BookTalk: Miller’s Valley

by Sharon Kane

millersvalleyThough Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen (2016, Random House), has a very specific setting, much is presented in the story that seems universal. We learn early on that Miller’s Valley is gone, having been submerged for the sake of a reservoir, all in the name of progress. The inhabitants have already lost the fight to those wielding political and economic power. Yet the story of that battle, encompassing narrator Mimi Miller’s childhood and teen years, is still of interest to us, as are the many other battles—within families and within individuals.

Mimi contrasts her two childhood friends for us. “Donald’s personality was like vanilla ice cream, and LaRhonda was like that weird Neapolitan kind, with the layers of strawberry and vanilla and chocolate, that turned a tan color when it melted in your bowl and you made ice cream soup” (pp. 21-22). We also get to know the adults through Mimi’s eyes. She observes her Aunt Ruth’s refusal to leave her house; she listens to her mother make snide remarks that Ruth can hear, though the sisters haven’t spoken in years. She hears her pragmatist mother and her idealist father arguing over when, or whether, to give up and sell the house that the government will take over either way. Her brother, Tommy, leaves behind wreckage each time he gets in trouble, including abandoning her nephew when he eventually disappears.

Mimi doesn’t complain (because she is not the whiny type) though she handles an awful lot of responsibility throughout her adolescence. When she’s not in school or studying she’s working at a restaurant or babysitting her nephew. She’s responsible and sensible with one exception—her boyfriend is a loser. I wanted to warn her urgently, Why can’t you see that he’s no good for you? You deserve so much better, Mimi Miller!

Does she ever find her brother? Does she go to college? Does she leave her unhealthy relationship? Does she ever see her childhood friend Donald again? (Actually, we know the answer to that one, since she slips in a sentence about it along the way.  But we’re dying to know when, and how, and what happens after that . . .)  I’d better stop now, before I give too much away. I invite you to enter Miller’s Valley and learn why it is—or, sadly, was—such a special place.

 

Appropriate for high school and beyond

Economics, politics, ELA, psychology

 

BookTalk: The Nest

by Sharon Kane

nestA label on a book classifying it in the horror genre attracts some readers and deters others. I am in the latter group. If I see the phrase “psychological thriller” on a book cover, I quickly walk away. On the binding of my public library’s copy of Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (2015, Simon & Schuster) there is a symbol consisting of two red eyes and the word “SCARY” right below the juvenile section indicator. However, when my graduate students told me that I had to read it, I felt pressured to at least try it. I found Jon Klassen’s illustrations appropriately creepy but quite intriguing, and the first few sentences were aesthetically pleasing:

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them? Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me. They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born. (p. 1)

I found I could not abandon narrator Steve as he told the story of his baby brother, born with congenital defects that made his future uncertain. The infant already had multiple health problems resulting in numerous rushed trips to the hospital. The prognosis was poor in terms of his level of mental functioning. Steve was old enough to surmise from hushed conversations that the baby might not survive. But oh, how the family loved that baby, Theo.

Steve discovers that the creatures in his dreams are not angels, but wasps. He communicates with the queen, who assures him they have come to help. She tells him that because Baby Theo is damaged they are working on a replacement baby. Everyone knows that a perfect child is so much better than a damaged child. All will be well.

Steve inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the queen’s tactics by the time he figures out what evil is being planned. Horror mounts. You will have to read the details for yourself; I cannot bear to tell you.

The Nest is a good book for introducing the topic of archetypes. Steve is on a hero’s journey. He goes reluctantly; he does not feel brave; he does not have the capacity to overcome the obstacles he encounters. There are mentors as well as trials. There is a goal worth pursuing. Steve will do what it takes to protect the baby, even if that means descending to an underworld, or—despite his allergy—fighting his way through hordes of wasps.

I was afraid to read this book , but Steve had to face much bigger fears than I. I’m glad that I “met” him, which would not have happened had I let fear keep me from this valuable, inspirational story. Steve became a mentor on my reading journey.

