The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Cover of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Captain’s Log:

Module 15

Port of Call: Alexie, S. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

First Lines: I was born with water on the brain. Okay, so that’s not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease.

Summary: Arnold “Junior” Spirit is an indian teenager living in the town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation. He is frequently bullied and only has one friend, Rowdy, who is always getting into fights. Junior’s life is hard, his family lives in poverty, and yet he is still fighting off the apathy and hopelessness he sees overwhelming others. He draws cartoons (often included and providing greater insight in the book) and on his first day of high school he gets so mad at seeing that their textbooks are 30 years old that he throws a book and accidentally hits the teacher. His teacher comes to see him afterwards and pleads with him to get off the rez while he still has that energy and anger to want to change inside of him, so Junior switches to Reardan High School in an all-white town 22 miles away. Seen as ‘betraying’ his people, his friend Rowdy stops talking to him, and he is outcast by the rez society even more than he already was. On top of that, he must try and fit in at his new school in the face of oftentimes blatant racism.

A Cartoon drawn by Junior

First Impressions: This was the first book I have read from the perspective of a modern native american living on a reservation. I knew living conditions were poor, but had no idea how poor. This book is semi-autobiographical for Sherman Alexie, and I found it to be a fascinating, sometimes horrifying read. I read this book very quickly and would be very interested in reading a sequel.

Suggestions for use: This is a story about persevering in the face of adversity so I would recommend it be read by teenagers having trouble fitting in. I also feel this book addresses culture-clash and race issues in a powerful way, so this book is recommended for pretty much anyone else – we all deal with racism at some point in our lives.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ Screenwriter, novelist and poet, Alexie bounds into YA with what might be a Native American equivalent of Angela’s Ashes, a coming-of-age story so well observed that its very rootedness in one specific culture is also what lends it universality, and so emotionally honest that the humor almost always proves painful. Presented as the diary of hydrocephalic 14-year-old cartoonist and Spokane Indian Arnold Spirit Jr., the novel revolves around Junior’s desperate hope of escaping the reservation. As he says of his drawings, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He transfers to a public school 22 miles away in a rich farm town where the only other Indian is the team mascot. Although his parents support his decision, everyone else on the rez sees him as a traitor, an apple (“red on the outside and white on the inside”), while at school most teachers and students project stereotypes onto him: “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” Readers begin to understand Junior’s determination as, over the course of the school year, alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors lead to the deaths of close relatives. Unlike protagonists in many YA novels who reclaim or retain ethnic ties in order to find their true selves, Junior must separate from his tribe in order to preserve his identity. Jazzy syntax and Forney’s witty cartoons examining Indian versus White attire and behavior transmute despair into dark humor; Alexie’s no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief. Ages 14-up.”

Staff. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. Publishers Weekly, 254(33), 70.
School Library Journal: “/* Starred Review */ Gr 7–10— Exploring Indian identity, both self and tribal, Alexie’s first young adult novel is a semiautobiographical chronicle of Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA. The bright 14-year-old was born with water on the brain, is regularly the target of bullies, and loves to draw. He says, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He expects disaster when he transfers from the reservation school to the rich, white school in Reardan, but soon finds himself making friends with both geeky and popular students and starting on the basketball team. Meeting his old classmates on the court, Junior grapples with questions about what constitutes one’s community, identity, and tribe. The daily struggles of reservation life and the tragic deaths of the protagonist’s grandmother, dog, and older sister would be all but unbearable without the humor and resilience of spirit with which Junior faces the world. The many characters, on and off the rez, with whom he has dealings are portrayed with compassion and verve, particularly the adults in his extended family. Forney’s simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. Reluctant readers can even skim the pictures and construct their own story based exclusively on Forney’s illustrations. The teen’s determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner. Alexie’s tale of self-discovery is a first purchase for all libraries.”
Shoemaker, C. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. School Library Journal, 53(9), 190.
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A Bad Boy can be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone

Cover of A Bad Boy can be Good for a Girl

Captain’s Log:

Module 14

Port of Call: Stone, T.L. (2006). A bad boy can be good for a girl. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.

First Lines: I’m not stuck up.

I’m Confident.

There’s a big difference.

