Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Maze in the Heart of the Castle

     My friend Catherine gave me the book The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorthy Gilman.  It ended up in my pile of books and finally resurfaced this week.  I am so glad it did.  This small book has become one of my all-time favorites.
   This book can be read on two levels - the story of a boy on a quest for a far-off land - or as an allegory, much like The Little Prince
     Colin is sixteen when he loses both his parents and finds himself alone in the world.  Battling his grief, he begs Brother John to explain the age old question we all eventually ask - why?
     Brother John sends him to a castle with a magical maze.  By facing the maze, Colin will find his answer.  Through Colin's adventures, he learns lessons about the human condition.
  • Sometimes the endless maze is self-imposed and we may need to climb over the obstacles to find our way out.   
  • Truth cannot be silenced. 
  • Sometimes we must fight for what is right.
  • Our mind can take us to dark places that incubate us, but we can not stay there without going mad. 
  • Love is worth having, even if the person we love betrays us. 
  • Magic and miracles come to us in our darkest moments.
  • We become what our thougts allow us to be.   
     A beautiful book that is easy to read.  Like Colin, I am a better person for taking the journey.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Matched and The Giver

     I absolutely love both of these books.  I happened to be reading The Giver with my students at the same time I read Matched.  They were interesting books to pair together because they had many of the same themes and questions to ponder.
     Cassia is the heroine in Matched.  She is the perfect daughter, student and citizen.  She knows who she will marry, what her job will be, and that she will die on her 80th birthday.  It all seems so organized and perfect for society.  Cassie never thinks to question the society or her place in it.  Jonas is the hero in The Giver.  Though younger than Cassia, Jonas is also a perfect son, student, and citizen.  He is told what job he will hold, who he will marry and when he will die.  They are both given pills to suppress their desires and emotions.  Both societies are very controlling, but tell everyone it is for their own good.
     Throughout both books, Cassia and Jonas learn of the horrors behind their perfect societies.  Cassia learns the society is not as ideal as it pretends to be - beginning with her grandfather's death.  Cassie learns about the flaws of her society slowly, so it is harder to feel her rage.  Jonas is forced to learn quickly and brutally as he discovers memories and emotions that he must take on for the good of the society.  I will never forget the scene in The Giver when Jonas watched his father "release" the twin baby.  It was horrifying and made me unerstand the horrors of this ideal society.  Cassia didn't experience any horrific moments like Jonas, so it was more difficult for me to see her society as "dangerous."
     Both of the books made me think in new ways.  Matched made me wonder about why we choose the people we love.  Is there one love for all of us that is our perfect match or is there always another person?  By choosing one, do we set a new set of choices in motion or is fate still set because someone knew what we would choose?  What about my job?  Why did teaching always seem like such a certainty?  In our rush to make everything less offensive to everyone, how much do we lose?  Which songs or poems or paintings or books would make the cut?  How much of ourselves would we lose in the choosing or later in the limitations that remain?
     The Giver made me wonder about the euphemisms we use to hide the brutal truth of our lives.  What happens if we lose our memories?  What is wisdom?  When we turn over the hard parts of our lives: war and death and suffering and loss, do we lose our best parts?  Without suffering, can we understand joy?  Without loss, can we understand love?  What makes us human?  In giving up our wisdom, do we lose our capacity to make life-changing decisions humanely?  Is this worth the cost of the hard parts of our lives?  What are we willing to sacrifice for the greater good?  What are we unwilling to sacrifice of ourselves?
     Both of these books are thought-provoking and poignant.  Although both books are easy to read, to enjoy the deeper meanings and questions, I recommend both books to advanced readers.

The Roar

     I chose this book because my 8th graders were excited about reading it.  It wasn't one of my favorite books, but I liked it. 
     The Roar by Emma Clayton is a dystopian novel set in the Earth's future.  The animals have gone crazy and attacked humans, causing terrible diseases.  Humans used nuclear bombs to destroy the rabid animals, destroying much of the land.  Now the humans have retreated behind huge walls in foldable houses.  Their lives are miserable.  There is little sun or food or space or fresh air.  In fact, there weren't any children born for years.  Now that there are children again, evil forces are at work to use the children.  Mika is doing his best to find his sister and stop the evil forces around him.
     Like other dystopian novels, this book holds up a mirror to society.  One of my favorite parts of the book was also the hardest part of the book for me to read.  This is a quote from that section.
--Boom. Boom

"What's that?" he asked as his feet hit the pavement. It sounded like the heartbeat of an enormous beast, as if a dragon were sleeping beneath its treasure, instead of on top of it.

