Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

On September 15, 1963, a bomb went off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Four girls were killed in this bombing—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.  Right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, these names are but four names of many who were killed because of racism and prejudice.  The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, is not a book about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, or even a book that revolves around racism and prejudice.  Instead it is a book about family and growing up in our world 60 years ago.

 The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (Published 1995) introduces us to the Watson family living in Flint, Michigan. Our narrator, Kenny Watson, is the middle child.  His older brother, Byron, has “just turned thirteen so he was officially a teenage juvenile delinquent”(p.2)  His little sister Joetta, better known as Joey, is a blubbering mess whenever she isn’t telling on somebody.  His momma was transported from her hometown of Birmingham to Michigan, and so naturally her biggest fear is her children instantly freezing to death outside.  And Kenny’s dad brings the family together with his jokes and sternness.  I think it’s important for you to meet the family and know something about them first, because this is a story about family.

            Kenny is a 10-year-old fourth grader that has two things wrong with him.  If it weren’t for his brother Byron, he’d get teased a lot more than he does because he has a lazy eye and he loves to read.  One day in second grade, the teacher makes Kenny go to the fifth grade class and read Langston Hughes.  Instead of teasing him or punching him afterwards, Byron tells Kenny, “At least you oughta make ‘em pay you for doin’ that mess.  If it was me they’d be coming’ out they pockets with some foldin’ money every time they took me around”(p.25).  Byron is not simply Kenny’s savior, however, and he spends a great deal of the story hitting or teasing his brother.  Throughout the story, we follow Kenny and his family.  Much of the story revolves around Byron and all of the trouble he gets himself into.  Eventually, Kenny’s parents decide that they have had enough of his Byron’s antics and they are going to make him go stay with his grandmother down in Birmingham, Alabama.  While in Alabama, the Watsons become witness to a tragedy of American history.

            This story won a Newbery Honor in 1996.  Obviously, an entire committee got together and decided it was one of the best books of the year (interestingly, it lost that year to another historical fiction novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice).  I remember reading this book when I was younger and loving it. I’m leaving the book feeling very unsettled though.  I’m not sure I like it because I just feel like I’m left hurt without Christopher Paul Curtis doing anything to help that hurt.  The word “unsettled” keeps popping into my mind, and I will try my best to explain why.

            In one scene in the novel, a boy named Larry Dunn steals Kenny’s gloves.  Larry Dunn is a bully who shoves snow into kids’ faces, and so we really want this kid to have some repercussions for his actions.  Kenny tells Byron what happened, and this is a huge mistake.  At first, I was so happy that Byron goes to get the gloves back, and I loved how he was sticking up for his brother.  But it’s not a happy scene.  Instead of Byron just getting the gloves back, he beats up Larry Dunn.  A crowd forms, and nobody tries to stop Byron from beating up Larry.  The line that gets me most, though, is the one that says, “When Byron jerked his arms over his head like that we all could see that Larry’s skinny little windbreaker was ripped under both arms and Larry just had on a T-shirt underneath it”(p.61).  It is the middle of winter in Michigan, and this poor boy has nothing but a t-shirt and a windbreaker on.  Moreover, what is probably his only jacket is not ruined.  We don’t really run into Larry Dunn much again, and we aren’t given more information on his home life, but I think from that one line we can see why Larry Dunn was a little bit of a bully.  I can see why this scene was included, to show Byron’s weird way of sticking up for his brother that just goes too far, but I wish it had been further developed.  Could there not be some kindness extended to Larry in this book? 

