Sunday, June 28, 2009

Recent Reading

After reading over 30 books for the under 14 set in the past few weeks, I was ready about 10 days ago to get my reading teeth into some books written for adults. That does not mean that I do not enjoy reading books for kids, but I they can not fill all of my reading cravings.

So here are brief reviews of four adult books plus a couple of juvenile tomes that somehow slipped into the mix.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize this year. While I don't really enjoy the format of intertwining short stories to make a novel, I found much to appreciate in this novel. Olive grows in each story, whether she is the subject of the story or has only a brief cameo role. Much of the book is depressing because Olive is not a happy person nor are most of the characters who people the stories. On the other hand, Olive is a very real person. Reviewers keep asking readers if they "like" Olive. I am not sure that we get enough of Olive's relationships with people outside of her family to give a definitive answer to that question. I know I would not like to be her spouse, her son, or her daughter-in-law. Olive has a very tough shell. What the reader does finally see is Olive's softer core. The writing is Pulitzer worthy, with phrases and descriptions that are absolutely perfect. There is much like to like about this book and much to dislike as well. What is not lacking at all is much to admire, both in the characters and in the writing.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova was somehow not as depressing for me as Olive Kitteridge was though by all rights it should have bothered me much more. Lisa Genova works for the Alzheimer's Association and is trained in neurological disorders so she clearly knows the subject of this novel, early onset Alzheimer's. That knowledge and the sometimes clinical sharing of it interfered with the story for awhile, making it take almost too long to care about the main character, a well-respected Harvard professor who is diagnosed at 50 with this life-shattering disease. What saves the story is the writing from the protagonist's point of view. The reader lives her decline and the fight she puts up against it, losing words and then family recognitions in a very short time. Don't read this if Alzheimer's is too real for you. This will surely stir memories that you would rather forget. On the other hand, it is a moving novel that will get you thinking, remembering, and caring.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles could have been a mindless rant but it is far from that. Benny Ford is stuck in Chicago's O'Hare Airport half way between his home in New York and his estranged daughter's wedding in Los Angeles. As a writer, his response is to pull out a notebook and begin a letter of complaint. This letter, however, goes on for 180 pages and recounts the ups and downs of Benny's life as well as snippets of the novel he is translating from Polish. There is humor, pathos, and some pretty good writing in this quick read. I was surprised that I enjoyed this as much as I did.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is another very short novel told in an unusual way. An American visiting Lahore is confronted in a street cafe by a young Pakistani man who tells his story over the course of the evening. The reader never hears the voice of the American, only the often flippant voice of Changez who tells of his stint as a student at Princeton and the powerful and impressive job he got upon graduation, a job much better than he could have ever imagined. There is also a love story of sorts between Changez and a girl he meets on a post-graduation trip to Greece. The love is troubled. Changez's life if troubled, especially when September 11, 2001, changes the way people on the street treat him and the way he views the world around him. The story is strange in many ways but gives an interesting look at the concerns of an immigrant and the power of events outside of your control to change the way you look at life. Keep reading to the surprising (or maybe not surprising at all) ending.

And now the two books for younger readers:

Goop Tales: A Study of the Behavior of Virtuous Individuals, Each of Which has Some One Human and Redeeming Fault by Gilette Burgess is a book I had not thought about in years. I remember loving Goops and How to Be Them at some point in my youth so I snatched this up when I found it in a collection being sorted in a classroom. Now I wonder what why I liked it so. The stories are preachy, the poems are neither memorable not well written, and the illustrations are odd, yet charming. It certainly seems dated. I don't even know what age would enjoy this book. Nonetheless, if you happen run across a book about Goops, take a look. Maybe you can help me rediscover the reasons why I remember these funny children so fondly.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E. L. Konigsburg is not one of her best. (My favorites of hers include From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver; Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth; The View From Saturday; and Silent to the Bone.) This is a novel that grades five and eight will enjoy for many reasons, though. When Amadeo Kaplan and his mother move from New York to Florida, he worries that he will never find a friend. Then he meets William Wilcox who is helping set up an estate sale for Amedeo's eccentric neighbor, Mrs. Zender. Amadeo finds a friend as well as discovering something interesting and noteworthy. The story includes art history, secrets from Nazi Germany, and characters that are likable, intriguing, and, at the same time, humanly complex. The blurb says this is a "tale of art, discovery, friendship, history, and truth." That sums it up very well.

