Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review of Soldier's Heart, Middle-Grade Historical Fiction by Gary Paulsen

Soldier's Heart  by Gary Paulsen.  1998.  Delacorte Press. 106 pages.  Ages 10-15.

June of 1861 finds fifteen-year old Charley Goddard living in Winona, Minnesota as the country prepares for battle.  The state is a-buzz with the excitement of a coming war with the Confederate secessionist states.  Everyone is sure this will be a very short-lived war and that the Union will whip the Rebels into submission in no time.  Not wanting to miss out on what he sees as a great adventure, Charley lies about his age and enlists.

However, it does not turn out to be what he expected.  Initially, the new recruits are disappointed by the boredom of training and the poor quality of the food.  But then they travel in luxury by train from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., enjoying fine dining and the attention from cheering crowds and pretty girls as they pass through towns along the way.

But soon, Charley and the other na├»ve recruits are immersed in the horrors of war as the Union finds the Rebels to be a much more formidable foe that expected.  Charley witnesses death and destruction all around him, and his fear and anger drive him to do things he never would have thought himself capable of before the war.  Though he survives the war, he will never be the same again, physically or mentally, and returns home aged beyond his years and unable to escape the horrors that haunt him.

My Thoughts
I read this book because I was considering giving it as a gift for my 10-year old nephew who is obsessed with the Civil War.  And when I say obsessed, I mean really fixated on it and with a very romanticized view of it.  He talks about it all the time and has a Civil War uniform he wears  All.  The.  Time.  It's really kind of strange, to be honest.  But I don't think he really has much understanding of what is was all about or any idea what war is really like, so I think this book might be good to help give him a more realistic view.  He is also a very reluctant reader, so Paulsen's books are a good choice for him since they are short and fairly easy to read, and high-interest subjects and characters that are particularly appealing to boys.  He previously read Hatchet and liked it.

Soldier's Heart is a fast-paced fictionalized story based on the life of the real Charley Goddard.  It does a good job portraying the real horrors of war and the effects they have on the soldiers in the middle of it in an age-appropriate way, and the author gives it context with the foreword and end notes.  The forward discusses what we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder" through history:  what contributed to it, other names it has been called, and how those who suffered it were treated.  The author's notes at the end also explain how the story is a fictionalized account of the real Charley Goddard, and how he died, with sources cited.

I think middle-school aged readers with an interest in fast-paced stories with lots of action, especially those interested in military history and fiction, would like this book, and it would be a good option for reluctant readers in particular.  It would likely appeal to those who have liked Paulen's other books, (particularly Woods Runner), Harry Mazer's Boy At War series, and the Bloodlines series by M. Zachery Sherman.

Other Books By This Author
Gary Paulsen has written many short middle-grade novels including both realistic fiction and historical fiction, and is most well-known for Hatchet, the story of a boy's survival after being stranded in the Canadian wilderness, which has several sequels.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Today At The Desk...

Today it was pretty routine at the desk.  It started out pretty slow as usual, which gave me a chance to get a lot of "housekeeping" done.  First I made sure all the displays were filled, then I went around and straightened and tightened up the shelves.  After that, a tech from the IT department came to upgrade our computer from Windows 8 to Windows 10, so since I couldn't do much at the desk without the computer, I used the time to sort and shelve a cartful of books.  One of the pages recently quit and the position hasn't been filled yet, so I'm happy to pitch in and do some of the shelving when I can.  While shelving, I came across the book I had been trying to remember either the author or title of so I could use it for an upcoming storytime, so it paid off for me as well.  I also withdrew a cartful of books that had been weeded and boxed them up to donate to the Friends bookstore.

During all this, there was a steady stream of patrons in and out and I helped several people with checkouts, placing holds, and finding materials.  I also got a chance to use my Spanish a little, with a very friendly little boy who gave me a huge smile and wave with an enthusiastic "Hola!"  to which I responded "Hola, como estas?"  but that was the extent of our conversation as he quickly became engrossed with the Lego blocks.  Then there was the little girl who would not stop growling and roaring and pretending to be a dinosaur after reading a dinosaur book.  I could sympathize with her mother, as it brought back memories of having to hide our video of The Lion King from my daughter when she was that age because she wouldn't stop running around the house and roaring like a lion all the time.