            Another character that leaves me unsettled is Rufus.  Rufus comes from the south, and Kenny feels like Rufus is Kenny’s savior in that now people will have someone else to pick on.  Rufus is from the south, and from his very first “H’iya, y’all!” Kenny knows that his prayers have been answered.  Soon, though, Rufus becomes his friend.  On the first day of school, Rufus forgets his lunch and Kenny shares.  We know something is up, though, when Kenny says, “I know he didn’t think I noticed, but the big kid [Rufus] gave his little brother the other half of my sandwich.  I guess both of them had forgot about lunch”(p.36).  People soon begin to make fun of Rufus and his brother when they realize that he and his brother don’t have much clothes.  This unsettles me so much because I think of kids that I have seen, and the kids that are going around like this every day.  So many children don’t have enough clothes or enough food to eat.  Do I think it is an important issue that has a welcome place in children’s literature?  Absolutely.  It’s just that, like Larry Dunn, my heart hurts for Rufus and his brother and there is nothing else about it in the book.  One of my least favorite parts of the book is when Kenny laughs at Rufus one day when everyone else is making fun of him.  Rufus stops being Kenny’s friend.  What really gets to me is not that Kenny laughed, but that in the end it was not even Kenny who fixed things.  Kenny’s mom goes to talk to Rufus, and later that evening, Rufus shows up at Kenny’s house.  I wanted Kenny to take ownership of what he did and fix things all on his own.

            The most unsettling part for me is the abusive nature of the parents.  Yes, I am going to go ahead and say abusive.  In the book, Byron is constantly lighting matches.  His mother keeps threatening that she will burn him the next time that he lights a match.  Well, next time comes and we are given this horrific scene where, were it not for Joetta, Byron would have been burned.  The worst part is that the mother manipulates Joey into agreeing that she should burn him!  She says, “Don’t you remember, sweetheart?  Don’t you remember when this happened last week I swore to God that if Byron did it again I would burn him?  What do you think, do you think I should break my word to God?”(p.72).  Joetta agrees that she should not break her promise and tells her mom to go ahead and burn him.  I know that this book is set sixty years ago when child-rearing was different, but I don’t think that makes it okay. 

            Byron doesn’t end up getting burned that day, but he does get beat by his father later that evening.  We are supposed to be okay with this because at least he didn’t get burned.  When Byron goes and gets a “conk,” a hip hairdo in the 1960s, he knows he is in trouble.  The mother tells him, “Well, Daddy Cool, you enjoy your Mexican-style hair while you can, ‘cause I’m sure when your daddy gets through with you you won’t be enjoying too much of anything, and cool is the one thing you won’t be feeling”(p.89).  Byron goes to his room where he waits in dread for his father to come home and presumably beat him.  Although he doesn’t beat him, it is obvious that this is the expected solution.  I just have such a problem with this.  I can distinctly remember the fear of knowing that you are going to get spanked, beaten, whatever, at some point in the future.  Children shouldn’t be that afraid of their parents—afraid that they are going to beat them, burn them, or do whatever else to them.  I am so unsettled by all of this because I have the feeling that at the end of this story we are supposed to love Kenny’s mother and father.  They do great things for their children in the story, but this abuse overshadows it all for me.  I can’t shake the feeling that I would be afraid of them if they were my own parents.

            Before the story begins, there is a page that states “In memory of…” and then lists the four girls who died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  Keeping that in mind, we know that this event must be coming somewhere in the book.  The bombing does not happen until the last 30 pages.  In a trance-like state, Kenny goes into the church afterwards and is completely traumatized.  His traumatization in the last 30 pages is another unsettling for me.  His parents are worried about him, but of course they don’t really do much to help him.  In the end, it is Byron who holds him and lets him cry and helps to make everything okay.  I just think that 30 pages to deal with something like a bombing and its aftermath makes everything too rushed.  I can’t believe that he was able to deal with a trauma like that in such a short amount of time.  It tipped me over the edge to not liking this book.

            Overall, I think the book has good qualities too it, but in a way I am actually afraid to just come out and say that I don’t like it.  If you are going to give me a story with poverty, bullying, and abuse, I need there to be something more to it.  I’m so unsettled because the parents are abusive, but we are supposed to like them.  Rufus and Larry are poor, and we are just supposed to deal with.  Kenny is absolutely traumatized, and we are supposed to believe that he is just able to snap out of it.  I don’t feel like all of the issues in this book were dealt with in a way that makes it hopeful for a child who is going through any of these issues.  I know that many people are going to disagree with me about my thoughts on this book, but I’m ready for it.  After reading around on Amazon and the internet, it seems I am the only one who has this issue with the story.  Anyone else?
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

"The Infinity Ring"

                I should start off by saying that the book I’m reviewing, The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time honestly didn’t stand a chance.  This book, written by The Maze Runner author James Dashner, is a story about time travel.  A couple months ago, I read All Our Yesterdays, another time travel story with the same save-the-world mentality of The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time.  It was phenomenal: unique and exciting and unpredictable.  This book possesses very few of those qualities, but I think my attitude towards this book has been greatly influenced by the other book I read and loved.

