Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Review: Wonder - Highly Recommend

If you have a child who is different in any way from the children around him/her, then this book is going to be a perfect selection. If you have a child who blends in nicely but is challenged when it comes to being polite and respectful to those who are different, this book can help. If you enjoy stories about the underdog, if you cry when you think someone is being picked on, if you simply want a good read to touch your heart, then this book is for you. What a fantastic book! What an emotionally uplifting journey!

"R.J. Palacio has crafted an uplifting novel full of wonderfully realistic family interactions, lively school scenes, and writing that shines with spare emotional power." - inside cover endorsement that is dead on.

August "Auggie" Pullman is a unique individual. Having been homeschooled for all of his life because of medical issues and surgeries related to a deformity of his face, Auggie is about to enter the public school for the first time for his fifth grade year. Starting at a new school is difficult for anyone. Add in the obstacle of the stares and reactions of the entire school to something you cannot change and you have more trouble than any child should have to face alone. Thankfully, Auggie is not alone. He has family and friends to help him get through the transition and his beautiful story will move any reader.

I cried as I attempted to read this touching story aloud to my youngest son, Sean. Of course, when they mentioned that one of Auggie's many deformities involved a case of hemi-facial microsomia, Sean perked up because that is the condition his oldest brother, Bryce, has. Of course, Bryce has a mild enough form of it that he has never received a single taunt or sideways glance. Indeed, I would dare say most people wouldn't even be able to discern the difference in size between the right and left sides of his face.

For a first novel, Wonder is pure gold. The storytelling is natural and compelling. The characters shine. Each narrator propels the story along with deeper understanding. The plot continues to move along at a nice pace. Moreover, there is such a wealth of wisdom and compassion portrayed in this novel. It is definitely an experience I want to share with others. It fully deserves its spot as a #1 New York Times bestseller. I will be recommending this book to as many readers as I can find.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Dirty Old London

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was fascinated by all things Victorian London, especially all things related to Dickens and Victorian London. She amassed great quantities of books on Victorian England and her shelf of works by and about Dickens was full to overflowing. She obtained a masters degree in history, focusing on the Victorian era. I think I had forgotten all about the girl I once was until I stumbled upon two recent releases about Victorian London. This was the first of the two books I eagerly grabbed from the recent acquisitions shelf at the library.

Lee Jackson is apparently a well-known Victorianist (ah, so that is what I should call myself) and author of a book which sounds similar to a small guidebook I created for my Wheaton professor to use with his travelling students, called Walking Dickens' London. I'd be interested to locate the master copy of my old walking guide and compare it with Jackson's version. Alas, I haven't seen it in years and it might take me forever to locate it among my old papers.

Jackson has written an interesting treatise on filth in Victorian London in this book entitled Dirty Old London. I thoroughly enjoyed this little jaunt into a world I used to love to immerse myself in. The author skillfully weaves the findings of his research into a readable narrative about the problems of dirt, soot, and mud. Many passages were so appalling I had to mention them to family members. The problem of sewers, the challenges of dealing with mounting dead bodies, and the difficulties of public urination (before public facilities entered the picture) all swept me into vivid images of the London I used to think about often. I cannot imagine having the job of entering houses to remove waste in the dead of night or the horrific nightmares of young chimney sweeps. The plight of the poor captured my imagination thoroughly while reading this book. It must have sparked interest in my husband as well, because I found him perusing the book one night while I was attempting to complete my book club book.

Various chapters cover all sorts of difficulties encountered: "The Golden Dustman," "Night Soil," "Vile Bodies," "The Public Convenience," and "The Veil of Soot," to mention a few. Illustrations are offered up (many of them cartoons from Punch) in two sections of the middle. Moreover the bibliography covers a full fourteen pages.