Listening to an Author

Last week I had the opportunity to hear Carlos Ruiz Zafon speak at Nicola's Bookstore. He is the author of The Shadow of the Wind and now The Angel's Game, a second novel in what he hopes to make a quartet. I read The Shadow of the Wind shortly after it came out in English and was intrigued not only by the deeply complex and fascinating plot but also by the beautiful language used to tell the story. It was an easy decision to jump at the chance to hear him speak. I am so glad I did as he offered many things that made be think. You can read more about him at his official site and then read on for some of my thoughts on what he said about reading and writing.

Zafon began his career as a novelist with a novel that won a prestigious prize for young adult novels in Spain. He said that the lure of money and fame is important to any author so he wrote some more young adult novels. Being pegged as a young adult author did not appeal to him because he never liked to read books labeled as being for such a finite group. Zafon sees himself as writer and reader without divisions for age or other limitations. He said he never read books called "young adult" when he was a young adult. He sees readers as a community and that all books that are good are for all members of that community. (This was the first time I wanted to stand up and cheer during his talk. I was moved by how succinctly he put this idea and struck by how it resonated with me.)

Maybe that was not the first time I wanted to cheer. The discussion began with Zafon discussing the idea that "Books do not need passports." This is again a reference to the world community of readers. A good book is a good book. It is that simple. They may need translation to make them accessible (Zafon's books have been translated into more than 35 languages) but the heart of the truly good novel will touch the heart of readers everywhere. Books are what can and does tie people together despite surface differences.

Readers put themselves into a book. This is why Zafon, despite his many screenplays, does not want to see his novels become movies. (Another time I considered a hearty round of applause.) A well written book has to tread a fine line as it leaves just the right amount of the story to the imagination, inviting the reader to claim the story, mixing it with personal experiences and opinions. The screenwriter, Zafon suggests, writes so that the actor and director create the nuances of the story. The author must guide the reader to find those nuances. Naturally, these nuances are colored by the personality and personal experiences of the reader. This is why the movie of a beloved book rarely meets the viewers' expectations. Frequently, I hear people say "The movie is not nearly as good as the book" but rarely does anyone express the opposite opinion. (I did not love Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake but did enjoy the movie. The not loving the novel is probably what allowed me to enjoy the movie. The movie version of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman was a travesty, totally failing to capture what I loved about that wonderful trilogy.) When you read a book, appreciate what is put into and put yourself into the book. Then, if you must, go to the movie. Don't do it the other way around. The movie will color the way you picture the novel.

In that vein, Zafon was adamant about his commitment to writing a story that merits the reader's giving time and money to that book. He says he does write for others and is conscious of writing a story that he loves with the idea of others becoming as attached to it as he has by the time the novel is completed.

Because English is Zafon's third language (growing up in Barcelona he learned Spanish and Catalan), it is not the language in which he writes. He talked at length about the process of translation. His translator Lucia Graves discovered his book in a Spanish bookstore and approached him about translating it. She is not a recognized translator but soon proved that she had a better idea of what he wanted than any of the others. Apparently several translators are offered the opportunity to submit a translation of a chapter of the book. Zafon and others looked at these translations before selecting the translator. Because he is fluent in English (he currently lives in Los Angeles), Zafon was able to read every page of the translation and make suggestions. He felt that soon Graves was inhabiting his mind. The translation of the second novel went even more smoothly because the author and the translator were thinking along the same lines. This is a luxury he does not have with translations into languages with which he is not familiar. All he can do is hope that when in goes on book tour in Korea or Estonia or wherever that he will still receive a positive reception. In the past week I have thought a great deal about the burden that falls on the translator. It is an amazing talent to be able to not only convey another person's text but also the emotions behind the words.

