Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

This is the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a tough kid with even tougher friends.  After Ponyboy’s parents die, he struggles to get along with his brothers, Sodapop and Darrell.  The Curtis boys are considered greasers, because they slick their hair and hang around with other juvenile delinquents.  The greasers in town are constantly fighting with the Socs, rich upper-class kids who seem to get everything they want.  When one of these battles turns deadly, Ponyboy and his best friend Johnny find themselves wanted for questioning, and they decide to run from the law.

One thing you should know about this book is that there is constant violence throughout the story.  The book is very controversial because of that, and it may not be an appropriate choice for younger readers.  Still, I have a lot of respect for the way that the author presents these violent acts.  Violence is simply an everyday part of Ponyboy’s daily life as a fourteen-year-old high school freshman from the wrong side of the tracks.  I think that the author meant to target readers of the same age group, since much of the violence takes place “offscreen” and it’s not overly gory.  Also, even though the characters are tough kids who curse constantly, there were no curse words actually written into the story!

This book is a shockingly realistic look at the pressures that young men face, so I was incredibly surprised to find out that the author is a female!  S.E. Hinton was a teenager when she wrote this book, and it was published by the time she graduated high school.  In an interview, she mentioned that her inspiration came when she realized how other people perceived her “greaser” friends to be juvenile delinquents!  What do you think people might say about your friends at school?  Do you feel like you’re a member of any certain groups or cliques?  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure books, by R.A. Montgomery, Edward Packard, and many others!

This is another series of “oldies-but-goodies” from my own childhood!  The Choose Your Own Adventure books feature awesome stories, and they’re written in a way that places the reader in the middle of the action like no other book could.  There were dozens of books in the original series, and I guarantee that any child of the 1980s has read at least one of them.  After a huge demand from readers, the series was continued into the 1990s and re-launched again in 2005.  With that many adventures to choose from and multiple endings for each one, the number of different stories you can read is literally endless!

Here’s how these books work:  as you start reading, you’re introduced as the main character and given a brief introduction to the setting and the plot.  After maybe 1 or 2 pages, you’ll be asked to make a decision about what you’d like to do next.  You’re then given 2 or 3 actions to choose from, each with a corresponding page number.  Once you’ve made your choice, you flip ahead and read about where your decisions have taken you!  It’s a completely different format from reading straight through a book, and what’s really cool is that as you move forward, your choices can lead to some drastically different conclusions.  Fair warning, though:  not all of the endings are happy ones!

The Choose Your Own Adventure books feature amazing illustrations and the “chapters” are amazingly short, sometimes less than a single page.  This makes them the perfect choice for reluctant readers or any kids who’d be more likely to pick up a video game controller before they pick up a book.  If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself reading the same book over and over, trying to discover all the possible endings.  One thing’s for sure, though:  once you pick up your first Choose Your Own Adventure book, you won’t be putting it down anytime soon!  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Card Turner, by Louis Sachar

Seventeen-year old Alton Richards is in an uncomfortable situation.  His free-spending parents have run out of money, and they’re counting on a huge inheritance to get out of debt.  Alton’s job is to get close to his grandfather, a rich but blind man with a passion for the game of bridge.  Alton quickly becomes much more than an extra set of hands to turn cards, and he ends up learning more about his grandfather than he could ever imagine.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise on this one, but I will say that this book is worth reading all the way through!  I didn’t see the ending coming, but I should have expected a few twists from an author like Mr. Sachar.  I especially like the way he gave a good deal of attention to Alton’s “everyday” troubles, like his relationship with his girlfriend.  This isn’t a particularly long book, but it’s very “thick” in terms of the character development.  I really enjoy these books where there’s not only an awesome story, but where you also end up caring about each individual character. 

In fact, my only complaint was that I don’t know how to play bridge, and so I couldn’t totally follow along with the sequences of cards as they were dealt.  Bridge isn’t nearly as popular as it was a few generations ago, which might be exactly why Mr. Sachar chose to base his story around the game.  It would take a new player a lot of effort to follow the excitement and strategy that comes with each hand, just like it took Alton a lot of time and effort to appreciate his grandfather.  Do you think that Mr. Sachar could be using the game of bridge as a symbol for Alton’s relationship with his grandfather?  Can you think of any games that could be used to portray the way that your family members interact?  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes

One of the neat things about this project is that it allows me the chance to re-read some of the classroom standards from my own childhood!  One of these books, Johnny Tremain, is about an apprentice silversmith working in colonial Boston.  Johnny is a cocky and prideful boy, but his career comes to a screeching halt when he burns his hand by accident.  While searching for a trade that he’ll be able to perform with his handicap, Johnny eventually becomes involved with the American Revolution.

My favorite part of this book was the way that historical characters like Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock played supporting roles in the story.  When we read about these men in History class, they often seem larger than life.  By writing them into a story that focuses primarily on Johnny’s fictional character, we’re allowed to take a much closer look at these men in their everyday lives.  At a few points in the book, I almost felt like I was traveling back in time to 1775!  It’s incredible to see Boston as it is right now, and still try to imagine how it must have looked under the occupation of a foreign army. 

