Welcome to my blog. I often think I was born with a book in my hand. I have always enjoyed reading, but more importantly, talking about books. This blog is partially about reviews, but is really a forum to talk about what I'm reading, and express all of the thoughts and feelings that there simply isn't room for in a professional review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favourite books as you follow my reading journey.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Observe No Name Calling Week with Addie on the Inside

12-year-old Addie Carle is the only girl in her group of friends. She is smart, outspoken and opinionated, and maybe just a tad obnoxious. As seventh grade progresses, Addie's tough exterior becomes just a little difficult to maintain, and she starts questioning everything about herself.  Told in accessible verse, James Howe perfectly captures the inner turmoil of a girl who just doesn't quite fit in, and how she faces the pain of growing up.

Ten years ago, James Howe published a groundbreaking book called The Misfits. Set in a town called Shaker Falls, the book focuses on a group of four friends- Addie, Bobby, Skeezie and Joe, who for various reasons are slightly on the outside. Tired of the bullying and the name calling in school, the gang decides to challenge the popular kids for a seat on Student Council running on the platform of "No Name Calling", hoping to wipe out name calling and taunting in their school. The book was the inspiration for No Name Calling Week, which is observed across the U.S. and Canada. A few years later, he returned with Totally Joe, told from Joe's point of view, and this past fall, followed up with Addie on the Inside, told from Addie's point of view.

Addie is not like the other girls. She's smart and speaks her mind. She's tall, flat-chested and hangs out mostly with guys, which results in frequent teasing from her classmates. Her boyfriend DuShawn is black, which makes the black girls hate her, and he's popular, which leads to whispers about what he could possibly see in her. DuShawn also doesn't help matters when he seems to always be telling her that she's too...a lot of things. Added to the mix is Becca, who was Addie's friend when they were little and before she moved away, but has since returned and become a queen bee, who does that thing that girls that age do by offering Addie "helpful" advice on her appearance, clothes, etc... and spreads rumours behind her back.

In some ways, Addie is lucky. She has supportive parents who love her, and an extremely close relationship with her grandmother, who encourages her to be herself and be comfortable in her own skin. So many kids don't have that kind of support, and even if they do, it's not enough. Too many kids like Addie end up committing suicide, one of whom- Phoebe Prince, is mentioned in one of the poems. Addie is stronger than that, but she's still extremely vulnerable and confused. On the one hand, she longs to fit in, and on the other, she wants nothing to do with these silly girls who seem to start every sentence with "Like, Omigod". I particularly loved the poem "The Omigod Chorus" which exemplifies just how silly they sound.

Addie however refuses to be a victim. Never shy about standing up for what she believes in (she founded the Gay/Lesbian/Straight Alliance in her school in support of her gay best friend Joe) she arrives at school one day with duct tape over her mouth, and a card explaining that she will not speak for an entire day in protest of all of the name calling that occurs in her school. This action is met with mixed reactions from the teachers and students, but Addie is steadfast and doesn't give in easily. Addie is every girl. She's a mix of anguish,courage, vulnerability,  toughness, and confusion, and all she really wants is to be allowed to be who she is.The messages in this book are universal, and if they make a difference to even one kid whose been bullied or bullies, then I'd call that a good start.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Scrawl: The Compelling Story of a Bully

Tod Munn is a bully. Times are tough, but Tod is tougher. Only now the wimps have stopped coughing up their money, the administration is cracking down, and Tod and his buddies got caught doing something really bad. Now he's being forced to sit in the hot detention room with Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance councilor, every day until she tells him he's done. Tod isn't sure why he's there and not suspended or outside raking leaves with his buddies, but Mrs. Woodrow does, and she's not telling. As punishment, Tod has to write his story in a beat-up notebook. Can this bad guy be redeemed? Read Scrawl and decide for yourself.

Written in a journal format addressed to Mrs. Woodrow, readers will have to dig deeper for the kind of information that is generally revealed in a diary or a first person narrative. There is no introductory paragraph that reveals Tod's age, grade or even his appearance, but by reading between the lines of both his entries and Mrs. Woodrow's comments back to him, a lot of important details are revealed. We learn that the school (and Tod's home) are likely in an inner city. The kids have to pass through metal detectors on their way in and out, and armed security guards police the school. We also learn that there are the "haves", and "have nots", and that Tod definitely falls into the latter category. Perhaps the biggest secret/surprise that readers will figure out is that Tod is extremely smart and is a gifted writer. He gets good grades in school (and especially English) but tries not to let on to the other kids that he's smart for fear of tarnishing his reputation as a tough guy.

I absolutely fell in love with Tod (and not in a romantic way) and his character is so rich and deeply layered that you will absolutely be pulled into his story. Yes he is a bully, but he believes it's the only way he can get what he needs. He is also extremely vulnerable, and that vulnerability comes out in entries that are both funny and brutally honest. Everybody thinks that they've got Tod figured out. They think he's a thug and criminal and they all treat him accordingly. Tod will tell you til kingdom come that this is just how he likes it, but his scrawl says something different. What Tod desperately wants is for someone to believe in him, and even if he doesn't say it outright, it becomes painfully honest as you go deeper into his notebook.

So what was the cataclysmic event that put Tod one step away from Juvie? You'll have to read it to find out.  Recommended for Grade 7 and up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Playground: A Raw and Honest Read for Middle Grade

13-year-old Butterball hasn't got a lot going for him. He's teased about his weight, he hates the Long Island suburb his mom moved them to, and he wishes he could live in the city with his dad.  And now Butterball is stuck talking to a therapist named Liz, who somehow makes him talk about things that he didn't think he would ever confess- especially not to a stupid white lady who doesn't understand. As truths are revealed about what led to the playground incident, Butterball starts to consider why he bullies, and what kind of person he wants to be.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I really loved this book! Inspired by his own adolescence, and written with his fourteen-year-old son in mind, 50 Cent has written a powerful story of bullying and redemption. Told in Butterball's voice, it is authentic, raw, and honest, and he's an amazingly sympathetic character. Don't get me wrong- the book does not excuse his behaviour, but Butterball believes that he has good reasons to do what he's doing, and I could completely understand where he was coming from.

Butterball is an angry kid, and for good reason. The brief glimpses of Butterball's father reveal a lot about where his attitude come from, and you can't help feeling heartbroken for him. Butterball's relationship with his mother is also difficult. She works all of the time and doesn't talk to him, and there's a lot he doesn't understand so he draws his own conclusions and lashes out. He is virtually friendless at school, and the boys he's hooking up with are bullies themselves. They push him to do things he innately knows are wrong, but at the same time, he doesn't want to look like a coward.

Thankfully, Butterball's a kid who can still be redeemed, and who wants redemption, whether he realizes it or not. Despite his complaints about his mandated sessions with Liz, she is probably the only person who has ever met him without judgement, and she guides him, rather than pushes him, to a deeper self-awareness.

Butterball does swear liberally throughout the text, but it's in context for the character, but don't let that deter you from reading and discussing it. It's gritty, but it's real, and is perfect for kids who are a bit too young for Walter Dean Myers but are craving those kinds of stories.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Moon Over Manifest: A Captivating Middle-Grade Read

Twelve-year-old Abeline Tucker feels abandoned when her father puts her on a train to Manifest to spend the summer with an old friend. Armed with her few treasured possessions and a list of universals, she jumps off the train in Manifest, hoping to learn about the boy her father was. At first, Manifest seems like a boring, old, dried up town, but all of that changes when she discovers a cigar box of mementos that lead her and her new friends Lettie and Ruthanne, on a real spy hunt. Their hunt sends Abeline down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a visit to Miss Saidie- a diviner who tells stories of the past. Abeline soon discovers that the town is full of shadowy figures and long-buried secrets. As Manifest's secrets are revealed one by one, Abeline begins to discover her own story, woven into the fabric of the town.

When this quiet little book came seemingly out of nowhere last year to win the Newbery Medal, I immediately added it to my reading pile, anxious to see what the fuss was all about. There it sat for about a year as other, higher priority books climbed to the top of the stack. After hearing its praises sung by some of our Middle Grade Lit Chat participants, I impulsively moved it back to the top of the pile and decided that I'd better read it before the 2012 Newbery winner is announced in a few weeks!

Having finished it just minutes ago, I now wonder why I didn't read it sooner. It's a wonderful and rich story that just pushes its way into your consciousness and doesn't let go. I absolutely fell in love with the town and its characters, and the author really brought them to life.

The novel is structured as a story within a story, and readers will feel like they are sitting right alongside Abeline as she tells her stories. While it isn't immediately obvious how the past ties to the present (which being historical fiction is also the past), the way everything comes together will delight and surprise you.

As Sadie reaches the end of her story, Adeline comes to an important realization. Sadie has told her that the line between truth and myth is difficult to see, and Abeline starts to wonder whether or not all of the stories were myths that have nothing to do with her. At that moment, she has a choice. She knows she could walk out and be done, or she can stay and see it through no matter how it ends. She chooses to stay, but it was never really a choice. The people in the stories were real. They were people that she'd come to know and to care about (whether they were living or not), and they were a part of her. They, as she put it, had welcomed her into their world, and now, the only way she could give back was by being faithful to the story no matter how it ended. This is the power of books, and I know we've all read a story or two that made us feel that way, (Little Women anyone?) but somehow as readers we steel our courage and read to the last word, even when we know that our hearts might be broken.

 This is a beautifully written, and beautifully told story, and it reminds us of something important and often forgotten: History is made up of stories, and these stories are full of living, breathing people and places. Abeline hoped to learn something about her father's childhood, but she learned so much more than that. She learned how the past can shape the present and make us who we are. How we can be inspired and devastated by it at the same time, and how an entire town can be brought together by love and loss.