Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Happened To Cass McBride?, by Gail Giles

Gail Giles is a new author for me, and I'm very impressed. What Happened To Cass McBride? is a 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, but I personally would recommend it to any reader, highly motivated, disinterested, or noncommittal. I've given it to my wife and my teenage son to read. If I could, I would put it on the 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults list. Period.

What Happened to Cass McBride? tells the story of Cass McBride, a teenage girl who seemingly has it all. She is pretty, smart, and popular. But she harbors an unfortuate secret: just prior to a suicide committed by a classmate, she callously rejected his awkward attempt to ask her out on a date.

Is Cass responsible for the death of this young man, as his older brother believes? Or is she a victim of circumstances beyond her control? These are the questions that Gail Giles explores within the context of a thrilling mystery and detective story.

Although the mystery of Cass's role in the suicide of her classmate drives this novel, I myself attended just as much to the critique of contemporary culture that Giles inscribes (for more on Giles's take on contemporary society, see this posting on her blog). Like John Green, Giles pulls no punches in questioning the overemphasis on achievement and material outcomes one finds in contemporary America, and in particular in highly competitive suburban settings. Cass McBride is what her high school English teacher calls a "resume packer," in other words, a student determined "to pad out that high school file and show herself in every possible good light."

The limits of this approach to life--on the part of Cass McBride, her father, and others in her community--is exactly what Gail Giles suggests in this novel. What Happened To Cass McBride? is a wonderful addition to other recent young adult novels such as Twisted and An Abundance of Katherines that question the values of the new gilded age, and explore the problems inherent in not questioning the displacement of reciprocal human relations by material goals and objectives. Unlike The Rules of Survival, which suggests that irrationality lies behind disturbing and violent behavior, What Happened To Cass McBride? contends that disturbing and violent behavior is the rational outcome of a society overly obsessed with money and superficial appearances.

I recommend What Happened To Cass McBride? to readers in 7th grade and up. It is guaranteed to engage teens of all ages and abilities, and adults as well.

Here is a trailer for the book, developed by a librarian in Arizona.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Plea For Assistance

I've had writer's block many times before, but rarely have I had reader's block.

Unfortunately, I find myself with a serious case of the latter after making little to no headway over the last couple of weeks on the last two books on the 2007 Alex Awards list, Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, and The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig.

So, following the advice I've given to many young adult readers over the years, I'm moving on to new material that I hope will be more stimulating, namely, the various books on the 2007 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list put together by the Young Adult Library Services Association.

In the meantime, can anyone out there in the blogging universe help me to understand not only why Black Swan Green and The Whistling Season are on the Alex Awards list, but also what they have to say about the contemporary world?

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Book Of Lost Things, by John Connolly

I finished reading John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things about two weeks ago. Since then, I've been trying to find a good text-to-world connection to this wonderful adult book that I strongly recommend to readers ages 12 and up.

Like The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, The Book of Lost Things poses some challenges in terms of creating text-to-world connections. Like Zusak's novel, The Book of Lost Things is set during World War II. In addition, The Book of Lost Things consists in the main of a series of fairy tales re-worked in a very modern (some would say absurd or grotesque) way. At first glance, it doesn't appear especially relevant or contemporary.

This thoughtful report, by National Public Radio reporter Daniel Zwerdling, helped me to look at The Book of Lost Things with a more critical eye. In his report, Zwerdling describes the mental health challenges that American soldiers serving in Iraq have faced upon their return home to the United States. According to Zwerdling, who has been covering this issue for over a year now, more American soldiers than ever before are being kicked out of the army for behavior associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Book of Lost Things is clearly not about the war in Iraq, but the connections to Zwerdling's report are uncanny. At the beginning of the novel, readers are introduced to a young boy, David, who has just experienced the death of his mother. Shortly thereafter, David's father remarries, the family moves to a new home, and David acquires a new brother. Simultaneously, the Nazi's begin the bombing of London. All of this is too much for David: he begins to evidence symptoms of a mental disorder, and his father takes him to a psychiatrist. As the first section of the novel ends, a German plane falls out of the sky and into David's backyard. David witnesses this event, and suddenly finds himself transported to an entirely new and enchanted world (if you think this sounds just a little bit like The Wizard of Oz, you are correct).

Even though the new world that David confronts is enchanted, it is strikingly familiar--a landscape not unlike that of contemporary Iraq. Murderous wolves are attempting to seize control of the kingdom, led by a hideous wolf-man named Leroi; other insurgents and criminals are on the prowl. The ruling king appears unable or unwilling to exert control. This is a world where terror reigns supreme, and nothing appears capable of halting it.

The Book of Lost Things is remarkable because the account of David's adventures in this imaginary land is riveting and, albeit in an dark way, humorous. Readers who love fairy tales will especially enjoy the bizarre revisions of Grimm fairy tales such as Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, and Sleeping Beauty. English teachers might find the parallel to The Most Dangerous Game interesting and amusing as well. There are lots of different text to text connections that readers of all ages can make using this book.

But what I find most intriguing about The Book of Lost Things is its evocation of an age of terror. Connolly uses fairy tales and children's literature not only to capture something very important about childhood and the current age, but also to suggest the sort of attitude or mindset that people might need to take in the future to combat terrors both real and imagined. For more about this mindset, read The Book of Lost Things. Or perhaps read Thomas Friedman's recent opinion column in the The Sunday New York Times.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Age of Immigration

On the front page of today's Chicago Tribune is an article about the New Americans Initiative in Illinois, an effort to A) assist immigrants in Illinois become U.S. citizens; B) encourage immigrants to independently initiate their naturalization process; and C) help new citizens participate fully in civic life in Illinois. According to the article, this initiative is part of "a quiet but mounting government push to encourage assimilation, the likes of which have not occurred since Theodore Roosevelt's Americanization programs of the early 20th century."


This focus on immigration and assimilation--which has been a part of mainstream news coverage all year--is consistent with the theme of cultural diversity that is embedded in the young adult literature that I am reading for this project. After the theme of fear and terrorism, this is the most pronounced theme; one finds it in books such as American Born Chinese, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, An Abundance of Katherines, Color of the Sea, and even Water for Elephants. These novels show the challenges that immigrants and their children face in the United States, and also the efforts of many in our country to make our nation a more welcoming home for new arrivals.

The article in the Tribune caught my eye because it calls attention to both efforts to provide greater opportunities and assistance to new immigrants and the recurring hurdles and challenges that immigrants face in many Illinois communities, including Carpentersville and Waukegan. Interestingly, the high school classroom that I observed about a year ago that catalyzed this project is located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, near Carpentersville. The older adolescents that I observed discussing various descriptors for the current age did not mention "immigration" as a possibility, despite the growing influx of new Americans to this area, and also the controversy in nearby communities about how to respond to this phenomenon. This goes to show that reading young adult literature to understand trends and issues in the contemporary world can be a useful alternative to relying soley on one's own experiences and perceptions.

