Five Reasons to Read It #4: ELEANOR & PARK

I highly recommend:

ELEANOR & PARK
By Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

With rave reviews like this one by John Green, I hardly need add my five cents.  But here they are.  Five reasons to read it:

1. Eleanor and Park are living creatures.  I breathed with them.  They’re real, the fact that they are ink and paper notwithstanding. 

2.  It’s a love story.  Not a teen romance.  A love story.  If you’ve fallen in love, if you’ve met a person who could rearrange your insides just by sitting next to you, then you’ll recognize that magic here.  This is technically a YA novel, and the characters are teenagers whose intimacy is (essentially) innocent, yet everything between them is melting-hot.  Desperately sensual.  Intimate.  Between the aliveness of these two characters and the effectiveness of the writing (both Rowell’s descriptive powers and her pacing are masterful), simple hand-holding explodes into full fireworks.

3.  It’s horribly suspenseful and upsetting, even while it’s gorgeous and mad.  Claustrophobic and liberating.  Sickening.  Exhilarating.  I was on the knife’s edge the whole time.  I wanted it to end.  I never wanted it to be over.  I kept telling myself to put it down, not to rush through it, but I couldn’t stop.  It had to happen.  I handed it straight to my husband the next morning, and he read it from end to end with the same speed.  Throughout the following day, several of our conversations began out of the blue like this: “Oh, you know what else I liked?” It’s that kind of book.

4.  It’s honest. In the privacy of her mind, Eleanor calls Park a “weird Asian kid.”  In the privacy of his mind, Park is embarrassed to bring this big, strange girl home to meet his parents.  Both of them are physically insecure.  Eleanor’s home environment is palpably oppressive.  Park’s parents, while far kinder and better people, still are imperfect in their judgment and prejudice.  

5. After Park’s mother sees Eleanor’s family in the grocery store – just – oh.  Both my husband and I had the same reaction.  We wept. 

Read it, read it.  

When we say it’s rewarding, we mean it.

It’s a cold, sniffly Friday morning.  Next week, state tests begin.  Students are tense.  Teachers are tense.  So our Dean of Students decided to have the kids write notes to the teachers they feel have made a difference to them this year.  I just found this stack of little orange love notes in my mailbox.  Here are my favorites.

“She motivated me to do my best work.”

“She inspired me to want to be a writer and do more with my love for writing. If I wasn’t in her drama class, I’d hate school.”

“She taught me how to be compatible with new people. To be patient. And that anything and everything comes from hard work and teamwork. Love you, Ms. Morrison.”

If any of these statements is even fractionally true, then I did my job this year, and I am so proud. 

I’m excited to say that, next year, I will be teaching both drama and language arts.  Stories, stories, stories – tell them with your body, with your voice, with your pen.  Tell them because they matter to you.  Tell yours because it hasn’t been told yet.  Read the stories of others, and make sense of them.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment.  Stretch out.  Relate.  Communicate. 

That’s my job.  What a marvelous job.  And it’s difficult, it is, but I don’t care.  Because these little orange love notes, these little moments where I get a glimpse of the bigger picture, make everything worth it.  Can you spell?  Can you punctuate?  Can you tell if it’s a run-on sentence?  Can I hear and understand your voice?  Can you express yourself? Can you keep a straight face and show professionalism?  These things are important.  But motivation, inspiration, and knowing how to be a team player are even more important, and if my kids (a few of them, at least) are taking that away from my classroom, then I am overjoyed.

Five Reasons to Read It #3: MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS

I just finished:

MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS
By Lisa Yee
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003

Here are five reasons to read it.

1. Millicent.  What a character.  She’s hysterical, and her 1st-person POV is pitch perfect.  She is an eleven-year-old girl who happens to be a genius.  A clueless genius.  The comedy – and the pathos – of this novel spring from the divide between Millicent’s intellectual abilities and her emotional readiness.  She is so far ahead of other eleven-year-olds that she doesn’t realize how very eleven-years-old she really is.

2. Emily and Stanford.  These two non-genius middle-schoolers are very different from Millicent and very different from each other, and they are not only excellent foils but feel like complete people.  I adored Emily instantly – she’s darling, real, and a great role model, with her wonderful inner reserve of self-confidence.  Stanford made me laugh and roll my eyes, and then emerged as a hero.  Each of these characters deserves – and has! – their own book, which I now can’t wait to read.

3. Maddie.  (Are you sensing a theme here?  This book is all about characters.)  Millicent’s relationship with her grandmother Maddie is amazingly well drawn. Maddie is one of the very best grandparent characters I have ever read.  Would that every child had a Maddie to understand them.

