What if it was you?

5-12-Esperanza-Rising1With what’s happening in the US right now in regards to immigrants and immigrant rights, I was reminded of a wonderful story I read for one of my Masters courses.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a story of drastic change and the necessity of adaptation.  It’s a story of extreme racism and stereotypes.  Our heroine, Esperanza is forced to flee Mexico with her family.  She has been exceeding wealthy all her life but suddenly she finds herself on the outside looking in.  She is now one of the poor she used to judge. The novel opens our eyes to the hopes and dreams of those who came to the “new world”, looking for a better life.  For some, like Esperanza, it is to escape from possible hardship and even death.  This book really makes you think and question but it is not a difficult read.  A straightforward story with a wonderful reflection on how we treat others.

I not sure what the answers are regarding immigration, but I do know that I’m an immigrant and Canada has gifted me with a wonderful life in a beautiful country.  While I understand the need to protect citizen’s rights, I sometimes think we lose sight of exactly how privileged we are.  How can we deny basic freedoms to others if we have the capacity to provide them?  Just as Esperanza discovered, we should be careful because who knows?  One day it could be us.

Ages: 10 and up            Rating:   4 stars

 

 

What If You Could Buy Immortality?

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Replica by Jenna Black

I’m not sure how I came to read Replica, but it doesn’t seem to be one that everyone’s talking about (or was talking about) but it should be.

Sixteen-year-old Nadia Lake lives in a futuristic society where human replication technology is a reality; carefully controlled by its creator, Paxco. Nadia comes from a high-class family and lives a life of privilege, although she’s not too keen on the paparazzi that follows her everywhere; eager for the latest on the fiance of notorious playboy, Nathan Hayes, heir to Paxco.

They’re not in love but they are friends and everyone appears satisfied with their match. That is until Nate is killed and the wrong person was the last to see him alive. When the new Nate wakes up in the replication chambers he is missing a month of memories. Nadia and Nate set out to find the killer and prevent the world from discovering Nate’s secret, a secret that could destroy everything they know.

Replica has riveting characters and an intricate plot. I loved the friendship between Nadia and Nathan and how they looked after each other. The idea of being unable to die is not new but the twist of being born a replica intrigued me. Also, it was interesting to see how the replicas were treated by their society even if they were the elite when they were “alive”. There are two more books in the series. I highly recommend them all but put the first just that bit above the others.

Ages: Teen

Rating: 5 stars for this part of the series (4 for the others)

Do Childhood Books Shape Who We Become?

back to schoolAs I was immersed in the chaos of the first week of school (and wondering how I could ever have forgotten the ear-shattering decibel level of 200+ girls in one room), I started thinking about how the books we read as children shape who we become.

I grew up in a world long before DVD’s and 500 channels. I grew up in a world WELL before smartphones, the internet and instantaneous information. Books were my world and my library card was my best friend. I was born in England and each week, from the time I could walk, my mother would take me to town to buy a new Ladybird book. We immigrated to Canada when I was three and my books and British heritage came with me. My parents read to me constantly until I started school and by that time I was reading my own books. Every three weeks, I would go to the library with my aunt and take out 10 books, as that was the most I was allowed.

malory towersI don’t remember the first Enid Blyton book I read, but I remember systematically working my way through her entire repertoire (and our small town library had them all). For those of you not familiar with her work, she wrote adventure stories and child detective/club stories in the 40’s and 50’s. As much as I loved her Adventure series, I loved her boarding school stories even more. I loved school and could think of nothing more exciting than living at school! Classes, and strict teachers, and living with friends and studying at night! I wanted to wear a sharp uniform, abide by the rules and go to an all-girl school too! The fact that Ms. Blyton was describing life during her own time period never occurred to my 8 year old self. To me, that was what school was like in England and I wanted to go there, not to my boring old school in Canada.

From these stories, I learned the rules of acceptable behavior and respect, that at 16 you acted like an adult and that doing your studies was of primary importance. It was a bit of a shock to me when I visited England at the age of 11 and discovered that English schools were really no different than my own (other than the sloppily worn uniforms). I visited my mum’s old school, met my aunt who was a teacher and went to school for a day. It was shattering to discover the truth. I never told anyone that I cried myself to sleep that night; cried for the loss of what I had thought to be real.

