Category Archives: Books

“Girl at War”: starting place

I was unsure about Girl at War by Sara Novic. At some points, I couldn’t put the book down. I was so engrossed in the story and in the life of the main character, Ana. Yet some parts of the book left me feeling ‘meh,’ especially the ending. I’m not sure where I wanted this book to go, so I suppose I just went along for the ride.

girl at war

Source: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/05/girl-at-war-sara-novic

Novic writes about a woman who grew up during a civil war and the story of how her country became Croatia and how she became an America. I think that these are stories of war we need to hear more often. A previous boyfriend’s family had a similar experience of fleeing their Eastern-European country and I couldn’t believe that he lived through those experiences. Through Ana, Novic tells the story of a young girl who sees her family, city, friends, and neighbourhood torn apart by racism and hate.

In high school, I remember that Serbs and Croats would often have fights after school. I didn’t understand the fights (because in my high school there were lots of fights), but I also didn’t stop to ask my classmates or my parents why they were fighting. I had no understanding of genocide and the terror of war. I had no way of comprehending that level of generations of hatred and fear.

So again, I believe that books about teen and child experiences are so important because we get a deeper understanding of the legacy of civil war. In the novel, Ana address the UN as a child soldier, yet she doesn’t see herself as a soldier. She sees herself as doing what needed to be done and not doubting her ability to be helpful in conflict. That is devastating that there are enough children being drawn into wars that we have UN special summits about child soldiers. Other European world wars were men fighting men. Civil wars are a completely different matter.

sar-play01s

Source: http://histclo.com/essay/war/swc/20/yug/dy-cw.html

So, thank you to Sara Novic for bringing us this important story. But that being said, I still wasn’t sold on this book. I’m not the only one who wasn’t a fan of the writing style:

But then, if the writing were stronger and less inclined to clunky phrasing, such as “Not wanting to wake Brian, I compelled myself to stillness for a minute or two, tried to match the rise and fall of my chest with his” or “I snuck a peek down at the Converse high-tops I’d pulled on in a last-minute fit of groggy defiance”, one might not be so demanding of clarity. (Eileen Battersby)

I feel that this book is a good starting point for people curious about the civil wars in the 1990s, yet it’s not a book I would recommend to friends to read. It was just ok.

ok

Source: https://makeameme.org/meme/it-was-just-poqrv1

“We Are All Made of Molecules”: surviving with grace and humour

I am a huge Susin Nielsen fan. We Are All Made of Molecules is only the second book I’ve read of hers, but I know this is true love.

molecules

Source: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/we-are-all-made-of/9781770497795-item.html?ref=social:organic:quickview&s_campaign=social:organic:quickview

In this book, Nielsen tackles some heavy teen issues: bullying, homophobia, sexting, popularity, and heartbreak. These are not simple or easy topics. In fact, these are some of the hardest conversations to have with young teens. For teens, life is heard because they are balancing that line between being a kid and being a young adult. They want freedom, yet aren’t always ready to deal with the consequences that come from their choices. Add in peer pressure and the desperate desire to fit in somewhere with people and being a young teen can be a harmful disaster.

The book is told from the perspectives of two characters: Ashley and Stewart. Almost overnight (well, not quite), they become step-siblings. Ashley is a fashionista who is high-up on the social ladder and is trying desperately to be cool and get the hottest guy in school to fall in love with her. Stewart is a nerdy genius who just wants to make friends at his new school and get along with his new sister. So not only do you have two teens the same age trying to survive school, but they are also trying to create a new family.

ashley

Source: https://twitter.com/susinnielsen/status/593819905020985344

One of the most beautiful scenes to me is of Steward sitting under the afghan that his dead mother made and breathing in deeply. When Ashley asks him what he’s doing, he explains that he’s breathing in his mother’s molecules so he can be near her. Although Ashley is grossed out, the ideas sticks with her: we are all connected because we are all breathing in each others’ molecules all the time. The idea comforts Steward and it is a revelation to Ashley that people can be so similar, and race, religion, interests, sexuality, and gender have nothing to do with our connectedness.

interconnected

Source: http://www.spblearningcommons.com/single-post/2015/12/10/SPB-Pick-We-Are-All-Made-of-Molecules

I can see why this book is so popular. It deals with heavy ideas and emotionally charged issues, but Nielsen does so with grace and humour. She tells the story from the experiences of teens and doesn’t get caught up in explaining or dwelling, unlike adults. For teens everything is immediate and Nielsen captures that spirit and it is a beautiful thing.