4. Millicent’s parents.  They’re well-rounded people, funny and intimate and interesting, limited only by Millicent’s POV.  It’s SO nice to read about a marriage in which, when problems arise, the adults can be angry and frustrated and yet love each other. 

5.  It feels classic.  Yee sits easily with Cleary and Blume and the other quintessential Authors of Growing Up.  She simply gets it right.  I laughed with Millicent, I ached for her, and I cried when I turned the last page, both because I loved the book and because I wished very much that it had been written when I was eleven. I needed this book very much, when I was eleven.  If you know a young girl around that age, do her a huge favor and give her this book.

Hungry

I’ve been feasting on books, crunching books in my teeth, swallowing books practically whole.  I’ve been devouring them like giant, delicious mystery cookies, unable to stop putting them in my mouth until every – single – gorgeous – crumb – is – gone.  As I do this, I realize I’ve been starving.  Story-starved.  I’ve been writing, writing, writing without reading, and that’s unsustainable.  You can’t keep burning stored energy forever.  You gotta EAT.

Reading is such joy.  Every other form of total self indulgence I enjoy (ice cream, television, shopping) is tainted by guilt.  But not reading.  No, reading is completely safe – because I MUST read.  I must read to model reading for my son.  I must read to model reading for my students.  I must read to stay current, to stay relevant, to make sense of, to prepare for, to know.  

I also must read in order to write. A reading tear is fuel for a writing tear.  Life is where stories come from, but reading is where writing comes from – and if the reading is lifelike enough, then stories can come from them, too.

As I gorge myself on books, I read delicious little snippets to my students.  I want my kids to be hungry, like I am.  I want them to NEED BOOKS.  So I’ve been giving them juicy little story sliders – literary hors d’oeuvres to whet their appetites and send them running for the kitchen. 

It’s working.  The last two books I shared snippets from – The False Prince and The Name of the Star – are suddenly so in demand at the school library that I ended up donating my copies to the librarian today to stave off total mayhem.

And now, instead of concluding this post, I’m going to crack another book, peel back the first page, and shove the whole thing in my mouth.

Mmmmmm.

Five Reasons to Read It #2: THE FALSE PRINCE

I just finished:
Scholastic Press, 2012
Here are five reasons to read it:
1. It’s FUN.  Fun, fun, fun, fun, FUN.  Fun is underrated.  Sometimes I want to read beautiful things, or sad things, or haunting things, or thought-provoking things, but often I want to have a good time.  This book is a GOOD TIME. I ripped through it in a matter of hours. (And by the way, entertainment and emotional satisfaction aren’t mutually exclusive.  This book delivers both.)
2. Sage (the male protagonist) is a smart-mouthed survivor with great internal snark and external wit. He reminds me of some of my sassiest 8th-graders whom I utterly adore but want to strangle. His disdain for authority is truly delightful.
3. The plot!  This is a tightly plotted story with an ever-present sense of tension that keeps the the pages turning.  I like a story that pays off in the end, and this one surely does. 
4. The action!  If you like swordplay, danger, ruthlessness, secrecy, tunnels, wild horses, and emerald-encrusted boxes, then this is your book.
5. The characters and their relationships.  Here we have a cast of characters each with his or her own unique objective, each with a specific worldview.  Nielsen does not compromise her characters; they are who they are from start to finish,and often they are not nice.  They grow, and they change, but within the scope of what’s natural for their characters.
Oh – and there’s a sixth reason.  But I’m not telling…

I Heart My Kids

Every school day, at the end of the day, I “teach” a brief, 25-minute class.  It’s intended as a check-in period before kids are sent home for the day.  Are your due-dates organized?  Do you have your materials?  Do you need help with anything?

If not, then go ahead and read.

This particular class of middle-schoolers loves to read.  LOVES TO READ.  They also love to write.  They’ve actually decided that they want to use the daily 25-minute check-in period as a celebration of reading and writing stories.  Mondays, we do inspiration and read alouds.  Tuesdays are for creative writing.  Wednesdays, they have book club time.  Thursdays, we have 2-minute book talks, and the kids pitch their favorite books to each other.

These are all their own ideas.  This is how they have elected to spend this time. 
Needless to say, I adore this class.  And because I adore them, I read this Rainbow Rowell article to them this week, for Monday inspiration.  They were super into it, because they recognized themselves in her description. 