   The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time (Published 2012) is yet another series published by Scholastic (like Boris on the Move and I Survived).  At the beginning of this novel, we are presented with a world that is like ours, but something is just off.  It is the world that we know, but there are distinct differences.  Philadelphia is the nation’s capital, some President named McClellan has his face on Mt. Rushmore, there’s a Benedict Arnold Middle School, and some brothers named Amancio actually discovered America.  Our main characters, Dak and Sera, are geniuses living in this world.  Dak is a history genius who often interrupts people at public functions to give historical facts.  Sera is a science genius who has been studying string theory and quantum mechanics since she was four.

                The world that Dak and Sera are living in is different, but it is by no means benign.  After the prologue introducing us to the main characters, the first chapter is one called “The Only Hope” that introduces us to two people named Brint and Mari.  We learn that, “Time had gone wrong—this is what the Hystorians believed.  And if things were beyond fixing now, there was only one hope left… to go back in time and fix the past instead”(p.5).  With this statement, we are given the central premise of the entire series—time has broken, the world is falling apart, and someone has to go back in time and fix it.  We very soon learn that our “someones” are going to be Dak and Sera.  Dak’s parents are scientists, and he and Sera sneak into their lab.  Sera finds a device that Dak’s parents are working on called The Infinity Ring, discovers it is a time travelling device, and then actually makes it work.  Sera, Dak and his parents go on one trip back in time together, but on their way back to the present, Dak’s parents are lost.  Dak and Sera are captured by the Hystorians who tell them that they need their help to go back in time to fix the past.  Dak, Sera, and an Hystorian named Riq find themselves in Spain in 1492, where they have to somehow fix what went wrong in history.

                Normally my summaries of a book are a paragraph.  I try to keep them short and to the point, encompassing everything in the novel without giving it away.  I realize that on this book, though, the majority of my summary talks about the beginning of the book—the world building that James Dashner does in the present.  By p.87 out of 190, Riq, Dak, and Sera are back in time.  I think this is because that part of the book is just so much better than the rest of it.  When I picked up this book, I thought I would only feel like it was okay.  About 50 pages into it, I found myself really enjoying the world that James Dashner had given us.  In this world, there is a group called the “SQ” that is running everything—the government, the schools.   Think of a kind of Big Brother scenario, where you have to watch what you say and do. We never learn what SQ stands for (my personal guess is Status Quo, but I’m sure I’m wrong), but we do learn about what they do.  On a school field trip, Sera gets annoyed because her teacher is tripping over himself to try and please an SQ official.  She says, “It was ridiculous to her that they should thank the SQ for not closing down a public building.  As if anything they did could make up for the way they bullied the governments of the world.  Not that she should expect her teacher to grow a backbone when even the President of the United States was eating out of the SQ’s hand”(p.16).  We get the feel that the SQ is bad very early in the novel.

                The most unique part about this book is the idea of the Remnants.  Brint gives us our first glimpse when he says in chapter one, “There were also the Remnants.  Every day when Brint when home and looked at the picture that hung above the fireplace—he and his wife sitting by a river, the sun glinting off the water behind them—he felt a disorienting twist in his head and stomach.  A gnawing gap in his mind that made him extremely uncomfortable.  Someone—at least one someone—was missing from that photo”(p.5).  In this world, everyone has Remnants.  For some it is a sense of déjà vu, but for others it is something much deeper.  One day, Sera has a Remnant that forces her to go stand in front of a barn.  She is left with this overwhelming sense that two people, who she knows must be her parents, are supposed to be walking out of that door.