It also suggests that creating a more hospitable environment for new arrivals to the United States is not going to be easily accomplished. According to the Tribune, the focus of government efforts is on providing information as opposed to more substantive efforts to increase dialogue and understanding. In addition, funds for even the most elemental of integration services were cut from the most recent state budget. For many Americans, immigration and issues of cultural diversity remain below the radar, despite the clear evidence that to survive in the current age we must become more attuned to the variety of people in the world and more focused in our efforts to create dialogue and understanding across cultures. One of the best ways to create dialogue and understanding is reading young adult literature--an activity that appears to be taking place outside of school to a greater degree than at any other point in American history, but yet remains a relatively uncommon occurence in school. Since the likelihood of the government stepping up to fund new initiatives in the reading of young adult literature is pretty slim, maybe teachers need to become more forceful in their advocacy of this creative approach to social justice?

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Age of Climate Change

Reading Thomas Friedman's Op-Ed column in the Sunday New York Times this weekend reminds me that I have had the thought, in the course of this research project, that this is the age of climate change. Friedman's column suggests the ways in which an emerging knowledge of and debate about climate change is infiltrating the consciousness of everyday Americans. A couple of overly warm days here, a couple of forest fires and strong hurricanes there, and suddenly one becomes more attuned to the weather and the impact of human behavior on the environment.


Perhaps not so coincidentally, there are two books among the ones that I have read for this project set in Alaska; together, these books provide support for the notion that whatever the reasons, climate change is becoming a significant feature of the contemporary world. The Trap, by John Smelcer, references the changing patterns of hunting in rural Alaska, and the narrower and narrower seasons for trapping. Eagle Blue, by Michael D'Orso, suggests the same, and conveys well the native Alaskan perspective that the increased commercialization of Alaska, and the rest of the world, is undoubtedly behind the changes in temperature and season. As D'Orso points out, for native Alaskans, climate change is not a subject of debate; it is a fact of life.

It will be interesting to see, now that I am about halfway through my reading for this project, whether or not climate change emerges again as a subject of discussion. Other themes are clearly more prominent in contemporary young adult literature--fear and cultural diffusion, in particular--but climate change seems to be there as well, lurking in the background, making me wonder, on this incredibly balmy October day in Chicago, what the future will bring.

For more on climate change, view the video below, or go to Booklist Online to see a list of recent books for youth that discuss this subject.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Chinese Century

Today's letter in the Chicago Tribune from Huixun Zhang, Spokesman for the Consulate General, the People's Republic of China, protesting the awarding of the "so-called" Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama by President Bush a couple of weeks ago reminds me that along with The New Gilded Age, the phrase The Chinese Century has acquired a bit of currency among print and blog commentators as a descriptor of the contemporary period. According to these commentators, China is likely--or at the very least, has the potential--to dominate world affairs in the 21st century in the same way that the United States dominated the 20th century.


Within the young adult literature that I am reading for this project, the graphic novel American Born Chinese evidences some of the growing influence of Chinese culture, albeit in an indirect fashion. Now, there is a new graphic memoir called The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam that explores directly some of the history of China in the 20th century, and in particular the life of a very talented Chinese magician who made his living traveling the globe and offering vaudeville performances to a lot of people in the early 1900s.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam recounts a story told in a film of the same name. Ann Fleming, the author and illustrator, sets out to uncover the story of her great grandfather, partly in response to her own questions about why she has such an internationalist background (Fleming is the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Australian father, was born in Okinawa, and has lived most of her life in Canada). When Fleming discovers that her great grandfather was a vaudeville performer in the early part of the 20th century, and that her great aunt was a part of the show, she decides to learn as much as she can about his life and the circumstances that led to the re-location of most of the family to Canada.

The story that Fleming uncovers is complicated, sometimes contradictory, and full of surprising twists and turns. In addition to describing how her great grandfather married an Austrian woman and owned homes in the United States, Australia, and Europe, Fleming details the larger changes that occured in world affairs over the duration of the first part of the 20th century. More importantly, she highlights the many challenges that Long Tack Sam and other internationalists faced as a result of the rise of fascism and communism--challenges that echo ones encountered today by internationalists as a result of concerns over terrorism.

All in all, this memoir is highly entertaining, extremely readable, and well-documented (via pictures, historical artifacts, and other means). I recommend it for use in middle school and high school classrooms, and in particular courses or units on world history, multiculturalism, and the writing of history. Since it just came out in print last month, you might find this memoir hard to find. However, I've just nominated it for a 2008 award from YALSA under the heading of Great Graphic Novels, and so I hope the book picks up steam and gets more publicity and greater distribution in the future.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam doesn't fit neatly into this project here, but it is a nice change of pace and a reminder of the growing importance of China and Chinese culture in the contemporary world. Judging from both this memoir and the letter composed by the spokesman for the consul general of China, there is a good deal of work that needs to be done before the Chinese Century can become reality. But as the video below shows, it's not going to be easy to escape the influence of China in the future (is the woman in this video for real?).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The New Gilded Age


During this research project, I have repeatedly encountered the phrase "the new gilded age" as a desciptor for the contemporary world. Paul Krugman, a Princeton professor and columnist for The New York Times, has used this term in various articles (most notably this one from October 20, 2002), in his most recent book, and in his new blog of the same name (The Conscience of a Liberal). Other pundits and commentators such as David Remnick of The New Yorker and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz have used this term as well. Although the phrase is often associated with the period of the 1990s, Krugman and others make a persuasive case that rising economic inequality continues to be the defining characteristic of the contemporary era (in particular, see the introduction to Krugman's blog).

A somewhat overlooked but important footnote to this ongoing conversation on blogs and in the conventional print media is the fact that the phrase "the gilded age" originates in literature and, in particular, literature that speaks clearly to the contemporary world. According to Wikipedia, the term "Gilded Age" comes from Shakespeare's King John (1595): "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess." Subsequently, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner re-worked this image in their satirical novel,The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today(1873). Historians subsequently borrowed this term to describe the latter quarter of the 19th century in the United States, situated between Reconstruction and The Progressive Era. The Gilded Age was an apt phrase for historians to use since showy displays of wealth and excessive opulence were characteristic of both this time period and Twain and Warner's novel.


I call attention to this footnote because it highlights the historic role that literature has played in providing people with useful insight on the contemporary world. Twain and Warner, in their typically satirical manner, embrace this notion that literature speaks tellingly to the contemporary world in the preface to The Gilded Age: "we do not write for a particular class or sect or nation, but to take in the whole world" (note the choice of language here; they knew that some people would be "taken in" by their writing and fail to see their humor and exaggeration). Underlying this research project here, then, is the notion that the historic connection between literature and the world ought to be made more visible to both young adult and adult readers.

