Monday, January 19, 2015

Two YA/Middle School Fiction Books Worth Reading

Wow.  I feel like I just ate at a fine restaurant that served me a superb meal!  I just finished reading Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  It is a new book that is going to be coming out in February.  This book was quite a surprise for me.  I haven't read the author's previous books, but was intrigued by this book description.  I have struggled to find contemporary fiction that I feel comfortable assigning to my teenage daughter for her homeschooling.  Periodically, I have been lucky enough to find a few treasures... The Friendship Doll, Flipped, Paper Things (which I'm going to write about later in this post), the Vine Basket by Josanne LaValley... and now I can add this book to the list.

Echo begins with a little boy who gets lost in the woods and encounters three sisters.  Magic and
music are interwoven in a way that creates wonder.  As I read this book, I found myself unsure of what was going to happen next.  There were multiple cliffhangers over the course of the book that you are left to ponder for a time.  I don't want to spoil anything, but only say that the ending does leave you feel like you've finished dessert after a wonderful meal.

I am going to have my daughter read this in 9th or possibly 8th grade.  While the reading grade level is only probably a 5th or 6th grade level, the topics addressed are weighty concerns of the world.  I know that my 6th grade daughter would be overwhelmed with sadness by this book and would find it difficult to process.  But, it is worth processing, so I plan to wait until she is older to have her read it.  Many adults might disagree with me about the age that this book is appropriate for, but I don't want my children to have to bear the weight of the world and the sadness all at once.  It is my job as a their mom to love them well--and to help them understand the world.  The majority of this book is set in the 1930s and 1940s. Because I think parents and teachers need to be aware, here are the topics that are dealt with:  one character is ostracized because of his looks and epilepsy and the Nazis methods of purifying the German people during the 1930s are outlined and fleshed out; one character faces abuse, abandonment, and sacrifice for family; and one character faces prejudice and segregation during WWII...  I have noticed that when prejudice and segregation are addressed in fiction for youth, it is usually addressing the segregation of African Americans in regard to school and in the South. This book addresses prejudice and segregation from history that I wasn't aware of.  I grew up in one of the cities part of the story is set in and yet I wasn't aware of its history.  I researched it after reading this book and found what the author portrayed in the story to be true to history.

There is a great deal of sadness in the story these pages hold, yet there is hope, too and the strength of the hearts of the main characters.  I believe children with sensitive hearts will be deeply affected by this book if they read it--which is important to be aware of.  As a Christian, an important discussion with my children as they read this book and afterwards is about where our hope comes from and why we hope.  There are some difficult questions to be pondered with this book.  What do we do when life is hard?  Do we expect life to be easy?  Is life easy?  Did God promise us an easy life?  How can we cope with the challenges we will face in the future?  (ie. what hope can we cling to)  What challenges have they faced or people in their family or their friends?  What I discovered with my own children is that they don't even realize some of the things they've tackled in their lives and had to deal with.  I believe it's important for children to realize that no one's life is easy and that their lives won't be easy either--but that God will always be with them.  God is not explicitly talked about in this story, but we read to make sense of life and sometimes realizing that others don't have a reason for their hope helps us see our own reason--that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and that God loves us.

I loved this book.  The writing drew me in and held me there until I turned the last page.  But, this is also a book that parents should read and talk with their children about.  I don't think it should be read by a student on their own without anyone to process it with.

The second contemporary book I am glad to have discovered is Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson.  I think this book is appropriate for 6th/7th graders.  

A quick Summary:

The story starts out with Ari and Gage leaving the home of Janna, their guardian. Janna had never been married or had kids before she became their guardian. Gage chafed against her rules and chose to leave with Ari when he turned 19. Ari and Gage's mother had died four years earlier. When they leave, Gage discovers that it's a lot harder on their own than Gage expected. The story follows them as they figure out how to be homeless and how to stay together without a permanent home.

I do love this book, but not because it's one that I'd read for "enjoyment". It's eye opening and very appropriate for this age group. There isn't any cussing or anything inappropriate that I'd have any concerns about my children reading. I grew up on the west coast of the us in a warm climate where there were many homeless people. I was shocked to realize that many adults and children on the east coast and in the north are not aware of the difficulties homeless people face because they don't see them. (ie. in a survey from a few years ago, there were 52,000 homeless people in Long Beach, CA compared to 1,400 in Pittsburgh, PA). Interestingly, this story is set in Maine, an extremely cold place. The author is from Maine, so that is why I assume she set the story there.

