17 08 2012

The tagline for R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is, “Don’t judge a book boy by its cover his face,” and that’s a pretty good way to introduce this beautifully written story about a young boy named Auggie.

Auggie is the narrator of his own story, at least for the first few chapters, and he starts out by letting you know that he isn’t a normal 5th grader.  Well… on the inside he is – he loves to play his Xbox, he loves Star Wars, and he’s figuring out the world around him, just like any 5th grade boy.  On the outside, however, Auggie is not so normal.  He’s got some problems.  He was born with some serious disfigurements of his face, and even after 30+ surgeries, the way he describes his face is simply to say, “whatever you’re imagining, it’s worse.”

Auggie’s never been to school before.  He’s always been home-schooled by his mom.  Now, though, he’s going to a regular school for the first time.  Being the new kid is tough no matter who you are, but imagine being the new kid when you’re face makes people run away screaming.  No, seriously, that’s the kind of thing Auggie deals with sometimes when he goes out in public, and now he’s got to survive a middle school.

This is, to put it very simply, an important book.  I firmly believe that every middle school student, all their parents, every single teacher, and all the social workers, counselors, principals, and assistant principals should read this one.  The things Auggie copes with, the people around him – the good and the bad (and you’ll be surprised by who – in the book’s own term – Chooses Kind) people that he is surrounded by – and the way he handles the cards he’s been dealt are truly inspirational.

One of the things that makes this book so unique is that about a quarter of the way through, the narrator changes.  Suddenly Auggie’s overprotective big sister, Via, who is dealing with some major issues of her own as she starts her first year of high school, is telling the story from her perspective.  Then it switches again, giving us the story from the point of view of a few of Auggie’s classmates, some of Via’s friends, jumping back to Auggie every so often.

This is a quick read, partly because the language is so fluid that you fly right through, but also because you can’t put it down.  Wonder has built up a lot of buzz over the last few months, with teachers all over the world starting “Choose Kind” campaigns at their schools and “The Wonder of Wonder” book clubs for kids and teachers from different schools/states/countries to discuss the book with one another online.  I haven’t seen this kind of hype for a kids book outside of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – and while both of those are great books, this one is more.   Like I said, this book is important.

I’m on a mission.  I want to read 90 books over the 90 days of summer break.  Wonder was #75.  It was also the best one so far.  

Franny and Zooey

17 08 2012

If you Google J.D. Salinger right now, I bet you come up with two major things before you see anything about Franny and Zooey.  First, you’ll get tons of information about The Catcher in the Rye, his classic novel that is read by pretty much every single high school student in America AND the fact that he was a little bit kooky as far as public figures go.

The Catcher in the Rye has become THE book for teen readers.  Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in the story, is the perfect picture of a disaffected, angry-at-the-world, dropping out of society teenager.  When the story was written in 1951, teens all over the world could relate to Holden and his problems.  In 1989, when I first read the book, teens all over the world could relate to Holden and his problems.  In 2012, teens all over the world can relate to Holden and his problems.  Salinger’s book is brilliant, but that might just be part of the problem – he could never top it.

That book became so popular, so famous, and so well-respected, that Salinger couldn’t write anything else without it being compared to his first novel.  So, in 1965, Salinger walked away. He never published anything ever again.  People think he kept writing, well, they hope he kept writing for the next 45 years, but we don’t know, because he didn’t talk to anyone either.  After 1980, Salinger didn’t give any more interviews, refused to talk to the press, and lived a very private life until he died in 2010.

One of the few works that Salinger published between Catcher and his retirement was Franny and Zooey.  Franny is a short story about Franny Glass, a 20 year old college student who seems to have a nervous breakdown from dealing with the social pressures of college life.  In a lot of ways, Franny is a female (slightly older) version of Saliger’s most popular character, Holden Caulfield.  Zooey is a short novel, packaged in the same book, about Zachary “Zooey” Glass, Franny’s older brother.  Zooey is a 25 year old actor, and his story is mainly about his reaction to and conversations with his little sister during her breakdown.  Zooey also resembles Holden in a lot of ways.

Franny and Zooey, along with quite a few of Salingers short novels and stories, follows the Glass family – a fictional family that allowed Salinger to explore family dynamics from many different angles.  It’s a character driven book without much plot, but paints and amazing picture of two young people that college and post-college aged kids in 1961 could relate to, just as today’s 20somethings can find a little of themselves in both Franny and Zooey.

Franny and Zooey was the 74th book I read this summer as I try to read 90 books in 90 days.  


9 07 2012

I coached the 6th grade baseball team in Minooka for 8 seasons, and we’ve always had some pretty good teams, so I’ve seen my share of standout baseball players.

My first year there was a kid on the 7th grade team that really stood out.  He was tall, strong, and threw so hard that no one else stood a chance.  I remember working with Coach Hasler and Coach Simotes at the beginning of that season and thinking, “that kid is going somewhere.”  He did.  He was a first round draft pick of the Houston Astros a few years ago and is currently working his way through their minor leagues, playing in this year’s single A all-star game.

A few years later, I had a pretty good team, but our shortstop that year was light-years beyond everyone else.  You could just see the hours and hours of work he put in with his dad and big brothers (one of them played in the minors for the San Diego Padres for a few years too), and that hard work paid off.  In every aspect of the game he was better than his peers.

Even this past season I saw it.  There were a few boys that really stood out, but one more than others.  He ran faster, hit farther, threw harder…  He even out-thought the rest of the players on the field.  No matter the game situation, he knew what to do and reacted perfectly.

I was lucky enough to coach some great kids over the years, but it’s this handful of superstars – real standouts – that I was reminded of while reading Heat by Mike Lupica.

