Thursday, October 29, 2015

Today At The Desk....

I actually got to use my degree today!  Of course I use my education degree when doing storytime and programs, but I got to make use of my biology/chemistry degree today.  A patron approached the desk looking rather desperate.  When I asked how I could help her, she explained her 12-year old niece had called her in tears because of a school project.  As a parent who has been through many school projects, I could immediately empathize.  Then she went on to explain that her niece had to make some kind of model of a neon atom and had no clue where to begin, the school library had no resources, and the child's family did not have internet access at home.  She didn't realize it, but she had definitely come to the right person!  With a major in biology/education and a minor in chemistry, this was right up my ally!

I had some ideas of my own, but first we looked through the science books in our collection to see if any showed ideas for building molecular models and/or information about Neon's structure in particular.  Lo and behold, I found a book specifically on the Noble gasses (the elemental group Neon belongs to) which showed a simple Bohr model of a Neon atom and gave some additional information on neon, and Noble gasses in general, then I found a second book which showed 2 or 3 different ways of constructing molecular models.

Next, I did an internet search for "how to build a molecular model" to show her several different ideas for putting one together, the most common being colored styrofoam balls to represent the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, and smaller balls on wires to represent the electron shells.  There were also models using pompoms, beads, skewers, and cardboard rings.  We discussed the methods and I told her all the supplies we had seen used could be found at Michael's Crafts in the floral and/or jewelry sections (possibly at Wal-Mart as well) and that I had even seen a molecular modeling craft kit there at Christmas time.  Then I searched specifically for models of neon so she could get a better idea of what it would look like, and since the aunt did have internet access, I explained all she had to do was Google "how to build a molecular model of neon" if she needed to refresh her memory or print out pictures.  She was very relieved and was glad to have information and a plan for her niece to work with!

I also got to issue a little boy his first library card, which is always a privilege, and helped him find some picture books with Frankenstein-type monsters.  Then his mother explained he was going to have a baby sister soon, and asked for a book about being a big brother, and we found the perfect one.  I think he was more excited about Frankenstein, though ;)

I did have to call the big guns in to help one patron.  A mom came to the desk explaining that her 3rd grade daughter was auditioning for the local performing arts school, and had to prepare and deliver a monologue.  However, she did not like any of the books specifically about monologues, and felt they were a little dull and predictable, and geared more for older kids.  She wanted help selecting a picture book or middle-grade chapter book that she could use instead, something with a spunky character, and lots of expression.  I have to confess I was at a bit of a loss on this one.  I can recommend books to read for that age or reference, but knowing what would be good as performance art, I really didn't feel I could judge as the performing arts are not in my realm of expertise at all.  So I had to ask the librarian to come out and field this one, and she was able to pull several good suggestions and the patron left very pleased, which is what's important.

And of course there was the usual cleaning and straightening, filling displays, pulling and processing holds and transfers, answering routine questions, and check-out assistance.  I also had a chance during a slow spell to cut out some decorations and props I had printed and laminated to use with a new "Feelings/Emotions" storytime kit I'm developing for the "Storytime-To-Go" program I do the other 3 days of the week, and look up the ISBN numbers for books I'd like to order for the same program.  All in all, a very productive day, with both a chance to use my science background, and to help with something totally out of my comfort zone. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Review of In The Shadow Of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In The Shadow Of Blackbirds by Cat Winters.  April 2, 2013.  Harry N. Adams. 400 pages.  Ages teen & up.

1918 was a terrible year for much of the world.  Between The Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, disease, destruction, and death where everywhere.  In a time filled with fear and loss, people were desperate for comfort and security, which led to a renewed interest in Spiritualism, often turning to questionable sources such as seances and so-called "spirit photography".  There was also a pervasive fear and distrust of anything German or remotely "un-American".

