Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Even though he’s a goofy-looking kid with a history of medical issues, socially awkward Arnold “Junior” Spirit still shows a lot of promise.  He’s one of the best students at his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he’s also a talented cartoonist and basketball player.  As Junior starts to become aware of the dead-end lives that his fellow Indians are living “on the rez”, he comes to realize that in order to have a future he’s going to have to get out.  Enrolling in the “white school” across town is an extremely unpopular decision with his friends and neighbors, but it’s a choice he has to make.  It’s tough to imagine how Junior’s life could get any harder…until, of course, it does.

This is a raw, honest book that doesn’t pull any punches.  I appreciated the way that Mr. Alexie was very blunt in discussing Junior’s struggles, both as an adolescent and as a Native American growing up in poverty.  I don’t know very much about the culture of American Indians, so it was awesome to get a sneak peek inside a modern-day reservation.  Mr. Alexie was brutally honest in his portrayal of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including descriptions of alcoholism and domestic violence.  “The Rez” came across as a sad, desperate kind of place, and it’s easy to see why Junior would work so hard to get out.

This novel seemed like a short read, but that might just be because it’s such a page-turner.  The outstanding illustrations by Ellen Fortney were both hilarious and heartfelt as well.  It’s important to note that several school districts have banned this book because of some graphic content, but I didn’t feel like it was anything that would be unfamiliar to today’s teenagers.  What really bothered me was that the supposed “objectionable content” involved normal issues from Junior’s adolescence, and hardly anyone seemed to be bothered by the tragic circumstances of everyday life on the reservation!  This is just my personal opinion here, but maybe people who haven’t actually read this book are getting upset about the wrong things!  In any case, this was one of the best modern young adult novels that I’ve read since starting this project, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any (older) boys!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Body Check, by Matt Christopher

Brent Mullen is a future hockey star!  At twelve years old, he’s already mastered the basics of ice hockey and he’s looking forward to competing at higher levels.  All of his plans change in an instant, however, when his team gains a new player whose father serves as an assistant coach.  Unlike Coach Maxwell, who emphasized fair play and sportsmanship, Coach Seabrook is all about doing what it takes to win.  When he begins teaching the boys that cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught, Brent seriously considers leaving the team.  Will Brent be able to express his concerns before the illegal moves get one of the players hurt?

This was a very cool book, and it was one of Mr. Christopher’s that I hadn’t read before.  In fact, I just went to my library and grabbed one of his books off the shelf at random.  Matt Christopher was a perennial favorite when I was growing up, and I’m confident that he’s probably the best sportswriter for children, hands down.  If you’ve got a favorite sport, I’ll bet money that Mr. Christopher has written an awesome book about it.  All of his stories feature a solid plot set into a background of authentic sports action, which really helps to keep his storylines flying along!

As much as I enjoyed reading “Body Check”, I’d say that any of Mr. Christopher’s books would be a good choice for a young man who’s more interested in playing sports than reading books.  But don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try this experiment for yourself!  Introduce one of these sports books to the young athlete in your life, and I guarantee you’ll create a ravenous reader.  In fact, the new Matt Christopher fan might be in danger of missing practice because he wants to read “just one more page”!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Last Mission, by Harry Mazer

At fifteen years old, Jack Raab is still too young to join the military.  As the Second World War is winding down in Europe, Jack fears that all of the fighting will be over before he gets his chance to see action.  After some consideration, he uses a fake ID card to lie about his age and enlist in the Army Air Corps.  Jack makes it through training and becomes a gunner on a B-17 “Flying Fortress”.  After twenty-four bombing missions and countless close calls, Jack’s luck finally runs out!  When his plane is shot down by the Germans, he escapes by parachute and comes down behind enemy lines… alone, and afraid.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is the realism.  Mr. Mazer served in the Army Air Corps himself, so it’s no wonder that he got all the details correct.  From all the descriptions of the bomber in flight, including the snap of freezing cold air temperatures and the smell of the exploding shrapnel, you’ll probably feel like you’re strapped in alongside young Jack.  Also, I really appreciated how honest the book was when it discussed Jack’s feelings.  During training he thought he was invincible, and that no harm could possibly ever come to him.  Eventually, after seeing some of his friends injured in battle, Jack’s demeanor became deadly serious.

Just like in real life, this story doesn’t end once Jack’s tour is over.  I really enjoyed following Jack’s return home, and I could identify with the difficulties that he faced when he tried to return to his old high school.  “The Last Mission” offers an outstanding view on what war really is, as opposed to what young men sometimes think it is.  Even though this book contains some depictions of violence and foul language, I would recommend it without reservation, particularly to young men who might be considering a career in the armed services.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Freckle Juice, by Judy Blume

Second-grader Andrew Marcus wants freckles.  He’s desperate to look like his friend Nicky Lane, who has freckles all over his face, ears, and neck.  Andrew even tried counting Nicky’s freckles one time, but he only got as far as eighty-six before his teacher caught him and told him to pay attention.  He’s tried everything to get the look he desires, including drinking a magic potion of “freckle juice”!  When it turns out that even secret recipes don’t work, Andrew takes matters into his own hands and uses a magic marker to draw dozens of brown freckles on his face! 