The true irony came 30 years later when I accepted my first teaching job at an all girls private school, and to top it all off, I was to live and work in the residence with the girls. Part of me still expected boarding school to be like I always understood it to be; because really, I never had visited a boarding school. I was a stickler for rules and always insisted the girls wear their uniform properly. It annoyed me when other teachers looked the other way or worse, didn’t even seem to notice. I taught full time and lived in the residence for four years before moving out and becoming a day teacher.   I’m still a stickler for the rules and usually end up with at least one confiscated cell phone on my desk each day. There’s a system in my classroom; a way the tables go, the chairs must all be pushed in and computers stay in their bags by the door unless we’re using them. And absolutely no cracking of any body part. That one actually has a sign on the wall.

My idea of school never really went away. What I learned in those stories as a child became part of me. I love my students and I love my job but I often wonder if I was born in the wrong time period.

Images:  The Malory Towers picture is my own.

Back to School is was Posted by Kolej T6 Haji Zainul Abidin – https://smkhzapenang.blogspot.ca/2016/03/

The Wonders of Auggie

Wonder_Cover_Art Wonder was recommended to me by a young friend who really enjoyed it and thought I might too. Being the highly intuitive young man that he is, I knew better than to doubt him and downloaded it immediately. Wonder is the story of August, a ten-year-old boy who has been home-schooled his whole life. It’s not like he doesn’t have friends, or is behind intellectually, but still his parents have decided it’s time to go to school. Begin with all the other new kids entering middle school in grade 5. August is adamant about not going. You see, August has what he calls mandibulofacial dysostosis, which, as I read the description, sounded a lot like Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare condition characterized by severe facial deformity. Really he’s just an ordinary ten-year-old but few tend to work their way past the surface to find that out. Auggie’s used to the glances, the second looks, the looking away when people don’t know what to say. Middle school is hard enough as it is without looking different. After meeting the principal and touring the school, Auggie decides to go, beginning a journey that is both touching and inspiring.

What I loved most about this book is that it’s told from a variety of viewpoints. The first section is from Auggie’s point of view, then the same incidents are reviewed and the story is continued from his sister’s point of view. We then hear the story of Auggie’s journey through the first year of middle school from a continuing succession of his classmates and even his sister’s boyfriend, before returning to Auggie. The reader views the same incident from two or three view points, an invaluable lesson for many children as they learn to think outside of themselves.  Also, the author never loses sight of the characters’ voice. I could see and hear these children telling their story; the slang was right, the vocabulary was right, and the actions and uncertainties rang true.

Wonder is a exceptional story from start to finish. One of the most valuable lessons we can pass on to the next generation is to see through another’s eyes; feel what another is feeling and try to understand the reasons for another’s actions and reactions.

Not only does Wonder make us think, and hopefully make our children think, it’s also an enjoyable read. Never did I feel as if I was being preached at, which is what put it over the top for me because, trust me, kids know when they are being preached at.

Ages: 8-12              Rating: 5 stars

 

First Love

So let’s see, there was my horsey phase and my search for cat books. Both of these phases were defined as me reading every book I could get my hands on with the sought after theme. As I moved into my teen years, I followed the seemingly common trend of moving into the Romance phase. I get the feeling that the phase begins much earlier chronologically now than it did when I was young, still I was about 11 or 12 when I discovered Harlequin category romances. You remember, the sweet ones. When it was all about the relationship, the “spark” and the “longing”. The heroines were always virgins, there was kissing but no sex, and always a marriage proposal/understanding at the end.

As with all my other phases, I read every Harlequin I could get my hands on. And honestly there were some great stories which still stick with me. Devil on Horseback by Elizabeth Graham The Ice Maiden by Sally Wentworth and One of the Boys by Janet Dailey to name a few. I’m curious to read them again and see if my cynical adult brain would feel differently about them – yet at the same time I don’t want to know.

first loveHarlequin and Silhouette dominated the romance market back then and they eventually realized what a huge market they could tap into by targeting teens. In 1981 Harlequin premiered their Sweet Dream line and a few months later along came Silhouette with their First Love series. sweet dreamI bought every one that hit the shelves for quite a while and devoured them. Cliquey Pizza has a wonderful post about the Silhouette series on her blog that details many of the titles.  Each of these books dealt with the usual high school drama of first loves, first dates, friend drama etc.  These stand-alone novels were immensely popular and led to the introduction in 1983 of the mega popular continuing teen series, Sweet Valley High. But that’s a separate post all it’s own. More to come on that front.