 

Appropriate for middle school and high school

ELA, science, psychology, ethics

BookTalk: Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey

by Sharon Kane

daretodisappointI visited Turkey a few years ago, and fell in love with the country. So when I began reading Özge Samanci’s memoir in graphic novel format, Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I was pleased to recognize some of the places and events mentioned, and I was eager to learn more about Turkish culture and history. Despite Özge’s childhood taking place in Turkey in the 1980s, the coming-of-age story is familiar, with what feels like a universal theme.

Panels and speech balloons take readers back and forth between school and home, where Özge works toward discovering, or constructing, her unique identity. A chapter on politics, called “Atatürk,” connects to her search for identity. The text of the Student Oath is included; it begins and ends with “I am a Turk.” In one panel, a bird says that “Students repeat this oath 800 times before they graduate from primary school” (p. 27). Özge’s uncle, a socialist, tells her she is being brainwashed. TV is censored. Her beloved teacher uses Özge’s pink ruler to beat her and her classmates. Figuring out her identity is complex, and so is figuring out her future.

Özge’s father insists she have a career in medicine or engineering. He only wants the best for her, which in his mind equates with security. Özge craves her father’s approval, yet the picture of Jacques Cousteau on her bedroom wall whispers to her, suggesting a different path. She boards at Istanbul Atatürk Science High School, where the principal insists there is no such thing as evolution, and teachers espouse the subservience of women. She does not fit in.

At college she majors in math, but isn’t passionate about it and doesn’t do well. Her father does not support her decision to add a drama major. Life after college brings more conflict. Özge fights with her father about his expectation that she should marry in addition to their never-ending arguments about a career. Will she ever truly find herself? I recommend this book for those who need hope and encouragement on their way to becoming themselves, no matter what their culture, family, or internal anxieties may be.

 

Appropriate for middle school and high school

art, careers, ELA, history, psychology

BookTalk: Euphoria

by Sharon Kane

euphoriaI think Lily King’s Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) fits the category of New Adult Literature, appropriate for upper teens and twenty-somethings. I would love to use this novel to introduce the discipline of anthropology to high school students. It is based on the life of Margaret Mead (though the story takes on a life of its own–the characters all have fictional names– and it diverges from biographical information in other ways that I will not mention in order to avoid spoilers).

The story involves three fictional anthropologists: Nell Stone (who is based on Margaret Mead), her husband, Fen (who is based on Margaret’s second husband), and Andrew Bankson, the point-of-view character (who is based on Gregory Bateson, who would become Mead’s third husband). It begins with Bankson looking back to the year 1933 when he was in the Territory of New Guinea with Nell, already famous for a book she published about the children of a tribe she had observed, and Fen. Readers get early clues alerting them to Fen’s jealousy and abusive behavior toward Nell, as well as to his questionable values regarding sacred traditions and what he considers artifacts. Conversations ensue between Nell and Bankson about intellectual ideas, as well as about grief they both experienced after the death of siblings. These conversations make it easy for readers to predict that they will fall in love. Add Nell’s yearning for a baby, and the complexity of the story increases.

The story presents ethical ideas for readers to ponder. Referring to Fen’s work, Bankson muses, “I couldn’t help questioning the research. When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?” (p. 177). Speaking of Nell’s desire for an interview with a man who had left the tribe to work in the mines, he explains:

An informant like this in the field, a man who has been raised in the culture but removed for a time so that he is able to see his own people from a different angle with the ability to contrast their behaviors to another set of behaviors, is invaluable. … She felt she knew his story already. … But she was aware that the story you think you know is never the real one. She wanted his real one. (p. 159)

After closing the book, I was curious to know how Lily King did her research and made decisions as she wrote this historically inspired work of fiction. Luckily, I found many interviews with the author that answer my questions and share great insights about her writing process.

 

Appropriate for high school and beyond

(anthropology, psychology, history, geography, ELA)

 

BookTalk: The Seventh Most Important Thing

by Sharon Kane

seventhWho gets to decide what can be classified as art and what cannot? Many of us create things we like, or appreciate things our friends make. But does that mean they can be considered works of art?

