Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't You Hate It When . . . ?

Potential Spoilers for Bruce Coville's Unicorn Chronicles
Don’t you just hate it when you come to the end of a good book only to discover it’s not the end? It’s one thing if you know you are reading a book that is part of a series. It’s quite another thing if you didn’t know this or if you were under the impression the book you were reading was going to wrap everything up.

This happened to me recently with a Bruce Coville book. Let me say right now, I love Bruce Coville’s books. I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve read. And I love his Full Cast Audio productions. However, if he’d been within slapping distance last week, I probably would have slapped him. When I first started working on my MLS one of the first classes I took was a class in children’s literature. That year Bruce Coville was the keynote speaker at the USM Children’s Book Festival and we are all assigned several of his books to read. I started The Unicorn Chronicles and absolutely loved them. The Unicorn Chronicles is the story of Cara Dianna Hunter who is a human child descended from the queen of the unicorns, Amelia Flickerfoot, also known as the Wander or Ivy Morris when in human form. Cara and the unicorns, along with a host of other creatures are involved with a dispute with Beloved (from who Cara is also descended), a centuries old woman who hates unicorns. Beloved established The Hunters in order to hunt unicorns into oblivion. Cara’s adventures take her from earth to Luster, the land of the unicorns.

Of course, when I started the series there were only two books. And it’s been a long wait for book three, Dark Whispers. Somewhere along the way I got it in my head that this third book would wrap up the story all nice and neat. Can’t think why I had that impression. As I’ve looked back over the notices I had read about the release of this new book, nothing indicated that it was the end of the story. I guess it was just wishful thinking on my part – not because I am tired of the story line – far from it – but maybe because I wanted the characters to reach closure. I like the characters. I want them to have a happy ending. But, I guess that’s a story for another time. I wasn’t expecting a cliff hanger, hence why I would have slapped Bruce if he’d been close. (I exaggerate; I’m not really the violent type.) At least, since I was listening to the story on audio while driving, I wasn’t able to toss the book across the room in frustration and run the risk of hitting an innocent bystander. (I’ve been known to toss a book or two – if really moved one way or the other.) I do have to admit that Coville wrote a great cliff hanger.

The good thing is that my son, Ryan, who only heard bits and pieces of the story, asked me to get him a copy of the first book. Now he’s looking forward to reading the whole series.

So, what cliffhangers really drove you over the edge?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Based on the Book

Well, I did it again. I set myself up for disappointment. I went to a movie based on a book I really .loved. There’s a reason my husband is reluctant to see a movie with me if it’s based on a book I’ve read. He says it’s too difficult to hear the movie over the grinding of my teeth.

The movie was Twilight, based on the book and series of the same name by Stephenie Meyer. Meyer has created one of the most intense, yet rather chaste love stories for young adults that I have ever read. Her story reaches right out from the pages and grabs the reader forcefully and doesn’t let go – even once you’ve reached the end. You can’t wait for the next book. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a vampire love story? Ann Rice and Bram Stroker – move aside.

Meyer has created the ultimate vampire: brooding and sensitive and a vegetarian to boot (only drinks animal blood – not human blood.) Sounds like it would make an excellent movie doesn’t it? Well, in theory it should. There’s a lot of discussion about the movie. Some have loved it. Some were not moved by it at all. Some are devastated at the way it departs from the book. I don’t want to get intoa long discussion about whether or not it was a good movie – at least not yet. I can’t trust my own judgment. I don’t know if I would have liked it if I had not read the book. (Of course, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see the movie if I had not read the book.) Maybe I would have had a different reaction if I was 25 years younger. Whatever my true reaction, I have to agree with one of the posters on one of my library listservs who summed it up pretty well when she said they did the best they could with a small budget and only two hours. I guess if they had included everything in the book and gave it all the treatment it deserved, then we’d have had to have an intermission like in Gone With the Wind –but today’s society doesn’t have time or patience to sit through a movie that long.