Many people today--like Paul Krugman--are fascinated by charts and tables and statistics and data because they provide us with such useful perspective on the contemporary world; indeed, we might say that this is the age of the policy wonk, given the popularity of texts such as Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, and The World Is Flat. However, literature remains an enduring additional source of insight and perspective on current public policy debates and issues. In particular, young adult literature is an exceedingly useful resource for this kind of thinking since, by definition, it focuses on the contemporary world and responds directly to the questioning that adolescents as a group undertake with regard to moral, social, and political values. Given the focus on the contemporary world and the emphasis on social, moral, and political questioning, its not surprising that so many young adult writers follow directly in the footsteps of Louisa May Alcott, Joseph Heller, Ray Bradbury, and other American satirists and social commentators. Young adult literature is arguably the best medium for writers to remind readers of what the world looks like and what we might do to make it a more habitable place for all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Age of ....... Elephants?


I have just finished reading Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, an Alex Award winner for 2007 (in other words, an adult novel published in 2006 and recommended for teen readers by the Young Adult Library Services Association). This novel is a raucous good read--a suspenseful mystery full of odd characters, strange events, and heartrendering plot developments. I wouldn't suggest using this novel in high school teaching, but I definitely would recommend it to a mature high school reader looking for something new and different to read.

I like the novel for many reasons. The tantalizing sexual energy and behind-the-scenes depiction of Depression-era circus life make this a novel to remember. In addition, like John Hamamura's Color of the Sea, Water for Elephants presents readers with tough moral questions: When is it necessary to say no to the personal and financial rewards that evil brings? How does one confront evil and not do harm to oneself and others? These questions underlie the suspense at the heart of Water For Elephants, and make it an intellectually engaging as well as immensely enjoyable read.

For the purpose of this research project, the obvious question to ask is what a story about elephants and a complex love triangle set in a circus in the 1930's has to do with the contemporary world. The answer to this question, I believe, lies in a scene early on in this novel. August, the man married to Marlena, the circus performer in love with August's employee, Jacob, sits down with Jacob to talk about the circus. August asks Jacob: "Tell me, do you honestly think this is the most spectacular show on earth?"

Jacob does not respond, so August answers for him: "No. It's nowhere near. It's probably not even the fiftieth most spectacular show on earth.....The whole thing's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect"(103-104).

These are scary words, mainly because it is so easy to read this scene figuratively, and to insert a leading politician (you decide) in the role of August. Water for Elephants may be set in the past, but it sounds very contemporary, indeed, with its exploration of the differences between perception and reality, and the life-threatening dangers associated with belief in illusions. As I read this novel, it was impossible for me not to think of other kinds of illusions that have recently been in the news: the revelation, for example, that no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq prior to the US invasion, or the more recent finding that the attorney general's office was selecting justice officials based more upon party affiliation than professionalism. The question that I found myself asking in response to this novel was what I could do, like Jacob, to try to extricate myself from the illusions that have fueled death and violence, as well as numerous other decisions that I find repugnant.

Perhaps fueling my political reading of Water for Elephants is the image at the heart of the novel, the elephant. This is going out on an interpretive limb, but the story might be read as a parable about the contemporary Republican party, a party led by two well-intentioned but misguided leaders (Bush and Cheney) who, like August and the circus owner in Water for Elephants, cause many deaths in pursuit of their ambitions. You'll have to read the novel to understand this last comment, but perhaps the ending is a message from Gruen about what needs to happen in November of 2008?

In any case, this is a novel with lots of room for interpretation. History lovers will enjoy the pictures and details. Animal lovers will take satisfaction in the compassion evidenced toward a wide variety of species. Writers and readers alike will learn from the rich language and smart structure of the story. Like the subject it describes, Water For Elephants may not be the most spectacular show on earth, but it definitely entertains.

For more on the relationship between illusion and politics, see this video here, apparantly put together by a college student.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Age of Fear

A newspaper story in The New York Times caught my attention this weekend. Published in print on Friday, October 19th, this story shines light on the age of fear, and in particular the relationship between this concept and contemporary young adult literature.

Basically, the above report explains how Japanese
clothing designers are exploring new ways of creating outer wear that enables people to camouflage themselves in the event that they feel threatened by a perceived criminal. According to the report, these "elaborate defenses are coming at a time when crime rates are actually declining in Japan." However, according to the same report, the Japanese say "they feel growing anxiety about safety, fanned by sensationalist news media."

Like suicide rates, crime rates in Japan have increased significantly over the last decade or so. More recently, there has been a modest decline, mirroring declines that have been reported in the United States in recent years. Tracking crime and generating crime rates is a complicated endeavor; there are multiple kinds of crime, and numerous ways of generating statistics. I'll leave it to the criminologists to debate the exact specifics. What appears clear is that people today are highly sensitive to crime, perhaps because it is such a persistent problem, perhaps because the types of crimes committed and the reporting about them are so much more extreme than in the past, perhaps because significant populations of baby boomers are aging and therefore becoming more sensitive to crime in both the United States and Japan (according to more than one report, Japan is the most rapidly aging country in the world).

This rising tide of anxiety and fear that The New York Times is reporting (and taking advantage of or generating) is well represented in contemporary young adult literature. The novel Surrender, in particular, traces the contours of a fear of crime, and its impact on a community. Other novels look at fears having to do with cultural differences (American Born Chinese and The Trap), child abuse (The Rules of Survival), and war (Nightrise and Color of the Sea). Even though young adult writers are targeting a younger audience of readers than baby boomers, they appear to have a fascination with fear and the perception of fear, examining both causes and potential solutions to them.

As I have previously written, it is interesting that Japan is a country that is getting some attention these days, both in the press and in contemporary young adult literature, in relationship to this theme of fear. Its hard to say why this is happening; what we can infer from The New York Times article above is that the Japanese tend to have approaches to solving problems that are different from conventional American or Western approaches. So maybe Japan is getting attention because it provides readers and writers in the United States with creative and outside-of-the-box ways of thinking through persistent problems and their causes and solutions. And maybe this is why literature, too, is such a good resource for thinking about the contemporary world--it also provides a forum for entertaining ideas and concepts that might be hard to explore or give attention to in policy briefs or other nonfiction genres of writing and speaking.

Friday, October 19, 2007

James Watson and the Age of Arrogance

Ok, so maybe I spoke too soon in my previous posting, in which I claimed that this is the age of humility, not arrogance.

This morning, I opened up my morning newspaper (the Chicago Tribune) and found a story on page one about the suspension of James Watson, co-founder of the structure of DNA and modern genetics, by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Watson made comments in the October 14th London Times that were highly offensive in that they suggested unequivocally that black employees--and by extension the entire African race--are intellectually inferior compared to whites. Robert Sternberg, a prominent researcher on race and IQ at Tufts University, highlights the arrogance embedded in Watson's comments in the Tribune article that I read: "It is unfortunate that some people with great expertise in one area sometimes lose their sense of perspective and come to view themselves as expert in areas about which they know nothing."

