Archive | July, 2010

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

30 Jul

I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly sad this book would make me. I’d read several reviews that indicated that it was intense at times, as well as funny, but I didn’t anticipate the extent to which it would disturb me.  I listened to the audio version read by the author, which didn’t help matters. Jack Gantos did a great job of making me believe that Joey was a real kid with very real ADHD. It alternately made me laugh out loud…and then caught me by surprise and ripped my heart out.

There were hysterically funny moments in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Mostly, though, I felt sad and horrified while listening to Joey’s thoughts. He wanted so much to make good choices, but his mind and his body was so far outside of his own control that he was unable to restrain himself from being impulsive. He’d been abandoned and neglected and abused and been made to feel stupid and bad.  Even when Joey had great intentions and was trying so hard to follow through, he managed to keep getting into more and more trouble. If it had been a movie, I think I would have had to cover my eyes to keep from seeing what was going to happen next.  I could see exactly where the story was going to go and I had no way to yell: “Stop! Don’t do it!”

There were times when Joey looked awfully familiar. I’ve had students like Joey. They are difficult and frustrating and exasperating—and I’ve loved them. I felt an affinity with his teachers who keep trying to help Joey. I felt sad when they failed, and hopeful when Joey got on a new medication that seemed to be helping him, despite his crazy, dysfunctional family. I felt compassion for his mother, who despite her own problems wanted the best for Joey and was willing to make her own changes to help him.

Although it made me sad, I highly recommend this book to parents, teachers and kids.  Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is the first book in a trilogy which includes Joey Pigza Loses Control and What would Joey Do? I’ve put them on my “to read” list, but I may need to steel myself for them—and buy more Kleenex.  I highly recommend the unabridged audio version read by the author, who is not only a gifted author but also a terrific reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is a Newbery Honor Book and is recommended for ages 9-12 (though sensitive kids may need adult guidance and support.) It is published by Harper Collins.


Pondering on GLBT Literature

28 Jul

GLBT themes and characters are hot in teen literature right now and this is something that I welcome. As I posted in my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan ( I think it is important for gender variant teens to have role models that they can identify with. This issue hits close to home. I have children and friends who are GLBT and I want them live in a world that accepts them, and the unique and wonderful contributions they bring to it.  I want them to be safe and feel loved. For those of us who are straight, I believe that it is important to read books that expand our understanding and empathy.

I hesitated with writing my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson for several weeks, because I wanted to make sure that I handled the subject with grace and sensitivity.  Clearly, homosexuality, and other gender variations, do not fit under the under the “disability” definition of exceptionality, however, I have found that many of the GLBT teens I have known are extremely gifted and talented.  By my more loose definition of “Twice Exceptional” ( I could argue that being GLBT adds another layer of complexity to a gifted person that deserves attention and makes it fit well into the theme of my blog. (Not that I have any problem posting about any book that I like, but I wanted to be clear of its place here.) In my experience, teens who are gifted tend to think more deeply than the average teen, and thus, they tend to be  articulate and thoughtful about their identities because they have needed to be.  It seems that for these kinds of kids, literature that speaks to them is even more important to their well being than it is to average kids.

A recent suicide of a young, gay man in my circle of community struck me very hard.  ( I didn’t know him, but I know many like him, with the same background, and I hurt for him, and them, and want, somehow, to speak out against the bigotry and intolerance that is hurting people.  I worry that I will alienate family and friends who believe differently than I do. But, feel it is more important to stand up for what is right and stand by those I love–a lesson that I was reminded of in Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

In addition, I don’t want to word anything in a manner that might offend my GLBT friends or family. Even the words I use seem loaded and dangerous at times. I’ve stuck with GLBT and “gender variant” in my writings even though they often feel awkward and repetitive.  I had a discussion the other day with my son who prefers to use the term “Queer” but that feels to me a bit like a white person using the “N” word. I just don’t feel comfortable using it.  And so, writing this post has taken longer than most. I have written and rewritten a number of times, trying to express my feelings the best way I can.