                All these Remnants are because of “Breaks” in history.  “Breaks” are those moments when things go differently than how they were supposed to go, like how Christopher Columbus did not discover America in this story.  We’re explained that time is going like a stream, and that these breaks are like boulders in the stream.  Time can go around these boulders and keep going to the destination it was meant to go, but it has to take a different path.  The Remnants are remainders for how time was supposed to go.  They are glimpses into what was supposed to happen, but what got changed due to the “Breaks.”

                I haven’t talked much about them going back in time because it honestly wasn’t very interesting to me.  Their first job is to fix the “Break” that happened when the Amancio brothers threw Christopher Columbus overboard and discovered America instead.  I was hoping that it would be full of history and the same kind of excitement the first half of the book had, but it was pretty predictable.  I’m sure you can guess now, without even reading the book, how it gets solved.  There is a pretty interesting scene, though, where Dak is somehow able to wield a sword against a grown man.  I’m still trying to visualize that one in my head!  What really frustrates me, though, is the way that the story ended after the boring foray into 1492.  I can’t ruin it here, but let’s just say that it sucked me right back into the story, and I will probably have to read the second one now.

                The Infinity Ring series is like The 39 Clues in that Scholastic has asked different famous authors (Carrie Ryan wrote the second one, and I adored her The Forest of Hands and Teeth sequence) to write the story.  I see some good to this, but I mostly think where it can go disastrously wrong.  From what I can understand, the point of having so many different authors write a series is that you can get each book out very quickly.  The first book came out on August 28, 2012, and the eighth book will be released on July 29 of this year.  All books are still in hardcover edition, unless you order it out of Scholastic.  When you put out a book every few months, you can keep the momentum going.  While one author is finishing up a book, another author can be working on the next one in the series.  I just think, though, that in the end it isn’t going to be worth it.  Every author has a vision for a book, and every author should have their own writing style.  When you’re mixing all these different visions and styles, can you really have a cohesive whole?  Shouldn’t we treat kids like real readers who have to wait an entire year for the next book in a series comes out?  (I’m just joking here.  Years of waiting for books to be released has made me bitter.)  I’m just not convinced that doing this is the best idea.  I can see, though, that if a middle-school reader (and I do feel this book is made for middle schoolers) is in love with this book, it is nice that they only have to wait a few months.  If I had a kid who loved them, I’d be begging Scholastic to put them out more quickly.

                Overall, the book was okay.  It had promise to be better than what it was, and I am definitely going to give Carrie Ryan a chance to impress me with The Infinity Ring: Divide and Conquer.  If I were in middle school, I have a feeling I would think this book was the greatest thing in the world.  Have any of you read the story?  Do you share my same conflicted feelings?  More than anything, I really want to give this story to a kid in middle school and have them review it.   This could possibly the kind of book that is appreciated much more by the intended age than it is the mid-twenties lady who is reviewing it!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Top 10 Things on my Bookish Bucket List

Top Ten Tuesday is brought to you by the fabulous people over at TheBroke and The Bookish.  Each week they offer up a topic, and everyone is welcome to join.  So here is mine for this week—Top 10 Things on my Bookish Bucket List.  I've been slacking the past few weeks, so I need to hold myself to doing this every Tuesday!

1.    Read the books that win the Newbery Award and the Printz Award before they are announced!  I would love to know that I had read these two books before the committee selects them.  I think it would make me feel very up to date on my reading!

I will find you...
...and I will read you!


2.    Finish all of the series/trilogies that have been sitting on my shelf.  I still haven’t read the final installment to Cinder, Shatter Me, or Under the Never Sky.  The end to these series are just sitting on my shelf, staring at me.  And these are only the ones that I can immediately name—I’m sure there are so many more that I need to read!

3.    Read 117 books in one year.  My best year was reading 116 books, and I want to top that!

4.    Read Stephen King books like Under the Dome and 11/22/63.  They’re just so stinking long, and I know that I won’t have time for a very long time!

Why do you have so many pages?  Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?
5.    Visit the New York City Public Library.  I hear it is a must-see for every reader!

6.    Read the books that people have loaned me.  I am really bad in that a lot of people have loaned me books that I just haven’t gotten to read yet.  I want to, but there are so many other books that are always calling to me.