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Source: https://www.linkedin.com/company/we-are-all-connected

“The Invasion of the Tearling”: all good things

I have to say that reading Erika Johansen’s writing is a pleasure. I love how she uses semicolons and how she structures her sentences. Yes, I loved the story in “The Invasion of the the Tearling” and the development of the characters, but it’s her actual writing that had me savouring this book.

tearling

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22698568-the-invasion-of-the-tearling

This second book is a bout Kelsea, a young woman who becomes queen of the kingdom The Tearling. Her next door neighbour is an evil, magic queen. As Kelsea learns more about the history of her family and her place in the kingdom, she starts to gain magical abilities as well. Throughout the novel, she struggles with her choices and how to combat evil while retaining her own soul. She grapples with the harsh realities of life and the stark truth that her kingdom is at the mercy of a stronger, more disciplined, more terrified, magic kingdom. Her guards, a rogue priest, and her bookie accountant help to rule with justice and fairness, yet they don’t always approve of her choices.

At the end of the book, Johansen created two things that had me worked up:

  • She created a suddenly realistic setting and plot twist that I did not see coming at all. This twist requires major suspension of disbelief, yet I bought in. But the book ended before the twist was fully developed, so I sat up in bed and realized I had to get the third book, right away! (In fact, as I was in the library yesterday picking up another book, I saw book three sitting on the display shelf. The library knew!!)
  • She had Kelsea, the main character, make a sacrificial decision to confront the evil red queen on her own, without her guards. And while in that meeting, she gives up her magic. What?! Why?? What will happened to her and her kingdom. How did she think it would end for her?

twist

Source: http://ru.memegenerator.net/instance/37170912/what-if-i-told-you-what-if-i-told-you-the-twist-ending-of-the-book-would-you-be-mad

I think one of the reasons I love this series, besides the writing and the lovable characters, is that Johansen includes such a deep sense of social justice and doing the compassionate thing, even when it could mean harmful personal consequences. As Kelsea has her ‘fuges,’ visions, she sees into the life of Lily, a woman who lives in a post-apocalyptic New York, USA. Lily is trapped in an abusive marriage and is monitored all of the time. When an injured stranger falls into Lily’s backyard, she does everything she can to protect this stranger. Through that act, she became part of the underground moment for The Better World. Johansen’s descriptions of the the people living poor and in terrible situations stirred my compassion and that part of me that feels fiery passion for equality and justice. It comes out in the book that Lily had a younger sister, Maddy, who worked with the resistance as a teen and out of fear Lily reported her sister, who then disappeared. So as Lily deals with her guilt for her sister and the plight of the people she drives by in the slums, she inserts herself into the rebellion and as the reader, I can’t help but get swept up in her righteous anger.

I loved this section of the book where Lily remembers Maddy and her passion for others:

There was the crucial difference between the two of them . . .: Maddy cared deeply about things.

“If we could be better people, she would say, “if we could care about each other as much as we do about ourselves, think about it, Lily! Think what the world would be!”

Lily would nod, for this sounded good in theory, but Lily had no such deep drives; anything she cared about was discarded as uninteresting two months later. Maddy’s passions were exhausting. They demanded not only interest but commitment and effort. Sometimes Lily had wished that Maddy would just think about boys and clothes and music, as all of Lily’s friends did, as Lily did herself.

It’s exhausting. I love this insight. Yes, compassion is exhausting. It’s not easy. So it’s interesting that in the book Kelsea, the queen, has almost too much compassion and those around her can’t understand, just as Lily wasn’t able to understand her sister’s passion for justice.

So, I can’t wait to read book three. I have it and I’m so curious how this series will end. What about the twist? Will I still play along? What about the characters? Will they still be lovable? Time to find out!

reading

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/479492691554569815/

 

“Lullabies for Little Criminals”: where’s the love?

