Saturday, October 26, 2013

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

From the back of the novel:

There's bad news and good news about the Cutter High School swim team.  The bad news is they don't have a pool.  The good news is that only one of them can swim anyway.
A group of misfits brought together by T.J. Jones (the J is redundant), the Cutter All Night Mermen struggle to find their places in a school that has no place for them.  T.J. is convinced that a varsity letter jacket--unattainable for most, exclusive, revered, the symbol (as far as T.J. is concerned) of all that is screwed up at Cutter High--will be an effective tool.  He's right.  He's also wrong.
Still it's always the quest that counts.  And the bus on which the Mermen travel to swim meets soon becomes the space where they gradually allow themselves to talk, to fit, to grow.
Together they'll fight for  dignity in a world where tragedy and comedy dance side by side, where a moment's inattention can bring lifelong heartache, and where true acceptance is the only prescription for what ails us.

T.J. Jones has had one set goal throughout his academic high school career.  Not to play sports.  He's very good at athletics, in fact he's better than most others, but he doesn't like to be told what to do which contradicts all sports and their coaches.  So, he only participates in recreation sports--pick up basketball games, a local tournament or two, but he has never played for his school, Cutter High. But for whatever reason unbeknownst to us, when Mr. Simet approaches T.J. about his idea for starting a swim team for Cutter High, T. J. entertains the idea.

It's odd that T.J. Jones has compiled a group of misfits who have never belonged together more than they do now.  As the team travels to swimming competitions, the bus rides become "group therapy sessions."  What first began as T.J.'s mission to have the swim team, the Mermen, earn the coveted letter jackets, has soon turned into blossoming friendships and a support system he needs--as well as all the other students.  T.J. also takes pleasure working with children who are physically, emotionally, or otherwise abused.  Heidi, a traumatized child who repeatedly tries to wash the brown off her skin (she is biracial) has been emotionally abused by T.J.'s archenemy: Rich Marshall, who is an athletic all-star, racist, stalker, psychopathic, pos (piece of *hit!).  [The author does an incredible job getting the reader to hate this guy...and I hated him.  I hated him, because I know so many people who are just like him, it scares me.]

More than anything, this is a novel "warning [me] that this kind of pain exists in the world." (page 131) As T.J. is having a very intimate conversation with his father, his dad says probably the most profound explanation I've read (to date) on being understood. He says,

A whale unleashes his cry, and it travels hundreds or even thousands of miles. Every whale in the ocean will at one time or another run into that song. And I figure whales probably don't edit. If they think it, they say it. If some man-whale cheats on his wife, her anguish, her rage, her despair, is heard and understood by every whale who swims into the range of her voice. The joy of lovemaking, the crippling heartache of a lost child--it's all heard and understood. Predators and prey have equal voice. The Mother Teresa whales and the Jeffrey Dahmer whales all have their say. Whale talk is the truth, and in a very short period of time, if you're a whale, you know exactly what it is to be you. (page 131)

Themes that are prominent throughout the novel are bullying, racism, abandonment, anger, overcoming tragedy.  I was completely taken by surprise by its ending.  I can say its one of the best books I've read!

*There is explicit language used throughout the novel.

You can buy Whale Talk here.  Visit Chris Crutcher's website here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tears of A Tiger by Sharon M. Draper

From the back of the novel:

Andy Jackson was driving the car that crashed one night after a game, killing Robert Washington, his best friend and the captain of the Hazelwood High Tigers.  It was late, and they'd been drinking , and now,k months later, Andy can't stop blaming himself.  As he turns away from family, friends, and even his girlfriend, he finds he's losing the most precious thing of all--his ability to face the future.

This book is very unique in its writing style.  It's written in several different styles (letters, articles, homework assignments, and dialogues) as friends cope with the death of their fellow classmate, Robert Washington.  Because of the writing style, "Tears of A Tiger" reads fairly quickly and would be a perfect "read aloud" novel in any middle grades Language Arts classroom.  Assigning students speaking parts will help eliminate any confusion when the dialogue speaker suddenly changes without introduction.  The writings incorporate dialect and informal conversation into the novel, which add to its realism and relevancy.  This was my first exposure to a novel that uses multiple writing styles, but I admit--I liked the variety!  It kept me interested and turning the pages!!