7.    Join a book club.  I’ve never actually been a part of one, and I think it would definitely be my kind of thing.

8.    Finish reading City of Lost Souls.  I started reading it in September, and I’m still only halfway through it.  I never do that with a book!

Calm down Clary, I'll get to you when I can.
9.    Actually write a story.  I have tons of word files and pages in my writer’s notebook where I have story ideas that I start.  Some of the pages and ideas I love and think are great, others I know are completely worthless.  I would like to somehow sit down and merge all of my thoughts into a coherent story that people other than my mother will read.

10.  Write a letter to a writer and receive one in return.  It would just be great to have something like that.  To know that someone you love and look up to has taken the time to write you back—that can’t be beat!

"The One and Only Ivan"

            I’m going to brag for a second.  It’s not a big thing to brag about, but I thought it was pretty awesome when it happened.  In 2013, when it was announced that Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan won the Newbery Award, I was stoked.  Why, you ask?  I was excited because it is the only time I have ever read the Newbery Award winner before it was announced.  I immediately wanted to tell everyone I knew that the book had won and that I had read it, but then I remembered that no one actually cared whether or not I had read it before.  Henceforth this self-congratulatory blog post introduction, where you learn that for a brief moment in time, Miss Weaver was all caught up on what was new and hip in the children’s literature world.

    The One and Only Ivan (Published 2012) by Katherine Applegate is a story about a gorilla named Ivan, told from his point of view.  Ivan has been living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 9,876 days—27 years.  He may not have grass, other gorillas, or any real freedom to speak of, but it’s not so bad.  As he puts it, “With enough time, you can get used to almost anything”(p.22).  After all, he has his elephant friend Stella, his dog friend Bob, and even a human friend, Julia.  Julia is an artist, like himself, and most of the time she is the only one who can recognize what Ivan is drawing (Is it really so hard to notice that it is a beetle, folks?)  All of this complacency about his surroundings changes, however, with the arrival of Ruby, a baby elephant.  Stella is dying, and she doesn’t want Ruby to have the life that she and Ivan are living.  Ivan makes Stella a promise that he will take care of Ruby, and we follow Ivan as he tries to use his ability to paint to help get Ruby to a zoo, which is, after all, “How humans make amends.”(p.64).

            Every story has its spark in reality, whether it be a dream, an experience, or a real-life event.  This story is based off of a real gorilla, and that just adds to the incredible aspect of this story.  The website for The One and Only Ivan tells the story of the real Ivan.  He really was taken as an infant from his home, where the female gorilla with him died on the way.  He lived in a human home until he became too “unmanageable.”  After that, he lived in the B & I Circus Store in Tacoma, Washington, for 27 years.  27 years.  This gorilla spent more time alone in a cage than I have been alive—it’s a sobering thought.  After protests following a National Geographic special entitled “The Urban Jungle”, he was finally transferred to a zoo.  Ivan died in August of last year, several months after his story won the Newbery Award.  I can’t help but think Katherine Applegate did a great job in removing herself as a writer to let the voice of this animal shine through.  My children and I read an article and watched a video about Ivan after we read the story together, and it remains one of their favorite stories from this year.

            Most of the books that win the Newbery Medal are typically for children who are in about middle school.  I feel that this book is definitely a book that could be understood and enjoyed by children in 4th and 5th grade.  As a matter of fact, it is actually a Virginia Reader’s Choice book for 4th and 5th grade this year.  So what goes into choosing a Newbery Award winner?  If you want to see all the criteria, you can visit the American Library Association’s(ALA) page on it.  I will highlight some of the key points that I think really apply to this story.  For starters, the Newbery Award is given each year, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”  But what makes it distinguished?  According to the ALA, committee members should consider the following: “interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; and appropriateness of style.”  Of all of these considerations, I feel that The One and Only Ivan’s greatest success is in its delineation of characters.