If you get a chance to hear a favorite author, I urge you to do just that. Not only will you probably end up with an autographed copy of the book and a brief moment of interacting with the author, you will also learn a great deal about reading, writing, and human nature.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Library Without Books

If you were to go to Emerson School right now you would see the room that was and is to be the library/media center looking very different than it did just two weeks ago. The carpet is gone. The walls that were the tech office are gone. The bathrooms at the top of the stairs are gone. Even the big, ugly heating pipes are gone.

Those of us who have know Emerson since it first was built at its current site see something vaguely familiar because this is how that space looked some 25 years ago. The current library area was once the common space in the middle of the school with classrooms opening out onto it. At the far end one can now see the raised area where classes used to sit to have a group picture taken. It brings back memories. (Since that time, this space has served many purposes, including being the gymnasium before becoming the library.)

For me, it has also stirred a more recent memory from when I was applying to library schools. I went to a local open house of the Information Science department. It was one speaker there, someone in the library education division, who convinced me to go elsewhere for my degree. She boldly and proudly stated her dream of having every library go virtual. "Imagine," she said, "Imagine a library where you are never bothered by people directly asking you questions. Imagine a library that is never dirtied by the muddy feet of noisy children." That is about when I started closing her out.

This interaction at a library school open house kept me away from some of the technologies far longer than it should have as I protected myself from what this woman predicted was right around the corner. (I was not going to be the one who opened the door that final crack to let virtual libraries take over the world. Read Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson to read a somewhat fictionalized account of how much power librarians, especially in a virtual state, could have. It's a great summer --or any time--read for grades four and up.)

My reasons for wanting work in a library would list noisy children and helping answer questions right at the top. I don't even mind muddy shoes all that much, though maybe that will change with new carpets in the the library. I want real children and real people with real questions frequenting the library. There are many things that the virtual world can do and does quite well but I am optimistic that we there will be no serious attempts to take face-to-face interactions out of the picture. People need to hold some books in their hands but more importantly they need to have another human being sharing those books with them. When there is a reference question or a reading suggestion, how nice to have a person in the flesh there to interact immediately. Yes, you can "Google" something and find lots of answers. Better yet, you can go to a respected data base and get more information. What a librarian does--or is supposed to do--is help you work out your question so that you know what to ask the Internet or data base in the first place. For pleasure reading, the personal is even more preferable. No computer to my knowledge can see the twinkle in your eye when a suggestion hits target or the polite shrug that indicates that the discussion has wandered down the wrong track.

Emerson's library is getting many improvements this summer. Right now it is a bare space but soon the wall will be up and then carpeting will reappear. The shelves will move in. Then I will get the books back out for everyone to enjoy and I will be there to answer questions, suggest a good book, and put the solid paper and paste of that book into waiting hands.

Book Clubs

Yesterday was something of a big day for me. Both of my book clubs met to discuss what to read for our next round of books. Having both groups meet for the same purpose with the span of a few hours offered me the opportunity to compare the two clubs and think about why I enjoy being part of two avid reading groups.

One group is made up of people with some connection to Emerson School, though we noticed yesterday that I was the only one in attendance who is currently employed at the school. This was a fluke that comes with summer activities leading us in many directions. Many of us have known each other for years and the group has grown up with some stalwart charter members. We have been in existence for at least a dozen years, probably more--I have lost count. Because we have been meeting for so many years and most of us see each other in the work setting and in other social settings, the group feels pretty comfortable about discussing almost anything. Over the years we have read from nearly every genre. There are books that we have all loved and others that we have all hated. The best books for discussion have been those with people on both ends of the continuum--some thinking we had just completed a work of literary genius while others consider the book a waste of time and brain cells. More than once we have left a meeting with minds changed about the book. More often we have gained new insights into ourselves and others. Sometimes our meetings have little discussion of the book and other times we are so eager to discuss that we barely have time to decide. Our meeting yesterday lasted for nearly five hours.

