Monday, June 30, 2014

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
by Kimberly Willis Holt

I really had no expectations for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt.  I picked it up because a few of my students had read it this past year.  Going in, I didn’t remember at all what it was about when I reached it on my list the other day.  I didn’t even bother reading the back.  That being said, I still felt a little disappointed.

We meet Toby hanging out with his best friend Cal during the summer in a small town in Texas.  They are lining up to see the most interesting thing to happen in their town in years.  A trailer has pulled up and a man is charging two dollars to see the world’s largest boy.  Toby and Cal eventually end up developing an odd and somewhat strained friendship with “the world’s largest boy” Zachary Beaver, but it’s just one more thing for Toby to worry about this summer.

This small Texas town seemed filled with people.  There are so many characters it become confusing.  We of course have Toby and his best friend Cal, and also Toby’s father, important characters who could have used a bit more filling out.  Zachary Beaver is also an important character whose appearance seems to be a catalyst for a lot of Toby’s realizations.  Then we have the following minor characters: Miss Myrtie Mae is the town librarian and cares for her senile brother; Ferris owns the bowling alley/restaurant; Wylie Womack doesn’t speak anymore and runs the snow cone place; Katy is Cal’s sister and her role becomes more important after she obtains her drivers license; Toby’s crush Scarlett is in a relationship with Juan, and she has a bratty little sister who annoys Toby.  Plus, we have the sheriff, the reverend, Cal’s parents, and his brother Billy.  So many characters!  This story also has two important non present characters—Toby’s mother and Cal’s brother.  Toby’s mom is off in Nashville this summer pursuing her dream of becoming a country music star, and Cal’s brother Wayne is fighting in Vietnam.  No one really gets to be more than a shell of a character and the actions of characters seem to come out of nowhere since we never really get to know them.

For example, Toby learns that his mom isn’t coming back home after she loses a music contest—in fact, she’s not coming home anytime soon.  Toby seems like a smart kid, but he doesn’t get this until half way through the book.  It’s obvious to the other characters in the book that she isn’t coming back, and they allow Toby to lie to them about why his mom isn’t home yet.  They know the truth but let him lie—even his father.  I can understand this as Toby attempts to deal with his parents splitting up.  What I don’t understand is when an even bigger tragedy, a death, affects Cal, why Toby stops being Toby.  He doesn’t speak to Cal, he hides from him, and refuses to go to any of the services, even after his father has lectured him and warned him.  I didn’t expect this from Toby.  It didn’t make sense for his character to act like this. 

We also had Zachary Beaver, a key character in the book who is extremely negative and closed off, lying about the places he has been, creating up stories about his travels.  He is secretive and sarcastic.   It’s easy to understand why he acts this way based on how his life has been so far.  What isn’t easy to understand is the baptism Toby and Cal give him at the end of the book.  They have decided that this is what Zachary wants, even though he has never said it and refuses to talk about it when Cal brings it up.  How exactly did they come to this conclusion?  I’m not sure.  When the boys plan it and “surprise” him with one, he goes—rather easily.  Where did that come from?  It’s explained that because it’s private and down at the lake that he’s okay with it now—but it still doesn’t sit right with me. 

A lot of this novel just didn’t make sense to me.  I felt like characters were never really fleshed out enough to understand their decisions or actions.  It seemed like it was more of a matter of convenience, and all these contrived events lead up to a blasé ending in which Zachary leaves unceremoniously, Toby goes to visit his mom, and all the issues of the summer have been nicely cleaned up and resolved.  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Upcoming books

Currently I'm reading:

So far, so good.  I should be finished by Sunday and have another post up on Monday (maybe--I won't have a designated writing day this upcoming week so I'll have to try and get it in during my daughter's nap).

After that I'm starting this:

I'm excited about this one.  It's nonfiction (which I don't normally read) and it's about dance.  I tried to read it during the school year, but wasn't able to really focus on it.  Hopefully, since I have time to read right now, I'll be able to focus a little more.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko

Ooops!!  I posted earlier this week that I was reading Al Capone Does My Homework.  Little did I know that it's the 3rd book and not the 2nd.  I did figure this out and switched book about one page in.  

Al Capone Shines My Shoes

by Gennifer Choldenko

Dial Books for Young Readers


How does living on Alcatraz with Al Capone and 277 of America’s worst criminals sound to you?  That’s where Moose Flanagan lives with his family, along with the other guards and their families.  In Gennifer Choldenko’s second novel about Moose, Al Capone Shine My Shoes, our main character is in a real fix.  In the first novel, Moose asked for help getting his sister Natalie into a special school.  Al has done that, and now it’s Moose’s turn to pay up.

