Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Reading Roundup: The Raina Telgemeier Collection

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The kids at my school love graphic novels. I mean love. Our graphic novel collection was pretty sparse when I entered the school last year, and I spent a good chuck of money buying any graphic novel that seemed appropriate for middle school aged kids—anything and everything just to fill those shelves. What I found was that when the kids find one they like, they want 17 more just like it. It was the series the were incredibly popular, and those award-winning standalone books notable in the adult/librarian community, like Anya's Ghost and American Born Chinese, did not get nearly the same attention as action/fantasy series like Maximum Ride, Bone, Amulet, Artemis Fowl, Zita the Spacegirl, The Elsewhere Chronicles...I could go on.

The exception I found was with Raina Telgemeier's three titles: Smile, Sisters, and Drama. These three stories, though each a standalone in terms of story, are so similar in style that kids view them as a set--and chances are if they like one, they will like the others.

  • Telgemeier's first published graphic novel, Smile, is a memoir of her own awkward middle school years when an injury to her two front teeth leaves her dealing with an excessive amount of painful, annoying dentistry for most of her adolescent years—as if being 13 wasn't hard enough!  
  • Drama tells the story of theater tech nerd Callie, who has always preferred being on stage crew to being center stage. It's the story of a girl who blossoms in a typically-outsider group, a reminder that everyone can find their own place and community. 
  • In the recently-published Sisters, the author returns to her own life to chronicle the seemingly-never-ending conflict between herself and her sister, Amara. They're totally opposite and never get along, but knowing they are sisters, after all, they know they're going to have to make it work.

In a genre/style that seems to have few stories based in true middle school reality, Telgemeier fills this much needed gap in the graphic novel genre. These are stories to which girls can relate with everyday problems and dramas, same as they would enjoy other realistic series like Dork Diaries or Dear Dumb Diary. The plots are simple; the interactions are common; the humor is level-appropriate; and the art is colorful and appealing. One of my proudest moment last year was watching an 8th grade girl, the only student in her class to not read a single book during our month-long reading incentive program, sit and read Sisters in one sitting then tell me all about it.

I think these are great books to grab a reluctant female reader, especially the older ones, to prove that reading doesn't always have to be a long-winded chapter book; it can be light and enjoyable, and Telgemeier's books are a great entryway into a new format of story they may find they love.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fiction | Secrets of a Life Well-Lived

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In following the theme of my last post, Rosamunde Pilcher is another author to whom I should apologize, because The Shell Seekers is another book I read long ago that has just been sitting quietly since, waiting to be doted upon. I've written several times before about my love for Ms. Pilcher's cozy, light-hearted family dramas, but somehow my first few encounters with this author never included her most well-known, popular work. This I finally amended several months ago.

Pilcher had written several novels before The Shell Seekers was published in 1987, but this was the one that propelled her name to notoriety amongst women readers in the 80s and 90s. I can imagine, at the time, she was a staple of grocery store book aisles, because the only versions I ever see of Pilcher titles are mass market paperbacks with flowery covers that currently cost between 10 and 20 cents at a local used bookstore—my good fortune!

The Shell Seekers centers around the life of Penelope Keeling. In present-day, she's an older woman that has recently suffered a mild heart attack, leaving her three children in various states of concern. Though the reader is quickly taken with this strong, witty, independent woman, the same cannot be said of this woman's progeny. The children differ from each other as much as they differ from their mother. The eldest, Nancy, comes off as a selfish but needy woman who seeks validation in appearance and status. Noel, the only son, is helplessly immature and generally self-serving in all actions and motivations. Olivia, the youngest, is the only redeeming one; she dutifully handles her siblings with a watchful and wary eye and is the only one that does not treat Penelope as though some great injustice was suffered in childhood that demands some sort of present-day retribution.

The main source of conflict in this story spawns from Penelope's prized possession, a painting called The Shell Seekers, painted by her posthumously famous father. All the memories and stories of her unconventional life, from a bohemian childhood to a young adulthood transformed by WWII, are captured in the essence of this seminal work of art. Naturally, with their grandfather's paintings now fetching so much at the auction houses, Nancy and Noel are eager for their mother to reap the rewards—rewards they will eventually reap as well through their assumed inheritance. The meat of this book, though, takes us through Penelope's expansive life and the pieces that define her as a woman, separate from any version familiar to her children.

Like all my encounters with Pilcher, this was a reading experience I didn't want to end. The worlds she creates are full of characters you want to really know (and some you unfortunately have to know), and she reminds you that it's the people that can bring the most joy and meaning to a life. I particularly enjoyed the character of Penelope, because it seems easy to forget—as a child—that a woman has more to her than the side her children see. Penelope, to me, was a reminder that people carry more history, more stories than the parts you know or see. 

Pilcher is a nostalgic, sentimental softy whose stories appeal to those like me who can curl up in the comfort of memories. I think I will love her books more the older I get, but I'm pretty sure I would've loved them as a teenager, too. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fiction | Ebbs and Flows of Small-Town Lives

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To Nickolas Butler, I must apologize.

I read his bestselling novel debut Shotgun Lovesongs too, too long ago (erm, Spring Break?). I loved it; I recommended it to others; and I never wrote about it beyond a two-sentence comment on Goodreads. So much time has now passed that I feel I will inevitably do this book a great injustice with my comments/review, now at this late date. It has, after all, somewhat faded from memory over the past five months.