Andy is having a troublesome time overcoming the death of Robert.  He feels as if his girlfriend Keisha has helped him most.  "Keisha's cool.  If it hadn't been for the Keisha, I mighta really gotten depressed.  After the accident, Keisha was always there.  She came to the hospital, the funeral, to the trial.  She was the only one I could cry in front of and not be embarrassed.  My father kept telling me to put it behind me, to quit dwellin' on the past, to get on with my life, but Keisha said stuff like, 'I know it hurts, baby--go ahead and let it out.'" (page 75)  This is our first glimpse at an unhealthy dependency that Andy has on Keisha to get him past Robert's death.  As most of Andy's friends seem to be moving on with their lives, Andy is simply going through the motions of life--showing very little effort in anything other than basketball.

Stereotypes are another area that Andy struggles to overcome.  As a young black student, he makes himself feel inferior to other white students.  I really enjoyed the wisdom that Draper used from the class' English teacher when the topics of white/black come in class discussion.  Ms. Blackwell says, "It's society that implants positives or negatives onto certain ideas.  You have the option to accept, reject, or change the stereotypes that currently exist." (page 86)  I felt this was a very powerful response--one that students today need to hear!
As the novel progresses we sense an internal battle going on within Andy's head.  He feels like he is drowning in sorrow and guilt, and one part of him feels he needs help to over come it while the other part of him feels as if he can handle it on his own.  When life becomes unbearable, Andy reaches out to other people who seem occupied in his moment of need.  He ends his life without thinking of how his suicide will affect those left behind: his friends from school, his family, or his little brother.

Themes which emerge throughout the novel include: underage drinking, drinking and driving, guilt, consequences, lack of parental support, race, education and earning good grades, peer pressure, depression, teen relationship dependency, isolation, suicide, and death.

To purchase "Tears of a Tiger" (or the other books in the trilogy, you can go here, here, and here.
Visit the website of Sharon M. Draper to learn more about her and her other writings!

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

"A Day No Pigs Would Die" is a historical fiction novel set on a Vermont farm and portrays the love of a father and son who is coming into manhood.  As I was reading the first few pages, I was taken into the older era where mostly incomes were earned by farming and hard work.  The vivid descriptions given by the author, Robert Newton Peck, have a way of taking you to a place long forgotten by the busyness of life.  At only 139 pages, it can be read in one sitting or broken up over a few days and completely finished.

Peck states, "He [Papa] bent down and pulled the crazy quilt up around my throat.  I could tell by the smell of his hand that he'd killed pigs today.  There was a strong smell to it, like stale death.  That smell was almost always on him, morning  and night.  Until Saturday, when he'd strip down to the white and stand in the kitchen washtub, up to his shins in hot soapy water, and wash himself clean of the pigs and the killing...when you kill pigs for a living, you can't always smell like Sunday morning.  You just smell like hard work." (page 19-20) Papa reminds me of my own father who is one of the hardest workers I know.  My dad constantly works on vehicles, lawn mowers, anything that is broken, really.  His hands always smell of grease or other auto shop smells.  My dad uses a special soap to help take the grease off or even the smell of gasoline, but as I stop to reminisce childhood memories, I can smell that shop soap.  It has a distinct smell which is recognizable. Now I can infer that may be what hard work actually smells like.

The novel sneaks in tid-bits of history during the early 1920s when Calvin Coolidge was President. Throughout the novel, we are reminded of how men once tended the fields while women tended their homes.
As payment for young Roberts help in delivering a baby calf and saving his neighbors prized cow, Apron, Mr. Tanner rewarded Robert with a young pig which he names Pinky.  "She was the first thing I had really wanted, and owned.  At least, the first thing of value."(page 27)  As I turned the pages, I was taken to years past when there wasn't much more to life than Plain People.  Farming was a way to make an honest living and was often passed from generation to generation.  Mr. Tanner, Robert's neighbor, said, "What better can a man be?  There's no higher calling than animal husbandry, and making things live and grow.  We farmers are stewards.  Our lot is to tend all of God's good living things, and I say there's nothing finer."  (page 122)

As we turn every page and begin every new chapter we slowly see Robert's coming of age.  He is partly a man now expected to tend to the farm once his dad's health ailes.  Yet, we still see a snippets of a young adolescent who has big dreams (such as owning a store bought coat one day).  Although Pinky was meant to be a productive member of Robert's farm, as a barren sow she never would help earn income to pay off the farm.  She was only a pet, at best.  The title foreshadows what will come of Pinky's demise.  The details will tug at your heart strings while your eyes fill with tears.  Anyone who has shared the bond between a pet and owner can connect to the emotions Robert feels in those fatal moments.  We witness a private internal battle as Robert witnesses his first butchering--that of his beloved Pinky.  He is given gentle words of wisdom by his father, "That's what being a man is all about, boy.  It's just doing what's got to be done." (page 129)  

Relevant themes which I noticed throughout the novel include: fairness, the ideas of "being rich" and "being poor," the importance of education, and death.

