and what we wish they were

Monthly Archives: December 2012

Les Mis  I know this is a book review blog, but I cannot resist plugging this movie.  Ok, so I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I know the story.  I’ve seen the live stage play, and I show the  Les Mis 25th Anniversary Concert  to my drama classes every semester.  Les Miserables is a beautiful story of love, sacrifice, and most of all redemption.  It is theologically spot on while being artistically stunning.  From what I have read, this latest film adaptation is no exception.

When I show Les Mis to my drama students, there are always a few who merely tolerate it – who roll their eyes and seem to make a concerted effort to avoid enjoying this movie.  But then there are those who fall in love with it, as I have.  These students, many of whom have never seen a real musical and who consider The Hangover a great cinematic achievement, become totally engrossed in the story.  Many go home and buy their own copy of the video.  It thrills me to get to introduce my students to this story and to these songs.

Set in 19th century Paris, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.  With the help of a kindly bishop, Valjean sets out to start a new life.  He breaks parole, and within a few years, becomes a wealthy factory owner and the mayor of small town.

When Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a worker in his factory is unjustly fired, by a cruel foreman, she is forced into a life of prostitution.  Upon discovering her on her deathbed, Valjean agrees to raise her young daughter, Cosette, who has been in the custody of  a the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a couple of cruel inn keepers.  But first, Valjean must face his past and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who has been tracking Valjean for years.  Eventually Valjean is able to raise Cosette and the two live for several years in quiet contentment. But when a worker’s revolution breaks out in Paris, they find themselves caught in the middle, and their lives and the lives of nearly everyone they encounter are changed forever.

VIOLENCE

I’m not sure how violent the movie is, but the story is set against the backdrop of a violent revolution.  I’m just going to make my kids close their eyes during that part.

LANGUAGE 

The Thenardiers are very bawdy.  Some of the songs,  which are meant to provide comic relief, contain foul language and sexual content.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Well, there’s Fantine’s prostitution.  The song’s about that are pretty sexual.  And again, there’s the Thenardiers.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENT

As I said before, this story is theologically spot on.  It is only because Valjean’s soul is “purchased for God” by the bishop that Valjean is able to start a new life.  Throughout the story, the character’s reference God, forgiveness, and salvation.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

How does the bishop’s kindness change Jean Valjean’s life forever?

Javert is not purely evil.  Rather he is obsessed with only one aspect of God’s nature – justice.  How does this over emphasis on justice, distort Javert’s view of Valjean?  How does this ultimately affect Javert?

How does Valjean’s kindness to Fantine, redeem her life?  And Cosettes?

What other sacrifices does Jean Valjean make?  Whose lives are effected by these?

ADDITIONAL NOTE

This is not necessarily the kind of movie that is better because of the “surprises.”  Rather, familiarity with the plot, might help some viewers follow the film version.  I highly recommend The 25th Anniversary Concert, featuring, believe it or not, a brilliant performance by Nick Jonas.  Also, a quick Google search for a synopsis might be very helpful.


Confessions of a Murder Suspect  I don’t know how to discuss this book without giving away at least some of what happens, but I don’t think I’ll call a spoiler alert.  I don’t give away the end – just a few details from the middle.

Tandy Angel is a teenage girl living a life of wealth and privilege – and cruelty.  Her parents have very high standards for their children.  Though they do reward them lavishly for their successes, they also punish them harshly.  Her parents are demanding, extravagant, controlling, strange, and now dead.  They have been murdered in their bedroom in the family’s exclusive Manhattan townhouse while Tandy and two of her brothers are asleep in their rooms.

The police immediately suspect Tandy and/or her brothers.  The fact that Tandy has been trained by their family therapist to suppress her emotions does not help her case.  She comes across to the police as cold and unfeeling (A fact that would have made her parents proud.)  And to a degree she is.  In fact, Tandy is so good at suppressing that she can’t even be sure she herself is not the killer.  After all, she does have “blanks” in her life –  periods of time she can’t remember…there’s something about a boy, her parents, and an outburst of anger that landed her in a hospital, but it’s all like a faint dream.

