Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

This week, I’m reviewing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. I first noticed this book at Barnes and Noble about a month ago, on the same trip where I picked up Inside Out and Back Again. I didn’t buy it at the time, but I decided to come back to it later, because a Newbery Honor fantasy-adventure story set in ancient China isn’t something you get to read every day.

This is cliché, I know, but the book really is a breath of fresh air. A lot of the basic elements are familiar. Minli, the protagonist, is the quintessential young hero on a quest. The plot borrows a lot from The Wizard of Oz and reminds me a bit of the first Harry Potter book as well. But it’s built up around Chinese folklore, which provides an unusual setting and a completely different tone than any other comparable stories. The world is beautifully constructed and endlessly creative, and every part of the story is woven together by the end.

Talking goldfish, dragons that emerge out of paintings, and red strings that tie people’s destinies together are not always easy to believe in. I often found myself as skeptical as Minli’s parents. But even they learn to have faith by the end, and likewise, I found it easier and easier to suspend my disbelief as I continued reading. It’s fantasy. It’s not meant to make sense, and yet, in a weird way, it does. I’ve always been able to appreciate books about magic spells and fantastic creatures, and the book did well at drawing on the conventions of fantasy while still coming up with something unique and original.

There are some beautiful themes in the story. Like Dorothy, Minli learns in the end that she already has what she needs. It’s her selfless decision to help a friend rather than herself that gives her a way to help both of them, and it was only through the things she encountered on her journey that she was able to arrive at that decision. It’s a book about faith, selflessness, family, coming-of-age, and many other things, but if I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say it’s about gratitude. It’s only once Minli learns to be thankful for what she has that she’s able to improve her own life and her village’s welfare.

I especially loved the emphasis on storytelling. This is not the first book to ask meta-fictional questions, such as, “What is the value of telling fantasy stories?” However, it answers that question beautifully by weaving storytelling throughout the main narrative. Almost every chapter has a shorter story in it that – sooner or later – turns out to be true. Lin sends her protagonist on a journey through a world of stories, which come to life all around her. It gives the impression that we only have to look to see the magic in the everyday world.

The book is beautifully illustrated, the world vividly constructed, and the characters human and relatable. The story is like a mosaic, made up of bits and pieces of something recognizable, but put together in unexpected ways, resulting in something utterly unique – and yet the themes it explores are universal and relevant. Not only did I find it enjoyable and refreshing, I also felt that it had a great deal of value as a piece of literature. It’s not hard to see why it won a Newbery Honor.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech

A few weeks ago, I read Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, which is written as a long free-verse poem. I loved the effect that this had on the story and started looking for more books like it. Today, I finished reading Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech.

Heartbeat is a book about a twelve-year-old girl named Annie. She loves to run, and the way the poems are written evokes the rhythm of her running, the thumping of her heart and the pounding of her feet against the ground. The story deals with her grandfather’s memory loss, her mother’s pregnancy, and her very symbolic attempts to draw the same apple every day for 100 days. It’s more emotion than plot, but it works, and the poetic format is a big part of why.

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my teacher read this book to us as a read-aloud, but I didn’t remember much about it except that I sort of vaguely liked it. I don’t remember it having that heartbeat rhythm to it, though, and half of the story’s beauty is in the way it makes you feel as if you’re running right along side the main character, heart pounding and feet hitting the pavement, thump-thump, thump-thump.

This isn’t a book that every kid would enjoy. Aside from the unusual format, it deals with serious subject matter (in a kid-friendly way), and it’s character-driven and abstract. However, I think that for the right kid – a kid who is mature enough to deal with the serious themes and is open to inventive forms of storytelling – it would be an excellent choice. It was certainly a breath of fresh air for me.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017

Summer Reading Mission: No Talking, by Andrew Clements

Yes, I know: I said I’d be reading a kids’ book a week, and it’s been nearly two. But better late than never, right?

I chose No Talking, by Andrew Clements, because I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read so far and thought it had an interesting premise. The fifth graders at an elementary school challenge each other to a competition – boys versus girls – to see who can talk the least, each trying to prove a point about the other. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go the way they planned, but they learn something much more important in the end.