My son and I also talked about a recent discussion I saw on another blog that I read:  The Right Amount of Gay? ( The Lambda Literary Foundation has made the decision to only give their yearly award for LGBT books to LGBT-identified authors. As a straight supporter of gay rights, I understand the sentiment. However, I am troubled by the idea that a writer can only write about his or her own identity. This begs the question: Can adults write from a teen point of view or can a woman write from a man’s point of view? My opinion is that the purpose and talent of writing is the convincingly write a character that isn’t your own.  My son felt much the same as I did on the issue.

My readings and ponderings of late have been a good jumping off point for discussion with my son, and maybe, that is the value of GLBT literature for teens. Maybe, GLBT literature will provide a place for gay and straight youth, adults and parents to meet and find understanding and compassion.  We can use it.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

28 Jul

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two teenage boys with the same name, growing up and figuring things out in the suburbs of Chicago. Chapters alternate between the two Wills. At first this juxtaposition was a bit confusing to me, but once I caught on to the different narration styles of the two Wills, I found the back-and-forth style interesting and engaging.

Up until now, The original Will Grayson’s two simple rules (1. Don’t care too much and 2. Shut up.) have worked well for keeping his life uncomplicated.  His long–time friendship with an extremely large, fabulous and way “out” best friend named “Tiny” and a developing crush on “Possibly Gay Jane” threaten his anonymous existence.  The other Will Grayson (OWG) has been hiding that he is gay from his best friend, Maura, and his mom, while carrying on an internet relationship with a boy named Isaac.  When OWG makes a date to meet Isaac in Chicago, the paths of the two Wills collide.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a story of friendship and having the courage to stand by friends when the going gets tough. It is a story that has been told before, but the added mixture of gay and straight friends brings another dimension to the story.  I am heartened and relieved to see popular YA writers tackling books with GLBT themes and characters.    I believe it is important to the health and well-being of gender variant teens to have characters that they can identify with and vital for straight kids (and adults) to have the opportunity to see the world from a different point of view.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is published by Dutton Juvenile and is appropriate for YA readers.

The Power of Books

24 Jul

I love books. I like seeing them lined up on my shelves. I like piles of them by my bedside, kitchen table, and toilet tank. I like the way they feel in my hands. I even like how they smell. I love the worlds they allow me to travel to and I love curling up with a good book and getting lost in it. I own a lot of books.

A few weeks ago, I came across this article about how the number of books a parent owns is directly correlated to a child’s academic achievement. It makes sense that if we place value on something, our children will as well. Many years ago, I read an article about a study of children with illiterate, but motivated parents. The parents spent time each day, holding a book and turning the pages in the presence of the children. The children’s reading skills improved dramatically.  I wish I had saved a copy of that study.

I know a young, single mother with three young children who is currently back in school trying to begin a career of her own. Money is tight and family support is short, but each month, when Maria shops at the thrift store for clothing and household needs, she allows her kids one very special treat each. At the end of the visit, each kid gets to pick out one book. She reports that her children are the only ones in her extended family who have not been identified for needing special education services.

It appears that placing value on books and the modeling of reading behaviors is very important to motivate and inspire a love of reading in kids. Reading to them and sharing a love of books adds another layer of incentive for students to become good readers.

This all got me wondering—and I do not know the answer—what effect will there be if (or when) we go to a completely digital library on individual reading devices? Will children even know that their parents own and value books? Will they be able to differentiate between reading, aimless surfing, playing video games or texting?  Will a child feel a sense of excitement and ownership at owning a special book? I understand the appeal of ebooks—many books, less space, less paper, portability, No  dusting and room to get out of my bed without tripping over the piles, to name a few advantages.  I wonder, though, what we will lose in the process?

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon

23 Jul

Young  Zora is a good friend and confidant to the narrator, a young girl named Carrie. Zora is a gifted and imaginative storyteller whose curiosity and naivety lead Zora, and her friends on adventures that have the potential of ripping apart their racially complicated community. This fictional story is based on the life and short stories of Zora Neale Hurston and combines history, folklore and imagination in an engaging tale. As I began reading, I half expected this story to be a reworking of The Boy who Cried Wolf, with the children learning their lessons about the dangers of making up stories. The book surprised and delighted me; Zora’s imagination wasn’t so far off from the eccentric realities of her community and times.