Why I'm going to have my 6th grade daughter read this book... I want her to be aware of the world and sensitive to the feelings of others. I don't want her to ever talk of homelessness as an "ideal" way to live as I heard one 20 year old woman say to me a year ago. The young woman was very ignorant (simply unaware), in my opinion, and did not understand the difficulties of living without a permanent home. Those difficulties are made plain in this book.

But, I also want to discuss with her Janna and Ari's relationship and how some adults treat children. I have noticed this with my own children that many adults do not know how to relate to children or they see them as a burden. They expect children not to be clumsy, not to make noise, and not to be... well, children. Spoiler sort of--Janna acknowledges later in the book that she didn't know how to be a parent when she became their guardian. I thought the author handled this really well. But, it's worth a discussion. I have had many adults give me dirty looks (or my children) though they are very well behaved most of the time, but periodically have their moments. As a parent, I've had to work on not taking it personally. And as a parent, the way Janna lived through Ari made me sad. Her stuff was off limits. Her apartment had to be just so. I've known parents like this. I've known grandparents like this. It doesn't make kids feel loved. And Ari and Gage didn't feel loved. There's a neat reconciliation and healing from this at the end and that is something I appreciated at the end of the book. The kids grow, but so do the adults--in a way that isn't disrespectful of them.  

There is one mention that I do think parents should be aware of in the book.  There wasn't any cussing in the book, but I do remember one scene when a young woman and man ask Ari to leave Gage's girlfriends' room in her apartment so they can have the room to themselves and Ari realizes her books are in there and knows she shouldn't go get them.  Nothing is explicitly explained or detailed about what was going on in the room.  

Children are also not supposed to have to handle all the burdens adults do and sometimes I think we even expose them to too much when they are young. But, this book is very appropriate for sixth and seventh graders. It deals with the topic of homelessness in a way that I think they will be able to understand. My daughter probably won't when she first reads it, but will after we discuss it. I've noticed that many of the details we notice as adults can get missed by younger readers and I want to help her see some of the details I suspect she will miss and their significance.

I do want to mention my only additional thoughts.
#1 The story is set in Maine. But, it's a fictional place in Maine. The difficulty is in creating a realistic place without it being real. The story felt a lot more like it was set in a larger city that has more dangerous areas. We spend a week every summer in Maine and I kept picturing the story not in Maine, but in New York, or even Massachussetts.
#2 As children of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, Ari and Gage would have had benefits--educational benefits for Gage and financial ones for Ari. If someone is homeless and trying to get up on their feet, these benefits can be of significant help. Janna would have also been receiving benefits for them and from social security as their guardian.

I am thankful to have read both of these books and I would recommend them as good solid reading for adults as well.  I will continue to search for books that I feel are appropriate for my children as they make their way through their teenage years, being sensitive to their hearts and what they're able to handle--giving them time to grow and develop.  I don't want to hide the world from them.  I want to help them understand the world they live in, but I don't want them to get crushed by the sadness of the world we live in either.  There needs to be a balance.  When I heard about a fourth grade GATE class several years ago which read five books over the course of the year, four of which were about death and dying...  I was shocked.  I think that children need to read a variety of books--  fantasy, realistic fiction, adventure, science fiction, mystery, historical fiction, biography...  But, that's another discussion for another day...

Friday, January 9, 2015

Motivating Poster

Yesterday as I was reading a book, I came across a phrase that I've said to my kids many times and even said to my fifth graders years ago when I was student teaching.  The phrase is:

Everything is Difficult Before it is Easy.

I've made a printable pdf poster of this here.  I laminated it and put it up in my classroom so I can remind my kids that it will get easier!  But, it's going to be hard before it's easy.... whether that's Math, Writing, Science, playing piano...

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ah, Jane Austen + Daddy Long Legs

Back in September we went on vacation to Maine, which included a very long drive up and a long drive back.  Along the way, I read an ebook titled Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay.  One would assume that this book is going to be another modern retelling of Emma (in which Mr. Knightley is a character.  Not so.  This story is the retelling of Daddy Long Legs with a conspicuous name borrowed from Austen's novel from long ago.