For the purpose of this research project, it is interesting to note that Watson's arrogance parallels that of the scientists that M.T. Anderson depicts in his award-winning young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like the racist scientists in this book, Watson has worked for years in a relatively secluded enclave much removed from the larger world. And, like these scientists, he appears to have an understanding of intelligence that is deeply flawed and narrow. Perhaps there is not as much distance between the 18th century world that Anderson depicts and the 21st century world that we inhabit as we might think.


Less obvious are the multiple connections to the young adult novel An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green. Like the exceptionally talented Colin in this book, James Watson was born in Chicago and appeared on a popular (radio) show exhibiting highly precocious kids (the show was called Quiz Kids). Furthermore, Watson clearly wanted to make an impact on the world at an early age (he enrolled at The University of Chicago at the age of 15, and determined to study genetics by age 16). Watson's story, then, is not just the story of a tragic fall due to age and limited interaction with the larger world; like Green's novel, it also is a story about the perils of exceptionality, not only for the person involved, but also for the society that chooses to celebrate high performance in its most specialized forms over and above the whole person.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

In a NY Times article published on Oct. 15th, a young American blogger, Samir Khan, is quoted as saying "America is known to be a people of arrogance." Khan is featured as an example of a new kind of blogger who is using the Internet to extend the reach of the jihadist message of Al Queda. This statement raises the question:

Are we living in an age of arrogance?

While I'd love to say yes to this claim, for reasons having to do with my personal dissatisfaction with the political leadership in the United States, I tend to think the current age is as much an age of humility as it is arrogance. For example, very few recordings of humiliation are as riveting as this one in which George Bush is pictured listening to Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner. As this commentary by Troy Patterson makes clear, the performance delivered by Colbert exposed the lack of clothes on our current leader, as well as the questionable undergarments of the establishment around him. And there was absolutely nothing that the president could do to avoid the humilation, or punish Colbert for his audacity.


More refined evidence that America is a land of humility comes in the form of the incredibly postive response that American readers have had to The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. This first novel, written for an adult audience, takes on a different kind of arrogance than that exemplified by George Bush.

In The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield explores the arrogance of storytellers, and fiction writers in particular. According to the main character, Vida Winter, "nothing is more telling than a story." However, Vida Winter's capacity to obtain happiness and a sense of completion as her life nears its end is complicated by the fact that she has never been entirely truthful or forthright about her own personal history. With the help of a shy and demure biographer, Winter sets aside her fears and arrogance, and tells her own story. In so doing, she inspires her biographer and other characters in the novel to undertake their own autobiographical explorations.

The reasons for the popularity of this novel in the United States are complicated, but due without a doubt to the riveting mystery that underlies Winter's story, the charm of reading about British characters who are still influenced by Victorian values and customs (such as humility and sipping tea), and the fine writing, which is simultaneously detailed, clever, and almost reverential with regard to the use of traditional literary elements and devices. In addition, The Thirteenth Tale has been helped immensely by the publicity that it has received on the Internet. Fans of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and anything by Jane Austen will love this book, since it has many clear textual references and connections.

I strongly recommend The Thirteenth Tale to teenagers who enjoy reading and a good mystery, or who may want to explore 19th century literature set in a 21st century context. High school English teachers teaching British literature also should seek out this book if they are interested in exploring the enduring popularity of ideas, conventions, and values manifested in Victorian literature; the novel does have some edgy parts, but nothing that would prevent it from being taught in a typical sophomore or junior classroom.

For those of you still wondering about whether we live in an age of arrogance or humility, consider the excerpt below from another very popular and Victorian-influenced text in American culture: The Sound of Music. As this excerpt reminds, it is hard to say whether arrogance or humility is more pervasive and ultimately powerful in the contemporary world. Maybe we need a good dose of both? In that case, I'll cast my lot with Julie Andrews.

PS: Yes, there is a governess in The Thirteenth Tale, too.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Color of the Sea, by John Hamamura


Although I knew the basic details of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, this book makes me realize how little I actually knew. John Hamamura takes readers inside the lives of many Japanese Americans growing up and living just before, during, and after the war, and makes more real than most history books the impact of this event on Japanese American families and the larger culture.

This novel, written for adults, tells the story of Sam Hamada, a young man who is born in Japan, grows up in Hawaii, and comes of age in California. Sam is an excellent student of both American and Japanese culture, and is a hero of epic proportions. Like the central character of Samurai Shortstop, he is trained in bushido, the way of the Samurai warrior. Sam uses his skills to survive in a modern world that no longer embraces this code, but yet is in much need of the best that it has to offer.

What Sam is most in need of is something that bushido does not easily convey or accept. Love, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion. He acquires these gifts from his first teacher, Fujiwara-san, his first love, Yuriko, and his California sweetheart, Keiko (who actually emerges as something of a co-protagonist over the middle of the novel). The lessons that Sam learns serve him exceedingly well when he joins the United States army and confronts face to face the horrors of war and in particular Hiroshima.

This is a book that I would recommend without reservation for use in high school classrooms except for the fact that there are several highly erotic scenes in the text that probably will scare away most high school teachers. The language is touching and entirely in keeping with the rest of the text, but this might be a book to recommend rather than teach directly. In any event, the story itself is very powerful. I was riveted by the final sections of the novel which deal directly with the invasion of Okinawa and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Since this is the second novel that I have read for this project that explores bushido and Japanese culture, I can't help but question why this topic is so prominent in books recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association. As I stated in my last posting, it seems that the search for organic relationships is a definite theme in current young adult literature, no doubt because of all of the fragmentation and turbulence in the world today. Color of the Sea reinforces this idea through its representation of an approach to life highly sensitive to the interconnectedness of all things.

But what strikes me most about this book is the way it presents various instances in which Sam Hamada faces no right or true choices; rather, at various moments, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and forced to choose between two equally compelling loyalties (a circumstance captured by the ancient Japanese quotation "Ko naran to hosseba chu naran;chu naran to hosseba ko naran"). This makes me think that perhaps we are seeing representations of the samurai warrior in young adult literature because people in the United States, too, seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of making decisions about the ongoing war in Iraq, immigration, and health care. Perhaps this book, with its emphasis on the mindset needed to make tough choices, has the potential to educate young and old Americans alike about what they need to do to move forward, what they need to do to learn from the past and think differently.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Floor of the Sky, by Pamela Carter Joern



Reading The Floor of the Sky makes me think that perhaps this is the Age of Organics. Not because this novel and the world are increasingly rich in organic foods, but because this novel and current norms seem increasingly focused on the creation of organic relationships, not only with food, but also with the land and other elements of the universe.

