Monday, September 5, 2011

Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It's Back to School We Go

Whether it is just coincidence on my part or a theme of authors and publishers this year, I discovered many new (at least new to me) books about going to school during my summer reading. I would like to share some of my favorites with you.

Young Adult Novels about school are often filled with teen angst and carry messages that adults think young teens need to hear from wiser minds. Of course, sometimes these messages are so heavy that no self-respective teen is going to pay it much heed. The novels that I enjoyed this summer were able to either ignore the need of a message or convey that message in a moving and memorable manner.

The Accidental Genius of Weasel High by Rick Detoria (grades 6 -9) features a boy with plenty of typical high school issues. This novel is plausible and enjoyable through the generous use of humor, interesting plot twists, and friendly, cartoon illustrations. Larkin has a quirky girl for a friend but is suddenly wishing for more in the relationship and he has a believably spoiled sister to add to his problems with adjusting to school and his quest to get himself a quality camcorder.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (gr. 8 and up) manages to deal with a very heavy topic in a believable and moving way while injecting much needed humor to break the tension. The protagonist was raped at a party just before the start of ninth grade. Frightened and confused, she called the police but never told a soul about the rape itself. For this act, her peers she her as a snitch and effectively shun her. The story shows the painful steps that help her regain her voice both literally and figuratively. This story has become a classic in the ten years since it was first published and is worthy of being read by every student embarking on the high school adventure. I found it much more moving, believable, and readable than the currently popular Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Scrawl by Mark Shulman (gr. 6-9) appeals to my bias for novel in journal form. This journal is assigned by a teacher as something of a last chance to escape expulsion from school. The teacher is to be admired for being strict and fair with her assessments as the writer moves from anger to inklings of understanding.

The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gardy Schmidt are two novels about connected characters but they are certainly stand alone books. The Wednesday Wars takes place in New York City in the late 1960s with a trouble-making student forced to stay after school to work with a teacher. He learns to appreciate Shakespeare and education in surprising ways. Less enjoyable to me was Okay for Now which follows a secondary character of the first book when his family moves to rural New York in search of work. It has many issues with family problems, crime, and even Vietnam War veterans. Both books feature good storytelling and generous dashes of humor.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (Gr. 5-8), like too many books for readers of this age, tries to address too many issues in one story so that none is given the attention it deserves. That said, it is worth reading this book for the stellar writing and intriguing concept. Mr. Terupt is the new teacher for a group of angry and troubled students. Through the use of controversial and interesting teaching methods, Mr. Terupt gets the students to bond . When tragedy strikes, they deal with it individually and as a group. The book is told in multiple voices.

Writers for students in second through fifth grade tend to tread more lightly when dealing with school issues. These books are more apt to be humorous (think Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School) or historical (like Belle Teal by Ann M. Martin). That does not mean that there are not some good and clever books about school experiences, but you are more apt to laugh than cry while reading them.

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon (gr. 2-4) does a great job of dealing with being the different kid in the class by making the hero the only dragon in a school of more prosaic reptiles. There are plenty of cartoon illustrations, often with speech bubbles, so the reading is fun and appealing. The story has a lot that is familiar like unwanted homework, a bully, a nerdy but true friend, and struggling to meet parental standards, but mostly it has lots of humor. I predict that the series of which this is the first will be a big hit.

School! Adventures at the Harvey N. Trouble Elementary School by Kate McMullan (gr. 2-4) advertises itself as a "Very Punny Book" and that it is. The puns are what kept me reading as I discovered interesting names and clever turns of phrase. The stories themselves are light and short in a way that is reminiscent of Wayside School.

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming (gr. 3-5) is another Wayside School look-alike that will appeal to young readers who want a laugh in a school setting.

It is the First Day of School...Forever by R. L. Stine (gr. 4-6) surprised me because I actually liked most of it. My students know that I am not wild about Stine's Goosebumps series because the stories seem more inclined toward gore and adrenalin rushes than actual plot. This story is not short on gore and excitement but it also has a solid plot, thus making me and the hoards of devoted R. L. Stine readers happy. The story may be every kid's worst nightmare--the first day at a new school keeps happening over and over and over, with each day a little more horrible than the last. It is the surprise ending that made it all worth the read for me.

