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Friday, November 11, 2011

The New World of Creeps and Critters in The Monstrumologist

For Readers:

Historical Fantasy. Two great things that go great together. At least this is true in Rick Yancey's Printz Honor winning novel The Monstrumologist. I loved this book. From start to finish. My only drawback (and it's a mercy really) was I had to put it down sometimes because reading about the Anthropophagi at times made my skin creep. For boys, this book is especially thrilling. Young Will Henry, a 12-year-old orphan, devotes himself to his employer/caretaker Pellinore Warthrop.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Klein + Cate of the Lost Colony = Disappointment

For Educators and Readers:

I did not like this book. Too bad too because I loved Lisa Klein's Ophelia and Two Girls of Gettysburg so I was very excited to see a Lost Colony historical fiction. Understand I have a very special place in my heart for the first English attempts to colonize the coast of modern day North Carolina. I live here for one. I've paddled the same waters around modern day Manteo, stood on top of Jockey's Ridge, and have been swallowed up by the vastness of the ocean standing on Ocracoke's shores. I've seen descendants of the same black bears Thomas Harriot recorded in his New Found Land of Virginia. I've heard the howling of the red wolves recovered from near total extinction and returned to run the land between the Sounds. I've spoken with the many-great grandchildren of the ancient Native Algonquins who greeted the first English planters and have cried more than once at knowing their unfortunate fate less than a century later. I've visited the archaeological digs, studied the wildlife, read the historical documents, interviewed the experts, immersed myself in pow-wows and reenactments, and tried as best I can to imagine what it must have been like to experience both the beauty and terror of what Ralph Lane declared as a new "Eden". It was gravely disappointing to see so little of this in Klein's novel. I felt lost in a world that is vastly familiar to me--fitting perhaps for the subject matter, but certainly not the author's intention.

Let me be clear--it appears Klein did her homework. Her inclusion of a bibliography at the end of her novel shows this. I've read all of the works she listed, and more, and I'm willing to say it may be because of that I am grading Klein too harshly for what I feel is a poorly created historical setting. She does infuse Algonquin and period English words into the text very well, and I do feel her depiction of the English court of Queen Elizabeth, at least from a lady in waiting's perspective, is interesting and more accurate than we tend to see in young adult historical fiction. Elizabeth is vain, self-centered, and witty. The use of author-modified documents and poetry actually composed by Sir Walter Raleigh is an interesting narrative twist. And Klein's descriptions of the wild animal menagerie at the Tower of London and the hinted sexual diversions of the court work both as literary devices as well as to give a sense of the grittiness we want to see in modern historical fiction. Not a glorified altruistic golden age of the past, but a time, like ours, covered in grime and warts and selfishness. Klein achieves this, at least in part.

However, there is never a place in the book where I begin to care about the main character Lady Cate. Though she is an orphan, I don't feel her pain. She seems to too easily adapt to both courtly life and her infatuation with Sir Walter Raleigh even while bemoaning the loss of her father. It didn't feel real to me, her frequent "mopping of tears" or her shift in loyalties between the Queen, Sir Walter, and later Manteo.  Cate, as a character, became someone I did not sympathize with despite her obvious hardships. I couldn't. Not when it seemed like her heartache was mostly of her own making. Unlike a character who gains perspective from mistakes, one who changes, it felt the only change Cate made from beginning to end was in her dress. Not because she wanted to either, but because her options were limited.

Klein says she depicts the Native Algonquins in the book as best she could using what historical texts are available and retelling of traditional legends. As someone who has studied extensively in this area, I know how difficult it is to find accurate texts. Unfortunately, the limited and scattered references we do have are all, at one point or another, distorted through the European viewpoints and cultural biases of the English or Americans who initial put pen to paper. Primary and secondary documents, historical experts, and cultural legends and artifacts help, but nothing can fully reveal the story. This is understand and agree with. Unfortunately, from a reader's perspective, Klein stops too early. Manteo, like Cate, is a character I have difficulty connecting with even though I really wanted to. What must have been going through his head? A Native Algonquin man transported to the stone towers and filthy masses of 16th century London? Shock? Anguish? Awe? Could he have had any idea of what was to come for his people the way Powhatan's priests prophesied a generation later at the arrival of the ships baring Jamestown colonists? We will never know for sure. We can only imagine.

