“Up All Night” National Book Award showcase

I’m on a bit of an award-winning-book kick right now, so upallnightreading.org, the National Book Foundation’s new online showcase of past National Book Award winners and finalists, is rather timely.

The most recent winners’ page

The cool flyer [pdf] (Why yes, I DO remember voraciously turning pages way past my bedtime)

@nationalbook on Twitter


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Aliré Sáenz

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This was a beautiful book, and you should read it.

Published in: 2012

Pages: 359, but there are many partial-pages, the chapters are very short, and there is lots of dialogue.

The protagonist: Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza, a rather angsty fifteen-year-old attempting to live inside his own head and figure out the world from his vantage point as the youngest-child-by-several-years growing up in El Paso, Texas. We meet Ari in the summer of 1987 in between his sophomore and junior years of high school.

The gist in 100 words or less: Ari has, according to his first-person narrative, never had a friend. As summer continues and Ari seeks refuge from the prying eyes of his parents and the middle fingers of the neighborhood boys, he decides to go swimming in the public pool in town. There, Dante, an optimistic, forward, inquisitive fellow fifteen-year-old boy, invites himself to teach Ari how to swim. Thus begins a unique and unforgettable friendship during which the two boys spend the summer, and most of the next year and a half, attempting to “discover the secrets of the universe”, their families, and themselves.

Great stuff: Sáenz is a poet, and the writing is amazing and profound without being flowery or, surprise surprise, containing a single extra word. Ari is a very round, believable character and my heart broke for him on almost every page–not so much for the Big Things he was dealing with, but because Sáenz does SUCH a beautiful job portraying how difficult it is to grow up, especially when you aren’t Someone Who Talks.

Both Ari and Dante’s parents are pretty awesome, which was refreshing.

Also, there is a dog named Legs, which I found hilarious.

Meh: Not much. I found it a little lame that in the end, which I thought was very well done, Ari purports to have found “all the answers”, which after his very-believable inside-the-head narrative for the previous 358 pages, was a little too serendipitous. He certainly found MANY answers, but all?

Best quote: “Senior year. And then life. Maybe that’s the way it worked. High school was just a prologue to the real novel. Everybody got to write you–but when you graduated, you got to write yourself. At graduation you got to collect your teacher’s pens and your parents’ pens and you got your own pen. And you could do all the writing. Yeah. Wouldn’t that be sweet?” (335).

Parent/teacher alert: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Ari and Dante do some what-I-imagine-must-be-very-typical hemming and hawing about using drugs and alcohol, both of which they end up doing, but not without some guilt about What Their Parents Will Think. There are parties, and other teenage characters are clearly more experienced (and less guilt-ridden) at getting ahold of beer and marijuana. Ari and Dante draw a serious line at drinking and driving, and the parents in the story make that line very clear as well.

Also–BIG SPOILER HERE–one of the several Big Issues in this story is Dante’s figuring-out-of his own sexuality, his realization that he “wants to kiss boys” and what that means for Ari and Dante’s friendship, Dante’s family and the way Dante is treated in the community. It is beautifully done, and I think the best thing about this book is how those issues are woven in with all the other Big Issues Of Growing Up, and for Ari it’s just one of the many things that he has to figure out.

Ari and Dante talk a lot about ethnic and cultural differences, and discuss stereotypes about “Mexicans” (wondering if and how they fit into these stereotypes) on more than one occasion.

I would share this story with my own teenage children in a heartbeat. Ari struggles from a very real, honest, good-guy place and just wants to love everyone, even when the people around him make that difficult. I found myself nodding. A lot.

Read if you liked: Speak, actually–I found myself wishing Ari could talk to Melinda, although other than the fact that they’re both coming of age, their circumstances don’t really resemble each other. Anything about friendship and/or coming-of-age young menMy Most Excellent Year, Tales of the Madman Underground, Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have

Not good for: Those who need a lot of action and a fast-paced plot. The story certainly moved along, but the beauty of it is in the emotions of the characters rather than the actual events.

What my students think: No readers yet. I will be highlighting this one this coming year, though–it’s one of those Read This And Become A Better Person books.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Screen shot 2013-07-27 at 2.27.12 PMI realized after drafting this review that it is the third World War II novel I’ve posted about since I began this blog a couple months ago. Whoops. I promise to mix it up after this.

Published in: 2012

Pages: 332

The protagonist: “Verity”, a Scottish wireless operator (early teens?) and daughter of Scottish aristocracy. Verity is a Gestapo prisoner of war in France in late summer/fall of 1943.

The gist in 100 words or less: Verity and her best friend Maddie, an English Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, have crash-landed their secret mission into France. Verity has been taken prisoner and is being tortured into confessing wireless codes and other Royal Air Force intelligence. Most of the text is Verity’s fictional “written confession” to her Nazi captors, focusing mainly on her friendship with Maddie and how the two ended up coming to France together.

Great stuff: Wein has done a spectacular job developing Verity’s character and giving her a truly unique and unforgettable voice throughout the novel, even when *SPOILER* the story switches away from Verity’s first-person point of view. I would definitely use excerpts in lessons about voice; it was that exceptional.

Also, I may have read the last 100 pages with my hand over my mouth and my eyes wide, and I definitely had to read the climactic scene about four times before I actually believed what I was reading. I very much appreciate it when I am unable to predict how a novel will end, and I certainly could not do so with this one.

Meh: I wasn’t hooked until I was about 150 pages in.

