Archive for ‘Science Fiction’

August 27, 2014

when your early reader is (not) a robot

by Wendy Lawrence

At some point, early readers (the people) get tired of the early readers (the books). For my first son, this was before he even opened them. I think I bought one or two out of a sense of duty, but wasn’t even that excited to read them myself. Some of them lack any obvious attempt at plot, characterization, voice, or any trait necessary to call something a “book”. And don’t get me started on the phonics ones.

But these! These are about robots! And aliens! And space adventures! And they have great titles! In fact, I’m pretty sure my son was drawn to this series, which was one of the first ones he read, just because of the title Ricky Ricotta’s Might Robot vs. The Stupid Stinkbugs from Saturn.

rickyricottaTitle: Ricky Ricotta’s Might Robot vs. The Stupid Stinkbugs from Saturn
Author: Dav Pilkey
Genre: Early Reader, Science Fiction
Ages: 4 – 8

Written by Dav Pilkey, of Captain Underpants fame*, these are a great beginner series. They are books that can be read in one sitting, with easy words (and not too many words per page), tons of pictures, Pilkey’s characteristic flip-o-rama (essentially a two-page flip book illustration), and even instructions on how to draw all the major characters (well, the robot and the alien villians, not the boring ones like mom and dad). 😉 One of my son’s drawings based on those instructions can be found here:

filename-1*For those of you who worry about that sort of thing, there’s nothing of the toilet humor in these books that so pervades Underpants. I realize that my first example has the word “stupid” in it, but that’s not really indicative of how these books are written.

My son’s favorites as he remembers them, are Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot vs. the Mecha-Monkeys from Mars, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot vs. the Uranium Unicorns from Uranus, and … vs. The Mutant Mosquitos from Mercury. There is a first one, and they were written in planet order (Mercury, Venus, etc.), but you can read them in any order. Every book stands alone.

So, if you have an early reader, I would highly recommend these. A reluctant reader might read them with you–one page you read aloud, then next page he/she reads aloud. (Although I do think reading aloud makes it even harder, so consider that.)

Have you tried these? Do you think you might?

May 13, 2014

Dystopian Fantasy: The End of the World as We Know it

Dystopian Fantasy: The End of the World as We Know It
by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard38-FE3-KathyHiggs-Coulthard

Hunger Games
Divergent
The Maze Runner
Ender’s Game

What do these books have in common?

a) They’re great books that offer an exciting read.
b) Preteens, tweens, and teens love them.
c) They either have or will soon be made into movies.
d) They are dystopian novels.
e) All of the above.

The answer is e) All of the above!

Books like Hunger Games and Divergent are introducing today’s generation to dystopian fiction. While many adults may not recognize the label “dystopian,” it’s not new. Remember reading Louis Lowry’s The Giver or Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s Running Man back in the 90’s? In fact, a brief Google search will uncover dystopian stories dating back to the 18th Century! But what does “dystopian” mean? The opposite of utopian, dystopian stories take place in a society where people are severely oppressed or live in fear. Usually they take place in an altered reality or a future version of our world where the government wields heavy-handed power.

Dystopian stories draw in middle grade to young adult readers because they offer many of the same features fairy tales offer to younger readers: They show that the world is a dangerous place where people are not always what they seem, but where creativity, intellect, and perseverance can prevail.

If you have a child ages 10 and up, you’ve probably seen them carrying around a copy of Hunger Games or Divergent. But there are more great dystopian books out there than just the blockbusters. Check out these:

 

13th reality

Title: The 13th Reality
Author: James Dashner
Genre: middle grade

 

Title: City of Embercity of ember
Author:
Jeanne Duprau
Genre: middle grade

 

 

Among the HiddenTitle: Among the Hidden
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Genre: middle grade

 

 

Title: The UgliesThe Uglies
Author: Scott Westerfield
Genre: y/a

 

Add to the list! What dystopian novels have your family discovered?

July 8, 2013

Need some science with your watermelon?