But surely we can imagine. Humanity has not changed so much in four centuries or across cultures separated by millenia. We still feel heartache, compassion, hatred, love, anger and resentment and betrayal, trust and forgiveness and hope. These things haven't changed in us, much the same way the land here in Northeastern North Carolina has changed little over the intervening four centuries since the famous Lost Colonists became lost. It is that lack of distance between us I believe Klein fails to display. In trying to capture the events and the period, Klein fails to capture the heart of her characters. They don't change and when they do, it is a forced kind of change stemming from limiting circumstances rather than a change of heart or belief. Unfortunately, it is this distance from her characters that limits what could have been an enjoyable novel.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Slow Water Runs Deep in Caletti's Honey, Baby, Sweetheart

For Educators:

Deb Caletti's National Book Award Finalist novel Honey, Baby, Sweetheart is a slow-moving, deep river of a book. It is not a book I recommend for a "quick" reader, someone who likes fast-paced, action driven plot lines or over the top romances. This novel takes its time, a lazy-day afternoon tubing down a backwater creek, relaxed but never sluggish, mesmerizing but never rushed. Ruby McQueen, the sixteen-year-old main character, is so average, so real, she is as surprised as we are when she starts making choices and taking chances far outside of her comfort zone. Caletti lulls the reader into a world so familiar it's easy for us to miss the uniqueness of the everyday. But Caletti's lyrical narrative voice accentuates the details hidden in the seemingly mundane. As an example of voice, this book ranks highly. Her third-person, past tense point of view gives us the clue we need to know Ruby at lease survives her summer, but her frequent foreshadowed statements like, "I'm not usually a reckless person. What happened the summer of my junior year was not about recklessness. It was about the way a moment, a single moment, could change things and make you decide to try to be someone different," tell us from the second paragraph survival may be all Ruby receives from her reckless summer. It's enough though to keep a keen reader reading. It's those hints, those glimpses of self-awareness, that propel Caletti's main character through her plot. A dozen times throughout the book I thought I knew where Caletti would take Ruby, but always she surprised me. Always Ruby's own understanding and hubris and flaws kept me guessing. Like an afternoon tubing down a river, I knew where the route would eventually deposit me, but I could never have anticipated the perspective. An insightful student will appreciate Ruby's oh so familiar and still so unique perspective as she winds her way through a difficult summer full of life-changing choices.

For Readers:

I've had Honey, Baby, Sweetheart sitting on my shelf for a while actually. I respected the silver medal it received as National Book Award Finalist shining at me from the cover, but knew somehow I'd have to be in the right mood to read this book. Sometimes, it's just that way. Like ice cream or pizza. Sometimes you want chocolate and sometimes vanilla. Sometimes super supreme and sometimes nothing but pepperoni. This book is a good book for when you have a little time to be slow, or for when you don't have a lot of time to read for relaxation, but aren't under a deadline to finish a book off. It's a slow book, but that's a good thing because there is so very much to get from it. It took me about a month to read this book, picking it up and reading a few pages every day or every couple days. There are parts, especially toward the end, where I plowed through because I wanted to know what Ruby would do--would she realize Travis was dangerous and dump him? Would the Casserole Queens eat her alive? Would her father finally and forever break her mother's heart? And would that be a good thing? Ruby tells the story from after the summer is over, so she knows what's going to happen even when we as readers don't. And it's that perspective that allows Ruby some reflection. She knows, even as she relates it to us, she knew she was play-acting when flirting with Travis, that she was uncomfortable even when she was doing it, but also felt that thrill of being someone somebody liked. She felt attractive, desirable, and a little bit dangerous herself and I think most every modern American girl has walked that tension bridge between what we know feels good and what is good for us. Ruby takes us there again, both for herself and through her mother's roller coaster relationship with her sometimes-husband, Ruby and Chip Jr. father. But it's only through Ruby's own experiences with Travis she is finally able to empathize with her mother and it is only through their adventure with the elderly Lillian Ruby and her mother both finally choose a life for themselves. I don't want to give too much away, but if you like a lazy-day sort of book, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart is definitely one to keep handy.

