Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

NOTE: Contains some spoilers.    I’ve been doing book-talks for the students in my children’s literature course this semester. Book-talks serve 2 purposes in my class: 1) as a modeling strategy and 2) students are welcome to borrow any books from me to read for their independent reading project or for pleasure. Two weeks ago I book talked Grasshopper Jungle – more accurately, I tried book talking GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Granted I hadn’t finished reading it yet, but one of the reasons that I think I stumbled was because of how this book defies easy definition or description – which is one of the things I love about it. At the MRA conference, Cheryl Mizerney (@CherylTeaches) referred to it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Stephen King.” Now that I’ve finished the book and talked about it, I think I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.

Character is almost always my favorite part of anything I read – this book is no different. The main character Austin is a clear and unapologetic narrator. There are aspects of his life that he is clear about (his love for his dog and his friends, his loathing for the bullies from the public school) but he also is confused about other parts of life. This felt so authentically “teenage” to me – perhaps because there is a teenager living in my house. 

Austin spends most of his time (while not in school at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy) hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. It sounds like a “typical young-adult” book (whatever that is) when I say it like that. But add in bullies from the public school that beat up Austin & his friend, breaking into the local consignment store, and a plague strain; and you have a book that defies typical anything. Not to mention family history vignettes, a brother stationed in Afghanistan, the Tipsy Cricket Liquor Store, a house with doors leading nowhere, and an underground bunker frozen in time.  I could go on… 

Ultimately, for me one of the themes of this book is about wrestling* with labels. For example, Austin wrestles with his own emotions and feelings. He is in love with Shann, he wonders if he is in love with Robby. Although he rarely (if ever) uses these terms – he is wrestling with wondering if he is gay, straight, or bisexual. We don’t know the extent of Austin & Robby’s physical relationship – other than a kiss on the roof of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. But do we need to know it? Does physical intimacy define if Austin is gay or straight? I think that the vagueness is part of the point – that sometimes labels are more limiting than helpful. 

I also think that the book itself defies labels. In terms of genre, it is part contemporary realistic fiction, part historical fiction, part science fiction. Taking away any of these genres changes the story, it is all three at the same time – and also something completely different. There are gay characters and straight characters. There are family dynamics and a town struggling financially. There are enormous bug that eat humans. But none of these make it a “gay book” or a “friend book” or a “contemporary issue book”. It is all of these things, with enormous, human-eating insects. It defies a genre label – much like Austin does. So maybe this isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, I’m still wrestling with my thinking about the book – which I love. Ultimately, Smith has written characters and a story that is intriguing, thought-provoking, hysterically funny, poignant, and engaging.

Andrew Smith’s website
Follow Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

*I prefer the term wrestling to struggling. Struggling implies a negativity and need for resolution. Wrestling implies something that is more fluid and doesn’t require being “solved”. 

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A taste of delicious storytelling

I’m in the car right now reading Kathi Appelt’s new book The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. This is storytelling that gives me goosebumps. Here is a taste for you…

Hogs like to hide out along creek beds, where they lay low in the underbrush so that no one can see their sneaky selves. Like our raccoons, they’re also nocturnal, using the cover if darkness to mask their dastardly deeds.
They usually travel in family groups called sounders. Isn’t that a great word? “Sounders”? We just love that.
But do we love Buzzie and Clydine and the Farrow Gang?
Friends, their is nothing to love there.
Nothing.

Now – back to reading…

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It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

I made a huge discovery about myself. I can walk on the treadmill and read at the same time! I love reading and I am very undisciplined about exercise so it is a perfect combination. As a result, I’ve finally finished a book I’ve been trying to finish for more than a week, started on another, and completed one that has been on top of my tbr pile for far too long.

I finished The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater. A lovely example of a fantasy novel that draws on folklore (something we just talked about in my children’s literature class last week!) I also like the way that we hear the story told from boy Puck and Sean’s points of view – but I tend to love multi-vocal stories. The way that Steifvater writes about the connections that both characters have with horses and the land felt so very authentic to me. I immediately recommended it to my cousin, who could BE Puck (you know, if it weren’t a fantasy fictional story).

I finally read A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban. This has been on my tbr pile for a while. My friend, Colby Sharp, is a big fan of Linda’s and I’ve been wanting to read it. I read it in an evening, immediately gave it 5 stars on goodreads, and handed it to my 12-year-old daughter as a “must read”. For more, see yesterday’s blog post. (It needed it’s own post, it was that amazing.)