I have never tired to make my love for science a secret. Except in high school, and then I actually hated it so there was no secret, just a catastrophic misunderstanding that was luckily remedied by some more creative teachers in college. But that’s another story for another time. Right now, I want to talk about how you can get your kids to love science, too, because, really there is nothing NOT to love. And while most parents know to keep up on reading over the summer, and many also do some math or writing, not everyone thinks about science.

So today I’m linking to an article I wrote for ParentMap magazine in Seattle. It talks about how to bring science to your kid, whether that kid is scientifically, artistically, linguistically, or anything other-istically inclined. So go ahead and click on the link below.

Turn Cooking and Collecting Into Summer Science Fun!

And then, depending on which part you (and your child) likes best, head to the kitchen or the backyard or the library. And let the science learning begin!

Some of the books mentioned in that article can also be found on this blog. LIke Swirl by Swirl, Forest Has A Song, and Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different.

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
Genre
: 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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October 19, 2010

Is that your organ or mine? A compelling dystopia with cloning, slavery, drugs, and other things we bring upon ourselves

I had to read this novel.  It was for school.  I was about to assign it to my kids, 7th graders, for a dystopia project, on the advice of a librarian, so I needed to read it first.  What an awesome assignment!  I loved it.  It’s a page-turner.  It’s adventurous.  It’s emotional.  It makes you think about where the world today is going.  All things I love when I am reading a great book.  And it’s why I think young adult and children’s books are often so much better than adult books.  Wasn’t it the author of The Golden Compass who said that you can deal with so much more in a kid’s book?  Well, this book is a great example of that.

Title: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
Genre
: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and lots of Adults

Summary and Review:

The main character, Matt, is a clone.  He lives in the country of Opium, between the United States and another fictional country of this dystopic future.  In his society, clones are created and their minds altered with at birth so that they have none of their own emotions or thoughts.  They are treated like animals, or worse.  But Matt is a special kind of clone.  He is a clone of the country’s dictator, who demands that his brain be kept intact.  But this isn’t a gesture of good will–the dictator will kill Matt when the time is right, because Matt exists to keep the dictator’s life eternal–when he needs a new organ, Matt will be there ready, as have many clones in the past.

Matt must first understand that he is not a human at least as far as others see him, and then relearn his humanity with the help of a few caring souls.  He does eventually escape his horrible fate in his own country, but only to join a fate as a child slave laborer in the next one.  The book is full of issues that mirror today’s society, and this, combined with likable characters and a compelling narrative, makes it a great read.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

A lot of kids have trouble understanding what a “clone” is.  They know the term mostly from science fiction stories and snippets they hear, mostly out-of-context in the news, and so they don’t really get the full story.  As a result, I found some kids would read this book and have trouble understanding why a clone wouldn’t be treated differently.  So this is an important starting place for a conversation.  Make sure your child knows what it means to be a clone.  Basically, that the DNA is taken from one individual, put into an embryo, and a baby develops.  That baby is no different from any other baby, whose DNA happened to come from two individuals via an egg and sperm, but some students have a hard time understanding that.  Sometimes I relate the issue to identical twins.  Clones are no more alike than identical twins–in other words, they will probably look like the person they are cloned from, and probably have some similarities, but they will be their own person.  Getting kids to fully understand the implications that Matt is fully human is an important first step to understanding this book.  (After all, in today’s society, many children start out as “test tube” babies, and this, while different and controversial in whole new ways, is, from the point of view of the kid who is born, very much the same.)

Older middle school students and high school students can relate this to stem cell research as well.  I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue that it’s okay to “grow” a human being and then kill it for your own purposes–that’s the equivalent of saying we should be able to do anything we wanted with our own children.  However, there is a debate about what it’s appropriate to do with embryos that are created in the process of trying to help someone get pregnant and one their way to be destroyed.  Should scientists first be able to research on them for the good of those already alive, or is that wrong, since they have the “potential” to become human life?  Or should we not be allowed to create such things in the first place?  Books like this can help students wrap their heads around issues that otherwise seem too big or too irrelevant for them to understand.