This adult novel, recommended for teen readers by the Young Adult Library Services Association, tells the story of a teenage girl, Lila, and her decision-making related to the baby she bears within her pregnant body. Because the novel was not conceived especially for teenage readers, the story focuses primarily on the complicated relationships Lila has to her rural Nebraskan family, and especially the uncovering of various secrets that swirl around Lila's benefactor and the family matriarch, Toby. Indeed, it is Toby's efforts to come to terms with her own past decision-making, and relationships to her neighbors, daughter, family, and region that are really at the heart of this novel.

Even though a central theme is the creation of organic relationships, there is little that is stereotypically organic about the characters in this text. There is a prayer wheel that Toby walks around, and some neighbors who are raising cattle in a more natural, "traditional" way. But Lila and her grandmother are rough and rugged individualists, who avoid for the most part following trends or easy paths. They live on a ranch, go to rodeos, and disparage weak thinking--something that has been going on in their family and their part of the world for many years.

In the background are some familiar challenges of modern life, and contemporary rural life in particular: teenage pregnancy, meth addiction, economic instability, divorce, and rigid family patriarchs. Toby and Lila face these problems without apparant fear, but with a good deal of uncertainty and moral resolve.

Given that The Floor of the Sky so clearly represents the importance of growing healthy, organic relationships among rural people and their environments, it's ironic that the novel as a whole doesn't cohere quite as well as one might hope. Pamela Joern tells her story from multiple perspectives, and each unit of description and insight is well planned, beautifully written, and entertaining within itself. Unfortunately, the pieces don't always come together seamlessly or satisfyingly. At the end, one remembers some really beautiful patches of writing about rural land and people, rather than a terrific storyline.

Despite this minor flaw, I'm looking forward to reading more by Pamela Joern, and I think older teenagers with an interest in feminism and/or rural life also will enjoy this novel very much. High school teachers looking for material to explore contemporary rural life and writing from different perspectives also might find this book interesting, perhaps in combination with The World Made Straight, another novel that explores the contemporary rural world with clarity and grace.

If you have a little time on your hands, and want to return to the topic of organic food, check out this satirical video below called "Store Wars."

Friday, August 31, 2007

Kidnapped: Book One: The Abduction, by Gordon Korman


In the young adult literature business, and in the book business generally, books labeled as "popular fiction" have a hard time earning the respect of reviewers and critics. Fortunately for the authors, they usually do pretty well with consumers, who tend to purchase them at greater rates than other forms of literature.

The main complaint about these books is that they are mere "entertainment," with little redeeming social value.

Reading the first book in the Kidnapped adventure series, The Abduction, by Gordon Korman, reminds me of this recurring, dismissive response to popular literature. After finishing The Abduction, I noticed that even though I had been asked to review this book by Signal, a reputable journal in the field of young adult literature, this book is not listed anywhere on the 2007 YALSA book lists and awards that I am reading for this project.

I don't question leaving this book off of the YALSA booklists, even though it would be an excellent book to read with "reluctant" young adult readers, especially in grades 5-7. This is certainly the perogative of the YALSA reviewers. I do question, however, the notion that this book is mere entertainment. In addition to having some fine writing and action, the book supplies useful insight--as perhaps other adventure books do too--on the current age in which we live.

What I am thinking of in particular is the current deep distrust of authority that one finds in a variety of contexts in the United States and throughout the world. In The Abduction, the main characters, Meg and Aiden Falconer, are deeply distrustful of the FBI and other institutionalized authority (e.g., school authorities and mainstream news organizations) as a result of prior poor experiences. Consequently, they rely upon themselves to solve problems, and they align themselves with other unconventional authorities--in the example of this book, a successful blogger on the Internet.

It seems to me that there are numerous examples in the contemporary world of the distrustful attitude toward authority embodied in books such as the Kidnapped series (which details, as the title indicates, Aiden's efforts to find his sister Meg who has been kidnapped). Yesterday's newspaper headlines about the release of a report about the Virginia Tech shootings last April reminds me that people in general are skeptical about the capacity of government and other social institutions to respond smartly to social problems. In 2004, 4 out 5 Iraqi's had a negative attitude toward the US Occupation and the Iraqi government, a distrust that has changed little in subsequent years and that is largely shared by most Americans. And some bloggers suggest that there exists a deep distrust of science and medical authority in many parts of the United States and the world.

My point is that popular fiction like The Abduction is not simply entertainment for the middle school set. It also represents the current age in which we live of fear and distrust which has given rise to a deep (and perhaps quintessentially American) desire for more models of courageous and creative behavior on the part of individuals and organizations.

Perhaps like the sixth grader and school principal reported below?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, by Peter Cameron


Reading up on the Larry Craig scandal this morning, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Someday, this pain will be useful to you, Senator."

You see, I just finished a new YA novel, a first YA novel, by the accomplished author Peter Cameron: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. It's a beautifully written book, due to appear in bookstores this October. Unfortunately, it's also a bit of a deviation from my research project, as it will be under consideration for a YALSA book award next year. But what the heck, I am going to write about it anyway, mainly because I just read it and it is so good and pertinent to what is going on in the world today.

At the center of this novel is James Sveck, an eighteen year old New Yorker headed to Brown University in the next month or so. James is a smart young man working in his mother's art gallery in Manhattan. He is the quintessential New York sophisticate, much like Holden Caulfield, with the exception that unlike Holden, he is clearly confused about the nature of his sexual orientation.

James's confusion leads him to behave in awkward, problematic, and ultimately stupid ways (though he does nothing quite so stupid as pleading guilty to a crime he claims in hindsight he never committed). James is not alone in his confusion and stupidity: his divorced parents are equally guilty, as are his sister, his therapist, and even the art gallery manager whom he secretly loves. The only sensible and mature character in the novel is James's grandmother, an engaging old lady with a penchant for rye and water.

Set in the context of post-9/11 New York, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You explores the challenge of acting responsibly and productively in a world that seems nothing but a catalyst for pain and grief. Peter Cameron's wonderful prose, his eye for the complexities and paradoxes in contemporary society, and especially his ultimately hopeful attitude toward James and the other characters make this a very special novel to read.

My only complaint is that the first part of the novel is not structured or voiced in the most productive way. Early on, readers are likely to get at least a little confused as Cameron flips back and forth between the past and the present. More significantly, the narrator, James Sveck, uses language that is not repeated elsewhere in the novel and that is sure to prevent most English teachers from incorporating this book into their curriculums. Nevertheless, the second half of the novel is just about perfect, and gives me hope that Peter Cameron will produce other material in the future that teachers can use in their courses.

