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Archive for the ‘Human Rights Issue’ Category

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein  code name verity

This is a must-read for teens. And for adults. It’s no more only a ‘teen book’ than The Book Thief is a ‘teen book.’ Never mind how the publisher describes it. Read it.

Since Code Name Verity deals with espionage, it is hard to give you too much summary—this is one book that will be ruined by that. So—I want you to trust me. There’s everything to love here. Oh—trust the Printz Award Committee as well—it’s a Printz Award Honor book.

The basics: A couple of young women become great friends in World War II. They are British—but don’t call the Scottish girl English of you’re in big trouble. One is a pilot, who normally taxis planes for the male pilots, who use them in battle. The other is a telegraph operator. But both are required to serve both secretly and dangerously as the war effort becomes a struggle and Nazi Germany may well overcome all of Europe. Britain is Europe’s final hope.

In a flight over Nazi-occupied France, the fighter plane that the young women are in crashes. The survivor is held captive by the Nazis and tortured for information.  She is required to write information down, but she includes a narrative of how she and her friend arrived at the moment of the crash.

This book is about true bravery—courage in the face of incredible adversity, and not just of the two main characters, but of all sorts of ordinary British servicemen and citizens as well as ordinary French folk who aid the French Resistance. And even a few double-agent Nazis.

Sometimes we say there is a breathtaking moment in a book or a movie, and we don’t mean it literally. In Code Name Verity, think of literally sucking in your breath at the shock and being unable to let it out.

Code Name Verity deals with individual acts, courage, and moral ambiguity.

High school housekeeping: I recommend this book for all readers. You’ll learn something about WWII in Europe and the roles of both women and men. The afterword by the author, where she tells us about how she did her research, and how she decided which scenes would be credible and which scenes would have to be left out,  is great stuff. You can use this as a fictional springboard to do your own research on many issues from WW II—the Royal Air Force, the French Resistance, women in WW II, fighter pilots, Britain during the war, etc.

A little note on the use of the word ‘fag’ in the novel: As you are American teens, you may wonder at the word ‘fag’ used throughout the book—how people are trading them, giving them as gifts, etc. No worries—in Britain (and I believe this is still true) ‘fag’ is a common term for cigarette. In fact, there’s a history behind that use and the derogatory use of the word for a gay man. You could research it. Very sad.

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breaking night     Breaking Night by Liz Murray

 Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.

 Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.

 Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.

 Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.

 When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.

 Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.

 High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.

Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.

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Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan  Until Tuesday

 

 

Montalvan returned from two extended tours in Iraq a wounded warrior. Two Iraqis attempted to assassinate him because he was working hard to stop bribery and a thriving black market of US goods where he was stationed.

 

 

Though Montalvan knew he was hurt, he didn’t get all of the medical care he needed, partly because he was afraid that admitting how bad he felt, including the fact that he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), would hurt his army career. Above all, he wanted to be a good soldier.

 

 

Finally, after three years of terrific back pain and unbearable migraines, after self- medicating and turning to alcohol, Montalvan learned that he had three cracked vertebrate and several brain injuries. He was growing distant from his family. His father, a Cuban American whom Montalvan describes as having a macho code, believed that he didn’t want to get better. When he attempted to get help from the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, he was forced to see a different doctor with each visit, one who always asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” This is the exact wrong treatment for PTSD because strange situations invoke the symptom of needing to be on high alert.

 

What saved Montalvan from self-destructive drinking, withdrawal from loved ones, and a phobia of strangers and public spaces? Tuesday, the golden retriever that he received as one of the first dogs trained for wounded warriors.

 

 

Tuesday was a graduate of Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates help to train dogs that will go to wounded vets or become EOD dogs. It was great to learn about this program and how it helps both inmates and soldiers. The man who helped to train Tuesday had been in prison for thirty years. After training seven dogs—and having an unheard of 100% success rate—he was paroled. What could he do for a living on the outside after all that time? Train more dogs, of course.