Category romances have evolved dramatically since my childhood days and, having no interest in reading sex scenes, I stopped reading them ages ago. I did move onto regular romance like Johanna Lindsey and Julie Garwood for awhile, but eventually stopped those too as I grew more cynical about the whole idea of love.

Recent trends towards erotica are not surprising but just as all my high school trends are returning (think legwarmers and leggings) it appears the “sweet” form of romance is also making a comeback. Readers are looking for “new and different”. They’re tired of the “norm” and what could be more new and different today than no explicit sex, no kink and no sleeping around. Interesting idea. Looking forward to seeing how the trend evolves.

New Feature

As the new school year approaches and I prepare to return to my classroom, I am madly updating my student reading lists and recommendations.  I love to read YA and children’s fiction but even moreso I love to find that book that makes my students’ eyes light up with excitement when they talk about it.  And finding that book that connects with a reluctant reader?  Nothing like it.

My students love to share their favourites with me also, so starting Monday I will be passing on my finds and reviewing books with a focus on the classroom and specific age groups.

I’m also looking for new books to share with my students, so all you parents and teachers out there, send me your favourites.  Any genre, recent or classic, with a note about why you love it.

My Top 5 Eclipse Books (plus One Play and a Movie)

macbethSo it appears a total solar eclipse is not as rare an occurrence as I thought. One occurs somewhere in the world every eighteen months, so in theory you could make quite a career out of following in the moon if that was your thing. I watched NASA’s eclipse coverage yesterday and once again marveled at the astounding beauty of nature and our world. The view from the Space Station was particularly magnificent to see. I also wondered what the ancients must have thought as the world went black for a good two minutes. The gods/God must have been very angry indeed.

In honour of the occassion, I hunted around for a book to review with Eclipse in the title and racked my memory for eclipse-centric books from my childhood. While there are many that deal with “teaching” children about the phenomenon I was more interested in it as a plot point or a symbolic device. I admit my findings are barebones; there’s somewhat of a gap in this area, making me think that it might be fun to write a novel where an eclipse plays a central role. How I’m not sure yet but with NANoWriMo approaching I’m certainly tossing a variety of plots around. Maybe someone who does follow the moon around?

So here’s the titles I remember reading which either have eclipse in the title or have an eclipse as a plot point of some sort.  The first three were more recent reads, the latter three from my teen years.
eclipse 1) Eclipse by Stephanie Mayer – yes, I know you were all thinking it, and waiting for me to bite the bullet and talk about it. So, yes, number one most commonly known.  While I can’t speak to it first hand (I didn’t get past the beginning of book two) the Twilight wiki claims that the title refers to Jacob calling Edward an eclipse when Bella says Edward is her personal sun. Now that I can get on board with if the first book was anything to go by. Once Bella met Edward she ceased to exist. He eclipsed her. But that’s another rant all its own, so lets move on.

2) Eclipse by Andrea Cheng is the story of a young Hungarian boy growing up in 50’s America. It’s a coming of age story as he must learn to stand up for himself and find a sense of self-worth. The story is not long but I imagine the title refers to how he escapes to the library to read about everything, including eclipses.

3) In the Path of the Eclipse by Stephen King – okay a bit of a cheat here. King did not release a book of this name but according to the Stephen King wiki (sense a pattern here?) it was the original title for what eventually became Delores Claibourne and Gerald’s Game. While I don’t remember Gerald’s Game I do remember that Delores carried out her “plan” during an eclipse.

4) The Secret Mountain by Enid Blyton – while I was enamoured by Enid Blyton as a child (she too will be featured soon) it was her Adventure Series I loved the most. I remember the plot of this one, much as I vaguely remember some of the Secret Seven plots. As an adult reader, I can now see the tremendous colonial mentality at work in this book as the family manages to escape from an African tribe by claiming they will “kill the sun” if not released.

yankee 5) Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain – Our hero, Hank, performs a miracle and blots out the sun in the chapter entitle “Eclipse”. I love Twain!

