Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Product Details

ISBN: 978-0545299886

This is the first book by Blue Balliett that I have read, but it won't be the last. Hold Fast is a mystery about a family trying to reunite with their father who has suddenly disappeared without any trace. Early, the story's protagonist, is Sum and Dash's oldest child. She helps the family look after their youngest child Jubie, short for Jubilation  who is literally full of joy and excitement. But as time ticks by and their father's disappearance continues, all joy and happiness diminishes.

Dash and Sum dream about moving away from their apartment in a poor neighborhood to a house. They all envision this house as a dream come true, a place to truly call their own. Bound by their shared love of literature, the family gathers together over books for reading and writing. Early admires her father's love of language. The whole family, indeed, is held together by their favorite writers and their words of hope and dreams. Their most prized possession is a notebook in which they record their authors' favorite quotes.

Langston Hughes's work guides them through what they call the Rhythms of Life. When sum goes missing, the family desperately tries to detect clues, or the rhythm behind their father's disappearance.

A novel full of language play, it makes an intimate connection with readers who literally hang on key words appearing throughout the story which eventually weave together the missing pieces of the puzzle. Set in the inner city of Chicago, the family struggles through their father's disappearance, the destruction of their apartment by those connected to his disappearance, and a homeless shelter where they experience a tenuous safe haven.

The city's largest public library serves as the backdrop for the novel. Sum works there and it seems that his disappearance is somehow connected to his job. Ever the sleuth, Early sets out to find her father and give her mother hope who is slowly fading into complete despair.

An inspirational story about the power of family, love, and the ways we communicate it, I would recommend this story for children and adults alike. Balliett's most acclaimed book is Chasing Vermeer and I plan to start there next in getting to know her work.

The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner

Product Details

ISBN: 978-0465002306


A few weeks ago, I heard Tony Wagner speak in New York. I was so impressed with what he said about skills students need exiting school today that I wanted to learn more. Published in 2008, Wagner's work has influenced policy making decisions across our country's schools. He contends that, while there many criticize public schools, the criticism is misguided. He argues that schools have not failed; rather, schools have become obsolete. This is a major shift in a time when "accountability and sanctions" are the methods of modern school reform. Thus, while the world has progressed in terms of technologies, global awareness, and networking, schools, on the whole, have struggled to shake off the old models developed during an agrarian-era mindset. For instance, while it may have been important to know information that was only accessible in books in the past, today facts and information are everywhere and everyone has access to them. So, today it is less important to know information, and more important to know how to use it or what it means in relationship to achieving a goal. This, he argues, should be the direction of reforming our schools.

He researched the essential skills needed in order for someone to be successful and get desirable jobs coming out of high school and college today. Working backwards, he says that before students leave school today they should have some key skills developed over time, and he argues strongly for a movement away from memorizing content (traditional schooling) to developing competencies. He boils these competencies down to what he calls the seven survival skills teens should exit school with today:

I would recommend this book for parents and educators alike looking for schools that are aiming to transform themselves into a modern place of learning for the modern world.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave by Deron R. Hicks

Product Details

273 pages
ISBN 978-0-547-84034-5

In Deron's Hicks Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave, a young new sleuth, named Colophon, emerges in a series of mysteries surrounding the hidden Letterford family treasures. Colophon, as her name suggests, is deeply rooted in a tradition of book publishing. However, a problem surfaces fro her family. Suspicious incidents jeopardize her father's current claim to the ownership of Letterford and Son and  have caused the Letterford family to lose faith in Mull Letterford as the company leader. If he does not fix things by Christmas, then the company ownership could go to his cousin who appears way too eager (at least to Colophon) to take over the family company and fortune. Colophon aims to discover the Letterford hidden treasures and make sure that her father has enough money to weather the current storm.

I would recommend this book to children ranging from the ages of eight to twelve. Compact chapters ending with a cliffhanger style engaged me with that irresistible"tug" that gets readers to turn the next page and dive into the next chapter. The story also creates more added interest in the great bard, Shakespeare, as each chapter begins with a line of his writing. And who does not want more Shakespeare in their life?

The story takes place in both the north eastern United States and England. A series of events leads Colophon to such places as graveyards and centuries-old banks in England. While Colophon discovers many clues leading to the Letterford family treasure, she finds that the closer she gets to answering the mystery the more questions there are. Indeed, a sequel to Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave is forthcoming.

I also like the choice of names in the story. Colophon is a tern derived from the book publishing industry and she does indeed seem to be the force keeping the industry alive in her family. Her father, Mull, is a deliberate thinker and planner, one who does not rush to judgments but ponders the meaning of things as his name suggests. Hicks obviously enjoys playing with language and his fun, inviting tone in his writing is sure to attract many young readers everywhere.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes

280 Pages
ISBN-10: 1442442050

The premise of this book is what hooked me. Morgan Keyes creates a world in her novel, Darkbeast, in which all young people are literally assigned dark beasts. They could be frogs, snakes, rats, or as in the case of Keara, a raven. This creature is presented to them when they are twelve days old and it is intended to magically remove all their evil deeds and emotions like anger, pride, and jealousy. Keara names her darkbeast Caw, and when her twelfth birthday arrives she is faced with a problem. All children must ceremoniously kill their darkbeasts at the age of twelve. The ritual is intended to mark their entrance into adulthood at which time they leave behind all their evil deeds.