Looking at our selections for July to December, I predict we will continue to have wide ranging discussions that bring us closer together and get us excited. What more can we ask?

As we selected books to read, we were not afraid to try something new and different. Our selections range from an odd sounding dark sounding science fiction novel to a substantial biography of Alice Roosevelt. There are some that sound like fluff with a little substance and others that will be substance with a a little fluff. It makes me want to start reading right away. I did, but then set the biography aside for some things that I had checked out from the library that need to be read and returned.

My other book club is much younger and an effort to get neighborhood ladies together. I have not been as good about getting to the meetings as I would like to have been. Still, the joy of reading good books and sharing them with an interesting group of people is very evident in this group. This group does not have the common bond of being mostly a bunch of teachers which adds a different twist. This neighborhood group has the math and science folks and the literary purists and the folks somewhere in the middle. So we have read some pretty heavy science and some pretty heavy classic literature. They really keep our minds going. The discussions get just as involved as in my other book group. Each year we become more of a cohesive group and each year the pleasure of being with these women grows.

This group has chosen some good non-fiction about China and another non-fiction about sushi. We will be reading some Faulkner for the literature group and some other solid novels as well. This group tries to always have at least one selection about strong women to be read and discussed in March for International Women's Day.

The moral of all this is that I think book clubs are great. Discussing books with others is one of the best ways to make them come alive while strengthening bonds of friendship. Whether you are 6 or 65, if you have the opportunity to join a book club, I urge you to sign right up. It is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

A Reader Well Made

Happy Birthday to my second born child, a lovely daughter who is now a high school math teacher in the San Francisco area who has grown up to be what every parent their child will be. ( I am lucky because both of my daughters fit this category.) Among her many other talents, she loves to read. I am confident that Geetha's love of reading helps to make her not only a great teacher but also a strong, contributing member of society at large.

Of course, I would love to take full credit for this but know that some of it is just a part of her nature. She has that natural love of learning that became apparent the minute she became aware of the world around her.

I read to my children practically from the moment they were born--or maybe before they were born. We looked at books and loved books. We played word games as soon as they began to express an interest in language. The girls also watched their parents--both parents--read for pleasure. Study after study suggests that these are things that inspire children to grow up to be readers.

One of my greatest delights was reading to my children in bed at night. Perhaps the first time that Geetha read a word--at least the first time that I was sure she had picked out the word by herself without any memorization of familiar texts--was when I was reading Heidi to both girls. Jaya was on the top bunk, enjoying the story in her own private world there. Geetha was beside me. Suddenly she called out, "Up! See it says up!" Since Heidi travels up and down the mountainside frequently throughout the book, there were plenty of repetitions of this short word. Geetha figured out which set of letters were there when I was reading "up". I think Geetha was about three at the time. If I had not read to her, she would not have had that opportunity to put the letters together with the words and thus start on her journey to enjoying all that reading has to offer.

I read to Geetha well into middle school. We read a wide range of books from classics to the newest thing out. One of my favorite experiences was reading Winnie the Pooh with her first as a young, young child and then when she was about 12, and maybe a few times in between. We had great discussions of the differences in meaning that she and I got as young children and then as we aged. She, like her mother and my mother before me, has re-read Pooh more than once. We discussed what we were reading, no matter what it was. We laughed at Mr. Popper's Penguins, Absolute Zero, and many more. Tears streamed down our cheeks as we finished The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. We have a special bond, my girls and I, over the things that we have read together.

Now my girls live on either coast and I see them all too rarely. We often discuss books, though. They will read something that they think I MUST read and I offer them similar suggestions. Because of their diverse interests I have been introduced to subjects and styles that I would have otherwise overlooked.

