Monthly Archives: November 2008

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet

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If a novel involves food, it automatically jumps up a few notches on my reading-enjoyment scale. So naturally, I’ve been interested to read Sherri L. Smith’s book, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet since I first heard about it a few months ago.

As the title suggests, Smith’s novel centres around yummy things, specifically how different tastes play around together to make complex dishes and interesting cuisines. Ana Shen, the central character, is herself a blend of cultures and histories, as her mother is African American and her father is Chinese American. Her Social Studies teacher calls Ana’s family, “marvelously biracial” and “multicultural.” Ana’s just Ana, and she doesn’t think too much about how interesting she might be to anyone else, but she does sometimes think about how complicated it is to have grandparents who just don’t seem to “get” each other, and who barely disguise their judgments of one another whenever they’re together.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet takes place in a single day, the day of Ana’s eighth grade graduation. Her Grandma and Grandpa and her Nai Nai and Ye Ye are in town to mark the occasion, which means Ana is just a little nervous about the possibility of impending arguments or at the very least, some serious tension. At the same time, she’s anticipating the grad dance, and in particular, dancing with her crush, Jamie Tabata. After a minor disaster during the graduation ceremony leads to the cancellation of the dance, Ana ends up planning her own party at the last minute, including a dinner that will be prepared by various members of her family. She’s not sure how everyone is going to work together to make this happen, but in only four hours, Jamie Tabata and his parents will be joining them for a home-cooked feast, Shen-style.

What’s great about Sherri Smith’s book is that it feels like you’re taking a look inside a typical family’s home, watching them cooking and arguing and trying to say what they mean but not always getting it right. There is a very natural tone throughout that makes you feel like you completely get the relationships between Ana and her parents and her grandparents. She loves them. They love her. They drive her crazy. She’s tired of being the mediator, always trying to smooth things over between her sets of grandparents. In some ways, it seems like she wishes she could change them. I liked how these relationships were portrayed as messy and complicated but in the end, essentially strong and supportive.

In case you’re wondering, the book is not a hit-you-over-the-head exploration of identity and what it’s like to be caught between cultures. These themes are there, but really the book looks at Ana’s uncertainty at a time of change in her life, as she moves towards a new school and new experiences. She wonders about her future, and she wonders about where she comes from, but she also wonders if she’s going to get her first kiss anytime soon and whether or not she should dye her hair. That’s real life. The small questions and the bigger ones. You’ll find both in Sherri Smith’s book. You’ll also probably find yourself wanting some fried chicken and gumbo and pork dumplings too. Be warned.

Visit Sherri L. Smith’s website for more about her and her books, and you’ll find a Reading Guide for this title there too.

Tupelo Rides the Rails

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Can you get over the cuteness of sweet little Tupelo, riding the rails with her sock toy, Mr. Bones? I thought not. In her newest book, Tupelo Rides the Rails, Melissa Sweet has created a charming, heart-wearming tale of doggy adventure, determination and dreams. Move over Lassie and Toto, there’s a new pooch in town.

After the wonderful dog-inspired timeline at the beginning of the book, page one of this tale finds Tupelo abadoned on the side of the road by her owner, with only her sock toy, Mr. Bones, for company. Quel cruel world! Luckily Tupelo is both resourceul and optimistic and she tells her trusty sidekick, “Everyone belongs somewhere. We’ll find a place.” So off they go, searching for their tribe. They soon find a group of hounds preparing for an ancient bone-burying ritual. The BONEHEADS (Benevolent Order of Nature’s Exalted Hounds Earnest and Doggedly Sublime) plan to bury their bones as offerings as they make wishes to Sirius, the Dog Star. All of the dogs want something a little bit different, but mostly, they’re each longing for their perfect home. I won’t reveal more, because it’s far more delightful just to read it for yourself. But I will tell you there are wieners and a train ride and a whole lot of happy endings involved.

I am crazy about the illustrations. As in one of my other fav Melissa Sweet titles, Carmine, the illustrations here match the free-spirited, whimsical and warm overtones of the text. I can hardly choose a favourite, but it I had to, I’d pick the full-pager of Tupelo sitting all alone at the top of a grassy slope, eyes turned skyward towards the Dog Star, making a wish with all her might with Mr. Bones in her mouth. Adorable. Pure sweetness.

Bravo Melissa Sweet. Give this book to any dog lover, to any kid, to anyone.

Visit Melissa Sweet’s website as well as the Houghton Mifflin Reader Guide for some great suggestions for educators. Oh, and you MUST visit Tupelo’s own site too, My Dog is a Bonehead, where you can send a picture of your pup and he can join the rest of the Boneheads and support Animal Shelters too.

