Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reading Notes: Gotham, Part 1

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I am fairly certain I mentioned by goal of reading Gotham months ago. I even started reading it months ago. And at one point in 2016, I know had the goal of finishing the entire 1236 page book by the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

Well, now I'm three weeks into the 2016-2017 school year, and I'm still on page 75. Back during our January snow days, I breezed through Part One of the book—"Lenape Country and New Amsterdam to 1664"—and I made notes and tagged pages and then I never got around to writing about them and my continuation of reading has just been held up ever since. I've been breezing through a lot of random books lately, though, and decided that now, with my newfound motivation to read and write, is the time to move along actually get started.

New York City is one of my favorite topics to study. For one, its centuries of transformation are amplified, more magnificently illustrated, because of its small geographic size. Tracking development as it spreads—the buildings as they rise and fall—appears grand and drastic when the area feels so contained and so easy to observe. Secondly, and related to that point, I am a witness of the city's history. I walked its streets and inhabited its buildings for a decade. I know how the traffic flows and how cultures and communities occupy neighborhoods. Knowing what came before is what inspires history nerds like me to keep reading and keep searching for clues from another time.

"The city's well-merited reputation as a perpetual work-in-progress helps explain why Washington Irving's day New Yorkers were famous for being uninterested in their own past. 'New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities,' wrote Harper's Monthly in 1856. 'Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.'"

Because there is so much historical fact in this book that is impossible to record and remember, I think I'll focus my reading and summarizing on the state of things at any given moment in the city's history. Who was in charge? How did people live? What were the talking points, the stressors, the norms? New York is a dynamic city that changes with its population; the people are key to understanding the city's history.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fiction | Life Turned Upside-Down

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We all have those movies or TV shows we love to watch because they're easy entertainment—relaxing, mindless, superficial drama that we get sucked into for however long and forget about immediately after. These "guilty pleasures" aren't things we go around sharing details about [Do I really want to brag about a 3-hour Top Model binge?], but it is culture to consume, and it is enjoyable!

I find it hard to have the same "guilty pleasure" connection to books, because I view any reading as good reading! And maybe it's something about the effort that goes into creating the product—even the most formulaic of novels has taken hours for an author to craft, with re-reads, edits, and re-writes. There's a purposeful effort behind it, more than just pointing a camera to see what happens.

So when I came to the "guilty pleasure" category of the Read Harder Challenge, I had to just pick something more entertaining than literary, something I read for fun rather than enlightenment. Ergo, I chose a Sarah Dessen novel I hadn't yet read, Just Listen.

In it, Annabel is beginning her junior year, but it's off to a rough start. Her ex-best friend Sophie will no longer speak to her—she's a social outcast now; and at home, Annabel is afraid of breaking her mother's heart by quitting her modeling career, and her older sister is struggling with anorexia, no doubt brought on by her own modeling career. We, the reader, discover that Annabel can trace all her bad juju to one night at the end of last school year. It was the night her life took a one-eighty and Sophie became her bully instead of her friend.

Annabel's only school savior is Owen, a boy she certainly would've never noticed before. He's tall, dark, and mysterious. He has a bad-boy reputation. Mostly he's just a music-obsessed outsider that doesn't care a thing about high school politics. Their burgeoning friendship gives Annabel the confidence to confront the issues that plague her and make peace with the events and people that turned her life around.

Dessen's books are wonderful—maybe one could say in that "guilty pleasure" way—because they're too serious to be fluff but too lighthearted to be heavy. They feature the everyday, realistic issues that teen girls face, and though each situation is entirely unique (as is every teenage girl), the resulting emotions are universal. Just Listen is actually probably the heaviest of Dessen's I've read, dealing with issues like sexual assault and slut shaming, though in a quieter, less upfront way than other teen novels covering the same topics. In my opinion, these are issues important for middle schoolers to read about, because they do, unfortunately, exist in their worlds. This book is a good entry into heavier talking points.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Update on Chris*

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Several months ago, I wrote a little bit about an 8th grade student named Chris* who began checking out books from the library after finding sports-themed titles for an independent novel study project.

