Posts filed under 'Multicultural'

“Fallen Angels”

“Fallen Angles” by Walter Dean Myers

309 pp.

Richie Perry is an African-American boy who goes to Vietnam. His experiences there change his perception of the world. On his first day out, another new recruit is blown apart when he steps on a mine. A favorite understanding officer, Lieutenant Carroll, is killed a few months later. Soon after, a favorite companion, Brew, has his leg ripped open and dies during the evacuations as Perry holds his hand. Perry also finds that he often does not understand who is the enemy and is frightened of some of the villagers as they may be part of the Viet Cong. On one trip to a local village to search for VC, a woman hands a baby to a GI. The baby explodes, killing the GI. Other soldiers then kill the women and the other child who was with her.

Periodically, Perry is bored. There often seems to be racial tension in his platoon although it is never explored.

Among his other gruesome experiences, Perry is wounded twice. The book has a lot of suspense and excitement. The view of a young soldier seems to be realistic. Someone interested in what the Vietnam War was like or even what it feels like to be a soldier would “enjoy” reading Fallen Angles. This would work for projects requiring you to began with loosely historical fiction, but you can’t have a weak tummy. War is gorey.

Add comment May 15, 2009

The Rock and the River
by Kekla Magoon

1968: Racial tensions are escalating in cities across America, including fourteen-year-old Sam’s hometown of Chicago. The struggle for racial equality has even divided Sam’s own family—his father is a civil rights activist, but Sam’s older brother, Stephen, a.k.a. Stick, has joined the Black Panthers. Sam respects his father, but as he sees an increasing number of violent acts perpetrated by whites against blacks, he begins to think that Stick has the right idea. Author’s note.

JLG Review: The Rock and the River provides a fresh take on the civil rights movement. Rather than writing only about the division between blacks and whites, debut author Kekla Magoon concentrates on a less-explored aspect of the time period, the split between blacks who practiced nonviolent resistance and those who attempted violent revolution.

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

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

“Same Kind of Different as Me” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

Ms. G here at COHS recommended this book to me because it was so moving that she couldn’t put it down. It’s quite a tale—and I think you, too, will be moved to tears.

Author Ron Hall is married to a woman who cares so deeply for others that her story is pure inspiration to the reader. Debra Hall’s willingness to not only feed and clothe but befriend the homeless shows us what true faith can do—it knocks the patronizing ego right off the shelf and helps us see the real person we are connecting with. Debra’s faith is the force that lets her recognize Denver Moore as a man for whom God has big plans.

Denver was a homeless African-American who came to the Union Gospel Mission for meals, but who kept himself apart from others and trusted no one–with good reason. Denver grew up in the American South not only under Jim Crow laws, but as a sharecropper—which translates as a sort of modern slavery. He lived in a place that time left behind, where he works land he doesn’t own and owes money to ‘the man’ for bare essentials. He never went to school; being illiterate, there seems to be no escape for him from desperate poverty. (There’s a story of racism in the book that will chill your bones, but I don’t want to give away the whole book!)

Denver and other homeless people start referring to the Halls as “Mr. and Mrs. Tuesday” because they work at the homeless mission every Tuesday, unlike most folks who are just holiday volunteers. Soon Deborah is spending many days each week helping, organizing outing, and more. Denver’s faith is revived through Deborah’s actions.

When tragedy strikes the Halls, the tables turn and Denver’s friendship helps them keep their faith. As Denver says, using fishing as his metaphor, true friendship isn’t a catch-and-release program. It’s for keeps.

When your teacher asks you to read a biography or memoir, pick this one up and see how ordinary people overcome extraordinary obstacles.

December 4, 2008

“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

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“Lie down with dogs; wake up with fleas.” I remembered reading this ‘aphorism’—a witty little statement by Benjamin Franklin—as I read the novel “Monster.”

The main character of the novel, Steve Harmon, is in just such a position. He appears to be a good guy in general—he has no criminal record and he’s a talented cinematographer. Yet he has somehow gotten involved with other guys who are accused of murdering a Harlem drugstore owner. Steve is accused of being the lookout for a robbery that ended in the murder. Now, at sixteen, he is on trial for that murder.