Last year, I bought a copy of the classic, Daddy Long Legs.  I remembered enjoying it, so I wanted to see if I would share it with my girls.  After reading it, I shelved the book and actually donated it back to the library book sale.  I didn't like the moral tone of the book.  Sad to say, it's been a while so I can't remember what my specific concerns were, but I had enough concerns to realize that my girls wouldn't enjoy reading it and I wasn't going to force it upon them.

I do like the premise of Daddy Long Legs, though, and it is a fun tale of rescuing a lost girl and giving her hope and a future via the contributions of an anonymous donor.

Ms. Reay follows this formula in a modern setting of Chicago.  I liked the characters for the most part, and followed the story easily.  But, I was disappointed in the ending.  I find that often authors just suddenly wrap things up and they're done.  I wanted more.  I wanted more development to the ending.  That was my source of disappointment in this story.  Other than that, it was fine.  The heroine is not always likeable and had a lot of rough edges to her, but when you can get past these and sympathize, your heart can follow the story.

Please note that I received a complimentary ecopy of this book for review from Thomas Nelson.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Another Regency Period Novel...

This week I read a fun novel called The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen.  I've read a
few other novels by Ms. Klassen, so I was looking forward to this one.

The story follows Abigail Foster, who unfortunately, is to blame for the loss of her family's fortune.  Her family must find a new, much more affordable home.  An offer comes in the form of Pembrooke Park, where they will be able to live for a very reasonable rent.  Abigail and her foster accept on behalf of their family and so begins the adventure.  Pembrooke Park has several secrets it's hiding.

The characters of the story are fun to get to know.  There were a couple that annoyed me (as any good antagonist should).  But, I particularly enjoyed the main character of Abigail and her relationships to the other characters.

The plot moves along at a steady pace and you do get to know the characters as Ms. Klassen tells the story.  I do enjoy Ms. Klassen's writing more than others and I enjoyed the added mystery in this book.

There is one thing I do want to mention, though.  This is one area where I find many readers disagree with me, but it's something that I notice as I read, nonetheless.  It is how the physical attraction (and its development) between the characters who become romantically involved is described and detailed in the story.  At times, I didn't feel comfortable with how Ms. Klassen described these attractions.  I didn't feel she crossed the line in the sand, but she got close to it, in my opinion.  Thankfully, these scenes and descriptions were typically short and I could move on past them in the story pretty quickly.  Even so, I wasn't keen on their presence.  I can't remember feeling this way about previous books that I've read by Ms. Klassen, but it's been a while since I've read one.

All in all, I did enjoy the book.  I am glad I had the chance to read it and simply enjoy a good story!

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Bethany House Publishers.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sometimes the internet is helpful...

My 6th grade daughter is tackling subtracting negative numbers, which can be a tricky thing to explain ;)  I found a great page with explanations though, so I thought I'd share it in case it might be helpful to anyone...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Christmas books and movies

I look forward to November and December when it is fashionable to read Christmas stories and watch Christmas movies.  I have to be honest and admit, though, that I read and watch them throughout the year.  The characters in such stories are portrayed with more hope and there is a coming together, a reunion, of family and friends that isn't present at other times in the year as often (in books and movies).

Melody Carlson publishes a Christmas novel every year and almost every year for the past five years I've had a chance to review them.  This year's novel is The Christmas Cat.  The story is about
Garrison who inherits his grandmother's house--and her cats--after she passes away.  His grandmother was his only family and he feels lost without her.  He's struggling to recover from Malaria that he caught while working in Africa and is trying to get a job.  So, his trip home to take care of his grandmother's estate occupies his heart and mind.  The story follows his trials as he finds particular homes for each of the six cats left behind.  The end is like that of other Christmas stories.  It will make you smile and feel like you drank a cup of hot tea with a cinnamon stick in it.

The writing makes this story flow quickly and easy.  I didn't notice any major bumps in my reading.  I enjoyed it and quickly followed Garrison as he found his way in the story.

If you enjoy made for tv Christmas movies (which I have to admit that I do), you'll probably enjoy this story as well.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Revell Books.