Heat is about about a 12 year old boy named Michael Arroyo who is one of those kids – no matter what position he’s playing, he’s the best player on the field.  His teammates know it.  His coaches know it.  His dad and brother know it.  He knows it.  Michael’s unbelievable talent will probably carry his team to the Little League World Series, which has always been a dream for both Michael and his Dad.  Unfortunately, some other coaches don’t believe that Michael, with the skill he has, can really be only 12.  They demand he show a birth certificate.

The problem is, Michael was born in Cuba and his family escaped from there by sneaking into Florida years ago.  Michael has no way to get a birth certificate from the Cuban government, and his dad is too busy taking care of his sick uncle 1,000s of miles away to be of any help.  So Mike is kicked off the team, unable to play until he can prove his age.

There’s more to Heat than just baseball.  It’s about Mike’s relationship with his older brother; it’s about his friendship with the team’s catcher, Manny; it’s about fitting in.  It’s about identity, self-worth, and problem solving.  In other words, it’s about what a 12 year old boy’s life is always about.

Heat, just like most of Mike Lupica’s books, is a great read.  It’s a perfect choice for sporty boys and girls who appreciate well drawn characters, an exciting plot, and tons of baseball action.

Heat is the 33rd book I’ve read this summer as I work towards my mission of finishing 90 books in 90 days over break.  

Capture the Flag

8 07 2012

First there was The Lightning Thief, a fantastic adventure set in modern day, with a hero that today’s kids can relate to, but ties in the myths of ancient Greece – suddenly every 6th grader I knew was reading the Percy Jackson books and volumes of ancient myths.  Rick Riordan will forever be on my list of super-geniuses, simply because he figured out how to get kids to read and read and read and read.

He did it again with the Kane Chronicles series, which ties in the myths of ancient Egypt, and once again has young kids reading new books, while consulting the old ones to better understand the mysteries and twists and turns.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet an incredible author named Sherman Alexie (highly recommend his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), who is Native-American.  He stated, jokingly (I think) that his own kids were so wrapped up in the Percy Jackson books that he felt he should create a modern adventure story that ties in Native-American myths and legends.  He probably should.

There’s also the Artemis Fowl books, which incorporate Irish mythology into a modern story, the Runemarks series (Norse mythology), The Clockwork Dark series (American Tall Tales), The Children of the Lamp series (Egyptian again), The Conch Bearer and its sequels (Indian folklore), The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kroop (King Arthur legends), Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Chinese folklore), Alif the Unseen (Arabian fairy tales), and probably dozens of other similar books and series.

Now there’s Capture the Flag by Kate Messner.  This one is going to be a dream for American History teachers, because it’s a modern adventure with three strong teenage heroes (two boys and one girl) that, like the Percy Jackson books, ties in a bit of history – only this time it’s American History.

You see, someone has stolen the flag – the original – you know, the one that that one lady sewed and that other dude wrote that song about – yeah, that flag.   The only people who can help just happen to be three teens who don’t know one another, but soon find that they share one important thing in common – they are all descendants of important figures in American history, and as such, are destined to be members of the Silver Jaguar Society – a secret group responsible for protecting important American artifacts.

You don’t have to know much about U.S. history to understand the book, but like The Lightning Thief (and all those other books up above), it will make readers want to brush up on some while they’re reading.  Even if you know nothing about history, Capture the Flag is a fun, fast-paced adventure that is perfect for middle-grades readers.  Believable and likable characters, twists and turns, lots of action, and you get to see what happens to your suitcase at the airport after it goes down the little conveyor belt and past the plastic curtains.

In my book, reading that makes readers want to do more reading on top of the reading their already doing is the best kind of reading.  This is that kind of book.

I’m on a mission to read 90 books in 90 days this summer.  Capture the Flag was #32.

The One and Only Ivan

4 06 2012

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.   The book was probably close to 30 years old the first time I read it, and that was probably around 30 years ago, yet it’s still a perfect book for kids.   There’s  Wilbur, the pig who needs protecting; Fern, the little girl with the heart of gold; Templeton, the rat that provides comic relief (and a little help), Homer, the man who owns the farm; and, of course, Charlotte, the spider who plays the role of unlikely hero.

Fast forward.  It’s 2012 and you have The One and Only Ivan.  It’s almost the same cast of characters – except you replace Wilbur with Ruby the elephant, Fern with Julia, Templeton with Bob the dog, Homer’s farm with Mack’s pseudo-circus, and Charlotte with Ivan the silverback gorilla.

Ivan’s story is told by Ivan.  He’s been in this glass box for 27 years, and he hasn’t seen another gorilla since he and his sister Tag were captured as babies.  He’s grown, physically, into a massive silverback gorilla.  Yet, having been raised by Mack like a human child, eating human food, wearing human clothes, and now put on display for human amusement, he doesn’t feel like a silverback.  Silverbacks are supposed to protect their family.  Ivan has no family, no one to protect.

Until Ruby, a baby elephant is brought to the show.  Then Ivan, much like Charlotte had to do 60 years ago, has to figure out a way to protect the one he loves.

Ivan is such a unique narrator that the book is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  He’s sweet, he’s thoughtful, and he feels that humans waste too many words, so his story is told in short, choppy bits, expressing just what needs to be expressed in a perfect way.  It’s kind of prose, but almost a free-verse poem, or maybe it’s just written the way that gorillas think.  Either way, it’s a beautifully written, amazing story that is sure to be on the “classics” list right next to Charlotte’s Web a few years down the road.

I didn’t think that Katherine Applegate could top her last book, Home of the Brave, but she has.  I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

This was my 16th book this summer (and my favorite so far).  That puts me more than 1/6 of the way to my goal of reading 90 books in 90 days over summer break.