Saturday, January 29, 2011

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

I don't read many books like this one. In fact, after reading the first few pages of this book I'm a bit surprised that I didn't put it down. And yet, it's not that difficult for me to see why I kept reading. This book was absolutely addictive, pure and simple. Most books with terminally ill lead characters get bogged down with seemingly endless descriptions of the characters thinking. It becomes an obsessive journey into the inner workings of every decision they make. This wasn't the case here.

While Ben certainly has to come to terms with his own imminent demise, he does it with a sense of urgency and intelligence that makes someone want to persist despite what they know is coming. This story doesn't pull any punches. It doesn't pander, give false hope, or pretend that things are going to work out because of some hokey moment of enlightenment when everyone comes to terms with their shortcomings and is better for it. It doesn't end clean for everyone, and there aren't a lot of alternatives to that end that would have come off so honest. The conversations with Hey-Soos that Ben has every so often are really about as deep as it gets here, and they are as laced with sarcasm and humor as they are with real insights.

This book is worth the read, whether or not it leaves you feeling down for a day or so afterwards. I won't deny that the issue of someone who only recently legally qualified as an adult deciding to keep his terminal illness to himself doesn't raise some objections in my mind, but I'm not sure if he didn't make the right decision under the circumstances. It certainly blew up in his face with Dallas Suzuki, as it did with his brother Cody in some regard. On the flip side, hiding his illness was what allowed him to play football, to not be treated with kid gloves by his teachers, and to not go down coddled and miserable.

While I came to this book with a pretty set notion of what's the right approach to an issue like this, I left with a lot more to think about. I think my ultimate conclusion is that this is an something I have no business pressing my judgements about unless it applies to me personally. This book will probably make you think about this too, though whether you come to the same conclusion as I do is on your head.

Throughout the book, Ben recommends reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, and yes, I took that recommendation and I'm glad I did. Now I'm going to recommend that you read Deadline. Crutcher knew what he was doing when he created Ben Wolf and he did it without apologizing for the rough parts. That makes it a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Dozen Books I Judged By Their Cover

Don't judge a book by its cover? Shows how much you know! I've been shallowly evaluating books by their title and cover art for most of my life, and as much as every believer in clich├ęs will hate me for this, most of the time my cover exam has been a dead on indicator of the book within.

Anyway, for today I’ve decided to pick my favorite titles. Not all the titles are matched up against great books, but at least it will give you a laugh before you shove it behind the latest volume of Wimpy Kid. So here goes the latest attempt at brilliance from the limited mind of an adult who reads too many children’s books.

