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Posts Tagged ‘Mockingbird

After reading my third book by Kathryn Erskine, I decided it was time to read her earliest books. Erskine often writes about tolerance and understanding. Quaking is no exception.

In an interview with her, Erkskine states that the broad reason for exploring these themes if her belief that “the world would be a better place if we had greater acceptance of people’s differences and really listened to and understood each other.” Through a Quaker family and a militant teacher, Erksine explores attitudes both in favor of and against American participation in the war in the Middle East. On a smaller scale, through her main character Matt, Erskine shows the impact of bullying on children, students, and even adults. A victim of child abuse, Matt is afraid to allow anyone to get close to her, but must confront those fears when her new family’s life is in danger due to their pacifist beliefs.

I have to admit to taking longer to become comfortable with Quaking than Erskine’s later books. Matt seems to endlessly interject her opinions. After the first few chapters, I felt the way my husband must on those days when I babble about teaching, writing, and feelings. I also felt the antagonists were more stereotyped bullies than I have grown used to seeing portrayed by Erskine. The history teacher develops a vendetta against Matt after her responses to his first test, but doesn’t seem to target anyone else.  A classmate also develops a quick dislike for Matt, for reasons that never seemed clear, and again he seems to mostly target her.

One reason I elected to read Quaking is that Matt struck me as a potential anti-hero or troubled teen. As some of my regular visitors might recall, these type of characters interest me due to my featuring them in my own creative writings. Once Matt settled into her new life with a Quaker family, she developed soft edges. The Quaker family feels realistic, being both caring but also capable of being hurt and of making mistakes. Other friendships crop up too, which also seem natural. Over all, it seems as if writing about misfits is a tough task, but Erskine does a reasonable job, which means Quaking will one day become part of my own library.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine is deserving of multiple literary awards. It’s that good. There are books that I add to my wish list. There are others that I eagerly recommend to others. This is the first book since I began my book review blog, over two years ago, that makes me think AWARD. For that reason, I’m not going to tell you what I liked and disliked about it. I’m just going to tell you what Seeing Red is about, so I can entice you to read it.

First, Seeing Red is about relationships, ones between families and ones with neighbors. Red’s dad has just died. His mom wants to sell their Virginia home, leave behind most of their possessions, and move in with relatives in Ohio. Red wants to stay right where they are and keep running the family business. He’s so determined to make this happen that he starts vandalizing the FOR SALE sign and spray painting their property to make it look rundown. If the family absolutely has to move, then his dad’s stuff is going with them.  Even if he has to mark each for the mover himself. As for Red’s little brother, J seems to care only about getting special food and proper care, until one day J refuses to remove a Band-Aid that his dad put it on for him. Erskine has also effectively explored reactions to death in her previous novels. Having even myself grieved in different ways, I appreciated that in Seeing Red each family member is handling grief in their own way and learning to respect their differences.

Because Red’s dad ran a business, the family also has a lot of dealings with neighbors. Some are good, some are not so good. After Red’s dad dies, Red keeps servicing Miss Georgia’s car but runs into a problem when the car needs an alternator. Ordering a new one will cost $200, which she doesn’t have. Even dragging a used one from the dump will cost $100, which is still more than Miss Georgia can afford. After consulting his dad in his head, Red figures out a solution that will cost 95 cents! In contrast to Miss Georgia, Red’s dad doesn’t care for Mr. Dunlop. Red doesn’t either, especially when he realizes Mr. Dunlop beats his children. Mr. Dunlop used to be happy as a trucker, but now that he’s staying home to care for his sick wife he’s miserable. Change needs to happen, before Mr. Dunlop kills someone. Of the novels I’ve read by Erskine, Seeing Red has the most complex range of characters. None of the good characters are perfect, which is why Red initially dislikes the lawyer who ends up helping him. Nor are any of the main bad characters completely evil, which is why Mr. Dunlop receives help from neighbors.

