Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Banned Books and The Catcher in the Rye

This week is banned books week. There are a lot of books I love that have landed on this list over the years: To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm and the Harry Potter series to name a few. But today I want to write about my least favorite book from this list: The Catcher in the Rye.

I studied Children’s Literature in my graduate program and one of the books I was assigned to read was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I came into the book with no preconceived notions—the title felt familiar to me—I had heard of it in passing but knew nothing of the book itself. I read it and strongly disliked the book.

I came to class that week not excited for the discussion at all. But in the course of the discussion, a classmate of mine said, “Holden Caulfield is my hero,” and my ears perked up. She went on to tell how this book was so meaningful to her as a teenager and she looked up to Holden Caulfield – he was her childhood hero. My first thought was, “Wow. We had very different childhoods.” As I went on to listen to her, I came to realize what great value this book held for her. By the end of the class I didn’t like the book anymore than when I began, but I saw its value.

Ironically, the book we discussed the very next week was Little Women—talk about two different books! I read the book while underlining passages and using the back of my hand to wipe away my tears. That class started out with a collective groan from many of the students because they had found the book so boring. The juxtaposition of these two books and my experience with Little Women and my classmate’s experience with The Catcher in the Rye showed me, in a very real way, the need for a diversity of books.

My initial thought of “Wow. We had very different childhoods” was true. We grew up in different homes, in different states, and in different circumstances, so it only makes sense that we would be drawn to different books. Often in the banned books dialogue, we talk about how people who seek to ban books might like the books they try to ban if they actually read them. This may be true in some circumstances. However, I think the more important discussion is about the value a book holds for someone else, even if it is a book that you don’t like, think is inappropriate, or would never have your child read.  

Every year when banned books week rolls around, I think of The Catcher in the Rye and I hope it, and other books like it, make it into the hands of someone like my classmate—for whom it was the perfect book at the perfect time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming

Winner of the National Book Award and a Newbery Medal Honor, Brown Girl Dreaming has been one of this year's most talked about books. It is Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, written in verse, of her childhood - an African-American girl growing up in the 1960s and 1970s between Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

I listened to the audio version of this book read by Jacqueline Woodson. It is amazing. Writing it through the medium of verse makes the book accessible to all - especially the middle grade reader.   Woodson is able to give detailed snapshots of her childhood that are both moving and succinct.

Brown Girl Dreaming tells not only of the discrepancies between black and white, but also of family and of dreams. Woodson's pathway towards becoming a writer is woven throughout the story - from writing that first letter J on paper to telling stories to friends and teachers and selling them as the truth to moving those words to paper with pen and ink - we see her struggle to become, to find her voice and her dream.

A book every middle grade reader (and beyond!) should read.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Books I am Reading Over and Over Again

I have an almost 18 month old boy. For awhile he had little to no interest in reading books - so many things to see! To do! To destroy! But recently he has fallen in love with books. He brings a book to any reader in the family, scoots backwards into their lap and waits for the story to be read. Over and Over again.

Here are a few of his favorites:

Steve Light's Trains Go and Planes Go are far and away his very favorites. They contain colorful pictures of varied trains or planes set against a white background. The text names the diesel train or space shuttle and then gives the sound they make. Our Trains Go is in two halves now it is so beloved and my son runs around the house chirping "choo choo" and "WooooOOOoooOO WooooOOOoooOOO."

A classic. Goodnight Moon is definitely one of his go-to grabs. He especially loves the little old lady whispering "hush".

John Burningham's Colors and Opposites are one word books with pictures - yellow, red, heavy, light. They are favorites around here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Counting by 7s

I recently read Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7s. It was highly recommended, but I must admit that I was hesitant when told that the premise of the book is "a middle school girl who has no friends and her parents are killed in a car crash." It sounded like such a downer.

But despite the fact that the description I was given is true at the most basic level, the book is not depressing. Willow Chance is a 12 year-old child genius, and a little odd. She is fascinated with plants and counts everything by 7s. She has no friends at school and her parents die in a car accident at the start of the novel.

The story that unfolds is Willow's journey to find herself and a family in her new, shaken-up world. Somehow Sloan is able to bring together the quirkiest cast of characters and make it work:
Dell, the unprofessional school counselor and at home hoarder
Mai, the high school, almost friend, she meets through counseling and ends up living with
Quang-ha, Mai's older brother who is not pleased to be sharing their one room garage
Pattie - Mai and Quang-ha's mother who owns a nail salon
Jairo Hernandez - a taxi cab driver Willow befriends

This is a group of characters that are remarkably different from each other, and their interactions kept me smiling throughout the book. And despite their differences, their friendships felt genuine. It is the characters endearing specificity that makes this book so great. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Tomorrow brings the announcement of all of the ALA awards. I always love to hear the winners and add books to my list to read. I haven't had a clear Caldecott front runner this year until I saw Raul Colon's Draw!

It is a wordless picture book that begins with a boy on his bed drawing pictures. The reader quickly moves inside the illustrations and into the plains of Africa. The boy is seen in the forefront drawing zebras, lions, elephants and even a charging rhinoceros. The story moves back to the boy illustrating on the bed and ends with him presenting one of his illustrations to his class. Colon has said that as a child he had chronic asthma and spent weeks at a time in bed, drawing.

I love how the story progresses and the animals come to life in the illustrations. The drawings are detailed and full of texture. Colon uses colored pencils and layers the colors on top of each other to create depth and more vivid colors.  He then uses an etching instrument to create more texture and movement in the drawings.

The result is an imaginative, beautifully drawn story that draws the reader into the plains of Africa along with the young boy artist.