            I could write about how great all of the characters are, but some of you are already nodding off while you read this, so I will limit my talk to the two characters who most interested me: Mack and Ivan.  Reading this book immediately after I read and blogged about the I Survived book reminds me of something very important.  Children need books that are accessible to them on their level, and I feel that the plot and characters of I Survived are just that.  The characters in Ivan, however, are so much deeper and richer and it reminds me that our children also need exposure to these kinds of stories.  Also is too weak a word: our children desperately need exposure to stories with high literary quality.

            While reading Ivan’s story, I felt like it was him speaking.  I know that gorillas cannot write or speak, but if they could, I have a feeling it would be like this.  From the very beginning of the story, we are confronted with Ivan’s loneliness.  In the chapter entitled “hello” on the first page, Ivan says, “I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.  It’s not as easy as it looks.”  Throughout the story, the chapters are very short, reflecting Ivan’s desire to not overuse words.  He says that, “Humans waste words.  They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot”(p.2).  Ivan is not like this.  In fact, so much of Ivan’s character is in what he does not say, rather than what he does say to the reader.  Before Ruby shows up, Ivan refuses to remember what his life was like beforehand.  It is too painful, too much for him to remember.  When Ruby shows up, she breaks open something inside of him and for good or bad, he remembers his past.  He remembers how they shot his mother and then his father, cutting off their heads, arms, and legs.  He remembers how the hunters captured his sister and him, and that he somehow “knew that in order to live, I had to let my old life die”(p.129).  Ivan has spent 27 years of his life trying to act like he thinks he is supposed to act in the context of other humans, all the while forgetting about his true role as a silverback.

            Ivan’s character shifts when Ruby comes.  As mentioned before, he begins to remember the life that he wanted to forget.  More than that, however, is that he finally has something to fight for in Ruby.  He no longer sees his home in the mall as a “domain” but as the cage that it really is for him and the rest of the animals.  All he has is his painting, and he uses this to try and save Ruby.  Ivan was taken away from his home when he was just a boy and his father was the silverback, the leader of the clan.  When Ruby arrives, he finally has someone to protect.  My favorite scene of the whole novel is when Ivan presents the pictures to Julia and she does not understand what he is trying to say at first.  The Ivan before Ruby would have let it go, because he never got mad.  This Ivan, though, has to do something.  Ivan says, “Often, when visitors come to see me, they beat their hands against their puny chests, pretending to be me.  They pound away, soundless as the wet wings of a new butterfly.  The chest beating of a mad gorilla is not something you ever want to hear… A real chest beating sends the whole jungle running, as if the sky has broken open, as if men with guns are near”(p.207).  This is the first time in Ivan’s whole life when he has mustered the strength to be the silverback he was born to become.  Why, you ask?  As he says, “I can’t let Ruby be another One and Only”(p.206).  I have never loved a gorilla more, nor have I ever felt the presence of an author as little as I did when I read The One and Only Ivan.  When you can literally make yourself disappear from the text and let a talking gorilla become the writer, you know that there is something special on your hands.

            I debated whether or not to talk about Stella or Mack as the other character I chose to illustrate the wonderful job Katherine Applegate did with character development.  I chose Mack because he is the character with more layers to him.  Stella is sweet, wise, and kind, while Mack has character traits that seem at odds with one another.  You want to hate Mack.  In a way, you kind of have to hate him because he is the reason that Ivan has been locked in a cage for 27 years.  Yet, somehow, you don’t leave this novel thinking that Mack got what was coming to him.  You leave it feeling sorry for him.  Don’t get me wrong, this is the same man who does not want to pay for a vet to come visit Stella, the same man who carries a claw stick while training Ruby, and the same man who put Ivan in the mall in the first place.  There is more to him, though, than just those things. The first hint we get that Mack might be more three-dimensional is when he gives money to George.  After asking how George’s ailing wife is doing, “Mack starts to leave, then pauses.  He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a crumpled green bill, and presses it into George’s hand.  ‘Here… buy the kid some more crayons’”(p.50).  This doesn’t really go along with the Mack that we have known.  The Mack we know is a money-hungry, unsympathetic man.  In the end, though, what really gets me about Mack is his love for Ivan.  He makes so many wrong choices, but we know that he loves Ivan.  The night before Ivan leaves, Mack comes into Ivan’s domain and “the full moon falls on his sagging shoulders.  He seems smaller somehow”(p.254).  He pulls out a picture of Ivan from when Ivan was younger, and spends a minute reminiscing about the times they spent together.  Then, Mack says “’I’m going to miss you Ivan”(p.256) before leaving.  As it is through the whole story, this scene is told simplistically, but you are left with a weight on your shoulders that is not your own.  You find yourself carrying the burden of Mack, who has made all the wrong choices for so long and who is now paying the price for those choices.  That scene, my friends, is the difference between a children’s book and an award-winning children’s book.