To exacerbate  Tandy’s problems, she decides to stop taking her “vitamins.” A portion of the Angel fortune comes from her father’s pharmaceutical company.  For her entire life this company has not only provided her family with an astronomical income, but also with a daily dose of individually customized “vitamins” for each of the Angel children: Tandy with the off-the charts IQ; Harry, her sensitive and artistic twin; her older brother Matt, the NFL superstar with a hot temper; her younger bother Hugo with an equally hot temper, and her sister Catherine, who died a few years before under mysterious circumstances.  Now Tandy is beginning to question a lot of things – including her daily dose of pills.  When she stops taking them, she begins to find it more difficult to suppress her emotions.  She begins to feel more like a typical 16 year old girls.

Still, Tandy presses on, determined to solve the murder of her parents.  Now, earlier I mentioned a spoiler alert.   The truth is, I think this book should come with a spoiler alert, and it should read like this:

This book is not really a murder mystery per se. The primary purpose of this book is to set up a new series of books based on the adventures of  – you guessed it – a teenage detective who got her feet wet solving her parents’ murder. 

Sadly, no such information was given in the book’s inside cover.  I had to read the entire thing to realize this.  Now it isnt’ just that most of the characters, including Tandy Angel, were unlikable and un-relatable. It isn’t just that Patterson used the annoying technique of having the main character address the reader, as in Dear Reader I am not like most girls…   It isn’t even that the ending was a big ol’ let  down (not to mention totally unrealistic).  What I really bothered me about this book, and about so so many of the books I’ve read lately, is that the entire thing was just a big fat prequel.  Patterson leaves nearly every detail, except for how the Angel parents die, unfinished.  Bottom line, the purpose of  this book is to introduce us to Tandy Angel so that we will buy the next book in the Tandy Angel series.  Patterson leaves several loose ends. Will Tandy and her brothers be left destitute?  Will her brother Matt be convicted of killing his girlfriend?  Will she ever be reunited with the mystery boy from her foggy past?  And what was in those pills?

Just like John Grisham did with Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer, Patterson cheats us.  I read this book expecting a story with a beginning, and middle, and an end, and I really just got a beginning, and a middle.  I guess that’s how you sell more books.

LANGUAGE

There are a few four letter words in this book, but they weren’t the really bad ones and they aren’t excessive.

VIOLENCE

Not much.  Tandy’s parents are poisoned, so that’s not really violent.  They just keel over.

SEXUAL CONTENT

We find out that both her parents were having affairs.  Matt’s girlfriend reveals an affair with his father, while Tandy discovers the secret lesbian affair her mother has been having with her live-in assistant. None of these affairs are described in any graphic detail.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None.  No one even wonders where these awful people are now that they’re dead.

QUESTIONS TO DISCUSS

  • Did you like Tandy? Why or why not?  Did you like her more or less as the novel progressed?  Is it important to like the main character?
  • Did you suspect Tandy might be the killer?
  • In what ways were Maude and Malcolm (Tandy’s parents) good parents?  Were they good parents at all?
  • Think about how many popular books are a part of a series. Why do you think so many author’s these days leave us hanging?   Would you like to read a book that begins and ends a story on one volume, or do you like waiting for the next book to come out?
  • Will you want to read the next book in the Tandy Angel series?

The Running Dream
Wow, what an uplifting read! Jessica is a star runner on her high school track team who loses her right leg after a truck hauling a load of wrecked cars crashes into the school bus she’s riding. Jessica struggles to come to terms with losing her leg. She has loved running since the third grade. She loves feeling the wind blow across her cheeks and hair as she runs. However, after the accident she tries to imagine her life without running in it. Sometimes to escape the pain and a life of disability, Jessica even wishes that she was Lucy, the girl who died in the crash.
When Jessica returns to school she feels awkward, like the elephant in the room. She is overloaded with missing assignments. In math class, she is assigned to put her wheelchair next to Rosa, the special-needs girl who sits at the back of the classroom in her motorized wheelchair. Jessica learns that Rosa has been in a wheelchair her whole life because she was born with cerebral palsy. Rosa is a whiz at math and volunteers to help Jessica catch up on her assignments and learn the new concepts. Finally, after struggling to understand the math Jessica takes Rosa up on her offer.
Meanwhile, the track team who still considers Jessica a teammate makes plans to raise twenty-thousand dollars to buy her a prosthetic running leg. The track team holds bake sales and car washes to raise the money. I don’t want to ruin the ending so the summary of this book ends right now.
This book is great for students and everyone and teaches the importance of being thankful for all the good things we have like health, family, and friends. This book teaches a great lesson about seeing a person for who they are, not the condition they have. Overcoming struggles and obstacles in one’s life is very difficult, but this book shows that with perseverance and the help of others anything is possible.
LANGUAGE
There is no offensive language in this book.

