Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Warrior Cats

The kids in my class love these books. I did, too, when I was their age. Of course, there were way fewer of them then than there are now, which makes me feel a lot older than I really am.

Anyway, as part of my summer reading project, I decided to re-read the Warriors books. Not all of them, of course – there are now 6 book series, plus various “super-editions” and graphic novels, – but just enough to get a feel for them again.

The books are about a group of feral cats living in the woods, but the characters don’t really behave like cats. They have a complex society, familial bonds, friendships, and leaders. They understand abstract concepts like loyalty and honor, they have culture and traditions, and their society is based on a set of rules that they’re all expected to follow. The adult cats train the younger ones, a few specialize in healing rather than becoming warriors, and everyone in the clan helps to care for the elderly. They’ve even learned to use basic tools, such as moss to carry water or cobwebs to bandage an open wound. In other words, they are imagined and characterized like a human society, despite not being human at all.

And yet, there’s a sort of realism that is often not present in talking animal stories. No one wears human clothes. No one can read or write. The cats sleep in the forest, hunt for their food, get into fights over territory, and face threats such as disease, wild animals, and of course, humans. Their society is human-like, but their concerns are those of cats. And this, I think, is part of why the books appeal to an older age group than most other talking animal stories. They still require a lot of suspension of disbelief, but a lot less than something like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.

The other big thing I noticed is that they’re coming-of-age stories. The main character of the first series starts out as a sheltered house cat, wanders off into the forest, joins one of the four Clans, and spends several books trying to prove himself before eventually becoming the Clan’s leader and uniting the forest cats against a common enemy. Future series choose to focus on new characters – always young cats trying to prove themselves – rather than continue to follow the original protagonist. This, I think, is another reason older kids seem to enjoy these books. Somewhere around 5th or 6th grade, kids’ lives become a lot more complicated very quickly: they’re going through puberty, they’re given more responsibility and freedom than before, they’re realizing that Mom and Dad can’t always fix everything, and when they go on to middle school, they have to adjust to a whole new kind of school environment and peer group. There’s a reason so many books for kids around that age are coming-of-age stories. Everything is changing for them very quickly, and they see something of their own struggles in the fictional characters’ much-more-extreme ones.

They’re also violent books, and I’d forgotten just how violent. Or maybe never noticed in the first place. In the same way that big fantasy battles featuring swords or magic wands are comfortably removed from reality, cats fighting each other doesn’t seem nearly as bad as when it’s humans doing it. And then there are forest fires, floods, diseases, winters when prey is scarce, other wild predators, cars on the highway, and dozens of other ways to get hurt. If these were books about humans instead of cats, they really wouldn’t be appropriate for ten-year-olds – and yet, I know I read them at about that age, and they didn’t bother me.

To answer the question I asked myself when I started reading, no, they’re not as good now as they seemed when I was a kid. They require a lot of suspension of disbelief, not just for the talking animals but for the supernatural aspects of the story as well, and as much as I love the fantasy genre, it was a little bit too much. The cats’ naming system (two-part names, ie. Fireheart, the first part given by the cat’s mother and the second part earned when the cat becomes a warrior) seemed awesome at the time, but now it’s just a little too complex and I’m not into it enough to keep track of all the changing names. And the basic premise just doesn’t appeal to me as much as it did then. I’ve outgrown them.

And yet, they are certainly not bad books. There’s some nostalgia there for me, but there are also worthwhile questions and themes that run through the series. What does it mean to be loyal and honorable? What does it mean to be a leader? How do we treat those who are perceived as outsiders? Is breaking the rules ever just? When should we fight, and when should we look for a peaceful solution? The series isn’t written as a moral lesson, but it explores these ideas via its feline characters.

It’s not (at least for me) the kind of series you keep coming back to your whole life, and it’s probably never going to be a children’s classic or be studied in schools. But not every book needs to be. I can understand why I liked them, despite not being a big fan of cats in real life, and I can understand why the kids at school continue to read them as more and more are released.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Verse Novels

At the beginning of the summer, I discovered verse novels, which are novels written as a long series of free-verse poems. There aren’t a lot of these books out there, but I’ve eagerly explored the genre this summer. I’ve already written about Inside Out and Back Again, by Thannha Lai, and Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech. Here are four more that I’ve read this summer:

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. Unlike Heartbeat, Love That Dog is not necessarily intended to be good poetry. It’s supposed to read like a kid wrote it, and a kid who hasn’t figured out yet that breaking a sentence up over several lines does not make a free-verse poem. In this way, it’s almost more of an epistolary novel (a novel written in diary entries, letters, blog posts, etc.) than a true verse novel. We’re supposed to believe this is work a student did for English class. It’s a very sweet story, though, and the pieces come together very well, so that details that seemed random early on mean something by the end.

