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 · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting: Epilogue

I finished up Tuck Everlasting with the 5th graders this week. For a final project, I had each of them write a letter from Winnie to Jesse, explaining whether she would drink the water or not and why. Even this on its own is something they seemed to enjoy, but the real fun began in class, when I helped them use tea to “age” the paper and make the letters look like they really had been written a long time ago.

The first week with this book, many of the kids told me they didn’t like it or found it confusing. But by the end, almost every single one of them seemed to love it. We used class discussion to make the confusing parts easier to understand, and projects like writing letters and diary entries to give the kids something fun to look forward to. Even many of the students who struggle the most with reading, and the ones that have the most trouble motivating themselves, ended up telling me how much fun they were having, and there’s no greater reward than that for a teacher.

Except maybe being able to keep on doing it. When I originally started teaching weekly Novel Studies classes, I was filling in for another teacher who was on maternity leave, and the assumption was that it would only last until Spring Break. But now, I’ve been asked to keep doing it for the rest of the semester while she eases back into teaching. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve already been looking at what books are left in the curriculum, and I’ve got some great ideas for how to teach them, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about that soon.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting

One of my favorite things about teaching is getting kids excited about reading. I’ll never forget my own eighth and ninth grade English teachers, who I credit with turning my love of reading into a love of literary analysis, much less the elementary school teachers who nurtured that love of reading in the first place. So it’s with great pleasure that I’ve taken over Novel Studies this quarter for a teacher who’s out on maternity leave. I meet with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders one afternoon a week, for about half an hour, to lead a discussion on a book they’re all reading. I’m starting a new book – Tuck Everlasting – with fifth grade next week, and I’m already working on fun projects to do with them.

One thing I’ve come up with is this:

tuck-everlasting-wheel

The book’s prologue uses the metaphor of a wheel, with Treegap Woods as the hub, uniting seemingly unrelated people and events. We’ll talk about what the author means by that in class and add a little more to the wheel each week based on what they’ve read, connecting the characters to the setting and to each other. I’m hoping this will help the kids keep track of all the unexpected connections and peak their curiosity about the novel’s mysteries.

Young Adult

Stories Worth Telling

When you think of children’s books, do you think of small, unimportant stories? A lot of adults probably do. But the stories we tell to children can ask big questions and address important themes. In fact, I’d go farther than that. I’d say that kids’ and teens’ books have more freedom to address important issues, because they’re so often looked at via metaphor, via science fiction or fantasy situations that are a step or two removed from real life, and yet still very relevant.

When was the last time you read a book, for pleasure, that asked readers to consider what makes a society function, what makes a society just, what it means to be a good neighbor and a good citizen, how different groups can coexist in peace, and how to react to an unjust and corrupt government? I’m not talking about a book on political theory or a historical fiction novel that’s more history than fiction. I’m talking about one of my favorite YA science fiction series, Dark Life, by Kat Falls.

The 2-book series is set in a post-global warming world where much of what is now land is underwater, and that’s only the first sign that it’s going to deal with some serious issues. On the surface, people live cramped into skyscraper apartment buildings, whole families allowed only one or two rooms. Other people live on the ocean itself, in ships, houseboats, and submarines, while still others live in an experimental colony on the sea floor. It sounds like the setup for a grim dystopian series, doesn’t it? And yet, the story isn’t really about a world gone wrong. It’s about a world people are struggling to make right again. And in a way, it’s about a society starting from scratch.

The first book asks its young readers to consider whether we all deserve the same rights, even if we’re different. Children who are raised at the bottom of the ocean begin to develop strange abilities usually associated with marine life: electric shock, camouflage, echolocation, etc. The protagonist, Ty, has one of these, called a “dark gift”. And so does the story’s villain. Near the end, other characters attempt to lynch the villain, claiming that his abilities make it too easy for him to escape from prison. It’s only when Ty reveals his own gift and asks whether his friends and neighbors are going to take away his rights, too, that they stop to think about what they’re doing.

In the sequel, Rip Tide, we’re introduced to the surfs, short for Surfeit Population, who live on huge “townships” because they are not wanted on land. It’s only then that we see how lucky Ty and his family have been; their lives underwater are hard, but compared to the surfs, they have it easy. The conflict between the subsea “pioneers” and the surfs, who both have a claim to the continental shelf, is a lesson in negotiation, and they reach a compromise that enables them to share the area. That’s such an important lesson for kids to learn as they grow up: that sometimes different people’s interests conflict without anyone really being in the wrong, and that such situations are better resolved through peaceful compromise than violence.

The two books both deal with what it means to be a good neighbor. In the subsea settlement where Ty grew up, neighbors help and depend on each other. When one family is struggling, others help them out; for example, when Ty’s neighbors are robbed by subsea outlaws, their entire community comes together to help them replace their schools of fish and drain the water from their house. Meanwhile, Gemma – who grew up on land – has never been alone, but has had few people she could depend on. The people in her community were not her neighbors, just people who happened to live nearby. In an age when people have hundreds of Facebook “friends” they may rarely talk to in real life, it’s worth exploring what makes someone a true friend or neighbor.

