Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Silver Lining

The wind is whipping the tree branches around as if they are rag dolls, as the rain ceaselessly assails my windows. The temperature is less than fifty degrees and there are only a few adventurous souls on the street. I find it difficult to believe that it will be the first of June in two days, and practically unimaginable that summer vacation begins in six days. Because surely this is March. Oh, but wait, this is Chicago. Duh! So, like you, reader, I looked for and found the silver lining in one of those clouds, accepting Mother Nature's dramatic cancellation of all outdoor activities as my personal invitation to read all day. But I'm taking a break to share a couple more books with you. Summer storms aren't unheard of, and you'll need something to read. You're welcome!

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, Puffin Books, $6.99, ages 9-13

I rarely re-read books (more on that in another post) but I've read Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel several times since first stumbling upon it in the Ruby F. Carver Elementary School library in Richmond, Virginia when I was in fourth grade with Miss Lampkin (see my first post for more on Miss Lampkin). The book chronicles the life of a refugee family during a dark, tense time in world history from the perspective of nine year-old Anna. The story begins in Berlin in 1933, where posters of Hitler, with his Charlie Chaplin mustache, are everywhere. Anna and her twelve year-old brother Max are too busy being kids to pay attention to the upcoming elections (which Hitler is poised to win), but their father, a well-known anti-Nazi writer, knows that, as Jews, he and his family won't be safe in Germany when Hitler's in power. Anna awakes one morning to find dear Papa gone, with Mama explaining that the rest of the family will soon secretly join him in Switzerland. And thus their almost-three-year-long odyssey begins. I keep coming back to the book because Anna, a young writer herself, is always optimistic, no matter how dire the situation. In one passage, Kerr has Anna thinking "It seemed rather fine and adventurous to be a refugee, to have no home and not to know where one was going to live. Perhaps at a pinch it might even count as a difficult childhood like the ones in Gunther's books and she would end up being famous." She's a little self-centered, but who of us as children wasn't. Anna is also steadfastly intrepid and she finds herself in many stranger-in-a-strange-land situations. One of my favorites is when a red-haired boy and his friends (Anna is in Switzerland now) follow Anna home from school and begin throwing gravel at her and chanting "An-na! An-na!" Mama intervenes and later Max explains, "It's what they do here...when they're in love with anyone they throw things at them." Anna looks at events in her immediate world in a matter-of-fact way and this creates some of the funniest and scariest moments in this life-affirming novel. This is a must-read for historical fiction lovers, as well as family saga lovers. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a modern classic that I hope you read, and read again.

In an earlier post I declared that I want to read EVERYTHING. I need to clarify that statement. I generally want to read EVERYTHING that's FICTION. I don't read much non-fiction, and when I do, I prefer narrative non-fiction because these books deliver their non-fiction in the form of a story. So, it feels like I'm reading a novel and I'm learning a bunch of cool facts! I also don't read many graphic novels because blah, blah, point is that I can't believe that I read and enjoyed this next book!

This is the fourth book in Hale's Hazardous Tales series and it's the story of World War I told in graphic novel form. HUH??!! I know what you're thinking. How can he reduce the horrors of the Great War to a comic book? Well, Hale doesn't reduce anything, especially the horrors. The hazard level indicator on the back of the book assigns TTMB a hazard level of green, for dire, and warns that the book contains, among other atrocities, assassination, bombing, bayoneting, flamethrowers, guts, machine guns, trench warfare, and tanks. Obviously Hale had to include all this because he's telling the true story of a violent moment in American history. Actually, Hale the author has Captain Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War hero/spy executed by the British, tell the story of WWI, along with his Hangman and a British Provost. These three narrators provide unexpected (and much-needed) comic relief and are the "storytellers" in each book in the series. Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a rich, vivid overview of what was called the War to End All Wars, from its complicated beginnings when an archduke is assassinated in 1914, to the deafening cacophony of booming shells in France's Argonne Forest at 11:00 on November 11, 1918. It's important to mention that one troop, the 33rd Prairie Division from Illinois, feature prominently in a particularly grim final scene. And, because in the beginning the Hangman finds the tale "the most boring story in the universe!", our narrator Nathan Hale reluctantly agrees to make all the major players in this retelling of the conflict "cute little animals." And, of course the United States of America is represented by the bunny. WHAT!? I guess a bald eagle isn't cute enough. 
This is number four in the series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. I just found out that the fifth book in the series is the story of Harriet Tubman. I can't wait!!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

So Much (Summer) Time and So Many Books to Read

As busy as I am all summer traveling, visiting with family, taking a class here and there, engaging in professional development opportunities at Park View, and thinking about how to make the upcoming school year even better for my new third graders, I am reading all the time. All. The. Time. I have alarmingly tall piles of books waiting to be read this summer stacked precariously in more than one room at home. I don't imagine I'll read them all, and it's so much fun pretending that I will.