It was during this horrible year that sixteen-year old Mary Shelley Black, named after the Frankenstein author, found herself escaping Portland following the arrest of her father for treason, and fleeing to San Diego, to live with her aunt. Coincidentally, her childhood sweetheart's family had also relocated to the area previously, though Stephen was now gone to fight in the war.  Stephen's older half-brother Julius remained, and was now engaged in the questionable business of spirit photography, which provided desperate people some comfort.  Mary Shelley does not like or trust Julius, and believes his supposed photos capturing the spirits of deceased loved ones are a result of tricks of photography, not actual spirits.

Tragically, they soon receive word that Stephen has been killed in battle, and Mary Shelley finds herself overcome with grief.  Worse, she begins to be haunted by visions of Stephen and sometimes hears his voice whispering in her ear.  At first she believes these are dreams or hallucinations brought on by grief and fears she may be losing her mind, since she does not believe in ghosts.  However, she is soon convinced that she really is being visited by Stephen's spirit, and that he is very troubled and needs her help to find peace.  Stephen does not seem to understand that he is dead or how he died, and is terrified of horrible bird-like creatures that are torturing him.

The more Mary Shelley is visited by Stephen's spirit, the more she begins to question what happened to him and if the version of his death they were told is really the truth.  Will she be able to help him find peace, before she falls victim to the flu epidemic?  What is the truth?

My Thoughts
I  initially chose this book because the name of the main character caught my attention, first thinking "Mary Shelley...wasn't that....?", then realizing once I started reading that this was not a coincidence.  I really enjoyed this relatively fast-paced novel that is part history, part ghost story.  It had so many components, the historical point of view reflecting the fear and grief of the times and the interest in Spiritualism, the love story of Stephen and Mary Shelley, photography, and mystery.  It made for a good story that had just the right degree of spookiness for a good pre-Halloween read (as I'm not a fan of horror).  I loved how smart, strong, and independent Mary Shelley was, believing in science and not superstitions.

Another thing I appreciated was how the book tied the realities of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic together.  Although I was aware that each had happened around that time, I had always had them compartmentalized them in my mind, always thinking of them singularly, never really thinking about them going on simultaneously, and what that world would be like.  I would imagine not one family escaped being touched by death from one or the other, or both.  I also like how it incorporated actual photographs from the era, including some alleged spirit photos.  They added another element of spooky to the book.

I think this book could appeal to a wide range of readers, having something to offer fans of historical fiction, romance, mysteries, and ghost stories alike.  I would encourage anyone looking for something subtly-spooky or something a little different to give it a try. 

Other Books By This Author
In The Shadow Of Blackbirds was Cat Winters' debut novel.  Her second young adult novel, A Cure For Dreaming, was released October 14, 2014, followed by her first novel for adults, The Uninvited, in August of 2015.  She has two novels due to come out in 2016, a young adult novel titled The Steep And Thorny Way, and a second novel for adults titled Yesternight.   She is also a contributor to the 2015 horror anthology Monster Girls and Slasher Boys.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Middle School Book Club - Waiting for Normal, by Leslie Conner

Last week I helped with the book club at the local middle school.  The school librarian selects 5 or 6 books each year and each month different kids sign up to read and discuss one of the books.  Various adults (parents or public library staff) volunteer to each lead one of the discussion groups.  I led the discussion of Leslie Conner's Waiting for Normal, which tells the story of 12-year old Addie who has had to grow up too fast and assume adult responsibilities too soon due to her mother's erratic and irresponsible behavior, which the book seems to imply may be caused by bi-polar disorder.

At the beginning of the book, Addie and her mother move into a small trailer, after losing their house due to her mother spending the mortgage payments on her latest harebrained scheme.  Prior to that, their family was split up when Addie's mom divorced Addie's step-father and lost custody of their two younger daughters due to severe neglect.  Throughout the book Addie must deal with her mother's eccentric behavior, while she yearns for a normal life with her sisters and step-father.  She is befriended by Soula, who owns the convenience store across the street, and Elliot, Soula's clerk and best friend.