I do apologize, but this I do promise: in the following review, I have researched and refreshed my memory as much as possible to give a fair representation of my feelings immediately after my initial reading of this book.

And so...

The story centers around one small Wisconsin town, Little Wing, and a group of four men that have shared their lives together since adolescence. Ronny was the local boy destined for big things; he found fame and success on the rodeo circuit for a while, but alcohol ultimately led to his downfall, and an accident under the influence left him a little more simple in the brain than he once was. Kip left for big-city Chicago, but returned to Little Wing after nearly a decade's success in business. He's returning home with big ideas and big dollars to revitalize the little town that gave him life, but the lifestyle he learned in Chicago has put a wall between him and his more modestly earning friends that never left. Lee is the famed son of Little Wing, a world-famous musician that has never lost his country roots. Little Wing remains his hideout from the chaos of fame—the one place he never has to use a stage name.

At the center of this story is Henry—the every man who enjoys a simple life with his family, good beer, and good friends. Henry is the solid rock, mirroring Little Wing itself—steady and consistent, almost traditional, as others around him move out, move on, and evolve. He and Lee have the closest bond, and it's probably thanks to the stability of Henry and Little Wing that Lee is able to survive in a world so unlike the one he is used to; Henry is grounding.

And then there is Beth, Henry's wife, the woman who has been there for it all from carefree underage days of sneaking booze to the rigor and routine of adulthood. Beth is the powerful force in this story, able to hold together the pieces of tumultuous lives and relationships to keep them all from crumbling.

These characters are so vastly different from one another, but their shared history is a bond that doesn't seem to break; it keeps their lives, though usually contrasting from one another, deeply interwoven. Butler manages to create very real conflict without any sense of melodrama, and because of this, there's a huge sense of relatability and universality. To maintain this plain-spoken tone throughout, despite a beautiful sometimes-lyrical style of writing, is a testament to the author's skilled and purposeful use of language.

I find Shotgun Lovesongs to be a very American novel at its core. The world of these characters and their relationships are a quintessential local experience, reflecting strong traditional values of community and family. I loved learning what made these characters tick, how their lives would unfold as information was revealed. Ultimately, what I loved about this book was how beautifully it described the universal experience of everyday living.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 8

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As I write this, I am enjoying my very last weekend of summer vacation. I can't really complain that school is about to start again; I have enjoyed over 9 solid weeks of vacation already, and that's nothing to scoff at!

Last school year was spent working my way through our 20-title Battle of the Books list, along with any other random popular middle grade reads that caught my eye. And though I do really love the middle grade collection, I was starting to feel trapped in a pre-teen world. Summer, then, has been a great opportunity to finally make some headway on my Read Harder Challenge list, enjoying some adult books once again! I've already posted a few of those, and I have a few more in the works, but for now, enjoy this concluding (for now) chapter of middle grade titles!

Title: How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous
Author: Georgia Bragg
Genre: History, Biography
Read If You Like...: Brief history lessons, stories told with snark, and hearing about other people's flaws
Three-Sentence Thoughts: The lives and mishaps of famous figures in history such as Marco Polo, Isaac Newton, and Amelia Earhart are shared in this collection of short biographies. Written with a light-hearted, sometimes scathing sense of humor, this book ultimately aims to remind readers that these mythic figures were, ultimately, entirely human. As an adult, I am certain these fairly unflattering brief bios leave out many details, but they may appeal to history fans or readers with short attention spans.

Title: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Author: Julie T. Lamana
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Read If You Like...: Stories of disaster, stories of survival, stories of family
Three-Sentence Thoughts: All Armani can think about is her 10th birthday party, but, unfortunately, a hurricane named Katrina is going to shake up her 10th year, changing Armani's life in ways she never would have expected. This is probably the darkest, most serious middle grade book I've encountered, heavy with themes of loss, survival, family, and hope. Despite its 10-year-old protagonist, I would probably recommend it to an older middle schooler or teen reader.

Title: The Witch's Boy
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Genre: Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Fairy tales, the conflicted duo dynamic, and stories about young heroes
Three-Sentence Thoughts: After Ned's identical brother drowns in a rafting accident that could've killed both of them, Ned grows up retreating into silence as the community languishes the fact that perhaps the wrong twin lived. Ned learns, though, that he has been fated to protect a powerful magic, and his only hope may lie with the daughter of the very bandit trying to steal it. This book wasn't totally my cup of tea, but fairy tale or fantasy fans may find it adventurously endearing.

Title: The Penderwicks in Spring
Author: Jeanne Birdsall
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Read If You Like...: Stories about siblings, daily dramas, and innocent childhood fun
Three-Sentence Thoughts: This fourth installment in the Penderwick series jumps a few years later, putting the once-baby Batty and Ben in center stage. With half the Penderwick sisters off at college, this story is told through the eyes of Batty as she works to earn money for singing lessons, her voice being a newfound talent. Definitely darker in theme, handling more serious topics as the youngest Penderwick comes into her own, this is another delightful book in the series, though it lacks the complete Penderwick sister dynamic present in the previous three.