6) Macbeth by William Shakespeare – I’ve been teaching this play for the past 10 years and I love it more and more each time I read it. At the beginning of Act II Ross says “by the clock, ‘tis day/And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:” – a wonderful example of pathetic fallacy as Macbeth prepares to kill Duncan (darkness taking over etc.).

ladyhawkeFinally, no eclipse list (even this short one) would be complete without the magnificent Ladyhawke. Yes, not a book, but too good not to mention. Cursed by the evil bishop for the sin of falling in love, Isabeau and Navarre are eternally together, forever apart. By day she is a hawk and he a man, by night he is a wolf and she a woman. At dawn and dusk they can almost touch before they are ripped apart. What they need is nighttime during the day… While the 80’s music has not stood the test of the time, the story is beautiful and Matthew Broderick is at his charming boyish best. This will always be a close-to-my-heart movie.

So obviously not all of the above are considered children’s books (or plays or movies), but then, I never defined my personal childhood bookshelf as containing books adults think are suitable for children. My childhood bookshelf was always comprised of what I was interested in reading, regardless of what was considered appropriate. I read anything and everything in my house when I was growing up, so don’t be surprised to see V.C. Andrews and Agatha Christie show up in the near future.

Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

Malorie BlackmanWhile I don’t often pan a book publicly, especially when it’s an author I love, I’m feeling a little blind-sided by Chasing the Stars. I have read just about everything Malorie Blackman has written; I even wrote a major paper on her for my Masters programme. Her picture books are great fun, and Noughts and Crosses has been a mainstay of my grade 10 English curriculum for years. So I think part of my determination to finish this book came from my disbelief that Blackman had actually written it.   It was the same sort of feeling I had when I read Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling; only my commitment to the author and the feeling I owed her something for past joys, kept me reading to the end.

Chasing the Stars is toted as Othello in space. Now I didn’t know this until I got half way through and decided to check out GoodReads to see if anyone else was hating on it as I was. Once I knew that I could play the “which character represents which character” game. That made it slightly more interesting but I still continued to skim from about midway to the end.

The novel tells the story of Olivia and her brother Aidan who are on their way back to Earth three years after a virus wipes out everyone else on their ship. Our do-gooder captain stops to risk her life to save a colony being attacked by the evil Mazon race. They manage to save a number of the colonists, and Olivia is faced with a new community on her ship after being alone for three years. An interesting premise and one I was enjoying until page 54 when Nathan came on the scene and Olivia was reduced to a hormonal teenager complete with such worldly observations as “Whoa! He was gorgeous”. Yes, explanation point. From this point on, our fearless leader is constantly “flushing” and “feeling the heat rise in her face”. Okay, fine. I can deal with the attraction. She is eighteen and has been alone and hormonal for three years. And yes it is young adult and romance, I’m fine with that; Noughts and Crosses is a romance but it’s so much more as well. This book is not.

Blackman insults her readers when she has Olivia and Nathan fall in love and get married within days of meeting each other. While I understand the novel is aimed at a teen audience, who may not be as jaded as I, even a teen audience needs more of a build up to their “Romeo and Juliet” scenarios.  Othello and Desdemona worked because they were married and established as a couple for some time before the play started. Having Olivia and Nathan meet and marry in the first third of the novel felt forced and as a reader I was apathetic after that.

Following their “joining” Olivia and Nathan are challenged by the “green-eyed monster”, leaving them to behave even more out of character. Nathan goes from loving to cold and angry within pages and Olivia loses all the common sense she must have needed to captain the Aidan.  There is a murder mystery subplot and hints of some interesting characters but both were under-developed. The story is told in alternating view points between Olivia and Nathan which got confusing at times, even with the different font. Olivia’s brother Aidan was probably the one redeeming character. I thoroughly enjoyed him but that’s not surprising as I also adore Iago in Othello, which appeared to be Aidan’s role.noughts and crosses

I scanned through to the end to make sure my guess at the “twist” was right and to fulfill my duty as a Blackman fan.  Ultimately, I am compelled to reread Noughts and Crosses and try to pretend Chasing the Stars was all just a bad dream.

If you have yet to read Noughts and Crosses I suggest you get on that right away.

I Miss Terry Pratchett

The_Amazing_Maurice_and_his_Educated_RodentsSo I’ve had cats as far back as I can remember. I was a little girl who loved cats and now I’m a big girl who loves cats.  As a big girl who loves cats I became enamoured with Terry Prachett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. It’s definitely one I would have read in my teen years had it been released 20 years earlier.  I love this book so much I centred one of my Masters papers around it; as a stunning version of the Pied Piper story.

