Ranting About Books Redux

Last summer, as we were preparing for our older son to begin middle school, we first came in contact with the “Summer Reading Requirement.”  Students have to read two books over the summer (no problem), and one of them has to come from the list of nominees for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award—a prize that students vote for from among books nominated by librarians.

I went on a bit of tear regarding the nominated books (see Ranting About Books), almost all of which seemed to me to be rather morose, traumatic, or “therapeutic.”  Well, this summer we have two middle schoolers, and last week we received the list for this year’s nominees.  I’d like to say I like it a lot better, but, again, we have a series of stories dealing with death, murder, disorders of various kinds, and genocide.  Now, I do remember that when I was that age (hmm, think 1970), one of the teen bestsellers was Go Ask Alice, a novel about teen pregnancy and drug use, and we also had A Separate Peace, which involves the death of a young boy, so maybe I’m compartmentalizing here.

So you look over the list and tell me what you think.  As a teenager, would these titles and descriptions appeal to you?  One friend last year, who is a librarian and was familiar with several of the books, defended them as better than they sounded, blaming the descriptions for the sensational tone.  Use that grain of salt as you form your opinions.

Kentucky Bluegrass Award Nominees 2012
Grades 6-8
Hero/Mike Lupica.
Philomel Books, 2010.
Zach Harriman is devastated when his dad, a globetrotting troubleshooter for the president is killed. Not knowing that he has inherited “special powers” from his father, Zach discovers the same people who murdered his father are now after him.
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous/Georgia Bragg.
Walker & Co., 2011.
This nonfiction book shares the eerily gruesome details of the deaths of nineteen famous historical figures, among who are King Tut, Pocahontas, George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Marie Curie, and Beethoven.
Leaving Gee’s Bend/Irene Latham.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.
Ludelphia Bennett, a determined, ten-year-old African American girl in 1932 Alabama, leaves home in an effort to find medical help for her sick mother, recounting her adventures in a quilt she is making.
Liar, Liar: The Theory, Practice, and Destructive Properties of Deception/Gary Paulsen.
Philomel Books, 2009.
Fourteen-year-old Kevin is very good at lying and doing so makes his life so much easier. When he finds himself in big trouble with friends, family, and teachers, he must find a way to end his bad habit and make amends.
The Line /Teri Hall.
Dial Books, 2010.
Living close to “The Line,” an invisible border of the Unified States, Rachel feels she and her mother are safe. Then she gets a message asking for help from a boy who lives across the line.
A Long Walk to Water/Linda Sue Park.
Clarion Books, 2010.
When the Sudanese civil war reaches his village in 1985, 11-year-old Salva becomes separated from his family and must walk with other Dinka tribe members through southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya in search of safety.
Scrawl/Mark Shulman.
Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
When eighth-grade school bully Tod and his friends get caught committing a crime on school property, Tod’s “punishment” involves serving detention with the school guidance counselor and keeping a journal revealing aspects of himself that he would prefer to keep hidden.
Sean Griswold’s HeadLindsey Leavitt.
Bloomsbury, 2011.
Angry after discovering that her parents have been hiding her dad has multiple sclerosis, Payton begins counseling sessions at school. Her assignment – a “focus exercise” to distract her –leads her to an interest in a boy she’d never really noticed before, problems with her best friend, a new interest in long-distance biking, and eventually allows her to come to terms with life’s uncertainties.
A Tale Dark and Grimm/Adam Gidwitz.
Dutton, 2010.
This eerie tale follows Hansel and Gretel as they walk out of their own spooky tale and into eight more frightening adventures, encountering some helpful folk and several wicked creatures along the way.
Virals/Kathy Reichs.
Razorbill, 2010.
When Tory Brennan and her three best friends are accidentally exposed to a canine parvovirus while snooping around a top-secret government facility, their senses become heightened, and they must use these new powers to stay alive and solve the cold case murder of a young girl who disappeared years ago.

Ranting about Books Revisited


About a month ago, I wrote a post bemoaning the summer reading list choices my middle-school son Joe had.  He ended up picking SLOB by Ellen Potter, and we read it together.

I have to eat a little crow and admit that it was much better than I expected.  A friend who read my earlier post and who was familiar with some of the books on the list blamed the overall dour tone on “the two-sentence card catalogue descriptions.”  She may be right, because SLOB is an interesting tale of a sixth-grade boy, Owen Birnbaum, and his efforts at navigating middle school gym class, a perceived bully, and his own unresolved feelings about the mysterious death of his parents two years earlier.

One nice touch is the gradual way Potter reveals important plot details, which requires us at several points to revise our judgment of certain characters, and we also watch Owen work through his feelings about his parents, beginning with revenge and ending with acceptance verging on forgiveness and grace.

I also happened to like that the book is set in New York’s Upper West Side, and, being somewhat familiar with the area, I felt as if I was walking with Owen down Amsterdam Avenue and hanging out in Riverside Park.  The last scene in the book takes place in Riverside and suggests the changes that have taken place in Owen:

I said a prayer. I’ve never prayed before, so I don’t know if I did it right. I prayed that police would one day catch the man who killed my parents. But in case that didn’t happen, I prayed that karma would kick in. I prayed that the murderer would be the unluckiest man who ever lived. That he’d always be losing his wallet, missing the bus when it’s raining, pulling out his back, getting pelted by snowballs, or stepping in dog poop. I prayed that he would feel like crud five days out the week and have intestinal gas pains for the other two days.