Zora and Me is a book that is just meant for reading aloud. As I read, I often stopped to re-read a paragraph aloud to myself. The language rolls off the tongue smoothly and is reminiscent of Hurston’s own writings, but accessible to a younger audience.   This will be a terrific book to share with students when teaching about African-American history, culture and accomplishments. I like that the young protagonist is a smart, funny and imaginative African-American female—and I like it even more that she was a real person, and an accomplished and acclaimed writer.   Many passages from this book would work very well in writing lessons when talking about using voice in writing.  For parents and teachers, this book would be a nice book to read and compare with To Kill a Mockingbird.  (see my review at

Zora and Me is published by Candlewick Press. This review is based on the Advanced Reading Copy. Recommended for ages 10 and up. The finished book will include a short biography of Zora Neale Hurston, an annotated bibliography of her works and a timeline of her life. This book is the only book not written by Hurston herself, which has been approved by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust

The Demise of the Read-Aloud

21 Jul

I was having coffee last week with one of my favorite teachers and a dear friend., Ms. K.  We reminisced about the book “Walk Two Moons,” which she always reads at the beginning of the year because she likes how it teaches about empathy. I remembered the year that my son was in her class; he brought me the book and told me I just had to read it.  He not only loved the book, but he became an evangelist for it!

Ms. K lamented that, at her school, reading aloud is not a part of the current curriculum. The literacy program uses leveled readers and there is no place—or time for literature.  Ms. K is a tenured teacher with union backing and she just shrugs and says: “What are they going to do to me?”  She cuts into math instruction time in order to read aloud to her students every day. This is not the first time a teacher has told me that she has been told by administration that reading aloud to students in not useful or necessary.

When my kids were young, we had an elaborate reading ritual each night. My kids were spaced roughly two years apart and so we had a range of reading and comprehension levels. Typically, I began with my youngest two, reading a few board books that they had memorized and could “read” to me, then we’d move on to several picture books. Sometimes the older kids read to the younger ones.  As the younger kids drifted off my lap and played with toys on the floor at my feet, I gathered the older kids around and we’d read from chapter books.  We never seemed to be able to stop at one chapter and often, reading sessions lasted an hour or more. Sometimes I read and sometimes we took turns reading. In those years we read the Harry Potter books, The Secret Garden, His Dark Materials trilogy, The Little House books and many, many more books.  As each kid got to be about thirteen they would decide that they would rather read alone and gradually, our nightly gathering diminished in size until one day, it was gone.

Whenever other parents would ask me how I got such articulate kids, I told them how much we read together. Other factors came into play as well, I am sure, but I am convinced that my children’s success in school and life is largely due to those hours and hours we sat reading together and talking about books.

Research studies corroborate what I believe strongly about vocabulary and reading. Kids learn the majority of new and unusual words from reading. Struggling readers are at a disadvantage, because the vocabulary that they are able to decode is not as rich as they are capable of understanding. Children who are not fluent readers also read a great deal less than strong readers do. Reading aloud levels the playing field and makes interesting and varied vocabulary accessible to all students. According to Warick Elley “Vocabulary is the single best indicator of intellectual ability, and an accurate predictor of success at school.” (Elley, Warick. “New Vocabulary: How do Children Learn New Words?” Reading Forum NZ. June 1987, pp 2-4)  Elley’s article goes on to recount a study of vocabulary acquisition during read aloud, which shows convincingly that reading aloud and discussing new vocabulary is an effective way for children to learn new vocabulary.

I am very grateful to teach at a school where the needs of the child come before strict curriculum schedules, however, as an interventionist, I have limited time with students and the time I do have needs to be used as efficiently as possible. The regular classroom teachers have a lot more leeway. Although most teachers I know hate the way standardized testing dictates our teaching, we are nonetheless slaves to it. Our jobs depend on it. Not all schools dictate that teachers can’t do read aloud time, but many teachers just don’t have the time after meeting all the curriculum requirements.