What I want to discuss today is whether or not bookworms should even bother watching a movie based on a book. Are we just setting ourselves up for disappointment? And why do we keep doing it? I know the movie is not likely to live up to the book, yet I find myself compelled to see the movie anyway.
I think I might have a handle on the problem. Teachers often tell their students to make mind movies when they are reading or listening to a book. One person’s mind movie is not the same as another’s. The relationship between an author, the book and the reader is an intimate one. On that is not always easy to share with others. Each reader has a different relationship with the book. When that relationship has been a satisfying one, we want it to continue. A movie is just another way for that to happen.

Sometimes, I think Hollywood should just leave books alone. They should just suck it up and come up with their own ideas. However, if they followed that rule, there are some great movies we would have missed. Sometimes the differences between the movie and the book are not bothersome (i.e. the Harry Potter Movies, Gone With The Wind, and Because of Winn Dixie to name a few). At other times, the movie is better than the book. (i.e. The Wizard of Oz and The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.)

Here are few book based movies that I really enjoyed:
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Wizard of Oz
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (the original animated version)
Because of Winn Dixie
The Notebook
Gone With The Wind
The Fellowship of the Ring series
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Ten Little Indians (based on a book by Agatha Christie)
The DaVinci Code
The Polar Express

And here are few book based movies that made me want to throw my popcorn at the screen:

A Series of Unfortunate Events
The Spiderwick Chronicles
Bridge to Terabithia
The Other Boleyn Girl
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the Johnny Depp version)
Freaky Friday
Primary Colors
A Time To Kill
The Chamber
Interview with a Vampire

As much as I would like to spare myself the disappointment, I know that if I enjoy the book, I’m going to go see the movie. I guess I’m willing to take the chance that it will be one of those that either lives up to the book or is good in its own right.

Now, should you go see Twilight? Sure --- but only if you do not plan on reading any of the books. Otherwise, go get the book and create a mind movie.

So what are you reading or watching these days? Let me know.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

America's White Table

America’s White Table by Margot Theis Raven and Mike Benny

The White Table is set in many mess halls as a symbol for and remembrance to service members fallen, missing, or held captive in the line of duty. It is also seen at many military banquets and balls. Solitary and solemn, it is the table where no one will ever sit.
As a military wife of almost seventeen years, I have seen many White Tables at many functions. They always give me a moment of pause, but their symbolism really hit home when I read Raven’s and Benny’s America’s White Table. We were all planning for our Veteran’s Day lessons. Our school district is not closed on Veteran’s Day (which took some getting used to after having worked in a Department of Defense school for many years), but each school is required to do lessons centered around Veteran’s Day.

One of the teachers mentioned she was looking for a copy of this book. She wanted to share it with her students. I had never read the book, but I am grateful she brought it to my attention. Even though the classrooms were all doing various activities for Veterans Day, I decided the library could help with those plans by setting up a White Table in the library. Raven and Benny paint a wonderful story with their words and the illustrations, but sometimes, adults and children alike, need to be able to see and touch something to get its full meaning.

America’s White Table is a beautifully written and illustrated book that explains this touching memorial to our military in words that children can understand. Adults will also be moved by this book. I, myself, can’t read it without crying. (So much for being the tough Army wife.)
This is an excellent book to use for Veterans Day or Memorial Day. It is also a great gift for military families. I’m not only adding it to my school’s collection, but my personal collection as well.

If you would like to set up your own white table here are directions that I found at http://www.veteranscaucus.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=47

Materials Needed: Small Table with an Empty Chair
White Table Cloth, Black Napkin
Glass (turned over), White Candle
Lemon Slice and Grains of Salt on a Plate
One Place Setting: fork, spoon, and knife
A Red Rose in a vase tied with a Red Ribbon

The table honors the men and women who served in America’s Armed Forces

“We cover a small table with a white cloth to honor a soldier’s pure heart when he answers his country’s call to duty.”

“We place a lemon slice and grains of salt on a plate to show a captive soldier’s bitter fate and tears of families waiting for loved ones to return.”

