March ’15 Update – Ashley

* The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (reread) – I think this is probably only the second time I’ve read Huck Finn.  I know I read it once in high school for a Lit class (as evidenced by all the margin notes in my copy), but I doubt I’ve read it since then.  After reading two (relatively) current/modern books in February, I thought I’d switch it up a little in March and read a classic.  I remembered enjoying Huck Finn, so I thought I’d start there…

Huckleberry_Finn_book

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chronicles the journey of young Huck Finn down the Mississippi River as he escapes his less-than-satisfying life with an alcoholic father and overbearing widow.  Along the way, he is joined by a slave named Jim, who has run away in order to seek life as a free man.  As the title suggests, their travels are interrupted by many an adventure and the constant fear of being discovered and returned to their miserable former lives.  Their adventures range from comical – Huck dressing as a girl in an attempt to retrieve information, to terrifying – being trapped aboard a shipwreck with a crew of murderous thieves.  The secondary cast is made up, almost entirely, of horribly unsavory characters who are more interested in furthering their own agenda than in being decent human beings.  The redemption in this story comes in Huck’s growing realization about how terribly people treat one another.  His conscience begins to guide his decisions, causing some significant inner turmoil between what he feels and what he’s been taught is right.

My Take: To be honest, this book was extremely uncomfortable to read at times.  As an adult, I can see how Twain was using the book as catalyst for social commentary, but even so, the rampant racism and blatant cruelty that prevails throughout the text was a tough pill for me to swallow.  Of course, in a story where one of the main characters is a runaway slave, I was prepared for some of that, but there were few subpopulations that weren’t denigrated at some point, including a scene where con artists pretend to use some rudimentary form of sign language in order to run a scam – just one of many scenes where I physically cringed while reading. In addition to being uncomfortable, this book was also difficult to read because of all the dialect Twain uses.  He even writes an explanation at the beginning of the novel of all the different dialects he included.  Because the language was so unconventional – and written phonetically – I essentially had to read the novel “out loud” to hear what the characters were actually saying, as it was difficult to interpret on sight alone.  This book required a LOT of concentration…  For example, I just opened up to a random page and here is a direct quote: “‘I tuck out en shin down de hill, en ‘spec to steal a skiff ‘long de sho’ som’ers ‘bove de town…'”  As hard as that was to read, it was even tougher to type – autocorrect does NOT like Twain’s use of dialect! This story is a classic for a reason – the story definitely makes its point.  I love a book that keeps you thinking and questioning humanity and our greater purpose.  This is not a book that I would refer to someone for some light (or necessarily enjoyable) reading, but I think it’s a book everyone should read at some point for discussion and perspective.  For that reason, I think it serves a different purpose on this list than others, but deserves its spot regardless.

* The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (new read) – As soon as I saw “the list” of YA books we have now committed to reading, I knew this book was going to be one of the first new reads for me.  This is the first book (“Book the First”) in the A Series of Unfortunate Events… series.  I had heard about these from kids at school and knew they had made a movie from it.  Other than that, and the information I gathered from the series title, I admit I knew little to nothing about the actual plotline, etc. However, I was intrigued and had wanted to read them for a while, so now seemed like a perfect time – especially after spending almost the entire month wading through Huck Finn!

The_Bad_BeginningBeing the first book in a series, A Bad Beginning had the important job of introducing the readers to all the main characters and providing their backstory for those characters.  In this case, we meet the Baudelaire siblings – Violet (14), Klaus (12), and Sunny (infant) – and learn about the tragedy that led to them becoming orphans.  For a storyline that revolves around these children as orphans, however, we are given minimal information about their lives prior to their parents’ death.  I found that surprising, but did appreciate that the “action” didn’t take forever to come around.  Regardless, after losing everything they’ve ever know, the children are forced to live with their uncle, Count Olaf, in a digesting, dilapidated house on the “other side of town.”  This is where I began waiting for the story to turn around… Count Olaf is an awful man, whose singular goal seems to be to get ahold of the Baudelaires’ inherited fortune – by whatever means necessary.  I assumed that, with such a forthright and obvious villain, there would be some change in circumstances that would change his heart and the seemingly heartless man would learn to love and care for his long-lost, orphaned relatives.  Well, {spoiler alert} that doesn’t happen.  The author warns you from the beginning – this is not a happy story and there is no happy ending.  On that note, I was not disappointed.