This is one of those books that you love because the writing is phenomenal, not because of the content. In fact, this was a tough book to read and made me feel uncomfortable for wanting to know what will happen next. I truly enjoyed the skills of Heather O’Neill and I can see why Lullabies for Little Criminals is a Canadian must-read.

lullabies

Source: https://www.amazon.ca/Lullabies-Little-Criminals-Heather-ONeill/dp/0060875070

My thoughts about this book are a bit scattered. It provoked a lot of thought and a lot of questions. Also, self-examination. So, please forgive the jumpiness of this blog as I skip between ideas.

The scene that angered me the most was when she shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Her dad locked her out, she just got into a fight with a friend that she usually crashes over night with, and her only options are to be helped by Xavier’s parents, freeze outside, or return to her pimp. I was so angry and self-righteous when Xavier’s parents shut the door in her face. Couldn’t they see that she needed help? I have a friend who took in and basically adopted her son’s girlfriend because she needed support and family. Even after they broke up, by friend still supported her son’s ex-girlfriend. I also think of the TV show My So-Called Life, where the teacher takes in Ricki because no one else wants to go near him. Where is the risky compassion? Where is the sacrificial help? But then I think to myself, where is my risky compassion? Where is my sacrificial help? It’s easy to watch others and make judgement. It’s not so easy to actively help others.

saint

Source: https://onsizzle.com/i/everybody-is-a-saint-when-they-talk-about-someone-elses-10448484

Baby is an interesting character. She enjoys learning and tries hard at school. She often describes scenes where she is doing her homework in questionable situations and locations. At one point, she ends up in advanced classes and flourishes. Yet her living situation means that she doesn’t have a stable location to put her belongings, she doesn’t have consistent routines and activities, and she doesn’t have a reliable support network. As a teacher, this broke my heart. It’s so hard to see a student who is bright and eager to learn miss out on the challenge of learning because they can’t focus on the learning. baby has to look after her dad, navigate her neighbourhood, deal with the trauma of thinking drugs and prostitution are just a normal part of life. Heartbreaking. As a reader, I wanted to jump in and save Baby because O’Neill did such a brilliant job of narrating Baby’s character. The innocence of her situation and the ignorance of her plight makes her so lovable. She is trying her best in what she believes is a normal situation.

That being said, I couldn’t help but think that the ending was a bit too good, a bit too saviour-like. Baby and her father drive off into the sunset to live with her dad’s family in the country. If only every story of tragedy had this mysterious family help.  I think of Jane Eyre whose long-lost uncle leaves her loads of money and she is set for life. I think of the girl from The Wonder who is whisked away into a new life with new parents. Yes, these characters deserve all good things, yet that’s not the reality for the majority of people in these situations. If you want proof, look at the stats. Over 30,000 Canadian young people were experiencing homelessness at some point last year. Over 30,000 young people. Teens. That number is disturbing and tragic. Not all of those stories end happily. Although to be fair, we don’t know the ending of Baby’s story but we leave with hope.

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Source: http://www.charliesfreewheels.ca/2014/11/25/job-opportunities-essential-alleviate-youth-homelessness/

One thing I truly appreciated about O’Neill’s book is the transition she lets Baby witness. Baby notices a few time that since she started to look less like a kid, she was treated differently. Poor, homeless kid: aw, poor dear. Poor, homeless teen: get a job and grow up. I think that this is true and hard to hear: we judge teens as adults, when really they are still kids. This is one thing I have learned teaching jr high and high school: pre-teens and teens still need adult support, whether they see it that way or not. That’s the saddest part about the book for me, is Baby realizing that she is treated differently and is almost stuck. She hasn’t changed and her situation hasn’t changed, but the perception and judgements of others have. This is why I think that O’Neill’s book is so well written: she taps into something that we know about ourselves, and even though we may not have had similar experiences to Baby, we have all had similar moments of clarity and sadness for the passing of our own childhoods.

So overall, I truly loved this book. It got me thinking and it got me feeling. In the end, that’s why we love reading, isn’t it?

“The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen”: healing with literature

Susin Nielsen is a genius. She writes for teens, but she had me hooked. Her novel The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen had me fighting with my students over the school copy of the book. This book is about Henry and his journal that his counsselor makes him write after his brother’s death. The entire book is a glimpse into the world of teens living with trauma and trying their best to survive.

henry

Source: https://www.amazon.ca/Reluctant-Journal-Henry-K-Larsen/dp/1770496548

My teenage self connected with Henry is several ways:

  • I loved wrestling growing up, and I loved watching it with my family.
  • I love trivia and watching Jeopardy and would have loved to join a quiz team in high school
  • I was also hassled and bullied during school and dreaded encounters with certain groups of boys
  • I had amazing friends in junior high and high school who liked me for me, weirdness and all.

As a teacher, this book was hard to read because most of the negative interactions happened in the halls and stairwells, locker rooms and cafeteria. There isn’t much power teachers have in helping kids survive the horrors of being bullied 100% of the time. As much as teachers long for a safe school and a group of empathetic kids, that’s not always the case. Power struggles are real and this books was a reminder, a funny reminder at times, yet a reminder that being a teenager is so hard.

teens

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/493636809126860552/

Today in my Gr 8 Health class, we were talking about emotions and healthy ways to share and express emotions. Kids know what happens when they bottle up emotions. We watched Inside Out and talked about what happens when we get to that place where we don’t feel anything at all. We looked up websites and centres where teens could go to get help. I sincerely hope that parents are having these same conversations at home, yet I know that’s not always the case. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “real boys don’t cry” and “good girls smile more.” It’s easy to default to societal norms, yet that’s what bogs down teens: they don’t know what is normal, what is weird, what is healthy, what is unhealthy, and who to talk to about all of this. So I am grateful to the arts for once again allowing us an opportunity to have these important conversations.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is a book that encourages teens with a broken family to have hope. Life might suck, yet there are always people around and those people make life worth living. Henry’s mother is in Ontario in a mental illness hospital, his dad works long hours at a construction job, and his older brother is is a box under his dad’s mattress. That’s rough. Yet the neighbours in their Vancouver apartment building become family. Through his journal and through his conversations with his school friends and his neighbours, Henry starts to heal and start to live life again. Neilsen doesn’t sugar-coat life, instead she shows true depth of feeling and pain in the midst of a truly horrible situation. Life never turns out how we want or plan, yet that doesn’t stop Henry from losing all hope. What an amazing story of resiliency for teens to read.

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Source: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/resilience-quotes/

Teens reading about teens in well-written books that include humour is an amazing way to engage reluctant readers and to help teens see positive ways of expressing their emotions. I think of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and Susin Neilsen’s other book We Are All Molecules. These books use humour as a way in for teens to see that they are not alone. What a powerful message.  So thank you Susin Neilsen and other YA authors who are tackling really hard topics and doing it with respect, humour, and depth.

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Source: http://blog.book-pal.com/education/25-teachers-who-have-seen-books-change-lives

“The Opposite of Loneliness”: positivity is real strength

A friend at work lent me Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories and I devoured it! I found Keegan’s writing entertaining and at times she actually had me feeling feelings.

keegan

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Opposite-Loneliness-Essays-Stories/dp/147675361X

The essay about Keegan’s mom obsessing over Keegan’s Celiac disease, baking and calling manufacturers, actually made me cry. My Mom does everything she can to make sure that I’m not sick. And often, she’ll talk about the past and make comments that she was poisoning me. I can’t imagine what she feels that she would beat herself up for not knowing better. She didn’t know and I wouldn’t ever think of holding her accountable for my childhood illnesses. We didn’t know. That’s why I cried reading Keegan’s essay “Against the Grain.” I know that my mom does everything possible to help me, even when I don’t ask for the help. That level of love is something I’ve never experienced. Thanks, Mom.

I think this is why I devoured Keegan’s writing; I connected with her voice and with her subject matter. It was a voice similar to my own. I can’t find the passage again, yet I think in one of her fiction pieces she describes a woman feeling almost helpless in her anxiety, not wanting to leave her bed or wander in the mall with her mom. I get that. I also really enjoyed her essay “Why We Care About Whales.” In this piece she asks the question of why humans got to such extremes to save animals, yet we don’t save each other. That’s a heavy question and one worth digging into deeper.

humans

Source: http://wwf.panda.org/?229330/Peoples-Climate-March-to-put-leaders-on-notice

When my friend lent me this book, she said that her Mom, how is also a writer, didn’t like Keegan’s writing. I suppose I can see that. Keegan’s voice is unique and I think a little young, yet with clarity into some dark sides of humanity. I suppose I liked her writing because part of me still holds on to my idealism, some days more passionately and fiercely than others. In all honesty, I hope that I am as honest and hopeful as Keegan: she doesn’t candy-coat life, yet she has the energy and the newness to not give in to pessimism and doubt. Fresh and ideal, yet willing to take on life’s hard questions.

quote

Source: http://quoteaddicts.com/topic/idealism-and-realism-quote/

We all know that it is easier to be negative and see the mistakes and the failures. Yet it takes someone who is strong and hopeful to see the negative and make the choice to think, see, act, and talk in the positive. I’ve been learning a lot about growth mindset this year at work and I can see how it helps students grow beyond what they, and others, thought was possible.

