Archive for February, 2011

February 25, 2011

I won an award! I’m a Stylish Blogger!

I won my first blogging award!  (Is it self-centered to say “first” as if I expect others to come?)  Not sure, but I’m excited nonetheless.  The Stylish Blogger Award is an award given to bloggers by another blogger to show support and appreciation for the blogs that we like.  It’s exciting to think that I’m becoming part of the blogging community.  I really can call myself a “blogger” now!  (Thank you so much to Danaye Shiplett for passing this along to me!)

Of course, like anything invented by the crazy people of blogland, it comes with a creative catch.  I have to tell you seven things about myself.  So I will do that.  And then I’m going to award others, someone I now have the privilege to be able to do.  So, read or skip the seven things depending on how much you want to know about me, but read on to see links to other great blogs that I get to appoint as the next Stylish Bloggers!

1. I am not stylish.  I think this is an important thing to confess given the title of the award, and I hope no one takes it away from me.  Occasionally I watch the show “What not to wear” and I always see myself in the “before” people.  I am not proud of this, but I’m not that embarrassed by it either.  I’m not one who needs to snub the fashion industry because I think I’m above it or purposefully ignore it because I think I can’t handle it.  It’s just not on the to-do list right now.

2. I just chopped about nine inches off my hair and am hoping someone will someday mistake me for Emma Watson.  (Although if you are reading this in order and have already read number 1, you realize that will be unlikely.)  Still, I absolutely love it and even if I end up looking more like Justin Bieber on my bad hair days, it’s worth it for a look that makes me feel so good on the good hair days.

3. I never finished Atlas Shrugged. I’m not sure I ever intend to.  Maybe one day, because besides belonging to the Facebook group “Plugging the Gulf Oil spill with the works of Ayn Rand,” I do like the way she created the story and I hate to leave books unfinished.  (Although, tell that to Moby Dick.)  Another blogger, James Rogers on Kung Fu Monkey summed the story up nicely:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-y­ear old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievab­le heroes, leading to an emotionall­y stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

4. I am seriously considering throwing my (and my husband’s) iPhone in the garbage one day, right before pick-up.

5. Despite promises to myself not to (after teaching and principaling so many kids for so many years), I do look at my son and think he’s really the best ever.  I have, however, managed not to say that to any of his teachers or principals yet, so I’m at least partway keeping my promise…

6. I really, really love reading children’s books.  I call it “research” for my own writing and now for this blog as well, but truly, they are often so much better than adult novels, mostly of which I just cannot stand for their self-obsession and the way they mistake “serious” and “deep” for sex and violence.  Children’s writers can’t–or don’t usually want to–put a lot of sex and violence in their books and are thus forced to deal with other ways to tell profoundly meaningful human stories.  I appreciate that about children’s books, and I think it makes them even more meaningful than their adult counterparts.

7. I once tried to pour propane into a funnel because I forgot it wasn’t a liquid.  (Sorry, chem teachers.  And no, no one was hurt.)

I’m excited to now pass along the Stylish Blogger award to the following 10 blogs (in alphabetical order):

A Border Life: what it means to transect nature and the city and to really open your eyes and analyze life around you by a beautiful writer (you can take that either way…)

Chez Temple: Dinner at my place: awesome cooking, great photos–makes you hungry just to look!

Ink Footprints: it’s all about writing; she has great drawings, and she’s been a great critique partner at Yellow Brick Road!

Lamb’s Munchings and Musings: Seriously, this food looks YUMMY! (If you make one of her cakes, will you send me a slice?)

Picture This! a really thorough look at writing picture books by a writer and teacher and great blogger

Rumpus: a beautiful blog with beautifully great ideas for kids’ books

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: a fun literary and children’s blog that is also local to my area!

Stark. Raving. Mad. Mommy.: funny.  and I like funny.

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them): a lot of us can relate to that.  Plus, she’s the PiBoIdMo girl.

The Zen Leaf: really great book reviews

If you are one of these blogs and would like to claim your reward, simply follow these instructions:

1. Say “thank you” on your blog to the person who gave you the award (you are welcome!) and link back to their site.

2. Reveal 7 things about yourself!

3. Spread the love by passing the award along to 10 more bloggers that you love! (And contact them to let them know they’ve won.)

