Book Review: The Library Book

What a writer Susan Orleans is. In The Library Book, Orleans shows her skills at weaving a deep dive into a topic (public libraries), history, crime (the fire at the Los Angeles library), and her own personal story (she writes this book for her mother, who is dying as she begins this book and has died when she ends). Orleans’ talent is such that you don’t even notice the way she has artistically structured all of this — you only know that you are in deep, and you don’t want to stop reading.

This is more than a book about libraries. It is a book about the heartbeat of shared public spaces, about the ways a community gathers together, about shared experiences, about the power of stories to guide us forward, about how we preserve the past to guide us into the future and navigate the present. It is all that, and more.

The Library Book is also an ode to our geeky hearts, those of us who loved libraries as kids, who still love libraries as adults, and if you are lucky like me, those of us who are married to a librarian. (I quickly passed this book to her). Orleans’ narrative focuses on the fire that nearly destroyed the main library of Los Angeles, and then weaves her stories of the people, the books, the experiences that connect to the library, before pulling back on the larger picture of how libraries function in our communities as vital cogs beyond literacy.

You don’t need to love libraries to enjoy The Library Book. But it helps, and if you don’t appreciate libraries before reading this book, you certainly will afterwards.

Peace (in the stacks),
Kevin

Book Review: Unbound (A Novel in Verse)

This book packs a powerful voice — that of nine-year-old Grace — into its pages, and Ann Burg’s Unbound never lets up. Grace is a slave, sent to the Big House to help, but even her mother and step-father know she will have trouble keeping quiet. Grace is a girl with a mind of her own, and slavery’s injustice gnaws at her.

In fact, it is Grace’s words that set the story into motion, as she and her family escape the plantation in the night, making a run for Freedom, with a capital “F” even if Grace does not know what or where that is.

Burg’s historical references to the Maroons — communities of escaped slaves that did not head north to Canada or elsewhere, but instead, stayed hidden in the South — is a fascinating piece of forgotten stories, and Grace’s harrowing adventures into the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina remind us of these stories of slaves who risked everything to leave the shackles and to help others along the way.

What resonates is Grace’s inner voice, brought to the surface with talent and compassion and spoken poetry by Burg’s writing. It’s nearly impossible to read Unbound without your heart jumping to save Grace from the violence and struggles of her times, and to give her strength on her journey.

Unbound never loses track of the internal narrative struggles — the doubts, the joy, the love, the worry — of young Grace, even as the novel reminds us of yet another chapter of our country’s horrible past and the yearning of those in chains to be free.

As Burg noted in her Author’s Notes at the end of Unbound:

The choice to brave the wilderness rather than suffer the brutality and humiliation of bondage is a towering testimony of an oppressed people who risked everything for the chance to be free.

Peace (and Freedom),
Kevin

Book Review: The Poet X

Voice is what surfaces with absolute clarity in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, a powerful narrative poem structure of a young woman pushing against the cultural barriers of her first-generation Dominican family in order to find herself. Xiamara Batista, or X, the main character through which the book/poem flows, is a cauldron of confusion, at times defiant; at times, fragile.

Where X finds herself is in her poetry, words as a source of expression. And slam poetry — the art of performing your poems to the world — is also where she loses herself.

When X’s mother, whose strict and confining cultural expectations of her daughter become an increasing source of tension and anguish, finds her daughter’s poems, in which X writes of a budding romance, she destroys her daughter’s book of poetry. X is distraught and angry, until she realizes her poems are in still in her head and in her heart.

The Poet X is a reminder that stories and poems flow through us all. And that these can become the threads of how we linger on our family, the past and the future. You won’t soon forget Xiamara Batista after reading this novel in verse.

Her words will linger.

 

I would say that this book is perfect for high school students, particularly those who don’t often see their own lives reflected in the books of our classrooms, but it may be a bit edgy for some middle school readers. There’s a real-life tension here, although nothing that would preclude this from being a potential classroom book. You might want to read it first. Well, of course, you should read it anyway.