Blue Birds, by Caroline Starr Rose. Set in the lost Roanoak colony, this is the story of a friendship between an English girl and a Native American girl. The poetic form works very well for this story. At the beginning, the two do not even speak each other’s languages, but since it’s written in poems, the reader is able to understand what both of them are thinking and feeling.

May B., by Caroline Starr Rose. This is another one where free verse poems work better than prose possibly could. It’s a survival story, but unlike, say, The Black Stallion, it focuses on May’s emotions more than her physical struggle to survive. The poems linger on her loneliness, fear, hope, and determination in a way would seem odd in prose but flows naturally in verse.

Eva of the Farm, by Dia Calhoun. Possibly my favorite verse novel that I’ve read so far. The main character, Eva, is an imaginative and adventurous pre-teen whose family’s farm is about to be foreclosed on, and she’s determined to save it. Eva herself is a poet, and her own poems are interspersed throughout the story. As seems to be a trend in this genre, the plot matters less than the character development and emotional depth – but that’s okay, because Eva’s emotional journey is 100% worth reading.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Everything on a Waffle

There’s this funny thing that happens with books you read as a kid. Some of them stick with you. You somehow never outgrow them, and just keep coming back again and again to savor the familiar stories. Others fade from memory almost entirely, until years later, you find yourself face-to-face with a vaguely familiar title and think you might have an idea how it ends. You open it up, turn the first few pages, and the story feels almost new, but every now and then there’s something that triggers a memory.

That’s what Everything on a Waffle was like for me. I know I read it when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I know I enjoyed it. And I remembered the strangest things about it: the main character’s hair “the color of glazed apricots (recipe to follow)”; her insistence that sometimes you just know something, deep down, without any proof; and the unexpected flashes of wisdom amid a chaotic storyline.

  • “At heart, we’re all a pack of violent, raging wolves, but in our actions, we can be pacifists”.
  • “The only really interesting thing about someone that makes you want to explore them further is their heart”.
  • “Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better, but in doing so, you lose what was so wonderful to begin with”.

These are quotes I halfway-remembered, although I’d never have been able to tell you where they came from. And they kind of sum up why I like this book.

When I say it’s chaotic, it is. It’s got a huge cast of supporting characters, unexpected events, odd coincidences, and so many difficulties for the protagonist that it would almost have a Series of Unfortunate Events feel to it if she didn’t react with such a positive attitude. It really shouldn’t have worked – and yet, somehow, it does. And every so often, from out of the chaos – maybe even as a product of the chaos – there’s a moment that’s just so thoughtful and profound it makes you stop and think. Like a flash of lightning in a thuderstorm, lighting up the world for just a moment.

Primrose is a delightful narrator, and she tells her own story in a funny, upbeat way. She’s full of joy for life and has a unique voice that could only belong to a precocious pre-teen. The glass is always half-full in her eyes, and the narrative rewards her optimism with a happy ending. Rather than orphaned and alone, she ends up surrounded by people who care for her, from Uncle Jack to her foster parents to the owner of a restaurant who serves everything on a waffle – and, at the very end, an even happier twist that I probably shouldn’t spoil.

The book is quirky and fun, with plenty of humor and a few distinctive features, such as ending each chapter with a recipe for a food that featured in that chapter. If there’s a moral, I’d say it’s that life is what you make of it, and you can choose to dwell in self-pity or you can choose to make the most of what you’ve been given. I loved this book, and I’d definitely recommend it.

My Poetry · Shakespeare

Fall of a Tyrant

A poem about Shakespeare’s Richard III


Scheming, plotting, taking that
Which is not yours to take
Stealing, lying, trusting none
With smiles and friendship fake

Killing, lying, courting one
Who mourns the men you slew
Trapping in a web of lies
All those of use to you

Planning to usurp the throne
Upon a cunning lie
Locked inside the fearsome tower
Youthful heirs must die

Cheering subjects make you king
But enemies grow strong
Cursing you with hate and grief
For all your sin and wrong

Dripping down the castle walls
The blood of those you’ve killed
Brothers, nephews, allies, wife
The blood your hands have spilled

Haunting you with every step
Ghosts on the battlefield
“Despair and die!” their voices scream
By them your fate is sealed

Rising o’er the battlefield
A song of triumph soars
Rebuild the world, unite the signs
Of Lancaster and York