Here are two books I hope you will add to your own wobbly stacks of summer reads...

What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark, Little Brown, $7.00, ages 9-13

Some of you might remember that I pretty much insisted you use crayons when illustrating your work. I still insist and I won't go into all my reasons why I prefer them, but now I can add that a crayon might just save the world one day. In fact, in this very wacky science fiction caper, a zucchini-colored one from a limited-edition box of crayons called Victory Garden helps the outcast heroes foil an evil billionaire's attempt to take over the world using cell phones and junk food. River, Fiona, and Freak ( an orphan, a color-blind science geek, and the son of an angry, down-on-his-luck father ) live in the town of Cheshire, in houses surrounding Hellsboro, an enormous patch of off-limits, toxic land which occasionally glows with the light of subterranean fires. One Tuesday these 12 year-olds discover a sofa a few feet down the block from their bus stop. The arrival of this seemingly innocuous piece of furniture launches the three friends on a high-stakes adventure to save the world from invading interstellar storm troopers.

The word play and puns in this book are plentiful and spot-on. The message, about the importance of curiosity, is vital. The technology is AWESOME! Flash mob scenes where the participants sing Broadway show tunes ( It's mind control, people!) are hilarious. And this sentence from the book cracks me up: "Freak risked his life every time he went to the library" There are plenty of libraries around in which you can find this book. Take a risk!

The gifted booksellers at bbgb bookstore in Richmond, Virginia thrust this book into my hands with such enthusiasm it nearly knocked me over. And it turns out The Glass Sentence nearly knocked me over, too, it's that powerful. In the summer of 1799, the Great Disruption unfastens the continents from time, sending them spinning freely in different directions, each piece of the world flung into a different age, from prehistory to the far future.  In 1891 Boston, now part of New Occident, renowned cartographer Shadrack Elli is kidnapped. His rescue, and the FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD, are in the hands of his 13 year-old niece, Sophia Tims, whose parents disappeared 8 years earlier on a mysteriously urgent mission. Unfortunately for Sophia, the local government, brimming with xenophobia, has just closed the borders of New Occident, potentially frustrating any search efforts for her uncle, and leaving her fearful that her parents now might never come home.  To top things off, Sophia has no internal clock (she has learned to compensate) and this mortifies her since she comes from a family "famous for its sense of time and direction." Armed with everything her uncle has been teaching her, and accompanied by Theo, an unreliable refugee from the Baldlands in the west, Sophia finds herself caught in adventures both thrilling and terrifying, in worlds she could never have imagined. 
Can you lose more than things? Can you lose emotions? Can you lose your past? And what sort of maps would you need to find them? This big book poses big questions!
The world-building undertaken by S.E. Grove in The Glass Sentence, the first volume in her Mapmakers trilogy, is astonishing, and Sophia Tims is a hero for the ages. 

In addition to the stacks of books waiting to be read, I've got stacks of books waiting to be written about for A Bald Guy with a Book. Yay! One stack is two books shorter. Now go read!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Who is this bald guy and what book is he talking about?

If I was your third grade teacher at Park View, you know how much I love to read. If someone else was your third grade teacher, well, you need to know, I love to read. Books have nourished me, supported me, and taken me on adventures my entire life. My mom began sharing stories with my sister and me when we were very young. She read aloud to us every night and two special books were Charlotte's Web and The Secret Garden, stories that we happily heard over and over. When I could read on my own, I became a big fan of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, and Encyclopedia Brown. In fifth grade my friend Stacy and I challenged each other to read all of the books in the series The Childhood of Famous Americans, short biographies of American presidents, explorers, inventors, writers, and athletes, just to name a few. The old-fashioned covers didn't do justice to the books' ability to transport me to eventful and exciting times in American history. And I hadn't even heard of some of these "famous" Americans, so our challenge taught me a lot.

As a teacher, reading aloud is what I love the most, and I shared many favorite stories with you, my former students, because, let's face it, everyone needs nourishment, support and a whole lot of adventure.