I know that’s not exactly compassionate.

But for now, it’s the best I can do.

I folded the paper in quarters, ripped it in half, then again, and dropped it in the Hudson River. The pieces bobbed around for a moment, like they didn’t know what to do, until they were finally carried off by the wake of a passing tugboat.

At the last minute, I sent off one more prayer. That the man who murdered my parents has someone in his life who thinks he’s a better person than he actually is.

Ok. That really is the best I can do.

So, I guess Joe and I survived the experience and emerged better people.  A big part of what made it fun was reading it together and talking about it as we went.  He is now three weeks into the school year and is happy to be reading books he gets to pick.  As my wife says, as long as he’s reading, we’re happy.

Ok. That really is the best I can do.

Ranting About Books

This post may qualify as the first bonafide rant on my blog.  While I don’t plan to do this on a regular basis, I feel inspired today by an assignment my incipient middle-schooler son Joe must complete before the beginning of the school year.  Ah yes, the proverbial “read two books over the summer from the approved list” assignment.

Let me say first that Joe likes to read.  Maybe not as much as designing houses on the computer or going to the pool, but he does like to read.  Right now, his taste tends to run toward the funny but heartwarming books by Beverly Cleary and the slightly nastier but funny books by Roald Dahl.

So, when we went to examine the list of books selected by students for their peers to read, we went through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance.  Ironically, all but a few of the books on the list seem to focus on those same stages.  While Joe’s response was mostly, “no, I don’t think so,” the response of my wife and me was more like, “are you kidding me?”

In an attempt at fairness, I reprint the list below, with the descriptions provided.  Take a glance and then ask yourself what dominant impression remains.


2011 6-8 Master List

All The Broken Pieces/By Ann E. Burg.

Scholastic Press, 2009.

Two years after being airlifted out of Vietnam in 1975, Matt Pin is haunted by the terrible secret he left behind. Now in a loving adoptive home in the United States, a series of profound events forces him to confront his past.

Bystander/By James Preller.

Feiwel and Friends, 2009.

Thirteen-year-old Eric discovers there are consequences to not standing by and watching as the bully at his new school hurts people. Although school officials are aware of the problem, Eric may be the one with a solution.

Faith, Hope, And Ivy June/By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

Delacorte, 2009.

During a student exchange program, seventh-graders Ivy June and Catherine share their lives, home, and communities. Surprisingly, both girls find that although their lifestyles are total opposites, they have a lot in common.

Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid On Westminster /By Berkeley Breathed.

Philomel Books, 2009.

After being framed by a jealous poodle, a dachshund is left for dead, but comes back with a group of mutts from the National Last Ditch Dog Depository to disrupt the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and exact revenge on Cassius the poodle.

Jane In Bloom/By Deborah Lytton.

Dutton Children’s Books, 2009.

Devastated when her beautiful, older sister dies from anorexia, twelve-year-old Jane recovers slowly from the tragedy with help from unexpected sources.

Leviathan/By Scott Westerfeld.

Simon Pulse, 2009.

In an alternate 1914 Europe, fifteen-year-old Austrian Prince Alek is on the run from the Clanker Powers who are attempting to take over the globe using mechanical machinery. Alek soon forms an uneasy alliance with Deryn, a girl secretly disguised as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service, who is learning to fly genetically-engineered beasts.

Million-Dollar Throw/By Mike Lupica.

Philomel Books, 2009.

Eighth-grade star quarterback Nate Brodie’s family is feeling the stress of the troubled economy, plus his best friend Abby is going blind. When he gets a chance to win a million dollars by completing a pass during halftime of a New England Patriot’s game, he is nearly overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed.

Slob By Ellen Potter.

Philomel Books, 2009.

Picked on, overweight genius Owen tries to invent a television that can see the past to find out what happened the day his parents were killed.

The Storm In The Barn/By Matt Phelan.

Candlewick, 2009.

Eleven-year-old Jack Clark struggles with everyday obstacles while his family and community contend with the challenges brought on by the Dust Bowl in 1937 Kansas.

Woods Runner/By Gary Paulsen.

Wendy Lamb Books, 2010.

From his 1776 Pennsylvania homestead, thirteen-year-old Samuel sets out toward New York to rescue his parents from the band of British soldiers and Native Americans who kidnapped them after slaughtering most of their community. Includes historical notes.


Gee, would I rather curl up with the book about slaughtered colonials or the dead anorexic girl?  The kid airlifted from Viet Nam or Jack Clark and the Dust Bowl?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to books with serious subject matter.  According to my students, I am unaware of any book in which someone is not trying to kill themselves, others, or otherwise engage in self-destructive behavior.  That’s what we call the great canon of English Literature.  Nor am I one of those parents overly concerned with sheltering my children from the harsh realities of life.

But I also like to read for pleasure, and I am concerned that my kids learn to love books by reading stories that appeal to them.  On our recent vacation, we listened to an incredibly good recording of Lynn Redgrave reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches, twice (it was that much fun).  Joe is now reading if for himself, eager to reproduce that same enjoyment in the solitary pleasure of the text.

I’d hate to dismiss eight out of ten books without reading them, so I’ll just have to say that, if it was me, I’d pick Flawed Dogs by Berke Breathed, since I was a big “Bloom County” fan back in the day.  As for Joe?  He’s going with Slob.  Sure, it has dead parents (like most Disney films), but it also has a magic, time-traveling TV, so who knows, maybe it’s a feel-good book after all.