VIOLENCE
None

SEXUAL CONTENT
None

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS
None

WHAT TO DISCUSS
Do you ever judge people for the way they look or because they act different than others?

What was the toughest obstacle you have ever overcome in your life and how did you do it?

Is it important for you to be thankful for each and every day of your life?

Could Jessica ever have reached her goals without the help of others? Why is it important for you to help others?

Review by John McClellan

(father of three boys, 7th grade teacher)


Lord of the Flies

Generally the books we review here are current, popular fiction. We review, not what we wish kids are reading, but what they’re actually reading. And while Lord of the Flies is certainly not pop fiction, if you have a child between 8th and 10th grade, there’s a good chance he or she is reading or will be reading it this classic. Recently at my school, a parent decided (some eight chapter in to this twelve chapter book) that the content was too disturbing for her child. That is a decision that every parent has the right to make, but perhaps if she had been a bit more informed, she could have made that call in time for the teacher to make an alternative assignment.

So, spoiler alert…this is a fairly detailed synopsis.

Lord of the Flies is a dystopian novel about a group of British boys stranded on an island after the plane evacuating them from boarding school crashes somewhere in the South Pacific. The first two boys we meet, Ralph and Piggy, find a conch shell and use it to call the other boys together. At this first meeting, we are introduced to Jack and his choir (apparently for British boarding school boys being the head of the choir is akin to being captain of the football team, so Jack wields a lot of clout). In any case, after some discussion about there being no grownups, the boys elect Ralph chief. Jack is clearly ticked that he wasn’t elected, but Ralph placates him by asking him to be in charge of the choir.  Jack declares they will be the hunters. This role seems to satisfy Jack- for the time being.

At first the boys are elated at the realization that there are no grown ups. They see the whole thing as a big adventure. Thy set about right away establishing rules and a system of order.   The conch is the symbol of this order. When Ralph blows it, it is a signal to the other boys to report for an assembly. Any boy holding the conch also holds the power to speak.

The fire is another important symbol in the novel. The boys light their fires by using Piggy’s glasses (another important symbol).  Their first fire gets rapidly out of control and one of the younger children is never seen again. Still, Ralph insists that maintaining a signal fire is their best hope for rescue, and he places Jack and his hunters in charge of keeping the fire going.  Unfortunately, Jack’s primary interest is in hunting and killing pigs.

Ralph works to build shelters and maintain order.  Finally he and Piggy see a ship on the horizon, but their joy turns to panic when they realize the signal fire has gone out.  Ralph is furious with Jack for not maintaining the fire and confronts him.  But Jack has just returned from his first pig kill.  Most of the boys are too excited about the prospect of meat to be too concerned with the missed rescue opportunity. When Piggy criticizes Jack, Jack slaps him breaking one of the lenses of Piggy’s glasses.

The carefree days of freedom the boys enjoyed in their early days on the island are all but gone.  Jack becomes increasingly obsessed with hunting.  Ralph is constantly frustrated with the lack of order, the filth, the fire, and his hair (another symbol).  The littler boys, the Littluns, are having nightmares, fearing a beast that they believe inhabits the island.  In fact, even some of the older boys are beginning to have their own fears about the beast.  A few nights later when two of the boys (twins named Sam and Eric but simply called Samneric) are tending the fire, they awaken to see the body of a dead parachutist, who has drifted down to the island, hovering over them.  They are terrified and run to the others to report that The Beast has attacked them.  The boys organize a hunting party, and their fears are only confirmed when they come across the strange “ape-like creature” hanging in a tree.