Seeing Red is also about bullies and racism. Bullies come in different forms. There’s the slick real estate agent, who keeps pressuring Red’s mom to sell by telling her this is what her husband would want. Then there’s the principal, who doesn’t like the history lessons being given to Red’s class. Whenever her class starts having loud discussions about civil rights, women’s rights, or any other kind of rights, the principal is there trying to stop them. Next, there’s the gang that Red is invited to join. It consists mostly of classmates, around whom he feels safe. The gang offers to help him keep his home, which it seems Red will do anything to make happen, including burning a cross on a neighbor’s yard. His limits are tested, however, when part of the initiation involves hitting a schoolmate whom the gang has tied up and gagged. As a teacher, I have read and watched enough about bullying to know there aren’t any simple answers. Erskine recognizes this, while also making clear that the solution lies within each of us.

As for racism, I also respected Erskine’s exploration of it. When Red tried to walk away from that gang, and they threatened him, he backed down. He agreed to hit the schoolmate. And immediately regretted it. But also had to live with it, because that schoolmate had been a friend. Later, when Red started to dig through his dad’s desk in preparation to move, he discovered a land claim that led to his realization that one of his ancestors had murdered a black person. He didn’t want to acknowledge this fact. Yet to deny it would mean being dishonest in his history report to his teacher. And losing an opportunity to right a sin from the past. In earlier novels by Erskine, I’ve criticized her almost too perfect endings. In Seeing Red, yes, there are some wonderful changes. We expect this both in novels and in life. But reality also remains wholly present. Red’s family still grieves. Some bullies, even ones who are friends, make mistakes that land them in jail. And some town leaders, even moral ones such as pastors, hold fast to racism.

Last, Seeing Red is about history and bringing about change. Red thinks history is stupid. Why care about something that’s in the past and unchangeable? But everyone has the ability to make a difference, if only they would try. Red’s family can help a neighbor boy when his mom dies, by taking him into their home. And history isn’t just something to read about. We can make history daily with our actions. Both Red’s mom and his teacher refuse to let the men in their lives relegate them to being simple housewives. Red and his brother learn how to clean and cook, chores that many men of the time considered beneath them. Interviews with Erskine often bring out her strong belief that change is something that young people can invoke. Seeing Red is a remarkable example of  how hard it can be, but also how important it is, to make a difference. I can’t stress enough how realistic yet hopeful this book is.

By far, this is one of my lengthier reviews. Yet I actually could have written several more paragraphs because there is so much depth to Seeing Red. It also has the positive of being told from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, still a rare find and feat in literature for young people. Read it today. And expect to hear news of awards in the upcoming months. I’ll even go one step further: I have read the majority of Newbery winners, and in my opinion Seeing Red is Newbery-worthy.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

KathrynErskineIf you haven’t already discovered the award-winning author, Kathryn Erskine, check out a book by her today. Her titles to date are: Ibhubesi The Lion, Quaking, Mockingbird, The Absolute Value of Mike, and Seeing Red. Erskine is an author to watch. I’ll review Seeing Red tomorrow. Save the date: January 11!

ALLISON: In five sentences or less, describe yourself as a child.

KATHRYN: I was imaginative, curious, self-sufficient, and fortunately allowed to play unattended. At 8, I swung on vines from trees (and fell) and built rafts to cross the creek (and sunk). At 11, I roller skated around the city (and fell) and explored abandoned buildings (I wouldn’t recommend this). At 14, I biked for miles on fairly dangerous roads (did not fall, thankfully) and flew places by myself (laden with gifts like a 25 pound fresh salmon–I also would not recommend this). I loved the variety and adventure of growing up in different countries which has definitely informed my writing.

ALLISON: How did adolescence change you? Or did it?

KATHRYN: I noticed more about my world and felt the desire to change it, although I questioned my power and ability to affect change. I did what I felt I could but I wish I’d had more confidence. That’s why I try to make kids feel empowered in my writing, to let them know that their actions really can change the world.

