Book Review: Becoming a Superhero by William Smith

September 30, 2008

Becoming a Superhero by William D. Smith is an endearing tale that is a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy who dreams of being a superhero, and discovers a lot about himself along the way. We meet Billy Smith, a 10-year-old growing up in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town, as he decides to try his superhero powers by jumping out of the second-story window of a deserted house wearing a Superman cape he is sure will make him fly. His disillusionment doesn’t last, and he’s sure there’s some way he can become a superhero.

Set in the closing days of World War II, Billy’s story will take the reader back to the innocent times of those hard days. Times when boys collected scrap metal for the war effort, built soap box cars for derby races, and everybody watched cowboy movies. Billy’s also always getting into trouble because of his creative spelling, unusual solutions to math problems and general sense of adventure. It was a time when kids played without too much adult supervision and their neighborhood included the whole town.

Billy’s alter-ego, William, is always whispering in his ear about the things he knows he should be doing, but Billy does a pretty good job of ignoring him most of the time. Told very simply, this story is very accessible for younger readers, ages 8–12, who will appreciate Billy’s observations about his parents, his grandparents and his teachers. Younger readers being read to would probably also enjoy it, while parent readers will appreciate the quiet wisdom Billy’s mother gives him to help him learn how to become a superhero without ever developing supernatural powers. And Billy’s grandfather ultimately gives him a wonderful gift by inspiring him to leave their coal town and see the parts of the world that the grandfather knows he will never see.

While the writing is not very polished, that actually contributes to the feeling that you’re hearing a story about “those good old days” told to you by your grandpa. I believe young girls and boys both will have fun reading this book.

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Book Review: The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

September 29, 2008

Last night Catherine and I hosted our book club (9th grade girls) to talk about The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. A classic book first published in 1947, The Egg and I tells the story of life for Betty and her husband when they buy a chicken farm in a remote area of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.

While there were obviously some challenges in reading the book (different writing style, a few outdated references to things neither of us knew about) all in all it was fun to read and talk about. Many of the passages actually made us laugh out loud. Betty’s wit in looking at a life and a community filled with never-ending work and many hardships is a treasure for the glimpse it gives us into rural life just before the Depression.

While it would have been easy for us to talk about some of the funniest passages, we chose instead to focus our discussion on two issues: the role of women in those days versus today, and the part racism plays in how we view others who are not like us. There was a lot to talk about with both topics.

The Egg and I starts with Betty saying that her mother taught her at an early age to always be sure she did everything she could to help her husband be happy with his work. That advice is what probably contributed greatly to Betty’s ending up on the chicken farm, a place she may not have ever chosen for herself if her husband had not wanted to go into the business. Once there she throws herself into making the experience as successful as possible, while combating loneliness, fatigue and isolation. The girls all felt their experience would involve more compromise than Betty had, and they’d be able to work toward what they want to do in life as well as what their eventual husbands may want to do.

The moms tended to think we’re still in transition. While relations between the sexes have come a long way since the 1920s, the reality today is that far more women move for their husbands’ careers than the other way around. But the trend shows a positive gradual change.

As for racism, we talked about how easy it often is for people to look at someone, not like what they see, and assign the characteristics they don’t like to everyone who is of the same race. If instead we see people as people, we see that people of all races often struggle with the same problems, and we’re more likely to think of those as individual instead of racial issues.

I expect next month we’ll be bringing some of those same points up again and discussing them even more when we talk about The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, our next book.


Celebrate the Freedom to Read During Banned Book Week

September 25, 2008

Next week, September 27 to October 4 is the American Library Association’s Banned Book Week. The ALA says this event “reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.”

I looked over the list of the most frequently challenged books from this century, and was surprised by some titles that made the list. It was no surprise that the Harry Potter series was there, because I’ve heard of many challenges to those books. But the Captain Underpants series? I read them all with my daughter when she was young, and they fit perfectly into the crude sense of humor so many kids have. She loved them, and I don’t think reading them has led to any long-term crass behavior on her part.

Looking at the list of most challenged books from the 20th century I was not surprised to find Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, two of my all-time favorites that do stir up controversy occasionally. But I couldn’t believe Lois Lowry’s The Giver made the list. Both of my daughters read that in their 6th grade lit classes, and then they went on a field trip to see it performed on stage. It’s a very powerful book with a message that lasts.

Celebrate your freedom to read by checking out the list of challenged books at the ALA’s website, then pick one to read. I think I’ll check out Huckleberry Finn again, and maybe read it to my daughter this time.


Book Review of Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay, A Book Set in World War II and Current Times – Sarah’s Key

September 23, 2008

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Set in both 1942 and modern times, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay is a mystery as well as a heartbreaking look at the round up and deportation of Jewish families from Paris to Auschwitz in what was known as the Vel d’Hiv for the place the families gathered—the Vélodrome d’hiver, or winter velodrome.

Ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski is sleeping when the Paris police bang on her apartment door.  Her family had heard of Jews being rounded up, but only the men. So Sarah’s father was hidden in the basement, thinking his family was safe. But the police this night came for everyone. Sarah’s four-year-old brother, Michel, stubbornly refused to go and insisted on hiding in a secret cupboard before the police saw him. Sarah locked Michel in and promised to come back when she returned.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, investigates the story of the Vel d’Hiv and uncovers Sarah’s story when she finds out that her husband’s family moved into Sarah’s apartment after her family left. She is determined to find what happened to Sarah, in the process uncovering family secrets that some think would be best to leave buried.

Gripping and emotional, this fast-paced book brings to life Paris in the 1940s and in modern times. It takes a frank look at a nation and a people who for so long would not come to grips with its complicity in sending its own citizens to die in Nazi concentration camps. It also follows Julia as she delves deeper into the story while confronting conflicts of her own with her husband and his family. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in high school.


Great Resource for Finding Teen Books

September 18, 2008

I’ve discovered a great new resource for choosing book for teens. It’s called the Ultimate Teen Book Guide, edited by Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn. It lists more than 700 books with short reviews of each by teachers, librarians, authors, editors and teen readers. One of the things I liked most about it was the lists at the front. There I could find the top 10 recommendations in lots of genres, including historical fiction,nonfiction, humor, war, award winners and several others. I could look up something in a category I was interested in, then find the alphabetically listed review to get more info.

Also helpful were the pull-out boxes listed with the reviews labeled, Next? That’s where you could find other titles by the same author or other books dealing with the same theme or issues. An index in the back lets you search for books listed by author.

Although my daughter Catherine and I recently chose our recommended book for book club, The Egg and I by Betty McDonald, we’ll definitely refer to The Ultimate Teen Book Guide when we’re looking for our next title.


Book Review: Creepers by Joanne Dahme

September 16, 2008

Goosebumps author R. L. Stine says “Who doesn’t like a good ghost story? Creepers is a good one! Thrills and chills? You Bet. But it will also warm your heart.”

Here’s my review of Creepers by Joanne Dahme

Courtney O’Brien has just moved with her parents into the small New England town of Murmer where they’ve bought an old home next to a cemetery. The first thing she notices is the ivy, which covers everything from the house to the gravestones and seems to have a life of its own. Then she meets Margaret and her dad, who conducts historical tours of the cemetery. From them Courtney learns about a centuries-old mystery involving Margaret’s ancestors, the cemetery and Courtney’s house. Together they work to unlock the secrets hidden behind the ivy.

I had a hard time putting this book down once I got started. It’s easy to transport yourself to a small New England town of old where messages were carved into headstones and witches were burned at the stake. I also started noticing English Ivy everywhere: clawing its way up tree trunks, crawling across lawns, clinging to the sides of buildings. Creepers is fast-paced, and each chapter starts with a diary entry, newspaper story, community announcement or definition that keeps the book moving along and adds something to the mystery. Creepers is my kind of suspense novel: it’s wonderfully creepy and it gave me goosebumps without being gory or making me afraid to go to sleep at night. I think it would be a great book to read in a mother-daughter book club, particularly appropriate with Halloween coming up. I highly recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 12 and up.


Book Review: Ringside 1925 by Jen Bryant

September 9, 2008

Remember learning about the Scopes Monkey trial in history class? The trial pitted the state of Tennessee against a high school science teacher, J.T. Scopes, who challenged the legality of the state’s rule against teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant brings the event to life in a way that your history book never could.

The story is told through the voices of several characters, mainly three students from the high school where Mr. Scopes taught. You also hear from a reporter who’s in town covering the trial, the town’s constable, a member of the ladies’ Bible study group, and a preacher from out of town who comes in to see the event. Little Dayton, Tennessee, is transformed into a veritable circus of activity.

There are lots of characters in the book, but Bryant helps the reader keep them straight with a list of narrators at the front. I referred back to the list in the beginning, until I had gotten to know the characters well.

Because Ringside 1925 presents different sides of the story, it gives you lots to think about and discuss. Friendships are tested as the characters talk about their beliefs, and everyone steps out of their usual roles even if only for a few weeks.

It’s interesting to hear the perspective of a young black boy who works with his father as a handyman and dreams of rising beyond the limitations put on him. It’s also interesting to read actual quotes from the trial by lawyers and historical greats William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

I loved being transported back to small town life in 1925, and hearing stories of how the townspeople of Dayton benefitted financially from all the extra visitors.

We never really hear the voice of J.T. Scopes, and it seems appropriate that we see the trial from the perspectives of all those around him. The event was less about him than it was about teaching evolution in school—a conflict that continues on in some cases today.

The story is aimed at ages 12 and up, but I think some younger children will certainly be able to appreciate the very approachable story and learn about the historical case at the same time. I’ve also recommended it to my daughter who’s a senior in high school, because I think the writing is interesting to all ages. I’ve heard about the Scopes Trial for years, and occasionally hear it mentioned, but this book brought it to life for me. I highly recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs.