Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review of “The Wednesday Wars”

Schmidt, Gary D.  The Wednesday Wars.  Clarion, New York, 2007.  ISBN: 0618724834
Holling Hoodhood must stay in Mrs. Baker’s class in the year 1967.  The Vietnam War is going on and Mrs. Baker’s husband is a soldier there.  However, Holling doesn’t learn that, or that Mrs. Baker is an Olympiad, until later.  First he has to deal with Wednesdays when he stays in her class while the other kids go to Catechism or Hebrew school.  He is forced to clean chalkboards, clean the coat closet, then read Shakespeare.  Eventually he and Mrs. Baker form a bond but the Vietnam war still rages on.
Vardell states that, “Historical fiction definitely offers meaty content that has teachable value” (176).  There is plenty of historical reference for the 1960s that a student could gather from by using this book as a tool.  For a classroom lesson, I would read the book aloud and use any historical reference (Jesse Owen, Vietnam War, Mickey Mantle, etc.) and have students report back what information they learned about each subject.  This book is quite entertaining because it mixes unrealistic (the name Hoodhood and his fear of a teacher are my first notions of the absurd) but with the real theme of the Vietnam War. 
This book has won ALA’s Notable Books for Children award in 2008 as well as both Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book award and Best Books of the Year in 2007.  Booklist (June 1, 2007) gave this book a starred review by saying, “On Wednesday afternoons, while his Catholic and Jewish schoolmates attend religious instruction, Holling Hoodhood, the only Presbyterian in his seventh grade, is alone in the classroom with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who Holling is convinced hates his guts. He feels more certain after Mrs. Baker assigns Shakespeare's plays for Holling to discuss during their shared afternoons. Each month in Holling's tumultuous seventh-grade year is a chapter in this quietly powerful coming-of-age novel set in suburban Long Island during the late '60s. The slow start may deter some readers, and Mrs. Baker is too good to be true: she arranges a meeting between Holling and the New York Yankees, brokers a deal to save a student's father's architectural firm, and, after revealing her past as an Olympic runner, coaches Holling to the varsity cross-country team.”  It is definitely a book that has something that male readers could get into, especially with explanation of the historical references in the book.  I would also go as far as to suggest the class watches an episode of The Wonder Years, because it reminded me a lot of that television series.  I suggest Shooting the Moon as another comparable book if students are reading a novel in groups or choosing their own themes novel for a book report.

Review of “Catherine, called Birdy”

Cushman, Karen.  Catherine, called Birdy. Clarion, New York, 1994.  ISBN: 0395681863
Catherine is a “typical” girl living in 1200s England.  Her father wants to marry her off and her mother is teaching her to embroider cloth and act lady-like.  The story is told with a funny tone even though this girl is living in deplorable circumstances.  She is living with fleas, being “cracked” by her father, being sold off to “Shaggy Beard” and told to write an account of her life in order to become more mature.  Instead of hearing about princesses, as Cushman explains, this book is about the real life of a normal girl in medieval England.  Catherine has hopes and dreams to have a better life.  She is smart and talented but she has a kind heart towards animals.  Luckily, Shaggy Beard dies and she only has to marry his son, Stephen.
Vardell writes, “Cushman’s Newberry winning novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice…tells of a dirty, homeless girl in Medieval England who learns self-respect as well as midwifery in this short, excellent read aloud” (180).  This book is a bit more detailed to be a read-aloud I think, but the same premise is there.  By making this book show young readers (especially young female readers) there is an awareness of what kind of life young women had to endure.  I think readers will connect with the epistolary style.  Vardell states, “A well-written historical novel can give children a sense of participation in the past, a sense of continuity, of our place in the sweep of human destiny” (176).  This diary of a 13 year old girl really would give a reader a sense of participation in her world.
This book has won the Newberry Award  and the Golden Kite Award in 1994.  School Library Journal (June 1, 1994) reviews this book by saying, “This unusual book provides an insider's look at the life of Birdy, 14, the daughter of a minor English nobleman. The year is 1290 and the vehicle for storytelling is the girl's witty, irreverent diary. She looks with a clear and critical eye upon the world around her, telling of the people she knows and of the daily events in her small manor house. Much of Birdy's energy is consumed by avoiding the various suitors her father chooses for her to marry. She sends them all packing with assorted ruses until she is almost wed to an older, unattractive man she refers to as Shaggy Beard. In the process of telling the routines of her young life, Birdy lays before readers a feast of details about medieval England. The book is rich with information about the food, dress, religious beliefs, manners, health, medical practices, and sanitary habits (or lack thereof) of the people of her day.”  I would love to see young female readers use one of Cushman’s books for a historical novel book report.  I know the local library keeps the Dear America series on the top shelf because many students come in looking for a required historical fiction novel for a report.  Carolyn Meyer’s books would be of interest to young readers also.  I think most students would like to tell the class all about the ways of life that children of such time periods lived.

Review of “The Green Glass Sea”

Klagas, Ellen.  The Green Glass Sea: A Novel.  Viking, 2006.  ISBN: 0670061344
The Green Glass Sea is about Dewey Kerrigan who goes to Los Alamos to live with her father.  There he and many other scientists and mathematicians are creating “the gadget”, or, the atomic bomb during the 1940s.  She is an eccentric child who has a lame leg and an interest in radio building.  She encounters Suze who is a trouble maker and not accepted by the girls at school either.  They both have to live together in this closed off section of the world while their parents create something important for the Army.
Vardell states that, “Historical fiction may be one of the most difficult genres to promote.  Nearly all children respond to the immediacy of contemporary realistic fiction, and many avid, imaginative readers seek out fantasy novels that are hundreds of pages long” (175).  I understand this statement completely with The Green Glass Sea.  While this novel is based on something interesting for adults, the whole construct of the plot is quite flat.  There isn’t much going on and without the element of the Los Alamos backdrop, this book wouldn’t be terribly interesting.  Granted the characters like Dewey are different but they don’t do much.  I think this is the problem with creating a good historical fiction novel.  Vardell continues that, “the majority of historical fiction for young people is set in the United States prior to 1950”, which this novel is (179).   Using a touchy subject like the atomic bomb which most young readers wouldn’t know about (heck, they don’t understand why 9/11 was such an important day) this would need a whole lot of explanation before giving it to a classroom.
However,  this book did win the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award in 2007 and School Library Journal (November 1, 2007) reviews it by saying, “Ellen Klages's impeccably researched novel (Viking, 2006) is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, between 1943 and 1945. Dewey Kerrigan, age 11, has been bounced from her parents to her grandmother. When her grandmother can no longer care for her, the girl joins her father at a secret military location. Her father works with preeminent scientists in Los Alamos, racing to research, develop, and build the ultimate military weapon. Work at Los Alamos forces Dewey's father to travel and a colleague agrees to keep Dewey, who adapts to the new situation, the community, and the school.”  Therefore, using it in a cross-curriculum lesson would work well.  Apparently young readers like this book.  If there were lessons on WWII, the atom bomb and perhaps a book like The Boy in the Stripes Pajamas to give students a real sense of what kinds of impact the war had on people, especially children.  I’d suggest a YA book that discusses Japan during WWII as well, if there is one available.  I just wonder if students could really become interested in this period of history.  Again, since the book is well-received maybe it will be a good way to get them to learn about WWII.