Choldenko connects the events from Al Capone Does My Shirts seamlessly, without a “last time on Alcatraz…” feeling.  While Moose is dealing with this big favor that Al Capone wants from him, he’s also dealing with friends.  Everyone likes Moose—right? Not always.  Right now, it seems like everyone is upset with him.  When his older sister Natalie comes home for a visit, everything becomes even more complicated.  Lots of adventures ensue as Moose tries to do the right thing and still keep everyone happy.  He’ll learn, though, that trying to make everyone happy doesn’t always work.

I like the pressure that Choldenko puts Moose under.  It makes him uncomfortable as he struggles to be a good person and to deal with the false ideas other have of him.  He is a good kid, but finds himself in predicaments with his friends on a regular basis.  Most of the problems he finds himself in revolve around Al Capone and the fascination they all seem to have with the charismatic prisoner who sends messages to Moose through the laundry.

Weaving historical facts with her own imagination, Choldenko has created a believable space for the Alcatraz kids to grow up in.  She has created characters to live in the real life Alcatraz and woven in real life characters with whom they interact.  One of the most interesting things is the author’s note in which she describes the facts surrounding Alcatraz and how she used them.  We’re given glimpses into some of her interviews with people who really did live on Alcatraz with their families.  She also points out to us the events she has created that are fictional, but also explains where she pulled the ideas from.  This is a glimpse into her craft that I enjoyed and made the story even more enjoyable.

Even if you aren’t a huge historical fiction fan, you’ll enjoy the shenanigans of the Alcatraz kids.  Their characters are believable and, although set in 1935, highly relatable by both boys and girls.  Al Capone Shines My Shoes is a fun read that should not be missed!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Coming Up Next!

I read the first of this series earlier in the year.  I enjoyed it more than I had thought I would and have been anxiously awaiting this second book.  There is a third one as well!

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars

John Green

Dutton Books


The Fault in Our Stars is a story about many things.  It’s about love and loss, yes, but it’s also about so much more.  Hazel and Augustus are just teenagers, yet already deciding who they are and what mark they will leave on the world.  Will it be a heroic and inspiring legacy they leave in which the universe will remember them?  Or will it be a hurtful and selfish stain thrown on humanity that keeps their memory alive?  Or when they leave this world, will the memories of them also fade?

Hazel has known she will die for years now.  Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she has been given a gift in the form of a drug trial that has managed to keep her tumors from growing.  She goes through her teenage life carting around an oxygen tank, watching America’s Next Top Model, and devouring her favorite novel An Imperial Affliction over and over again.  When she meets Augustus, a cancer survivor who lost his leg as a side effect, her life changes. 

Although this book is full of death and Hazel’s focus on death could be incredibly depressing, it doesn’t feel like your typical cancer book.  Hazel is not a character out of a Lurlene McDaniel book, positive all the time, with inspiring goals and an I-can-do-this attitude.  She is bleak about her life and honest about her fears of hurting everyone around her.  She tries to minimize the inevitable pain by making as few connections as possible.  This isn’t done in a loving and selfless way.  Instead this fear is about herself, about what type of person that makes her if she allows others to be hurt by her death.  She is a whiny teenager, arguing with her parents, annoyed by their hovering, and desperately trying to keep herself out of a relationship with Augustus.  Small spoiler:  they get together.

All the characters in this novel are lovely.  They are real.  Hazel, Augustus, and their friend Isaac talk openly and honestly about the people in their lives and how much it truly sucks to have cancer.  I appreciated this.  You see their flaws, but love them all the same.  And your heart breaks along with theirs. 

The most intriguing thing about An Imperial Affliction, the book with which Hazel and Augustus are obsessed is the way it ends, without an ending at all really—the main character just stops midsentence.  Hazel is haunted by this, needing to know, not what happened to Anna, the main character (it’s obvious that this character has died) but what happens to everyone else.  Are they okay?  Do they move on?  Are they happy?  This all reflects back on Hazel’s own fear of hurting her family and friends by dying and leaving them behind.  She refers to herself as a grenade that will tear everyone near her apart, and she needs the assurance of An Imperial Affliction’s author to give her that.

There is so much I want to say about this book.  The language is so beautiful, and although in most circumstances I would roll my eyes at the words these teenagers use, it’s believable here.  It’s obvious that Hazel is very smart and she devours books, so it makes sense that she would speak with such verbosity and confidence.  There were moments when I had to pause and go back and read a line or paragraph because it was so beautifully written that it deserved another look. 

