Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

This is one of my absolute favorite books. It is also my top pick for book about an athlete. Jessica Carlisle pretty much had an ideal life. Best friend, crush on a cute boy, and a pretty amazing runner. After a successful track meet, Jessica takes the celebratory bus back home.

And ends up in the hospital missing a leg.

A devastating crash leaves Jessica as a below the knee amputee. Jessica is sure her life is over and she will never run again.

Then her friend Fiona shows her a video of runners racing with prosthetic legs. An idea is born. Her track team rallies and raises enough funds (along with help from an anonymous donor) to buy a prosthetic running leg.

She begins to run again, once again taking to the road and trail with her dog Sherlock. Once something she wouldn’t even dare to hope for, she was rebuilding her endurance and her strength.

Throughout these events, Jessica has befriended a fellow student named Rosa. Rosa and Jessica talk about everything. Rosa imagines running as flying. Jessica then realizes it’s her job to make Rosa fly. Not just to give her the gift of running but also to raise awareness of Rosa. Rosa is wheelchair bound, has cerebral palsy and has speech that takes work to hear. Most of Rosa’s classmates ignore Rosa.

Jessica decides she will run in a 10 mile race, all the while pushing Rosa in her wheelchair. She begins to train, using a wheelchair her father built for this purpose placing sandbags in the seat. On the day of the race, pushing Rosa is harder than she ever imagined. But she does it. She runs again and Rosa flies. People start to see Rosa as Rosa not just as her cerebral palsy, her wheelchair, or speech.

Honestly, if the part about Rosa was not included in the book, I don't think I would like it as much. It would a great book, no doubt, but it wouldn't have the same punch and wouldn't stick in my heart as much.

I read Wendelin Van Draanen's book every fall as the weather begins to get colder and excuses to not run seem to grow magically. If Jessica can run again and help Rosa fly, why can’t I just bundle up and go for a run? I have two perfectly working legs. I have no excuses.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Soccerland by Beth Choat

Age Range: Age 12 and up
Flora’s dream is to play for the U.S. in the Olympics. Her mother was a soccer player who planted the seed of this dream in her mind. When her mother died of cancer when Flora was 10, Flora becomes even more determined to continue with soccer. In her small Maine potato farming town, no one else quite understands, not even her teammates.  Flora gets the opportunity to stay at the international Sports Academy (ISA) for three weeks and jumps at it. Going to camp at ISA is equal to a three week tryout for the U.S. U15 team (did I mention that Flora is only 13?). The majority of the book takes place at ISA in Colorado where Flora makes some friends for life, faces her own fears and doubts in the form of chatty teammates, and works hard to please an ice faced British soccer coach (who only refers to soccer as football and calls the field pitch among other British-isms.). Flora ends up not making the team but the coach offers her the chance to live and train at the training grounds year round, ultimately to join the U15 team. She jumps at the chance with the knowledge she is leaving her family (whom she is very close to) behind in Maine.
What made me like this book so much is how Flora stuck with her dream. In some books, the main character gets brought down by reality as they realize their family needs them on the farm, they’re just not  a good enough soccer player, or their grandfather’s heart attack is a reality check of what she is missing at home. ALL these events happen in the book, yet Flora persists. It’s as if her memory of her mom is stronger than all that.

As a former competitive skier and a sports journalist, author Beth Choate has the background to really capture the environment, emotions, and experiences of a competitive athlete. Beth Choate’s website is very thorough, providing answers to all the questions I had while reading (mainly, is ISA real and when can I go?! It sounds like an amazing place just for kids! Unfortunately, Choate made it up). But my favorite quote on the site was in the answer to the question “Did you always write?” She responded: “In a word, no. I am, and always have been, a voracious reader.” Kindergarten connection finger time! Although I do have to admit, I have always loved to write fiction in addition to reading. I just need to become more disciplined!

Friday, February 7, 2014

QB1 by Mike Lupica

Age Range: Ages 10 and up

This book can be best summed up as Friday Night Lights meets the Manning brothers. But that doesn’t do it complete justice.
Jake Cullen comes from a family of football and a legend of quarterbacks. His brother graduated the year before and now plays for a D1 college and his father is a former NFL player. Jake, as a high school freshman and younger brother, has to prove his own worth and abilities as a quarterback. He begins as a third string and through the book works his way up to first string quarterback leading the team to a state championship. As a freshman.