Verity’s voice is compelling and intriguing, and the story is eventually captivating, but the plot moves too slowly for as dense of a text as this is. There are lots of flashbacks to illustrate the history of Verity and Maddie’s friendship–and their friendship is what makes the end of the story so phenomenal–but it just didn’t move fast enough to keep me yearning to pick it back up. Wein is a pilot herself and clearly very interested in the subject, and I found the terminology and references a little over my head. The text was so dense that I feel like I missed a lot; perhaps because I read too fast and am not particularly technical.

I spent the first two-thirds of Code Name Verity wondering what I was missing, since this novel was so critically acclaimed and honored, even by sources I trust [EDIT: Here, too]. By the end, I certainly got it, but I’m not sure if the ending completely redeemed the novel as a whole.

Best quote: [The BEST one is too spoiler-y, so here’s the second best] “Freedom, oh, freedom. Even with the shortages, and the blackout, and the bombs, and the rules, and daily life so drab and dull most of the time–once you cross the English channel you are free. How simple, and amazing really, that no one in France lives without fear, without suspicion. I don’t mean the straightforward fear of fiery death. I mean the insidious, demoralizing fear of betrayal, of treachery, of cruelty, of being silenced. Of not being able to trust your neighbor or the girl who brings you eggs. Only twenty-one miles from Dover.” (148-149)

Parent/teacher alert: Nazi torture is no picnic to read about, although I am relatively certain that what Verity goes through is a toned-down version of what was actually done to prisoners like her. The climactic scene is disturbingly graphic, but as is true with so much World War II literature, rightfully so.

Read if you liked: Books that emphasize female friendship (Sarah Dessen’s books, although this is a vastly different time period!) and/or kick-butt girl stories (Graceling or Grave Mercy, maybe?) or aviation-themed stuff. Some sites recommend Flygirl if you liked this one, and although I haven’t read it, it looks like it might have some of the same themes. Wikipedia’s article on the Air Transport Auxiliary recommends several titles that are also about the ATA.

Not good for: If you’re not into historical fiction, you’ll really struggle with this one. It’s also not particularly happy, although Verity’s narrative is really humorous at some parts.

What my students think: I haven’t had anyone pick this one up yet, and I’m doubtful it will be a huge hit except to those who really like historical fiction.

Read-aloud is joyful with the Sisterhood

I work at a residential summer camp where cabin counselors read campers to sleep each night, no matter what age they are or whether they are at camp or on an overnight at a nearby campsite.

The other night, I substitute-covered a cabin of teenage girls and got to read them to sleep. They were reading The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, one of my favorite YA really-girly-in-a-healthy-and-awesome-way books. Read-aloud always brings me back to fourth grade, when we all sat or lay on the rug while Mrs. Petersen read Allergic to my Family and I hung on every word and GROANED when she refused to continue past the end-of-chapter cliffhanger.

As I read to the cabin, the girls asked clarifying questions, gasped, laughed and then…snoring. What a perfect way to get them to sleep without the too-late giggles and “SHHHH”s, and get some literacy/comprehension/context clues in there, guerilla-style.

I kept reading to myself after they fell asleep, and thank God no one was awake (*spoilers* here in a bit so stop here if you haven’t read it!) because I was definitely crying. By myself. For these characters. Carmen tearfully asking her dad why she and Mom weren’t good enough? Tibby working up the courage to visit her dying friend? Brashares does it all so well, so long as you agree that sniveling-in-the-armchair-with-my-headlamp-and-no-Kleenex-while-campers-snore to be a good thing.

If you haven’t read Sisterhood…go. Seriously. It’s so worth it.

Self-selection: “How do you know if they’re reading?”

When I meet people and it comes up that I teach high school English, one of the first things people ask is what my students have to read as part of my class. When I explain that many of the books they read are self-selected, the next question is “Wow, how do keep track of all those different books?”

I have learned that validating whether they’re reading is 1) not as difficult as it might seem, and 2) works better the less complicated the requirements are.

When a student finishes a book in my class and wants credit for having read it, I do one of three things:

  • Find a quick online quiz on the book
  • Trust them, and do nothing but check it off (I do this randomly for most students at some point throughout the year)
  • Do a quick book talk.

For a book talk, they must have a copy of the book. They hand it over and I open to a random page. I read a paragraph or two out loud until they seem to recognize the part of the book, then ask them to explain what’s going on. While they are talking, I leaf back and forth to try and validate what they’re saying. If I’m satisfied, they’re good to go. If not, I choose another spot and see if they remember that part.

If we go through 3-4 spots and they don’t seem to be able to tell me much, I hand the book back. I ask them to look over it again and we’ll try again tomorrow.

Why not an essay, a summary or a book project? I want my students to love to read and to read (and receive credit for) book after book if that’s what they want to do. I am wary of projects, posters, or summaries–anything that has the potential to get busywork-y–that will discourage them from reading as much as possible.

We absolutely write papers and do projects based on the books we’re reading, but that’s not a requirement every time a book is completed. I want the validation piece to be super simple so they aren’t discouraged from finishing books. Many students will read more slowly in order to get out of “more work” like doing a project or summary, and we’re hitting those skills in different parts of class anyway.

Is the system foolproof? Probably not. Does it encourage as much reading as possible? I hope so. Do we do this with all books? Absolutely not–with Julius Caesar and To Kill a Mockingbird, we’re delving deeper and we have different objectives. But the objectives in self-selected reading are different: I want students to realize how many great titles are out there and be encouraged to read as many of them as they want, just for the sake of reading, reading, reading and loving it.