I was taken by this book and angry at it as well.  What I assumed when I started reading the novel did not happen and as soon I realized what would happen in this book, I was so incredibly angry.  The characters are written so well and we become so attached to them and we think we are prepared for the worst.  In fact, the entire book has been set up to prepare us, to ease us into the inevitable.  Instead we’re blindsided with reality and it crushes.  I’m not sure if I feel tricked or not.  I’m not sure if I really like this novel for doing this, for eliciting such emotion, or if I feel as if John Green and I had an agreement and then he broke it.  I guess I feel a little bit like Hazel and Augustus when they finish reading An Imperial Affliction.  Cheated.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What's Up Next?

Yep I'm jumping on the bandwagon.  To be honest, it's been on my to read list for awhile now, before it became uber popular, so now that my students are reading it and it's a movie I figured I needed to get this done soon!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep

So this is another older book and not a new one.  I picked it up because it had was in my classroom when I moved in there, a whole class set of books and I never once read it in the past five years.  I figured it's high time I sat down and read it.  I'm glad I did.

Laurence Yep
Scholastic Inc., 1975

Laurence Yep gives us Moon Shadow, a wonderfully written character who guides us through his journey to America at the turn of the twentieth century and the seven years after as he struggles to understand the ways of American.  Dragonwings introduces to Moon Shadow when he still lives in China with his mother and grandmother while they wait for their father who has traveled to the “demon land” in order to earn money and send it back to them.  One day Moon Shadow learns he will travel with a family friend and meet his father in this strange land.  In America he learns about the evils that many of the Tang people have fallen under in this strange new place.  He also learns about the good that the “demons” can bring with them as he and his father meet new people and work towards their dream of building a flying machine.  Eventually they must strike out alone as their family believes their dream of building Dragonwings is foolish. 

Although a historical fiction novel that paints a picture of how life was for Chinese immigrants at this time, this story is more about dreams and not giving up on them than just about the events that happen to the characters.  It shows us how Moon Shadow and his father grow together as they depend upon one another, but it also shows the pair learning to trust others—even those they have been taught not to trust. 

The Americans are painted as evil creatures who make silly decisions and have no idea of the truth towards the beginning of the novel.  This is how Moon Shadow has learned to understand them based on the way his people describe them, but also based on the way he and the other Tang people are treated by Americans.  We see the danger for the Tang people in simply walking the streets in demon villages, and the manner in which they’re spoken to by Americans.  During a disaster, they are made to leave safe ground and travel each day while officials decide what to do with them, while the Americans stay put and given rations.  Moon Shadow also meets “demons” who are kind and helpful and truly interested in what he and his father have to say.  It is through his father’s open-mindedness and encouragement that Moon Shadow begins to understand that good and evil are spread throughout the world and not concentrated within one group of people.
I enjoyed this novel, but I it was a rather slow read.  I found myself skimming some parts just to keep things going.  Even though it spans seven years, I found myself just waiting to see what was going to happen and being frustrated with description or narrative that didn’t seem to move it forward enough for me.  The characters were well formed for the most part, though, and I even felt that one of the evil characters was full enough for us to understand the hatred within him.  It was enough to feel sorry for this character, just as Moon Shadow comes to feel. 

Overall this is a great historical fiction that I did enjoy, but I find it difficult to give it more than three stars because it was difficult to get through.  I recommend this for readers who enjoy good historical fiction and stories about hope, because if there is one thing that Moon Shadow has throughout this story, it’s hope.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Slowly dwindling down

I should have taken a picture at the beginning of the summer, but I didn't think of it until just now.  This is my crate of books for the summer.  There are two levels.  At the beginning of the summer it was completely full across two layers.  Now there is some space there at the left!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan will pull you into the world of Willow Chance.  Willow has just started middle school, been accused of cheating, started seeing a counselor, and may have just made a friend.  With a love for botany, studying diseases, and the number 7, Willow knows she is different from her peers, but it doesn’t matter since she has loving and caring parents—both of whom die in a car accident, leaving Willow alone.  In come a small army of people to help Willow, people no one would imagine to have helped her before—some of whom she didn’t even know until now.  Her counselor, a Vietnamese family, and a taxi driver, band together for Willow’s sake as she navigates her new life.  What Willow doesn’t know is how much she can help them.
                Just as the characters in Willow’s life are drawn to this strange little girl, the reader is also compelled to care for her.  We get to see Willow as herself before her parents die, somewhat lost in early adolescence, but happy and content with the things she loves.  Even here, when she’s happy, we’re cringing along with her mother when Willow announces that she’ll wear her tan gardening outfit and red hat on the first day at her new middle school.  We already want Willow to do well at her school and we know that it will be impossible for her to fit in. Our heart breaks with hers as she tells us that the old her might have taken delight in the instances of 7, but she doesn’t do that anymore….
                I was put off by the character of her counselor, Dell Duke.  He is written to be an unlikable character. He categorizes his students into different degrees of the strange, never thinks anything through, is easily pushed around by a high school student, and is selfish.  He seems more childish than Willow; however he does have redeemable qualities and he tries, but I still could not get over my dislike of him—even by the end of the book. 