Ride on Tupelo.

Thanks Harris Burdick

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For the past 3 years, I’ve had the Portfolio Edition of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick lying unopened on a shelf in my basement, getting dusty. In fact, I’d forgotten about it completely until I was rooting around for something last Saturday and chanced upon it. So this week, I decided to pull it out and I brought it to school and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much excitement and eagerness to write in a room full of children. Ever.

I think it’s magic. Honest to goodness teaching magic. Every Grade 5 teacher needs this book, and needs the portfolio of illustrations to use as well, because it will get students writing in a way you wouldn’t have thought could happen. In only two days, I’ve got practically a whole story from every single kid in my class. The students who find it painful to write two sentences when you ask for five have created pages of story, without any planning or guidance or struggle. They’re just desperate to get the stories out and to read them to one another. And the best part? Better than the fact that I’ve got kids asking me, “When will we be writing today?” ? The best part is these stories are darn good. Some of the them are shockingly good. I think I’m just as eager as the students to find out what will happen next. I can only imagine how fantastic their work will be after I’ve actually taught them about creating tension, characterization and establishing setting. They’re doing so much of this already, purely by instinct, and that is tremendously exciting to watch.

Forgive the gushy teacher excitement, but I really needed a little magic 17 days before the end of a very long first term.

If you haven’t, check out The Mysteries of Harris Burdick Website for ideas on how to use the text in your classroom, and to read some examples of student-written stories inspired by the book (not to brag… but my kids’ stories could blow most of these out of the water).

I bow to your greatness, Chris Van Allsburg.

The Hunger Games

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3 Reasons to like (OK… sort of worship) Suzanne Collins:

1) She wrote The Hunger Games, which in case you’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere since October, is her much-acclaimed first novel in what will be a trilogy. (Thank goodness).

2) She adopts feral kitties and one of them is named Zorro. (Pause here to create mental image of claw-slashing, rapier-wielding, masked kitty cat of mystery).

3) She has a big wooden bat hanging in her kitchen window. (Enough said).

So kitties and kitchen bats aside, my purpose here is to spend a little more time considering #1from the list above, because it is very important that everyone (and I mean everyone) out there understands why The Hunger Games is one seriously fantastic read.

Imagine the world after North America is long gone. Panem, a dictatorship divided into 12 Districts, is ruled centrally from a powerful city, known as the Capitol. Life in most of the districts is harsh, and that’s putting it mildly. Citizens work themselves to the bone for next to nothing, with the fruits of their labors heading straight to the wealthiest members of society. Just when you think things couldn’t get much bleaker, once a year, 2 young people, a boy and a girl, are chosen by lottery from each of the 12 districts to compete in the Hunger Games, the most twisted reality TV show you could ever imagine in which the contestants battle each other to the death in an enclosed territory known as the “arena.” The last contestant, or “tribute”, left alive is set for life, with a luxurious home and a lifetime of security and wealth guaranteed for their entire family.

The protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, who hails from the Seam, District 12, a tough mining community that has not had a winning tribute for about 30 years. Katniss is a skilled hunter, and she comes to depend on this ability as she battles for survival in the arena. The second District 12 tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, a stoic partner for the often impulsive, sometimes fiery Katniss. What happens to these two and the rest of the fighters when the game begins is sure to keep you up late, late into the night, turning the pages straight through to the dramatic finish.

I had huge expectations for The Hunger Games, what with the glowing reviews cropping up right, left and centre. Let’s just say, I can’t imagine how I could have been more satisfied. Collins has plotted her narrative expertly; there is no excess here. She tells a tale that is tight and swift and yet still manages to remain complex in its themes. About halfway through, I crawled out of my couch-nest and wandered into the kitchen and said to my fella, “I can’t think of any way this book could possibly end that wouldn’t be completely devastating. This book rocks.” (Back to couch). Here’s a book with substance and suspense, philosophy and big time page-turnability, well-crafted characters and most of all, the promise of even more story ahead. You’ve got injustice, extreme courage, sacrifice, romance, cruelty and the dream of a better world. That’s some story.

Certainly not a light read, The Hunger Games will get readers talking. It begs the questions, “What would I do?” and “Who would I be?” I’d line up to have the chance to eavesdrop on a few conversations at teen book clubs, on the bus, in libraries, or around the dinner table as people consider what the novel means to them.

Ultimately, Suzanne Collins’s story explores the best and worst of humanity, the things about our society that make us shudder and the things that give us hope and feed our spirits in the darkest hours. So read it for yourself, give it to everyone you know, and then start crossing off the days on your calendar till the release of Book Two, in the Fall of 2009.