Reading for pleasure remains an enormous part of my life. I probably spend way too much money on books, but they're difficult to resist. And I love visiting independent bookstores around Chicago and across the country, and I can't leave without buying a book...or two...or, well, you get the point. I mostly read new fiction for adults and poetry. And I also keep up with as many new books for kids and young adults as I can. I'm talking about books for fourth graders and up. I'm still sharing great read aloud classics with the third graders I teach, and now with my blog A Bald Guy with a Book, I want to share the new books I've been reading with former students and other Park View readers and book lovers. So let the adventures begin.

we were liars by e. lockhart, delacorte press, $17.99, ages 13 and up

A popular sub-genre in adult fiction right now is the suspense story told by an unreliable narrator, with a shocking! surprise! twist revealed mid-way through or at the end of the story. Think Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. You can experience the pleasurable feeling of uncertainty created by an unreliable narrator and the pulse-quickening jolt to your system a surprise twist delivers right now with we were liars. Cadence (Cady) Sinclair Eastman tells this dark tale of a family torn apart by tragedy and the horrible accident that destroys the bonds between a group of friends. These are rich, prominent, beautiful people. The story takes place on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts and evokes the type of life I imagine the extended family members of the late President John Kennedy lead in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.  How do we endure after devastating tragedy? Do our family mythologies support or crush us? we were liars is a page-turner. Don't miss it!

The Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson, Random House, $16.99, ages 11-14
This was my FAVORITE book of 2014 and this book stinks. It's filled with the stench of muck, fire, smoke, sugarcane, decay, death, zombies, the Everglades, vultures, crows, rabbits, and long-buried secrets. 12-year old Charlie Reynolds moves with his family to the middle-of-nowhere Florida and stumbles upon a CRAZY world hidden in the depths of the sugarcane fields. This is ancient crazy. The weirdness of the plot hooked me at once. Wilson's absolutely stunning writing brings it to rich, full life. At times the prose is so emotional I felt like I was having a sensory experience. This is a book about small-town southern life. This is a book about football ( I hate football and did I mention this was my FAVORITE book of 2014). This is a book about fathers and sons and overcoming and righting mistakes, both your own and a family member's. It's a book about friendships and new family connections. Oh, and in all the onslaught and devastation, there is humor. Charlie is funny, even when he's scared and running for his life. 

Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume, Random House, $16.99, ages 10-13

Julianna, one of the amazing booksellers at bbgb books in Richmond, Virginia personally recommended this book to me. I told you I always buy books on my travels (practical and otherwise) across the country, especially books that a trusted book-lover recommends. Julianna knows I love books that take place in New York City, and a significant part of Julia and the Art of Practical Travel takes place in Greenwich Village, just about the coolest neighborhood in NYC. It's 1968 and 11 year-old Julia Lancaster and her Aunt Constance take to the road in search of Julia's long-lost mother. Julia brings her treasured Brownie camera and documents their stops in New Orleans, Texas, Nevada, and San Francisco. They meet some peculiar characters on their cross-country journey, including a voodoo queen and the sheriff of Gold Point, Nevada (population: 1). Can you be practical when your whole your family is gone?  How do you know when you've found your home? Some folks say it's the journey, not the destination, that matters. Find out for yourself in this quirky, heart-felt novel.

I'd like to pause for moment and share a big problem that I have. I want to read EVERYTHING and I want to read it RIGHT NOW. Whew. It felt good to get that off my chest. 


Greenglass House by Kate Milford, Clarion Books, $17.99, ages 10-14

The back and front covers of this book are so awesome that I included a picture of both. Greenglass House is a smugglers' inn sitting high atop Whilforber Hill, overlooking an inlet of harbors connected to the Skidwrack River. The inn is owned by and the residence of Nora and Ben Pine and their adopted Chinese son, 12 year-old Milo. It's winter and the beginning of the holiday season and Milo is looking forward to relaxing at home with his family on his school break. Historically the inn is quiet during the winter, but suddenly guests are arriving like clockwork (and the weather is terrible) and any chance of quiet family time vanishes. And these aren't just any guests; they're a quirky ( I love this word) and secretive bunch, all of whom are searching for something in Greenglass House. Pretty soon things are disappearing and the guests are barely speaking to each other. And the winter weather just keeps getting worse. 

Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter, decide it's up to them to figure out who's who and what's what in this glorious, compelling mystery/ghost story. As he discovers more about each guest and Greenglass House, Milo also discovers a confidence he thought he lacked and talents he is surprised he has. He is a real hero, and on his journey Milo comes to terms with being adopted and learns and embraces more about his Chinese heritage. 