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Willow Chance is a wonderfully written character.  She has immersed us in rich characters who are believable with real flows, yet for the most part we love them all.  Make sure you keep Kleenex nearby, however, as this was tear jerker thought the entire book.

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Did you enjoy the first book in The Lunar Chronicles?  Were you disappointed in the ending?  Don’t worry, in Scarlet, the second book of The Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer twists in the story of Little Red Riding Hood with our previous tale of Cinderella.  With Scarlet’s grandmother missing, we meet Wolf, a stranger in a small town and more than somewhat suspicious.  Despite the warning signs and Scarlet’s feeling of distrust, she and Wolf set out together to find and rescue her grandmother.  Meanwhile Cinder has escaped from prison and is also on the search for Michelle Benoit, Scarlet’s grandmother, hoping to find out more about her past.  Unfortunately her escape has angered Queen Levana who will most definitely have her revenge. 
                At the end of Cinder I was upset, needing to know that there was at least hope that she would be okay.  In Scarlet, Cinder morphs into some kind of cyborg hero with her new arm and leg, shooting darts at enemies, opening hatches, and hot wiring space ships so she and her new companion can escape.  Like any hero, she has a sidekick: pilot and criminal, Thorne who reminds me of a little bit of Wash from the show Firefly (side note—Marissa Meyer is a huge Firefly fan, so this shouldn’t be surprising).  Now she has Iko, her android friend, and Thorne on her side, but it feels like Thorne is waiting to take on a little more shape.  As of right now, he is mostly just there for laughs.
                The Little Red Riding Hood character, Scarlet, is presented as a smart, hot headed, independent young woman, but in reality is an idiot.  She falls in love with Wolf and the relationship that ensues during their 24 hour or so trip to Paris is eye rolling (some of their dialogue was just painful to read). Despite all the warning signs and her misgivings, Scarlet throws herself into Wolf’s embrace and then is angry at herself (as she should be!) when the truth is revealed. 
You will be surprised by the truths that are revealed within Scarlet.  The twists and turns of this fairy tale are well done and although I thought I had figured out the ending, I was only half correct.  My biggest complaint is the flip flopping between so many characters’ points of view.  We not only have Scarlet’s and Cinder’s perspectives, but jump to Prince Kai, Thorne, Wolf, and Queen Levana.  It was somewhat jarring to be thrown into some of these points of view for just one or two chapters throughout the entire book and I question whether that was necessary.

Overall, book two in this series has made me want to immediately pick up the third book, Cress.  Meyer has created some moving characters whose lives you really care about and a plot that keeps going.  I am looking forward to when I get to read Cress.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

