The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #41: The Smartest Kids in the World

This is normally where I plug my personal blog, but instead I feel like saying this: “WINTER BREAK! WOOOO!!! NO SCHOOL!!! LET’S READ ABOUT SCHOOL!!!!”

Fun fact for anyone who has tuned in to my writing without knowing my background: I’m a teacher, and proud. More than that, I have a masters degree in international education, and I’m proud of that. I suppose I love diverse worlds of education because I’m a glutton for punishment: not content with my standard 12 years of high school, plus 4 years of college and 2 years of graduate school, I want to be in school every day. Not content to be in one kind of massively complicated often ineffective bureaucratic system, I’ve chosen to study and explore dozens of them around the world.

Amanda Ripley took on the same challenge with a more direct purpose. Rather than questing after knowledge or jobs, like I do, she was hunting for the answer to a simple question: “how can American kids get a world class education?”. She and troop of exchange student journalists looked into the systems of successful schools in Korea, Poland and Finland and report back with anecdotes and analyses that peer into the multitude of factors that help them succeed while we struggle (comparatively).

The book comes back with a host of ideas and buzzwords including social structure, mathematics instruction, teacher training, drive, rigor, parental engagement, union adaptability, cultural value and standardized testing. Ultimately Ripley’s take away seems to be that everyone cares about education, but Americans care about other things beyond the learning in the classroom (self-esteem, athletic accomplishment, personal policy victories).

As someone who has studied international education and has a personal stake in how well American students do on tests, I’m impressed with how well Ripley and her collaborators have done given such a short time. Though I dispute that any test (even the almighty PISA used to frame this study) should be used as a global yardstick, I’m glad that someone has demanded that pundits and policy makers step back from their abstract arguments to consider that there is no one answer. To be sure the hug-happy American educator hasn’t served students as well as they could, but our fixes won’t come from Finland or Poland or even cram-session Korea. If readers approach this book less as a road map for success and more as a puzzle to solve, there’s plenty of hope for us left.

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The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #35 Winger

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Another realistic and truly genuine teenager…the only problem is that in creating him Andrew Smith created a genuine teenage voice: one that is by turns immature and absurdly irritating. While the book jacket is laden with praise for how marvelous the main character/narrator, Ryan Dean West is, I couldn’t help but think he was the most egotistical whiner since Harry Potter in book 5 (without an ounce of Harry’s heroism), and the most gratingly obnoxious snot since Holden Caufield (though at least Holden owned his profanity).

Smith’s reliance on giving his narrator a limited vocabulary is primarily responsible for this. Sure, most teenage boys have a limited vocabulary and turn almost any situation into a homophobic slur, but doing it again and again despite the West’s repeated claims that he’s not homophobic (and that he’s the smartest kid in the whole school) just seems hypocritcal. Sure, teenagers struggle to change, but when West spends almost 400 pages turning every image of a woman into an instant sexual fantasy, the final 50 pages of maturity is a little underwhelming. And the less said about the Ryan-Dean-Hyper-Hyphenated-Scales-of-Irritatingly-Punctuated-Asshattery the better.

I will admit, Smith is spot on in his portrayal of boarding school culture, so much so that I found myself missing my old stomping grounds in India, despite the irritatingly pompous protagonist. And one of the final lines contains a kernel of truth that almost redeems the rest of the reading experience: “almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and maybe, not having it.” But ultimately, no matter how brave it is to write a brutally honest teenage character, if you fail to balance a teen’s maturity with his immaturity, you will alienate the reader as much as an average teenager alienates their neighborhood.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #38: Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

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This graphic novel is geared toward the young adult crowd and provides a nice mix of teen troubles and ghost story. At the beginning, it seemed kind of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost”-y, but then it turns dark and the real fun begins.

Anya is a high schooler and Russian emigre. She has endured bullying and learned to adapt and lose her accent to fit in. She skips church and cuts classes to smoke with her friend Siobhan. Anya rejects pretty much everything her family represents — foreign name, unusual religion, different body type. She longs to hang with the cool crowd, especially the handsome high school basketball star Sean, who dates the most perfect girl in the school.

One day, Anya takes a short cut through a remote area and falls down a well, where she is introduced to the ghost of a teen girl named Emily, who died 90 years ago in the same well. After being rescued, Emily is able to follow Anya thanks to a bone that winds up in Anya’s backpack. Emily is fascinated with Anya’s teen drama, having missed out on it herself, and Anya begins to see the advantages of having a ghost friend.

It sounds like an unorthodox buddy story until something happens that causes the story to take a dark turn. Anya has to start thinking and working for herself or her life and the lives of her friends and family will be at risk.

This was a fun and quick read. The dialog is sharp and often funny. Anya is a realistic teen (well, except for the ghost buddy part). It’s definitely geared toward the young teen crowd (not your dark, deep convoluted graphic novel) and follows a simple story line. The illustrations are done in blacks, greys, blues and white, which helps build a ghostly and sinister mood. The drawing reminded me a bit of the graphic novel Persepolis. All in all, a fine read for an afternoon and one to pass on to the kids.

SJfromSJ’s #CBR5 Review #4: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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I loved this book in high school. I had to defend my love of this book to my closest friends. I bought it a couple years ago because I loved it, though I hadn’t read it again since high school, and I just wanted to have a copy of it because I like having copies of books and movies that I love. I decided to read it for the first time since high school to recall why I loved it so much.

I couldn’t.

This is a classic that I’m sure most people read in high school (unless you were like me and didn’t actually read half of the books you were supposed to in high school — this was one of the few I did), so I’m just going to share some random thoughts I had on this book:

1. Lady Ashley is one of the original Manic Pixie Dream Girls, if not THE original MPDG. Continue reading