Now, I'm off to explore Lee Jackson's website and to see if any of the libraries I use carry a copy of his Walking Dickens' London. I won't get to the second book on Victorian London  (which combines my love of London and Dickens) for a little while because I have a book or two due in the coming days without the possibility of renewal. If I do find the walking guide I wrote back in college, maybe I'll also locate the fascinating paper I wrote in graduate school highlighting several well-known Victorian murder cases. Those were some interesting days of research back in the stacks of the University of Illinois' library.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

I was skeptical about this book club selection. A book narrated by a dog about a race car driver? It sounded a bit hokey. I'm not a big fan of dogs or races. I doubted I would enjoy the book. I was wrong. While it was, indeed, hokey in spots (especially where the dog perceives a crazed zebra as responsible for the destruction of several stuffed animals or where the dog imagines he gains a tongue and presents evidence during a court proceeding), I did somewhat enjoy this read.

Enzo is the beloved dog of Denny, the race car driver. He is loyal and true. He sees things and knows things, but can only communicate with gestures. Like the reader, he observes a tragic story playing out and wishes he could intervene to change the trajectory, but cannot prevent the collision and the damage. I wouldn't have believed it could work, using a dog as the narrator of a story, but it does.

Enzo explains how Denny came to claim him, then met and married his true love, and had a daughter, Zoe. He outlines the course of events as Denny's beloved wife battles a brain tumor and her parents swoop in to steal away everything Denny holds dear. But Denny is a fighter. He's a race car driver. He knows about the perils of racing in the rain and he knows how to fix his eyes on where he wants to be in the race.

The book is full of quips of wisdom gleaned from the art of racing. The racing mantras prove valuable as life lessons and observations about our humanity and the obstacles we face. The book is inspirational and uplifting (although very depressing as Denny's obstacles mount) and is truly a more tender tale because of the specific perspective from which it is told. So, if you are skeptical, give it at least fifty pages (my own personal test before I'll cast a book aside) and then see. You might find you are hooked into the story and eager to know what Enzo observes and learns.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Classroom Innovations

The boys have settled into the school year and are both enjoying the fact that they get to be around friends every day (when you live out in the middle of the country, getting together with friends is more of a production than simply walking up the street like Bryce used to when we lived in a neighborhood back in DeKalb). Two years ago, when Trevor was in 3rd grade, he was in a shared learning community, with two teachers who team-teach. The kids rotate between teachers for language arts, math, and social studies instruction and do some activities as a large group together. They have a wall which can be closed to separate for separate instruction or opened for large group instruction. This allows you to have twice the number of friends. This year, Sean is in the same shared learning community for his 3rd grade year.

Sean is loving his new classroom for more than the teachers and the friends. They also have the coolest thing yet - a new kind of desk. Apparently, Trevor's class piloted this new desk a few years ago, and then the teachers set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a whole double set of the chairs. Sean is reaping the benefits of this campaign. The chairs facilitate the transitional learning structure of this classroom.

Here is a video to demonstrate the desk Sean gets to sit in every day:

Aren't they way cool? Almost makes me want to go back to school again... almost.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: Bridge to Terabithia - Highly Recommend

I kind of find it hard to believe that I hadn't read this book until now. I have heard great things about it for years. I even began listening to it as a read-aloud in one of the classrooms where I worked as an aide (sadly, the parent/reader failed to return to complete the book - perhaps this was because she included the few curse words used in the beginning of the book, a no-no in classroom read-alouds). I knew it was a tear-jerker because one of the writing instructors at a writers conference I attended a few years back read a portion of the book aloud to illustrate a point in her lecture. I was fully aware that someone dies in the book. After all, I knew that the book was written by Katherine Paterson on the heels of her son's loss of his best friend. Still, I wasn't prepared for how deeply the sadness moved me. It is hard to walk on the treadmill when you are sobbing.

Sean and I had begun reading this together when we went away for vacation. I checked out the audio version, hoping we would listen to the book while we were at camp (and we did during one free time for a bit). I couldn't wait for Sean to finish it, so I continued listening on my own during my exercise time. Despite the sadness the story evokes, it is truly an experience you won't want to miss.

Here's the summary from the back cover:

"All summer, Jess pushes himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, running mile after mile on the family farm. When the year's first schoolyard race is run, his victory is stolen by a new girl who doesn't even know enough to stay off the boys' side of the playground.