               If fairy tales are your forte, then Marrisa Meyer’s Cinder may be for you, but be aware, there is more to this fairy tale than you’ll expect.  The first in the Lunar Chronicles,   Cinder introduces us to a future Earth, 126 years after World War IV.  Despite the peace they have experienced since then, members of Earth are dealing with two major threats to their lives: the evil Queen Levana, ruler of a group who live on the moon, and a deadly plague that seems to leave no family untouched.  As a young cyborg in New Beijing, Cinder is considered a second class citizen under the care of her guardian, who is neglectful at best.  She has watched as her sisters are given everything while Cinder works as a mechanic to make the family money, the threat of being sold off always hanging over her head.  As she dreams of a day when she can buy her freedom, the prince of the Eastern Commonwealth visits her booth with an important request.  From there Cinder’s life becomes complicated as she tries to keep her true identity from the prince while only just discovering the truth herself.
              I was worried that this futuristic retelling would just be the same old story with nothing more than a few changes in setting and the necessary details to match, but am pleased to see that it is much more than that. 
While her step-mother feels like more of a nuisance than a true villain, the evil step sister is barely a name, only causing problems right before the ball.  These two characters seem inconsequential in relation to the major conflicts Cinder faces.  In contrast, Cinder’s character is full and interesting, with much more in her than even she realizes.  She is still evolving as the book comes to a close.  The prince however is annoying and naïve (a descriptor that is used a few times throughout the novel).  How does he not notice that she is a cyborg or question why she wears gloves all the time is beyond me.  I also question Cinder’s interest in the prince as she seems like a smart enough girl.
              There is much more going on here than just Cinder’s story, though. There are layers of conflict that build and twist around one another to further complicate Cinder’s life, but it isn't just her life that will change; it’s all of Earth’s life that is threatened.   The second book in this series is entitled Scarlet, bringing in another fairy tale character: Little Red Riding Hood.  I have not yet read this, but I am hoping that Cinder’s story is intertwined with Scarlet’s.  I want to find out more about Cinder because at the end, I am dissatisfied.  Although I understand the desire to keep readers wanting more so they will read the following book, I would like to feel some sense of closure at the end of the first book.  Meyers has left us hanging with Cinder right smack in the middle of a major threat, unsure of how she will make it out alive.

                Marissa Meyers has left me hanging at the end of Cinder so I will be reading Scarlet next. Look out for a review of the next novel in The Lunar Chronicles soon!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Recently I read two books in very close succession that surprisingly had something in common: Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington and Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire by Rafe Esquith.  The first is a novel about a girl who knows little about her mother, other than she tried to drown her when she was 2 years old and is now in a mental hospital.  Her father speaks very little of her and drowns his pain in alcohol most nights, leaving Sarah to her imagination as she attempts to figure out if she too will become crazy like her mother.  The second is a nonfiction book teacher's philosophy on educating students and how he manages to teach moral development within the classroom.  

What on earth would they have in common?  To Kill a Mocking Bird.  

Sarah idolizes Atticus Finch and writes letters to him throughout the book as she works out her problems.  Rafe Esquith uses Atticus Finch as a model to his students of a "Level 6 character."  

I felt like I was being bombarded with memories of my own reading of the novel, but I realized that they were faint memories.  I haven't read it since high school, maybe college.  So I went in search of my copy, but it's nowhere to be found--perhaps it's hidden in my parents' basement in one of the many boxes of books which are waiting for a home in a larger house one day.  Due to this loss, I went out the next day to purchase a new copy (eBook would not do this time) and settled in to read right away.  I devoured it all once again.

My new copy is already marked up and dog eared.  There are so many beautiful lines within this book.

If you aren't familiar with the story, it's set in the South in the 1930's and told from Jean Louis "Scout" Finch's point of view.  Through her innocent eyes we see a world of flawed adults that she and her brother try to make sense of with the help of their incredibly wise father, Atticus Finch.  I forgot how this book pulls you in and carries you along with Scout as she discovers the world of Maycomb.  I forgot how absolutely beautiful some of the lines are, and I only realized now how wonderful, how truly wonderful, Atticus is.  I think I had this idea in my head before, but as a parent, I am reading and just soaking up ideas and thinking to myself, "I have to remember this when Emma is older."  What I find amazing, though, is that even Atticus questions himself as he defends his reasoning.

The children are mesmerized by a recluse neighbor, Boo Radley, they've never seen, but about whom they have heard stories.  They try to draw him out of his house multiple times, but are unsuccessful.  They are successful, however in learning one of the main themes that Atticus continues to show them.  Take a moment to stand in someone else’s shoes. 

The major event that most people remember from the movie is the trail in which Atticus Finch is involved.  Scout and Jem watch as their father defends a black man who has been accused of rape while many in their small town voice their disapproval for a variety of reasons.  However, we also find many people who stand with Atticus and Tom Robinson, his client.  Atticus shows them how to be kind and generous and truly think about others and the young Scout, who seems wise for her age, takes it all, soaking it up like a sponge.

 At its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is about being human.  It's about being a good person, not just to our best friends and family, but to everyone.  It's about giving each and every person a fair chance and to take the time to stand a moment in their shoes.  Take the time to see what it is they have to deal with each and every day and try to understand them.  

I believe that so much can be learned from reading a well written book.  It’s not just a story that takes you away to another place.  There are lessons, ideas, that can make you think about your own life.  What I am going to take away from reading To Kill a Mockingbird this time is to try to judge less.  A simple concept, yes, but one that, after reading this, with which I could use a little more practice.  I'll take a step back and do my best to understand others and put myself in his or her shoes.