1.     Dear Napoleon, I Know You’re Dead, But…
By Elvira Woodruff
I think my favorite book by Elvira Woodruff is George Washington's Socks which isn't such a bad title either, but considering the fact that Judy Blume's Margaret had already written to God twenty-two years before, who was left for this young man to write to but the dead version of a tiny guy with a bad temper and an appetite for world conquest? Elvira Woodruff is the tops when it comes to writing history back into a readable form for today's youth.
2.     Dear God, HELP!!! Love, Earl
By Barbara Park
Here's another letter to God, and this time it's Earl who needs to talk. The book is another of your average bullied kid struggling to find a way to overcome the stereotypical bully stories. The one thing that this book has going for it is Barbara Park. If anyone is qualified to write this story, then she is it. I mean, she gave the world Junie B. Jones, a character whose influence has grown beyond even  that of Ramona Quimby. While Dear God, HELP!!! Love, Earl is definitely not even close to being  a huge hit, it's got the nod for great title if for no other reason than a title character named Earl tickles me.
3.     Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom
By Susin Nielsen-Fernlund
If you can't get ahold of God, isn't George Clooney the next best thing…well, ladies? Just kidding. Anyway, this book has to make you wonder what George Clooney thinks of the fact that he's become more desirable as a potential stepfather than as a potential husband. Correct me if I'm wrong, but nothing has come out in past few years titled Marry Me, George Clooney, has it?
4.     My Sister is So Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book
By Mary Hershey
Forgive me, but when I first came across this book, my first impulse was to check the author to make sure during my childhood I didn't write it and get it published in my sleep. Okay, so I made that up but how many people out there can identify with this at least a little bit? This is easily one of the best titles in the list, but Mary Hershey's other titles are all pretty funny. She's only written a few others, but she's well on her way to being the only author with multiple titles on my list.  
5.     Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank You Notes
By Peggy Gifford
Moxy Maxwell doesn't enjoy quite a few things, but this is the best stated by my way of thinking. That might be because the other things she doesn't like are Stuart Little, a harmlessly delightful mouse, and practicing the piano even though she loves recitals. I can't abide hating a mentally gifted rodent, and I really don't know what to say about someone who performs publicly without properly preparing for the performance. That's just wrong. But thank you notes? I'm pretty sure I still owe a few people those for a graduation party that took place close to a decade ago. Don't hold your breath, family and friends! It's just not gonna happen.
6.     I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
By Josh Lieb
Hey, Oliver Watson, wait for me! I can be evil too! Kind of. I have been known to pull off an unspeakably evil act or two of my own every so often. For instance, a month ago I had a hankering for an Oreo and even though there were only two left in the box and even though I knew my fiancee would love that other Oreo, I took them both for myself. See what I mean? Evil. Pure unspeakable evil.
7.     Sleeping Ugly
By Jane Yolen
Aside from the fact that this promises to be the best re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty ever, it's funny. More than that, it's accurate. Who sleeps beautifully? Not me! Most mornings I wake up looking like I was on wrong end of boxing match with an alligator. Thank goodness I've managed to find someone who puts up with that among my numerous other faults.
8.     When Dinosaurs Came With Everything
By Elise Broach
In this time of recession, maybe this is just the sort of offer that would bring the American economy back to its former glory. Buying a head of broccoli? That comes with a brontosaurus. In that case, I'll take three. Are you in the market for a new car? What if I threw in a pterodactyl to sweeten the deal? Now that's salesmanship! Elise Broach ought to write more picture books. She could save us all.
9.     How Come the Best Clues Are Always In the Garbage?
By Linda Bailey
How come the butler always does it? Why are all great detectives addicted to tobacco products? If Dr. Watson was always out helping Sherlock Holmes solve mysteries, who stayed behind to tend his struggling medical practice? I don't know. What can I say? Read the book. Good title. Great questions.
10.  Once Upon a Time, the End (Asleep in 60 Seconds)
By Geoffrey Kloske
If only all bedtime stories were so successful, the world would be a better rested place. If this book worked like the title implies, Geoffrey Kloske would be a millionaire and having a copy of his book would as essential as  a refrigerator or indoor plumbing. Unfortunately, I don't think it works that way. Children still fight sleep like knights fight dragons or the Super Mario Brothers fight King Koopa. I don't foresee someone coming up with a solution to the restlessness of tired children, but the title definitely gives us all hope.
11.  The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen
By M.T. Anderson
I want a pair of linoleum lederhosen. Since no one wants floors or countertops made from that stuff anymore, I think someone should develop the lederhosen and save the linoleum industry. If you like this first idea, then you'll love M.T. Anderson's other idea from this series: Whales On Stilts! How boring are human stilt walkers? It's been done. But whales? It's groundbreaking. It's the future!
12.  How to Grow Up and Rule the World, by Vordak the Incomprehensible
By Scott Seegert
Vordak…what to say about Vordak? Well, if I take the advice found in the book, I would say I bow down to him and his great and incomprehensible evil. Of course, this list is based on the quality of the title alone, and the title is hilarious. That is, it's hilarious unless the person reading it takes it seriously, in which case the person reading it is hilarious. Take a look at the cover illustration also. That cape he's wearing is a trip! Wonderful. Just wonderful.

Well, there it is. Take it for what it’s worth. I hope you giggled. If not, get a sense of humor for goodness sake. I don’t have time to teach you to laugh. What kind of a person can’t laugh at a book called Sleeping Ugly anyway?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Snow Day by Lester Laminack

I can't think of a better time to write about a book glorifying the snow day. As I write this, outside my door snow is falling. It might be enough to close a school, but probably not. I could use a snow day. Actually, I could use about a week of snow days right now. I used to be in love with snow. I thought of snow as water's magic form. Now, as an adult who has outgrown snowball fights, sledding, and happiness, I've learned that snow is the sky's way of creating manual labor for me. That doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the beauty of a snow day anyway, and that's what this book is all about.

I like Lester Laminack's picture books. I'm not crazy about his professional teaching books, but in the interest of total disclosure, I've never been crazy about reading professional teaching books in general. I understand their purpose and I've taken a lot from them, but there are better ways to spend a lazy afternoon. Anyway, among Laminack's body of work Snow Day stands out. The writing is easily identified with. It would easily appeal to a large audience. The surprise ending definitely gave me a laugh.

I think my favorite part of the story was the way that the illustrations blended with the writing to aid the storytelling. So many books have illustrations that just reiterate the text without advancing the story at all. It's a missed opportunity. This book really takes full advantage of its illustrations. Most of the humor is born from the irony found between illustrations and its accompanying text.

Overall, this is a great picture book for any time of year, but in these chilly months of the year it's a special treat. It's definitely worth the read.