The book concludes in April of 1776, just after the battles of Lexington and Concord.  I found it interesting that the author chose to end Johnny’s story just as the much bigger story of the Revolutionary War was beginning.  We’re left to wonder about what happened to Johnny—did he become a soldier, or continue supporting the Revolution in any way?  Ms. Forbes left a lot of questions unanswered, but I think she did this on purpose.   Johnny’s fictional story is a way of paying tribute to the thousands of young men who lived and fought during that era, even though history has forgotten them. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders, by Geoff Herbach

Gabe “Chunk” Johnson is a self-professed band geek.  His biggest problem is a struggle with his weight, and it’s a constant battle for him to drink fewer than four bottles of Code Red Mountain Dew each day.  Gabe’s world gets thrown upside-down when he learns that the proceeds from his favorite vending machine, which had been used in the past to support a summer camp for his school band, will now be used to pay for a professional dancer to coach the cheerleading squad!  Gabe refuses to stay quiet about this new injustice, and he organizes a protest campaign that quickly spirals out of control.

This book is an awesome read, although I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone under the age of 16 since it touches on themes like vandalism, sexuality, and alcohol abuse.  To be fair, though, these things are probably everyday occurrences at any public high school in America.  None of these elements are overly graphic, and I appreciated the way that the author uses them to develop his story.  By the end of the book, I had the chance to examine these characters’ life circumstances in great detail.  It would have been easy to dislike the cheerleaders because they have such a successful outward appearance, for example, but often people have their own struggles which aren’t as visible as Gabe’s obesity.

I really enjoyed this book, since it allowed me a chance to root for an underdog.  Gabe Johnston might not be the most attractive person in his school, and it’d be easy to pass him by without a second thought.  If you did, though, you’d be missing out on the chance to meet a funny, friendly, resourceful kid who’s clearly a force to be reckoned with!  Even if people like Gabe seem to take pride in labeling themselves as “freaks, geeks, or burners”, you’d be missing out on a lot if you passed up on a chance to get to know them!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald

“The Great Brain” is the first in a series of seven books set in Utah, just before the year 1900.  This was also one of my favorite books when I was in school, so it was awesome that I got to read it again for a review on this blog.  The narrator, John, shares stories about his older brother Tom, who claims to be the smartest kid in town.  Even though I’d imagine that these stories probably have some fiction in them, Mr. Fitzgerald presents them as his true-to-life memoirs.

I love reading about different historical eras, and I’d imagine that story-telling was a popular pastime in the days before radio and television.  Young John begins the book with a story about how his family was the first in town to have an indoor flushing toilet installed in their home.  The neighbors came from miles around to see this wonder, and Tom’s great brain came up with the idea of charging admission.  Despite John’s worst fears, the toilet didn’t explode!  The house didn’t stink or flood over, either.

Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t shy away from some of the hard realities of life on the frontier, which often included religious conflicts between Mormons and other faiths.  Alcohol abuse, missing children, a suicide attempt, and other mature subjects are also part of John and Tom’s daily lives.  On re-reading this book, it occurred to me that it almost might be more appropriate for young adults rather than middle-grade readers.  Still, Mr. Fitzgerald presents these issues very matter-of-factly, and I think his intent was to show his readers the obstacles that a normal ten-year-old boy like John would have faced.

“The Great Brain” is one of the few books that I’d say all boys absolutely must read, but it’s appropriate for readers of any age who enjoy adventure stories and problem solving!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rocket Man, by Jan L. Coates

As an unremarkable eight-grade student and the middle child in a busy family, Bob “the Blob” Prescott feels almost like he’s turned into Mr. Invisible.  Even when Bob’s out on the court playing the game that he loves, he’s constantly overshadowed by the basketball legends of his father and his older brother James.  When Bob finally earns himself a backup spot on the Division 1 team, his accomplishments just don’t seem to matter much in comparison to his Dad’s long battle with cancer.  At the height of the basketball season, Bob’s put to the ultimate test when he agrees to design a charity basketball game in order to raise money for cancer research.  Will he be able to succeed in the spotlight, or is Bob doomed to remain “Mr. Invisible” forever?

One thing that I really enjoyed about “Rocket Man” is how the book relies very heavily on the sport of basketball as a setting, but the actual story itself is about the relationships between the characters.  This is not a book about basketball, even though the sport is something that has always served to bring Bob, his father and his brother closer together.   Whenever the Prescott men have to deal with things that are kind of difficult to talk about, they use pick-up games of basketball as a way to bond without having to say a single word.  In the same way, using the sport of basketball as a setting for a strong, emotional narrative is a great way to draw in a reading audience of young men.  There’s some very cool storytelling going on here, guys!

There’s no way that I’m going to give away the ending in this review, but I really appreciated the way the author kind of left things open.   There are very few things in life that we can really be certain, so I appreciated the “realistic” feeling that the book left me with.  We’re all going to face different kinds of challenges, but what really matters is how we respond to them.  Bob might not be able to do a whole lot about his Dad’s fight with cancer, but he is doing everything within his power to be supportive and strong.  Sometimes, even when a set of circumstances might be completely beyond your control, it’s still possible to make an impact in a way that you never could have imagined…