My Take:  Oh my…  I have such mixed feelings about this book.  Yes, it was entertaining.  It held my interest and was easy to read.  I can see why the kids have enjoyed it.  The plot moves quickly and doesn’t dawdle on insignificant details.  However, I thought the character development was definitely lacking.  Aside from feeling sorry for the siblings, and the obligatory interest I had in them as children, there was nothing in this book that made me really care about them.  Again, I was rooting for them because they were, obviously, the good guys, and also because they were kids going up against a big, bad adult, but I was never attached to them as characters.

My bigger issue, however, was with some of the content in this book.  There were several situations in this book that seemed completely inappropriate for a children’s (or young adult) book.  Part of that was crucial to the plot, so I won’t divulge that here (on the off chance that you will choose to read this book later), but that was the part that baffled me even more…  The part I considered most inappropriate was not some throw-away scene – it was a crucial plot point, which meant the author had to intentionally design the entire book around something I think should never have been mentioned.

This is the first book on the list that I am going to say doesn’t belong.  I won’t be reading it to my children – that’s for sure!

So… who else has read these books?  What were your thoughts?  Do they belong?

The Rundown- March ’15

Matilda by Roald Dahl (reread)

61K2r4blw5LI don’t remember the first or last time I read Matilda, but based on my movie tie-in cover, I bought it sometime in 1996. Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors as a child (yes, this book definitely stretches that “young adult” label), so I know I read this several times.

Many of the details from this story were pretty fuzzy to me, so I was glad to get a chance to read it again. Matilda is a neglected child, whose parents are completely self-involved and downright mean to their daughter. She has to find ways to cope, so she spends time at the library reading tons of books. Once Matilda begins attending school, she is faced with an awful headmaster (Ms. Trunchbull) that is cruel to the students, especially the youngest ones. Without giving too much away, Matilda discovers a special ability that her teacher, Ms. Honey, helps her use to try and get revenge on Ms. Trunchbull.

The first thing that struck me as I started the book is that the parents were much more vile than I remembered. Rather than being comically evil, they are just mean and terrible people! Actually, almost all of the adults in this book are awful, except for Ms. Honey. Dahl uses their names to help the reader immediately know who is good or bad. The aforementioned Ms. Honey is exactly as her name suggests, and Matilda’s parents are the Wormwoods. I love those details!

This book will definitely appeal to kids, especially those who feel they have been wronged by the adults in their lives. I hope they don’t get any ideas though…

** I’ve seen the movie multiple times, and while it is a great movie, they add quite a few scenes that aren’t in the book, particularly near the end.

VERDICT: This is a toss-up for me. It’s a good book, but I don’t know if I think it’s one of the best of all time, especially when a superior Roald Dahl book also made the list. Read it and find out for yourself!

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson (new read)403px-jacobihavelovedbookcover

I have a confession to make—for my entire life, I thought that this was an old-timey romance novel, and that is why I never had an interest in reading it. Look at some of the covers out there and tell me you don’t think the same thing! Turns out, the title is actually a scriptural reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. (Romans 9:13 is the direct verse).

The book takes place in the 1940s on an island on the Chesapeake Bay. Caroline and Louise are twins, with Caroline drawing all the attention because she is prettier, more talented, etc. The story is essentially about Louise trying to step out from Caroline’s shadow and making an identity for herself. When the story begins, the girls are about 13 or 14, but by the end, about 10-12 years have passed.

I found this story difficult to get into at first. There were a lot of fishing/crabbing references, as that was the occupation of the father. Louise and her friend, Call, helped as well. Since I know nothing of that world, I struggled through those chapters, mind wandering and all. About a third of the way through the book, Patterson introduced a character, “The Captain,” that was returning home to Rass Island after a long stint away. That livened up the plot for a while. As his part in the story lessened though, so did my interest.

By the end of the book, I was pretty ready to just be done. For a “young adult” book, the amount of time that passed in the story was kind of odd. As I read about Louise in her 20s, as she became a mother and midwife, some of the passages and phrases just didn’t seem that appropriate for the age of the reader. This book also won a Newberry Medal, which I admit I am somewhat surprised by.