February 22, 2011

There’s smart, there’s “Beyond Smart”, and then there’s my mother-in-law

When I tell people about this book, or about the author’s columns in ParentMap (a Pacific Northwest Parenting Magazine), or about the author’s appearance on TV, and then I mention that the author is my mother-in-law, they often ask me the same question, and with the same inflection.  It goes like this:

“Really? That’s so neat!” pause “So, what’s it like to have a mother-in-law who is a parenting expert?” smirk

Every time.  First, they are impressed.  Then, they think about their own mother-in-laws and aren’t sure if they would want those opinions backed by the title “parenting expert”.  But it’s not like that.  I have the good fortune to have a mom-in-law who is capable of having different opinions about how kids are raised without beating me over the head with them, even as she watches me ruin her grandchild in various different ways.  But really, most of the time we agree.

Although, I do often reply that part of me wishes her columns could save some space for the daughter-in-law’s rebuttal…I mean, I’m living with the final product, you know?  And no, he doesn’t know how to make the bed.

Title: Beyond Smart
Author: Linda Morgan
Genre: Parenting

Summary and Review:

Here’s my pet peeve about a lot of parenting books (not this one).  They are written by PhDs with something to say, usually one thing that’s very specific.  These people are used to writing long dissertations on a single subject and they seem to think that that’s the kind of thing everyone wants to read. But they are wrong.  Most of the parenting books I pick up should be parenting chapters.  They are one idea and you can get most of the information from skimming the back cover, and by the time you are done with the intro chapter, you’ve learned 90% of what you are going to learn, but then you dutifully slog through another 200 pages of evidence, personal stories, and sidebars, all of which, you realize when you get to the end (or much sooner if you are paying any attention), is the same as what you learned in the intro chapter.  There are some parenting books out there where I really don’t think you need to read much more than the title.  Things like “saying no” or “setting limits” are right there in the title and you’ve learned most of what you are going to learn and you haven’t even flipped it over to read the back.

Which brings me to this book.  This book is not written by a PhD with a dissertation on her mind.  It’s written by an experienced, award-winning journalist with access to PhDs and the talent to translate what they are saying down to a few pages that you actually want to read.  It’s not a book you are done with in the introduction–the introduction just whets your appetite for the diverse and meaningful middle parts.  The book is about how parents can make a difference in their child’s learning, and it takes a really broad approach to this.  We’re not just talking raising grades here.  We’re talking emotional intelligence, temperament, brainpower, risk-taking, and a heck of a lot more.

Also, the book includes Q and A’s with really famous experts in a variety of fields: Alice Waters talks about teaching your kids about food, giving even more insight to a chapter on preparing lunches and breakfasts as part of being ready for kindergarten.  Wendy Mogel, PhD, (I’ve already blogged on one of her books here) talks about dealing with failures and the dangers of over-coddling in a chapter about dealing with a wide variety of school issues, including failure.  Michael Thompson, PhD, (I’ve blogged on one of his books, too) talks about the differences between boys and girls in a chapter on social issues.  And there’s a lot more–both chapter-wise and expert-wise.

Other topics included in this book are developing a parenting plan and becoming your child’s emotional coach from birth, dealing with the child-centered toddler years, advocating for your child during the school years, keeping up with math and science, writing, and public speaking, and getting the most out of a summer vacation.

I loved this book because it covers a wide variety of topics, it’s short and sweet, and it gives you a wide variety of opinions, not just one.  If you find yourself really interested in one of the topics, or one of the expert’s opinions, you can always go and find another book on that topic.  But this is a phenomenal place to start and a great reference.  It’s easy to pick up and look at after you’ve read it, to refresh on a few ideas because it’s well-organized and topic-centered.  Covering areas of development from birth through high school and issues including emotion, academics, food, and family, this is a must-have parenting book!

And really, bed-making aside, she did a good job with the one I’m married to, so that’s saying something…I always like to check bios on parenting books to see if the author has any kids.  I am VERY suspicious of taking advice from someone who doesn’t…

February 18, 2011

Can I borrow your Frindle?

I picked up this book one night when I went to bed and didn’t turn out the lights until the last page.  A really fun read.  It’s easy to see why the “frindle”, both in the sense of the word as used in the book and the book itself, was so popular.

Title: Frindle
Author: Andrew Clements
Age: Late elementary, Early Middle School

Summary and Review:

This is a really fun read with a great main character, a wonderful teacher, and an inspiring group of kids to round it out.  When 6th grader Nick Allen challenges the infamous English teacher on the importance of a dictionary, he begins a revolution like he never imagined.  Suddenly, his idea to call a pen a “frindle” has classroom-wide and then school-wide and then nation-wide(!) consequences.  It’s a great story about the power of an idea, the power of passionate kids, and the power of a great teacher.