Happy Birthday, Geetha, and thanks for all the reading and thinking and living that you have inspired.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Book Lover in the Making

A friend of mine has the flu--the nasty, ache-all-over, wanting-to-curl-up-in-a-corner type. (They didn't test for swine flu, so let's assume it is generic.) This is not good. But I got a bonus from her misfortune. I got to spend several hours yesterday enjoying her 1 1/2 year old son. Dominic is cute as a bug and lots of fun. I have known and hugged him mercilessly since the day he was born (and before that I just loved him without the hugging). His mother and father have read to him from very early in his existence.

It is not wonder, then, that Dominic loves his books. They are scattered around the house so he can grab them whenever needed. There are special books that are just read at bedtime and others that are available any time of the day.

One of the many highlights of yesterday was watching Dominic pick up a book on his own and read it to us. He may not have enunciated the words in any way that I could understand. He may not have started at the beginning and finished at the end. What he did do was clearly enjoy the book. He picked up. Turned it until it was right side up. Then he began to read. It was clear that he was reading because he used expression as he read, pausing every so often for dramatic effect. He turned the pages. He stopped to admire the pictures and point to things that interested him. It was wonderful and spontaneous.

Dominic won't really be reading for several years now, though he is so bright that it might not be that many years. What he is already doing is loving books and adventures that they contain.

Here is where I get on my little soap box: READ TO CHILDREN. Start early and keep reading to them as long as they will let you.

My younger daughter let me read to her until she was well into Middle School. I can only hope that she enjoyed it as much as I did. I know that she is still a reader and library user. I enjoy sharing book ideas with both of my daughters.

Watching the growth of appreciation for books and reading is one of the many joys of parenthood. I am so lucky to be getting the opportunity to observe it again through Dominic and through my niece's daughter who, at five, is now an independent reader. (I wish you were closer, Elise, so I could share books with you on a regular basis.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What I am Reading Now

I enjoyed The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks. Read all about it in my earlier post of today.

Then I shrugged my way through Boys are Dogs by Leslie Margolis. It is a friendly little book about a girl who must begin sixth grade in a school 30 miles away from all of her friends. It is an especially difficult transition since she has also moved from an all-girl's school to a co-ed middle school. She is trying to train her new puppy when she realizes that maybe boys can be trained using similar techniques. (There is an adult non-fiction that uses a similar premise. What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People From Animals and Their Trainers by Amy Sutherland is not one I would rush out to buy, but it was interesting to skim and tidbits of information.) Boys are Dogs is a light, summer read for someone planning to enter sixth grade in the next couple of years or who recently survived the experience. It is not amazing, but it is enjoyable, especially if you like fluffy puppies more than you currently like boys.

This morning I began Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Perry. This is a story about a boy growing up on a ranch in Eastern Oregon. I grew up in a part of the country where ranchers did not raise both cattle and sheep because the Range Wars were still too real so that part of this book caught me a bit off guard. Nonetheless it is an interestingly crafted novel, recounting ten incidents throughout the time that Brother's father is serving with the National Guard in Iraq. I am only about a sixth of the way through it, but I think I am going to be favorably impressed with this slim novel for grades four and up. If you like ranches or chess or sheep or cows it is seems to have something for you.

Vampires and More Vampires

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer has made its two-fanged mark. You know that is the case because now there is an interesting reply to that oh-so-successful series in the form of The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks.

I read and enjoyed the history in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. The vampire books of Anne Rice intrigued me until I decided that I really needed to get on with my life. It only took one of Twilight books for me to decide to move on. They are compelling reads, but I am not that big a fan of rippling muscles and golden tans.

So I was interested but not overly optimistic when I ran across the bleak gray cover of The Reformed Vampire Support Group. It is not great literature. (I doubt that there is much great vampire literature beyond Dracula.) It is, however, a real hoot. It is clearly tongue in cheek but is also full of real excitement for the middle school to adult reader. Nina, the narrator, writes Twilight style vampire books to support herself and buy her breakfast guinea pigs. Here, however, she describes the real life of vampires. It does not sound pleasant--the nausea, listlessness, the daylight hours spent quite literally dead to the world, and the urges to "fang" someone that must be suppressed whenever there is the whiff of even one drop of human blood. Nina and a motley crew of vampires in Sydney, Australia, meet weekly with a mortal priest to keep from "infecting" others to with their "disease". Then one of their fold, the man who infected Nina, is found dead in his coffin. Fearing for themselves, they set off on an adventure to find who has been ordering and using silver bullets. There is even a little bit of a love story here.