The fifth grade boys and girls don’t usually get along, and that’s something of an understatement. As Clements explains it, they both still think the others have cooties, except they “didn’t actually use the word ‘cooties’ anymore … They used words like ‘dumb’ or ‘gross’ or ‘immature’ or ‘annoying’”. This isn’t too surprising, given that they’re fifth graders, but they take this to a whole new level with the contest they organize. They decide to spend 48 hours in near-total silence, allowing themselves only to speak to teachers or adults, and only in reply to direct questions, in less than three-word answers. Any words aside from those get tallied up by Dave and Lyndsey, the two team leaders, and the team with the lowest number at the end wins.

However, this odd sort of game the kids are playing has all kinds of real-world effects. They have to figure out how to problem-solve (by communicating through notes, clapping a beat for jump rope instead of chanting, etc.), how to compromise (singing doesn’t count, or else music class becomes impossible), and how to react to opposition (when the principal tries to order them to start talking again). By the end of the 48 hours, they aren’t thinking in terms of boys vs. girls so much anymore, and it’s almost a relief when the score comes out as a tie.

The thing I like about Andrew Clements’ books is that his kids are realistic and relatable. They’re not all perfect angels. They’re not always respectful to adults, and they don’t always follow the rules. But they’re always good kids who learn from their experiences and become better kids as a result. The best part is that it happens in a way that’s not preachy or condescending at all, even when there’s an important moral to the story. And that’s definitely the case with this book.

It’s a wonderfully light, humorous book, realistic without seeming mundane or dreary. This is something I love about the Andrew Clements books: they’re imaginative and larger than life. What happens in them is rarely impossible, but it’s still unusual and empowering. Most kids don’t write novels that get published, invent new words, or save classmates from a tornado. I think I would have enjoyed these books when I was a kid, even though they really weren’t in one of my preferred genres. I certainly love them now.

I didn’t love No Talking as much as I did The School Story, About Average, or The Landry News – most likely because the stakes aren’t quite as high, and the “no talking” competition seemed sillier to me as an adult than it might if I were reading it as a child. However, it was entertaining and engaging, and it had a great message at the end. I’d definitely recommend it for either boys or girls in the upper elementary age group, especially those that are looking for a humorous, realistic story.

Middle-Grade · Summer Reading Mission 2017 · teaching literature

Summer Reading Mission

I can’t believe I’m done with my first year (or, first semester, really) of teaching. I absolutely loved it, and I’m already thinking about next year.

Probably my favorite thing about teaching is helping kids to become lifelong readers. I love working with them on the books that we read and discuss as a class, and I also love watching them explore books of their own choosing. I firmly believe that both those things are important, and that they can both be used to help nurture a love of reading – if they’re done right.

Besides that, I love the books themselves. I’ve never looked at books for kids as being silly or less worthwhile than books for adults. On the contrary, they’re just as important, if not more so. Books can help kids broaden their horizons, make sense of their world, and hone their critical thinking skills – in addition to, of course, increasing their vocabulary and becoming better readers. And books for kids often explore big questions, questions that kids really do deal with: questions like what it means to be a friend, how to adjust to major changes in life, or even what the difference is between right and wrong.

I love kids’ books. Despite being twenty-four this month, I get way more excited to find a great new children’s author I can recommend at school than a great new author of books for adults. I’ve made a huge effort since I started teaching to keep up with children’s literature, to be aware of what the kids are reading and on the lookout for good books I can recommend. And I’ve even discovered a few gems I overlooked in my own elementary school days.

This summer, I’m on a mission, and that mission actually has three parts that all kind of fit together:

Part 1: Novel Studies. I’ve been asked to keep on doing these large-group book lessons, permanently, and I couldn’t be happier. I really enjoyed it last semester, and I have all kinds of ideas for how to make it better. This summer will be my main opportunity to work on that.

Part 2: Library. The library that all 4th through 6th grade students share has way too many books crammed into a small closet-sized room. Too many books is actually a great problem to have. However, it does mean that it’s very chaotic, disorganized, and difficult to find things in there, especially since we’re a small private school with no librarian to keep things in order. It’s being moved to a bigger space this summer, and since I’ll be using the new library for my Novel Studies lessons, I’m volunteering to organize it.