Follow-up with the kids:

Nick Allen had a lot of ideas–what are your kids’?  Find out!!  Kids so often are thought of as dreamers, but when they reach a certain age (way too young in my opinion) they cease to believe that their ideas can make a difference.  See if you can unleash your child’s hidden dreams and find a way to propel them to action.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll get their name in the dictionary, too.

February 17, 2011

LOL funny

I’m sitting at the side of the YMCA pool watching my 2-year-old, who has just learned what “natural consequence” means by goofing off instead of listening to his instructor and falling in the pool.  I watched him struggle under the water for a few seconds while smiling an “I’m-sorry-and-this-will-teach-him-and-did-you-know-I-used-to-be-a-teacher-and-I-feel-your-pain” kind of smile at the instructor, who is running down to the shallow end, dragging another one of his students with him, to rescue my son.

It’s not that I enjoyed watching him suffer, per se, but the teacher clearly had it under control, and frankly, it served my son right.  Maybe tonight he’d listen to me when it was time to put on the PJs.  (That was yesterday, actually, and last night, and I can tell you the lesson didn’t trascend activities, but he was, at least, more compliant for the remainder of the lesson.)

At any rate, there I am, nine months pregnant and completely uncomfortable.  I’m sitting in this chair and wish I could just be floating in a hot tub.  My baby is kicking like crazy and my belly is sticking out the bottom of my shirt because none of my pregnancy shirts fit me anymore but I’m not about to buy more when the kid could come out any day now.  And it’s not like a stretch-marked pregnant belly is anything pretty to look at.

So I’m trying to fade into the background, but this is hard because the book I am trying to read is hysterically funny.  I mean laugh-out-loud funny, and I don’t usually laugh out loud at even the funniest of books.  But I can’t help it–I’m trying to hold it in and I’m not.  And I wonder if I should save the book for home where I can roll on the floor in private, but that would mean putting it down which I’m not willing to do.  So I just sit there, a bloated, uncomfortable blob laughing hysterically–and way too loudly–at my own risk.

I found this book because it was recommended by a fellow Goodreads reader.  And I am so glad I did.  It’s a debut novel, which makes it all the better!

Title: A Crooked Kind of Perfect
Author: Linda Urban
Genre: Fiction
Age: Middle School and Upper Elementary; I think many YA readers would like it, too

Summary and Review:

Zoe is going to be a famous piano player when she grows up.  She’s going to play in Carnegie Hall.  The only thing standing between her and this goal–and she considers it a minor thing–is that she doesn’t have a piano and has never taken a lesson, practiced, or played one.  But Zoe is a spunky, wonderful character and these facts are not going to bring her down.  One day, however, her family decides to invest in a used piano for Zoe and sends her dad to the mall.

Now, Zoe’s dad is another wonderful character.  Usually, Middle Grade and Young Adult books that have a “different” or “special needs” character have those traits in one of the kids.  But in this book, it is Zoe’s dad who is a special needs adult.  He spends most of his time–no, all of his time–in his living room studying mail-order courses and accumulating what can only be described as useless degrees. He often has to drive Zoe around town when her mom is working and they inevitably get lost, having to call Marty at the auto shop, who enjoys the challenge of trying to figure out where they are and get them home.

Zoe’s dad doesn’t like being around people, noises, or the busy-ness of everyday life and when he gets to the mall to buy the piano, he is immediately overwhelmed.  He ends up in the grips of an organ salesman and comes home with an organ–the Perfectone D60, faux wood finish and all.  Zoe is NOT impressed, but true to her good spirit, she begins her free lessons which came with the organ.

The book, told from Zoe’s wonderful perspective and great sense of humor, follows Zoe at home and at school, through the trials of learning an instrument, hanging out with her family, being ditched by her best friend (a girl who lives in the “East Eastside” as opposed to just the “Eastside” where Zoe’s modest house resides), and many other adventures of school, home, and music.

You will absolutely fall in love with Zoe, with her dad, and with the school bully she starts to get to know.  This is a wonderful story, with wonderful heart.  And I dare you not to laugh out loud.

Follow Up With The Kids

If you are a mom reading this with your daughter, I think there is a lot of things you can talk about.  Enjoy the book and the conversations it can bring.  This is a honest look at middle school life and the chance to talk about some of these things through the lens of a character rather than the real life kids your daughter knows will make the conversation all the more safe, and usually because of this, all the more meaningful.  Here are some questions to consider:

Zoe’s dad’s issues prevent her from doing a lot of things other kids might be able to do…how does she learn to deal with that?  Many kids would not be so tolerant…what makes her so?