As a school librarian, there were a few times when I wish the language had not been so realistic so I could recommend this grand adventure to upper elementary readers and my more innocent middle school kids, but as a reader, I lapped it up like fresh blood. Read it to learn the ugly truth about life as a vampire. At the end you may find yourself seeing vampirism as another disability which makes life harder but does not make the sufferer any less human. See--it even has a good moral.

Warning: This book contains lots of blood and nausea and the death of innocent guinea pigs.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Starting Summer Reading Early

One of the hardest things about packing up all of the library so early this year has been that I can't read a book and immediately hand it off to the perfect young reader. It is difficult to finish a good book and not seek out that student that I just know would love reading it next. So here is the next best thing, I guess--telling everyone who reads this blog about some of the great books that I have read in the past couple of weeks. Add them to your summer reading. You won't be sorry.

Picture Books

Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog by Mini Grey is the second Traction Man book, featuring an action figure with something of a fixation on what he wears. Since half the fun of playing with dolls--and action figures are at least partly dolls--is changing their clothes, that makes perfect sense. Traction Man befriended a scrubbing brush in the first book and now they are inseparable friends. Together they head out to explore Mount Compost Heap and get a bit messy. When human intervention causes Scrubbing Brush to mysteriously disappear, Turbo Dog tries to work his way into Traction Man's life. As everyone knows, a Turbo Dog with his robotic voice are no substitute for a loyal scrubbing brush. All ends well--except maybe for Turbo Dog. These stories are so quirky that it is impossible not to get caught up in their simple plot and endearing illustrations.

Spuds by Karen Hesse is one of those picture books that will be best appreciated by people in at least second grade and read with joy by doting grandparents who will identify with this sweet story of hardship and redemption. The story, set during the Great Depression, features a group of children who sneak off under cover of darkness to pick potatoes left behind in a neighboring farmer's recent harvest. They work long and hard to fill a gunny sack will the tubers to fill their tummies. Alas, they are caught red-handed by their mother. To make matters worse, they soon discover that potatoes and rocks look an awful lot alike in the dark. The farmer is understanding and the kids learn some lessons about kindness and sharing.

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld uses an optical trick to create a story told entirely in dialogue between two unseen characters. Is that oval with a dot and two long projections off of it a rabbit or a duck? It all depends on how you look at it. After enjoying this simple story you will want to make time to lie on the grass and look up at the clouds to see what shapes you see floating there.


Orangutan Tongs by Jon Agee combines two favorite ways to appreciate words--poetry and tongue twisters--plus Agee's signature illustration style. Try reading about Swiss wrist watches, noisy noises that annoy oysters, unique New York, and many more challenges for your tongue.


Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune, and Swimsuit History by Shana Corey offers a picture book style introduction to a woman who was an early proponent of equality for women. Kellerman was born in Australia in the late 19th century. When she developed muscle problems in her legs, her parents encouraged her to exercise them through swimming. Soon she was not only walking, she was swimming and racing against the best men in the area. When the family needed extra money a teen-aged Annette developed a show in the local aquarium that caused her fame to spread. Soon she traveled to England where she performed for royalty, after some quick costume adjustments. When she came to the the U.S. to perform her vaudeville style act, she decided to go to a Boston beach for a swim before the show. Staid Bostonians did not approve of women showing a bit of ankle at the beach and Annette was summarily arrested. This arrest and the resultant trial not only made waves, it also made changes in swimsuit design. When you slip into your suit this summer, thank Annette Kellerman for her courage and sense of showmanship. This book is perfect to share with readers in grades two and up. After I read it, I had to rush to the Internet to read more about this woman who was news to me.

