It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 5/6/13

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The kidlit version of It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by TeachMentorTexts.

For May, I have decided to try for a #bookaday challenge. Here’s what I finished this week:

cat ate

This is the version of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit that I obsessively read and reread when I was 10 or 11. Don’t pay any attention to those pretty pink new covers that feature a skinny girl and a white cat. There’s no cat! And Marcy couldn’t be any less pink. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit was Danziger’s first novel, published in 1974. I was afraid this book wouldn’t hold up very well, and sure,there’s some dated dialogue here and there, but for the most part, this is still a powerful story of what it means to have principles and stand up for them–and to keep believing in your principles and acting on them even after things don’t work out the way you’d hoped. What most surprised me about the book is how effectively it tells the story of its particular time period. The context–the Vietnam War and feminism–was entirely lost on me when I first read this book in 1981 or 1982. Danziger doesn’t ever mention either the war or feminism by name, I think, but the larger political protests of the 60s and early 70s clearly inform what she’s doing. This is a much more ambitious novel than I remembered it being–and also quite well-written. Like my rereading of Harriet the Spy last week, this rereading was inspired by Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. (Her original essay on Cat is available online.) Next up for my teen classic project is Ellen Conford. Will it be Hail Hail Camp Timberwood or We Interrupt This Semester for an Important Bulletin??

frindle

I love Frindle–and really all of Andrew Clements’s books. I read this one out loud to my kids, who also loved it. The one thing I do consistently like about parenting is sharing books with my kids.

how children succeed

I found How Children Succeed to be an incredibly interesting read–and also a frustrating one. First, the interesting. Here’s the big premise: success is about character, not cognition. Paul Tough argues persuasively that cognitive interventions may have short-term success but do not lead to lasting change and long-term success. Intelligence and cognition ultimately matter much less than non-cognitive qualities such as grit, determination, resilience. Tough brings in a wide variety of scientific research and profiles many different school intervention programs to try to pinpoint what actually works.

And now to the frustrating. I often felt that he was profiling so many different programs and interviewing so many different scientists and educators and students that he was never able to go deeply enough into his findings. Just when things get really interesting, Tough is off to the next interview. At first, I thought he was going to weave all of these different strands together into some really insightful whole. But ultimately, the book is more suggestive than anything else, touching on many, many different interesting things but always skimming the surface and never relating one set of understandings to another. In the end, I don’t have a much better sense of how children succeed than I did when I started the book, though I do have an idea of some interesting research I’d like to explore more.

But reading this book did lead to one important personal insight for me as a parent. Tough writes about how cognitive abilities are actually compromised in children who have experienced severe or repeated trauma early in their lives. Their brains are so busy dealing with stress that they actually can’t learn. I see this every day in my older son. My two kids, who are adopted, are both English Language Learners, and my older son has been unable/unwilling to learn to read. I have been worried about this and thinking that we need to add all kinds of cognitive interventions to help him. But now I suspect that once my son has regulated his emotions more and can get through his daily life without experiencing so much stress (both residual post-traumatic and new), he’ll probably be able to read just fine.

running dream

I very nearly abandoned The Running Dream, which I read for the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge, when I came to this snippet of dialogue:

“Gavin may not be a jock, but he is the mayor’s son, and he’s hot. Especially since he grew that chin scruff.”

No human being has ever or would ever say these words.

Aside from this minor false step, I did enjoy the writing quite a bit in this novel. But  overall, I felt like things worked out just a little too well. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of drama here. Track star Jessica is injured in a bus accident and has to have part of her leg amputated. Running is who she is; without it, she doesn’t know how to go on. But very quickly, she figures it out: she can get a running prosthetic and start running again! Before you know it, Jessica’s friends are holding bake sales and car washes to raise money for her $20K running prosthetic. And Jessica has an even bigger goal: she wants to find a way for her new friend, Rosa, who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, to experience the excitement of racing. So she trains to push Rosa 10 miles in a race. It’s all very inspiring and I appreciated Jessica’s can-do attitude, but I’m not sure how realistic it was. I was also disturbed by the lack of attention paid to the aftermath of the rest of the bus accident. Another girl on the track team dies in the accident, but no one seems to be too concerned about that. There’s a scene late in the novel when Jessica goes to visit Lucy’s grave and talks to Lucy’s mom. It’s clearly meant to be touching and to resolve some of the emotional aftermath of the bus crash. But it really just raised more questions for me, and I thought the lack of attention paid to what would be a devastating loss to a team and a school was really odd. Still, I enjoyed this book and think it would be a good choice for the Sarah Dessen crowd.

october mourning

October Mourning is another book I read for the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge. I was moved by Leslea Newman’s “Afterword,” where she traces her connection to Matthew Shepherd and the ways that his brutal murder continue to inspire her activism. I really wanted to like this book, and I do admire what Newman is trying to do. There’s a strong concept at work here: the book is a collection of poems about Shepherd’s murder, told from various perspectives, including inanimate objects. The fence to which Shepherd was tied and left to die seems to have particularly inspired her: there are at least four poems told from the fence’s perspective, plus a poem about people’s pilgrimages to the fence, and there is also a photograph of the author standing next to the fence.  Newman channels the voices of a bartender, an onlooker at the bar, the killers, the biker who found Shepherd, police officers, the parent getting the call, and others (though never Shepherd himself, which I think is an interesting and respectful choice). But unfortunately, most of the poems are simply not very strong. As I was reading October Mourning, I kept thinking of Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till. The two books share a similar purpose, I think, but Nelson’s is a work of beauty, subtlety, and impressive craft. October Mourning is very teachable from a social justice perspective, and it’s a book I will be sharing with my pre-service teachers. But I do wish it were stronger as a piece of literature.

we dont need another hero

My favorite book this week was Gregory Michie’s collection of essays, We Don’t Need Another Hero. I enjoyed this book so much that I breezed through it in an afternoon, and now I want to go back and reread more slowly. Michie is one of my favorite writers on teaching. He brings so many specifics from his own experiences in the classroom, first as a Chicago public school teacher and then as a teacher educator, and he never shies away from writing about the difficult stuff. Many of these pieces, it strikes me, are actually rooted in classroom failure of various kinds. Teaching is such a strange vocation, because so much of what we do fails. There is a great deal of mediocrity and drudgery in even the best teacher’s classroom. And there are failures both spectacular and humdrum. Very few teacher narratives manage to convey the complexity of teaching. Narrative, by its very nature, imposes structure and order and causation; it selects and simplifies and builds to a closure that is more or less tidy. A classroom that invites real learning is never like that. There are no pat conclusions in this book and few unambiguously feel-good moments, but it’s still a book full of hope.

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