 

 

Part of Montalvan’s story is political. He discusses his sense of betrayal by the United States government—both of service personnel and of the Iraqi people who helped the Americans on the promise that the US would protect them. On this, the author has much to say—how the war was conducted with insufficient oversight, how high ranking officials lied about the troops having enough members or enough equipment so that the picture given to the media was rosy (and totally false). Montalvan tells a sorry tale about his best Iraqi friends, who, after devoting themselves to the US cause, were left to be murdered or flee the country and fend for themselves as nearly starving refugees. He also tells the very discomforting story of a military couple having a baby. Before the baby is born, they know she is missing several vital organs, but don’t abort her because the military (for moral reasons) doesn’t cover abortion. Instead, the baby is born, and suffers torment for several weeks before dying—and an infant death was the only possible outcome. The couple splits. Montalvan is certainly making a statement about morality.  Not everyone will like everything that he has to say—but he regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about his experience in war. He wants the reader to understand why we lost the war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis, and he lays it on corrupt and incompetent leadership.

 

Montalvan also regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially those with service dogs. Many store owners, bus drivers, subway employees, restaurant owners and more keep Montalvan away because they don’t think Tuesday is really a service dog, although he wears a vest. (They expect to see a harness such as guide dogs for the blind use.) After undergoing persistent harassment, which exacerbated his PTSD, Montalvan found that his new tour of duty was to education companies about service dogs.

 

 

This memoir is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale—not an easy mix to write. It’s one of several good books I’ve read recently about the heroism of our military men and women on the ground and our lack of support for them when they want to tell us the truth about war. But we need to hear that truth, and reading Until Tuesday is a good way to start.

 

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 Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand unbroken

Unbroken is the incredible, nearly mythic, story of Louis Zamperini, an army air forces bomber whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Before the war, he had been an Olympic miler, and probably would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile if the war had not intervened.

 

Louie and his raft mates survived more than a month on the Pacific Ocean—through starvation and dehydration, shark attacks, and even a strafing by a Japanese bomber. One of Zamperini’s raft mates finally succumbed to starvation and the elements. Louie and the other, ‘Phil’ Allen Phillips, viewed land after forty-seven days at sea in the life raft. Unfortunately, they were spotted by a Japanese boat crew and taken prisoner. From the boat, they were sent to Kwajalein—or as it was commonly known, ‘Execution Island.’

 

On Execution Island, the true hell of their POW experience began. ‘The crash of The Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter. But in Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.”

 

Both Louie and Phil were moved from one POW prison to another, always without being registered with the Red Cross so that no one would know they were alive. They were consistently mistreated. Having no other information, the army reported to their families that they were dead.

 

In the 1940s, the Japanese considered it shameful to be a prisoner of war and many Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than be captured. When they captured Allied soldiers, they often felt that they were fair game for abuse. Because of this, Allied POWs in the Pacific fared far worse than those in Europe.

 

“The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity . . ..  Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. [In one survey], 77 percent of POWs [were found to have] wet beriberi . . .. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage . . .. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.”

 

Louie, Phil, and their fellow POWs suffered all these ailments and more because they are starved and tortured. In the Omori POW camp, outside Tokyo, the men fell under the cruel persecution of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (‘The Bird’). The Bird is a true sociopath, brutalizing men one minute, possibly asking for forgiveness the next, and getting sexual pleasure from administering brutal beatings, clubbings and grotesque punishments involving excrement. He particularly hated Louie, singled him out and beat him, sometimes with a belt buckle, every day.

 

That anyone could have survived such terror appears miraculous.

 

 

Some of your teachers ask me to look for biographies or memoirs of inspirational Americans. I bought Unbroken awhile back when it was getting stellar reviews. Then it became a longtime bestseller. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it myself. (Sometimes it seems that this is what my summer break is for. 🙂) Not only is it one of the best biographies I’ve read, but it also has the long list of acknowledgements and endnotes that give you an understanding of what serious research looks like.

 

If you are looking for inspiration, just read the two-page forward of this book. You’ll be hooked.

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Summer Reading

One of my reading goals this summer is to read and select some books about bullying—both the cyber sort and the in-person attacks. I hope to recommend two bully-themed books per month in the 2013-14 school year.

This is going to be my “Ontario Teens Read” for 2013-14.

If you want to read some of the bullying books this summer before we start the “Ontario Teens Read 2013-14,” below are titles I’m considering.

We’ll begin the school year with a few that we’ve already been talking up for a while—they have become popular on my campuses, but if you haven’t read them, you might start here:

Want to Go Private

(Mature teens only—read the review!—cyberbullying by a sexual predator—the horrible, lasting effects of having the wrong things posted online!)

Thirteen Reasons Why

A new book I want to pair with Thirteen Reasons is:

I Swear by Lane Davis

It’s similar, but the students who pushed the girl too far are trying to cover up their responsibility.