Remember, he was an 8th grader that hadn't checked out a single book since his 5th grade year.

By year's end, he had checked out a total of 44 books and his reading level had jumped four grade levels.

I created a whole award category during our academic awards banquet at the end of the school year just to give him serious praise.

This kid is the proudest story of my career as a librarian so far.

*not his real name

Monday, August 15, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 13

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Title: Skink No Surrender
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Genre: Mystery
Read If You Like...: Courageous rule-breakers, absurdist plots, the rest of the Skink series (apparently it's not just YA!)
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Fourteen-year-old Richard knows there's more to the story when his cousin Malley runs away (yet again), so he decides to take matters into his own hands and find her (or save her?) and bring her home. As the mystery carries him across rural Florida, he finds a partner in a weird eccentric old guy named Skink whose background is questionable, to say the least. Apparently Skink is a well-known Hiaasen character with his own entire mystery series, but for young readers, this will serve as its own self-contained humorous kooky mystery adventure just fine.

Title: The War That Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Read If You Like...: World War II era, underdog stories, Number the Stars
Three-Sentence Thoughts: In all of her nine years, Ada has never left her one-room apartment because she's got a club foot of which her mother is cruelly ashamed. When London's children begin to flee to the country because of the encroaching war, Ada recognizes an opportunity to escape with her brother Jamie and find a better life. I almost feel you need an adult-level understanding of emotion to get the full impact of Ada's story, but middle schoolers should also recognize the pathos and lend empathy and support to Ada and Jamie's struggle for survival.

Title: Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary
Author: Gail Jarrow
Genre: Nonfiction
Read If You Like...: Science mysteries, New York City history, epidemic thrillers
Three-Sentence Thoughts: In the early years of the 20th century, a fatal fever swept communities in New York City and state, but its origin was a total mystery until a team of groundbreaking scientists and health officials pinpointed the source—a lone woman, an innocent cook named Mary Mallon. Chronicling the outbreak and spread of an epidemic in a society that suffered from the the lack of modern scientific knowledge, Fatal Fever paints a fascinatingly vivid picture of a world that young readers will find entirely foreign and extremely eye-opening. Jarrow has penned a work of nonfiction with plenty of companion images and primary sources to satisfy reader curiosity, and the narrative is marvelously organized to provide a thorough history told in wonderfully complete context. (Note: The Bowery Boys did a podcast episode on Typhoid Mary, and I thought Jarrow's narrative structure in this book was SOOOOOOOOO much better!)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Silence Interrupted

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It's been a minute since I've updated this here blog. For whatever reason, my motivation has waned, and it's felt more of a chore to keep up, one intensified by the backlog of books that keeps piling up, creating a stress that further drains said already-diminishing motivation. It's a vicious cycle, really. And the past few months, I've let it sit on the back burner, out of sight and out of mind.

However, it's an effort I think I would ultimately regret abandoning. I began this blog as an outlet to talk about what I and others read. And though at this point, I may have an audience of about four readers, it has long been a dedicated personal practice in thinking and responding to books more critically while also inspiring a broadening of my reading horizons. Both of these things, in turn, have helped me remember and recommend books in far greater detail than I ever used to. For that individual accomplishment, if for nothing else, I think it's a practice worth continuing.

I've reached a point in my reading life where I am finally able to "quit" on a book if I'm not enjoying it. (It only took 30 years!) So perhaps I will start treating this blog the same. I don't promise to speak to every single book I read—maybe only the ones I feel motivated enough to reflect upon. I would like to delve deeper into purposeful reading projects—longer ones, like the Lions of the West discussion, Evolution of God musings, and People's History exploration from years past. And finally, though they sometimes feel more like clutter than substantial content, the musings on middle grade [hey, I like that!] titles are perhaps actually the most relevant and helpful to me (since my every-day target audience has shifted down a couple decades), so I plan to continue with them.

I never feel 100% confident or accurate with what I call this blog or what its purpose and coverage is supposed to be, especially as compared to what it ends up being. Regardless, I hope to continue with it and just needed the universe to know.