Summary: Three girls record their encounters with a ‘bad boy’ in their highschool. Each is a confident, unique girl who nonetheless find themselves entranced by a relationship with this charismatic, handsome heart-breaker who knows all the right moves. Their stories are written in unrhyming verse, and the book flows very well despite it’s thin-columned formatting which I usually find to be distracting. First we follow Josie, who gets her heart broken by the boy ‘T.L.’ and leaves a note in the back of Judy Blume’s Forever in her school library to warn others of this dangerous playboy. Each of the following two girls (Nicolette and Aviva) also become involved with T.L. before, or despite, receiving warnings from other girls. Soon there are many notes in the back of Forever talking about each girl’s experiences and lessons, and while there is heartache and anger, each girl finds strength within herself to learn from the experience and grow into a more confident, savvier woman.

This book is very easy and interesting to read, you really get a feeling for the girls’ individual personalities, and the reader gets caught up in their emotions and painful life-lessons. This book does describe sexual encounters, although the language stays tasteful and non-explicit, but the story does not glamorize the sex, nor does it condemn it. Instead, the author takes a very healthy and realistic view of the girls’ sexuality and emotional states that led them to make important choices. Ultimately this is a very important book for girls to read, because it addresses sexuality and relationships from a strong-female point of view, and each girl learns important lessons about herself and boys like T.L.

First Impressions: I found myself interested in the story from page one, and probably read the entire book in less than an hour. This is a powerful book, and while I can see that its approach to sex may be controversial for some, I think it has a very important message most girls should hear.

Suggestions for use: Great reading for pre-teen and teenage girls developing their own personailities and identities, particularly those who are becoming, or already, sexually active.

Reviews:

School Library Journal: “Gr 9 Up–Three girls succumb to the charms of one sexy high school senior and emerge wiser for the experience in this energetic novel in verse. Josie is a self-assured freshman who values her girlfriends over boys until a hot jock focuses his attention on her and her simmering hormones break into a full boil. Confused by her behavior, yet unable to control her desire, she acts out every romantic cliché she has ever disdained, until the boy drops her and she experiences the chill of rejection. It is Judy Blume’s Forever that sparks Josie’s fire again, and finding a few blank pages at the back of the library’s copy, she sends a warning to the girls of her school. Next readers meet Nicolette, a junior who sees her sexuality as power. A loner, she’s caught by surprise at her own reaction when this popular boy takes notice of her. Suddenly she thinks she sees the difference between sex and love, and then, just as suddenly, he’s gone. Finally, Aviva, a pretty, smart, artsy, and funny senior, is stunned when the jock seems to want her. She gives up her virginity, only to be disappointed in both the sex and the boy. Furious, Aviva heads to the library to check out Forever, now crammed with the words of girls who suffered the same fate at the hands of the same boy. The free verse gives the stories a breathless, natural flow and changes tone with each narrator. The language is realistic and frank, and, while not graphic, it is filled with descriptions of the teens and their sexuality. This is not a book that will sit quietly on any shelf; it will be passed from girl to girl to girl.”

Oliver, Susan. (2005, December 19). Book of the week – a bad boy can be good for a girl. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6291077.html

A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy:

“The Plot: Josie, Nicolette and Aviva are 3 different teenage girls who each fall for the same bad boy, TL. A book in verse.

The Good: The verse is the same sort that teenage girls write, so you really get into the heads and into the emotions of the three narrators.

This is frank in its treatment of teens, sex and sexuality. While its blunt, it’s not graphic … meaning I’ve read things that are more explicit in most mainstream romance novels. Meaning, the teens who would be reading this probably will have read those novels.

Josie is just starting high school and says, “I’m not stuck up. I’m confident.” But it’s easy to be confident and sure of yourself when you’ve never been in a situation that could cause doubt or could bring temptation. I’ve read studies that wonder why do girls change at 12, at 13, lose their confidence? I think because its easy to be strong when you’ve never been tested. Josie is tested. And luckily is made stronger by the experience rather than broken by it.

Nicolette is a junior who sees sex as “all about the power. Who’s got it and who doesn’t. If I say who and I say when and I say what then I have it. Simple as that.” She’s about to find out it isn’t that simple.

Aviva is a senior, but since she’s not in any one particular clique she’s a bit out of the loop about the gossip. She’s elated that TL knows her name. And finds out she also believes what she wants to believe.

Each girl struggles with the conflict between how TL makes her feel — emotionally flattered and physically turned on — and what her head is telling her. Because with each girl, there are signs that TL is indeed bad: a manipulator. A liar. A user. And each girl, for one reason or another, refuses to see the truth of the situation because of emotions and hormones. Hears the whisper, this isn’t quite right, yet ignores it.

