Monday, March 31, 2014

Guest blogger - Teen vs Adult sensibilities

Janet H. is the colleague I describe as a 'kindred spirit' because we're both fanatical readers of children's literature.  We swap titles constantly adding to each others 'to-be-read' piles on a regular basis.  We have similiar tastes but vary enough that we can often direct each other to books we wouldn't have otherwise got to.  I thought it worth sharing  Janet's retrospective about a recent book club meeting she attended as it focuses on a book a few of us in the Doucette Library really favoured and makes us consider where our own lines in sand are when it comes to contentious issues - How much is too much?

Like most women of a certain age, I belong to a book club. We have all been friends for over 20 years, connected originally by volunteer work, but now connected by our monthly meetings, our passion for books and our love of wine. We select our books in categories and one of the categories on our list is children’s/teen books. Of course, I get nominated to select the book in this category. The category started because we all wanted to read Harry Potter (and needed an excuse, I guess) – but we have read classic children’s books (Alcott and Montgomery), Hunger Games, John Green, and have dipped our collective toes into graphic novels.

So for this year’s choice, I suggested Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I have raved about the power of this book before. It is not an easy read, but the courage and the deep friendship between the two young women resonated strongly with me and stays with me, even a year later.

So I was more than a little surprised that at how much feedback (OK, pushback) was generated about this book. Along with the comments “Deeply disturbing” “Terrible torture scenes - gratuitous” “How could she?” came the inevitable “I can’t believe that this is a YA book – it should be marketed to adults, shouldn't it? It’s very graphic.”

To say I was surprised is, perhaps, an understatement. This is something I got used to defending when the Hunger Games came out – when adults would say, “Children killing children – how awful!”  my tongue in cheek response (one which I usually did not say) was “Have you BEEN in a high school lately? Do you REMEMBER your high school experiences?” I am stating the obvious when I say that I think children and young adults read, in part, to put things into perspective. Reading transports people into a different world and away from their own troubles – the “Hunger Games” may not ever be a world that our children will know, but the need to build friendships and collaborations, the need to  be strong in the face of adversity, the need to recognize and deal with your fears,  are common themes in life.

And I view Code Name Verity both the same and differently. Unlike the Hunger Games, Code Name Verity was written about a historical time that was truly horrible and life altering. Young women and men, to say nothing of children, adults and seniors, were tortured, beaten, experimented on – and all in the name of a truly evil man and his ideas of a perfect world. To be brave enough to enlist in the military, to serve your country when it was at war, to take on the role of a spy, or to work as part of the Resistance movement when you have barely reached maturity as an adult was a very real experience for many of that generation. More to the point for me, was the strength of the friendships formed in that time – when you never knew what the next day would bring – when you could not fathom how you were going to summon the courage to carry on, you did - and in the face of utter horror, complete despair and physical and emotional pain. Hope and optimism against evil drove many to be brave and courageous (even foolhardy?) when the odds appeared to be against them.

I re-read Code Name Verity before our book club meeting. I wanted to know if the impact that it had on me was a result of “glorifying”  the book in my head or was very real. What struck me again as I re-read it was the strength of the bond between two young women. I had forgotten that final scene and what happened on the bridge until I read it again. And the awfulness of that moment hit me again – and made me wonder what I would have done in that moment. Was the violence gratuitous? I don’t think so – it seemed to be a necessary part of the action. And from any non-fiction accounts of what I have read, this was a very real part of the Second World War and the fate of those captured by the Germans and thought to be spies.

Wein, in the afterword, states that there was no part of the book that was not based on a real event. And I think that is what sold me on the book and made me recommend it to my book club. At the same time, she also says that what she wanted to write was not a good history, but a good story. I think she did that in spades. Would I recommend it again? Yes, but perhaps I would position it differently (although I can’t remember how I positioned it, so maybe that was not the issue). Perhaps the issue is that we persist in thinking of the teen/YA years as an idyllic time and of teenagers as basically self-centered individuals struggling to become fully realized adults.  Instead, this book should reinforce that many teens were, and are, capable strong beings when called upon to do the impossible. And maybe there was some of the “I could never do that” in the narrative of my friends. Who knows?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Homeward bound

Recently, Canada’s military has more or less pulled up stakes in Afghanistan, its 12 year mission complete; I thought the book The Road to Afghanistan by Linda Granfield a timely selection for the blog.

This is a story told from the perspective of a Canadian soldier recently sent home, who is contemplating how she became a part of this mission and the cost of war -- any war -- for those involved.

Thinking about her great-grandfather who signed up to be a soldier in the First World War and its impact on his life, ties together the sacrifices that all soldiers understand they may have to make.  Her musings are interspersed with recollections of the sights, sounds and people she met while stationed in Afghanistan.  There’s a lot of beauty but there is also darkness and pain.   And the hopeful note that's found throughout the book is that life does go on despite the losses.

The book would be a good piece to bring into middle grade classrooms to start discussions and raise awareness about the nature and costs of war.  With so much in the news recently about veterans and the struggles that they often face returning home and becoming civilians again, this story provides an opportunity to further student understanding that war doesn’t end when the last shot is fired.

Consider using Kathy Stinson's  Highway of Heroes for younger students.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Graphic novel roundup- on the lighter side, mostly

Hopefully, I've something for everyone with this roundup.

Also, I noticed that most of my recommendations lean slightly to the lighter side which I attribute to the more typical spring-like temperatures.  In true Canadian fashion, my outlook is connected closely to the weather.  Come on, Spring!