What was it like at her former best friend’s surprise party?  Has your daughter ever been in a situation like that and on which side?  What does she think about this?  Do your daughter and her friends have an equivalent of a “brat” t-shirt? (This takes it away from the comfort of the character-driven conversation and not every kid will be agreeable to that.  If you think yours won’t be, stick to the conversation about the party in the book.  Chances are, she will still be talking from her own experiences.  That is, after all, how we read a book.)

What motivates Wheeler to keep coming over to Zoe’s house and study and bake with her dad?  What do you think his life is like at home and how is it different from the persona he plays at school?

February 15, 2011

Would you want a gift from a fairy? Maybe not.

C.S. Lewis once said “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  I don’t know this because I am intellectual enough to remember profound quotes by famous people, but rather because it was written on the wall of the coffee shop where I hung out earlier today.  It struck my fancy immediately, and I’m happy that it fits into today’s blog post.  Because fairy tales are not only for the young.  Fairy tales are for all of us and they give us a sense of truth about the world that we can’t always find anywhere else.

This book, a Newbery Honor book, was one of my favorites that I’ve read in awhile.  I absolutely loved it and it was a true page-turner for me.  And because I had read NONE of the hype about the book, or any reviews, I was dumbfounded with shock and excitement on about page 180 at what I had missed.  Because of that, I’ve decided to hide some of my reviews below a “SPOILER” line at the end of this post.  This might be ridiculous because nothing I’m about to say is not already in reviews everywhere, or even basic descriptions of the book.  But if you haven’t followed that, you might enjoy the book even more as you follow the beautiful story of Ella all on your own.

Title: Ella Enchanted
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Fantasy
Age: Middle Grade

Summary and Review:

Ella has always lived with a curse, set upon her at birth by a foolish fairy: the curse of obedience.  If you think it doesn’t sound so bad to be obedient (or have your child be!) imagine always HAVING to be obedient.  Anything that anyone says, Ella has to do.  She can try to refrain, but it causes her pain and she eventually has to cave.  So if someone orders her to cut off her head, she’d have to do it.  As a result, Ella dances a dangerous dance in life and lives differently than anyone else.  Only her mother and godmother know the curse but it affects every second, every decision of her life.  After her mother dies, Ella is sent to finishing school by her absent and self-absorbed father.  She runs away on a quest to find fairy who cursed her and search for a cure.



Stuff to do with the kids:

Okay, so here’s the deal.  You might have figured it out just from the title–it’s pretty obvious.  After all, her name is Ella.  Her mother dies.  She has a fairy godmother.  She’s in love with a guy named “Prince Char”.  Sound familiar? Because that part all comes in the early part of the book.  And then, for those of us who are a little slow on the uptake, there are more clues later: her father marries an evil woman (who becomes her evil stepmother) who has two evil daughters (who become her evil stepsisters), and by then even I’m starting to figure it out.  It’s another Cinderella story!  But much more than that because the actual story of Cinderella doesn’t start until more than halfway through the book, and this is not a character we’ve seen before. Ella is not a weak-willed girl who follows orders and becomes a princess, rescued by the prince.

No, Ella is a strong, naturally rebellious girl who is fighting all her life against a horrible curse.  And the fight is a wonderful adventure, a great read, and a beautiful reintroduction to a favorite character.  Talking with your kids about her character and how different it is from your daughter’s original idea of Cinderella.

Teachers might like to ask their students to write their own versions of a fairy tale, taking this book as a wonderful example of how to do so.

February 11, 2011

Ham sandwiches or happy endings?

Should the wolf eat the pigs?  How much do you tell your toddlers when you read time-honored fairy tales and what do you censor?  I’m blogging about this on Nashville Parent!  Check it out and comment either there or here–I want to hear what you think!

(And if you need a good fairy tale book recommendation, check out Mary Engelbreit’s book listed on my Picture Book page.)

February 9, 2011

Roar of the Tiger Mom

I’m not a Chinese mom.  Not in the ethnic sense, the nationality sense, or even the metaphorical sense, which is how Amy Chua means it when she uses the title in her much talked about, much debated, much loved, and much hated new memoir.  After reading a scathing review of the book, I decided I had to check it out.  My favorite result of my online research were the reviews at Amazon.  The book was averaging about 3 stars.  That sounds mediocre, until you looked at the distribution.  About 40% of the reviews were 5-star reviews and 40% were 1-star, and there were a few people in the middle.  I love controversy!  I ordered it immediately.

And let me say, I loved it.

Title: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Author: Amy Chua
Genre: Parenting

Summary and Review:

This is a great book that has been violently derided in the press. Most of the people who have derided this book online fall into one of two categories.  (1) They have not read the book but are drawing their hatred from excerpts they’ve seen, their own blatant or denied racism, and their secret fear that their own kids aren’t going to be concert pianists when they grow up.  (2) OR they have read the book but completely missed the deadpan humor, the obvious self-mockery and tendency toward hyperbole, and they also secretly fear that their own kids aren’t going to be concert pianists when they grow up.

Here’s my take: this book is a wonderful read from a variety of standpoints.  First, it is a GREAT memoir.  And I completely agree with the NYT article on the plummeting quality of the memoir (Julie and Julia, anyone?)  But this falls into one of the small percentages of memoirs out there with value.  Why?  For the following reasons:

1) It is extremely well-written.  Maybe too well-written, in fact, for her own good, as it seems to have gone over some people’s heads.  (Although one can argue that the ensuing controversy has done her good.)  It is VERY dry, VERY deadpan humor, and if you just take it at its face value, you are completely missing the point and likely to hate both it and the writer.  If you read it as such, though, you will laugh and cry your way through the whole book.

2) It takes a slice of her life and shows the broader cultural implications of her own actions and decisions.  This isn’t just about Ms. Chua; it’s about American immigrant families and the challenges they face trying to follow their own values in a different place.  In fact, Chua happily talks about herself as if she were the mascot and quintessential example of a Chinese mother (despite the sleepover that was allowed and despite the dogs—oh, the dogs).  It’s also about the America into which she moves and the values it espouses, or doesn’t espouse, as the case may be.

3) It discusses the broader implications of our parenting decisions, with honest, funny, sad, and very relatable stories about trying to do what’s best for your kids.

American parents are VERY much into raising self-confident kids.  They do so (and I should probably say “we” do so) by plying our kids with compliments, from the moment they can blurt out a simple sound to the first test they bring home, even if it’s a C-.  Ms. Chua (and by assumption, the Chinese mother) doesn’t do that.  A C- would be seen as a complete failure, and she would have no problem telling her kids that.  And she makes the very convincing case that SHE is the one increasing self-confidence—after all, she is the one telling her kids that she knows they can do better.  To shake their hand for a C- would imply that they are capable of no better and THAT, she believes hurts self-confidence.  And after hours and hours of parent-supervised studying (which one daughter was forced to do after coming in second on the mathematics speed test in elementary school), they will do better.

The methods she uses with her daughters and the rules imposed (no sleepovers or playdates, taking them out of school during “fluff days” or recess times to practice the piano or violin, etc.) may sound draconian, and you are welcome, of course, to believe that they are.  As a former principal at a school with a lot of these days, I will vehemently espouse their importance to anyone interested in listening (which would not, this book implies, be Ms. Chua).  Many of the choices she makes are not choices I would make for my own kids.  But I don’t think we can say with such certainty as so many in the media have been saying, that they are the wrong choices.  And I certainly don’t think we can say they are the wrong choices for all kids.  After all, I’ve been in teaching for a long time, and trust me, a lot of our kids could use some parents who don’t take bad grades lightly and will sit down with the kids to make sure the homework gets done.  It’s all a matter of perspective, of course, but there’s probably room in everyone’s parenting style for a little bit of the Tiger.

One of the things the book’s critics often fail to notice is the sheer amount of time and passion Ms. Chua spends with her daughters.  Despite a demanding full-time job, she is there at every piano lesson and violin lesson, scribbling furious notes.  She is there at every practice session—and there are many—they even rent out halls or find closed restaurants with pianos when on vacation, and when she can’t be there, pages and pages of notes are left for the practicing daughter.  In other words, she is not just yelling at her girls to do better.  She is supporting them with every ounce of energy and every spare minute she could possibly have.

Ms. Chua, in the end, is humbled by her younger daughter, a fiery character who does not take her mom’s controlling attitude all that well.  Months, if not years, of bitter, intense struggle end with a dramatic scene in which she tells her daughter it’s okay for her to quit the violin.  Her daughter surprises her by replying that she doesn’t want to quit, just tone it down a little bit.  And then her daughter shows us something that all parents would be proud of–she takes up a new hobby, tennis, and starts to excel, using the habits and dedication she has learned from the Chinese mothering she has fought against.  When Chua questions the coach about her daughter’s success in the sport, the coach tells her something she wasn’t expecting to hear—that her daughter is applying total concentration and ambition, and is quickly climbing up the ladder from rookie to tennis star.  It’s all Amy can do to keep her Chinese parenting ways quiet as she applies herself to learning everything she can about the sport to help her daughter.  But to her credit, she does hold back.  At least most of the time.