It got busy after school let out, and I finished off my shift by pulling all the books for holds and transfers, and taking them down to circulation.  Just as I was leaving my co-worker called my attention to a new book, Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) by Keith Negley, which is perfect for my "Feelings" theme storytime next week, making it my second find of the afternoon.  I like how this book doesn't just describe different emotions, it makes it clear that it is okay to feel and express emotions, and I'm so glad it came in at just the right time for my program!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review of The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing  by Shelley Pearsall.  September 8, 2015.  Knopf Books for Young Readers.  288 pages.  Ages 10 & up.

It is 1963 and thirteen-year old Arthur Owens is having a hard time dealing with his father's recent death, and is keeping his feelings bottled up inside him.  One day he comes home from school to find that his mother has gotten rid of everything that belonged to his father, and his anger begins to build.  When he sees the "Junk Man" wearing his father's motorcycle cap, he snaps and throws a brick at the man's head.

Fortunately, he only hits the Junk Man in the shoulder, but it does cause him to fall and break his arm, which eventually lands Arthur in court, facing the judge.  But, instead of being sent to juvie as expected, The Junk Man (whose real name is James Hampton) intercedes and asks the judge to sentence Arthur to community service working for him.  The judge agrees, and tells Arthur his is giving him a chance for redemption. 

So every Saturday Arthur has to search through people's garbage along the streets, looking for the 7 items Mr. Hampton has asked for:  wood, foil, coffee cans, cardboard, mirrors, lightbulbs, and glass bottles.  Over time, he gets to know Mr. Hampton and begins to appreciate the project he is working on, and finds support in his new friend Squeak, and his tough-talking, no-nonsense parole officer, Wanda Billie.

But, just when it seems like things are going well, it all falls apart.  Will Arthur find his ultimate redemption?

My Thoughts
This book was inspired by real-life enigmatic folk artist James Hampton and his sculpture he called "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly" (see below).  While the man and the sculpture were real, Pearsall's story about Arthur Owens is entirely fiction.

The Seventh Most Important Thing is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about grief, consequences, friendship, art, and redemption.  While this may sound like a lot of ground to cover, it all comes together quite well throughout the course of the story. This is a character-driven story and a thought-provoking one.  It shows how grief can manifest as anger, but that actions prompted by that anger still have consequences.  It also will lead the reader to think about how we judge people based on outward appearances, or seeing only one small part of who they are, and that many times there is much more to them than we know, if we would only take the time to find out.  The reader will also be prompted to consider what is "art", and who decides?

I think this book would make a great book for a class read and discussion.  For leisure reading, those who typically like fast-paced, action-packed stories probably would not care to read this book, but I would recommend it for those who like more thoughtful, character-driven stories.  While it is technically historical fiction, I probably wouldn't market it as such, since the same story could have taken place in virtually any timeline.  Readers with a particular interest in stories of people getting in trouble and paying the consequences, but learning from it and moving forward would also like this story.

Other Books By This Author
Shelley Pearsall has written several other middle grade/YA coming-of-age stories that often deal with prejudices and misperceptions, some with historical settings and some with modern settings, including:  Trouble Don't Last, Crooked River, All Of The Above, All Shook Up, and Jump Into The Sky. 

Photograph of the real Throne of the Third Heaven sculpture by
 the real James Hampton, now housed in the Smithsonian.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Middle School Book Club

I went to the local middle school again today to help with their monthly book club.  Once again, I was leading the discussion for the group that read Waiting For Normal by Leslie Connor.  It wasn't my choice to do the same book again, but apparently that's how they like to do it, each person just does one book a year and does the discussion for it each month with a different group of kids.  I would much prefer to lead the discussion for a different book each time.  I won't bother with summarizing the book or listing discussion questions because I have already done that in the previous posts:  "Middle Grade Mini-Reviews" and "Middle School Book Club - Waiting for Normal...".