ALLISON: This is my second interview with you. Catch readers up on highlights from your life we talked in the spring of 2012.

KATHRYN: I’ve been lucky to teach workshops at The Highlights Foundation in PA, visit numerous schools (including Fife, Scotland) and give talks at wonderful events like SCBWI conferences, the Virginia Festival of the Book, and the National Book Festival on the mall in Washington, DC. I also got to do research in England and Scotland for my Middle Ages novel (I love crawling over ancient ruins, even with sheep following me like I’m their new shepherdess).

ALLISON: Seeing Red is your second book to deal with race issues. What draws you to this subject?

KATHRYN: Tolerance and understanding are big themes in all of my books. The broad reason for that is my belief that the world would be a better place if we had greater acceptance of people’s differences and really listened to and understood each other. For my readers, I hope it opens the lid on a box that they might want to delve into and explore. Having more understanding leads to increased empathy and open-mindedness which we could use more of in our families, schools, and communities.

ALLISON: Seeing Red is also your fifth book. How has your life changed since the publication of your first book?

KATHRYN: I have grown as a writer. I’ve experienced much as a person, not all good but all fodder for writing and for understanding life better.

ALLISON: In one interview you referred to the importance of integrating humor into your fiction. Why? And how do you maintain a balance between the comedic and the serious?

KATHRYN: We all like to laugh — we all need to laugh. Humor keeps people interested and keeps people reading. And it keeps people open to ideas and whatever might happen next. It makes life easier to handle and makes a story, especially a difficult story, easier to handle, too. Just like in real life, there are highs and lows, and a story needs to follow that kind of rhythm. There are appropriate times for humor–breaking the tension, adding poignancy to a scene–and there are times when it falls flat. When you’re in tune with your story, you get a good feel for when it’s right.

ALLISON: You have posted a playlist for Seeing Red. This seems to be a popular feature on author sites. Why do you think music is so helpful during the writing of a book?

KATHRYN: Songs are another creative expression. The words tell a story but the music evokes something intangible about the time or place where your story is set or the personality of a particular character. It helps put you into your story on a wordless, visceral level. That adds to the authenticity and emotional depth of your writing.

ALLISON: You have dealt with death at least a couple of times in books. What helps you with grief?

KATHRYN: I’m not sure what helps with grief. You have to go through the grieving process, which is a little different for everyone. I think keeping memories alive, paying tribute, memorializing traditions–those kinds of things help. A physical object can serve as a remembrance of a person. It’s even OK to talk to loved ones who are gone because they may not be in our lives anymore but they’re still a part of our lives.

ALLISON: How has the process been different in writing realistic and historical fiction?

KATHRYN: To me, they’re the same. Both require a lot of research although, admittedly, historical novels require more. I love the research aspect and do an incredible amount even for a contemporary novel on a topic with which I’m already familiar. You can always learn more. Much of the research doesn’t end up in the book but you’re coming from an informed place which transfuses your writing.

ALLISON: What is a fun quirk about you?

KATHRYN: I like to write with only recycled pens on only recycled paper.

ALLISON: When not writing, how do you spend your time?

KATHRYN: I walk our dog every day, I like to cook when I have time, and I try to meditate. And I travel as much as possible!

ALLISON: What’s next?

KATHRYN: Next fall, The Badger Knight (Scholastic) will be released. It’s an adventure novel set in the Middle Ages in England driven by the very spunky Adrian, a boy you could imagine meeting today because, really, people’s personalities are the same no matter what era they live in.

Wishlist Wednesday

Wishlist Wednesday is a book blog hop from Pen to Paper that invites ones to post about one book per week that has been on their wishlist for some time, or just added, and that you can’t wait to get off the wishlist and onto your wonderful shelves. 

If you read Kathryn Erskine’s biography on Wikipedia, you’ll discover that she was born in the Netherlands but has lived pretty much all over the world. Before turning to her first love of writing, she worked as a lawyer. She won the 2010 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her novel, Mockingbird. Her family, which includes two children and pets, lives in Virginia.

