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Monthly Archives: November 2012

I just finished reading Bootleg, a nonfiction story about America’s attempt to ban alcohol during the 1920’s. This book’s content kept me interested throughout because of the description of historical figures like Al Capone, Carrie Nation, and Morris Sheppard. Important events such as the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre are detailed in this book. This is a great read for middle school and high school students who love to learn about the history of the United States. This book is full of historical photographs, poems, posters, and illustrations outlining both sides of the alcohol issue, for and against.
At the beginning of Bootleg, you learn about Senator Morris Sheppard who as a young man introduced a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol, “an evil that will prove to be the source of the nation’s death”, in the United States. Readers will learn about how textbooks were introduced into schools to warn children of the dangers of consuming alcohol.
Carrie Nation, a proponent of the ban on alcohol, took matters into her own hands by destroying saloons and wreaking havoc across Kansas. On one occasion, Nation destroyed three saloons in one morning. Nation herself referred to her campaign against alcohol as her “hatchetation”. She even sold small hatchet pins to support her effort. Readers will learn much about the strong-hearted, brave woman known as Carrie Nation.
Al “Scarface” Capone, an infamous bootlegger, has a whole chapter devoted to his crimes and money-making schemes. In the chapter about Capone, you even learn that his oldest brother, Richard “Two-Gun” Hart, served as a federal agent who raided stills and illegal breweries.
Readers will learn that the prohibition act to the Constitution outlawing alcohol took effect on January 1920 and lasted until it was overturned in December 1933. However, most people who wanted to consume alcohol found a way around it either by bootlegging or bribing officials of the government. Some interesting vocabulary words in this book include blind tiger or blind pig, real McCoy, speakeasy, and teetotaler.
LANGUAGE
There was no offensive language, only the mention of alcohol throughout the book.
VIOLENCE
Description of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is included but it is not graphic in nature.

SEXUAL CONTENT
No sexual content in this book.
SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS
None
WHAT TO DISCUSS
Bootleg is a historical non-fiction book. What other non-fiction books are good reads? (Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry)
Was prohibition a good idea or not?
How did politics and the events in the 1920’s lead to prohibition?

Review by John McClellan (Middle school teacher and father of three boys)

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Cryptid Hunters is another great read by author Roland Smith. Since being a school teacher tires me out by the end of the day, I tend to choose some books for easy reading. This book is full of action and adventure, much like Smiths’ other books.
Grace and Marty, thirteen-year-old twins are sent away to live with their uncle Wolfe when their parents are not found after their airplane crashes. Besides getting to know their uncle, the twins find out that he is very interested in cryptozoology, the study of animals, such as the Sasquatch, the Loch Ness monster, and the Mokelembembe, whose existence have not yet been proven scientifically. Wolfe sets up an expedition to the Congo in central Africa to find what is believed to be the last remaining Mokelembembe, a small dinosaur slightly larger than an elephant. He is in a race against time since his enemy in the scientific field, Dr. Noah Blackwood, is also setting up an expedition.
Grace and Marty try to convince Uncle Wolfe to take them on the expedition, but he refuses. Grace really wants to go on the expedition since she experiences nightmares and thinks they are connected to somewhere in the Congo. The twins end up in the Congo, but the way they get there is quite “air”xilirating. Along the way, Marty and Grace find out the truth about their family and Uncle Wolfe.
LANGUAGE
There was no inappropriate language in this book.
VIOLENCE
The most violence that occurs is some tranquilizer darts being shot at some of the villains and a fire being set to destroy the carcass of a dinosaur.
SEXUAL CONTENT
None
SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS
The most supernatural thing in this book is the mentions of the cryptids and the hunt for the Mokelembembe. In my opinion, these are more mythical, but possibly real creatures truly not yet discovered.
MORE GREAT READS FROM ROLAND SMITH (these books are wonderful for upper elementary and middle school students who like fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat adventure)
Elephant Run Peak I.Q. Book One: Independence Hall Storm Runners
Storm Runners: The Surge

Review by John McClellan (Middle school science teacher, father of three boys)


  After Life of Pi and Between Shades of Gray, I was definitely in the mood for a light read.  I knew Matched by Ally Condie is dystopian novel, but it’s not dystopian like The Hunger Games or Divergent.  Teenagers aren’t fighting and killing each other.  They are getting married – or at least getting introduced to the person they will marry.

