Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bully, Kindness and Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Buzz.  Best of.  Mock-Newbery.  Must read.  Every year, 1,000’s of books come out and for a few, we use these words to describe them. Teachers, librarians, and booksellers prominently display these special books in classrooms, libraries and bookstores. Honestly, every year I approach these books with caution because at the end of the school year maybe a couple of students will have read them.  Of course these students would end up reading these books even if they were hidden in the room.  Why? Because these students grow up to be, well, us.  This year Wonder by R.J. Palacio is that book.  Reluctantly I purchased Wonder.  Before I continue I must apologize to Ms. Palacio because if I had known how deeply this book affected me I would have been one of the first to purchase it. 

August Pullman (Auggie) is a 10-year boy with facial deformities who is attending public school for the first time. Auggie is obsessed with Star Wars.  He has loving parents, Nate and Isabel, and a wonderful older sister, Via.  Throughout the book Auggie learns what it is like in the big world.

I attended six different elementary schools.  Yes, I was always the new kid.  I was short and an outsider.  In the spring of 1972 my family moved back to Denver.  I finished 5th and 6th grade at Polton Elementary School.  (At that time Cherry Creek Schools middle school was 7th and 8th grades.)  I don’t remember which day of that first week at Polton when Eric Ritter began the bullying, but I do know that he tormented me until the last day of high school.  (A few years after high school I saw Eric in the mountains.  He didn’t see me, but the moment I saw him my stomach churned the way it did for years.  The upsetting part was that he could still get to me.) He lived on my block.  His house was next to the pool.  I got extra exercise because I would walk a couple of blocks out the way to enter the pool from a different direction.  For some reason only known to, well I don’t know whom; our lockers were in the same block throughout middle school and high school. 

Eric didn’t threaten to take my lunch or beat me up.  He used words to demean, hurt, and humiliate me.  He would knock in to me sending my books flying, or lean against my locker preventing me from getting what I needed for the day.  In high school I got a large backpack and kept every thing with me to avoid having to go down the bank of lockers.  It was difficult to deal with on a daily basis.  What made it worst was that boys I was once friends with became friends with Eric and they would stand by at first and watch.  This would turn into laughing along, and finally ending with them joining in, or tormenting me when he wasn’t around.  Unfortunately, the helplessness I felt is still happening today.  I didn’t feel safe telling anyone what was happening.  Today we still have students that won’t ask for help.  Often it is because the common adult response is
 “Well, just ignore them.”
 “Play somewhere else.”
“Did an adult see it?”

I suffered in silence. Just like endless kids do today.  Last summer was the first time I told a high school friend what Eric had done.  I do tell the story of Eric every year to my students to try to help them see how bullying can happen to anyone and how they can make a difference in someone’s life by their own actions.

I am advocating that every 4th grader to 12th grade be required to read this book.  I wish it was appropriate for every age; but I, truly, believe that third grade and below are too young to understand the book.  Even more so, I think every teacher, administrator, politician, journalist, and parent read this book.  As I wrote earlier I reluctantly read some of the buzz books.  One reason is that even though we, as educators, enjoy the book students have trouble relating to the characters.  What makes this book powerful is that the characters are universal.  The reader can relate to Auggie because their difference at one point made them an outsider.

At the beginning of the book one of Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Browne, writes on the board:

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

Ms. Palcacio subtly, and luckily not so subtly writes about kindness throughout this book.  “If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary-the world really would be a better place.”  As eductators human beings if we follow these words what a difference we can make.  Children will see that it get better. (This link is to the It Gets Better Project.)

PS.  I am trying to add the gadget, picture link to Choose Kind; but I am doing it wrong.  Help!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans

It is hard to believe that very soon we will start our first read aloud of the year.  Some teachers start with the same book each year.  Some because they haven’t learned what books their students will like, and some because they read the same books every year.  I don’t fit in this mold.  I have been on the look out for a read aloud for a third grade class.  This year I will have lower readers, so I am not sure what that will bring.  I just finished a book that is on the top of the stack for the first read aloud.  The funny thing I bought one at The Bookies and one came from Amazon. (I got a very generous gift card from my students at the end of the school year.)