Okay I’m not going to lie. This does strike me as a little idealistic and unrealistic. I almost wish Jake had stepped out of his father and brothers shadow not as a triplicate version but as his own person. Yes, Jake is described as being bright and intelligent, using his mind as much as his body playing quarterback unlike his father and brother, but otherwise they all follow the same trajectory of success at a young age.

Anyway, ramble aside, Lupica does do an amazing job at capturing the aura and technicalities of football. This book could and will draw in football players and athletes who might be reluctant readers (and those who aren’t!) especially for middle school students. I work with several boys who play football and also struggle with reading. This is definitely a book I will be recommending to them. I think what I like best about Mike Lupica’s books (as well as Tim Green’s books – and Matt Christopher books – but sadly I feel like kids don’t read his books as much anymore) are that they not only capture the sport in detail - they also capture the real life human interactions.

There are strong friendships, rivalries among team mates and classmates, as well as the mixed bag of family dynamics. In this case Jake Cullen has two friends who he can turn to, a mother who roots for him and understands his views on life, a teammate rivaling for the quarterback spot, and a father who puts the older brother before Jake. The main character is usually a strong protagonist standing up to wrong doing is occurring (n this case a dual issue of the rival team mate and Jake’s own father) and taking the best path (not fighting the teammate but using words and walking away to keep the team together). But these books are still able to show how these characters struggle with their emotions and making hard decisions, making it seem more realistic. They’re not just goody two shoes who know the “right” way and always feel the “right” feelings. This book (as well as Lupica’s other books) show the real, grittier side of life and even with that side of life, you can still make good choices.

Hat’s off to a Connecticut author who makes sports come alive!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Amnesia, Part 2

I recently blogged about my book amnesia and some of the strategies I was going to try. Since this happens to be a snow day where reading is a wonderful snowed in activity, I decided to update. I’ve definitely been reading less and I’ve been reading slower. Instead of staying up until 11 to finish a book, I turn off the light at 9:30 and reassure myself that a book thief will not come during the night. This also makes getting up in the morning easier, by the way!
The log of books I LOVE?

Not so much. When I was in college I took a fictional reading class. What could be better than reading books for credit? Except we didn’t just read them, we analyzed them. We critiqued them. We took all the symbolisms out of them and debated what the different colors in the kitchen meant. By the end, I was cursed! I couldn’t pick up a book to read on my own without reflecting on and analyzing characters motivations, author’s choice for setting and all those grand things. After a few months, this instinct (thankfully) faded. I was back to enjoying books for being books. Do I still sometimes wonder these things or make connections in the stories I read? Of course, but it no longer feels like a chore.

 That’s what creating a list of books I LOVE became. One more thing to do. It might have been easier if I make it less important: just an excel spreadsheet with the date, author and title. And if I want to know more or refresh my mind I can look up the book and read a summary. I know, I know, the lazy man’s way out. But for me reading is a way to relax, it’s for pleasure. If I start assigning work to it, I just ignore the work because I know that’s just the crazy me talking. But there are some books I do want to share on this blog so maybe I’ll limit my analysis and work to books I really, really love that could also be used in the classroom. And then I’ll just post a summary of them to this blog (it will also help me to get back to blogging about great books!).

On a totally unrelated note, I think this snow day is making me a little stir crazy. Being inside all day is not my normal M.O. (I love running [even in the snow!] and being active). I read a lot, tried not to eat too much, and…painted my nails: Barbie pink with sparkles. I’m sure I’ll be cringing tomorrow when I actually go into public with them…but for now they are 10 bright spots in a white snowy world!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Can you read TOO much?

Recently I was talking with the Reading Specialist about books we thought would be good picks for our 8th grade reading class. As we browsed through the lists of award winning books and came up with our own titles of books we read, a reoccurring event would happen. “Oh! How about The Compound! Did you read that?” I would nod, “Yes! I loved that book. That would be a good pick for the girls since there is a strong female protagonist.” “Isn’t the main character a boy?” the reading specialist replied. Hm. But isn’t there a strong female character too?

 Next book: “You know, I think the book Saving Armpit would be a good pick.” “What was it about?” The reading specialist asked. “Oh, hmm, well there was a girl, and she had this special power, and … actually that might be another book I read…Maybe Powerless?”

 This happened for so many books that we talked about! I had definitely read them, I remember the general gist or feeling from the story (i.e. a tale of survival, adventure, saving a town) but I couldn’t recall any of the actual plot, the main characters, or the settings of the story in a clear way. It worried me. After this conversation I walked away sure I had some kind of book amnesia. I was also worried: Do I read too many books? This is not something I would consider possible. A good book is like a bowl of ice cream minus the calories.