Matched is set in a world that is free from disease, hunger, crime, and nearly all suffering. The Society has created this world for it’s citizens by carefully managing data on everyone.  Every person’s nutritional needs, exercise, dreams, school work, career, free-time and even marriage are all managed in order to insure optimal health and happiness.

I’ve got to admit, in the beginning of the book it all sounded kind of appealing.  All the grown-ups have jobs they enjoy – jobs tailored to their specific abilities and interests.  The children grow up in a close-knit group of friends.  Meals, custom prepared according to each family member’s specific nutritional needs, are delivered to homes morning and night.  And at age 17, teenagers are introduced to someone who has been selected, based on extremely comprehensive date, to be their perfect match.  The Society believes in providing it’s citizens with everything they need to live happy productive lives, and since a happy family life is crucial to a good life, young people are given the best possible chance at this happiness through a sophisticated matching system.  It’s a life free from choices, true.  But it’s also a life free from worry.  It’s nearly a life free from suffering.  What could be bad?

Turns out, a lot.  Initially, the main character, Cassia, is thrilled with her match.  He’s handsome, charming, smart, and her best friend, Xander.  Maybe she has always wanted Xander to be her match, but she never really let herself consider it.  People are very seldom matched with someone they know.  They are only 17, but Cassia knows that in four years, they will begin a marriage every bit as happy as her own parent’s marriage.  But when the face of another boy, Ky Markham, pops up on Cassia’s Match Information Portcard, Cassia is confused.  Suddenly, she knows more about this boy than anyone else in their close-knit circle of friends, and all of the sudden he is catching her eye.

Along with unexpected feelings for Ky, Cassia experiences other strange new feelings when her grandfather secretly gives her a forbidden poem – one eliminated  by The Society decades ago. Now Cassia’s perfectly planned, perfectly safe life doesn’t seem so perfect anymore.

I don’t want to give too much away on this one because I think it would make an excellent mother/daughter book discussion.  It  raises a lot of interesting questions about marriage, happiness, choices, and their consequences.  Even though there are no troubling elements, the subject matter (marriage) is a little sophisticated for younger readers.  Middle schoolers are not as likely to get as much out of this book as high school students.

LANGUAGE

No.  I think The Society has weeded that out.

VIOLENCE

No.  There are hints of past violence, but The Society has weeded that out too – for now. Of course, like with pretty much all books these days, there’s a sequel.  That’s another discussion for another post, but I’m really tired of sequels.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Cassia makes a brief mention of the awkward knowledge that she and Xander will one day have children, but it’s sweet and innocent.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Cassia and Xander wonder about angels they have seen in old paintings,but  until now there has been no need for a Higher Power in their perfect world.

FOR DISCUSSION

Cassia is genuinely nervous and excited on the night of her Match Banquet. Why?  Doesn’t the idea of having your future husband or wife picked out for you eliminate all the fun?

Cassia’s parents truly love each other.  Yet, they were matched.  Can an arranged marriage be a happy one?

What are the ingredients of happy marriage?  Compatibility? Passion?  Commitment?

What does Cassia see in Xander?  What does she see in Ky?

Who do you find yourself rooting for? Xander or Ky? Why?

The Society really does seem to have the best interests of its citizens in mind.  At least Cassia has always been secure and happy.  Think of what The Society has provided. The citizen’s are free from so many of the worries that plague us today.  What has this freedom really cost them?