This is a mother’s journey we can all learn from.  And a journey we can all relate to.  She believes in her kids.  She loves her kids.  And her kids love her back.  And she gives everything she has to her kids…more energy than I could ever imagine pouring out.  But she also learns from them.  They are a close and loving family, and their story is a beautiful one.

And the part when they get the dogs, something she has clearly stated is NOT a Chinese mother thing to do?  You can almost see the family balance shifting.  And the enormity of this event in their lives is signaled by the book entering a “Part 2.”  I was rolling on the floor with laughter.

Thank you, Amy Chua, for such an inspiring read!

February 8, 2011

And the winner is…

…Natisha LaPierre!  Good luck with your illustration career!  She wins the whole lecture series from illustrator Will Terry!  You can still buy yourself a copy…just click on the image to the right to learn more.

And thanks to everyone who entered!  I printed out all of your names, multiple times for people who subscribed, facebooked, etc., and had a little help from my 2-year-old.  You can see we like helmets in my house…

February 7, 2011

The haunting song of the mockingjay

I was SO excited for this book.  I LOVED the first two in the series (Hunger Games and Catching Fire, in case you are either from another planet, or maybe don’t have a teenage daughter around), and pre-ordered this book from Amazon.  While I love Amazon and my free two-day shipping and access to almost all products cheaper, in general I try to buy my books from my local indie store.  But I wanted this one immediately.  Trouble is, Amazon didn’t send it immediately.  In fact, I ended up getting it about a month after it came out, by which time I was so upset about the whole thing I wasn’t really excited to read it anymore.  So it took me until now to open the coveted pages of one of the most anticipated books of the year.  There were parts that I really liked.  There were also parts that I hated.  I do think the trilogy as a whole is a brilliant piece of work, from deep character development to a great analysis of humanity and the worlds we create for ourselves.

I was excited to discuss my opinion of the book with someone, but when I logged on to my favorite discussion group, I was wholly disappointed to find all the chatter to be about Peeta versus Gale.  REALLY?  While the final decision, if it even was a decision, is symbolic of some of the book’s messages, it is not always about the boy.  Well, maybe in the case of Twilight, it was about the boy.  But these books are actually about something.  Hopefully, my discussions below will help you discover what.

The questions below are well-suited to the individual reader who just wants to sit and ponder for a minute, and would also make great discussion starters for a family that reads together, a book club, or a classroom of students with a teacher astute enough to assign something that is both so popular and powerful.  WARNING: from here on out, I assume you’ve read the book.  SPOILERS INCLUDED.

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Dystopia
Age Group: Middle Grade, Young Adults, and Millions of Adults!

Summary and Review (CONTAINS SPOILERS):

The rebellion is in full force now, but unfortunately we don’t see much of the action.  While I loved Katniss’s voice in the first two books, I felt strangely trapped inside of her head in this one.  I REALLY wanted out.  The first person became too much, as through the first half of the book, all she does is whine her way through the days.  She whines about Peeta.  She whines about Gale.  She whines about District 13 (and yet seems to strangely ignore all the weirdness and fascism that IS District 13).  She is SO uber-serious about her own thoughts and jumps on anyone who doesn’t read her mind and respect her immediately, and yet she is just as quick to put everyone else down.  It all got really tiring after awhile.  The worst part, though, is the beginning, where she is considering whether or not to be the symbolic “mockingjay” for the rebellion.  I wanted to kick her head in as she weighs the pros and cons behind something that really isn’t her decision–it’s just who she is.  Throughout the decision process, she plays the constant victim, and yet also wants our sympathy for being a hero at times–saving Peeta’s life, threatening to eat the berries.  Let’s face it, she’s been a rebel for awhile, even if if was unknowingly at first.  The fact that she couldn’t embrace that made me almost turn my support over to Coin.  I mean seriously.

Although, in Suzanne Collins’ defense, she is a teenage girl, and I DID feel trapped inside the mind of a teenage girl.  So maybe that’s what she was after.  But in general, I like my heroes to have SOME likable qualities…I mean anything that I can respect and relate to.  But maybe that wasn’t the point.

The other thing that really got to me was the amount of time spent describing the propaganda and the cameras.  I though the same point could be made without quite that many pages dedicated to make-up.  I get it–people are superficial!  I get it–war is about propoganda and lies just as much as bullets!  Enough already!

