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.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner

I have to start by saying that I am not a big fan of "fantasy" type fiction, especially books like this that take place in the past, in a fictional land that is a combination of ancient Greece and medieval England. I must be getting old, because this is exactly the sort of book that I would have reached out for as a child.

Despite my bias, I found The King of Attolia to be a mostly enjoyable read. It has an entertaining plot that follows up on events and characters depicted in two novels that Turner wrote previously: The Thief (a Newbery Honor Book) and The Queen of Attolia. Readers of these previous books will definitely find this continuation of the series satisfying. It is on the 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults list put out by the American Library Association.

As a newcomer to Turner's work, I found it a bit difficult to work my way into this novel. Maybe this was due to my middle-aged pretensions. Or perhaps the structure of the novel--and therefore the relationship constructed between reader and characters--is not as tight as it could be.

The best part of the book is definitely the middle passage, where most of the important action takes place. The last part of the book appears designed to open the way to a continuation of the series; the action diminishes, and readers get insight on the larger regional conflicts that threaten the new king and his kingdom.

Even though The King of Attolia is set in the past, in an imaginary world, it does tap into some core ideas relevant to the contemporary world, for example, how to negotiate relationships to family and friends, and undesired roles and responsibilities. In addition, it contains an interesting message about the use of force in support of the establishment of authority. It could be me, but I read the book as an interesting commentary on political leadership today in the United States, and other parts of the world.

Teachers and parents shouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to readers in grades 6-10, and I would feel comfortable giving it to advanced readers in lower grades. Because the characters are adults and intrigue is what this novel is all about, there are several references to clandestine couplings involving men and women, but all of this is very subtle and only noticeable to those who already know or care about such things.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Sold, by Patricia McCormick

Sold, by Patricia McCormick, is on the 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults list; it also was an American Book Award nominee last year. It explores the challenges and injustices that many young people--especially women--face in third world countries.

The format of this novel is very familiar: it consists of short, poetic vignettes, much like Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade. The language flows and the action builds to a dramatic climax--though the ending is somewhat abrupt. In any case, I found the novel extremely powerful and eye-opening.

Teachers 8th grade and up might consider using this book to explore issues related to gender inequalities, economic development, and taking a stand in the face of injustice. The content is challenging because McCormick depicts in unflinching terms--in the final third of the novel--various sexual topics and issues. All of this is handled very maturely, in full support of the main storyline. A note home to parents explaining the relationship between the novel and prevailing curricular goals and objectives would probably do the trick, though teachers might want to provide other options for reading, too. The novel could definitely be used to organize powerful discussions and writing projects, as well as useful connections to health or sex education curriculum.

As a parent, I would have no trouble giving this book to my 6th grader, though this is a book I would prefer he read in 7th or 8th grade. Pre-adolescents with the ability to handle more adult subject matter would find the narrative engaging and educational, though parents should expect to read or least discuss the text with their child, if read independently.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin

The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin, is a highly acclaimed mystery--it is on the 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults list, put out by the Young Adult Library Services Association--and it is one of the most horrifying and interesting novels that I have ever read. For insight into the current age of fear, and the dangers associated with taking a stand against terrorism, read this novel.

Middle school teachers and high school teachers might recommend this book to students who love mysteries and who have a tolerance for intense psychological drama. Nancy Werlin is not Stephen King by any means, but she is a very fine writer, and keeps her readers on edge throughout this narrative.

English teachers exploring the genre of mystery writing might use this book with small groups of students, or even an entire class. Adults will love this book too, and should feel comfortable giving it to middle school students who like horror or mystery writing, or just fine writing more generally speaking.