This short chapter book is an easy-to-read classic for boys or girls.  It’s almost guaranteed that your library will have it, so be sure to ask for “Freckle Juice” by name.  I enjoyed Mrs. Blume’s message about how you have to accept the body you’re born with, even when you might feel that you’re not as attractive as some of your friends.  Most of us are aware of the pressures that young women feel when it comes to their body image, but it’s easy to forget that young men often feel the same way!

“Freckle Juice” is a fast read for younger kids.  I’d have no problem recommending it to any boy who’s capable of working his way through one of the “Junie B. Jones” books, but who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book about a GIRL!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst

Let’s face it, we’ve all had days where absolutely nothing is going right.  Alexander is having one of those days too.  From the moment he gets out of bed in the morning, it seems like the whole world is lined up against him.  His brothers get toys in their breakfast cereal but he doesn’t.  He has to sit in the middle seat during the carpool ride to school.  His friends all have better lunches than he does.  The day just keeps getting worse as it goes on, and eventually Alexander thinks that the best course of action might be for him to simply chuck it all and move to Australia!

I love this book because it’s so easy to sympathize with Alexander and the situations that he’s facing on this one particular day.  For example, anyone who has brothers or sisters knows how hard it can be to share a bathroom!  When you’re having a bad day, even something that’s normally fun, like going shopping for new sneakers, can quickly descend into arguments or even fistfights!  I imagine that Mrs. Viorst must be a mother or a teacher, because she certainly knows how young men can sometimes act out when things don’t go our way.  The book follows Alexander through every heartbreaking moment of his “bad day”, and the hilarious illustrations by Ray Cruz do an awesome job of making the reader feel sympathetic.  Some of the pictures might seem a little dated since this book is now over forty years old, but I think that even kids raised up with Playstations and iPhones will still be able to relate to them.

One of my favorite things about this book is the fact that it doesn’t condescend to the reader, even though it’s a picture book aimed at younger men.  Sometimes you’ll feel like things aren’t going your way, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do but keep trying.  The world doesn’t revolve around you, after all.  In the end, I actually appreciated the fact that no one rushes in to save Alexander from his bad day because, as his mother says, some days are like that.

Even in Australia.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This novel is an amazing epic of action and adventure…starring rabbits!  Fiver is the runt of his litter, but he possesses unique powers to see into the future.  When he has a vision that the Sandleford warren will soon be destroyed by a real estate development, he teams up with his brother Hazel to travel in search of a new home.  After a dangerous journey, the two form a new warren called Watership Down.  All seems well, at least until they cross paths with General Woundwort, the tyrant leader of a nearby warren called Efrafra!

I absolutely loved the chance to dive into the world of the rabbits.  Mr. Adams created an entire universe around his characters, including a rabbit language called Lapine.  Even though wading through all the songs and legends of the rabbits seemed a little tiresome at first, the huge amount of background material served to pull me out of my own two-legged life.  By the end of the book, I was completely immersed in the realm of the rabbits!  It was easy enough for me to accept the idea that these animals could talk amongst one another, form organized colonies with their own governments, and even wage war!

Even though the main characters in Watership Down are a bunch of cute (or sometimes not so cute!) rabbits, this book is really about the theme of a small group facing off against established forms of order.  There are always going to be risks involved when you buck the system and try something new.  Sometimes, if the stakes are high enough, you might even be putting your own life on the line!  Pick up a copy of Watership Down from your library and I can promise you, you’ll never look at pet shop rabbits the same way…  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell

Anyone who’s ever been “put on the spot” will be able to identify with Billy, a 10-year old whose plans to buy a motorbike are suddenly put on hold.  When his friends Alan and Joe dare him to eat a worm, Billy puts his entire savings on the line in an epic bet!  The challenge is for him to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days, with a whole fifty dollars riding on the result.  The story gets even crazier as the deadline approaches, with Billy’s family helping to come up with appetizing recipes…for earthworms!

I loved the way Mr. Rockwell’s writing shows the building tension as Billy’s deadline approaches.  Yes, there’s an awful lot of money on the line in this bet, but what’s really at stake is Billy’s pride.  If he backed out of the gross challenge then his friends probably wouldn’t have the same level of respect for him.  And you know, that’s one really interesting thing about male relationships that Mr. Rockwell completely nailed in this book:  although boys can often disagree with each other, sometimes even to the point of having shouting matches or fistfights, they still have the ability to remain friends!  Even if you’re completely grossed out by the thought of eating earthworms, this book is worth reading in order to study the curious ways that boys interact with their friends. 

We didn’t have the Internet when I was growing up, so back then there was no way for me to check if eating worms posed any kind of health risk.  I took a few minutes to do some research just now, and I learned that worms are, in fact, edible!  You’d want to avoid eating them raw, though, and you’d definitely have to clean the dirt off of them first.  Still, I’d advise against eating fresh worms unless you found yourself stranded on a desert island and starving!  In some countries like Thailand, however, you’d be able to find different varieties of worms prepared and served as appetizers.

What do you think about eating unusual foods like worms or insects?  Do you find the idea gross, or do you think that you might actually like to try them someday?  Do you enjoy trying new foods, or do you prefer to stick to your favorites?