In the meantime, I recommend this book for reading by older teens and young adults, including Senator Craig. It might help him deal with the beating he is taking out on the web (see below), as well as some of the other personal issues that he is facing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis


Despite my best effort (ok, maybe not my best effort :), another family vacation has interrupted my development of The Age of _______? But I am back home now, refreshed from seeing various sights on the East Coast (for those of you who haven't been to Quebec City or Acadia National Park, I strongly recommend them). And I have several books to write about.

The first one is The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, one of ten books that recieved the ALA's Alex Award this year as a recommended adult book for teen readers.

According to my wife, this book should definitely jump to the top of my "best of" list, since she claims I laughed out loud seemingly every 20 pages or so. And, indeed, this is one of my favorite books for young adults, perhaps my favorite book in the collection I have read so far for this project. The Blind Side has a terrific story, with some remarkable, true-to-life (its nonfiction) characters. If you like football, or want to know what could be behind the Michael Vick story, or simply like great survival tales, go out and get this book.

At the center (actually, left tackle) of The Blind Side is Michael Oher, a young African American teen living in inner city Memphis, Tennessee. Michael is delivered one day to Briarcrest Christian School (out in the white suburbs) by a man named "Big Tony," who promised his mother on her deathbed that he would enroll his son in a Christian school. Struck by Michael's impressive size (he is 6'4" as a sophomore, and weighs 340 lbs.), athletic ability, and his precarious perch among the living, Big Tony decides to enroll "Big Mike" as well. And thus begins a remarkable story of survival by a young teen who has never spent any time among white people with money (most of his new school family falls into this category) much less time at school learning to read and write.

What makes this narrative so much fun to read--beyond the compelling story of Michael's life, and especially the people at Briarcrest who love him and help him to achieve--is the way Lewis weaves the story of Michael Oher with the story of how it has come to be that any young person with his size and speed might become a highly prized commodity in the world of college and professional football. Michael's story fits into a larger narrative about how football changed through the efforts of Bill Walsh and Lawrence Taylor, among several others. It also fits into a less explicitly developed narrative about how American culture has changed over the last 25 years or so. Reading The Blind Side provides lots of useful insight into our national obsession with sports and high performance, as well as the complexities of living a Christian life, navigating racial and class divides, and providing opportunity and challenge through education.

My guess is that many teen boys would enjoy this book very much, but in truth, the strongest character is a woman and I think this book is accessible to most any reader (it truly would make a great movie). If I were teaching 9th grade, I would pair it up with a young adult novel like Make Lemonade, which explores in greater depth, perhaps, the circumstances that Michael Oher encountered as a youth. Using these two books would engage both male and female readers, and spark a vigorous debate about the impacts of poverty and a lack of education, as well as what our society needs to do to create stronger relationships among members of diverse communities.

This video here is not about football, but it is about the sort of challenges that Michael Oher faced in making his way through Briarcrest and on to the University of Mississippi. It is a tad long and starts slow, bit give it time--it is well worth your attention.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash


Having just finished the 7th book in the Harry Potter series (review coming shortly), its fitting that I am now writing about The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash. This adult novel tells the story of a young 17 year old, grappling with evil in his own world, and in the recent past as well. Two of the main differences to the Harry Potter story, though, are that this narrative is realistic fiction, and the past that this young hero--Travis Shelton--confronts is the American Civil War.

I loved this novel. The writing is strong, poetic, and suspenseful. The evil that Travis Shelton faces is represented by a tough old coot named Carlton Toomey. Carlton is a stand in for the devil--he can transform himself effortlessly to solve any kind of rhetorical problem or situation--and he dishes out cruelty without remorse to those who challenge him. Toomey is after Travis because Travis has had the temerity to steal some marijuana plants and other "objects" that Toomey values from his hidden hideway up in the Appalachian mountains.

Like most young heros, Travis needs help and assistance. Typical of an adult novel, most of the help Travis gets is in the form of an adult, a drug dealer named Leonard Shuler, a onetime schoolteacher who lost his job and custody of his daughter when he was framed by a vindictive student. Leonard provides Travis with shelter and guidance, and helps him to understand the full complexity of the situation that he is in. In particular, Leonard shows Travis that his battle with Toomey mirrors conflicts that took place in his community during the civil war, information that helps Travis to think more deeply about the moral course of action he wishes to take in his own time.

I think many high school aged teens would enjoy this novel, especially if they have an interest in history and can connect to the rural landscape and ethos described so well by Rash. A lot of the learning and lessons in this book have to do with Leonard Shuler; many of the cultural references will be more familiar to adults in their 40's than to contemporary teens (music, drugs, etc...). However, if readers can negotiate these two times and cultures (as well as the Civil War era evoked by the text), then rewards will come. This is a startling beautiful and frank novel that provides enjoyment on many levels, and useful insight into the relationships among the different ages in which both teens and adults live.

Here is a goofy short commentary on the civil war. Be forewarned--it does have some potentially objectionable language (if you read The World Made Straight, you'll recognize Travis's best friend, Shank, in this video).

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eagle Blue, by Michael D'Orso


After a bit of a vacation, I am returning to reading and writing, and devoting my attention to the 2007 Alex Award Winners, adult books selected by the Young Adult Library Services Association as especially recommended for teen readers.

The first book on my list is Michael D’Orso’s Eagle Blue. This is a terrific nonfiction text for anyone who likes sports, politics, and culture. It’s one of the best books that I have read in this whole project, mainly because it captures so well the perspectives of native Alaskans living in a small town in the interior of Alaska.

Because Eagle Blue is written for an adult audience (hence its classification as an Alex Award winner), the central character is not your typical young adult. Instead, the main character is Dave Bridges, the coach of the boys basketball team in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Dave is not your usual coach: he spends most of his time unloading planes at the local airport, in sub-freezing termperatures. Bridges is strong on passion, commitment, teamwork, and being in shape and playing tough defense; even though he isn’t by any means a wizard when it comes to the finer points of basketball, his program works, and he has had lots of success over the years, mainly because he cares for the kids, and is determined to help them achieve their potential as athletes and, more importantly, competitiors in the game of life. He is a riveting central character, though by no means perfect--which definitely adds to his appeal.

The young adult side of this narrative concerns the Fort Yukon boys basketball team, which historically has been among the strongest Class B schools in Alaska (schools with under 50 students total, K-12). The boys' situations are very compelling, and familiar to anyone who has grown up in a small rural town, though with the added complexity of creating an authentic identity within a land dominated by Euro-Americans (like Dave Bridges). But what really holds this narrative together is the quest by the team to win the state championship. Among the more memorable scenes: the long distance flying the team does on their way to the state championship, trying to surmount the coldest weather, and get out of town before the temperature goes lower than 40 degrees below zero; the battles against the larger Class A schools, as Bridges attempts to prepare his charges for the state tournament; and last but not least, the many roadtrips and shenanigans along the way. D'Orso is a fine writer, and the story he weaves is full of suspense, humor, and important lessons about achieving adulthood near the Arctic Circle. In this sense, Eagle Blue is a great compliment to The Trap, providing enhanced perspective on the culture of native Alaskans and the complexities of their interactions with people from other cultures.