The assignment of an animal to each child reminded me of the animal partnerships characters had in Rowling's Harry Potter series and I thought it was a very clever and engaging idea of Keyes to extend that natural interest children have to animals in her story.

The main character, Keara, faces the challenge of whether or not she will destroy her darkbeast when the time comes. For most children in the fictional world of Silver Hollow, the day cannot come soon enough when they get to destroy their darkbeasts. But Keara is different. She has bonded with Caw and finds herself willing to risk her own safety and her family's safety in order to spare her companion.

The story is set in world in which the gods have led Inquisitors to enforce the law of the land which includes hefty taxes on everyone's head, strict dogmatic worship, and accepting a life of simple poverty in exchange for the safety provided by the Inquisitors. Keara dares to challenge the status quo and tries to find a safe place to escape with her darkbeast, but can there be a safe place when all the land is under the control of the Inquisitors?

Overall, I would recommend this book for kids in the age range of ten to fourteen and I think teachers would enjoy leading students through this novel to explore such themes as: rebellion and when it can be justified to rebel from authority or even what it means to be brave. Keyes has followed this book with a sequel.

Guy-Write by Ralph Fletcher

176 Pages
ISBN-10: 0805094040
What a fun read! I'd recommend this to all K-8 teachers. I'd also recommend this to parents desiring to inspire their particularly writing-resistant sons. Ralph Fletcher writes Guy-Write with the hope of inspiring young boys to pursue writing even if they have not exactly received support for their very boyish interests such as slapstick humor, gore, or the classic boy pastime, the fart.

The book is written in a friendly and fun-loving tone and Fletcher calls upon his own experiences of hesitating to write when he was young. Additionally, he raised two boys and shares many anecdotes about the crazy (and often unpopular school topics) they enjoyed writing about. Each chapter includes illustrations from kids, entertaining examples in different genres, and little Post It® type notes as reminders about how to succeed in each genre.

For those instructors who teach writing in a "writers" workshop format, perhaps similar to those spearheaded by Lucy Calkins and her work with The Teachers College at Columbia University, you will be pleased to see a section on keeping a "writer's notebook" and the different ways to use it as a source for capturing ideas and practicing the craft of writing. He also includes a section about drawing before writing as a way to get and organize ideas, an idea embraced by many teachers who try to get reluctant writers going.

The whole idea behind the book is to get boys writing. Plain and simple. While he acknowledges that there may be few opportunities to write a serious essay on flatulence, he also argues (and I completely agree) that boys need to have "permission" to write about the things that interest them so they can master the craft of writing. Let's be honest. Few people get excited about subordinate clauses, except we odd lovers of language who adore the subordinate clause, so why not get kids writing about topics that get their juices flowing and becoming the writers we know they can be?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

 I recently finished After Annie by Michael Tucker. The novel centers on the intersection of two people: Herb Aaron and the beautiful bartender, Olive. The two are at polar opposites. Herb is decades removed from his success as an actor, such that when people recognize him he is merely "that guy who played on that show." Olive is a young actress who needs Herb to be there for her in order to make in the business. Problem is Herb is exhausted, cantankerous, and in mourning over the loss of his wife and lover, Annie. One evening, while Annie is fading away, Herb tells her about meeting Olive and Annie insists that she meet her. The two connect deeply and when Annie passes Herb becomes Olive's surrogate mentor. Annie serves as the tether that holds Olive and Herb together even though Herb does his best to escape. He soon learns that his final memory and connection to Annie is in Olive. Often funny, sometimes bizarre, Tucker creates a fun story in which two characters learn there is so much more to life after Annie.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham

The game of baseball has its traditions. Yankee Pinstripes. The Green Monster. The Babe. All conjure images of a game that is as much part of our collective culture as the American Dream. Perhaps that is why baseball is so much a part of our heritage of hope. So many children grow up and see themselves one day playing the game like the pros. Baseball has its vernacular like so many American institutions do. The fastball. The full count. The moon shot. The three bagger. Nicknames run rampant as well. The film The Sandlot captured the heroic nature of the nickname when the boys thought of the Babe Ruth: The Sultan of Swat, The Great Bambino, The Colossus of Clout.

One such player, Joe Castle, added to the nostalgia of baseball by having arguably the greatest rookie start in the history of the game and showed unparalleled promise. Joe Castle emerged as a Chicago Cub in the summer of 1973 and immediately captured the attention of everyone. In just 38 games he hit an astonishing .488, including 21 home runs. He captured most rookie records and had the entire baseball country following him like a road map. Then, with one pitch high and inside, he was knocked out of the game forever.

John Grisham retells this story as a work of fiction from the point of view of the son of the pitcher for the New York Mets who hit Calico Joe. Joe's nickname came from his hometown of Calico Rock, Arkansas, a place that took him back in after his injury and protected him from the media that was so intent on chronicling his fall from potential baseball immortality. The novel explores the troubled relationship of a young boy, Paul Tracey, and his father, Warren Tracey, who the child initially idolized and eventually despised because he knew the truth that he was a womanizer and drunk who hit Calico Joe with the intent of knocking him out of the game perhaps out of jealousy. As his father's health begins to fail, Paul tries to get his father to accept one of the many mistakes he made in his life and apologize to Calico Joe before he loses the opportunity. This is a short novel, quickly read in one day if one so wishes. This is the first Grisham novel I read and plan to get to know his work better.