But here’s what I loved: I LOVED the ending.  I loved the message–that humans are evil, the world is evil, and it pretty much always will be!  When I was reading the first two books, I was wondering if it could end any other way, but I doubted the ability of a major book to end with such a honestly depressing theme.  But I shouldn’t have doubted Suzanne.  It’s not that I think the world is a horrible place.  But let’s face it.  The world is, at times and for many people, a horrible place.  Look at Egypt right now.  Look somewhere else tomorrow.  And to ignore that is to let it continue.  So that you, Suzanne, for not letting us ignore it.

Okay, maybe that’s enough of me, too.  I’m including below some of the questions I’ve been asking myself.  I would love to stand in front of a middle school English class and ask them.  Or ask them to a group of teenagers.  Or anyone else that’s read the book.  But my husband has not and my toddler has not.  So I’m asking you.  Please feel free to respond with comments!  I would love that!  And if not, please use these questions in your our family, your own book groups, or your own classrooms.  That would be cool, too!

Discussion Questions for Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay

1. Katniss mentions a few times in the beginning of the book her discomfort and unease with the totalitarian ways of District 13.  But she doesn’t seem to question them much and no one else does either.  It seems completely shocking to me to leave the control of the Capitol for something so controlling and not talk about it.  Why do you think it is?  Does no one notice?  Do they notice but not dare say anything because that’s what they are used to doing?  Is anything better than the Capitol?

2. Katniss seems unwilling to take control of her own life in the beginning of the book.  Why?  Is this a low point because of all she’s endured?  Or is she (like all of us perhaps) just a better person when things are going badly and turns back into her own narcissistic teenage self when life is more comfortable?

3. Think of specific scenes from the book.  We are seeing them only through Katniss’s eyes.  What would they look like through Gale’s or Haymitch’s?  How would this be a different story? (Because I believe it would be REALLY different.)

4. The message of the book was that humans suck, war sucks, violence sucks and humans will always default to war and be violent.  Do you agree or disagree?

5. Why, oh god why, did Katniss take so much time deciding whether or not to be the Mockingjay?  Personally, I wanted to shoot her.  I wonder how the story would have been different if she just assumed she would be and did it from the beginning.  I’m not sure I see the advantage in the many pages of anstsy decision-making.  But maybe you do?  Discuss.

6. The book focused a lot on propoganda.  A lot.  Why?

I’ve got more, but I’ll leave you with that for now.  If you have opinions, I’d love to discuss them with you!!  Or leave me your own to discuss.


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February 3, 2011

She was my ear, my eye, and my arm: a thank you to someone who helped me be a working mom

It was the first day of school.  My son was about five months old and enrolled in a daycare near the campus.  We hadn’t signed up for the really expensive back-up nanny service yet, because well, it was really expensive and we wanted to see how far we could get on our own sick days and helpful relatives (the answer: not far).  I was at the time both the principal of the Middle School and teaching one period a day of fifth grade science.  It was the first year my school had a fifth grade, so the job at least felt fairly high-stakes.  We wanted them to have a good year.

The school, Eastside Prep in Kirkland, WA, has traditionally always started the year with grade-level field trips and overnights, helping to bond the new classmates together and explore some of the real-world context of their curriculum to come.  The plan for that day was for myself and Daria, the fifth grade general ed teacher to take the kids downtown for their field trip.  (When I say “general ed”, I mean that she did all the English, History, and Math, plus the organizational stuff, the homework stuff, the computer stuff, and the what-am-I-doing-in-Middle-School stuff, which is my way of saying she did everything.)

So here I am, driving to school and dropping my son off at his daycare.  I pull into the parking lot and he promptly throws up all over me.  Daycares in general don’t like vomit, and they are pretty strict about not taking vomiting children.  So I put him back in the car and drove to school.  The next thing I know, I’m in the back of a public bus with 18 brand-new fifth graders.  It’s their first day in middle school, their first day at this new school, and for many of them, their first time going into the city on a bus.  Daria Brandt, their general ed teacher, was with me, as was my son, five months old and huddled to my chest in a Baby Bjorn.  I was still praying that the throwing up in the morning was just some spit up, or reflux, or anything.  So far, it was going well.  Hey–I could be a working mom with a baby, right?  It’s the modern age!  He was happy on the bus with the kids and they were happy to watch him.

That was until he threw up on two or three of the closest ones.