I gave this book to my 15 year old son, and he read it quickly and with pleasure. I think any high school aged teen would enjoy the narrative as well, especially if they have an interest in sports and basketball. Younger adolescents aren’t likely to enjoy the book as much, but certainly advanced readers in 7th or 8th grade might take to this book as well. Teachers in grades 9-12 could use it as a way to explore multcultural issues, or current events such as the opening up of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration--a topic discussed briefly in the video clip below. For the real story on this topic, though, read Eagle Blue. There is a lot more involved than you likely have heard before.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chat with Laurie Halse Anderson

The next ALAN book chat will be on Wednesday, July 18 at 9:00pm Eastern Time. With C.J. Bott as moderator, Laurie Halse Anderson will discuss her new novel TWISTED. The following week, on June 25, Laurie will participate in an interview, also at 9:00 pm.

Sign on to the ALAN website to participate. If you haven't been to the site before, look at it today so you will be ready to join quickly on Wednesday. Membership is not required to chat!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Anahita's Woven Riddle, by Meghan Nuttall Sayres


Consider yourself forewarned. This book--the last of the 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults that I am reading for this project--is hard to find. I looked for it at my public library, which is typically well-stocked with young adult literature, but I couldn't find it. Likewise, I couldn't locate it in independent and chain bookstores, either. I had to order it through a local bookseller to get it in my hands.

Anahita's Woven Riddle tells the story of a young nomadic tribeswoman, Anahita, and her quest to exert some influence over the process of selecting a husband in turn-of-the-century Iran. I say "exert some influence over" because in Anahita's culture women traditionally had little or no choice over whom they would marry. Typically, the family made all of the marriage decisions and arrangements.

Anahita, however, is an independent spirit--in part because she has been raised to be so by her father, the leader of her tribe--and so she rejects her father's first choice for her future husband. For mainly political reasons, Anahita's father wishes her to marry the local khan, a powerful, monied, elderly, but slightly odd figure--he has a cat fetish--with a checkered past (his first two wives died for reasons that are not entirely clear).

Anahita and her father have a tradition of trading riddles with one another; sensing that her father has some misgivings himself about the proposed marriage to the khan, Anahita requests that she be allowed to weave a riddle into her qali, or wedding carpet. Instead of having an arranged marriage, Anahita suggests that she be allowed to invite suitors to guess the answer to her riddle. The winner of the riddle contest will then win her hand in marriage.

Like Samurai Shortstop, Anahita's Woven Riddle presents a great deal of useful historical and cultural information about life at the turn into the 20th century. At times, Sayres's writing is just beautiful--much like the Persian carpets she describes in this book. Readers learn a great deal about the internal political, religious, and cultural systems in Iran, as well as the issues that were emerging as a result of increased economic development and interactions with Western cultures and customs. The insights into the complex negotiations of these issues is pertinent to any reader today with an interest in events in the Middle East--especially young women.

Teachers with an interest in exploring these issues and negotiations--perhaps in a middle school social studies course, or a unit on world cultures--will find this book of value. Because of its Cinderella-like qualities, the story itself is likely to appeal to younger teenage girls or even girls in 4th or 5th grade. Older adolescents may find the plot somewhat predictable and tedious. But the occassionally brilliant writing, and insights into Iranian culture make this a book well-worth reading.

If only you are lucky enough to find a copy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Online Chats with YA Authors

The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) is a sub-group within the National Council of Teachers of English. This group is devoted to young adult literature, and sponsors a two day workshop on young adult literature each year, the Mon. and Tues. just before Thanksgiving. ALAN is a great organization, and I highly recommend the group to any and all fans of young adult literature.

Recently, ALAN has begun to host online chats with young adult authors. The next chat will involve Carl Hiaasen, the author of HOOT and FLUSH. The chat will take place next Wednesday, 27 June at 9:00 pm Eastern time. Just sign on to the ALAN website and follow the directions to enter the chat room. You will be asked to provide a screen name but do not need a password. Please note that you do NOT have to be a member of ALAN in order to participate in the chat (though by all means, please go ahead and join--I am a member myself. They put out a great journal on young adult literature 4 times a year).

If you haven't read Hiassen's novels, for teen or for adults, I highly recommend them. They are great fun, contain lots of humor, and usually bold and audacious language and plot developments (especially the adult oriented novels). If you have ever wondered what makes Florida tick, and what the term "eco-terrorism" means, check out Hiassen's books. You'll probably find it hard to read only one.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson


Like the main character in Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson's new book, I have experienced a conflict lately between what I want to do, and what I need to do. Hence the delay in writing to this blog.

However, my sojourn as a summer school teacher has ended (at least for the moment), and so I am once again able to do what I want to do: write about young adult literature.

Like Nightrise, Twisted is a novel not on my self-selected list of literature for this project. It's a book published in 2007 that I saw recently in a bookstore and couldn't resist purchasing and reading. Laurie Halse Anderson is a terrific writer, best known for her now classic novel Speak. Anyone who has read anything before by her probably needs little encouragement to pick up this new work.

Fans of Speak and Laurie Halse Anderson will be pleased, for the most part, with Twisted. It tells the story of Tyler, a rising high school senior and his pursuit of Bethany Milbury, a very cute, very wealthy, very popular girl in his class. Unfortunately for Tyler, he is anything but popular; when we meet him, at the start of the novel, he is just finishing up a summer job working with the janitors at his public high school. Tyler did not choose this job; rather, he got stuck with it as a punishment for defacing school property at the end of his junior year.

Tyler has other issues to deal with, too: his father needs an anger management course and would benefit from a seminar by Stephen Covey; his mother has passivity issues and a strange affection for family photographs at Christmas; and his best friend Yoda, a happily un-self-conscious dork, is in love with his younger sister, Hannah. All of this--plus the fact that Tyler has always been extremely unpopular, unattractive, and the victim of various bullies--creates significant obstacles for him to surmount if he is to hook up with the exciting, vivacious, Bethany Milbury.

Anderson is the master of the problem novel, and she presents problems galor in this work. But the pacing of Twisted is uneven. The plot unravels without much clear direction through the first 2/3 of the book, and only turns toward the end into a focused and compelling cliff hanger. Nevertheless, Anderson offers surprising and important insights into the thinking of teenage males and especially the dynamics of suburban American culture. I expect Twisted to be named a Best Book for Young Adults in 2008, and maybe even a Printz Honor Book as well.

