Wednesday, August 10, 2016

See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles

See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles is a book that packs a punch or two.  First I thought it was a book about bullying and then it surprised me totally with another issue totally.
If I was teaching still this is a book that I would probably consider as a read aloud especially with seventh graders.  There are books that seem meant for discussion and this seems one of them.

The central character of the story is Fern (named by her mom after Fern in Charlotte's Web because her mom thinks that she like Fern is a kind person).  The name weighs a bit heavily on Fern.  The book opens with a flashback to her being sick when she was eight and being kept home and for once feeling as if she had her mom's total attention.

It is a busy family.  The parents own an ice cream store and family restaurant and Fern has an older sister who has graduated but unlike her friends isn't off to college but is  reluctantly working in the restaurant and not in a good mood.  Her 14 year old brother is a neat freak and gets along well with Fern but is not happy either.  Finally there is her little brother only three years old and always happy but a source of annoyance to Fern who he adores.  Their dad involves the family in publicity stunts that they find embarrassing and their mother just tries to keep the peace and seems to need to meditate quite a bit in the restaurant office.  

Initially it seems as if the very real possibility that Holden is a gay is going to be the central problem theme of the novel until tragedy hits the family from a totally different direction.  Fern thinks she is responsible for this sad event but all the family members feel guilt as well as deep sadness.  How the family comes out of this sadness as well as an acceptance of their new reality is the real story.

I thought this book was very well done.  How the different characters react seemed very realistic and as Katherine Patterson once said good children's literature has to have hope which it does.  As well as sadness there is a great deal of humour in this book and some really great characters.

An excellent read and I can see why she is such a popular author.

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Nothing like coming home from the International Literacy Association Conference with a suitcase full of books to inspire lots of reading, and since novels for children and young adults are generally quicker reads it isn't difficult to read a novel a day.

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson  instantly appealed to me because it is initially set in Acadia National Park, one of the most beautiful places I have spent time in.  Many of the places in the novel are quite familiar to me although I now live on the West Coast.

Jack's mom takes him for a short camping trip in the park and then when he wakes up after the first morning, she and the car have disappeared and she doesn't reappear.  Rather than notify the authorities of her disappearance, he decides to search for her despite basically having only a tent, a cell phone and $14 dollars.  His mom appears to be bipolar and has disappeared and reappeared before.  He is also afraid that he will be sent to his grandmother's who his mom has made Jack mistrust.

Jack is amazingly resilient and resourceful as he goes on this odyssey which eventually has him trying to get back to his home in Massachusetts with a detour to see an elephant.  I was also impressed by his tolerance of a mom who in many ways due to mental illness is quite irresponsible.  Your heart goes out to him, and as a teacher I have certainly known children in very difficult circumstances.  I think this book would be very appealing to middle school students, and also a good vehicle of discussion in a classroom.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs

This was the third young adult novel I read in a row dealing with rather serious subjects.  It was kind of a relief to pick up the delightful Full of Beans for younger readers.  Maybe middle school just is a more joyous time…

But I really liked The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs, due to be published this September.  I couldn't stop reading.  It is beautifully written but you have to pay attention.  The main narrator is April from Delaware,  who has an incredible memory, not necessarily for her schoolwork but for personal history.  She was born just after the bombing in Oklahoma, her best favourite childhood friend lost his dad in 911, and the book opens just after the Boston Marathon killings.  April is on guard.  But other characters' voices are heard in this novel as well and in the end there is a series of Flash Bulb moments that April couldn't and wouldn't have wanted to predict.

Reading this book currently was unsettling.  Again as many of the tragedies of recent US history are referenced in the book, no wonder someone like April is fearful.  And what affects does all this have on young people?  We meet other young people in this novel who have been bullied or overly pressured who are on the verge of exploding.  And then again there is the internet where these young people find a connection and a common purpose, And there is mystery-as we wonder who are these anonymous internet users.  I certainly had a couple of surprises.  

The book definitely has twists and turns and layering.  For most of the main characters there is resolution and light at the end.  Sadly not for all.

Anyway an innovative novel with I think, a need for discussion.  Definitely for high school students...

Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm

I love advance copies.  I love to read books that have not yet been published.  I feel as if I have a head start on the world so I was delighted to find this book in the treasures I brought home from the International Literacy Conference in Boston.

I had read another novel by the author, Jennifer L. Holm, set in Key West, with some of the same characters, Turtle in Paradise, and had throughly enjoyed it as did many of my students.  I have never been to Key West and so I learned a bit as I read the novel as well.

Full of Beans is about the same family as Turtle in Paradise but set earlier in time.  Key West is suffering in the depression as is Beans' family.  Dad ends up in New Jersey hoping for work and his mom is taking in laundry to make ends meet.  Beans is the oldest child and has two younger brothers and he is keen to make money and help the family and himself.

He has a healthy scepticism about adults and the world in general although he does love his parents deeply.  He is an entrepreneur in the making with many interesting schemes, some more successful than others.  And in one case he actually gets involved in bootlegging with unforeseen repercussions.

I love the picture of Key West in this time period.  We learn how many of the early inhabitants originally came from the Bahamas and were called Conches.  When the book opens Key West is a mess, garbage isn't getting picked up, businesses are closed etc.  But Key West has been selected as a possible tourist destination and New Deal money starts being used to make the community more appealing.  Beans is initially sceptical about the whole scheme but after he realizes his skirting of the law causes problems and is somewhat falsely viewed as a hero, he really gets involved.

I really like everything about this novel.  I love the characters and the vivid picture we get of the town during this period.  Ernest Hemingway is briefly acknowledged as the writer, not a particularly good one,  and Beans suggests to poet Robert Frost, who arrives in town looking for a place to stay, that he might look him up.

If you are teaching this novel, it would be fun to look at recent history, when the Conch Republic actually declared independence from Florida, a very interesting story.

I think grades four to even grade seven students would really enjoy this one.    Release date for official publication is August 30, 2016.