I’m not sure where to begin. Not only is it difficult to summarize a 100 chapter, 460 page book, but Life of Pi might just be one on the most complex books I’ve ever read.  The plot is fairly simple, if not fantastical.  Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Patel, a sixteen year old Indian boy who becomes stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, a orangutan, and a bengal tiger.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The shipwreck that sets Piscine’s ordeal in motion does not happen until some 30 chapters into the novel.  The novel begins with an Author’s Note in which Martel tells his readers how he happened across the story of Piscine.  Of course in real life there is no Piscine Patel, but it’s a great literary technique that draws the reader in and makes Piscine’s story all the more intriguing.

The rest of the novel is divided in to three parts.  In Part One, Toronto and Pondicherry, we learn who Piscine Patel is – an Indian boy growing up happily at his father’s zoo and deeply committed to his faiths.  Pi, as he calls himself, is a devout Hindu.  Since his parents are not particularly religious, they find it startling and perplexing when they discover that not only is Pi a devout Hindu, but also a devout Christian and a practicing Muslim.  Pi’s faiths are in some ways tangential to the story of his survival.  He relies on prayer to get through each day, but the story is far more about the practical business of Pi’s survival (getting food and water and not being eaten by the tiger) than about a spiritual journey.  Yet in the end, the concepts of myth, truth, and reality will all be called into question.  What questions Martel wants his readers to ask about faith are unclear.

The second part of the novel, The Pacific, is the where the action is.  It is the 70’s, and Pi’s parents have decided to sell the zoo animals and leave India for political reasons.  The family and many of the animals are on a ship bound for Canada, when a freak explosion causes the ship to sink.  Only Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a bengal tiger named Richard Parker make it out alive.  Oddly, it is not Richard Parker whose blood lust takes out the zebra and orangutan.  It’s the hyena’s.  He’s a disgusting creature that even Pi, an animal loving vegetarian, can’t warm up to.  Soon, however, the hyena gets what’s coming to him when Richard Parker kills and eats him.  Now there are two.

Fortunately for Pi, the lifeboat contains a locker of survival supplies,including food and water.  Unfortunately, he is still trapped on a lifeboat with a hungry, cranky Bengal tiger.  After nearly giving up in despair, Pi decided his only hope is to train Richard Parker. Pi must show the tiger who’s boss – establish dominance.  He does this using a whistle, the rocking motion of the boat, and his own urine. The book give an extremely detailed account of Pi’s other survival efforts and struggles – collection of water, building a raft for fishing (and for getting away from Richard Parker), finding food.  Survival on a lifeboat, with our without a Tiger, is rough. The supplies don’t hold out forever, and Pi is often on the brink of death from starvation or dehydration.  As if living on a lifeboat with a Tiger were not bizarre enough, Pi’s experiences become even more fantastical as the story goes on. Soon we begin to question Pi’s story, if not his sanity.

For example, once, while Pi is suffering from dehydration-induced blindness, he happens upon another lifeboat containing a blind passenger.  The two have a rather amusing conversation (considering their circumstances) until Pi’s new friend inadvertently wanders into Richard Parker’s territory.  The good news is that Richard Parker’s hunger is certainly staved off, and Pi is able to gather enough supplies from the poor man’s lifeboat to live to see another day himself.  There is also an island of algae inhabited only by meerkats.  Pi is able to live there quite satisfied until he discovers the island is carnivorous.