Monday, February 14, 2011

If I Stay: Composed Like A Musical Score

One of the best new books I read in 2010 was If I Stay by Gayle Forman. Automatically I checked it out in 2009 at my school's Scholastic book fair because of the editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel. There are few books she's edited I haven't liked. The story intrigued me, but not enough to lay out the price for a hardback at the time. (Limited teacher's budget and all that.) So I put it back in favor of a couple of paperbacks. I wish I hadn't.

I read If I Stay in two sittings. The story moves easily, like a well composed musical score. Emotional highs playing counterpoint to the tragedy of the plot. Mia, the main character, is easily likable and readable. While she describes herself as shy, her expressive narrative is open, revealing her innermost thoughts and doubts and delights. All the time Mia relives her life through her memories, we as readers are conscious of the despairing undertone of it all.

Mia's parents die in the first chapter in a graphically described scene of a car accident. The fate of her little brother, Teddy, remains unknown through much of the novel. Her true love boyfriend Adam also remains absent for most of the present day narrative. The lovely, lonely girl watches herself in the ICU, watches relatives and friends worry and mourn, and is unable to reach them in her ghostly state. The mood of these pieces resemble the somber tones of Mia's chosen instrument--the cello--in hollow, aching sounds. But this is only half of the novel.

All of Forman's minor timber scenes interweave flawlessly with Mia's recollections of brighter memories. Her first kiss. Teddy as a curly-haired baby. The day she first saw the cello. Her parents' metamorphosis from leather-and-stud wearing punk-rocker couple to a tightly-knit, ironically-retro family. We see, through Mia's memories, all aspects of love. The thrill of the erotic with Adam, the secure bonds of the familial, and the sometimes stressful challenges of friendship as we see in Mia's interactions with her best friend Kim. Both the past memories and the present observations complete Mia's life story like a beautiful song, the kind that grips you when you hear it, the kind that locks into your soul.

FOR EDUCATORS: If I Stay is a perfect book for independent or small group reading assignments. While the size is small, the canvas is large. There are plenty of emotional, social, and musical connections students can make to both the main character of Mia and to the significant people in her life--Adam, her parents, Teddy, Kim. Themes of self and social identity constantly pull the story together. In fact, Mia's central conflict--should she stay, as in stay alive, or go, as in let her body and consciousness die--is the story of her self-identity. Who is she without her family? If she were to stay and they are gone, would she still be herself? It's an interesting question Forman raises without ever answering it. Possibly, there will be an answer in her forth coming sequel Where She Went scheduled to come out this spring.

The self-identity theme is also present in Mia's choice to play the cello. For her, the instrument drew her, compelled her to play. But Mia worries over what this choice says about her nature and how she fits into the fabric of her family and friends. The fact she loves the cello and classical music makes her feel the constant outsider to her family and boyfriend who are notable on the local rock scene. At one point she seriously wonders if she were adopted. This nagging doubt echoes Hamlet's constant struggle for self-identification. "To be or not to be, that is the question..." which is in fact Mia's question as well with the entire novel as her soliloquy.

In another Hamlet connection, Polonius cautions his son Laertes with these words, "This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." In If I Stay, Mia learns the value of Polonius's admonition. Her Halloween transformation into a rocker chick makes her believe, for a night at least, she should be someone else, that she would be better as someone else. And while it is thrilling and fun to live life as she thinks she should be, by the end of the night she realizes, through Adam's gentle reminder, she is loved not because of who she could be, but for who she is. And it is Mia alone who faces the truth of her self in the final scenes of the novel. She decides whether or not to be true or false. She is the only one who can make the choice.

FOR READERS: As a reader, I loved this book. The first few pages didn't hook me though. I thought they were slow with the happy family scene over the excitement of a snow day. It isn't until much later the tragedy of that scene truly comes through. By page 15 "The car is eviscerated" and so is Mia's life as she knew it. Forman does something masterful here by letting the sound of the radio continue to play Beethoven while Mia discovers, in a very detached way, the accident. Her mother's bloodless body, her father's brains scattered over the road, her own broken, twisted form lying in a ditch. Shock doesn't begin to cover the emotions I felt when I read this scene. From that point on, I could not put the book down. I literally fell asleep with it in my hands.

The novel reads like a score of music. If you've never listened to classical music, do. You will need to if you really want to understand Mia. Yo-Yo Ma is a real cellist whose work inspires. Add him to your iTunes collection, search for videos of him on YouTube if you have to, but listen. Turn up the volume and listen with the lights off. Then you will hear what Mia does in the voice of the cello. It's a voice no human can mimic, full of sorrow and longing and hope. Just like Mia.

But classical music is only part of the story. Mia's earliest musical teeth are cut on greats in other genres--rock, punk, metal, reggae. Being more the classical variety of musician myself, I am grateful for the author's notes on the musical references in the back of the Speak paperback edition of the book. I've listened to the songs and artists Forman references and have found a few I've added to my collection, and was surprised to find a few I recognized by sound but hadn't known by name. Music is a huge part of Mia's life, so it's naturally a huge part of the story as well. But the real craft of the book is how seamlessly and hauntingly (no pun intended) Forman composes the story like a score, a tribute to the real family tragedy in Forman's life which inspired this work.

If you've not yet read If I Stay, don't wait for the movie version. Buy it now. It's well worth the price.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Twilight: Scaffolding a Reader

If you've read my other posts, you know I'm a Twi-hard, a fan of the Twilight phenomenon. But as a classroom teacher, I have an educational reason for appreciating Twilight-y-ness infiltrating our culture. The reason? Scaffolding readers.

To "scaffold" in educational terms is to continually build from one level of learning to another. A sixth grade student who reads on a third grade level will not be able to comprehend sixth grade texts independently. She needs to be "scaffolded" from her current literacy skills to her appropriate level. There are many, many ways to do this. So many in fact I could argue there are as many scaffolds as there are children who need them. Ideally, all teaching should be tailored to a student's independent skills, goals, interests, etc. But the reality is in today's classroom, it isn't possible to tailor every lesson for every student. A diligent teacher will develop student-centered learning projects so lessons are more readily molded to each student independently, meeting him where he is and scaffolding him to where he needs to be. One way to do this of course is through independent reading projects.

As part of a school wide literacy curriculum, my students participated in a quarterly assessed independent reading project. Students were required to choose four books a quarter, read them, pass the AR tests with at least 80% accuracy, and develop a visual display from a list of projects linked to the quarter's learning objectives. This could be anything from a poster describing a similar theme in all four books and how the student linked the theme to her own life, a series of book reviews posted to Scholastic's "What Are You Reading?" website, or even the old standby diorama depicting a setting not described in the book but one that would still fit within the world, like Hermione's dorm room or a shop in Hogsmead Hogwarts students never enter. These projects were about promoting growth in independent reading, academic accountability, and building personal connections to literature. For the most part, students loved these quarterly reading projects. The products were imaginative and adventurous and the best from the school were displayed in the library or on the main hallway. It was a great way to promote reading in a creative, competitive way at a school where most of our students entered reading below grade level. But the project was still a challenge and not all students achieved their goals. This is where Twilight and "scaffolding" comes in.

From what I can discern, Twilight is written between a fourth and fifth grade reading level. Not exactly the kind of book that should provide an academic stretch for a sixth grader, but remember, most of our students did not enter middle school reading on grade level. They also did not read independently as a habit outside of class and most, with the exception of the Potterheads, had never read books much thicker than 100 pages on average. "Big" books like the Harry Potter series and the Twilight saga were simply intimidating because they were so large. While the reading level may be appropriate and the student's personal interest may be high, many balked at the amount. All those pages...it was like standing on the beach with someone telling you to swim for Africa.

But sometimes, when the stars align, the impossible begins to happen. This is what I love about teaching...I can make the stars align.