In the end, Addie's mom leaves her to fend for herself for several days, after announcing she is pregnant by her latest boyfriend.  Addie accidentally starts a fire while trying to make cocoa that destroys the trailer, and finally draws the attention of CPS.  She is sent to live with her paternal grandfather, and after several months, he mother finally agrees to give her up and let her step-father adopt her, finally giving her a normal life. (I reviewed this book in a previous post, Middle Grade Mini-Reviews).

Discussion Questions
These are some questions I prepared in advance, though we didn't necessarily get to all of them, and I just let the discussion flow naturally.

1.  Do you think "Waiting for Normal" is a good title for this book?  What does "normal" mean to Addie?  How would you define normal?

2.  Addie says her family has "many twists and turns".  What do you think she means by this?

3.  Addie comments that she is good at getting used to things and has been doing it all her life.  What do you think she means by this?  Do you think this is a good thing?  Why or why not?

4.  Besides Addie, who was your favorite character and why?

5.  What do you think Addie's mom meant by the "love of learning" and why did she think she had it, but Addie didn't.  Would you agree?

6.  Addie describes her mother's behavior as "all or nothing"; what did she mean by this?  How would you explain her mother's odd and eccentric behaviors?

7.  Who do you think behaved more like a responsible adult, Addie or her mother?  In what way?  Do you think it's fair or appropriate for a 12 year old to have to be so responsible?

8.  Addie, Soula, and Elliot discuss heroes, how everyday people need heroes and can be  heroes for someone else.  Do you agree?  Who are your heroes?

9.  Why do you think Addie didn't tell anyone how bad things were at home with her mother?  What would you do in her place?

10.  What do you think about Addie's mom having another baby? 

11.  Do people have to be related to be a family?  What from this story shows that?

12.  Did you like the ending?  Was it realistic?  Why do you think Addie's mom finally gave her up and let Dwight adopt her?

13.  What do you think happens after the book ends?  Do think things will work out for Addie's mom and Pete?  Do you think she will do any better with her new baby?

How It Went
This is the second year I've worked with the book club, and in the past had some very good discussions.  But the group today just didn't seem as into it for some reason.  It was a smaller group than expected, with only 6 of the 13 signed up actually showing up, so I think we were just below the "critical mass" needed for a good discussion.  Two of them admitted they hadn't finished the book and a couple of them didn't seem like they were interested at all.  It was also unusually noisy and harder to hear and be heard than usual.

The discussion didn't get as deep and cover some of the nuances, or have as many varied opinions, as I would have hoped, but we did manage to cover the main parts of the story.  One of the biggest surprises to me was how different their perception of Addie's mother was from mine. Almost all of them said Addie's mother was their favorite character, and while they admitted she was very irresponsible, they were much more forgiving of her mistakes than I was.  Also, they were all much more optimistic about the future and felt that she had learned from her mistakes and would do better with the new baby.

My perception was very different.  I found Addie's mother to be selfish and irresponsible, and a terrible mother, and despite the allusions to bipolar disorder, I had no sympathy for her.  I found myself feeling very angry and disgusted with the things she did.  I also felt that she only gave Addie up because now she had a new boyfriend and a new baby, and was tired of her old life, and wanted to simple walk away and start with her shiny new life, and I have little hope she will do any better in the future.

One of the girls said her mother also read the book, and felt exactly the way I did, and the librarian did as well.  I found it very interesting that other adults, who all happened to be mothers themselves, were much harder on Addie's mom than the tweens were.  I would have expected them to be a littler more outraged on Addie's behalf at all the unfair situations and responsibilities she had to deal with because of her mother's bad decisions and behavior.  I wish we had been able to discuss that aspect further, but unfortunately we were out of time.  I think this would be an interesting book for a mother-daughter book club to discuss and see if the trend is universal.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Today At The Desk....

Today I felt I scored a small victory in the battle against reading levels, or should I say the misuse of reading levels.  If you're a parent or a children's librarian, I'm sure you know what I mean.  On the off chance someone reading this doesn't, I'm referring to programs such as "Accelerated Reader" and "Lexile" which claim to use computer algorithms to accurately evaluate and rank the reading level of any book. 