Finally, finally in the third section of the book, Infirmary, Tamatlan, Mexico, Pi and Richard Parker wash up on the shores of Mexico. The first thing the tiger does, much to Pi’s dismay, is jump off the boat and run into the jungle never to be seen again.  While he is in the hospital, some men from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport, come to interview Pi in hopes of finding out what happened to the ship that sank.  Pi relays his entire ordeal to the men, but they insist they do not believe him.  Finally, he offers them another version.  In this much shorter story, Pi tells them that with him on the lifeboat were a Chinese sailor, a disgusting and cruel French cook, and his mother.  Wait.  What? The second version is even more horrific than the first, which, while disturbing at times, still had an element of charm and humor to it.  The people version does not.  It does, however, strangely resemble the animal version.  The horrible French cook cuts off the leg of the Chinese sailor – just like the hyena bit off the leg of the zebra.  Eventually the cook turns on Pi’s mother and kills her violently.  He decapitates her, just like the hyena decapitates he orangutan.  If in reality, the Frenchman is the hyena, the Chinese sailor is the zebra, and the orangutan is Pi’s mother.  We are left to wonder if Pi is actually Richard Parker.  Was the earlier, much much lengthier story, merely Pi’s way of coping with a truth too horrible to imagine?  It’s never clear. If so, what questions, if any, is the author raising about the way we use stories and myths to deal with life’s difficulties?  Remember, Pi is deeply religious, and all three of his religions spring from great stories.

Do I recommend this book?  It’s a tough read.  Few younger readers will be able to hang in there for all 100 chapters, especially the one’s that go on and on about this detail or that of Pi’s survival.  (And of course there is the violence – see below.) Yet as boring as the book was at times,  I always found myself wanting to read further.  Oh, and I can’t wait for the movie!  My guess is that it will be “Disney-ed” up enough to make it suitable for those how don’t want to endure the violence and occasional tediousness of the novel.

LANGUAGE

Language is not a big issue in this book.  Early on Pi does explain that he shortened his name from Piscine to Pi because the kids in school kept calling him “Pissing.”

VIOLENCE

Most of the violence is animal on animal violence, but it’s fairly gruesome.  Perhaps the most disturbing element is the cannibalism  that is present in both the animal and people versions of Pi’s story.

SEXUAL CONTENT

In the first section of the book, Pi does discuss animal husbandry briefly.  That’s about it.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

As I said in the summary, Pi is religious.  Very religious. Some parents might find his unwillingness to “pick a team” troubling.  Some would argue that you can’t simultaneously be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim.  It’s unlikely that younger readers will draw a parallel between the questions raised by Pi’s stories and the stories of faith.  I’m not even sure the author meant to make that connection.  If not, Pi’s faith is really almost unnecessary to the story.

FOR DISCUSSION

Why does Pi become a Christian?  A Muslim?  Can you be both?

Why do you think the author includes such details about how Piscine got his name or how he made is raft?  Does this add to the story or make it harder to read?

Pi says that you can get used to anything. Do you think this is true?

Pi says he believes that Richard Parker saved his life? How is this so?

What do you think would be the worst part about being stranded on a lifeboat?  The hunger and thirst?  The fear?  The loneliness?

 


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Between Shades of Gray is the heart wrenching story of Lina, a Lithuanian teenager, whose life is shattered in an instant when Soviet secret police arrest her father and force Lina, her mother, and brother onto to a cattle car bound for a brutal work camp. The horrific journey is just the beginning of the family’s ordeal. They face filthy living conditions, brutal labor, sadistic soldiers, and eventually a hellish exile to Siberia. Through it all, Lina’s mother is determined they will survive. Lina is determined they will see her father again. To cope with their nightmare and to stay connected with her father, Lina draws. Before Stalin, Lina had a promising future as an artist. Now, Lina will have to summon all of her strength to have any future at all.

I read Between Shades of Gray in one sitting. It was by no means a feel-good novel, but it was compelling, and I couldn’t put it down. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that this book is both hopeful and haunting. I’m glad I read it, but is it right for a young teen or tween? That depends on the kid. Between Shades of Gray contains some pretty heavy stuff. I recommend parents read this one too. Some kids might be disturbed by the brutality in the novel. But it is realistic and these stories must be told from one generation to the next. It’s up to parents to decide when their children are ready to hear them.

LANGUAGE

Despite the brutal nature of this novel, the language is quite mild.

VIOLENCE

People die in this story. Some are murdered. Some freeze to death. Others starve or end their own lives. Most accounts are not graphic, but they are disturbing.