I want to tell you a story of a student named Claire (not her real name). I taught Claire from sixth through eighth grade. She did not have the best home situation, stood a foot taller than her friends for most of her middle school years, and did not strive particularly hard in class. But there was something there. Claire, when I could get her to do her homework, showed promise. And she longed to be part of a group of friends. She longed to feel an emotional connection with school. Understand, Claire never became one of my "special case" students where I acted as mentor and teacher both inside and out of the classroom. We never did anything beyond the school day and she constantly waffled in her grades. But I talked with her about stories -- books, TV shows, movies, country ballads lyrics about the family and love Claire craved. Then I matched Claire up with books she could read. I "scaffolded" her from where she was in her independent reading skills to where she could be. I gave her funny books at first to read on her own, like the Dear Dumb Diary series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Then I put her on The Whipping Boy and Shiloh and Goosebumps ghost stories. In class of course I continued to purposefully teach literacy building skills like visualizing and making connections to the text, to other texts, and to the world. Finally, Claire made it through sixth grade with a C average in my class.

In seventh grade, Claire started off shaky again, missing school and cutting up in class. But she wanted to read Twilight. The first movie was scheduled to come out in the fall and the friends Claire wished she had were all giggly over the books. They walked the halls with hardback versions of Eclipse and Breaking Dawn tucked under their arms. This, I saw, was a perfect opportunity for scaffolding. I knew Claire could comprehend the book at grade level, but she needed to motivation to stick with the huge chunks of text. I loaned Claire one of my classroom copies of Twilight and promised her if she read the whole thing, I would help her with the AR test at the end. Claire's eyes bugged out of her head when I handed over the book. It was by far the thickest novel she'd ever considered reading and the sheer size of the spine was intimidating. I sweetened the deal. Read the book and I'd let it count for three of her required independently read books for the quarter. Still hesitant, Claire took the book and like my third grade teacher did for me, I chatted with Claire about her progress. Had she gotten to the beach scene yet? No? Well, just wait because it was a good one. What did she think about how Edward acted in the Biology class? Did she like the Port Angeles rescue scene? Had she watched the movie preview yet? No? Let me bring it up so she could see it online.

For two months, we talked about that book. Where she was in it, what she thought of it, how much or little she enjoyed certain parts. Two months to read a book I'd finished in two days. But you know what happened? Claire did finish. She passed the AR test with minimal prompting. The best part? When I recommended a Heartland series horse book next, Claire didn't hesitate. She'd just climbed the literary equivalent of Mt. Hood--scalable by a fit person led by an experienced guide--and she was riding the thrill of a successful summit. After Twilight, a "little" horse book was achievable in Claire's mind even though I knew it was still a stretch for her independent reading level. But she read the text and passed her project, this time without my help.

It wasn't perfect for Claire after that. She still missed homework and still had trouble outside of school. She didn't magically win friends, but she did start to connect with a small group of girls who loved reading, the ones who visit the public library for fun and spend half their lunch periods with noses in pages. Claire still struggled, but the struggle became worth it. For the first time, Claire connected with books and a group of readers on a deeper emotional level than humor or thrills. By eighth grade, Claire tackled Elie Wiesel's Night with determination and composed three beautiful essays as we read the text in class. She developed a stronger interest in her other subjects--history, math, science. She completed and submitted a "This I Believe" essay to NPR's online data bank after reading essays written by other people. And she not only finished, but excelled in her independent reading projects every quarter. I cried with Claire at her 8th grade graduation and told her how proud I was of her. She Facebooked me over the summer and said, "Mrs. Rook, I've been reading every day." Music to my ears. And her first semester in high school? She's made all A's, helped the marching band win first of fifteen in their regional competition, and was elected freshman class vice president. For the first time, Claire is talking about college as a real possibility, something she should consider for her future. She would be the first in her family to attend.