Finally, the Commonwealth – the futuristic government which controls the world above water – is clearly corrupt. This isn’t one of those stories about a brave group of teens who bring an end to the dystopia. It’s the just-as-worth-telling story of a brave group of people who live within it and make it a better place in small ways. They carve out a part of the world for themselves that they can make fair, just, and worth living in, even if it’s at the bottom of the sea; they go to great lengths to help their neighbors, both fellow “pioneers” and others they share the ocean with; they decide against vigilante justice and in favor of treating everybody equally; and they are welcoming to everyone who wants to join them. In my opinion, that’s a story worth telling, worth reading, and worth giving kids to read.

Middle-Grade

Series Out-of-Order

When I first read Among the Betrayed, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, in elementary school, I didn’t know it was part of a series. I definitely didn’t know it was the third book in the series, or that it picked up at the moment Among the Impostors left off, from a different character’s point of view. I just saw it in the Scholastic catalog and thought it looked interesting. Sometimes I still wonder if I’d see the Shadow Children series differently if I’d started with Among the Hidden.

I definitely read book 3 differently. I assumed from the start that Nina was trustworthy and that Mr. Talbot wasn’t, whereas it might be the other way around for someone who read them in order. I wondered along with Nina whether Jen had ever existed, and I believed she was really in danger where someone who read the first two might have figured out she was being tested. Perhaps most importantly, I had to figure out the weird rules of the series’ dystopian world in a book written for kids who already knew.

It affected the way I read the first two books, as well. I knew not to trust Jason. I knew that Jen’s father was a double agent. I could guess from the start that Jen’s rally would fail. I was as surprised by Luke’s comparatively normal childhood as his friends at school would be later, because I had Nina’s as a reference point.

Did it change the way I read the rest of the series? I don’t know. That’s a harder “what if” question to consider. I went into the last four books having read all of the first three. I was always attached to Nina, even though she was a minor character outside of book 3, but then again I felt the same way about Trey, and I certainly didn’t start with his book. But did I read the books through the lens of her experiences instead of Luke’s? I’m really not sure, but I think I’ll always wonder.

Middle-Grade · Young Adult

Fictional Metaphors, Real-Life Issues

One of my favorite authors as a kid was Margaret Peterson Haddix. I still have most of her novels on the bookshelf I reserve for childhood nostalgia books, and I’ve been re-reading some of them. This time around, I’ve been struck by something I could never have put into words when I was 10 or 12 years old: the books deal with real issues kids face through sci-fi and fantasy metaphors.

Let me explain. One of her books – Claim to Fame – is about a girl who can hear everything anyone says about her, no matter where they are. No real kid is going to have that experience, but kids do deal with gossip and peer pressure. They do worry about what their friends are saying behind their backs. Another book, Double Identity, is about a girl who is a clone of her older “sister”, who died in a car crash before she was born. Real children might feel that they are living in an older sibling’s shadow, and twins – the closest real-world equivalent to clones – certainly struggle to define themselves as individuals. Game Changer talks about school cliques, bullying, and popularity, but uses an alternate world where the nerds are popular and the jocks are outcasts to do so. Turnabout features two women who are aging backwards and are now teenagers. Aimed at an age group that may be dealing with losing grandparents or other older relatives, the book explores old age and death via characters the readers’ age in a way that would not be possible without the sci-fi element. And the Missing series is about time travel and historical mysteries, but it’s also about adopted kids who want to know where they come from – which happens to be different time periods instead of just different parents.

I think there’s a lot of value in this. Kids who read middle grade books are old enough to be dealing with serious issues, like identity, peer pressure, bullying, and even death, but not necessarily ready for books high schoolers or adults might read which address these issues directly. Tying it into the supernatural aspect of the story seems like a good way to let kids explore these issues without hitting too close to home. I know it certainly worked for me when I was younger.

Uncategorized

A Bookworm’s Adventures in Bookland

… yes, that’s a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It seems fitting to me. After all, there’s nothing that can pull you down a rabbit-hole into a world where anything is possible faster than picking up a book. Metaphorically, at least.

Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m a recent college graduate in my early 20’s, and if you know me, you’ll probably know that I love reading. If you don’t, you probably guessed that from the title of my blog. So, what can you expect to find here? Everything from book reviews, to theories about my favorite series, to random thoughts I just couldn’t help sharing. I read everything from classics to historical fiction to science fiction and fantasy, but I’ll probably talk a lot about YA and middle grade books. I may be “all grown up” now and definitely look at them from a different perspective than I did when I was ten or fifteen, but in my opinion, books for older kids can be much deeper and more worthwhile than most adults give them credit for.

Anyway, that’s all for now, but be sure to check back soon for more.