“We push an empty chair to the table for the missing soldiers who are not here.”

“We lay a black napkin for the sorrow of captivity, and turn over a glass for the meal that won’t be eaten.”

“We place a white candle for peace and finally, a red rose in a vase tied with a red ribbon for the hope that all our missing will return someday.”

"You are not forgotten so long as there is one left in whom your memory remains"

So, what book or books have really moved you?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Happy Veteran's Day

If you can read, you should thank a teacher. If you enjoy the freedom to learn and develop your own ideas, not just those approved by the government - if you enjoy the freedom of going to any library (for free) and checking out a book on any topic you choose - if you are an author/journalist/news anchor/columnist/TV talk show host who enjoys the freedom of stating your own beliefs and ideas (ask Salman Rushdie what it is like to not have that freedom) - then you should thank a Veteran.

Have a great day and we'll talk later about some good Veteran's Day books.

What are you free to read?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Have you ever run across a character that just seemed to be too good to be true? In the cynical world we live it is sometimes hard to suspend disbelief when we encounter a character as good as Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. What keeps us from being total cynics is that there is a part of us that wishes there were people (especially teens) as good as Spinelli’s character.
One reviewer described Stargirl as a supernatural teen. That seems about right. She is certainly not what most of us would consider to be a typical teen. Having been home schooled most of her life, Stargirl appears one day out of the blue at Mica High School. She is so far from the norm as to seem to have come from another planet. She doesn’t care about fashion or other types of conformity. But, she does care about people. She serenades students with her ukulele on their birthday. She sends cards, places flowers on their desks, celebrates their successes and mourns their losses. She cheers for everyone.

At first her fellow students react to her with awe. They are eager to see what she will do next and some of her even begins to rub off on them. However, teens are not made to be able to accept things that are too different. They may talk about wanting to have their own identity and wanting to not be part of the crowd, but deep down they really do not want to stand out – to draw attention to themselves. This is the downfall of Stargirl’s boyfriend, Leo. Stargirl’s uniqueness goes beyond what the other students can accept when she begins to cheer for the opposing basketball teams. She doesn’t understand why everyone is upset. She’s everyone’s cheerleader. But when the school’s undefeated season comes to an end in the playoffs everyone blames Stargirl. This is when you begin to see true teenage behavior. The other student’s treatment of Stargirl is quite brutal. Leo loves Stargirl, but he wants her to be “normal.” Stargirl is being shunned by the school and as her boyfriend, so is Leo. Leo just can’t cope.
Stargirl loves Leo, so she tries to be what he wants. This attempt is doomed from the beginning. It does not matter if she follows the “norms” if the other kids won’t accept her. The reader can almost physically feel the sadness and disappointment Stargirl feels when her attempts to be normal do not change the way the others feel. She’s convinced the other kids will come around. It’s almost a physical relief when she decides to be true to herself and go back to being Stargirl.
Spinelli ends the story with what could be seen as a triumph for Stargirl and a great regret for Leo. No, I’m not going to tell you – you’ve got to read it for yourself. Those who have enjoyed Spinelli’s other works, particularly, Maniac Magee, will enjoy this book as well. He’s a master storyteller.

I listened to this book on audio (get used to it – I listen to a lot on audio). The reader was John Ritter, one of my favorite actors. In the beginning I found his voice distracting because I was getting sentimental about the loss of his great talent a few years ago. But somewhere along the way, Ritter’s ability to become the character of Leo and Spinelli’s wonderful story took over and I was able to finish the book easily.

What are you reading?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I Was A Rat!

No, I wasn’t really a rat, though I’m sure there are some misguided people out there who would disagree. I Was A Rat is a quick fun read by Philip Pullman, author of The Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass, etc.) It answers the question, “What happened to Cinderella’s coachmen and pages after the clock struck midnight?” Told with tongue in cheek humor the story takes us through the adventures of Roger who was a rat and now finds himself a boy. It is suggested that he missed being turned back into a boy at midnight because he was not where he was supposed to be (just like a typical kid) – he was off playing soccer with the palace page boys. At one point, he admits that being a rat was easier, (there are so many things to know about being a good boy), but despite all the misadventures he has before the resolution of the story, he knows that if he’d gone back to being a rat, he would have missed being a boy. Roger’s lack of knowledge about what it means to be a boy gets him into some serious trouble and he finds that the townspeople are only too eager to turn him into a monster. Things get pretty scary there for a while, but in the end the fairy princess saves the day. If you like altered (some might say fractured) fairy tales, give this one a try.