Am I saying Twilight made Claire a better student and a confident teen? No. But the Twilight phenomenon prompted Claire's motivation for even considering such a "big" book and the emotional connection she felt while reading helped pull her through. She wouldn't have tried if she didn't want to be part of a group and she wouldn't have stuck with it if she hadn't felt compelled to struggle through and turn the pages. With all of my teaching and lesson plans and projects, I couldn't have scaffolded Claire to reading on grade level if it weren't for Twilight, both as a fan-driven phenomenon and as a big book written on an achievable grade level. Twilight wasn't a miracle, but it was a boost of self-esteem, it was a conversation starter, and for Claire, it was an accomplishment. One that bridged the world between children's books and young adult fiction. Twilight made Claire believe it was possible, and desirable, to spend the effort to improve her literacy, skills she later utilized to connect with a classic like Night and compose her essays, skills that improved her understanding in her other classes. Again, I'm not saying Twilight is a panacea. But in this case, for Claire, that book tipped the scale for one girl teetering between school success and school failure. Fan or not, I am grateful to have had Twilight in my scaffolding arsenal.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

For Twi-Haters: A Guide to Loving Your Twi-hard Friends

Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga has, for at least the time being, altered the YA publishing market. Some see this as detrimental. I however I see the explosive Twilight phenomenon as mostly positive. I'll explain why throughout this post.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a Twi-hard. Yes, it's a real term, coined to describe the tried and true, die-hard Twilight fan. I have been there from the beginning. I picked up the back of the first book, the one with the tempting apple cover, read the back, and literally (I'm not kidding) felt a chill go down my spine. I bought the book on the spot from our school's Scholastic book fair, went home and read three-fourths of the novel that night. I would have finished the entire book, but my responsible sense of commitment made me turn off the light before trying to teach 7th grade language arts the next day without the necessary benefit of sleep. When the movie came out, I drove an hour and a half to see it on opening night. I own a copy of every book, every movie-book-tie-in cover, the actual movie posters of Twilight and New Moon (thanks to the awesome guy who runs our local theater), all of the movies released on DVD, and some of the "extra" book tie-ins like, an Edward action figure, the director's notebook and Nightlight, a parody that leaves me laughing so hard Husband gives me weird looks.

So, should you stop reading this now? Probably, but I promise I will not use this post to gush over R-Patz sticky-uppy hair or hold a Team Edward vs. Team Jacob throw down. I'm going to explain what I see as the reason Twilight made such a big impact and how, even if the word "twilight" now grates on your ears like nails on a chalkboard, you as an educator or friend of a Twi-hard can show a little more love without compromising your integrity. :-)

FOR EDUCATORS: Whether you are a classroom teacher, a literacy coach, a media specialist, or wear another title, when dealing with girls between the ages of 11 and 17, it would behove you to know where they personally stand on the Twilight line. Do they despise all mention of sparkly vampires? Are they pro-werewolf and align with Team Jacob? Or have they fallen under the spell of Team Edward and the Cullen Clan? Knowing where your student stands is a big clue into how she (or he--there are guys who like Twilight too) will relate to you. If your student is a fan of the Twilight world, or any phenomenon, this next bit of advice is crucial: don't invalidate her feelings.

Twilight is a passion for many people. You don't have to agree. You don't have to think it's particularly healthy. But if you discount the passion a reader feels for the story and the characters and the emotional catharsis of first love, you will build walls, not build bridges. This is something friends of Twi-hards, or any passionate fan-dom, know. You don't have to love what your friends love, but if you love your friends you will try to understand why your friends love it. So, those giggly girls sporting Cullen Clan t-shirts aren't a brainwashed group of lost teenagers. They are individuals who all connected in an emotional way, sometimes mildly, sometimes very deeply, to something in that story. If you value the emotional connection, you can parley it into conversations about other works those readers might enjoy, including classic romances like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. I promise, if students believe you respect their passions, they are more likely to consider your passions.