Is a bad boy good for a girl? Each girl is left a little older and wiser. Wiser about herself. And while I hate to talk about “messages” and prefer to let the story speak for itself, I hope that the teenagers reading this will be able to apply this to their own lives and recognize the bad boys before they get hurt.

TL is, no doubt, self-involved, a manipulator and liar. He’s a user. OK here’s a comment that’s not about the book but about the boy: he’s not unique. Why? Why do boys and men think it is acceptable to use people this way?

In the book, TL’s protected by his status (jock, popular) and his friends, including girls. The book also shows how girl v girl competition over a guy allows a guy to be a player. And finally — communication. The girls who are his victims are silent from fear or embarrassment, or ignored because they aren’t the cool kids. Or, as is the case with Nicolette, suffer from “it won’t happen to me”-itis. There’s also very much the “blame the victim” attitude amongst TL’s peers: that the girl should have known better. (Ah yes the wonderful, if you’ve been lied to or manipulated, its your fault for believing, rather than the fault of the one who lied. Great stuff, logic. Not.)

A final thing I like about this book is that there is no good boy. At first, I was a bit upset about that, thinking, there are good guys out there, it would be nice to have at least one show up. But when I reread ABBCBGFAG, I realized it would have been easy and expected to have at least one girl end up with a guy who is not “bad.” Because the point of the book isn’t the boy, its the girls.”

Burns, Liz. (2006, February 6). A bad boy can be good for a girl. Retrieved from http://yzocaet.blogspot.com/2006/02/bad-boy-can-be-good-for-girl.html

Muchacho by Louanne Johnson

Cover of Muchacho

Captain’s Log: Module 7

Port of Call: Johnson, L. (2009). Muchacho. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

First Lines: I seen Miss Beecher today at the library checking out a old lady’s book. She had her head tipped down so I couldn’t see her face real good but I knew it was Beecher on account of her hair is the exact same color as a car I stole once. Bronze metallic. Beecher doesn’t look like a regular librarian but at least she didn’t look like she was falling off a cliff the way she did most of the time back when she was trying to be a teacher.

Summary: Eddie Corazon is a Mexican-American living in one of New Mexico’s poor neighborhoods. He grew up surrounded by crime, gang bangers, and racism, and is struggling to even graduate high school. Eddie has a lot of cousins, including his primo Enrique who once shot a man in front of him, but his cousins are also a lifeline, forming a protective gang of their own that keeps them from being forced into a life of drug running. Eddie starts to find purpose in his life when he meets Lupe, an incredibly smart and beautiful girl who thinks he’s interesting, and who opens his eyes to the possibilities he has, if only he could get his life on track. Slowly, Eddie begins to change himself, and to become a man his family, Lupe’s father, and himself can respect.

First Impressions: I was hesitant to get into this book because I assumed it would be depressing. However, the story was much more upbeat and meaningful than I anticipated. Now I think this is a very carefully constructed book with a number of useful messages about shaping your own destiny, no matter the terrible circumstances you find yourself in.

Suggestions for use: Definitely a powerful book for inner-city kids, teenagers in difficult neighborhoods, and very empowering for poor latin-americans.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Gr 9 Up— High school junior Eddie Corazon and his Mexican-American family live in a crime-infested town in New Mexico where kids are often pressed into service as drug runners if found on the streets alone. Eddie has his older cousin to look out for him, and he tells of the day when he was eight, and felt so proud to ride along with Enrique, drinking beer and smoking. But when Enrique stopped the car, knocked on a door, and shot the man who opened it in the face, young Eddie messed his pants, “smelling the stink of hopelessness that hung around my life.” Eddie is now in an alternative high school and brandishing his role as juvenile delinquent until he meets Lupe, a bright girl with dreams of college. Keeping her as his girlfriend is the impetus for change, but poignant memoirs of a caring former teacher and the book The Four Agreements play a major role in Eddie’s transformation into a reflective honor student. In the end, the future appears hopeful for the teen, though his change is a bit too didactic as he writes, “you can open a book and follow the words to some new place.” Sometimes the first-person narrative is disjointed, and the story and characters don’t always ring true. While the content may appeal to reluctant readers, the nonlinear story line will be a challenge. Also, the heavy-handed message could be a turnoff, and the numerous allusions to contemporary literature, while interesting, will be lost on most struggling teen readers.”

McClune, P.N. (2009). Muchacho. School Library Journal, 55(9), 162.