Part 3: Read. This summer, I’m going to be reading as much as I can. Especially books that I know the kids are reading. I’ll probably be borrowing a lot of books from our school library, and I’ve also made a couple of visits to the local used bookstore. As much as I love children’s literature, there’s a lot that’s been written since I was a kid myself, as well as a lot that I skipped over back then, or haven’t read since I was ten. I feel that, in order to teach reading, I simply have to be in touch with what the kids are reading, and able to nudge them in the right direction when need be.

That last part is what I’ll mostly be blogging about. Every week this summer, I’ll choose a different kids’ book to read and review. I’ll talk about why I chose it, what I thought of the story, whether there’s anything in it that parents or teachers should be cautious of, and most importantly, whether I’d recommend it, and to whom.

Book Reviews · Middle-Grade

Wow. I need more books like this.

The other day, I was at Barnes and Noble and happened to pick up a book called Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. A 2011 Newbery Honor book, Inside Out and Back Again follows the story of a young girl whose family is forced to flee from the Vietnam War. They end up as refugees in Alabama, where the main character struggles to adjust to a new and very different life in an unfamiliar culture. It’s a powerful, moving book. But perhaps the most unusual thing about it is that it’s not written in prose: it’s a series of free-verse poems that come together to tell the story.

I didn’t expect this when I picked it up. If the back cover blurb hadn’t caught my attention first, I might have been hesitant to read any further. I do like poetry, and I write some of my own, but a whole novel-length book of poems? Who ever heard of that?

I’m glad I didn’t go with that impulse, because once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. The poetic format didn’t make it difficult to follow at all. On the contrary, it helped it move faster and to really get into the narrator’s mindset. It’s the raw, conflicting emotions that drive the story, even more than the plot. The simplicity and power of poetry were exactly what it needed. Written in prose, I’m sure it would still have been a moving story, but it wouldn’t have packed nearly as powerful a punch.

A few Google searches later, I now know this is a genre, and that it’s called the Verse Novel. I’ll definitely be looking for more of them.

Shakespeare

Genres of Shakespeare

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

In theory, Shakespeare’s plays are divided up into three genres: Tragedy, Comedy, and History. In reality, there’s a whole lot of gray area. There are plays that blur the lines between comedy and tragedy, between tragedy and history, and even between history and comedy. Not to mention comedies that clash too much with modern values to be funny anymore, a bunch of lesser-known plays that almost nobody reads, and the ultimate dilemma of what to do with Troilus and Cressida. (Personally, I think it’s a sometimes-amusing tragedy, but that’s just me).

So, I made this chart.

Shakespeare Genres

Don’t take it too seriously. Please don’t tell your English teacher that The Taming of the Shrew is a “Comedy Gone Sour” or that Timon of Athens is “The Boring One”. And of course, even within the more serious categories, nothing is absolute. There’s a lot of overlap, for instance, between the Romances and the Problem Plays, and the two genres are sometimes combined into a larger “Tragicomedy” category. But hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and maybe it will even help make sense of the mess that is Shakespearean genre.

Shakespeare · teaching literature

Sixth Grade Shakespeare

The sixth graders at the school where I work are studying Shakespeare, and of course, being a huge Shakespeare fan, I love it.

For most of them, this is their first introduction to Shakespeare. It’s a pretty light introduction: they’re not reading the actual plays, just summarized kids’ versions of them, and they’re not really expected to get the nuances. They’re kids. It’s the first time they’ve seen this stuff. But I think it’s great that they are seeing it now. I will often credit going to see a college production of As You Like It when I was in fifth grade as one of the things that sparked my love of Shakespeare’s work, and it makes me happy to think that these kids will also have the chance to experience Shakespeare in a fun and low-stress way before they get to middle school and are expected to analyze the original language.

Being the Shakespeare nerd that I am, I’m in charge of making sure they’ve done their reading and helping them to understand it. I think the kids are always a little surprised by how many things I’ve read. Just in this one week, I recognized a Harry Potter reference from one of the kids, shocked some of them with the knowledge that I read Percy Jackson when I was their age, and then to top it all off, revealed that I’ve read not one, not two, but thirteen plays by Shakespeare. I could blame my English minor, but really, my book nerd tendencies have more to do with it.