The setting of the entire book is Greenglass House. There are a finite number of characters. A wicked winter storm rages outside, trapping everyone in the inn. I feared that I might feel trapped in the book after awhile. Well, I can assure you that this is something you need not fear! Milford skillfully provides each of the guests with the opportunity to tell the story of their connection to the inn. Their tales are colorful threads that when woven together create a rich narrative tapestry. One day you might read Agatha Christie's mystery And Then There Were None. In fact, if you haven't already read it, do so. Greenglass House is reminiscent of Christie's classic whodunnit. Kate Milford has written other books and I want to read them all. Of course I do!

And Then There Were None has also been made into a movie, several times. It's also known as Ten Little Indians. The 1940-something version is quite clever and fun. 

You're wondering what I read when I was your age. 

If you're a writer, you need to read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, 
 If you plan on being a writer, you need to read Harriet the Spy. If you love New York City...yup, you do, too. Ages 11-14

All the books ( Half Magic is the first and there are seven in the series) by Edward Eager are witty, full of adventure and written by a guy who understood that kids are as smart as adults. Ages 10-12

Mrs. Pace, my sixth grade teacher, read The Phantom Tollbooth aloud to us. It's about another Milo. It's about words and numbers and puzzles. It's smart. It's a classic. Go read it right now! 
Ages 11-14

Okay, you CANNOT read Love Story by Erich Segal.  Just because Miss Lampkin, my fourth grade teacher, gave me a copy at the end of fourth grade (What was she thinking?! It was her first year teaching; she didn't know any better), you cannot read this book because no fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade or any grade teacher at Park View is going to give you a copy. I had to sit a few yards away from my parents in our backyard, hunched over this book, swiftly turning the pages, yelling "Nothing! I'm not reading anything, Mom!" 

You shouldn't read The Other by Thomas Tryon either. At least a teacher didn't give this book to me. And remember, I'm just sharing what I read when I was your age. When I was young I really loved scary books. If you love scary books then read this when you are not this young. 

As a boy, I used to retreat up to our attic to dig around in two large metal storage bins filled with my mom's mass-market paperback novels. She read all the time and rarely discarded any of her books. I was too young to read her books then, and we eventually got rid of them. Now I'm semi-obsessed with visiting used bookstores and rummage sales to track down copies of as many of those books (in their original paperback edition) as I can. And, yes, I've found some of them!

Okay. Back to business.

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Disney Hyperion, $7.99, ages 10-14
I have not read any of the several books in Stroud's The Bartimaeus Books, and The Screaming Staircase is the first in his new series, Lockwood and Co. I can tell you right now that I want to read each book in this new series! I can also tell you that it took me longer than usual to read The Screaming Staircase. I could put the book aside and pick up something else to read, but each time I came back to The Screaming Staircase I immediately fell under the spell Stroud has created. In an alternative, and richly specific, London (another favorite city of mine) a nasty, malicious Problem plagues the good citizens. Ghosts! A whole bunch of disturbed and decidedly unfriendly ghosts! So, who ya gonna call? Lockwood and Co. 
The story is told from the perspective of teen-aged Lucy Carlyle, recently arrived in London and newly hired by Lockwood and Co., one of many psychic investigation agencies established in response to the Problem. Young people are the ONLY ones equipped with the psychic abilities needed to see, hear, sense, and obliterate the supernatural foes. Lucy's boss is teen-aged Anthony Lockwood, he of the "very bright, dark eyes, and...nice lopsided grin", and research-oriented, sarcastic, chubby and somewhat slovenly George Cubbins rounds out the firm's agents. 
When one of  Lockwood and Co.'s assignments ends disastrously, jeopardizing the agency's very existence, Lucy, Lockwood, and George are compelled to investigate one of England's most notoriously haunted houses. One of the cool things about this book is that our heroes operate without any adult supervision. They are smart, brave, dedicated and funny. 
Be prepared for a final hundred or so pages brimming with grisly, horrific chills and a nearly unbearable level of suspense. 
And remember, a cup of good tea matters the most. 
This book trailer nearly does justice to the spookiness of the novel. 

This is only the first post of my blog A Bald Guy with a Book. If you read it, or any of the books I've written about, I'd love to hear from you. Also, you can let me know what you're reading and recommending. I'll be back. Now I've got to go read.