Yet, in the last four days, I finished reading Soccerland, Swagger, The Mediator Book 2, and Creamy v. Crunchy. I’m also in the middle of reading World Peace and other Fourth Grade Achievements and How My Summer Went Up In Flames. Next on my To Read list (as in I’ll read them within the next week): The Mediator Book 3, The Calder Games, Wild Cards, and Words Their Way.
I read five books in four days. I would say this is about average for me. Sometimes I read more (In the summer, it bumps up to about three books a day) and sometimes less (during busy times, maybe one book over three days). But I can tell you what these books were all about! Soccerland = Amazing! Is there a sequel?; Swagger = Sad, Not the kind of book I usually read or want to read; The Mediator = Slow at first but about 1/3 of the way in I was hooked (hence wanting to read the third book); and Creamy v. Crunchy was pretty good for a research book. It was about the history of peanut butter (and totally made me want to go eat my all natural organic peanut butter more than normal). Although (reader confession!) I did skip some pages in this last book.
I have a gist for the guts of the book. But do I actually remember the plot? Let’s take Soccerland as an example: It’s about a girl who dreams of playing for the US in the Olympics. Her mom died of cancer when she was 10 and her mom was also soccer player. She lives with her French-Canadian family in Maine where they own a potato farm. The majority of the book takes place at a US training camp where she spends two weeks essentially trying out for the US U15 soccer team. She ends up not making the team but the coach offers her the chance to live at the training grounds to train year round to ultimately be able to join U15. She jumps at the chance with the knowledge she is leaving her family (whom she is very close to) behind in Maine.
Phew. Okay that was actually seemed like a decent summary. Except, I don’t remember the girl’s name. And I didn’t capture all the parts that made it so amazing (such as all the inter- and intrapersonal details that made the book seem real, interesting, and inspiring) that are why I would recommend it.  And I read this book TWO days ago. As time goes on, I know that I’ll forget more. I’ll forget she has a cousin who she fights with like a brother. I’ll forget her grandpa had a heart attack (or is it a concussion?). I’ll forget her roommates name (Samantha). I’ll forget she lives in Maine and goes to train in Colorado (I think?).

I think my issue with reading books is that I devour them like I devour a bowl of ice cream when I have yet to eat dinner. Yum, slurp, gulp, gone. I don’t savor books. I don’t save books to read them later. I don’t reread books as much as I could (or should). I just think the more books I read, the better it is, except that it leads to long term book amnesia.
Four prong attack:
1) Read less. As oxymoronic as this sounds coming from someone who LOVES books like she loves ice cream, I think the less I read, the more I’ll remember. Chances are I’ll also read slower, because since I have less to read, I’ll be less likely to speed read and I’ll skim less (something I realize I totally do). I’ll want the pages to last longer.
2) Read more difficult books. I do wonder if the books I read aren’t challenging enough? Most of the books I read are young adult with a couple adult chick lit books and research books thrown in. They’re not particularly challenging to read. Give me an in-depth research article and it will take me several days (even weeks) and several read-throughs before I understand what I’m reading. I’ve tried to read Anna Karenina TWICE and both times I get about halfway through before I stop reading. The weird thing is I still remember scenes and ideas from this book even though last time I read it was three summers ago. Reading it was slow and I had to reread when I picked it up again. I couldn’t just skim the paragraph where I left off and then keep reading.
3) Be Picky. I need to read books that are of a worthy caliber. I admit sometimes I read books that are not so great. The writing isn’t strong or the characters are cliché.  Yet, I keep reading. It’s guilt! I picked out this book – now it’s my obligation to finish it! (Similar to when I bought cherry amaretto ice cream. I felt bad that I never tried it. I bought it and tried it. It was disgusting. Yet I ate the whole thing. I bought it! I had to eat it!).
4) Keep a log of the books I LOVE. Include the genre, main characters, the conflict, setting (time and place), plot and resolution. I expect my reading kiddos to be able to tell me these attributes about stories they read. Why shouldn’t I? I would also add for my teacher-y purposes reading level, age level appropriateness, and main use for instruction/in classroom. I designated LOVE because honestly I will still read books that I’m not a die-hard fan. Even with the five books I read this long weekend, I would just include Soccerland in my log.
I know this will definitely be an interesting journey as right now all I want to do is snuggle in bed and finish How My Summer Went Up In Flames (and I’m only about a fourth of the way through the book). Yet I’ll resist. Somehow. Perhaps with a time limit or a page limit. I’ll definitely update about how this progresses!
Here’s to savoring books!