Maurice is a brilliant cat who has a human patsy, his front really. He also has a group of mice in his employ. Using both resources he sets up a scam to send in the rats to invade a town and then have his human ride to the rescue offering to get rid of the rats; for a fee of course. This is a brilliant story told with Terry Pratchett’s usual snarky voice.  I miss it and him.

hotel catAs a little girl who loves cats, my passion was once again manifested, as most of my passions were, in the books I read. In grade 3 I took a book out of the library called The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill. It’s the story of Tom who wins himself the job of Hotel Cat because he’s such a good mouser. There Jenny, the black cat who wore a red scarf and Checkers and Pickles the Firehouse cat. Together they formed the Cat Club. They looked after each other and made plans for the Stardust (?) Ball.

I loved this book so much I kept in my desk so I could read it over and over again. I can’t remember if I renewed the book or just pretended it was lost, but I know I kept it in my desk for a long time. I thought it would be pretty cool to be like Mrs. Wilkins, an elder resident who could communicate with cats. Not the elderly part the communicating part.

There’s been some great cats in book history but I don’t remember many particular cats owning their own books like Tom and Maurice. The Cat in the Hat maybe. Tao from The Incredible Journey?  Crookshanks and Mrs. Norris from Harry Potter are great characters but supporting characters at best. warriorsI did discover, however, a series called the Warriors, the story of four clans of wild cats, which appears to be very popular with my middle school girls. It a series written by a group of authors under the name Erin Hunter (a la Nancy Drew). I’ve read the first few books and thoroughly enjoyed them. My students tell me there are many more though. They’re right. This series is a monster. Thirty-four books in the core series (and counting) with additional manga and e-book versions to add additional detail should you require it. I don’t think I’m quite up to that many.

Any cat-centric chapter books you remember? I’d love to know what else I might be forgetting.

The Horsey Phase

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The beginning (cover from 1974)

I wonder if every young girl goes through a horsey phase.  So many of my students (all girls) are horse crazy so it’s possibly not a generational thing. My horsey phase was around the age of 11 and involved every horsey book I could get my hands on.

One I managed to get my hands on (although I’m not sure where from) was A Stable For Jill by Ruby Ferguson. I read it over and over (and over) again.  It’s the story of a simple British girl growing up in the 1950’s whose life is centred around horses and the horsey world. Her mother is a children’s book writer and travels often so Jill tends to have a lot of freedom. As I was only 10, I didn’t really wonder where her parental supervision might be. In A Stable for Jill, Jill’s mother goes on a book tour of the United States and Jill is forced to spend the summer with her aunt and cousin, who are as far from horsey people as it’s possible to get. Jill resigns herself to a miserable summer without her pony, Black Boy, yet it only takes her a few days to make friends with the local vicarage children who are decidedly horsey people and the summer starts to look up.

What I love about Jill is that she’s full of ideas, hard-working and down to earth. The vicarage children are about to lose their horse, Ballerina, so Jill helps them start a riding stable so Ballerina can earn her own keep. As a ten year old I found Jill inspiring. Forty years later I still find her inspiring.

I loved reading about competitions and hunting, about grooming horses and pony treks. I was desperate for more Jill. I wanted to know how she had found Black Boy. The library had three of the other books in the series. Strangely enough they were books 4, 7 and 9. The internet didn’t exist and I had to guess at events in the other books. Until Santa bought me the complete set one wonderful Christmas. I think Santa has connections in England.

I’ve been having fun doing a bit of research about the treasured books from my childhood; and find it interesting how some of them have been “updated”. Jill’s pony, Black Boy was renamed Danny Boy in later editions, and of course all references to cigarette smoking had to be removed.   I’m not a fan of changes to original fiction, as I think a book should be experienced as an author originally intended. Books are a snapshot of their times just as painting music, yet there seems to be this constant worry of offending; but I digress. Definitely a post for anther day.

I immersed myself in all things horses from the ages of 11 to 13. I took lessons, went to summer camp and of course read everything I could get my hands. If only The Pony Book Encyclopedia had been around at the time. I probably would have worked my way through it from top to bottom.

So, am I crazy, or is there generally a horsey phase somewhere in every girl’s childhood.