There is something very special about having a relationship with students that is built on loving books.  Because when one of them holds up The Fault in Our Stars and says to me, “Have you read this?” and I say, “Not yet, I’m scared to cry,” and she says, “I cried like twelve times, but you have to read it!” – when that conversation happens, I’m not an adult anymore, and she’s not a kid.  The boxes around us vanish, and we’re just two people who love books, reaching across the divide to say Hello.  I am like you.  We are the same. 

Read this with me. 

Five Reasons to Read It #1: GRACELING

You know what I think?  I think there are enough forums for book criticism.  I want to write about the books I read, but it makes me feel barfy to think of criticizing other authors’ work in public.  Writing is difficult and deeply personal.

Instead, as I finish books, I’m going to share things I like about them. 

This week, I finished:

GRACELING
By Kristin Cashore
Harcourt Children’s Books, 2008

Here are five reasons to read it:

  1. Katsa (the female protagonist) is both highly skilled and intensely antisocial (difficulty relating to others, no desire for the limelight, no interest in beautification rituals, etc.)  She’s prickly, but she’s brave, and she’s more interested in goodness than in niceness.  So I like her.
  2. Katsa and Po make sense as friends; I see why they like each other, I understand why their connection is lightning quick, and from a very early point in the story, I want them together. 
  3. Cashore doesn’t overwork the external conflict, particularly in the end.  She sets up the boundaries of the situation, shows the problem (very well, too – when they first make contact with the villain, it’s wonderfully tense), and when it’s time to resolve that conflict, she doesn’t linger and drag it out for the sake of drama.  She can’t, because of the way she constructed the problem, and I admire her for refusing to violate her own rules.  There is a ruthless sort of cleanliness to it.
  4. In spite of this cleanliness, GRACELING doesn’t come to a neat finish.  In some books that’s a fault, but in this one it’s not.  I think it would have been a betrayal to the tone of the story to tie everything up in a pretty bow.  I enjoyed the sense of questions still to be answered, trials still to be faced, character and world growth still to be accomplished.
  5. Katsa’s final choices are admirable.  In those last pages, I went from liking her to loving her. 

So, did I mention I have an agent?

Well, I do!  I have an agent, and an agent has me. 

I’m working with the wonderful Ammi-Joan Paquette at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and I could not be more thrilled.  This was my first-choice agency, and I was very fortunate to have a friend in the publishing industry who was willing to refer me to them, because they’re closed to unsolicited queries.  Ammi-Joan isn’t just a great agent, she’s also a really nice person, and she had a personal response to the manuscript that made me believe she’s the right representative, for me and for the series. So it’s a huge big deal, and I’m as happy as a clam.

Can we examine that, for a second?  How happy, exactly, are clams?

Okay, no fallback cliches: I’m as happy as a teacher on spring break.  Which I totally happen to be, this week.  Basically, the stars have aligned in my favor.  Everything is awesome.

To top off this sundae of sweet, delicious joy, I’ve written forty pages of a new book in the series. This is the result of a combination of factors.  1. I’m completely caught up in the story and obsessed finding out with what comes next.  2. I pulled out my back and can’t move, so I’m not allowed to do anything except write.  I’m trying to figure out how this is a bad thing.  I know my back is important, but two days of langourous, bedridden (and, okay, somewhat painful) writing has felt completely flipping brilliant.  It helps, of course, that my wonderful husband has been home for two days, caring for our son.

And in two months and three days, it’ll be summer break.

The point is, I love everybody.  I’d like to buy the world a Coke.   Because the things, dahling, they are all too mahvelous.