I picked this book up because I’m on a committee to pick two new titles for our Battle of the Books list. This is one of the recommended titles. I told someone it had been on my list to read anyway, but like so many other titles; I had just not made it to it before now. The truth is that it was not really on my official to read list – not the one where I write it down and then mark it off when I’ve read it. It was on my peripheral to read list. That’s the one where the titles sort of float around in my head. I keep seeing them on the shelves either at the library or the book store or they are mentioned in articles or what not. I don’t consciously plan to read them. Then one day all of a sudden it’s as though they stop floating around in my head and drop down on to the top of my list. That’s one reason I am now listening to Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl and have put myself on the holds list for Love, Stargirl. (And one more argument for listening to books on audio – my sons will often request that I get them a print copy of whatever I’m listening to – because they have heard just enough of the story to want to read the whole thing. Chances are if I recommend a book, they are hesitant to read it. Who wants Mom’s recommendation? However if they just happened to hear snippets of a good book on audio, they don’t see it as reading a book Mom recommended and so are more willing to read it. Who knew audio books could serve as a reader’s advisory tool?)
So, do you have a peripheral reading list? And if you do – what’s on it. Let me know.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

To Read or To Listen - That's the Question

Over the weekend I posted a blog about Tony Abbott’s The Postcard. I was surprised to receive a response. I think an author that takes the time communicate with his readers is a true treasure. Most of the time we can only guess about the person who created the stories we read. I find my students sometimes have trouble making the connection that authors are real people, because they never see or hear for them. (That’s an argument for setting up author visits at your school.)

Back on topic. Mr. Abbott made some very valid points in support of his book. After some time has passed I will try the book again – this time reading it. I often recommend Abbott’s The Secrets of Droon series to my younger readers and I really enjoyed Firegirl (look for a future blog on that book). For now I want to address a point he made. Abbott says “Listening to the book is absolutely not the same as reading it on the page, especially in the case of The Postcard.” He is absolutely right and it brings up an argument I hear from time to time. Listening to a book on audio does not count as reading a book. My dear sweet husband has actually made that statement to me. Mr. Abbott is right, my husband - not so much.
As far as I’m concerned and I know many educators who will agree, listening to a book on audio does count. Try telling a seeing impaired reader that their listening to the book does not count as reading it. What about children who struggle so much with reading comprehension because for whatever reason, reading is so difficult, but totally get it when they listen to the book? Audio books are a great way to keep them to keep them “reading.” What about the book nut who has way too many books to read and not enough time to read them? Or what about the person who considers much of what you hear on the radio these days to be drivel and would rather listen to a book on CD on long trips?

It’s important to keep in mind one thing when deciding between reading a book and listening to it on audio. Mr. Abbott is right. Listening is not the same as reading. If you miss something important while listening to a book, it is not that easy to go back and find it. With a book in hand you can simply turn back the pages. With a book on audio, you have to search back through tracks – not always easy while driving down a busy highway.
I’ve always felt two readers can read the same book and come away with something different. When you read you create a mind movie and you are in charge of casting and set design. Reading a book is an intimate experience between the writer and the reader. Each brings something to the experience. When you listen to a book on audio, you add another person to the mix and they bring something to the experience as well.