For the youngest crowd (grade 1-3), there’s Binky Takes Charge by Ashley Spires.  This is my second encounter with Binky, the cat with super-hero aspirations and intentions for saving humans from alien bugs from outer space.  In this encounter, Binky has been given the assignment of training a new recruit who turns out to be of questionable character and ability.  Besides being (gasp!) a dog part of a new ‘diversity initiative’ to accept all cadets regardless of species, Binky suspects a traitor.  And Gordon is all dog.  Chewing on everything, peeing at inappropriate times and just being a general nuisance Gordon does turn out to have some amazing abilities. He’s a technological genius who steps in at a critical moment to help save the day against marauding alien insects. 

This one is lots of fun playing on the differing and stereotypical natures of cats and dogs.  The illustrations are cleverly done and easy to follow for early readers.   I look forward to Binky’s next adventure.

Monster On the Hill by Rob Harrell is another fun romp that takes place in a 1860s fantasy world where being terrorized by monsters is a money-making venture for every village which has a monster.  Unfortunately, not all monsters are created equal (or at least as terrifying as the next) and the monster of the village of Stoker-On-Avon is experiencing a crisis in self-confidence.  What could be worse than a monster that doesn't even show up?  Town fathers decide that the only course of action is to send the discredited Doc Charles Wilkie to ‘fix’ him.  Reluctantly, Doc approaches Rayburn, a self-labelled lame monster to discover that what he needs is a refresher on how to ‘be’ a monster.  A neighbouring, successful monster, Tentaculor (aka Noodles) a long-time friend of Rayburn, becomes his tutor. Silly antics and adventure ensues as well as a big battle with a truly terrifying monster known as Murk.

The humour is perfectly captured in the illustrations with plenty of colour and cartoony action.

For the next level, grades 9 and up I’m recommending Will & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge.  Even though the tone of this graphic novel is not really humorous there is a breeziness to it that really appealed to me considering some the heavy storylines.  Will (short for Wilhelmina) is a high school student dealing with some fairly significant issues.  She’ll graduate soon and is figuring out what comes next.  There is an even bigger issue, the death of her parents that gradually unfolds and resolves itself over the course of the book.  Friends and hurricane Whitney (or Whit) help Will come to terms with where her life is at.  The love that supports Will keeps this one from becoming too angst-ridden.  I liked the mysterious shadows that appear every now and again that add atmosphere and helps frame the resolution of the story.

Black and white illustrations work well for this graphic novel especially with the connection to storms, grief and shadows.  This was just a pleasure to read.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Coffee table books round up

Even though I haven’t been blogging very much in the past few weeks rest assured that I’m always busy reading or at least looking at books with lots of pictures.

Thus today’s topic – coffee table picture books.

I’m a big proponent of these books as the best of them are typically, beautifully produced, informative and often give us mini-narratives about the photographer’s work, adventures and views on a given topic.

Let’s start with Dawn to Dark Photographs: the Magic of Light by National Geographic.  I can’t think of a single National Geographic book that has ever disappointed me.  Always stunningly beautiful photographs arrayed in thoughtfully produced books.

In Dawn to Dark Photographs, the photographs are sorted into eight sections based on time of day starting with dawn, then into sunrise, morning, midday, afternoon, sunset, twilight and then night.  Most of the photos are of landscapes and specific natural phenomena with a few showing people or animals.  In terms of classroom use, I was thinking about the obvious connections with the elementary science units about light and shadows, time, animals, as well as with photography as an art form for any level.  What I hadn't thought about was the meditative quality of the book.  Jim Richardson in the preface reminds us that photographs can resemble medieval meditations (think illuminated texts like the Book of Hours) as we pause to look and reflect on “the miracle of light and appreciate its infinite and astonishing variety”.  Every few pages we get a short passage written by the photographers about their picture: what they saw and experienced and maybe tried to capture in their image.  Or we are given a short poem, quote or thought that ties into the adjacent photo. 

India: In Word & Image by Eric Meola obviously connects to the grade 3 social studies curriculum which looks at life in India.  What totally blew me away was the overwhelming sense of colour.  Even before getting to the title page our eyes are bombarded with achingly vibrant colours.  Besides being richly coloured, the photographs capture the exotic and textured landscapes and architecture of India.  Images of people are captured individually or in groups in moments of celebration and everyday activities.  I’m not sure if it’s just me being caught up with the myriad of patterns and colours of saris or the photographer’s keen interest, as many of the pictures depict sari-clad women.

The photographs are anchored between passages, often selections taken from novels, written by authors who are Indian, of Indian descent, or who write about India.  The passages are appropriate for high school level and up but the pictures will engross any age.

And, finally I’m recommending Relics: Travels in Nature’s Time Machine by Piotr Naskrecki. This one has more text than the other two making it appropriate for high school reading level and up or perhaps for students who are super keen on palaeontology and willing to make the effort.  I didn't find the information difficult to digest; it just seemed a little dense and might be intimidating to less-than-proficient readers.  However, Naskrecki does include lots of vignettes of his adventures, which read like little mini-stories and he certainly conveys his passion and excitement.

But it's the great pictures that will get students into the book.

This entomologist is also a fantastic photographer who travels the world looking for animal and plant relics found in nature.  “Living fossils”, relicts and relics all refer to those species of plants and animals that can be linked to similar organisms in the fossil record.  These are modern plants and animals that can provide insight into genetics, habitats, adaptations and behaviours of ancient species.  Some of these include horseshoe crabs, legless lizards, various tree frogs, toads, caterpillars, ferns and fern-ish looking trees known as cycads, magnolias and so many more.

One critter of particular interest is found in the Rocky Mountains close to Calgary.  Ice crawlers are insects that live in ice caves or on northern talus slopes up to about 3,000 meters, who like it cold but not too cold (0 to -9 degrees Celsius).  You can kill an ice crawler by merely touching it because of our warm body temperatures. Very cool little critters.  Again and again, I flip through pages and see yet another fascinating animal and another and another…

Classroom connections again would lean to environmental science, art and language arts.

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