No review I could give would be more accurate than the one I found on the inside cover:
"A small, rich, wise book full of pathos and an essential home-bred humanity that is becoming more and more scarce in the world.  It lights up a way of life that is not so long past and very much we have lost."  --Winston Graham

There are a few instances of foul language in the text.  Nothing too vulgar, but some parents may not want their kids reading any cuss words.
If you want to take peak inside of the book or purchase it, you can go here.  You can go to Robert Newton Peck's page to learn more about the author.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

I just finished reading "Touching Spirit Bear" by Ben Mikaelsen.  This is from the back cover:

Whatever you do to the animals, you do to yourself.  Remember that.  At fifteen, Cole Matthews has been fighting and stealing for years.  The punishment for smashing Peter Driscal's skull into the sidwalk--his most recent crime--is harsh.  This time, Cole will have to choose between prison and Native American Circle Justice.  He will live either behind bars or in isolation for one year.  Cole chooses Circle Justice.  But in the first days of his banishment to a remote Alaskan island, he is mauled by a mysterious white bear and nearly dies.  Will the attack of the spirit bear destroy Cole's life or save his soul?

I was so touched by this young adult novel from the moment that I read its first few pages.  Cole, a young adult oftentimes with a bad attitude, could have been any number of classmates I had.  He never wanted to accept accountability for his poor decisions.  His parents could have been any parents: newly divorced and preoccupied with careers and social lives.  His dad could have been a classmate who was physically and/or emotionally abused on a daily basis.  Cole's bitterness and anger at a world who had failed him could have been mine.

Touching Spirit Bear deals with many adult-like issues and provokes the reader to answer questions when fighting one's own demons, " What was death like?  Did it hurt?  Did it come fast like lightening from the sky or a blow from the Spirit Bear?  Did death sneak around like a stinking seagull, trying to snatch life from a body like meat chunks from a rotting carcass? Or did life just flicker out like a dim candle?" (page 71)

As an alternative to jail time, Cole feels that being sequestered on an Alaskan island would be a more suitable alternative.  He soon realizes that "What a fool he had been to come here instead of going to jail.  Atleast in jail he would have been in the safety and comfort of a cell.  He would have had some control.  Here he was powerless, nobody to control, nobody to blame.  Every action worked against him and hurt him." (page 73)

Surviving my young adolescent years was difficult.  Much like Cole, I felt that the world owed me something in return for my half-hearten effort.  Sometimes we are filled with such confusion that like Cole, we fail to realize, "the world was beautiful." (page 97).  Anger, bitterness, trust, regret, and other relevant themes will emerge throughout the pages of Part One: Touching Spirit Bear.

New essential questions emerge in Part Two:  Return to Spirit Bear.  "What was the one thing that would help him [Cole Matthews] heal?  And how could he become invincible?" (page 188).  If I were teaching this novel in my classroom, I would have students to ponder upon each of these ideas.  Perhaps the most obvious themes in Part Two are forgiveness and healing.

Although I am a bit of a skeptic, Circle Justice has been practiced by native cultures for many.  You can read more about that here.  Spirit Bears actually do exist of the coast of British Columbia, and you may read more about those here.

If you have students who may have a squeamish stomach, you may want to sensor out some of the survival techniques.  There aren't many gruesome incidents, but as someone who has a sensitive stomach, I did have to fight the urge to gag.  It's nothing more than what most kids have seen watching Survivor on CBS, but my stomach won't allow me process those situations.  It's a mental thing, I'm sure.

If any of your students come from foster homes due to physical or emotional abuse, this novel my open some old wounds.  With this said, it is a beautiful story of healing and moving beyond the anger of being a victim.

If you'd like to read Touching Spirit Bear it can be purchased here.  Visit the author's website to learn more about Ben Mikaelsen.