I don’t often try things that I think I will fail at, and so I typically end up doing pretty well at things that I try.  It’s not something I’m proud of, this fear of failure, and that actually extends to my reading.  I don’t often talk about my theories unless I feel certain of them.  I’m trying to keep in my mind my children and the fact that I ask them to do things they aren’t comfortable with all time.  I have an idea about Ivan that I want to be brave and try out.  After all, that’s what Ivan did in the end, isn’t it?

My theory is that throughout the novel, Katherine Applegate purposefully sets up this dichotomy between animals and humans, only to continuously thwart it.  She wants us to see that humans and animals have a great deal in common, but that they are not the same and should not be treated as such.  For example, there is a line that comes up twice in the book when Ivan is describing his domain in the mall and then later when he sees a commercial.  Talking about the glass that separates them, he says, “The glass says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be”(p.14).  This separation between animal and human almost seems like it gives humans the right to treat them as mere animals unworthy of respect.  Of course, Katherine Applegate tears down this separation with lines like, “Growing up gorilla is just like any other kind of growing up.  You make mistakes.  You play.  You learn.  You do it all over again”(p. 127).  My theory is that Katherine Applegate shows us this separation, and then sameness, to instill in us that these creatures are different, be we owe them respect.  Gorillas should not be paraded around in baseball caps and taken to movie theaters. Instead, gorillas should be given the chance to live their lives like nature intended.

The One and Only Ivan is a book that deserves many more pages than what I can give it.  I know that I love a book when I feel like I can never do it justice in a blog post, not matter how many words I write about it.  This is a story about a gorilla, but like any good story, it is so much more than the words on the page.  It is a story about animals, humans, and humanity living up to its greatest capacity.  Your children deserve a story like this.
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

"I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863"

                There are more books about the Civil War than you could possibly count.  There are hundreds of books written about Abraham Lincoln alone.  Whenever a new book comes out, we need to carefully evaluate this book for many things—authenticity, accuracy, and especially when it’s a children’s book, accessibility.  After reading Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863, I feel that there are many winning qualities about this book, but that we must also be very careful.

  I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 (Published 2013) is an historical fiction novel that focuses on a young boy named Thomas.  He and his little sister, Birdie, are slaves in Virginia while the Civil War is happening.  One day men come to their plantation, and Birdie overhears them talking about selling Thomas to the south.  Thomas knows that they can’t be sold to the south like their friend Clem, because the farther south you go, the more backbreaking the labor.  Instead, he and Birdie run off and risk their chance for freedom.  After a scuffle with some union and rebel forces, where Thomas helps out the union men by a well-timed skunk, Birdie and Thomas join up with the union forces.  A man named Henry takes Thomas and Birdie under his wing, and they discover that not everyone supports slavery.  Staying with the union army, Birdie and Thomas find out that there are actually people who are fighting so that they don’t have to be slaves.  After staying with the army, their regiment gets orders to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they hear a big battle against the rebels is brewing.  In one of the bloodiest wars of the entire Civil War, Lauren Tarshis takes inside of 1863 to see who will survive the Battle of Gettysburg.

                I will say right now that this book will never win a Newbery Medal.  It is not a book of the highest literary merit, with deep and complex characters.  The plot was very easy to understand and extremely predictable.  All the characters are pretty one-dimensional, with the union men portrayed as the good guys and the rebels portrayed as the bad guys.  The one rebel soldier that Thomas encounters twice goes to him and say, “”Thought you were so smart!’ he growled. ‘I’ll show you how smart you are!’  He reached around and took his pistol from his belt”(p.56-57).  All of the characters are like this, with Thomas being a naïve, but smart young boy and Birdie as an innocent little girl that makes everyone smile.  There is one incident of real depth to the characters, and that is when Birdie gets kidnapped by a band of rebel forces.  They have their orders to march to Gettysburg, and Corporal Henry Green refuses to go after her. Of course, he eventually does, but it is good that Lauren Tarshis gave at least one character some kind of depth.