Other bullying books we’ve talked up in the past:

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci

The Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

Others I’m considering–some new, some tested and loved, some intense reads, some for reluctant readers–all got good reviews.

There are more than I can feature in a year. If you want to read a few and let me know what you think, I’d appreciate it very much!

The List by Siobhan Vivian

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Shooter by Walter Dean Myers

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers

Burn for Burn by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian

Rotters by Daniel Kraus

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

Promises to Keep by Paul Langan

Playground by 50 Cent

The Beckoners by Carri Mac

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn

Brutal by Michael B. Harmon, Michael B.

Burn : A Novel  by Suzanne Phillips

By the Time You Read This, I’ll be Dead by Julie Ann Peters

Cracked by K. M. Walton

Crossing Lines by Paul Volponi

Dough Boy by Peter Marino

Dumped by Meredith Costain

Egghead: A Novel by Caroline Pignat

Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser

Letters to a Bullied Girl by Olivia Gardner

Names will Never Hurt Me by Jaime Adoff

Poison Ivy by Amy Goldman Koss

Teen Queens and Has-beens by Cathy Hopkins

What Happened to Cass McBride by Gail Giles

Who I Am by M. L. Rice

Send by Patty Blount

Playground by 50 Cent

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Beaten by Suzanne Weyn

I’ll decide on titles as the school year progresses, but I’m still in the selection stage. Any of these would make a great summer read.

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team of rivals

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I know this is a long shot, but I’m hoping

there’s a student who will take me up on this.

Summer reading for the truly motivated!

 While the focus of Team of Rivals is on Lincoln’s political acumen and on his relationship with his major political rivals turned advisers and friends, there is a lot of interesting discussion of their personal lives. This is a sort of group biography of the men who steered the country through the Civil War, and of the women who influenced them.

Many of the men discussed in Team of Rivals were prominent candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Several of them were better known than Lincoln, particularly William Henry Seward. None of them thought Lincoln would secure the nomination. Yet it was their own rivalries that made Lincoln’s victory possible, as delegates who didn’t want a certain prominent candidate to be nominated would throw their votes to Lincoln.

I admit to knowing little about the Civil war period. This book was a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn about the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the men in his cabinet, of their relationships to family members, and in turn the influence those family members had on the direction of this country. Even more interesting—and instructive—was seeing how Lincoln was able to take all these rivals of his (and of one another) and pull them together in his cabinet—a team whose diverse opinions were crucial to Lincoln as he navigated one of the worst periods in U.S. history.

Once Lincoln had established his cabinet, William Seward, as secretary of state, thought that he would be running the country, with Lincoln as his puppet. But over time, he understood Lincoln’s political genius. The two became great friends. So, too with Edwin Stanton. Stanton had disrespected Lincoln when he was a lawyer working in Springfield, refusing to meet with or even talk to him after engaging him to work on a trial in Cincinnati, and calling him a ‘long-armed ape.’ Yet Lincoln later made Stanton his secretary of war. Stanton became a good friend and is the man who said, on Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In addition, the escaped slave, abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass came to respect Lincoln after meeting him to discuss freeing slaves.

Unfortunately, Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, could never put aside his jealousy of the president. Chase seemed to have no loyalties to friends and people who had helped his career (so it wasn’t just Lincoln), but he did stay loyal to anti-slavery platforms. His behavior appears to be wholly motivated from a desire to be the president—even at the expense of Lincoln’s policy and reputation. He always felt that he was more deserving of the presidency than Lincoln, and he let others know it. He was fond of submitting his resignation when he didn’t get what he wanted, but was surprised on the fifth submission that Lincoln accepted it. However, Lincoln later appointed Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to Goodwin, Lincoln had a “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.” It is this as much as anything else that makes him a great man.

Another man who comes off poorly is General George McClellan, who couldn’t take action in leading Union troops into battle, yet blamed all his faults on others, and particularly on Lincoln’s leadership.

Deeply revealing of the political climate of the time is the role of the women in these men’s lives. I enjoyed Francis Seward’s abolitionist stance and the letters she wrote to her husband and friends about what brought her to the cause (the immorality of slavery, the pathetic situation of slaves that she saw as she traveled). Not all whites sympathetic to slaves held these same views. Many Northerners and Republicans (the party of Lincoln) held that slavery would naturally end as society became more urban and industrialized.

Kate Chase, daughter of Salmon Chase, was the beauty who was at the top of the social pecking order, the girl everyone wanted to admire or court. She was so popular that Mary Lincoln was sometimes jealous of her. And yet her marriage and subsequent life was tragic.