Kirkus:

“An experienced English teacher, prolific writer and speaker, Johnson gives life to a sensitive, contradictory character, Eddie Corazon, a Hispanic teenager—”muchacho”—overcoming the obstacles that thousand of adolescents face as high-school students in the United States. Eddie lives in a diverse and hostile environment. He is challenged every day by peers of different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles at his alternative school for at-risk students. Some of them envision their future in the streets and are not afraid to end up in jail, but others dream of graduating from high school and attending college. Eddy is crossed by different emotions, but perhaps a book, a teacher and a girl—”Lupe full of grace”—will make a difference and transform one of the most challenging and distressing periods of his life into a new beginning. Eddie’s first-person narration and street language will hold teenagers’ interest. Set in New Mexico, one of the states with the highest drop-out rates among Hispanics, this novel unveils the social pressures and struggles of teens living in inner cities.”

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2009, retrieved from NoveList database October 19, 2010

Schooled by Gordon Korman

A yellow schoolbus with rainbow tie-dyed windows is shown sideways over a large peace sign on a yellow cover

Cover of Schooled

Captain’s Log:Module 7

Port of Call: Korman, G. (2007). Schooled. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

First Lines: I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a license. At the time, I didn’t even know what a license was. I wasn’t too clear on what being arrested meant either.

Summary: Capricorn “Cap” Anderson has been raised in a hippie commune all his life. He is completely unfamiliar with what most of us would consider to be commonplace, “normal life” occurrances. However, when his grandmother, who has been raising him in solitude, has to go to the hospital, Cap is placed in a local high school until she gets better.

Claverage “C Average” High School is a typical midwest school with its fair share of cliques and high school drama. When Cap arrives, it doesn’t take long for the entire school to realize he is very different. As a joke, he is nominated to be class president, and everyone expects him to crash and burn for the entertainment of all. Sure enough, Cap’s strange ideals get him into lots of troublesome situations, such when he thinks checks are free money and spends all the Halloween dance funds on charity. This is a humorous story about high school power struggles and culture clashes as Cap struggles to understand his place in the modern world.

First Impressions: This story has an entertaining pretense, and so I found it quite easy to get drawn into this book. This story is definitely aimed at middle school students, and the characters are not particularly complex, but their motives and ambitions are carefully constructed which makes the character interactions mesh well. I finished this book quickly and thought it was an interesting and fun read.

Suggestions for use: This is a great book about being true to yourself and dealing with social challenges in high school. While this book can seem intimidating (high school can be scary!) I think Cap is a character kids can learn from. Cap undergoes difficult times, but he never doubts himself and doesn’t let what others think or say change his ideals. I suggest this book for anyone who has had to deal with bullying in school, or has had trouble fitting into a new situation.

Reviews:

BookList:

“Gr. 6-9 /*Starred Review*/ Homeschooled on an isolated “alternate farm commune” that has dwindled since the 1960s to 2 members, 13-year-old Cap has always lived with his grandmother, Rain. When she is hospitalized, Cap is taken in by a social worker and sent—like a lamb to slaughter—to middle school. Smart and capable, innocent and inexperienced (he learned to drive on the farm, but he has never watched television), long-haired Cap soon becomes the butt of pranks. He reacts in unexpected ways and, in the end, elevates those around him to higher ground. From chapter to chapter, the first-person narrative shifts among certain characters: Cap, a social worker (who takes him into her home), her daughter (who resents his presence there), an A-list bully, a Z-list victim, a popular girl, the school principal, and a football player (who unintentionally decks Cap twice in one day). Korman capably manages the shifting points of view of characters who begin by scorning or resenting Cap and end up on his side. From the eye-catching jacket art to the scene in which Cap says good-bye to his 1,100 fellow students, individually and by name, this rewarding novel features an engaging main character and some memorable moments of comedy, tenderness, and reflection. Pair this with Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 Stargirl (the sequel is reviewed in this issue) for a discussion of the stifling effects of conformity within school culture or just read it for the fun of it.”

Phelan, C. (2007). Starred review of schooled by gordon korman. BookList, 103(22), 71.