Eighth graders and high school students will love this book; however, parents of younger adolescents might want to advise their children to wait just a little bit before jumping in. The situations tend to be oriented toward older adolescents and topics such as drinking, driving, sex, and suicide. A note on the inside cover of the novel says "THIS IS NOT A BOOK FOR CHILDREN." While this is part marketing gimmick, it also is very true.

My guess is that teachers will not incorporate Twisted into their high school curricula in the same way that they have Speak. The flaws in the plot structure make it less appealing, and it gives voice to some very disturbing interior thoughts and subject matter. However, Twisted's insights on youth culture, family relationships, and communication issues make this an important book, one that ought to be read by young adults of all ages.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Suicide in Japan and Samurai Shortstop

Last week, I wrote about a fine novel called Samurai Shortstop, by first time YA novelist Alan Gratz. Coincidentally, the day before I posted my review, a Japanese government official committed suicide. The same day that I got my review of Samurai Shortstop up on this blog, another Japanese executive did the same.

Samurai Shortstop begins with a shocking scene where a young boy named Toyo watches and assists his uncle, Uncle Koji, as he commits seppuku, a form of ritualized suicide. Toyo's family is a part of the samurai warrior tradition, and Uncle Koji enacts his seppuku as a way of obtaining honor for himself and his family after having opposed the authority of the emperor of Japan.

Although Uncle Koji's seppuku is represented within the historical context of late 19th century Japan, the scene has a lot of resonance today. On the one hand, the samurai tradition, upon being repressed by the Japanese monarchy, slowly evolved into a business and professional class that continues to produce many business and political leaders, like the ones discussed above (in fact, Toyo, in Samurai Shortstop, is very aware that a business or political career is in his future). On the other hand, the positive spin on suicide facilitated by the samurai warrior tradition continues to exert an influence on contemporary Japanese thinking and behavior. Many commentators suggest that the high rate of suicide among Japanese today is an outgrowth of the samurai tradition and other cultural influences.

As much as I was shocked by the seppuku depicted in Samurai Shortstop, I was even more surprised to discover that suicide is higher in Japan than in other developed countries throughout the world. In fact, Japan's suicide rate was at an all time high about four years ago, rising significantly from lower levels in the 1970's and 80's.

Though set over 100 years ago, Samurai Shortstop speaks clearly to the current age. It poses relevant questions such as: What complex cultural factors and forces produce suicide? What is the relationship between suicide and gender? Why is suicide rising suddenly in various parts of the world and among certain sub-groups? More importantly, what can we do to diminish the occurence of suicide, both in Japan and elsewhere in the world, including the United States? By no means will reading Samurai Shortstop end the suicide phenomenon; however, it might help both teens and adults to understand the complicated roots of and motivations for suicide, as well as the interventions necessary to help people contemplating suicide to move in new directions.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Nightrise, by Anthony Horowitz


Forgive me, but this review is a little off the beaten track, in two ways:

1) Nightrise, by Anthony Horowitz, is not on the list of books that I am supposed to be reading for this project.

2) The content of Nightrise is pretty unusual; basically, the plot entails an encounter between two twin, telepathic brothers and an international corporation called Nightrise. This corporation seeks to spread chaos across the globe and restore to power hugely evil "Old Ones," conceived centuries and centuries ago, who promise to suck the life out of all humankind.

Pretty far out, huh?

Even though Nightrise is a little out there, it is an excellent book, by one of my favorite authors. When I saw it recently in a bookstore, I couldn't resist purchasing it, especially since both of my sons have read the first two books in the series (The Gatekeepers in the US, the Power of Five in the UK) and we are all nuts about it.

If you are looking for something beyond Harry Potter, something a little more edgy and sensational, Horowitz is a good choice. His compelling action plots, strong writing, and intermittent commentary on the contemporary world make his books a favorite with many teen and adult readers.

This is my favorite passage in the book. It involves an explanation of the political context in which the novel unfolds:

"'The current vice president and the chief of staff both used to work for Nightrise before they went into politics. When they leave the White House, whoever wins the next election, they'll go back on the board. Nightrise has about three hundred companies around the world and many of them do work for the U.S. government. There's one that manufactures bombs. The bombs are dropped. Then there's another one that's hired to rebuild the cities that the bombs destroyed. You see what I mean? Business and politics go hand in hand.'"

Does this sound like a U.S. vice president and larger political situation that you know?

My obvious political bias aside, this is a great thriller, one that teachers will abhor, but teens and early adolescents--especially boys--will adore. The book is only available in hardback right now, but expect to see it in paperbook soon, and on the list of best books for young adults next year.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Samurai Shortstop, by Alan Gratz


The title of this book drew me in, before I ever saw or read it. I like baseball, and I found the juxtaposition of the words "samurai" and "shortstop" intriguing. I had no idea what the book would be about, but I wanted to know more.

By the end of the first chapter, I was pretty much hooked. The beginning is shocking (a character named Uncle Koji enacts seppuku), but a strong narrative voice and the detailed historical insight into samurai culture made this a novel impossible for me to put down. I had to keep reading, especially to discover the connection to baseball.

Basically, Samarurai Shortstop tells the story of Uncle Koji's nephew, Toyo. Toyo is coming of age just as Japan is officially renouncing much of samurai culture, and opening itself up to Western values and customs (including baseball). Toyo makes his high school baseball team (not surprisingly, he is the shortstop), and then leads his older teammates into competition against other Japanese teams, and eventually a team of Americans.

For the most part, this book really delivers. Samurai Shortstop is a first novel, and so the dialogue, from time to time, is a tad unrealistic. But this is due mainly to the fact that Alan Gratz has so much knowledge to convey to readers about samurai culture and Japanese society at the turn of the 19th century. The information that Gratz has to share is so interesting I was inclined to forgive him for writerly bumps in the road. Fortunately, Gratz's writing and insights on baseball, competition, and father and son relationships are so strong that I found myself rewarded many times for my patience. I especially appreciated the surprising series of events that conclude this novel.

Middle school teachers could suggest this novel as independent reading to sports minded readers and/or history buffs; they also might include it in units on Japan and cultural diversity or decision-making. Like American Born Chinese and The Trap, Samurai Shortstop has a lot to say about how to create relationships to mainstream American values and culture without sacrificing other voices, values, and models. It also raises some very provocative questions about traditional values and group decision-making that I think would inspire a lot of critical conversation in grades 6-8. Pairing this novel up with a novel by Chris Crutcher (perhaps Stotan) would open the door to weighing the relative value of independence versus being part of a group.

My guess is that Samurai Shortstop will appeal more to the middle school crowd than older adolescents (I also suspect it will appeal more to boys than girls, since female characters are in the background in this novel--though this could be an issue to discuss, too). Younger adolescents with a passion for baseball or reading might also be drawn to this novel, though parents should probably read the first chapter so that they can talk with younger readers about the different cultural norms that propel the violent action in the first chapter and ultimately the main decision-making in the book as a whole.