After this, Jack tries to convince the others that Ralph in no longer fit to be chief because, among other reasons, Ralph was afraid when they were hunting The Beast.  When none of the boys support Jack, he runs off in tears and says he’s “not playing.”   Before long other boys slip off to join Jack’s tribe.  Soon, only Ralph, Simon, Piggy, and Samneric are left to tend the fire.  The Littluns are fending for themselves almost entirely now.

At this point, Simon, who has always been a bit of a loner, wanders off into the forest.  From his secluded spot he witnesses Jack and the other hunters gleefully kill a mother sow.  The boys then leave the pig’s head on a stick stuck in the ground as an offering to The Beast.  When they leave and Simon is alone with this ghastly offering, he begins having a hallucination that the thing is speaking to him.  She tells him that they cannot kill the beast because the beast is inside them all.  The whole thing is very creepy.  Simon faints or has a seizure.  When he comes to, he goes up the mountain and finds the dead parachutist.  Realizing what it is, he staggers down the mountain to tell the others.  When he arrives at the beach, the other boys, including Ralph and Piggy, are engaged in a frantic dance in which they reenact the killing of the pig.  Simon stumbles into their frenzy and the becomes The Beast in their imagination.  They beat him, bite him, and claw him to death.  His dead body is swept out to sea.

The following morning Ralph is ashamed and despondent.  Piggy refuses to acknowledge what they’ve done, but Ralph calls it murder.  Samneric join them at the fire and all four boys try to convince themselves and each other that they weren’t really there the night before at all.  Once again, Ralph focuses his attention on keeping the fire going – a much more difficult task with only four boys.

That night while they sleep, Ralph, Piggy,and the twins are attacked by Jack’s tribe.  They’ve come for Piggy’s glasses so they can re-start their own fire.  They take them leaving poor Piggy nearly blind and utterly helpless.  Perhaps it is because of this, Piggy is desperate enough to confront Jack, and he convinces Ralph to get the conch so they can go to Jack’s camp and talk some sense into him.  There a fight breaks out between Jack and Ralph, but Piggy holding the conch, commands, for the first time since they’ve arrived, the attention of all the boys.  He speaks eloquently and passionately about rules and order.  Then Roger, the most evil of all the boys on the island, launches a bolder off the side of the cliff.  It hits Piggy and sends him sailing off the side of the mountain to the rocks below, shattering both Piggy’s skull and the conch.  Like Simon, Piggy’s lifeless body is claimed by the sea.   With the conch gone, so is any lingering sense of order or fairness that Jack might still have possessed.  He orders Samneric tied up and Ralph is forced to flee a barrage of spears.

Ralph spends the rest of the day and all that night hiding in terror for his life – especially after he sneaks up on Samneric tending the fire and they tell him of Jack’s plan to have the hunters hunt Ralph.  The next day, in an attempt to smoke Ralph out of his hiding place, Jack’s tribe accidentally sets the entire island on fire.  All the boys run to the water to escape.  As the boys crawl across the sand, Ralph runs smack into a naval officer who had seen the fire.  When the officer asks who is in charge, Jack starts forward then retreats.  Ralph takes responsibility for the boys – then he breaks down and weeps  “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”

VIOLENCE

This might be one of the reasons some parents find this book so disturbing.  The killing of Simon is horrific. Piggy’s fall from the cliff and subsequent skull shattering is describe in fairly graphic detail. And the slaughter of the pigs is even a bit disturbing.  Most teachers (including me) would argue that this graphic violence is necessary to the plot – to illustrate the level of savagery the boys sink to.  Still, some parents might want to check it out for themselves  The killing of the mother pig is in chapter 8. Simon’s death is in chapter 9.  And Piggy is killed in chapter 11.

LANGUAGE

In chapter 8, when the boys kill the sow, one of them shoves a spear up her anus.  Then all the boys get a huge kick out of repeating the phrase, “Right up her ass!”

SEXUAL CONTENT

None.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

There is the mysterious beast, that comes to life in Simon’s hallucination.  In that moment it is named “Lord of the Flies.”  This is actually a biblical reference to the devil Beelzebub in the Bible.  In other words, one way to look at it, is that the Lord of the Flies is the devil.  At some points in the novel the beast is thought of as a creature apart from the children.  In Simon’s hallucination, the beast reveals she is a part of them.  Scary stuff.