The problem with these programs is two-fold:  first of all, as any children's librarian can tell you, these programs are too simplistic and take only limited factors into consideration, thus the numbers they spit out are easily skewed.  For example, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, an intermediate level chapter book probably read most often by 3rd graders scores a 1070 on the Lexile scale, which would be considered high school to college level, and works of Shakespeare only score around 700-800, which would be considered lower middle school level.  So you can see how inconsistent these systems are, and how they often fail to take into consideration the complexity of the language, difficulty of understanding outdated language, and complexity and maturity of the content.

The second problem is that too many schools, and sometimes parents, are hyper-focused on these levels, telling children they may ONLY read books in a narrow range that is supposedly their level.  Too many times this results in children not reading some really good books that they would like to read because it does not score a certain Lexile or AR level (or because their school doesn't have the AR test for that book), and having to read books that are too hard, too easy, or simply not what they want to read.  In the end, this does the opposite of what these reading programs are supposed to do, it discourages kids from reading and they find it a negative and frustrating experience.

So today I was helping a family with children of varied ages find books, and the older child selected a book and his mother asked what the level was, and was going to make him put it back because it was supposedly below his grade level.  I quickly told her those levels should be taken with a grain of salt because they are determined by a computer and fail to consider all aspects of the book and are often skewed one way or the other.  I also mentioned that most literacy experts agree that any reading benefits a child, and reading books that they select for themselves has a much better long-term payoff.  And she let him keep the book!  Now if only we could convince the schools....

Also, I  should mention I was the *only* staff person in my department the whole shift, with both librarians out for emergencies and the manager being at another branch for a meeting.  Which wasn't a problem, but is a bit unusual.  It was pretty busy after school let out, but I handled it just fine.  One small issue came up when I had a couple of families come in with the new student cards that were being issued in a special pilot program to a couple of schools in the area.  They were just given out recently, and this was the first time they had been used in our department, to my knowledge.  However, I had not seen any info sent out to staff about how they were to be used, if there were any differences between them and a regular card, so when I had a question about them and I wasn't sure of the answer, I simply called one of the children's librarians at another branch, and found out where to find that info.

So it was a busy, but satisfying day, and I was glad to be able to successfully defend a child's reading choice and have him leave with a book he wants to read, which will hopefully lead to him reading even more books!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review of Rick Riordan's Latest Book, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, The Sword of Summer

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1) by Rick Riordan.  October 6, 2015.  Disney-Hyperion, 512 pages.  Ages 10 and up.

Magnus Chase has been living on the streets, hiding in plain sight, every since his mother was killed 2 years ago trying to protect him.  Before she died, she warned him not to trust his uncles, so instead of turning to his family after his mother's death, he chose to live among the homeless where he was befriended by Blitz and Hearth, who look out for him.

One day Blitz tells him people are looking for him, passing out flyers with his picture and name.  Magnus goes to where they are, without revealing himself, and realizes that it is his uncle Frederick and his cousin Annabeth.  Curious as to why they are looking for him now, after two years, Magnus decides to break into his uncle Randolph's house to try to figure out why the sudden interest in his whereabouts.  Unfortunately, Randolph comes home and catches him, and tries to persuade him that he is in grave danger.  Randolph reminds him that today is Magnus' 16th birthday, and says that "they" will be coming to kill him now that he is a man and that it has something to do with his father, who Magnus never knew.  Randolph begins talking about Norse mythology, something he has long been obsessed with, and claims that Magnus' father was none other than Frey, a Norse god.

Randolph tells Magnus that he must retrieve the powerful sword that one belonged to his father, a sword Randolph believes sank on a Viking ship right there in Boston 1000 years earlier.  The sword is very powerful and must not fall into the wrong hands, and that he, as Frey's son, has the power to summon it.  Much to Magnus' surprise, he is actually able to summon the sword, but as soon as he does, he finds himself in a battle with an unknown enemy who can produce fire.  Magnus fights valiantly, trying to save innocent bystanders from harm, but in the end Magnus dies.

And that is only the beginning!