Novels for Readers in Grades 2 to 8

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Rain or Shine by Erica Silverman
is just one of many is this popular series of Early Readers that feature a girl and her horse as they go out on a variety of adventures. They are perfect for those horse loving girls who are ready for chapter books.

The Hinky Pink by Megan McDonald is another easy reader that will be enjoyed by those who are ready for a little more meat to their stories. It is a retelling of an old favorite that I first read in A Bed Just So. Here it is a young princess who is bothered by the Hinky Pink who demands a perfect bed. She has to try many bed styles before finding one that is perfect.

Dying to Meet You : Book 1 of the 43 Old Cemetery Road Series by Kate Klise is not nearly a gruesome as the title suggests. Yes, it is about a boy who lives on Cemetery Road and a ghost who lives there with him. There is even a creepy man who wants to move into the house. The entire story is told in letters between various characters and contains a generous dose of humor along with some mysterious happenings and adventures of a ghostly sort. This is perfect for those readers who have moved beyond easy readers into longer chapter books but still appreciate the brief segments that letters provide and will appeal to readers in grades 3 to 6.

The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish by Claudia Mills is one of those middle years readers (let's say grades 4 to 6) that will appeal to girls who like a little angst, a lot of reality, and a little humor in their reading. Amanda is assigned to write a fictional diary of a girl living in the time of the Civil War. Meanwhile, Amanda's home life is falling apart. Her parents fight about the least thing and then her father moves out. Amanda works out some of her angst through writing her diary.

Oggie Cooder by Sarah Weeks features a boy who, not too surprisingly, has trouble making friends in fourth grade. He dresses oddly and has odd habits. His most recent interest is "charving", a combination of chewing and carving that he has perfected on slices on American cheese. He is trying to charve every state. Wyoming and Colorado are easy, of course, but Texas is a struggle. It seems to me that Michigan would also offer some challenges. There is only one child at school who will have anything to do with Oggie and most of the others delight in making fun of him. All this changes when a wildly popular TV talent show comes to town seeking kids with unusual talents. The vainest girl in town takes a sudden interest in learning to charve. Oggie misinterprets the attention in a way that will surprise few readers but is painfully realistic. Things don't work out the way anyone expected, but suffice it to say that ten minutes of fame is not what everyone wants or needs. Readers in grades three and up will find much to enjoy in this short novel.

Canned by Alex Shearer features another boy who marches to his own drummer. Fergel Bamfield has a reputation for cleverness (at least in the eyes of his parents) but even he realizes that it is more because he is eccentric than because of his above average grades. He refers to himself as "Nerdy Boy" in Internet chat rooms so he can get that name out of the way. He find a distinctly odd hobby that leads him to a wild adventure as well as helping him find a friend to share that adventure. Fergel decides to collect cans--cans that have lost their labels and end up in the bargain basket at the supermarket. His parents humor this hobby even as they fail to understand it. They really don't listen to Fergel much so when he finds a human finger in one of the cans he decides not to tell this parents. Only when he meets a girl who also collects cans and who has found an ear in one of her cans, does Fergel, aided by Charlotte, decide to do something. This books if full of great British humor, wild twists, and a rollicking good story that will devoured by readers in grades four and up.

Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger is a good choice for Middle School readers who are already dreading the day that they will have to give up the fun and relaxation of summer to get a job. The boys in this novel are 15 and convinced that jobs are optional at this age. Unfortunately for them, their fathers disagree. All three boys are told in no uncertain terms to get jobs. Instead they come up with a plan to earn $7,000 in just a few days so that they can have the rest of the summer off. As you can imagine, their plans are not as sweet and simple as they had planned. They may not be working as a life guard or serving up KFC, but they certainly end up working hard when they wanted to be hardly working.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede has gotten good reviews that refer to it as a cross between Little House on the Prairie and Harry Potter. Let me disagree with that. This novel for Middle School readers puts Little House to shame with its new twist on life on the American frontier. Just having magic classes does not equal the exploits of Mr. Potter. (I confess I am not a huge fan of either of those series. Feel free to disagree with me but don't let that stop you from reading this book.) The narrator of the story is a girl born minutes before her brother who is the magically powerful seventh son of a seventh son. The people in their home town, including her aunts and uncles, feel that the 13th child is always unlucky and the family would have been wise to let her starve rather than risk the lives of those around her. Partly to escape these unpleasant folks, the family moves farther west where the father teaches practical magic at a land grant college. There are magic adventures as the students learn how to deal with their magic. I was especially intrigued by the different philosophies of magic that are taught and which are appreciated while others are rejected. Will the 13th child save the settlement from invading beetles or will she help to destroy it?