The Hunger Games is published by Scholastic.

Here’s what everyone else thinks:

Fuse 8
Cheryl Rainfield
Wands and Worlds
Menasha Kids
Confessions of a Bibliovore
YA New York

Coraline Movie Treats

I’m just a little bit excited about the February release of Coraline, the movie. Here’s the trailer:

Holy fantastic, yes? I truly hope that it is creepy. I want it to be very creepy. When I read the book for the first time, I could hardly sleep, what with the whole disembodied hand business. Delightfully terrifying.

There are 2 cool websites to investigate. The first is the Coraline Film in Focus site. Lots of fun things there. Then we have the Official Coraline Website which is super eerie but also quite aggravating because you need these “keys” to enter the site and view the very awesome behind-the-scenes movie clips. Luckily, by the magic of the all-knowing Internet, I have deduced two of the keys all by myself… NOT! Try entering: “puppetlove” and “buttoneyes” and please do drop off any other keys you may discover in the comments section below, as a simple courtesy to moi.

Go read the interview with Mr. Gaiman at Premiere.com

The fact that Neil Gaiman calls the movie “the strangest stop-motion film ever” has to be a good sign.

(OK… just played some more with the Official Website and came across 2 more keys – you must try “armpithair” for a look at how Coraline got her groovy blue tresses, and then “sweaterxxs” to see the world’s tiniest sweater being knitted on toothpick-sized needles. Wow).

Slam

slam

(This post also appears today at Guys Lit Wire)

Nick Hornby’s first venture into YA fiction is the story of a 15-year old skateboarding-crazy teen, whose life is just starting to look up when his girlfriend gets pregnant and everything comes crashing down faster than you can say frontside alley-oop. Slam follows an ordinary guy on a journey he never planned, into territory that’s intense, sometimes hilarious and as real as it gets.

I’d been thinking about reading Slam for months, since I’m a huge fan of Hornby’s other work (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good, A Long Way Down). I admire how he manages to create stories about everyday people that are compelling and thought-provoking. I’ve always thought his books should come with a warning somewhere on the back cover: Attention: Story inside is deeper than it appears. Hornby makes me appreciate the drama of ordinary life. This said, I admit I was a tad put off by the premise of his first YA novel. After all, there are plenty of books out there already that explore teen pregnancy. I had to wonder, couldn’t he come up with something a little more unexpected? I was worried that this book would veer into territory that’s been done and then some.

Oh Nick. I should never have doubted you. Forgive me?

Continue reading

The National Book Award – Have Your Say

Chains

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Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains is one of those books written for young people that I hope lots of grown ups will read too. Fine writing is fine writing, plain and simple, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better writing than this. Chains is for anyone with an interest in the Revolutionary War, who wants a story with guts and heart and an unforgettable central character. I adored this book. It’s about as perfect an example of historical fiction as you’ll find anywhere. Go get it.

After the death of their former owner, Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to a nasty Loyalist family who take the girls to New York. Once there, Isabel becomes secretly involved with the rebels, offering information about her owners in exchange for the promise of freedom. Of course this bargain does not lead Isabel in the direction she had imagined, and she gets swept into the frenzy of conflict around her. This is a portrait of courage, loss, change and resilience – for a girl, and for a young nation.

I can only imagine the amount of research Anderson must have completed to create a story that feels completely true and is so rich in period detail. I began reading Chains with only a basic understanding of these events, and finished the novel inspired to read more of this historical period. Yet at no point do you feel like you’re reading a history textbook. The opposite of dry fact, here is an unflinching look at a cruel time. Expect Isabel’s story to grab onto you and hold tight till the end. The tone of the story, the strength of the characterization and richness of the setting and history reminded me in style of Geraldine Brooks’s novels, especially of Year of Wonders and March – two of my favourite reads ever.

Chains deserves all the praise it’s getting. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it walks away with The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. This is why we read people.

Chains and Long May She Reign

Let me just say, how will I ever top the pair of books I just finished reading?

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Laurie Halse Anderson and Ellen Emerson White, I bow to your greatness. Honestly. (Is it the triple-barreled names ladies? If I have one, will I write a great book too?)

What a time to be reading these remarkable books, all about power and politics, courage and change, going after dreams and thinking beyond the limits of your own life. It was a treat reading them at the same time. I bet Isabel and Meg would be kindred spirits. Read their stories, straight away.

When I’m not trapped in the land o’ report cards, I’ll have my own reviews to present. In the meantime, read the words of my fellow bloggers:

Fuse 8 – Chains
Abby the Librarian – Chains
The YA YA YAs – Long May She Reign
SassyMonkey Reads – Long May She Reign