These are questions Arthur must consider as he serves his probation for throwing a brick at the neighborhood “Junk Man.” Arthur was surprised when the judge sentenced him to work for the very person he attacked, but the judge acquiesced when the victim, whose real name is James Hampton, requested it. Arthur gets sent on missions with an old grocery cart (which Mr. Hampton refers to as a chariot) to collect cardboard, foil, lightbulbs, mirrors, glass bottles, coffee cans, and wood pieces. They are used to further the giant creation on which Mr. Hampton is working. He’s creating Heaven—the Throne of the Third Heaven, to be precise.

Like Arthur, readers may wonder if junk can really be transformed into a work of art. Other questions arise: Is Mr. Hampton just strange and eccentric, or is he mentally ill? Is he an artist? Will cancer lead to his demise before he can finish the project? What responsibility will Arthur have if that happens? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the “redemption” that Mr. Hampton and the judge have discussed in relation to Arthur?

The number seven and the concept of perfection are themes in this book. When I came to the end of the story, I thought the author had indeed achieved perfection. And then the Author’s Note made it even better! I learned that James Hampton really lived, and we can read more about his masterpiece—now exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum– by going to www.americanart.si.edu.

What a great combination of fact and fiction can be found in The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelley Pearsall (2015, Alfred A. Knopf).

 

Appropriate for middle school and high school

(Art, ELA, psychology)

BookTalk: The Boys in the Boat

by Sharon Kane

boysinboatI will admit, I like reading nonfiction books that were first written and published for an adult market and then adapted for a younger audience, and sharing them with the teens and pre-service teachers I work with. My latest reading adventure of this type involved The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, written by Daniel James Brown and adapted for young readers by Gregory Mone (Viking, 2015). The story focuses mainly on the youth Joe Rantz, though it is hard to single out one protagonist when it was the team effort that made the unlikely and amazing victory in the Olympic rowing race a reality.

The author met Joe Rantz toward the end of Joe’s life, but Joe was still able and ready to tell the story. Joe’s childhood was filled with hardship and sadness. His mother died when he was four, and that was the beginning of a series of losses and betrayals. For example, when Joe was ten, his stepmother demanded that his father choose between Joe and her. His father turned him over to the local schoolteacher, having made a deal that the child would sleep at the school in exchange for splitting wood to keep the fireplace stoked. Joe learned to care for himself and not depend on or trust anyone.

As a college student at Washington State, Joe’s background both helped and hindered him as a member of the crew team. It helped him be strong and disciplined, but a team has to work together, trust each other, and be willing to sacrifice for the others, and these things came hard for him. Luckily, there were mentors on his archetypal hero’s journey, and Joe learned how to forgive and to love.

In a note from the author preceding this edition, Daniel James Brown speaks fondly of the young people who talk to him at book signings about their own goals. The story of the nine team members who rowed past the Italians, past the Germans, and past Hitler when the odds were against them kindles the young people’s desire to persist, even after failed attempts. Brown recounts:

It is easy for those of us who are older and count ourselves wise to forget that it is the young who most often move the world forward. It is the young who have the boundless energy, passion, optimism, courage, and idealism to try to do what we elders might say is impossible. That’s what the boys in the boat attempted to do in this story. That’s why, eighty years later at my book-signing table, old men and women come to me with tears in their eyes, proudly remembering when they were young and full of fire. And it’s why standing right next to them are young men and women with beaming faces, bearing tales of their own brave attempts at the near impossible. (xi)

Reading this book made me want to read more about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I know many other stories from that event intertwine with this one. And I can’t wait to visit high school classrooms to give book talks about this book in conjunction with others that relate to that time and place. I think I’ll pair it with the fictional The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow (2011, HarperTeen) and Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction account Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (the Young Adult Adaptation, 2014, Delacorte).

Little did those boys in the boat know that in 2016 their story would be making history come alive for readers of all ages.