FOR READERS: As a reader, I LOVE Twilight for a very specific reason...I love the way it makes me feel. Not everybody gets this. And that's okay. They don't have to. I don't reread the books every year and have Twi-a-thons over Christmas vacation for everyone else. I do it for me. It makes me happy. It makes me catharticly relive the longing and giddiness and tingly-down-to-the-toes feeling of falling in love. I love the way Edward watches over Bella, even when he's being overbearing. I understand his motivation is only to protect the thing he cares about most in the world. I understand this even if I don't agree with his actions. I love the way Jacob pushes Bella to take risks, even when his prompting has consequences he doesn't anticipate. We need both of those people in our lives--those who protect and those who push. We need to be both types in our own minds as well. It is the only way we will be able to balance rationality with risk. Here's the thing; it's scary out there, but it's thrilling too. The constant push-pull of new adventures--trying out for the team, taking that higher-level math class, college applications, job interviews, the first road trip, living on your own, falling in love, break-ups, friendships, choices, choices, choices. Life is full of those "I've never been here before. What do I do?" moments. It can be frightening, it can be exhilarating, but it is always part of everything, the grand adventure. When my own grand adventure gets a little too hard to live for the moment, I slip into Bella's, live her life for a while, ride her emotional roller coaster. And when I get off, close the book or turn off the movie, my own life seems easier to deal with. Some people might say I'm using Twilight as an emotional crutch. So? It's cheaper than Prozac. :-)

Husband doesn't get my fascination with Twilight. My best friend doesn't either. I don't apologize for loving how the story makes me feel though. I don't have to. I get not everyone is going to like Twilight. BFF thinks Edward is an emotionally abusive boyfriend. She also almost named her dog "Fur-splode!" because she says it's what the wolves are always doing, as in "Jacob fur-sploded into a wolf!" Do I break up with either of them because they don't share my heart-palpitations when Edward steps on-screen from his Volvo or when Jacob's chest is slick with rainwater? Of course not. Does BFF try to hide all my Twilight books when she comes over? No. In fact, she's the one who gave me my Edward doll, went with me on opening night, and got a baseball style t-shirt with "Stupid Shiny Volvo Owner" printed on the front for my birthday. I get she doesn't love everything I do. She gets I don't share her all of her passions either. No big, move on, that's life, still best friends forever.

If you have a passion for something, what does it say about you? Are you looking to fill up a part of your life with a passion to replace something you're missing? If so, is your passion unhealthy? Does it do more harm than good in your life? Does it keep you from living in the real world? Think about it, really analyse it, then decide what, if anything, you should do about it. I love Twilight, but it doesn't keep me from loving Husband or BFF or my dog or doing my job or taking a walk. In face, the community of friends I've found who share my passion have made my life better, richer. They have added to my life, not taken me away from what's important. This is what passions are supposed to do for us I think. Broaden, enrich, fulfill our existence. Twilight does this for me. I get it makes some people's hair stand on end. Okay, no problem. I do what I love, you do what you love and we'll still get together and laugh and joke on each other. It's what friends do. We accept each other the way we are, Twi-hards and Twi-haters alike.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Personal Catalysts, or Recollections on Reading

I've tried to start blogs before. Video blogs, journals, YouTube channels. Since I was ten years old I've pretty much failed at any kind of daily diary keeping activities. You'd think this would be easy for me. I love to write. I love to read. But for some reason, I've never managed to stick with the discipline of journaling for more than a few months. I'm good at finishing other projects I start, but not this one. Still, past failure shouldn't keep one from trying again and so for me, 2011 will be the year I start a blog and stick to it.

At least that's the plan and you know what Robert Browning says about the best laid plans of mice and men...

I decided I couldn't start another diary/journal/blog/channel just about myself. Maybe my problem isn't so much stick-to-it-tiveness as it is I just didn't know what to say about myself. I have a lot to say though. Especially about books. I love books. I love reading; have loved it since kindergarten when all the letters and sounds made so much sense on paper and inside my mind. I read the word "cat" and I saw in my head my first pet Custard (named after Strawberry Shortcake's faithful pink companion). Words just worked for me. They were easy and fun and I wanted more and more and more.

By third grade, I'd burned through all the curriculum-based easy readers. They were flimsy, printed-paper books barely dirtied by my sweaty little hands before I was handing them back to my frustrated teacher, Ms. S., a huge smile plastered over my face at having completed another "book". One day, Ms. S. handed me a novel. It was Rainbow Garden by Patricia M. St. John. I barely recall anything about this book except the title. I remembered nothing about the plot or characters or setting until, many years later, I found a copy in a library discard pile and picked it up for a quarter. What I do remember is how this book made me feel. The thick weight of the spine in my hand; the size of it! I looked up at Ms. S. in disbelief.