I helped with this same book club last year, and had some really good discussions about A Boy At War by Harry Mazer and Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan, but for some reason, this year is not going as well.  I don't know if it's the book, or that by chance I just haven't been getting the right mix of kids in my groups, but today was downright frustrating.  I had a group of eight girls, would should have been big enough for a good discussion, but this must've been the most shy, introverted group of kids in the whole school.  I could hardly get a word out of them. 

I would ask a question that normally would lead to several people responding with different points of view, and they would just sit there and look at me.  It was really awkward.  So, since the most I could get from them were raised hands or nodding heads, I had to fall back to asking yes or no type questions for a while.  Towards the end I managed to pull a few words, even a couple of opinions out of them, but it was like pulling teeth!  The only thing they were really vocal about was when I asked if they would recommend this book, and they said yes, but not to boys, and talked about how boys were only interested in action and didn't appreciate books like this one.

Usually I feel like we don't have enough time for the discussion, but today the last bell couldn't ring soon enough for me!  And the worst part?  I had recommended one of the other books, Doll Bones by Holly Black, for the book club and said I would like to lead the discussion of it (but said I was willing to do whichever).  So supposedly someone else really wanted to do it, so I took WFN.  Then, the one who was supposed to lead the discussion for Doll Bones admitted today that she had never even read it and had no clue what it was about and was just winging it!  Needless to say, I was a bit annoyed. 

One thing that was interesting was that this group of girls, unlike the group last time, had a less forgiving and optimistic attitude towards the mother in the book, compared to the group last time.  Today's group shared my opinion that Addie' mother was a horrible mother and would probably not do any better with the new baby in the long run.

I sure hope I can get a good discussion going next time! Hopefully I can get a different book and make a fresh start :)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Today At The Desk....

So today I got stumped, and it was frustrating.  A mom and her two daughters came in, and while they were there she thought of a book they had read a couple of years earlier that her daughters had recently mentioned and wanted to read again, but she didn't know the author or title.  She said it was about a little girl who lived in a village where they only got sunlight one day a year.  She thinks it was in the Himalayas and was a picture book.  The little girl's mother was sick, and they needed to figure out how they could get her mom out of the village and to somewhere that she could be in the sunlight.

I tried everything I could think of, determined to find it.  I searched our catalog for juvenile books with all the keywords I could think of.  I tried Google, figuring if I searched the description, surely I could find a title, but nothing.  Thinking maybe it wasn't in the Himalayas after all, I tried searching for a town or village than gets very little sunlight, but all I found were towns and villages in the far north that are in the dark for up to six months of the year, but nothing about any area that only gets sun for 1 day each year.  I asked the patron and her girls if they could remember any other details about the book, like the child's name, or part of the title or author's name, but they couldn't.  I kept trying to think of other keywords to search for, and asked an online group of children's librarians, but still no luck.  I think it was likely a folk tale, but not sure.  Eventually the patron left, and I apologized for not being able to figure it out, but they didn't mind and thanked me for trying so hard.  I asked the librarians when they came back from lunch, and they had no idea either.  It still bugs me I couldn't find it; I pride myself on being able to figure these things out.

But, despite their having stumped me, this family was the highlight of my day.  The children's department is doing a "wall of gratitude" bulletin board, giving each patron a piece of paper to write and/or draw something they are thankful for, and these two girls wanted to participate.  And guess what they were thankful for?  The Library!  And I promise I didn't prompt them at all ;)  They were so sweet, and even let me take their picture.  It's so nice to see people who truly appreciate all the library has to offer, and take time to tell you.

In addition, we had a school group of 6th graders visit with an assignment requiring them to check out a book that was historical fiction.  Since one of the librarians had already pulled a selection of books for them to look at, it was a breeze.  They came in, and it was super busy for about 20 minutes as I helped them all check-out with a flurry of activity, then they quickly left, and all was quiet again.  Then I had the usual routine tasks of straightening up, filling displays, pulling and processing holds and transfers, and I sorted 3 carts of books and started shelving one since one of our pages just quit (due to medical issues).

It was overall a good day, but I am still determined to figure out what that darn book was....