Erratum by Walter Sorrells is another magical novel for upper elementary and middle school students. As a book lover and a word lover it was easy for me to get totally engaged in this story of the importance of words in creating and maintaining our world as we know it. According to this book there are many other universes and what we do in one may influence what happens in others. When Jessica mysteriously is given a book called Her Lif, she is totally confused. But then, she has always had a sense that she doesn't fit in with her family or her current life so maybe this is worth exploring. Whether she wants to or not, events push her from one unreal experience to another at a heart pounding pace. This is one of those books that has adventure, humor, and a solid narrative along with philosophy to ponder long after you finish the last page.

One Graphic Novel

Rapunzel's Revenge
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
is, as the title suggests, a retelling of the story of Rapunzel. As befits a graphic novel of a fairy tale, it has excitement, interesting twists of plot, and a happy ending. Rapunzel has strength that is extends far beyond her hair and she knows how to use that hair to best advantage. Anyone over the age of 9 or so will find something to enjoy here.

What I am Reading Now

The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo
is what I began this morning. Since it is about life in middle school, that is the reader to whom it will most appeal. It begins much like a traditional crime/detective novel. Here the crime bosses are kids with squirt guns that they use to wet the most embarrassing areas of one's clothing, causing humiliation of the sort that no one in middle school ever wants to experience. If the first few pages are any indication, I am going to enjoy this one. UPDATE: June 11--I finished this book. It was interesting to say the lealst and kept me reading even though I was getting tired of the detective novel format. I am hoping that most (or all) middle schools are nothing like this crime laden school. However, I realize that the tensions among the kids are just as sharp even if the "taking out" is not as clearly defined. I am interested to see what middle school kids will think of it.

Throughout the summer, I will be updating suggested reading for readers of all ages. I checked out almost 50 books (some are boring professional reading that I won't be sharing with you as suggested reading though I may talk about what I learn) from the Emerson library for the summer (50 fewer books to pack); I bought several adult books just for me at the Book Bash; and I have my public library card at the ready. I plan to read, read, and read. Ah...summer

Shutta Crum

If you are in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, June 10, (7:00 p.m.) consider heading to Nicola's Books in the Westgate Shopping Center to listen to local author Shutta Crum speak about her newest picture book, Thunder-Boomer. Shutta has several picture books and one novel out so far and this new book promises to be another great read, having garnered a couple of starred reviews. Shutta is also an enthusiastic presenter. She spoke at Emerson a few years ago and thoroughly entranced our students. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I was talking to an Emerson grad who is now finishing her first year at Skyline High School. I glanced down and noticed that her socks pointedly did not match. This was a trade mark that she has proudly worn for many years. Her mother said that the evening after Shutta Crum's visit, this young woman declared her individuality by saying she would never again wear matching socks. So far it has stuck. Shutta had colorfully mix-matched sneakers when she spoke at the school. I guess it made an impression.

On Tuesday, June 23, at 7:00 p.m., adults may want to rush to Nicola's Books when Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author of the world-wide hit novel Shadow of the Wind, will be speaking about his latest novel Angel's Game. As one of the millions of people who was totally caught up in the mystery, history and intrigue in Zafon's first novel, I already have a ticket (they are strongly encouraged) for this event. Nicola tells me that he speaks as well as he writes so I am expecting a fantastic evening.

To read more about what is happening at Nicola's Books this month, check out their newsletter.