PERSONAL REFLECTION

When I read this novel with my students, I tell them that it reminds me of a slumber party I went to in 7th grade.  One of the fun things about slumber parties is that you stay up way later than any grownups. You are, in essence, on your own – or at least it feels that way.  At one point in this particular party, someone decided to play a practical joke on another girl.  Everyone (including the girl) thought it was funny.  So funny, in fact, that some other girls played their own practical joke.  One prank led to another, and by 2:00 a.m. we had chosen teams and were in an all out prank war.  I remember at one point in the evening thinking that things had gotten out of hand, but I didn’t say anything.  I was driven by both fun and anger to keep going.  No one was hurt. And no damage was done to anyone’s reputation or self-esteem, but property was destroyed and mother’s were called.  In the end, I had no answer for  why I went along except that everybody else was doing it.  It was a mob mentality.  Now, if a few 12 year old girls can get carried away in one evening.  Imagine what a group of 12 year old boys would do after several months.  Well, we don’t have to imagine it.  William Golding has shown us.

QUESTIONS

– Are people basically good or basically evil?

-What would happen if we lived without rules?

-Is it rules that keep us civilized or is it our natural goodness or sense of right and wrong?  Do we need rules to keep us from sinking into chaos or savagery?

-What is a mob mentality?  Why are people so susceptible to mob behavior?


Wonder

August Pullman. Auggie is a typical 5th grader – at least that’s how he sees himself.  But most people see Auggie quite differently. In fact most people are shocked, even horrified, when they first meet him.  Auggie has was born with a facial deformity, and until this year he has been homeschooled.  He has always known that he is different.  He is an expert at detecting the double-takes, fleeting expressions of horror, and quiet whispers of strangers, but Auggie has been blessed with a loving and supportive family, and has enjoyed a life of love and acceptance (at least at home).

But now Auggie’s parents have decided it’s time for him give mainstream school a try. Wonder tells the story of Auggie’s first year at Beecher Prep and how he is treated by his classmates (and even some of their parents).  The novel begins from August’s point of view, but different sections of the book are told, quite effectively, through the eyes of Auggie’s sister, his classmates, and even his sister’s boyfriend.

I picked up Wonder because I wanted to read a book specifically for middle schoolers.  What I found was an incredibly sad, funny, and inspiring story that should most certainly be read by middle schoolers but also teenagers, adults, and anyone who could use a lesson in kindness and empathy. Really, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is very entertaining, but more importantly, it’s the kind of book that makes you want to be a better person.

VIOLENCE

Nothing disturbing.  Auggie is bullied, but there is only one incident when it gets physical and fortunately he has backup.

LANGUAGE

None

SEXUAL CONTENT

None

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

No.  There is brief discussion between August and a friend about reincarnation.  He finds the idea of coming back better looking appealing, but it’s only a fleeting thought.

IDEAS FOR DISCUSSION

Have you ever been in a situation when you were the “new kid”?  What was that like?

Can you think of any kids at your school who feel left out?  Who are teased?  Bullied?  Alone?

What are some things you could do to make life better for these kids?

Mr. Tushman speaks of the importance of being “kinder than necessary.”  What does that look like in real life?

What are some ways you could be kinder than necessary?

Do you think a kid like Auggie could ever really lead a normal life?

 

Linked at Powerful Mothering


TheRoomMom

charlotte's web    one and only ivan

I teach fourth grade and have elementary school aged children, so I have a legitimate reason for reading children’s books. The truth is– I just like them. They are (usually) fabulous stories; they are fast reads, and it is an activity I can share with my children.

Many of the stories my children and I have been reading lately have a familiar ring to them. Authors are recycling the same plot details and character types from the best books I read growing up. I was so struck by the similarities between Phantom Tollbooth and Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes that I wrote the Peter Nimble author to ask about it. He responded! The Just Deserts section of the book is a small tribute to Jester and his play on words. Jody Feldman credits Dahl as a source of inspiration for her book, The Gollywhopper Games (See the

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