If your child is reading this book, I would highly recommend reading it with them.  It will help you identify issues that are most important to you and your child and help direct a conversation even further.  Plus, it’s a great read.

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of gold, but the darkness is there aplenty

Okay, let me be honest.  I hated this book.  At least, once I was done with it I did.

But let me be honest again, while I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  So the relationship was not simple.

And let me now be really honest.  (Because it’s not honesty until you actually reveal something about yourself, instead of just about the book alone.)  The main reason I hated the book because I couldn’t handle it.  Some things are too painful to read, at least for me with my over-active imagination and brain that won’t turn off, even if I want it to.  It’s not that I shy away from tough subjects or even painful subjects in books, in fact, sometimes I am drawn to them, but something about this–maybe the use of animals (I am a vegetarian of the most sentimental kind) or children (I am a new and pregnant mother) or the religious overtones (I consider myself very religious and spiritual)–REALLY got to me.  Which again, is why it’s also such a great book–it’s powerful.

So I guess it’s most honest to say that while I was reading it, I wasn’t sure about it.  When I was done, I hated it more than anything I’d ever read.  Now that time has passed and I’ve had a chance to reflect on its meaning, I’ve come to rethink things.

So why would I write about it?  I was clear that this blog is only to talk about books I consider “page-turners”, books that I liked.  I’m not here as a reviewer.  Well, here’s the deal.  Months after reading the book, I still think about it.  I am drawn to its theories, to its plots, to its characters.  I want to learn more, but I don’t know if I am strong enough.  I thought I would never, ever read the sequels.  But I think I am wrong about even that.  I think someday I will have to.  The pull is just that strong.  So even though the part of me who wants to escape sometimes into a rosy world resists the horrific imagery that at times appears in this book, there is more of me who knows why the author did that, who agrees with him, and who wants books and stories like this to live on until humanity figures it out on its own.

Title: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)
Author: Phillip Pullman
Genre
: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Lyra is a out-of-place in her world.  Left alone by a mother and father she doesn’t remember, she is raised in a university by academics and their staff.  She has little formal education, other than what seem like infrequent meetings with the scholars, but is bright and curious.  She spends most of her time flying through the streets of the city, playing rough-and-tumble games with the other children.  We see her curiosity at the beginning of the book as she and her daemon (an that is connected to her by a strong, invisible force, a physical representation of her soul, and something all humans in this world have) sneak into a study and witness an almost-poisoning of (ostensibly) her uncle, Lord Asriel.  After saving him and getting involved with a mysterious woman, she becomes a runaway and joins a party of “gyptians” in a high-stakes adventure to the arctic, where she believes her uncle has headed, and where she and others believe that children who have been kidnapped have been taken.

The story is rife with delicious imagery of her collegiate environment, the busy town surrounding it, and the fantastical worlds up north with flying witches and armored bears.  But the real power lies with the kidnapped children and the story of what is happening to them.  A horrific research project, funded by an all-powerful church, is experimenting with the children, leaving many of them dead in a painful way that is foreshadowed earlier in the book by interactions between Lyra and her own daemon.

On the downside, which is part of the reason I had trouble with at first, I found Lyra to be a strong character who doesn’t necessarily affect things around her as much as she is affected by them.  This isn’t universally true–she makes some important decisions, but she is played as somewhat of a pawn.  On the same note, Lyra is an important part of a prophecy (which is why she is partly played as a pawn by those who know it), and part of this prophecy gets a lot of hype but I felt falls rather flat at its conclusion.  However, in the end, the allegory about religion and the ways in which we treat our souls (and ourselves) eventually spoke to me too powerfully to put down this book for good.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

(For the short version and a quick question, skip to the end.)

