Posts filed under 'Read 180'


“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

“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

“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

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

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

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Holt

When I was studying literature in college, I remember being told a story about a Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor. Asked why Southern writers always have freaks in their novels, she responded:

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”

Reading “Zachery Beaver” reminded me of this quote. It’s 1971 in Antler, Texas, where nothing much happens until a trailer pulls into the parking lot of the Diary Maid. Inside is a sideshow attraction—Zachary Beaver, the “fattest boy in the world” at 643 pounds. Antler folks line up to pay $2 each to have a look at Zachary. Thirteen-year-old Toby Wilson and his best friend Cal are among the gawkers, but soon become curious, and then concerned about Zachary when they realize that his manager and guardian has apparently abandoned him in the parking lot.

Toby and Cal aren’t the only folks in Antler to notice what’s happening. For all the boredom available in this small town, there is a lot of deeply felt human kindness as well, and the ‘freaks’—actually misfits–of Antler work to help Zachary by bringing him food and protecting him from vandals. But Zachary is wary of people—after all, he lives as a sideshow attraction, being made fun of. When Toby and Cal arrange a trip to a drive-in movie, they see how Zachary must shut down in order to get through the staring and whispering of strangers.

This novel says a lot about dreams and life’s disappointments. Toby is somewhat ashamed of his father who is the town postmaster but also raising worms to sell to bait shops. Toby’s mom, who is a waitress at the Bowl-a-Rama Cafe wants to be the next Tammy Wynette (a famous country singer) and leaves her husband and son to try her luck in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Miss Myrtie Mae, the town historian and librarian, gave up her chance for love to care for her brother, the judge, who is now senile. And the girl of Toby’s dreams, Scarlett, wants to be a model (if only she had better teeth) and is in love with someone else. Everyone—not just Zachary–is vulnerable.

The benefit of a small town is that people know each other—and when they do, they accept each other’s quirks as well as help one another in times of need. One of the most moving scenes of the novel is a mother receiving the news that her son has been killed in Vietnam. Moving, too, is the fact that the entire town shuts down and everyone attends the funeral—except Toby and the town drunk—their absence caused by more vulnerability that must be resolved.

October 14, 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

“Night” and “Dawn” by Elie Wiesel

Knowing that all freshmen here at COHS read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and that sophomores have “Dawn” as a possible outside reading choice for history projects, I decided I’d have a go at it. I had read “Night” in the past and found it deeply depressing—no surprise, I’m sure, as a personal account of a Holocaust experience has to make the reader wonder about man’s inhumanity to man. The most difficult part of reading “Night” was, for me, the sense that the evils perpetrated by the Nazis could indeed break the human spirit and make good people behave in a way that they would have previously regarded as something less than human. I still remember the story of a son wrestling his father for a loaf of bread.

Judging by the title, I thought that “Dawn” would be a story of some sort of redemption in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I had no idea what the subject of the book was, and it surprised me—as well as made me think.

The narrator, Elisha, is a survivor of Nazi death camps. He is recruited to go to Palestine as an Israeli freedom fighter—what people would refer to as a terrorist if the freedom fighter were waging war against them. Elisha is chosen because he has no family—they have all died in death camps—and nothing particular to live for. Working to create Israel gives him something to live for—a homeland. But what happens to him as a freedom fighter brings up all the moral questions of his activities. The British control Palestine. Another Jewish freedom fighter is captured by the British and sentenced to die. As retribution for the death, the freedom fighters/terrorists will execute a British soldier at the same time. The soldier is arbitrarily picked off the street and hidden in a basement. Elisha is chosen to be the executioner. This is ironic considering Elisha’s name.

The entire book reflects on the choice Elisha has to make as he communes with his dead family members, his past self and other freedom fighters (one of whom is, again ironically, nicknamed ‘God.’) As short as the novel is, I think some students will pick it as an outside book thinking it will be an easy read. Considering the questions it addresses, nothing could be further from the truth.

September 17, 2008


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