Picture books generally are eager to make sure that the youngest readers and listeners are eager to go to school. They acknowledge that it is scary to leave the familiar and go off to a new school and thus strive to make school look fun and appealing. Much to my joy, more and more picture books about school are adding surprises and humor.

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh (gr. 1-4) offers a great twist on the new kid in school issue. The narrator is a student who thinks that this new kid, Marshall Armstrong, is just plain weird and wants nothing to do with him. The illustrations highlight Marshall's quirkiness that may at first be off-putting, but turns out to be truly awesome.

Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin (gr. K-2) shows all the great things to be discovered at school as Pete takes his cool school shoes on a tour of school life. There is little plot but lots of energy, rhythm, and vibrant illustrations.

How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills (gr. K-2) is about an unconventional school, to say the least. Rocket is a dog doesn't know he wants to read until a friendly bird shows him how much fun it can be. The bird follows the same steps that teachers follow in every school as Rocket is introduced to the basic principles of the sounds of letters and how they go together to make words and sentences and stories.

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child (gr. K-2) is not new but it is too absolutely my favorite back-to-school book to miss mentioning it. (Many children now know Charlie and Lola from their television show. The TV success and a decline in the appeal of these books seem to have a direct correlation. This is one of the first of the Charlie and Lola books, perhaps even before the TV program.) When Charlie tells Lola that she will soon start school, she can think of many reasons why she does not need school and will not like school. Of course, it all ends well, but not before lots of questions about school have been humorously answered.

Head back to school knowing that you are not the first to have worries. As you read the books for older students, you can be glad that you don't have all of their issues and that the first day only happens once a year.

End of Summer Thoughts

Every year as school comes to an end in June I make a list of all the things I am going to accomplish during what at that time seems like a long summer that lies ahead. The list includes things for home (paint a room, clean thoroughly, fix something that is need of repair), for me (read, sew, craft a bit, socialize, lose weight), and for school (organize something so that it is more user friendly, get some new books, plan for the coming year). These lists have been a major project in themselves in years past. This year they were more scratched notes and thoughts.

Neither of these approaches seem to work completely. I did some of the things on my lists, but I am far from completing most of the things on my list. We did get one room painted, but the transition of that room into a guest room is still far from complete nor are the two other rooms that were a part of the transformation looking much different from than they did in June. Socialization was an important part of the summer, but there are still many people that I want to see. I also am into an intensive exercise program that is getting me on that bumpy road to fitness. The library is a little better organized, but much of what I did gave me ideas for other changes that must now wait until school gets under way.

One thing I did succeed in doing was to read some good books (and some not so great ones). As is always the case, however, I found more to add to my list of books that I want to read. Here are a few of the adult titles that I read and enjoyed this summer.

The Worst Hard Times by Tim Egan offers a fascinating and clearly well researched look at life in the heart of the Dust Bowl. It is not as well written as I would have liked, at times repeating itself or making confusing leaps in time or place, but it made up for those lapses by offering a very complete story of people who lived in this time and place. The relationships between the environment and politics should give us pause in today's world.

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson looks at yet another devastating time in America, the summer that the Freedom Riders headed south to register African Americans to vote. The story is difficult as it gives straight forward accounts of the people who were killed in tortured in this agonizing and powerful time.

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared Together by Alice Ozma is a memoir that centers around a pact between a young girl (the author) and her father, a school librarian. They agree to read together every night for 1,000 nights. There are tales of having to read in a parking lot or even over the phone so that they can meet their deadline as they move beyond those 1,000 nights. It is high praise for the joys of reading together and a good reminder that no one is too old to enjoy sharing a book. Keep reading to your children.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is not the only fiction I read this summer, but is what I enjoyed most because it is a wonderful melange of odd characters in unbelievable yet realistic settings. The Bigtree family has owned Swamplandia since Grandpa moved to Florida to find his fortune. Instead he finds lots of large gators to wrestle and from their a show grows. The story begins, however, as the glory days are ending. Grandfather is now in a nursing home. Grandfather Sawtooth's son, Chief, is struggling to keep things going after his wife, the star of the show, dies. The three children all try in their own ways to save the park. The symbolism of The World of Darkness amusement park is worthy of a literature class discussion. I know not everyone likes quirky stories, so I will forgive you if you are put off by this book. However, if you like a wild romp, this could be just the book for you.

Now, I am composing lists of things to accomplish during the school year. Let's hope that get some of those things done.