"I can't read this book," I said. "It's too big."

"I think you can read it. Try."

I took it, trotted to my desk, and started reading, confident if my teacher said I could do it, then I could.

I've taught students for almost a decade. I know now what my teacher was trying to do. I was bugging her, skipping up to her desk, beaming with work completed. I've known those bright students pulling ahead of the rest of the group and I've loved teaching them as much as I'm sure Ms. S. loved teaching me. (At least that's what she wrote in my yearbook.) But she was busy. She had papers to grade and folders to assemble. (Those were the days before teacher's assistants.) She could have assigned me a task--sweep the floor, wipe the chalkboard. She could have pulled from the stack of extra worksheets every clever teacher keeps on hand for clever students who finish their assigned work too soon. She could have gotten frustrated with me and told me to sit down, stop bothering her, just be quiet. She didn't.

She handed me a book. One that was a stretch for my reading level. I'm sure she knew it when she put it in my hands. But not too difficult. My teacher handed me a book to challenge me, expand my imagination. Most of the words were familiar, but the context was completely new. There were no helpful illustrations like in our curriculum readers. The text was small and blocked together without breaks between the paragraphs. I could sound out, but not comprehend, all the words or the British variations. Over the next few weeks, I struggled through the book, making enough meaning to understand, to keep my imagination going and my curiosity about what would happen next. I bugged Ms. S. some more until she told me to make a list of words I had questions about. And every day she helped explain the words I didn't know, just to me for a few minutes during lunch. She corrected my pronunciation, explained the tricky misfits to the rules of English grammar we were learning in class. In those little lessons, Ms. S. did more than expand my vocabulary. She gave me the tools--determination, visualization, personal connection--to form a lifelong love of reading, a lifelong love of novels.

I'm rereading Rainbow Garden now. Details filter through in a kind of deja vu soup. It's ground I've walked before, but the terrain is unfamiliar and new, a place I half remember but have mostly forgotten. I understand why Ms. S. put this book in my hands. I grew up in a Christian home and she knew my parents would encourage this kind of didactic storytelling. Now with the eyes of an adult who studies children's literature, I cannot recommend this book. The style, for the modern reader at least, is nothing resembling a child's voice though the story is told in first person. The plot reads like a ripoff of Frances Burnett Hodgeson's The Secret Garden--ill-tempered girl sent to live in the Welsh countryside where she finds escape in a picturesque English garden. The overt Christian themes--a vicar with a devoted wife and six bouncing children who respectfully listen in silence while he reads the evenings Bible devotion--are much too over the top. The characters are one dimensional. Mother is distant, Mr. and Mrs. Owen warm and kind-hearted, the Owen children exuberant yet compliant to their parent's every wish. Elaine, the main character, is the only one who undergoes any kind of character development. Unfortunately, it's of the completely predictable kind. Of course snobbish, selfish Elaine is converted into a patient, loving girl. Of course everything works out for the best at the end of the book.  Of course there is a happily ever after ending where all things work together for good. I'm not discrediting the overall themes of virtue over vice at all, but when it's delivered in such a stilted, stylized way, it's difficult to take for long.

Fortunately for me, I was a very different read at age eight, one not nearly so critical. :-) That first novel led to another. And another. Mysteries. Adventures. Fantasies. Romances. Nonfiction. The Bible (the King James Version I might add.) I read anything I could get my hands on, including at one point my mother's old medical textbooks stuffed into the bottom of our living room cabinet. Reading became something like breathing to me. I read when I woke up. I read before turning out my light. And I read under the covers with a flashlight when the book was just too good to put down for the night. I still love to read. As I'm merging my love of reading with a love of writing, I look to the literally hundreds of books on my shelves for inspiration. One day, I want the books I've written to carry as much inspiration for someone as that first novel did for me. I want to read, and write, books to challenge, and change, the way we see the world.