"But instead of becoming rivals, they become friends. Jess guides Leslie, the city girl, through life in the country, and she draws him into the imaginary world of Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess are safe from bullies and ridicule. One day, however, that tranquility is shattered when tragedy forces one of them to reign in Terabithia alone.

"In this poignant, Newbery Medal-winning novel, Katherine Paterson beautifully illustrates the joy and pain of growing up."

This was a tour-de-force. It was a magnificent book. I can't wait to finish the book with Sean and see whether it moves him as much as it moved me. I can't wait to attempt to weave such emotional gold in my own novels.
In thinking of the wisdom and skill of this author, I also wanted to share a TED talk I recently discovered about children's literature. It is well worth the 16 minutes of viewing time. Mac Barnett, another skilled children's author, uses humor to illustrate the poignant truth about the power of fiction. He speaks about how children's fiction should be a door to another world, a world of truth in the midst of lies:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

What's This World (and YA Literature) Coming To?

I'm feeling outraged and have to vent. According to this August article in the New York Daily News, to make it in the YA publishing world you have to include sex in your novels. Not just sex, graphic sex. Not just graphic sex, but sex that pushes the boundaries.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the article:

"Want to publish a Young Adult book right now? Make sure it has a threesome.

"The shelves of books aimed at the 14-year-old to 17-year-old reader are groaning - make that moaning - under the collective weight of explicit scenes involving multiple partners or love triangles.

"'I frequently tell my clients to sex it up,' said Brianne Johnson, an agent who represents authors of Young Adult fiction. 'It helps sales.'"

The article goes on to cite statistics of young adults losing their virginity. Yet, instead of viewing the increase in sexual activity of our young people as a warning sign of moral decline, the author of this article, Allen Sarkin, chooses to use it as a justification for stirring more morally questionable images into the minds of young readers. The author states, "that's why experts aren't worried about the polyamorous literary trend." No doubt it depends on which "experts" you rely on.

Indeed, this author argues that teens are mature enough to explore sex, therefore they should be able to read about sexual activities in order to find their own way in an increasingly sexualized world. He urges such books help kids "as they search for their own sexual identities." In his eyes, if they are experiencing more of it, they should therefore be reading more of it.

To further his point, he cites an author of a sexually explicit young adult novel, Sarah McCarry, author of the 2014 novel Dirty Wings. She claims, "As a writer, the moral upbringing of the young people of America is not my job."

Not my job? Really? I cannot believe an author would actually argue that they bear no responsibility for what they present to the world in their stories. When reading the Donald Miller workbook, Storyline, I read an interesting quote that causes one to think. He writes:

"Every time you hear a story, the moral compass in your mind is adjusted. Good stories help us understand love matters, integrity is important and the world doesn't revolve around us. Other stories may teach us pleasure is king or power is worth killing for. A person's moral compass can be confused as easily as it can be set straight."

Furthermore, he says, "Make no mistake, screenwriters [authors] are teachers when they tell us a story because they are telling us what they believe is worth fighting for."

That is why this article really boils my blood. As Young Adult authors, we should be trying to present messages that enrich our young people, not tear them down or encourage them to destroy their lives. As author, Jim Burns, recently reminded me from the pulpit, "there is no such thing as casual sex." There is nothing casual about sexual relations. It is an act which binds one fully to another. I firmly believe that the best use of sexual activity is within a committed marriage relationship. I will encourage any young people I encounter to save their sexuality for that most meaningful relationship they aspire to. I don't believe children need more encouragement to try out sexual activities. Quite the contrary. They need bold literature reminding them of values which will strengthen and enrich their lives. Every author who puts pen to paper bears a responsibility for the words they present to the world. Indeed, I agree with Donald Miller, that every person tells a story with their life and, as such, bears responsibility for the story they are presenting to others.

Will your story bear good fruit or bad? Will your story make lives better or more morally corrupt? Of course, this article could encourage me to despair and throw in the towel, thinking "if that is what sells Young Adult fiction these days, then I have no chance in the world of being published." I am determined not to allow it to discourage me. I am determined to continue writing wholesome, morally upstanding literature. It is truly a shame that more Christian publishing companies aren't recognizing the moral decline of secular publishing standards and therefore making more of a push to increase their sales of quality literature.