School Library Journal:

“Gr 6–9— Capricorn, 13, lives with his hippie grandmother on a farm commune. He’s never been to school, never watched TV, and doesn’t even own a phone. When Rain falls out of a tree while picking plums and is sent to rehab for several weeks, Cap stays with a social worker and is sent to the local junior high school. There he is introduced to iPods, cell phones, spit balls, and harassment. Cap, with his long frizzy hair, hemp shoes, and serene ignorance of everything most of the kids care about, is the dweebiest of the dweebs, and it’s the custom at this school to elect such a kid to be eighth-grade class president (which offers extra humiliation opportunities). The story is told from multiple points of view, adding depth to even the most unsympathetic characters. Korman’s humor is a mix of edgy and silly, the plot moves along at a steady pace, and the accessible and smooth writing style brings all the elements together to make a satisfying whole. The plot is not long on plausibility, but maybe that’s not important in this case. Will Cap’s ingrained peacefulness and sense of self win out in the end? Will it matter that he’s entrusted with writing checks to help pay for the eighth-grade dance, even though he’s not clear on the concept of what a check is? Readers will stay tuned to the last page, and Korman’s many fans won’t be disappointed.”

Persson, L. (2007). Review of schooled by gordon korman. School Library Journal, 53(8), 118.

Frindle by Andrew Clements

Cover of Frindle

Captain’s Log: Module 6

Port of Call: Clements, A. (1996). Frindle. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

First Lines: If you asked the kids and the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School to make three lists – all the really bad kids, all the really smart kids, and all the really good kids – Nick Allen would not be on any of them. Nick deserved a list all his own, and everyone knew it.

Summary: In an attempt to stall his English class, Nick Allen starts thinking about the origins of language. Partially out of curiosity about the way language changes, bu mostly in an effort to test the boundaries of his teacher – who thinks the dictionary is the most important book children can read – Nick convinces his classmates to begin calling pens ‘frindles’. The ensuing story covers the range of reactions Nick faces as part of his experiment, from the initial punishment by his teacher in reaction to the perceived prank, to the mass-involvement of the student body in perpetuating the ‘frindle’ mayhem, to the eventual media coverage and reverberation of ‘frindle’ usage nationwide. Nick Allen’s experiences teach him about activism, and promoting what you believe in through healthy behaviors. Testing the limits placed on us by society and doing it gracefully without hurting others in defense of your beliefs. This book has a wonderful message that encourages children to think, and the ending is heartwarming with Nick and his teacher realizing the mutual respect they have for each other regardless of their differing viewpoints.

First Impression I love stories about troublemakers, and this book certainly was light and easy reading with a subtle message about testing boundaries in a healthy way. I liked the illustrations by Brian Selznick and think this is a great, non-intimidating book to recommend for middle-schoolers.

Suggestions for use: I would recommend this book to any middle-schooler, but especially those with an abundance of energy and drive, but little direction for useful application of that energy. Students unhappy with their status quo, or those who are thinkers and brave enough to do something to make a change will find inspiration in this book. Certainly though, this book can teach any student a lesson about what greatness can happen with a cool head and a willingness to experiment.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Gr 3-6– Nick’s idea to invent a brand new word is both a challenge and a tribute to his dictionary-loving, language-arts teacher. He devises ingenious ways to encourage people to start referring to pens as “frindles.” Chaotic events follow as the word becomes a national phenomenon and, finally, an actual dictionary entry. Along with the humor, there are plenty of thought-provoking insights about the nature of words and their importance to the lives of regular people.”

Engelfried, S. (2004). Frindle (Book). School Library Journal50(6), 56. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Horn Book Magazine:

“The author has created a fresh, imaginative plot that will have readers smiling all the way through, if not laughing out loud. Nick, a champion time-waster, faces the challenge of his life when confronted with the toughest teacher in school, Mrs. Granger. Always counted on to filibuster the impending test or homework assignment away, Nick has met his match in “Dangerous Grangerous,” who can spot a legitimate question in a second and has no patience with the rest. In answer to “Like, who says that d-o-g means the thing that goes ‘woof’ and wags its tail? Who says so?” she replies, “You do, Nicholas. You and me and everyone in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country.” And thus is born frindle, Nick’s new name for pen, promising and delivering a classic student-teacher battle along the lines of — but far funnier than — Avi’s Nothing But the Truth (Orchard). The battle assumes the proportions of a tall tale, and although outrageous and hilarious, it’s all plausible, and every bit works from the premise to the conclusion. The brisk narration is rapid-fire, and Nick is one of the most charming troublemakers since Soup. The merchandising future of this one is too terrible to contemplate; the cutting-edge gift this Christmas has got to be a frindle.”

E.S.W. (1996). Frindle. Horn Book Magazine72(6), 732-733. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.