Now, these were some good kids, and most had a reasonable amount of respect for me as their teacher and principal, but even they had their limits.  Apparently, me bringing a baby that was throwing up on them had crossed some kind of line.  They weren’t all that pleased about it.

Well, Daria and I did our best to get the mess cleaned up and get the kids to the proper destination.  I still tried to stay on the field trip–I didn’t have a lot of other options, and couldn’t imagine leaving Daria alone.  A) You can’t send one teacher into the city with 18 kids.  B) Daria had just moved to the city and had no idea where we were or where we were going.  C) Well, there are a lot of reasons, and they should be obvious.

But as my son continued to vomit, it became apparent that I had to leave.  I can’t imagine what Daria was thinking at the time, but she never once seemed upset or looked at me askance, even as I was walking away, leaving her with the kids, the kids she had to walk back through an unfamiliar city to find an unfamiliar bus stop and get them all home.

That was the first time, but not the last time, Daria would bail me out that year.  To say that it was a hard, hard year is the understatement of the century.  Every working mom knows the trials, and I, at least, was not up for them at this point.  My husband worked as a surgery resident, a famously overworked field.  Throughout the months of October or April, not one week went by without one or more of the three of us being sick.  To this day, I don’t know how I got out of bed each morning (which, was no later than 4:00 for the whole year, because sleeping was never one of my son’s favorite things to do).  But I do know that I couldn’t have done it without the help of truly awesome people like my school’s new fifth grade teacher.  When I was late to class because of some administrative emergency, or just because between pumping and breastfeeding during breaks I hadn’t had time to eat lunch that day and was trying to scarf something down before class, she would help with the kids.  When we were supposed to co-teach units together and I didn’t have the time or energy to plan that much detail, she would talk about the integrated lessons within her own classroom.  Knowing that these kids were being taken care of by the best of the best made me thankful every day.

But do you know what?  I don’t think I ever said “thank you”.  I don’t think I ever bought the bottle of wine that I kept thinking she deserved…well, it was a lot of bottles by the time the year was done.

So when I saw this contest, and how it asked for a compliment, I knew exactly who I was going to write about, because even though I work at home now, I want every woman to have the chance at a career if they want it.  And we will only be able to do that if we help each other.  I hope that every mom returning to work has someone as helpful as Daria waiting to help them out.

And (segue here–this IS a book blog after all) she also introduced me to a GREAT new book.  She has her fifth graders read it (I told you they were in good hands–they read some great stuff with her), and I was excited to read it as well.

Title: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School, 9 – 14, and probably some older kids as well

Summary and Review:

I really enjoyed this book.  The straight-up plot is the story of three children of a wealthy and powerful General who live in a futuristic Zimbabwe.  Their house is a grand estate where they interact almost solely with robotics, including the robotic Doberman guard dog.  In an attempt to find adventure (and hopefully win a scout badge) they escape their house and venture through the country, dodging (and not dodging) danger at every step.  Their parents hire the unusual trio of private detectives Ear, Eye, and Arm, three men whose exposure to plutonium in the womb gave them unusual powers and weaknesses–one with superb eyesight, one with superb hearing, and one able to feel the mood and read the minds of the people around him.  The children stay a step ahead of the detectives as they fight their way through the city.

But while that in and of itself would be a great story, there’s much more.  The book, in my opinion, is really about the worlds through which the children travel.  They find themselves in a community hidden in a trash dump among people who live off the obsolete plastic they can sell from the “plastic mines”.  They find themselves in a world of yesteryear–an enclosed piece of land where no technology is allowed, and mention of the outside world is prohibited.  Here, the young graze cattle as in traditional Zimbabwe, and the elders still believe in witchcraft.  Later, they venture through a wealthy suburb and finally to the modern city, with its mile-high swaying hotel and gang-ridden violent subways.  Each foray shows what each society has to offer–and its disadvantages.

This book offers a unique glimpse of the evolution of human society and the choices we make with each technological and societal advance.

It’s also a commentary on the development of science from the technology of their holophones and robotic servants to the genetically engineered talking monkeys.

And if a great plot and great commentary weren’t enough, the characters are also great, and watching the children (and some of the adults) grow and change throughout the story makes it all the more enjoyable, relatable, and meaningful.

Nancy Farmer is a great author.  I highly recommend this quirky, intelligent adventurous read.

Follow-up with the kids:

Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about.  See above.  But if I add anything to this post, people are going to fall asleep.  1420 words so far–if I write that much on my book today, I’ll be that much closer to ending it!  But seriously, please always comment or email me for more activity and conversations suggestions–I love to think of those things!

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