Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Words take my breath
Begging me to slowly reread
Savor each story

This is the review after I read it the first time. I was lent an ARC of this book from a #nerdybookclub friend and must pass it along to another reading friend. I can’t wait to get my own copy and read it again when it comes out in August. 

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The poemic form helped me to slow down as I read. I read parts outloud. I reread. I want to reread it again. Put it on your list now and get it as soon as you can. Read it. Read it multiple times. 

Book Review: The Griffin and The Dinosaur

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I heard about this book from my good friend Donalyn at the Michigan Reading Association Conference. I’ve always admired Marc Aronson’s non-fiction books – the level of research and supporting information is always outstanding. This book continues in that tradition.

Chapter One introduces readers to young & curious Adrienne Mayor growing up on the prairies of South Dakota. The descriptions of Adrienne’s family history and childhood are brought to life with photographs, posters, and artwork. The book follows Adrienne’s curious mind and travels as she explores questions about how fossils might have inspired the Ancient Greek people to write about mythological creatures like the Griffin. Mayor’s instincts lead her to believe that perhaps there was a connection and that the griffin wasn’t just a myth.

Throughout the book, we are reminded of the importance of Mayor’s ability to notice and connect. She did it as a child on the prairie, and continued to explore and ask questions in the libraries of Greece, at archeological sites, and of professional archeaologists. Although not trained in either the classics or archeology, Mayor makes important discoveries. I appreciate that we experience the recursiveness of Mayor’s work. She would discover something in a book, go explore fossils or sites, discover something different that would send her back to books. Mayor’s understandings and discoveries did not happen in linear “straight line” but were at times messy and confusing. This made both Mayor and her work very real to me and also inspiring.

Using prints & sketches created by Mayor herself, along with photographs, maps, and gorgeous artwork by Chris Muller, this is a non-fiction book that is both interesting and visually appealing. A description by Aronson of his journey in meeting and working with Mayor provides helpful insight along with suggestions for further reading and a detailed glossary.

The notion that what has always been considered myth is actually based in scientific discovery by the ancients is fascinating. When I finished this book, it left me wanting to read more of Mayors work, but it also left me with a desire to be more curious.

The Griffin and The Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science
Written by Marc Aronson and Adrienne Mayor
Illustrations by Chris Muller
Published by National Geographic, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4263-1108-6
Checked out from East Lansing Public Library

Genres/Subjects:
Nonfiction, informational, mythology, dinosaurs, women scientists, Ancient Greece, scientific method, archeology,

Why Teach?

Video

This week, I taught my last 2 classes as a graduate assistant at Michigan State University. One of them was a course for our Elementary Education seniors titled Teaching English Language Arts to Diverse Learners. Most of the students in the course will go on to complete a one-year teaching internship next year.

I love working with preservice teachers. They are enthusiastic, curious, and passionate about their career choice. They are also nervous – rightfully so. About 2/3 of the way through the semester, I realized that there were quite a few students who were feeling panic. They had reached the stage of “realizing how much more they have to learn.” I saw and heard some of them questioning their decision to become teachers.

We spent time in class together talking about professional dispositions of teachers such as asking for help, acknowledging what we don’t know, as well as what we do know, and working to empower ourselves as professional educators. I am purposefully using the inclusive “we” in this description. I consider myself an educator who is always learning more about teaching. Always seeking out mentors, research, strategies, and questions to help me become better. I learned a lot from this group of students. I realized I need to do something different.

I listened. I read. I thought. I read some more. And I realized that what they needed was to learn how to begin to think like empowered teachers, to believe in themselves and their choices. I talked about my PLC (professional learning community) that I’ve developed online. I went to the Michigan Reading Association Conference and came back excited and energized to share things I had learned. I read THRIVE – Meeno Rami’s new book. I asked questions of colleagues and mentors. And then I asked them to think about things that they can do to empower themselves.

Feeling empowered as a teacher is difficult in today’s educational climate, but I know amazing teachers who are doing incredible work. And here is a group that I’m pleased to be sending to join the ranks. To help them remember their goals, profession, and passion for teaching, I asked them to complete the phrase, “I TEACH….” I hope they will watch this video now and next year to remember that they are incredible empowered teachers.