Peace (in poems),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Art of Screen Time

Journalist and mom Anya Kamanetz approaches screens and family with a balanced eye in her book — The Art of Screen Time (How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media & Real Life) — and for that, I want to show appreciation. She doesn’t shy away from the troubling aspects of too much screen time for kids and parents. Nor does she ignore the positive possibilities.

Instead, she gives a nuanced look at research and findings around the impact of screens on kids, and the role of parents in the age of the digital entertainment world, and reminds us that all we can do is our best.

She borrows and remixes Michael Pollan’s phrase about food, with a technological twist: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.” I think that is good advice, even as I both see the benefits as a teacher and father, and worry about the impact of digital devices on developing brains, including my own children.

I appreciated her findings from surveying other parents about how they approach limiting screen time (something my wife and I grapple with at home with our youngest, a teenaged son) and how our difficulties are not isolated. It seems like many of us as parents are finding this a difficult world to navigate. How much screen time is too much screen time? What are the lasting effects of decisions we are making now? How can we find more balance for us and our kids?

Kamanetz looks not just at how kids use technology, but also how parents are becoming the role models for kids, and not always in good and positive ways. She explores the mommy-blogging world (something I sort of know about but not really, and I am both disheartened to see it commercialized and heartened to see there are places where good advice and caring communities exist).

The most important piece of advice — the one huge researched take-away for all parents that sticks with me — is to protect the sleep patterns of your children. No devices and no screens in bedrooms, and turn off screens an hour before bedtime. The sanctity of sleep is key to the development of a growing brain and emotional self.

In a nod to the world she is writing about, where time seems slippery and tl/dr (too long, didn’t read) is a cultural shortcut, Kamanetz even has a final chapter in which she summarizes her book into a five-minute read (sort of like a bulleted cliff notes version). You could read that, of course, but I suggest reading the entire book, and thinking about technology, our kids, ourselves and the world in a critical and constructive way. It is worth it.

Peace (on this screen and beyond),
Kevin

Book Review: How to Write An Autobiographical Novel

 

I’ve heard Alexander Chee’s name before but had not read anything by him, and then his latest book — How To Write An Autobiographical Novel – starting showing up in the places where I read about books.  I’m glad I discovered it, and him, for his writing is lyrical at times, and powerfully moving. In this collection of essays, connected by the larger theme of exploring one’s life through fiction, Chee tumbles into the terrain of writing.

I won’t recount his difficult, yet interesting, life, but themes of race and cultural identity, gender politics, sexual orientation, literary mentorship, and ways of looking at your world through a lens of words all come to the surface in interesting ways.

Even with the title, I didn’t quite realize what Chee was up to until I finished the book, and thought deeply, later, about how his pieces fit together as advice for a writer grappling with identity and stories, and how to tell those stories (and the price you pay for using your own stories to write fiction). He also has some beautifully written sentences and passages. Even if he hadn’t noted that Annie Dillard was one of his professors, you would catch some of her style in his style (not a bad thing), although his focus of topic is very different from hers.

I’d recommend this book for those seeking to explore what it means to be a writer, but this book is probably more for adults than students below the university level.

Peace (between pages),
Kevin

Book Review: 100 Years From Now Our Bones Will Be Different

What a find! This book — 100 Years From Now Our Bones Will Be Different by Lawrence McWilliams and Anand Vedawala — is a treasure and inspiration, as it weaves vignettes and epitaphs of a single fictional African American family over 100 years, with illustrations. The stories are powerful, with overlapping narratives that foreshadow stories and hint back to past stories, weaving the family tree in a way that a diagram could never do.

In here, you will experience the echoes of slavery, of discrimination, of family connections, of hope, of dreams, of tragedy. In short, it’s a family story, with all of its imperfections surfacing through the voices of the multitude of characters (the first, born in 1878, and the last, died in 2015).

There are many applications for this kind of fictional narrative, from historical perspectives to story writing. I am bringing pieces of it into a professional development session tonight, in fact, where our focus is on oral history, and I am going to do a roundtable reading (hopefully, I will record it for a podcast resource later).

And what’s cool, too, is that this was funded via Kickstarter.