How do we hold onto our hope and positive thinking when life is hard and people are mean and cruel and the reality of the earth dying overwhelms us. I believe that positive people are not unaware; they know full well how the world truly is because they see it. The strength of the positive person is that they are able to muster up positivity and light and they are willing to share that with others. That takes real strength. And I find that the people who have had a hard life and are still positive are the people who have healed.

quote.2

Source: http://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/scar.html

So thank you to my friend, and a big thank you to Marina Keegan and her family and friends who published her work.

 

“Salt to the Sea”: healing through story

I was chatting with some friends recently and we were talking about the idea that after a while, there might be a burn-out of how many WWII novels and movies we can consume. What about the other wars? Or, is it that WWII has left its mark on the world and it’s something we are still trying to fully understand. There are millions of stories that we haven’t heard yet because everyone’s experience was different. During this conversation, I had just started to read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. What a great novel! And I have to say that I found it didn’t just retell the same stories I’ve heard or read before. It was something new. Terrible, yet new.

salt

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25614492-salt-to-the-sea

Salt to the Sea is the story of three young people caught up in the war and all trying to find hope and freedom in the docks. Thousands of people are trying to escape the Germans and Russians and end up getting onto refugee boats seeking safety. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship disaster before, but in fact I feel that I should have. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff caused more loss of life than the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic sunk because of hitting an iceberg, whereas the Wilhelm Gustloff, full of mostly women and children and injured men, was torpedoed by the Russians.

Just looking at images online was heartbreaking.

wilhelm.1

Source: https://www.welt.de/geschichte/zweiter-weltkrieg/article136893332/Der-Trinker-der-die-Wilhelm-Gustloff-versenkte.html

wilhelm.2

Source: https://europebetweeneastandwest.wordpress.com/tag/wilhelm-gustloff/

wilhelm.3

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/142567144425047906/

wilhelm.4

Source: http://worldwartwo.filminspector.com/2016/01/sinking-of-wilhelm-gustloff.html

wilhelm.5

Source: https://www.zyjepodwoda.pl/en/wrak-wilhelm-gustloff-morze-baltyckie/

The novel is told from the point of view of four different characters. Each character has a unique story, yet they all end up seeking safety on this ship. One young man is running from the Nazis because of something he stole from a prominent Officer. One young woman is running because she is trying to be reunited with her family after being given permission to stay in Germany because of her skills as a nurse. Another younger woman is running away from both the Germans and the Russians because of her nationality. And the last young man is a German officer who is desperately trying to prove himself as courageous without actually doing anything that requires sacrifice. This cast of misfits intertwine with each other and use and help each other in order to get onto the boat.

Like all war stories, this one has a tragic ending for all involved, even those who survive the wreck. Those who survive are fortunate, yet have to live with the visions of seeing hundreds of people, fellow passengers and asylum seekers, die in the waters around them.

I can’t help but think about all of these people who survived and how they most likely spent their lives living with post-traumatic stress disorder. And not only that, but this book made me start to think about intergeneration trauma: trauma that is transmitted to next generations.

In an article in Psychology Today by Molly Castelloe, she includes this thought:

Transmission is the giving of a task. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one’s parents. A main task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family heritage and “bring its full, tragic story into social discourse.” (Fromm, xxi)

So perhaps we need stories about WWII because we aren’t finished sharing the trauma and the stories. Perhaps people like my parents, who both had fathers in WWII, need to write and produce art that still tells the stories of their parents. Perhaps a world that is afraid of another war, because Veterans from WWII and the Vietnam, Korean, and Gulf Wars, needs to share and tell stories about WWII in order to carry the trauma into the future in order to find healing. In a world that is in desperate need of healing, perhaps stories are the way to healing.

story

Source: http://izquotes.com/quote/342421

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” -Phillip Pullman