At the end of Teacher Appreciate Week, I want to thank each of them for helping me to continue to become a better teacher educator.

Here are their responses:

 

As I posted this video, I realized I hadn’t answered my own prompt:

I teach to help the next generation of teachers become empowered professionals who make informed pedagogical decisions based on what is best for their students as a community as as individuals.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

I Love this so so much…. head on over to Grace Lin’s Blog for a description of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks event.

Then head to Kate Messner’s blog for more information, a giveaway, and an opportunity to support your local independent bookstore. I’m heading over to the fabulous Schuler Books in East Lansing to preorder a copy of The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson this afternoon.

There are so many reasons why we need diverse books… here are just a few of my own personal reasons….

WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS BECAUSE:

  • people are NOT all the same; which is wonderful, amazing, and needs to be acknowledged and celebrated.
  • not everyone can travel physically, but everyone can travel through reading and/or listening to books
  • while we can never understand someone else’s experiences, we can develop empathy. 
  • Every human deserves to see multiple aspects of themselves represented in books. This includes the uncommon and common, the invisible and visible, the negative and the positive. ALL. OF. IT. makes us who we are. 

Check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Facebook and Twitter and share your thoughts – and head to your local independent bookstore to preorder The Great Greene Heist! Tell your local bookstores and libraries that #WeNeedDiverseBooks

 

Relatability?

Every semester that I have taught children’s literature courses, I hear and read the phrase
“I really related to this character/book.” or “That book is so relatable.” It has always bothered me a bit, not because relating is bad but because I see people thinking about NOT relating as a negative thing. I sometimes hear preservice teachers talk about children’s literature as if the goal of matching books to readers is about finding a book that is relatable. This is problematic.

Yes, it is important to read books where the reader can “see themselves” but this isn’t the only type of book we should read – regardless of age.

One thing that bothers me about the idea of “relatability” is that I see students shut down and disengage with a book if they can’t relate to it (their language, not mine). I also hear students say a book is “so good” ONLY because they can relate to it – without any further exploration into what exactly they mean by that term. I encourage the students in my class to be honest in what they think about a book – like/dislike, love/loathe – but that they also need to explore WHY they are having that response. So if they don’t like something, I want them to explore those negative feelings more deeply. Negative doesn’t have to mean disengage. I’ve been asking them to think more deeply about articulating what pushes them away or makes them feel like something isn’t “relatable”. This requires have a sense of ourselves as readers, but also have a sense of literary elements, literary devices, and genre because they give us language to articulate our thinking more clearly in writing.

In class this week, I talked to my students about using “connect” instead of “relate”. I’m trying this language because of the way that the term “connect” implies a more tangible thing. The hope is that by more explicitly considering not only WHEN readers make a connection but also HOW they do or do not make a connection they will be able to articulate more of their response.

 

Books that are difficult to describe

Yesterday’s blog post about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE has really got me thinking about the idea of labels. It’s interesting that so much of what I do as a literacy and children’s literature instructor involves defining concepts, genres, literary elements, strategies, and more. And yet, at the end of the day what I hope that the students in my classes do is take those concepts and think beyond them. This is one of the tricky things about walking the literacy/literature tightrope… while I teach students about text factors and reader factors because we know explicit instruction is important, I also don’t want students to be so tied down by understanding genre that they dismiss a book.

On facebook yesterday, my friend Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) commented,

I’m finding the books I love the most are the hardest to summarize.

I agree, and would add that it isn’t always books that I love, but also books that make me think. That have a complexity that is both engaging and pushes me as a reader. I worry that as teachers, we don’t share these books enough with students – particularly young students. I’m not advocating sharing Grasshopper Jungle with elementary kids, but I am asking us to be more aware of how our own thinking can sometimes prevent us from sharing sometime with students. I don’t think every book is right for everyone or every time. But a discussion about genre is so much more interesting when it is with a book that blurs the lines – it makes us work to articulate our questions and our thinking. And that’s a good thing.

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”.