British Cover
Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans is a wonderful tale. (Funny in England it is Small Change for Stuart.  A much better title!)  Stuart Horten is a vertically impaired 10 year-old. He is teased at school about his height, and S. Horten. His mother’s job has changed so the family must move.  Dad realizes that the town in which he grew up is close to Mum’s new job, so the family moves to Beeton.  Dad writes crossword puzzles.  He uses very large and odd vocabulary.  At one point Stuart thinks he should just have a question mark tattooed on to his forehead, and just point at it when his talking with his dad!  Unfortunately, the move happens at the beginning of summer vacation.  Making it very difficult for making new friends.

Once arriving Stuart find that he had triplet girls living next door, April, May, and June.  It is easy to say that Stuart is not thrilled that there are three snooping girls next door.  Stuart soon finds out that his great uncle was a magician, but he disappeared during World War II.  Stuart, also, discovers a hidden note from this uncle with clues to finding his workshop filled with magical mechanisms.  Grudgingly, at first, Stuart accepts April’s help in solving the mystery.  There is, of course, a time crunch because his uncle’s house is set to be demolished.

I really enjoyed this fast read.  It was witty, and filled with 10 year-old angst.  I liked how Ms. Evans fostered the new friendship between these two odd and different kids.  If I decide not to do it first I will do it as a read aloud later in the year.  The vocabulary is rich, and luckily the book has the definitions. 

I am open to suggestions for read alouds.  Also, why did they change the name for the States?  Go figure.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The New Sam Gary Branch Library in Denver

Dad in front of the new library.

Last night my dad and I attended the “sneak peek” of the new Denver Public Library Branch in Stapleton.   My parents live about three blocks from the new library.  My 76-year-old dad walked Rosie, his dog, to watch the construction everyday.  He knew about the electrical, the state of the art lighting (it includes using natural filtered light to illuminate the building).  He knew the artwork was delayed etc., etc., etc.  When I told him I got us tickets to go he was beside himself.  Mom said it was all he talked about for days. 

Dad is a reader.  He didn’t go to college, and his father had an 8th grade education, but I remember both of them always reading.  My dad doesn’t have great comprehension, and he forgets that he has already read a book. (Actually, he is forgetting a lot of everything.)  One time he was half way through Centennial by James Michener when he realized he had already read it!  Dad said last night “I am going to be here everyday it is open.”  City budget cuts only allows for branches to be open 32 hours a week. 

It was a wonderful evening to watch my dad stroll the shelves and look at titles.  I showed him a book about the history of Lego. (Samsonite used to make Lego.) He said he was going to be there August 11, the day it opens, to check it out for my nephew Levi.
I was a little bad because I pulled a copy of Fake Mustache and placed it on an end cap!

The Sam Gary Library is beautiful.  During one of the, little, speeches it was mentioned that people wanted a modern day Carnegie Library.  Not an easy request.  The exterior of the building is nice, but the spirit of the Carnegie Library lives inside.  It is an inviting place to be.  There is a fireplace with seating, building filled with new books and a huge children’s section.  Overall it is a place a 76-year old man feels comfortable reading his books.  Thanks Dad!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I had one of these.

My dad worked for Samsonite.  In 1969 the company transferred him to Mexico City, so he packed up our family and moved us from Denver to one of the largest cities in the world.  The movie theatres in Mexico City were GRAND.  They had ushers to seat you, etc.  It was in one of these theatres that I saw a movie that made me love cinema for the rest of my live.  Close to the middle of the movie the family car, being driven by Caractacus Potts, goes off a cliff; and instead of crashing , it flies!  I was hooked.  The movie of course was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Ian Fleming was the author of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and James Bond.  To be honest I have never read anything written by the author, but I love movies based on his work.  (Except for Moonraker, and a couple of other really BAD Bond movies.  Yes, I am looking forward to Skyfall the new Bond movie.)  Just like today there were toy tie-ins to the movie.  I had a model Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car just like the one in the picture.  It was so cool because when I pushed the button wings popped out just like in the movie!

Anyhow, I was at The Bookies and saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by  Frank Cottrell Boyce.  I really enjoyed Cosmic, so I was excited that he wrote the book about a beloved character.  Ian Fleming’s estate authorized the sequel.  The new book takes place in modern day Britain.  The Tooting family is your typical 21st century family.  Mum, Dad, Lucy, Jem (short for Jeremy) and Little Harry have no idea that when Dad looses his job; and Mum brings home an old Volkswagen van that they are in for an adventure of a lifetime.  Since Dad was fired because his hands were too big to do his job he restores the old van.  During the first test drive Dad and Jem realize the spark plugs need to be replaced.  They head off to a junkyard to find the parts, but end up with a racing engine instead.  Yes, it is Chitty.  As you can imagine the fun is just beginning. 

With his new freedom from the work force, Dad and family decide to head out on an adventure.  The first stop is Paris.  Given that Chitty is involved they don’t get to Paris the typical way.  In fact, they end up landing on the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Soon after they arrive a mysterious man named Tiny Jack wants to buy the van.  After leaving Paris they head for Egypt.  Lucy has always wanted to see the Pyramids. She is very morose.  Where is the Cure when you need them? 

A series of events happen and they end up at Tiny Jack’s very large house.  I don’t want to give too much away.  I will tell you that Dad and Mum leave for a night out on the town in an Aston Martin DB5.  It comes equipped with all the extras.  I love the connection to Ian Flemings other character.  Their leaving leaves the children in a bad situation.  Of course we all know who saves the day.

At first I was unsure about the book.  I thought the Tooting name was too close to the song Toot Sweets from the original movie.  So, I kept expecting a family connection.  Once I got over that and realized that it was car parts that were the connection I quickly fell in love with this book.  It is funny, thoughtful, and silly.  I know a few kids that will find the book truly scrumptious.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

spy school By Stuart Gibbs

Last year Guy’s Read Book Club read belly up by Stuart Gibbs.  It was by far the favorite book of the year.  Many parents ended up reading it as well.  Recently, I found Mr. Gibbs newest book Spy School while scouring the shelves at The Bookies.  I was very excited to see a new book from a great author.  After finishing the book I stand by my statement about Stuart Gibbs.

Spy School is a covert school located in Washington DC.  It is run by the CIA, and its sole purpose is to train kids to be spies.  Most of the instructors are ex CIA operatives.  In other words that are too old or incompetent to be spies!   One day an average nerdy, 12 year old, named Ben Ripley comes home to find Alexander Hale, a spy, sitting in his living room. (Later we find that Alexander Hale is a total “Dig Me!”) Alexander is there to take Ben to spy school.  Ben is a mathematical genius, so he is told that he has qualified to be a spy.  What they didn’t tell him was the truth.  He is, actually, supposed to be a patsy, or a trap. While at Spy School he makes new friends, new enemies, and quickly finds out he is in over his head. Oh, and he saves the day.

OK, so that was a very brief blurb on the book.  I figure I would spend the time writing about what I like about the book.  Just like Belly Up, it is very funny.  Not slap stick funny, but situational funny.  Mr. Gibbs creates these very unrealistic situations that once you finish reading you say. “On, I could totally see that happening!”  The book is filled with wonderful characters.  It is very hard to figure out friend or foe.  This is important in a mystery.  I, also, like that Ben knows that he is not perfect. 

Another thing I like about the book is the layout.  Each chapter is titled, followed by location, date, and time.  I am not going to give the chapter number, but one chapter is titled:  

Cheney Center for the Acquisition of Information

Most kids aren’t going to get the references, but REALLY how funny is this!

I quickly read this book, and I am giving it to a student this morning.  Unfortunately, the book is not right for Guy’s Read.  It is very much a high 4th grade and above.  Not just reading level, but content.  You know just because they can read it doesn’t make it right.