Wow.  I mean, wow.  First of all, don’t start off the conversation the same way so many people talk about this book, which is how this is “too deep” for a children’s book and/or “deep enough” for an adult book.  I mean, throw up.  Are children stupid?  Have the adults who say these things never spoken to a middle school or high school student?  Most of them speak much more eloquently about the meaning of life than their adult counterparts who are way too deep in their search for financial security to even remember they once cared about such a question.  Pullman understood that a children’s book would be the best way to raise such profound questions, and for that, I truly admire him.

This book would raise a lot of great questions in a classroom setting.  Too bad our messed up ideals about children’s education would never allow them to read a book that speaks so poorly of organized religion.  (It’s interesting, isn’t it, to even think that?  I mean, it’s obvious a school would never read this book.  But why?  Because religious parents would be afraid that one book was going to bring down thousands of years of religion?  I’d rather think that one book could entice students to think about religion, to think about what it means to them, and in the end, change the way they look at their own religion, probably giving them more authority over their own thoughts and making their own beliefs even stronger.  But alas, our society is too weak for that.)  However, in my fantasy world in which this could be read in a classroom, or in a world in which you are an especially enlightened home-schooling parent who wants to present a myriad of viewpoints to your child, or in a world in which you actually have these kinds of conversations over the kitchen table with your teen who somehow didn’t get the apathetic-towards-things-his-parents-care-about gene, then here you go:

What do the daemons in Lyra’s society represent?  Is there a parallel in our world?  Why do you think daemons are the opposite sex of a person?  Why do a minority of people have same-sex daemons?  Why would removing someone’s daemon release energy?  Why would the church want to eliminate daemons, at least in their natural form?  What is so scary to the church and religious people in general about an alternate world, a world in which living things are different than they are in this one?

If you are the average parent with an average teen and just want to get a chance to see what they thought of the book and maybe have a short but hopefully meaningful conversation, try something like this:

So, do you think the daemon’s are people souls?  Or their desires?  Or did you have another idea?  (If they do, go with it and ignore the rest of what is written here.)

If not, and they agree with the soul-thing, keep on that, and don’t necessarily use the church as the enemy, even though that really is what the book talks about, but maybe something more generic like “adults” or “authority”.  That way, your teen can talk about things that are more relevant in his own life.  Unless, of course, oppression by an organized religion is an issue in his life, in which case, knock yourself out.

As a follow up, if they agree with the soul-thing, you can ask: “why would the adults want to experiment with cutting away souls?  Do you think adults do anything similar to kids today?”  (And if your teen answers that making her go to high school is the same as cutting away her soul, don’t argue; just listen.  She’s probably trying to tell you something important.  Kids often feel like they are trying to be pressed into cookie cutters that are not the right size and shape for them.  See if this conversation can lead you to understand if your child feels that way and if so, if they can tell you who is doing that to them (parent, teacher, coach) and what they feel is being taken away from them.  (And please listen.  I mean, if they argue you are taking away their individuality by not buying them a car, you don’t have to take them too seriously, but at least hear what they are trying to say!)

SHORT VERSION: Don’t even bring up religion.  Use the daemons not as a representation of souls, but as a representation of human desire.  Does your teen ever feel like adults are trying to take away his or her natural desires or instincts just like the experimenters in this book?  Umm, yeah, I’m willing to bet so.  That’s a conversation right now.

September 28, 2010

Is it still a GAME if your life is at stake?

I absolutely could not put this book down.  If I haven’t picked up the sequel yet (and I guess now is the time to admit that I haven’t), it’s only because I don’t want the memory of this book to fade.  This book has everything–fast-paced action, mystery and intrique, great characters and character development, and strong writing. And it has that wonderful characteristic of great science fiction–parodying our own society without shouting at us or lecturing us.  Just telling us how it could be, if we look at our problems in different ways.