 

-Appropriate for middle school and high school

(physical education, history, psychology, ELA)

BookTalk: Stand Off

by Sharon Kane

standoffWinger (2013) was the first book I read by Andrew Smith, and the narrator, 14-year-old rugby player Ryan Dean West, won a place in my heart. He faces many challenges, partly because he skipped two grades and became a junior in a boarding school among classmates and teammates who are older. In the sequel, Stand Off (2015, Simon & Schuster), Ryan Dean returns for his senior year much taller, but he also has bigger problems, including grief over his friend Joey’s violent death. (Readers of Winger know that Joey’s death was caused by a hate crime connected to his homosexuality.) Ryan Dean wakes up at night in terror, and constantly feels a haunting presence he has named NATE (Next Accidental Terrible Experience). This of course affects his relationship with others, including his 12-year-old freshman roommate, Sam, and the love of his life, Annie. Despite the sadness, depression, isolation, and near-despair he trudges through, Ryan Dean is funny! He addresses questions to the reader that can run on for most of a page. “Okay, so, you know how sometimes you arrive late to a party, or, let’s say, to rugby practice, and you see two of the guests—or in this case, two of your teammates—involved in a heated confrontation that you can’t really hear but you know is heated because of the way they’re standing and how the veins on their necks are sticking out and they’ve got their hands on their hips and one foot angled back like they were already thinking about boxing….” (p. 277). (It goes on for another 75 words or so, but you get the idea.)

Annie, parents, friends, and teachers all worry about his state of mind, body, heart and spirit. Then he meets Joey’s younger brother, Nico, who is fighting his own battles with grief and does not want Ryan Dean or anyone else for a friend. When he meets Nico, our narrator begins to feel a sense of purpose, maybe even hope, and he visits a counselor and takes other steps toward recovery. If it sounds like the story might become didactic, don’t worry. The humor, sports action, and wild antics keep it authentic and non-preachy.

I would love to follow Ryan Dean West to college. Please bring us there, Andrew Smith!

 

Appropriate for high school

(physical education, psychology, ELA)

BookTalk: Bone Gap

by Sharon Kane

bonegapThis post may wander into some unusual territory, since Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby (2015, Balzer + Bray) is an unusual story. It mostly seemed like realistic fiction to me. Finn is suffering because he witnessed Roza’s abduction and was unable to stop it or to adequately describe the kidnapper. His brother Sean is in love with Roza, and Finn senses Sean’s anger and grief. That’s realistic. But all is not normal in this town. We get early references to the corn talking, as if it has consciousness and agency. Then a horse mysteriously appears in Finn’s barn, and Finn is able to ride it nightly to places where the usual laws of nature—regarding time, space, gravity– do not apply. The horse also takes him to Petey, a young beekeeper whom other townspeople perceive as ugly, but whom Finn finds fascinating, healing, and lovely.

Some chapters take us to where Roza is imprisoned. Again, much seems realistic, if awful. We find out about the professor who stalks her, then gives her everything he hopes will eventually make her love him—everything except her freedom. We see her refusing his advances, attempting escape, and even trying to kill him. But again, there are hints of alternate realities. This evil man can produce a castle, lambs, flowers from her native Poland, and an Eden-like field filled with colors; he seems immortal, more mythical than human. What is going on?

Whatever is going on involves the concept of gaps—several types and levels of gaps, actually. A reader could suspend her disbelief and read the strange happenings as part of the world the author constructed in this semi-fantasy, but I think someone with scientific knowledge of particle physics, parallel universes, or time–space continuums could understand the gaps in a way I (whose knowledge in this area is pretty much limited to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time) do not.

I also thought about the ways different readers would fill in gaps in the text to construct unique “poems” (to use the term Louise Rosenblatt gives us in her many writings on reader response theory). For example, there came a point when I had to deal with the corn in the fields becoming almost one of the characters. “But the corn whispered, here, here, here, so [Finn] kept running, crashing through the plants, … trusting—not himself, but the plants that had always sung to him, the plants that had always made him feel safe” (pp. 289–290). I made sense of this by recalling a biography I read years ago—Evelyn Fox Keller’s A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock—about a scientist who intimately related to and loved the corn she studied.

I loved the connection in the novel to the much loved and respected writer, the late Oliver Sacks, and his thought-provoking story, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Petey solves a mystery within the larger mystery because she’s read Sacks. I can’t tell you more; it’s a discovery best made along with her.