Boom. Boom.

"The Shadows," the chauffeur replied. "haven't you heard?"

"No," Mika said. "what's happening?"

"The mold is getting worse," the chauffeur replied grimly. "And hundreds are dying every day. And they say the government won't help them because it's cheaper to let them die."

"But the people in The Shadows won't be ignored," the chauffeur said. "So they're banging on the pillars holding up the Golden Turrets with huge steel balls on chains. All day and all night they swing them - one time for every person who's died. It was driving people crazy up here when it started on Friday night, but apparently you get used to it."

Boom. Boom.

"I don't think I'll get used to it," Mika said. He gazed at the pavement and tried to imagine what was below, all that darkness and water and millions of people trying to stay alive and balls on chains swinging against the pillars.

     This book reminded me of Ender's Game, but I didn't like The Roar as much as Ender's Game.  Mostly because I never really fell in love with the characters or cared what happened to them.  I absolutely loved Ender and felt like I was with him every step of the way.  Although I didn't care for the characters, I liked the ideas in the book. 
     I recommend this book for advanced readers.  It is also a good match for people who enjoy dystopian novels like The Hunger Games or Maze Runner.  At 481 pages, it isn't a good match for reluctant readers.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Liberation of Gabriel King

     It is the biggest summer of Gabe and Frita's lives.  Not only is it 1976, the bicentennial, it is also the summer they will overcome their fears so they can move on to 5th grade in the fall.  Gabe is afraid of everything, from spiders to cows.  Frita isn't araid of anything, at least nothing she will admit to Gabe.  She even punches bullies in the nose.  There is only one fear Frita can't help Gabe overcome - 5th grade.  If Gabe moves up to 5th grade, he will be in a new part of the school with the 6th graders.  Gabe has enjoyed his 4th grade year without the bullies in the 5th and 6th grade part of the school.  Frita is determined to help Gabe overcome his fears so they can move to 5th grade together.
     I really enjoyed this book.  A younger reader can appreciate the story of friendship and overcoming your fears.  A more mature reader can read it and understand the deeper fears of the kids, their families, and the town. 
     Gabe is a white boy in a racist town.  He is an only child of poor parents living in a trailer park.  Frita is a black girl in a racist town.  She has an older brother involved in The Black Panthers and parents who fight for civil rights.  Their school is integrated, but many people hate the fact a black girl is going to school there.  Frita is afraid of Mr. Evans because he is mean.  We know she should be afraid of him because he is in the KKK.  This is one example of the many layers in the book.
     I loved Frita and Gabe's friendship without prejudice, their innocence, and the life lessons they learn that summer.   
     I recommend this book for girls who enjoy reading or like books about friendship.  I also recommend it for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement and how it affected children.  It's too slow for reluctant readers and doesn't have enough action to make it a page turner.  It wouldn't be a good match for that type of reader.

The Dangerous Days of Daniel X

     There has been a lot of talk lately about how boys have different tastes in books than girls.  If you are looking for a great book for an eleven-year-old boy, you should definitely try The Dangerous Days of Daniel X.  It is one of the best books my son and I have read together in a long time.
     James Patterson is a well-known author for writing great action and suspense.  There is plenty of action and suspense in Daniel X, but it isn't too scary for kids.  Daniel is an alien who looks like a regular boy.  He is an alien hunter looking to rid the Earth of every alien on The List of Alien Outlaws. 
     This book has lots of laugh-out-loud humor for adults and kids.  My favorite part was when Seth, the villain alien, came out of his space ship with his coffee, newspaper, and bathrobe to fight Daniel.  You could tell Seth didn't think Daniel was much of a threat.  Daniel has a funny sense of humor and says little things as asides to the reader. 
     The chapters are very short; most of them were two - three pages in length.  They are just the right amount for a reluctant reader to enjoy and feel a sense of accomplishment. 
     Daniel also has a very cool superpower.  Unlike other heroes, Daniel has the power to create.  He overcomes all of the obstacles in the book by using his brain to create unique ways to escape.  We loved trying to predict what Daniel would do next.
     Nick and I both loved this book.  We finished it yesterday and went to the bookstore to buy the second one today.  Nick's comment was, "He (James Patterson) better start writing faster 'cause we are catching up with him."   We hope you like it as much as we did.