interesting subject for later research as will Frederick Douglass, whom Una hears speak. There’s plenty of romance and heart break as well. Though Una seems a bit modern for her time (she easily accepts her neighbor’s homosexuality), she is a bold and kind woman at once, and has characteristics we all would like to emulate.

November 6, 2007