Nevermore from this day on
Shall brothers’ blood be spilled
But rival houses side-by-side
A kinder future build

Rest in peace, you restless ghosts
The battle has been won
The bloodstains fade from castle walls
Your business here is done

Shakespeare

Texas Shakespeare Festival: Richard III

Shakespeare Festival - Richard IIII went into the theater last night feeling excited, but a bit apprehensive. I’d only finished reading Richard III a few days before, and while I was looking forward to seeing it play out on stage, it was one of the bloodiest and most disturbing Shakespeare plays I’d ever encountered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be entranced by the gruesome events unfolding or simply disgusted. I left the theater a few hours later, literally speechless and breathless. It was like a horrible train wreck that you just can’t look away from, and I mean that in the best way possible. I loved it!

This was my second night at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and seeing Richard III was a very different experience from Much Ado About Nothing, which is a light, humorous romantic comedy. Richard III had me gasping in horror, biting back screams, and waiting on the edge of my seat as the doomed members of the House of York plotted against each other. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but I’d imagine it’s much the same effect: what’s happening in front of you is just so horrible it leaves you gasping for breath as if you’d just come close to drowning.

Only Richard III isn’t a horror movie. It’s Shakespeare, and it’s – at least in part – history. Elizabethan propaganda, historically inaccurate, yes, but still. The sides may not have been as black-and-white as Shakespeare would have us believe, but the War of the Roses was still an incredibly bloody and violent time, and history is filled with dictators and tyrants as horrible as Shakespeare’s villain.

Shakespeare’s work often speaks to universal themes. Romeo and Juliet is about love and hatred – irrational hatred and irrational love. Hamlet is about the inevitability of death. Othello is about jealousy and distrust. King Lear is about false flattery and backstabbing and the unfortunate fact that the honest often suffer while the dishonest profit. Many of the comedies deal with some of the same themes, coming to happier resolutions. Richard III, likewise, paints a blunt and unvarnished picture of the evil in the world and the ways in which ordinary people allow it: by trying to profit from it, underestimating the dangers, or simply being too afraid to speak up. There’s something about the play, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s works, which transcends time and continues to feel relevant today.

Shakespeare

Texas Shakespeare Festival: Much Ado About Nothing

shakespeare festival - much ado

This weekend, I’m at the Texas Shakespeare Festival.  They’re performing two plays by Shakespeare: Richard III, which I’m going to see tonight, and Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw last night. It was incredible!

I’ve read 13 of Shakespeare’s plays now (having finished Richard III this week), and I’ve seen movie versions of about half of those, but there’s something very special about seeing Shakespeare performed live. If a movie brings the script to life, a play transports you there as if it were happening all around you. I still stand by my preference to read the plays before I see them, but in the end, seeing them performed live is the best way to get past the antiquated language and let them take your breath away.

This production of Much Ado About Nothing was perfect in almost every way. The set looked like something out of a fairy tale, the actors’ performances were excellent, the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick was just right, and the audience could never stop laughing at the characters’ antics. The later part of the play, where Hero is accused of being unfaithful, was given just the right amount of drama and seriousness, while still adding in enough humor to make the happy ending feel realistic.

When I first read Much Ado About Nothing, and even when I watched the movie, it wasn’t one of my favorites. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Well, I loved it last night. Perhaps not quite as much as Twelfth Night, my favorite Shakespearean comedy, but now that I’ve seen just how funny, heartwarming, and exhilarating Much Ado can be, I think it will always have a special place in my heart.

Classics · My Poetry

“You Can”: a poem about Les Misérables

Despised
Rejected
Afraid to trust
And boiling over with
Anger
Until an unexpected kindness
And a pair of silver candlesticks
Change everything

A woman coughs up blood
Teeth missing
Hair shorn
All she had sacrificed
For a child she loved more
Than her own life
You can’t save her
But you can save
Her daughter

A little girl
Frightened of wolves in the woods
With a broom
And a bucket of water
Dressed in tattered rags
Dreaming of a fairy-tale escape
A castle on a cloud
You can’t give her that
But you can give her
A helping hand
A doll
And a better future

A blaze of anger
Revolution
Erupting like a wildfire
Like a gunshot
Gunshots break through silence
The streets run red with blood
You can’t save them all
But you can save
One

A hunter
Cornered by his prey
Expecting vengeance
Finding mercy
You can’t save him from himself
But you can
Try

A crime committed long ago
But not forgotten
A pair of silver candlesticks
Lighting the way
Guiding you to those
In need of
Help
You can’t erase the past
But you can change
The future