Peace (tell the tale),
kevin

My Year in Books (via Goodreads)

Year in Books 2018

I use Goodreads regularly to keep track of my reading, and I always do the annual reading goal challenge (keeping it at 100 books to be read each year). What I like is the final Year in Books that Goodreads spits out, giving a cool glimpse of the books read and reviewed over the past year. I am always taken back by the number of pages I have read (40,000 in 2018).

Peace (in pages),
Kevin

 

Student Reflections: Choice in Books and Time to Read


reading flickr photo by Ken Ronkowitz shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I’ve been trying to work more independent and choice reading time into my classroom this year. I’ve always done so, but this year, I’m stretching the time frames and trying to be more thoughtful about the time they need in the school day to read. I’m inspired by books like Game Changer (Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp) and Book Love (Penny Kittle) and others.

As we neared the end of a recent seven-week block of an independent reading unit, following a class novel unit at the start of the year, I asked them to write a bit about what they liked or didn’t like about this extended time.

Reading their responses, three main themes emerge across the board (and of my nearly 80 students, only two did not like the independent unit all that much, citing too much choice and freedom).

  • They liked the choice and the variety of books they could read, and some notes resistance to teacher-driven books, even if they like the story
  • They liked the quiet space we created in the classroom for reading — sometimes it was only 10 minutes a day but often I stretched it to 20 minutes — and many noted they don’t have time to read or desire to read outside of school
  • They appreciated learning about more books from other classmates reading, getting recommendations from peers (as opposed to me, the teacher, although many did ask and receive books from my classroom library upon my recommendation)

Here’s what some of them wrote:

I have enjoyed this extended independent reading unit from the moment we started it. One of the reasons why I liked it is being able to read what I wanted instead of what other people wanted or were reading. I like having my own book that is harder to have a spoiled finish than others that people already read. Some of the books that I read other people didn’t read or had forgotten about reading it. This experience of independent reading has made reading something more enjoyable. – GM

 

During the last several months I have enjoyed the independent reading unit. I have had trouble finding time to read in the past, which is a hobby I enjoy, so it is not only helpful but to have the opportunity in class but also fun. I like deciding where to sit in the classroom, and I enjoy the quiet atmosphere it provides. – CC

 

I enjoy independent reading. I like it because, If I did not have a time to read, I might of stopped reading or forgot about the book. I like choosing a book because the books that people pick out for me might not meet my interests. At school, the teachers pick out good books, but if anyone else did I probably would dislike it. — LB

 

I really enjoyed our independent reading. One reason is, I get the freedom to chose the book of my choice. I also like that if I don’t like a book I can stop reading it and chose a book that I will better enjoy. Lastly, I like that I can read at my own pace and I don’t have to stop reading if I’m enjoying something. In conclusion, I really enjoyed our independent reading. — JS

 

I have enjoyed it because teachers don’t always pick the best book for the class. I know because all last year I did not like the books. Also, it gives me freedom to try different genres. Also, because it is fun to read all kinds of books. – EM

 

I have enjoyed the independent reading unit. I love to read and I have really enjoyed being able to pick out my own books so that I can understand what I’m reading and enjoy. I have been able to read 2 books and I am starting a third. Even though I like to read I don’t usually read so it was nice to read every day in class. – LG

 

Yes I did enjoy it because you are able to pick your own book. I like it better than having to read an assigned book. Also it allows me to read diverse books. – LP

 

I have enjoyed quiet reading because,  it is nice to have sometime in the middle of the school day to sit back and quietly read a book after all the rushing around. It is nice to also be able to pick out the book that I want to read, unlike being forced to read a book That I may or may not like. When it is time for quiet reading, it is nice to be able to pick out where to sit, what to read, and how fast or how slow you read. – SB

 

Yes, I have enjoyed this independent reading unit. I like how I have the freedom to pick a book that particularly interests me. However, I did like the book that we read as a class. I also liked that I did not have a reading limit. Especially when I am at a suspenseful part. When reading in class I agree that it was really quiet and peaceful. I think that the amount of time we spent reading in class was good, not too long but not too fast. – OM

 

I love reading so naturally I love silent reading. I also enjoy the fact that we get to choose our own books because it encourages me to read more. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do. However, when I’m forced to read a certain book I enjoy the book less even if it is a good book. – AH

Peace (pondering),
Kevin