It’s one of the many books I’ve read recently that makes me wonder how I didn’t get hooked on science fiction earlier in life.  And makes me lament that a little bit: I mean, I had all the characteristics–I was a nerdy, bookish girl who liked to think a lot and read a lot.  I ended up being a Science major for goodness sake.  How did I get by all of those school librarians and caring teachers without any of them handing me a book like this?  I forgive them, but only because I have now found them.  You might have read this one.  If you haven’t, please do. And even if you have, take these moments to remember it and get a few ideas on how to talk about it with your kids.  While I’m a girl, I think that this will mostly appeal to boys, a sexist comment which is in no way meant to say that girls won’t like it.  (Please, I say “mostly” for a reason.)  But it’s typical boy stuff—boy main character, war games, politics.  Not a lot of love interest in this one.

There are a lot of sequels to Ender’s Game, and as I haven’t read them, I can’t say too much, but I do know this, which I think is cool: some of them happen at the same time as each other, but from different points of view, told by different characters.  The characters are all so good, even the supporting ones, that I’m excited to hear some of their stories.

Although as a disclaimer—I’m not sure if this will be read as a plus or minus to most people—the founder of Facebook claims this as his favorite book.  So that take as you will.

Title: Ender’s Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
Genre
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and a lot of Adults, Ages 10 and up

Summary and Review:

Andrew Wiggins, or “Ender” as his beloved sister has always called him, is a genius.  A rare “third” in a society where a two-child maximum has been imposed, the government has been watching his development closely, hoping he’ll have a mix of his siblings’ genius without the over-aggression of his older brother or the too-peaceful nature of his younger sister.

At only six years old, Ender is taken to a special school to train military geniuses, he engages with his friends in war games, training together and learning combat strategies as humans prepare for what they think will be the third attack by an alien species who has almost wiped out the human race twice before.  This is part action adventure, part school fiction, and part coming-of-age story.  Ender’s heroics as a leader on the battlefields endear him to the strategists but make him some fierce enemies within the school itself.  Bullying, cliques, and friendships are all themes this book is not afraid to explore.

When it came time for the final games, I actually cried when the scene opened up, with Ender at the controls and the friends he had made under his command.  I felt like I had known these kids for years, and I was still only in the first book.  The ending is beautiful, poignant, surprising, and provocative.  And then when Ender himself thinks about everything that happened, it is all those things all over again.  An amazingly crafted tale with an amazing voice and great characters.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Let’s be honest.  The most likely reader for this story is a boy in middle school and high school, so the conversations you are going to have with him aren’t long.  But there are a lot of great things to talk about.  I think some of the great themes in the book are:

a) school classroom teasing, bullying, and hierarchy
b) friendships
c) politics and political power (specifically the political power that Ender’s siblings are gaining, anonymously, through their online writings)
d) inter-species relations (which can obviously translate to inter-racial relations, international relations, intercultural relations, and even, speaking in environmental terms rather than extraterrestrial ones, inter-species relations again
e) what it means to grow up

When you talk to your kids about the book, ask them mostly about the characters.  I think a lot of a, b, and e can get lost in the action and science fiction of it all.  But the book is really about these people and how they interact, and just asking open-ended questions to learn more about the book should open an interesting conversation about school dynamics.  Also, it can be hard to get a middle school kid to talk about school cliques, but if they are talking about them in the context of an other-worldly school, it becomes less real and easier to talk about.  And no matter who they are talking about, you’ll still get a very good picture of how they think things are going in their own school, with their own friends.  Even if they won’t say so directly.

Other questions you could ask:

1) Why is the government using children for these missions and training?

2) What are the qualities in Ender that make him so special?  Both of his siblings are just as smart, if not smarter, than him.  What makes him different?

3) What does your child think about the ending of the book, and more importantly, about what Ender thinks about what happened?

4) A science kid might be interested in the idea of two different species trying to understand each other.  In this case, the buggers and the humans, with their different system of communications, fail to understand each other at a catastrophically fatal level.  Could it be possible that humans in this world are doing this with different species in this world?

Alternatively to a conversation, you could do a newspaper or online search for modern stories that parallel different story lines in the book.  This would be a great activity for an older child, especially one who is interested in politics or warfare.  There are a million stories out there that would work–some political, some environmental, some social.  The book comments on so much.

Really, you could do a year’s worth of curriculum on this book.  But I will stop here.  This is supposed to be a blog, after all, not a unit of curriculum.

September 24, 2010

Imagine if you had the power to GIVE color to some who could only see in black and white

I would argue that you do have this power.  We all do.  I’ve never met someone who sees the world the same way I do.  This could mean that I’m some kind of mutant.  But more likely I think it means that we all see things differently.    And by having real conversations with each other, we can spread the color around until all of our worlds become so colorful, so multi-dimensional that we would have no choice but to see the other person’s point of view.

That would be power.  The kind of power that changes the world.  And in Jonas’s world in the beautifully conceived Giver, that’s exactly what does happen.

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre
: Fantasy
Age: Middle School, 9 – 13

Summary and Review:

Jonas is 12 and he is about to learn his profession, chosen for him by the elders in his society and handed out in a ceremony with his peers.  But Jonas isn’t chosen for one of the standard jobs of child-rearing or cleaning.  Instead, he is chosen to be the next “Receiver of Memories” and as his training begins, he starts to realize things about his world he never saw before.

The first thing Jonas does is stop taking the drugs prescribed to all citizens when they reach adolescence.  He notices feelings for girls he never had before.  He starts to see in color when before he only saw in black and white (and significantly, the first thing he sees is the red of an apple).  And he starts to learn the stories from his predecessor, the stories and memories of all that has been taken from his community, all that came before.  He learns about weather that isn’t always perfect.  He learns about war and pain, love and loss.  He learns what it really means when a child who doesn’t developed properly is “released”.  And gradually but finally, he decides he cannot bear the burden of knowledge alone, in a world where these things will never exist.

(SPOILER ALERT) I’ve heard some people complain that the ending is too vague–that they want to know exactly what happens to Jonas.  But Jonas is escaping a world where everything is predictable and controlled.  The fact that he has even made it into the unknown means he has succeeded.  And that, to me, is the whole point.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I could talk about this book for months.  In fact, I’ve used it in the classroom, to talk with seventh graders about utopia and dystopia and what those themes means.  Nowadays, I suppose every seventh grader has read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (which I also love) and so they have been certainly introduced to those themes.  This book is less violent, perhaps more subtle, more introspective, but no less powerful.  And this book isn’t about a community-wide struggle for freedom, but simply one boy’s quest for the truth in the world, even if that quest comes from understanding just how painful that truth can be.

One great family activity after reading this book would be to watch the movie Pleasantville.   It has a lot of similar themes–a seemingly perfect society where everything is in black and white, everyone is “happy”, if only in conversation, and the weather is perfect.  There is also no outside world.  But then two modern kids are zapped through their television (Pleasantville is an old TV show) and they start to change the society.  Through their actions the citizens of Pleasantville are introduced to color, love, sex, and knowledge along with hatred, bigotry, and censorship.  The image of the red apple also appears symbolically in the film.

(SPOILER ALERT) The movie also ends on slightly vague terms, although not as vague as the book, giving rise to the idea (and great discussion topic) that uncertainty is one of the prices we pay for our freedom.

Simply comparing the movie and the book will give you a lot to talk about and illuminate a lot of important themes.  Some other questions you might want to discuss are:

– Why did the people of Jonas’s society decide to create it the way they did?  What do you think were the benefits?  Do you see any benefit to living in a black and white, seemingly “perfect” society?

– Why did they create a “Receiver of Memories” if they wanted to erase those things from their own memories?

– If you were in Jonas’s position, would you have done the same thing?  Why?

– Is there anything in our own society that attempts to make things “more pleasant” for us at the expense of knowledge or experience?  What is that?  Do you think it’s a good idea?  Are there things we shouldn’t be allowed to learn by making our own mistakes or having our own experiences?  (Examples might include laws that protect us from ourselves, like a drinking age, school dress codes, internet filters at school or a library, etc.)

– If you were to design the “perfect” society, what would it look like?  What kind of laws would you have?