Reading aloud is particularly important for kids who are at risk for academic failure.  Reading to children on the aspergers/autism spectrum, or with behavioral and emotional disorders gives parents a chance to discuss nuances of language and emotion in a non-threatening and non-personal manner. Exposure to idioms and figures of speech and discussion along the way is very helpful to kids who are literal thinkers. Children with reading disabilities typically can understand much higher levels of complexity in literature than they are able to decode on their own. Reading aloud gives them incentive to go to all the hard work of learning to read well—so that they too can read wonderful books. it is also much easier for a struggling reader to decode a familiar word or phrase. Continual exposure to dry leveled readers that are developmentally and thematically immature, with no exposure to rich language, theme and plot would discourage reading in anyone! Kids with ADHD need one-on-one reading time, which allows for movement breaks. Reading high interest books to kids with attention deficit disorders gives them practice in focusing. Gifted kids, especially younger ones, may not be able to read the books that will capture their imaginations and drive them to learn more.

I stand by my assertion that reading aloud to kids is vital, and research backs me up. I believe this move toward shoveling in standards and curriculum like we are stoking a furnace is detrimental to our kids development in life and in literacy. In the long run, we all lose out and I fear that the sheer joy of reading will gone for these kids. Given the time restraints we have in schools it is even more vital that parents read to their children every day and in copious amounts.  If you have a primary school-aged kid, your child’s teacher may not reading aloud to your child. They may not have the seniority that Ms. K has to go against the dictates of administration. This means that sharing the love of reading and books and literature and rich, beautiful language is up to you.  Read to your kids.

Astronomy: Out of this World! created by Basher, written by Dan Green

19 Jul

Astronomy: Out of this World! created by Basher, written by Dan Green

Many of my students love non-fiction books with a lot of facts that they can memorize and impress people with. One of my own children loved to read the periodic table for her bedtime story. Thus, a new series of books for kids on science subjects caught my attention recently at the ALA conference. I picked up a copy of Astronomy: Out of this World! for review. The diminutive book is brightly colored and illustrated with cartoon characters depicting extraterrestrial objects, planets, and stars.  The book is laid out with text on each left-hand facing page and a cartoon character depicted on the right.  The sequence begins with the sun and commences through the solar system and moves outward into space. Each chapter is color-coded by distance from the sun with tabs along the side of the page. Starred factoids begin the text, and then the character tells its own story in the first person. The characters are depicted with emotion and personality. For example the sun is a “seething mass of anger” and the solar system is “big, happy family.” Each page of text finishes off with a few more bulleted facts. The volume includes an index, a short glossary and a pull-out poster.

Other books in the series include The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! and Rocks and Minerals: A Gem of a Book! and several more similar titles. I notice also that Basherbooks has a few non-science volumes, as well, such as Math: a Book you can Count on! and Punctuation: The Write Stuff!.

Let me just say it right out: I just don’t like these books. The cartoon characters annoy me. I am willing to admit that I just don’t get the appeal of Pokemon either, so I may be wrong (and I think that coupling these books with cute little plushy toys would probably be genius marketing, if only for the grandparent-gift-giving potential.) With the new telescopes such as the Hubble, we have amazing, gorgeous photographs of space, and I would enjoy the book so much more with photos rather than these anthropomorphized drawings.

I have yet to try them out on any kids because it is summer break, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my students will not like them much either. I suspect that children who think literally such as children on the aspergers/autism spectrum will not enjoy the cartoons or the cloying voice of the space characters. These kinds of kids, typically, do not need any gimmicks to get them to read and enjoy non-fiction books. If no children’s books are available they are just as likely to pick up an encyclopedia. Gifted kids will likely find them condescending. I don’t even think that kids who don’t generally like or read non-fiction books will be lured in by the cartoons enough to develop an interest in the text.

There is one population of kids that I think these books might well work for. Strongly visual-spacial kids for whom a lot of text is overwhelming may find the organization along the colored spectrum and bulleted facts will aid memory of important information. Some of the cartoon characters contain a good amount of clever symbolism, such as a belt with a large buckle on each rock in the asteroid belt and Neptune holding a triton in his hand.  I would use these as a jumping off point for visual kids to create their own drawings. I’d show them the best examples of the drawings in the book and challenge them to include even more symbolism to help them remember key information. Alexandra Shires Golon recommends this technique of note-taking in Visual-Spatial Learners: Differentiation Strategies for Creating a Successful Classroom published by Prufrock Press Inc.

Basherbooks are created by Basher, written by Dan Green, and published by Kingfisher. Recommended for ages 10 and up.