I reread The Arrival, The Red Tree, Eric, and Sketches from a Nameless Land by Shaun Tan. My children’s literature students read, wrote about, and discussed The Arrival last week. Every time I read Tan’s books, I’m blown away by the way he creates multiple levels of story, and therefore, response. I picked up Sketches from A Nameless Land when I was in Australia this summer, it is amazing to be able to read about Tan’s process and get a glimpse at his creative process. Hoping that this will be available in the US soon.

I started reading A Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz. I absolutely loved A Tale Dark and Grimm because of the way that Gidwitz turns upside down (and inside out) what we think we know about fairy tales. This follow up is not disappointing. I also love that the narrator talks to the reader – nothing like breaking the fourth wall in an artful way.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

This book has been sitting on my tbr pile for quite a while now. I read Hound Dog True last year (based on my friend Colby Sharp’s gushing about it, yes he gushed) and loved it. Urban is clearly a gifted storyteller, particularly when it comes to character and voice.

I sat down last evening with my daughters for “family reading time” and decided it was time to read A Crooked Kind of Perfect. I finished it before going to sleep and am still thinking about it today, right now even. I love books that stay with me like that – make me want to go back, reread them, mull over the language, and think about what it is that made me respond this way.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect hits home with me personally in a variety of ways – but I think perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t read it yet is because I needed to read it this week. I’m going to defend my practicum study this thursday. I’ve been working on it for far longer than I thought I would due to a variety of reasons (like breaking my arm). It had gotten to a point where every time I looked at it all I could see was the “crooked” – the holes, and time that felt wasted, and paper that hadn’t been defended. It seemed like I would never finish it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit my ph.d. program in the past two years – just so I wouldn’t have to deal with finishing it.

The chapters in the middle of the book where Zoe decides to quit were so spot on. The way that the sentence length shortens, she blocks out all possibilities, and is just sure that quitting is the only way to go.

Quitting

It is no big deal that I am quitting.
It isn’t.
It really isn’t.
It’s not like quitting the piano.
That would be a tragedy. (p. 84)

What I love about this is that it’s ok for Zoe to quit. She does it for a few pages. Her parents don’t chastise her or push her, they just sit with her, and let her quit. And eventually there is a key change, and she decides not to quit. My husband, writing group and friends have done this for me with my practicum. They have watched me struggle, and listened, and pushed at just the right times. But ultimately I am the one that decided not to quit.

Perfectionism is rampant in our society. It is something that is presented in movies, television shows, the news, books, and each other; often in ways that we aren’t even aware of. We judge each other harshly and don’t stop to acknowledge that there is more to life than first place, a gold medal, or the most money.

Here is a book that celebrates hard work, at something that wasn’t exactly the way Zoe imagines, but that turns out to be about more than being a prodigy, more than getting applause for a performance. It is realistic in so many fabulous possible ways.

Zoe’s mom works hard, she misses some of her daughters events – but Zoe doesn’t hate her for it.

Zoe’s dad lives with OCD, or at least symptoms similar to it. He does not “struggle” with his issues, he lives with them. He is a father who loves not only his daughter and wife, but extends it to another child who needs a positive adult presence in his life.

Zoe deals with friend problems, something not uncommon for middle school aged children. But those problems do not define her, she feels yucky about them and moves on. Just like she does with quitting. This is a book about real people, living real lives.

So this thursday, I will defend my practicum (I might wear multi-colored toe socks). It will not be perfect – because such a thing does not exist. It will however be mine and it will be done and I will move forward with my dissertation and finish. That will by my crooked kind of perfect. I think we’ll get a cake and some Vernor’s to celebrate.

It’s Monday, What Are YOU Reading?!

Thanks to my amazing colleagues over at Teach Mentor Texts for hosting this meme each week. Please check out their blog if you haven’t already!!!

This past week I read:

Same Sun Here by Silas House & Neela Vaswani 

I’m still processing this book. What I love best about it is the way that it can push against adult assumptions about the ways that children and young people think. So often I hear statements like, “kids don’t notice that” but THEY DO. This is a lovely story told through an exchange of letters between pen pals. Though at times a bit didactic, the overall premise and story are lovely and thought-provoking.

The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech

This book did NOT disappoint. I love stories that push you to figure out connections when it seems as if there isn’t one. As an Irish girl myself, I’m particularly fond of the ways that Creech’s writing is similar to some oral storytelling traditions. Both Naomi and Lizzy are multi-dimensional, rich, intriguing characters who are accompanied by an intriguiging supporting cast.