The story is told through Steve’s journal entries and through a screenplay he is writing about his experience. The journal gives the reader insight into Steve’s experience in jail and his feelings about his experience. The drama is more objective—people speak for themselves—lawyers, the four accused boys, the officers, the judge. The truly interesting thing about this format is that it is not clear whether Steve has willfully participated in the drugstore robbery. As you read and try to figure it out for yourself, you’ll be swayed by the evidence, by your sympathy for Steve and his parents, and by your own experiences with the law and prejudice—whatever those experiences are.

As a parent of teenage boys, I wanted to hand all three this book as a cautionary tale—read this so that you can see what happens when a good kid hangs around the wrong people.

What do you think? Were you sympathetic with Steve? Is it true that if you ‘lie down with dogs’ you will ‘wake up with fleas’?

October 23, 2008

Cleopatra VII (The Royal Diaries) by Kristiana Gregory

This is the first book I’ve read from “The Royal Diaries” series. If you’ve read books from the “American Girl” series or, better yet, the “Dear America” (“My Name is America”) series, you will be right at home with the format. This ‘diary’ of Cleopatra’s early teen years, is, of course historical fiction. The author, Kristiana Gregory has taken some known historical fact and mixed it with what she imagines a young princess in ancient Egypt would do and think.

As the diary tells it, Cleopatra flees Egypt with her father, Ptolemy XII, when enemies threaten his life (a puff adder, a poison snake, is set in his room and his wine is also poisoned.) Once in Rome, seeking the protection and military help of Caesar, the two find out that Cleopatra’s oldest sister has taken over the throne and later has been strangled. The second sister then takes over. Cleopatra herself is third in line to be pharaoh, but she is certain she would be a better ruler than her shallow sister, whose heart is more concerned with jewelry. However, she also fears that her father could have her killed if he suspects that she wants to usurp his authority. From this point forward, the diary tells of events back in Egypt and those in Rome as father and daughter wait for Rome’s help and the good weather required for a return trip to Alexandria.

Many of the details here bring the ancient world to life. The filth and stench that ordinary people had to deal with on a daily basis is an eye opener. There is much of interest that can be researched—what about the Alexandrian Great Library? Or the 400-foot-high Pharos Lighthouse, considered one of the wonders of the ancient world? Did Cicero make those speeches indicating that Rome should not help Egypt? Did Cleopatra really learn several languages with ease? Did she actually have a pet leopard (a character in this book)? Was Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father, truly an alcoholic?

The interaction between Cleopatra and Marc Antony sets up the future romance between them. You should read the historical note at the end of the novel to see how their relationship turns out. The illustrations at the end are also interesting and enlightening.

October 23, 2008

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The blank verse form of this novel brings lyrical beauty to the story of two inner-city teen girls—fourteen-year-old LaVaughn and seventeen-year-old Jolly. Though LaVaughn lives in ‘the projects,’ she has a strong widowed mother looking out for her, one who insists that college is a must. LaVaughn is focused on her future and works hard at school to make the grade. On the other hand, Jolly is a lost and desperate mother of two. Functionally illiterate, Jolly works in a factory until she is fired after she refuses sexual advances from her boss. She has no life skills and this includes her ability to parent—her apartment is filthy with odd bits of smelly old food left about, meals for the roaches. She runs out of diapers and clean clothes and LaVaughn describes her as doing everything ‘half-way.’

We learn that Jolly’s inability to deal with every day life, to “take hold” as LaVaughn’s mother keeps saying, is rooted in her lack of family support. The only parent she’s ever known is an elderly foster mom, ‘Gram,’ who died shortly after Jolly comes to live with her. LaVaughn has taken a job babysitting Jolly’s two kids while Jolly works, hoping to save money for college. But when Jolly, loses her job, LaVaughn babysits for free—that is until she realizes that she is only providing a sort of welfare for Jolly and not helping her ‘take hold.’ It is only when Jolly decides to go back to school—and includes parenting classes—that she has any hope of taking the lemons that life has given her and making lemonade.

If you have any doubt that high school matters—that working hard on becoming educated matters—reading this book is a MUST!