Sometimes, listening to a book on audio may be the only way to “read” a book. I’ve talked before about how sometimes when a book is moving too slowly, listening to it can help you make it to the end. But, sometimes, listening to a book on audio can ruin the experience. The reader’s voice or choices of tone and inflection can turn off a listener. For example: I love the Murder She Wrote books by Donald Bain. A few months ago, none of the local libraries had a print version of the latest book. They only had audio. I could not get past the first few tracks, because the reader’s voice grated on my nerves so much. Of course there are times when the opposite is true. The reader’s voice, tone and inflection can bring something valuable to the experience. I have yet to find an audio book done by Bruce Coville’s Full Cast Audio that I haven’t fully enjoyed. However, even a great voice can be distracting. I’m currently listening to Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. It is one of the books that have been on my list for a long time and I just hadn’t been able to sit down with it. I’m enjoying it, but I have to admit that I am sometimes distracted by the reader – John Ritter. It’s a fine job, but if I’m not careful, I drift off into nostalgia - thinking of how sad it is that he is no longer around.
As usual, I’ve run on and on. What can I say? Most of the time, I’m too hesitant to say anything, but get me started talking about books and I just can’t seem to shut up.

Here are few audio books that I found to be a good experience – that is if you can’t find the time to sit down with the actual book.

Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Series (The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass and The Subtle Knife)
Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Series (I actually read Eragon and listened to Eldest)
Philipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl
Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember series (The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood and The Diamond of Darkhold).
Tony Abbott’s Firegirl

So if you have a book you’re struggling with give the audio version a try. And vice versa – if a book just doesn’t seem right on audio – add it to your to READ list. Or . . . since life is too short, find another book.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Postcard by Tony Abbott

Have you ever read a book that you thought was a good story, but you felt the author just didn’t do his best writing? That’s how I felt about The Postcard by Tony Abbott. It was a mystery. I absolutely love mysteries and it was a young adult novel – two of my favorite genres rolled into one. It should have been a great read (or listen) for me. My dilemma is that I’m not sure how much of how I feel about the writing is due to my own thoughts on the writing or due to my having briefly scanned a review on Amazon. Here’s a portion of the review on Amazon (which originally appeared in Kirkus) “Author of the endless Secrets of Droon series, Abbott has created a silly, overlong mystery full of conclusion-jumping and nonsensical clues. The characters are annoying (even to each other) and the supposedly compelling mystery Jason finds is a florid, turgid mess. (Fiction. 11-13) (Kirkus Reviews).”

I would not have even read this review if I had not been checking Amazon for a recommended grade level for the book. (Ages 9 -12) The Postcard was an impulse buy from our recent Book Fair. Based on the brief summary on the dust jacket it seemed like a good match for our collection. I managed to get an audio copy from the public library so I could preview before putting it out on the shelves. I like to know as much as possible out the books so I don’t look totally lame to the students. What sent me to searching for the age level was the fact that we learn early on that Jason’s grandmother was never married and had a child out of wedlock. Jason’s dad does not even know who is father was/is. Pretty tame stuff compared to what appears in many books today, but keep in mind, I work in an elementary school. It’s important to not only be aware of what my students enjoy reading, but how their parents may feel about what they read.

There are no hot, torrid love scenes. Chances are the young people who do read it won’t even blink an eye at the thought of an unwed mother. The focus of the mystery centers around on just who was Jason’s grandfather and why was his great-grandfather so set against his daughter being with him. There’s a lot in this story to grab a reader’s attention: mobsters, mystery, and kids searching for clues and hunting down the real story, circus characters and war heroes. Though I did not find the characters annoying, I do have to admit the story was somewhat of a mess. I kept finding myself distracted. There is a story inside the story, which did make things confusing. Time did not seem to flow in a sensible manner. It was sometimes hard to keep track of all the characters. Not exactly the best writing. But . . . it passed the page test (or audio track test). I kept going. Maybe Abbott could have done a better job on the writing, but he did do at least succeed in one area: he created a mystery that I as the reader (listener), wanted to solve. So I finished the book. I just wish I could make up my mind if my thoughts on the writing were truly my own and not influenced by the review. Will I book talk it to my students? Probably not. Oh, I’ll put it out on the shelf, but I think it’s one better left for them to find on their own.

So what are you reading or listening to?