If this is where the world of Young Adult literature is headed, can we really shake our heads in wonder when our young people become parents at far too young an age to bear the immense responsibilities of parenthood? Can we look aside as they increasingly explore sexuality in a moral vacuum? Apparently that is exactly what is happening.

At my most recent book club meeting, we began discussing the outrageous behaviors of parents at sporting activities. The conversation then veered to one mother expressing outrage at the information her daughters share with her about what really goes on in schools today. She proceeded to tell us that a friend of hers agreed to be a chaperone at the prom. At the beginning of the evening, the chaperones were pulled aside by the principal and told something like this: "Sex is going to happen tonight. Your job is not to keep it from happening. Your job is primarily to make sure that the girl is okay with it happening." My jaw dropped as this mother went on to say that young people are engaging in such activities right there on the dance floor and chaperones are instructed not to intervene.

So, I say again, what is this world coming to? At the moment, one of my YA manuscripts has been requested by an agent for consideration of representation. It is my only secular manuscript, yet it clearly bears evidence of what I believe is worth fighting for. There is a scene in a church, where the main character contemplates the sin condition of man. I very well may receive word any day now that the agent feels it is something too squeaky clean to be marketable. The bottom line remains the bottom line - what sells. When society gives in to the craving for morally irresponsible literature, moral decline cannot help but follow.

I fully believe that each of us will one day be called upon to answer for what we stood for in life. Our actions, our beliefs, our words will be reviewed. I don't want my life or my words to be found wanting. I want them to stand up to the light and to have accomplished good. In the fight against evil, I want to be a champion of what is good and right and wholesome, edifying and true. I want my words to move readers toward redemption. I may stand alone in that conviction, but stand I will.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: The Rosie Effect

There was a long hold list for this follow-up book to The Rosie Project (about a man with Asperger's Syndrome who uses a very methodical manner to find himself a wife) by Graeme Simsion. Thus, I used one of my little tricks to get The Rosie Effect earlier. I checked it out in the large print edition. I so loved the main character in the first book that I had to give the second one a try.

Don Tillman has snagged the lovely Rosie as his wife. All is smooth sailing until she announces that they will be bringing another person into the equation because she is expecting a baby. Don knows he is an odd bird. He recognizes his failure to catch on to social cues, his tendency to over think things, and his different way of processing information. Having a baby presents more than the standard anxieties for a person with Asperger's. And, believe me, Don approaches this new development with his classic Asperger-esque style.

I enjoyed the book up until about the middle. Once again, I found myself chuckling at the predicaments Don created for himself because of his unique manner. When a friend tells him he should observe children to familiarize himself with what he will encounter, he decides to research them at the local playground. He begins videotaping from his phone, which leads to an understandable altercation with the police, who, attempting to touch him, discover his expertise in Aikido. Now Don must convince a social worker that he is harmless and well-suited enough to be handed the responsibilities of parenthood. But, not wishing to add to Rosie's stress, he decides to pass someone else off as his wife during the interviews. Needless to say, this goes wrong as well, with humorous results.

Somehow, however, things begin to sour between Rosie and Don. I just didn't like the book as much when Rosie wasn't sympathetic to Don's peculiarities. In fact, I began to dislike her character. So for the second half of the book, I found myself liking the story less and less.

Moreover, it began to take on an over-the-top feel to the story line. At one point, Don performs a cesarean section on a pregnant woman. His attempt to convince Rosie to return leads to conflicts of epic proportions. Then, the ending seemed to quickly attempt to pull everything back together.

As much as I'd love to give it a glowing review (because I really do love Don Tillman's character and reading about his unique approach to life), I just can't bring myself to do so. I don't regret having read it. It was amusing and a delightfully quirky read, but I much preferred the first book over this one. Still, if you loved Rosie and Don in the first, chances are pretty strong that you will want to give this one a shot despite my hesitations and dissatisfactions.