October 14, 2008

The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell

The story of Anna Schoene’s childhood in Shanghai, China in the 1930s and her late childhood and teen years in Pasadena is so thick with period detail, that both locales should come alive for the reader. In fact, it is this abundance of detail that, though I often found it contrived and irritating, would work well for you if you select this novel to start your Junior Project.

Anna’s father, Joesph, is the son of missionaries and was born in China. He speaks fluent Mandarin and passionately loves Shanghai, staying there to run a rather shady import-export business even when the dangers of doing so are evident to everyone around him. While foreigners leave the country, Joseph allows his wife and child to depart without him. He has survived being kidnapped. Once Shanghai falls to the Japanese (WW II), Joseph is taken as a prisoner of war and tortured. Surviving, he briefly joins his wife and daughter in Pasadena, but can’t settle there. He goes back to China, and eventually Shanghai, where he becomes the prisoner of the Chinese Communists for four years until he is inexplicably released and then expelled from Hong Kong in 1954. The chapters on Joseph’s various imprisonments are riveting.

Once back in the states, Joseph moves close to Anna, now an adult with children, and makes efforts to reconnect. Anna’s mother has died of leukemia and Anna’s grandmother tells her to be careful—Joseph has proven to be self-serving and has always put his interests above his family. Yet, before she died, Anna’s mother has told her that she should forgive her father. It is this theme of forgiveness which adds depth to the book.

What seems contrived in this novel will actually benefit you in your project. The book reads as though the author had done research, not only in historical documents, but also by perusing every “Life” and “Look” magazine of the period that she could get her hands on. Perhaps she hates to have wasted that time and wants to include everything she found—a common post-research mistake. And so as a reader, you will be treated to the titles of popular movies, the names of recording artists, songs and albums, the names of local restaurants and their order on the street as well as a run down of the menu of each. You’ll even learn what brand and shade lipstick Anna’s mother wears—because Anna’s mother is proud to share this information with her (huh?). When you turn from the fiction to the research, you’ll have a plethora of 1930s-1950s details to choose from.

October 14, 2008

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

Although I’d only heard great things about this book, I hesitated to read it because I have been let down by the author before. It was as though he wanted the reader to understand that he was an American Indian and then said, “And you can’t possibly get what that means, so shove off.” Pretty depressing.

Fortunately, Alexie’s first ‘young adult’ novel is a different experience all together.

“The Absolutely True Diary” is a fictional account of the life of a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian, Arnold Spirit (Junior). He has a lot working against him—he was born with water on his brain (hydrocephalic) and is bullied by his peers. His father’s an alcoholic (but only when he’s drunk!) and Junior is getting a lousy education on the reservation (rez). In order to change his luck, Arnold decides to go to the ‘white’ school in Reardon, Washington, 22 miles from the rez. Happily, he makes friends and becomes one of the school’s basketball stars. But his friends on the rez call him an ‘apple’ for being red on the outside, but white on the inside. So the one constant question of teen life—Who am I?—has multiple meaning in Junior’s life.

The Indians in this novel are neither the stereotype of savage or noble nature guide/shaman. Junior knows a lot of people with a lot of problems—especially alcoholism. Yet the book is wildly funny, and we laugh out loud as we root for Junior to make it in life. One of the reasons we do so is the cartoons by Ellen Forney that are interspersed throughout the book. Ostensibly, they are Arnold’s cartoons and drawing, as he is a budding artist. These comics can be read as a stand-alone story. One of my favorites was “Junior Gets to School,” with five panels, showing what happens to him Monday-Friday as he tries to make his 22 mile trip. Another non sequitur that is hilarious is “THE UNOFFICIAL and UNWRITTEN (but you better follow them or you’re going to get beaten twice as hard) SPOKANE INDIAN RULES OF FISTICUFFS.” It’s easy to see why life is so hard for Arnold.

“The Absolutely True Diary” won the National Book Award and was a Junior Library Guild pick. Reading it gives you a chance to think about the difficulties encountered in getting out of tough situations–and yet it’s still uplifting. And funny, funny, funny at the same time. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this one!

October 13, 2008


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