I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson

I read this in preparation for an upcoming meeting. An instructor of one of our sections of multicultural and diverse children’s literature course selected this as a required text for students. All three instructors for the course invited the rest of us from the MSU Children’s Literature Team to read the book and discuss it at our next meeting. I’m looking forward to the discussion. This book hung over me for a good while after I finished it. It is a multi-dimensional story that invites the reader to consider classicism, racism, family, friendship, and incest.

Voice in the Park by Anthony Browne

This is a book that I have read more times than I can remember. It used to be the first book that students in my children’s literature course discussed and wrote about. We still use it in the course as a model. The richness of the illustrations and multi-vocal text never cease to provide new insights and responses. I reread it every semester 2-3 times in preparation for our “elements of illustrations” discussion.

This coming week I’ll be reading:

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the LIfe and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with artwork by R. Gregory Christie

I’m super excited to read this book. I had requested in from my local library before I left for Australia but didn’t have time to give it a good read. I love historical pieces that stretch me as a reader and this one has that potential.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Another book that I’ve heard some buzz about that I can’t wait to read. I met Laura at a conference last year and she was absolutely lovely and so generous with her time. I loved Good Masters Sweet Ladies and can’t wait to read this one!

Excitement for The Great Unexpected

When I arrived home from Australia, there were some books waiting for me that had arrived in the mail while I was gone. One of the books was The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech. Ms. Creech had tweeted (@ciaobellacreech) a few times about her book earlier in the year and I was so excited to finally have it in hand.

I’m just now getting around to reading it and she has me at the prologue:

“… a story was only interesting if I was in the story.”

Now I must get back to this book.

It’s Monday, June 11 – What Are You Reading?

Be sure to check out the host of “It’s Monday…” TeachMentorTexts to see what others are reading! 

This week I had a VERY productive reading week and am feeling energized by it!

I finally finished Graceling by Kristin Cashore and absolutely loved it, particularly the rich, multidimensional characters of Katsa and Po. I think something that I appreciate about this as an example of YA fantasy is that while there is a romance element to the story, it is not what defines the characters – particularly the female characters Katsa. I can’t wait to read Fire and Bitterblue.

I also read Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. This is a lovely story about 2 young girls who think that they have nothing in common, but come to find out that they do in more ways than they imagined possible.

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Australia, I’m reading as much children’s and YA lit by Australian authors and illustrators as I can get my hands on. I read the following picture books:

Sun Mother Wakes the World adapted by Diane Wolkstein and illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft is an absoultely stunning creation story based on beliefs of the indigenous peoples of Australia. The illustrations are stunning and a thorough author’s note at the end explains known origins of the story.

Ready to Dream by Donna Jo Napoli and Elena Furrow with illustrations by Bronwyn Bancroft tells the story of Ally and her mother’s trip to Australia. Ally’s dreams of becoming an artist are enlightened and encouraged by her new friend Pauline, who is an aboriginal artist. Bancroft’s illustrations (which remind me a bit of Faith Ringold’s paintings) are beautiful and add a depth to the connection between the child and her new artist friend.

W is for Wombat: My First Australian Wombat by Bronwyn Bancroft is an ABC board book full of Bancroft’s delightful illustrations that a first glance may seem like a simple text. After multiple readings, it made me think about assumptions that I hold as well as similarities between the U.S. and Australia (hawk, island, river) and differences (dingo, joey, platypus, and quokka).

Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks is a truly unique story that begs to be read and discussed multiple times. I could say much more, but need to reread it a few times first. The complexity is incredible – I love the way it pushes me to think about how picture books and children’s literature can be defined.

Half a World Away by Libby Gleeson with illustrations by Freya Blackwood
Clancy & Millie and the Very Fine House by Libby Gleeson with illustrations by Freya Blackwood

Molly and her Dad by Jan Ormerod & Carold Thompson

Where the Forest Meets the Sea by Jeannie Baker – I was familiar with both Window and Mirror by Baker but had never read this title. Like her other stories, Baker asks readers to reflect on their place in the world and their role in the environment.

I read all of the following Mem Fox titles (which by no means represent all she has written!):

Hello Baby illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Goblin and the Empty Chair illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

The Magic Hat illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Possum Magic illustrated by Julie Vivas

Koala Lou illustrated by Pamela Lofts

I’ll be writing more about some of these titles during July and August when I am in Australia.

This coming week I’ll be reading…

… more titles by Australian authors and illustrators.

And though not children’s literature, I’m also reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers – inspired by Paul Hankin’s post over at Nerdy Book Club. Anyone interested in teaching and/or reading should read it!