                Another thing that we need to be careful of is how authentically the Civil War is represented in this novel.  As mentioned before, there is not much depth to the characters.  I highly doubt that there were very many little boys and girls who ran away on their own in the middle of the day, with zero planning, who were able to have as fortunate an ending as Thomas and Birdie.  As far as the war is concerned, the northern army is good, while the southern army is bad.  I think that this is a serious flaw in the book.  Lauren Tarshis fails to show children in this story that the world is very rarely so black and white.  In war, there are good people on both sides.  During the Civil War, it was a time of us fighting our own countrymen, and there were many people who fought for the south that did not necessarily agree with slavery.  One thing that I did appreciate about Lauren Tarshis’s book was her notes at the end where she talks about the Battle of Gettysburg and says “There were thousands and thousands of dead bodies in the grass by the last day, each one someone’s son or husband or brother or best friend”(p.93).  In a world where children are already desensitized to violence, we need to make sure that the past is presented in a real, but appropriate way.

                Despite the fact that I think the characters were flat and history was not presented as well as it could have been, I still think that this is an appropriate book for children.  As a fourth grade teacher, I think that this book is actually perfect for my students.  Not only do we teach about the Civil War in Virginia Studies, but the readability of the text makes it very accessible to your average fourth-grade reader.  Historical fiction is a hard genre to get students excited about, and I really feel that this book could help them get excited about the genre.  For the readers in the middle-grade, sometimes the depth of character stories are lost to them.  Especially because this is a difficult genre, I think that Lauren Tarshis’s decision to keep the characters a little less complicated was a very good one.  I can also forgive her for not giving us every bit of information we might need or want to know about the Civil War.  As mentioned before, this is just one book of many about the Civil War.  We need to teach our children that historical fiction is not always completely accurate, and show them ways that they can supplement their historical fiction readings with nonfiction texts about the same subject.

                In addition to being a great book for students to read on their own, I think a teacher could easily use this book as a read-aloud or as a book in a guided reading group.  The end of each chapter leaves us with cliff-hangers that are perfect for predicting and discussing.  At the end of Chapter 3, when Birdie and Thomas have run away, the chapter ends with a man finding them and saying “’Come out now,’ another voice snarled. ‘Or we’ll shoot you’”(p.14).  What a perfect ending to talk about predicting!  You could easily talk about how you know that this is not a friendly man, because he has a pistol and he is snarling.  The children could discuss who they think the voice is and what they think he wants from them.  Almost every chapter ends with a great talking point for you and your students.
            The I Survived series is published by Scholastic, so you know that they have some great resources to go alone with the series.  If you go to their website for the series, there is a quiz that you can take to see how good you are at surviving.  Apparently, after taking the quiz, I am a survivor.  Along with the quiz, you can also read excerpts from the book and find out true information that accompanies each of the books in the series.  A great resource to keep on hand!

                This book is just one in a series of eight I Survived books.  Each of the stories is an historical fiction story centered on a real event.  She has books on things like the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the attack on September 11, 2001.  It is very smart that she has written historical fiction books where some of the events took place while the children were alive.  I think it helps to ground children in reality when they see that these are books about things that actually took place in the past and that they might even vaguely remember some of the things that they are reading about.  A great kick-off point for our children might be to read one of the books aloud to them so that their interest would be piqued.

                Overall, like with many books, I support this book with caution.  We have got to be smart about what our children read.  I’ll never forget when, after reading an historical fiction book to my children about Jamestown, they all thought that it was nonfiction.  Despite having talked a lot about the elements of the story, they assumed that because it was based on true events, everything about the story was true.  We have to do a lot of modeling and scaffolding for our children for historical fiction novels, and I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 is no different.
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