One final example. There came a point when Finn seemed to slip through a gap that allowed him to leave the page and enter my life. He was involved in an accident involving a horse, and the text reads, “He showered the best he could with one leg sticking out of the bathtub…” (p. 243). I am presently recovering from a serious dog bite, and could identify with this completely! Who thought I would find a resident of Bone Gap to commiserate with? The coincidental timing struck me, and made me feel that all things in this world, including readers’ lives and fictional realms, are connected and interactive.

In short, Bone Gap is magical realism. And Bone Gap is magic.
Appropriate for high school

(ELA, psychology, science)

BookTalk: The Thing about Jellyfish

by Sharon Kane

jellyfishHere’s the thing. I read The Thing about Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin (2015, Little, Brown and Company) because I’m working my way through the 2015 National Book Award Longlist in the “Young People’s Literature” category. I fell in love with Suzy, the quirky, intellectually curious narrator, who is grieving the death of her former best friend. Suzy and Franny had a falling out near the end of sixth grade, which involved really negative behavior on Suzy’s part, and that turned out to be the last communication between them. The adults in Suzy’s life do not know how to help her through her grief and feelings of guilt. She stops speaking.

Suzy has a hard time comprehending how Franny, a strong swimmer, could have drowned while on summer vacation. She has her own hypothesis that Franny must have died from the lethal venom of a rare jellyfish and goes further and further into her own research to prove it. (Each major section of the novel begins with her seventh grade teacher’s instructions involving the use of the scientific method.) She follows the work of a scientist in Australia who once almost died from an extremely painful jellyfish sting, yet went right back into the water after his recovery. She’s convinced that he is the only person who can help her.

In an earlier post (9/15), I expressed amazement at what I learned from Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. Now I can also spout information about jellyfish. For example, they act fast. When a tentacle brushes a surface, “In just 700 billionths of a second—a tiny fraction of the time it would take a person to understand, to think, to react, the jellyfish releases those harpoons, all their poison, with the pressure of a bullet” (p. 169). Were you aware that some jellyfish are immortal? Did you know they are overpopulating oceans now because nature is out of balance, and that they can even cause the death of whales? Did you realize they have survived mass extinctions and, unlike humans, will likely be around after the next mass extinction? Though I was fascinated with this information, Suzy’s classmates do not respond favorably when she breaks her vow of silence to give her oral report in science class.

Suzy makes many mistakes, but we root for her in her quest, and are relieved when a kind of resolution and signs of healing occur near the end. This story is filled both with scientific information and with the love that family and friends—and science teachers—can offer and receive. That’s the thing about The Thing about Jellyfish.

Appropriate for intermediate grades, middle school, and high school

(science, psychology, ELA)

BookTalk: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

by Sharon Kane

simonvshomosapienSeventeen-year-old Simon is gay. No one knows it yet except his secret crush, “Blue,” whom he writes to online. He wants to “come out” in his own time and his own way, as soon as he figures out how. Too bad he forgot to log out of the school computer. Now classmate Martin has discovered Simon’s sexual orientation and Martin is not above blackmailing him—or outing him on social media.

I would call Becky Albertalli’s debut novel (2015, Balzer + Bray) a mystery. I kept trying, right along with Simon, to figure out who Blue might be. It’s clear that Blue attends Simon’s high school, but he isn’t ready to disclose his identity or to meet Simon in person. Is it Cal, who attends daily rehearsals for the school play with Simon? Is it Nick, who has been Simon’s best friend forever, but who seems to be quite happy in his developing relationship with Abby? Oh, heavens, could it be Martin? Please don’t let it be Martin!

Readers become acquainted with Simon’s parents, sisters, and friends as events unfold. Simon’s story reveals both the anguish that cyberbullying can cause and the healing that the support of the wider school community can provide. Most of all, this story has the power to absorb readers’ imaginations as well as evoke empathy and hope.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda made the 2015 National Book Awards Longlist in the Young People’s Literature category.

Appropriate for high school

(English Language Arts, psychology)