VERDICT: Maybe I just couldn’t relate to this book (being the oldest child), but I could definitely have gone through life just fine without reading it. As such, this is one I would have kept off the list.

What do y’all think? Have you read either of these books? Should they have made the list?

The Rundown- February ’15

No pretense, let’s get started!

The Giver by Lois Lowry (reread)

the giver

I think that most people my age had to read this book in middle school. I was not one of those people. I didn’t read this book for the first time until I was in college, for a Children’s Literature class. I immediately loved it, always having been a Lois Lowry fan (Number the Stars anybody?).

For the uninitiated, The Giver is, essentially, the “original” young adult dystopian novel. I know they’re all the rage now, but at the time, this book was unusual. The book has a fairly simple premise, but is revealed in such a layered manner.

The society in the story is presented as a utopia, where “sameness” is promoted, jobs are assigned at age twelve, and privacy is nonexistent. Without giving too much away, the protagonist of the story, Jonas, is given an assignment that is rare and unexpected at his Twelve Year Ceremony. The book follows his journey, with the ending paving the way for future returns to the world created by Lowry.

I think this book is important as a discussion piece for the way The Society is portrayed. Children are able to use critical thinking skills to decide whether or not they think The Society really was successful in creating a “perfect” society.

**The best part of The Giver is that it doesn’t end with this book! Lois Lowry wrote three “companion” novels: Gathering Blue, Messenger and Son. I flew through this quartet starting during Christmas break and finishing up sometime in January. While the first two books seem to have no ties, by the time you read Son, it will be obvious how everything is intertwined. I also enjoyed that two of the books had female protagonists, which was another foreshadowing of the current dystopian craze.  I really can’t say enough good things about this group of books!

THE VERDICT: I would have been shocked if this book wasn’t included in the list. Although deceiving in its simplicity and readability, the story stays with you forever.

Wonder by RJ Palacio (new read)

Wonder

I must admit, I didn’t know much about this book when I first selected it, other than the striking cover, and the fact that some of my teacher friends were using it in their classrooms. It is one of the newer selections on the list, as it was published in 2012.

As I started the book, I didn’t really see anything that special. Early on, there was a chapter devoted to August’s birth, complete with an entire episode of a farting nurse, and, a not too much later, a section about an administrator named Mr. Tushman. I started to write it off as a book trying too hard to appeal to an elementary male demographic. Thankfully, those pages ended up being anomalies.

To put it succinctly, this book gave me “all the feels.” It is about a 10 year old boy, named August, who has severe facial abnormalities. After being homeschooled for his whole childhood, he has now enrolled in school for the first time. As you can imagine, his experience is quite the rollercoaster, with pages making me laugh and cry, grin and cringe, sometimes all at the same time. By the end of the book, tears were streaming down my face, and the message here is strong and authentic, without being forced.

The majority of the book is told from August’s point of view, but the author also includes five other narrators, for various amounts of time, to flesh out the story. Never has a book with that many points of view been so easy to follow!

I also enjoyed the various literary references that were included in different ways throughout the story. Readers were connected to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, introduced to plays such as Our Town and The Elephant Man, and made aware of classics such as War and Peace and The Hobbit. With each character switch, song lyrics and quotes were used to convey their point of view. The English teacher introduces a precept each month and students are immersed in the power of language (which comes full circle later on).

I strongly think this book should be read by any student in fifth through eighth grade. The lessons they could learn from August and the characters that surround him are invaluable. In doing some research after reading, I discovered the author had started a website called “Choose Kind.” It is full of next steps for kids to take after reading this book and doing some self-reflection. I applaud Palacio for realizing the impact her book would have and helping it continue long after the reading is over.

 **If you read and enjoy this book, you might be interested to know that there are two e-books written as companions to this book. One, called The Julian Chapter, tells the story from the “bully’s” point of view. I read it immediately after finishing Wonder and found it to be a wonderful complement to the book. The other is called Pluto and tells the story of August as a younger child. I look forward to reading that one as well.

THE VERDICT: I see the value in including this in the 100 List, as it has a strong voice and a high impact on its intended audience.