My Thoughts
This is a very fast-paced, action-packed adventure/quest and fans of Riordan's other series should not be disappointed.  Percy Jackson and the Olympians was based on Greek mythology, Heroes of Olympus was based on the corresponding Roman myths, The Kane Chronicles were rooted in Egyptian mythology, and now Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard introduces Norse mythology.

I liked the Percy Jackson books, but being something of a Greek/Roman mythology buff, the inaccuracies in the books always bugged me, whether they were from lack of research or artistic license, I'm not sure.  However, being blissfully ignorant of Norse mythology, I was able to enjoy the story of The Sword of Summer without being distracted by such inaccuracies.  While the story is primarily action and drama, it did have a lot of humor sprinkled throughout, often when revealing the gods' interest in and knowledge of human pop culture.  It's been a while since I read Percy Jackson, but I don't remember it having quite as much humor.

I would recommend this obviously for fans of Riordan's other series, but also fans of Harry Potter, Charlie Bone, The Blackwell pages  (all of which have to do with seemingly ordinary kids suddenly discovering they have unusual parentage and special powers), those with an interest in mythology, and readers looking for a fast-paced adventure story who don't mind a little fantasy.

The next book in the series, The Hammer of Thor, is due out in October of 2016.

Note:  children of the 90's will likely note in the cover art that Magnus Chase bears an uncanny resemblance to Kurt Cobain.  This resemblance is intentional and is referred to on more than one occasion in the book.  And yes, his cousin Annabeth is the same Annabeth from the Percy Jackson series.  She has a very small part in this book, but I suspect her role will be expanded as the series develops.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Review of Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar.  August 4, 2015.  Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 192 pages.  Ages 10 and up.

To fifth-grader Tamaya, the rules seem to be changing, and she seems to be the only one who doesn't know what is socially acceptable anymore.  Marshall, the 7th grade boy next door who walks with her to school is also having problems at school thanks to the new kid, and bully, Chad, who has targeted him for some reason and turned all his friends against him.

In order to avoid the fight Chad challenged him to, Marshall decides to cut through the woods.  Tamaya doesn't want to go, but she is not supposed to walk home alone, so she reluctantly accompanies him.  Soon, it become apparent that Marshall is lost, and to make matters worse, Chad has followed them.  Chad begins beating Marshall, and Tamaya tries to defend her friend and grabs a handful of strange, fuzzy mud and throws it in Chad's face, allowing her and Marshall to escape, but not before Chad threatens both of them.

Later, Tamaya's hand begins to feel strange, and breaks out in a rash.  By the next day, her hand is covered in bloody blisters, and the rash is spreading up her arm.  She is certain it has something to do with the strange mud in the woods that she threw in Chad's face.  Then, she is learns that Chad is missing and fears he could be in real danger from the mud and sets off to search for him, feeling responsible. 

What will Chad do to her if she finds him?  What is in the strange mud? 

My Thoughts
I found the story to be fast-paced with main characters that many kids could relate to.  It is part sci-fi mystery-thriller, but it also has an underlying theme about bullying and coming of age as it shows how both Marshall and Tamaya struggle to negotiate the ever-changing rules of the tween social structure and in the end explains what led to Chad's bad behavior and bullying.  Of course, being a middle-grade novel, in the end the three of them become friends and all is forgiven.

Having read Sachar's Holes, Small Steps, and There's A Boy In The Girls' Bathroom, I expected this book to be more along those lines, realistic fiction with young male protagonists dealing with difficult situations, and was a little disappointed.  Fuzzy Mud is fine for what it is, but I found it to be much more similar to R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series than the Sachar books I was familiar with (not having read the Wayside School books).  This book would definitely appeal to Goosebumps fans.  As it deals with the dangers of scientific research gone amok due to carelessness or arrogance, I would suggest readers who enjoy this might go on to enjoy some of Michael Crichton's works when they get older.

12-Year Old Son's Verdict
My son also read this book and said he really liked it and hoped Sachar would write more like it.  He agreed with my assessment that it seemed very Goosebumps-esque, but a bit more realistic.