SEXUAL CONTENT

To her horror, a Soviet soldier gropes Lina’s breast. Also, one of the women in the work camp is forced to “lay with” Soviet officers to save her son’s life. No details are given, and younger readers might miss the implication all together.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Other than a few religious references, there are none.

FOR DISCUSSION

The cruelty of the Soviet soldiers is almost incomprehensible, yet we know these atrocities occurred. How do you think people get to be so monstrous?

From where do you think Lina and her mother draw their strength?

Even though this novel is about terribly cruelty, it is also about incredible kindness and goodness. Which do you think is stronger?

Some of the characters are both cruel and kind. Which ones? What accounts for this?

Ruta Sepetys encourages readers to research this period in history and to keep telling the stories of Stalin’s atrocities and the people who endured them. Why is this important?


Theodore Boone is a typical 13 year old boy – well, except for the fact that he is a mini-expert in criminal and civil law. Because both his parents are attorneys, Theo is also a regular at the courthouse, where he’s friendly with everyone from bailiffs to important judges. All of this comes in very handy when his classmates have trouble with impounded dogs, delinquent brothers, and bankrupt parents. Theo is even able to use his connections to get his government class balcony seats at the biggest trial to hit their hometown of Strattenburg in decades – a murder trial.

However, Theo’s reputation as a “kid lawyer” gets him into a bit of a tight spot when a witness to the murder comes to Theo for advice. The witness is Bobby, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, who doesn’t want to go to the police for fear of being deported. To complicate things, Theo, like any good lawyer, promises not to reveal Bobby’s identity to anyone. Fortunately for Theo, he has two smart, honest parents and even a disbarred, mildly alcholic, albeit kindly, uncle he can turn to for help. In the end, Theo is able to do the right thing for Bobby and see to it that justice is served.

So, everything turns out okay….or does it? Like every book I’ve read recently, this one builds up a story that leads us straight to the sequel. Ugh! What’s up with that? The whole purpose of this blog is to help me (and other parents) streamline the process of finding out about the books our kids are reading. Who has time for sequels? It’s my policy not to make sequels a priority. Once I’ve read a book, I feel like I know the general direction of the storyline and the tendency of the author to use (or not use) questionable content. I figure it’s at least enough information to know whether or not I want to let my kids get started on a particular series.

With Theodore Boone, however, I might have to make an exception to my sequel rule. For starters, I’m a big John Grisham fan, so I’m always up for one of his books. On the other hand, as much as I love his books, I’ve gotta say, this wasn’t my favorite. It was well-written and it kept me engaged, but nothing really happened. I kept waiting for some drama – a kidnapping, a threat, a frantic dash to escape a white collar criminal’s seedy thugs. A lot of things were hinted at. A lot of things almost happened. But there was never a big tense moment when our hero was in peril. Sure he’s a 13 year old boy, but I was expecting something a little peril at least. But in the end, I felt like the whole book was one big set up for the sequels. Still, given John Grisham’s reputation, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the sequels are better than the first Theodore Boone.

LANGUAGE

None! Even the bad guys don’t swear.

VIOLENCE

Nope. Even the murder was fairly calm – as murders go.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Well, there is the mention of a crush on a secretary at the courthouse. And Theo is somewhat smitten with a pretty classmate who needs his assistance to rescue her dog from the pound. Other than that, there’s not time for romance for Theodore Boone.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None.

FOR DISCUSSION

What is Theo’s relationship like with his parents? Is it a typical parent/child relationship?

Does Theo use good judgement?

Does his book have a satisfactory ending? Why or why not?

AN INTERESTING NOTE…

Some parents of advanced readers might hesitate to encourage their kids to read Theodore Boone. It might seem a bit juvenile. This was the concern of the librarian where I teach high school when I recommended this book to a tenth grade student. Turns out the lexile level, or reading level, of Theodore Boone is higher than that of some of John Grisham’s other books for adults.

For more information on this book or the other books in the series, go to www.theodoreboone.com