Mary Todd Lincoln sounds better in Team of Rivals than in the few sources I’ve read before. She appears to have suffered terrible migraine headaches, and this affected her responses in social situations. She does hold more grudges than Lincoln, but to be honest, just about anyone in the world does. (His ability to let go of past hurts is nearly superhuman.) Team of Rivals also discusses the over-the-top spending habits Mary is now so famous for. However, Goodwin also catalogs the necessary improvements she made in the White House, which had been left to fall apart. Mary wasn’t very good at controlling her image in the press—she did much good, such as regularly visiting hospitals to care for wounded Union soldiers. Her work went unnoticed while the wives of other Politicians were lauded for the same activities. And, of course, her grief over the loss of her children—eventually three of her four boys—had to be a major factor in her bouts of depression.

While this point may seem just a sidebar in the evaluation of the book, I think it’s valuable. The deep grief suffered by so many of these ‘major players’ on the national scene changed all of them, for better and for worse. Lincoln suffered the deaths of his mother, his much-loved sister, and two of his sons (another died after Lincoln was assassinated). Chase lost several wives and became dependent on his elder daughter to be his social coordinator. The Sewards lost a daughter. Others close to the Lincolns lost their sons and husbands in the war. That the death of young wives and children was so commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century is important to remember. People learned compassion or they learned to be unnecessarily mean.

Since Team of Rivals covers such an important period of the country’s history, it includes insights on many of the significant issues and legislation of the day, particularly legal wrangling over slavery—the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and more. Some of the events are shocking. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, while railing against the expansion of slavery, verbally attacked senators who supported it. Congressman Preston Brooks later physically attacked Sumner, feeling that he was defending his relative’s honor. The idea that one man could cane another, nearly to death, right on the Senate floor, boggles the mind. Interestingly, this beating rallied the anti-slavery forces in the country.

This is such a great book on every level—the political, social, historical and personal. Not only that, but it includes many of the funny stories Lincoln was always telling—full of folk wisdom and often making his adversaries see the value of his point. The only thing that will keep you from reading it is the length—over 900 pages. While about 150 pages are endnotes and indices, that still leaves 750 pages. Even students who are good readers and enjoy history may not be able to find the time for such reading, especially if they are memorizing thousands of facts for AP tests!

Would you be willing to read this one over the summer? You won’t be disappointed. During the school year, you might make a deal with teachers who require about 200 pages of outside reading per quarter. Ask them if you can use Team of Rivals for biography as well as other nonfiction, and then as a free choice. That will cover at least 600 pages. I think any teacher would love the idea that you’d choose to read this book and enrich your education. By the time you get to Lincoln’s death, you will be so moved by his story that you’ll be hoping it won’t happen, even though you know it’s a historical fact. You can’t ask for more from a work of nonfiction.

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solitary

Solitary: Book Two of the Escape from Furnace series

by Alexander Gordon Smith

Just a quick heads up on this series. I reviewed the first book, Lockdown here. I thought it was great entertainment and a perfect choice for guys who have a hard time finding a book they like. I wanted to continue the series and see if the same quick-paced action/adventure continued. It does.

This time Alex is locked up in solitary confinement after his escape attempt. The cell is more like a coffin standing upright. His buddy Zee is also locked in a solitary cell nearby and the two figure out a communication system that helps them stay sane. Still, Alex has many hallucinations, particularly of his old cellmate Donovan, who was taken by the men in black suits and the Wheezers in book one.

The Wheezers are back as are the mutant rat boys, only this time they are out for Alex’s blood. In Solitary we also get a good look of the horror of the infirmary—we figured Donovan had been taken there to be transformed into some sort of creature at the end of book one. Now we know for sure.

This book, like the first, certainly has lots of disturbing images and description. It’s hard for me to say why it doesn’t bother me in the same way that it bothers me in many books. I think, for me, it all plays pretty well into the nightmare of Furnace, so it doesn’t have the same gratuitous feel that I’ve experienced with other science fiction for reluctant guy readers. However, I’ll give you an idea of what some professional reviewers thought:

“The gross-out factor is high in many sections” (School Library Journal)

“Readers who relish lurid imagery and melodramatic prose will continue to be riveted and left eager for the next disgust-o-rama episode” (Booklist)

So, that’s the caveat (warning)—meanwhile, I’m on to book three, Death Sentence.

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