Advice to My Students

It’s been a week of drama, and not the kind I’m paid to teach.  The quarter ended last week, so grades were finalized, and on top of that, spring break is next week.  The students are caught between the heaviness of responsibility and the lightness of freedom, and the result is that they’ve gone stark raving mad. There have been a lot of tears, a lot of nosedives in performance, a lot of behavior issues, and a lot of uncomfortable parent phone calls (today’s winner: a call home about inappropriate language in which I informed a mom that “He suggested that his friend suck his… body part.”)
It’s one of those weeks when I wish I could give the kids some advice. But what’s the point?  You probably remember how seriously you took the advice of adults, when you were a kid.  After all, what did adults know?  Adults were boring people with houses and jobs who had settled for mediocrity.  If they knew anything, they’d be celebrities.  Or at least they’d be cool.  They sure wouldn’t be teachers. 
So, since they won’t listen to me, I’m going to write them an open letter here on my blog. 
Hi, kids. 
You know how much I love you.  I want you to be happy. 
I also want you to pull yourselves together.
I can see further down the road than you can, because I’ve traveled down it further than you have.  Along the way, I’ve learned some things I’d like to share.  If you’re capable of believing what I tell you, then you can skip a lot of heartache.  Here are ten things I know, in no particular order. 
1. There’s no way to skip the heartache.  I’m sorry.  But you’ll never understand the things on this list until you’ve lived them.
2.  He’s not worth it.  She’s not worth it.  The one for you is out there – maybe more than one is out there – but the likelihood that he or she sits next to you in 7th-grade math is about on par with the likelihood that you’re going to discover that you are, in fact, royalty, and that the time has come for you to reclaim your distant country.  It’s not impossible.  But you’d be crazy to base important decisions on it.
3.  If you’re not good at it, but you want to be good at it, then you can be good at it.  But you have to work.
4.  Work doesn’t happen like a movie montage.  A burst of intense effort, the length of one rock song, will never cut it.  Work is when you apply yourself every day, a little at a time, and you can’t see how much you’ve done until you’ve strung an awful lot of days together.  Work is hard, and it can be very boring, and sometimes it feels pointless.  But stringing those days together and looking back to see what you’ve built is the best way to find out what you’re made of. 
5.  When you say and do things that hurt people, they remember.  Forever. 
6.  The things that have hurt you will stay with you.  Forever.  But you will find that you are stronger, more resilient, and more sensitive to other people because of what you’ve been through.  I wouldn’t be as good a writer or teacher if I hadn’t been bullied.  It’s a horrible price to pay, but you will come through it, and you’ll be okay.  You’ll be better than okay.  Oh, I wish I could convince you of this one. 
7.  Honesty is the best policy –
8.  – unless it serves no purpose but to hurt. 
9.  If you have to pretend to be a certain way around your friends, then they are not your friends.  You can only meet your real friends by being who you really are.  And when you are completely yourself, and you find the friends who understand you and love you, then your life will change forever.  Trust me. 
10.  You are valuable and worthy and lovable.  No matter what. 
Love,
Ms. Morrison
p.s.  For those of you with questions about number ten, the answer is yes.  No matter what.

165 to 1

I’ve been quiet lately.  There are things I very much want to say, but I have to wait, because of reasons.

One good thing that I can talk about is my student teacher.  She’s my first student teacher; I’ve never mentored anyone through this process before.  She started with me last Tuesday, and having another adult in the classroom for just one week has made me painfully aware that two adults in a 30-kid classroom should be the norm.  The 1-30 ratio is just nuts.  JUST NUTS.  I handle it, and I think I handle it pretty well, but the thing is, when there are that many of them and just one of me, I can’t get to every kid, every day, in the individual, specific ways that kids crave and respond best to.   They want to be called by name, asked about their lives, acknowledged as real people, not just told to spit their gum and take off their hats and do the assignment.  I try so hard to treat all 165 (yes, that many) of my students as unique people every day, but come on.  I’m just a human. 

But with TWO teachers in the room?

Oh, it’s magic.  It’s just magic.  I can move around the room more slowly, more deliberately.  I can be in two places at once.  There can be one adult handling administrative tasks, and one adult conversing with kids about what they understand about the lesson.  I can direct the actors in the show, and she can direct the tech team, and everyone can get equal attention and feel equally involved in the process – it’s a dream.  It really is.  And the kids are freaking loving it.  It took them less than two minutes to warm up to my student teacher and to start going to her with their questions and problems.  They’re hungry for grown-ups to care about them and help them.

I think I’ll cry when my student teacher is finished and it goes back to being just me in there, because now it’s been thrown into sharp relief for me that class sizes really are too large for truly meaningful, personalized instruction (and believe me, most teachers do try to provide it, we drive ourselves half crazy trying to provide it – don’t let the media fool you into thinking we’re a bunch of lazy jerks hiding behind a union – that’s pure propaganda, and it’s infuriating).  There are too many kids, too few teachers, our hands are tied in too many ways…

But enough of this for tonight.  Time to count the blessings.  Line up, little blessings!

Happy am I to have a job.  Happy am I to have another adult in my classroom, and happy am I that she is capable and reasonable and treats the kids with kindness.  Happy am I to have a beautiful, healthy family.  Happy am I that I started reading Graceling and am really enjoying it, (plus I cracked The Curiosities the other day and absolutely LOVED that first vampire story – can’t wait to keep going, but somebody borrowed it – argh).  Happy am I to have a lovely cup of lemon tea with honey.   Happy am I that my husband cleaned the cat puke off the carpet so that I didn’t have to do it. 

Go, little blessings!  Off to bed with you.  Nighty night.

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