Dig deeper and you’ll find that one of the places she lived in Newfoundland. Although the name might not mean anything to you, it means everything to me because it’s my own province. Pretty much any interview you read with her will reveal that she considers herself a “recovering lawyer.” A pivotal moment in her career choices happened when Kathryn Erskine’s mom died, inspiring Erskine to start working on her dreams. Penguin quotes her as “realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading.” She has won multiple awards for her five books, the latest book entry being Seeing Red, which I’ll review this weekend.

Having loved her three most recent books, I’m now placing her first two on my Wish List. Ibhubsei the Lion is about racism, just like Seeing Red. The difference is that Seeing Red is set in Virginia in the 1970s, whereas Ibhubsei is set in South Africa. Here is a brief description of it from Erskine’s website:

John learns the language and plight of the Zulu people.  He sees how apartheid destroys a society and how his own father’s racism and fanaticism are destroying the family.  He realizes the behavior is based on fear and that, as Solomon says, “the fear is killing us all.”  But will John face his own fear and stand up to his father?  Can he protect his younger brother and sister and – literally – stand in the line of fire to save Solomon?  Is he brave enough to deserve the nickname Ibhubesi, Lion, and choose his own path … freedom?

Quaking is about fourteen year old Matt who, after years of being batted around, has learned to rely on herself.  Now she has to cope with the Quaker family, who have taken her in and are active against the war in the Middle East. Here is a brief description of it from Erskine’s website:

Why does Jessica insist on acting like a mom, for God’s sake?  Why can’t their little boy with his gack covered fingers just leave her alone?  And why does Sam have to care about her–and everything–so much?  Doesn’t he realize that only gets you hurt?  And even though Matt knows that pain very well, why is she finally letting down her armor and allowing herself to care?

What’s on your wish list?

Welcome to the second week of my round-up of books about learning disabilities! I have now reached my stack of fiction for intermediate readers. First up on my list is The Absolute Value of Mike, which author Kathyrn Erskine surprised me with after I reviewed another awesome book of hers about disabilities: Mockingbird.

The Absolute Value of Mike features a fourteen-year-old boy who has dyscalculia. What exactly is dyscalculia? Although many people are familiar with the term dyslexia and know that it refers to a reading disability, I less frequently hear the term dyscalculia which means an innate difficulty in learning or understanding math. For Mike, this meant that numbers and symbols make no sense to him. He also struggles with remembering directions, even in a small town.

Diagram of an Artesian Well

Diagram of an Artesian Well (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because Mike has a math learning disability, his dad wants Mike to spend the summer with his relatives who are building an artesian screw. The project could help Mike improve his math skills. Moreover, such a project should help him get into Newton High, a math magnet school. The latter is actually his dad’s idea, who believes that “if you can’t solve the simplest problems, you’ll end up on the streets.” For Mike, his brilliant idea instead is that if he can master the “artesian screw” project, he can prove to his dad that he can take care of himself and so maybe his dad would allow him to attend a regular school.

One strength of The Absolute Value of Mike lies in Erskine’s unusual but sympathetic characters which help emphasize the point that everyone has their weaknesses. For example, there is Mike’s dad who is a mathematical genius but doesn’t know how to relate with people–including his own son. He has a habit of speaking “in isolated pockets of energy, like he’d turned into electricity himself”. Then there are Poppy and Moo, the aunt and uncle with whom Mike is going to stay with over vacation. They’re elderly, meaning they struggle with the ability to see and hear. Moreover, Poppy has kind of checked out of the world, on account of the two having lost their only son a few months ago in a car accident. Next, there are the townsfolk Mike meets when he visits his relatives: Park is homeless, Gladys rejects everyone because her parents abandoned her and now she doesn’t want to get hurt again, and the list goes on.

Another strength of The Absolute Value of Mike lies in the zany plot which Erskine has created. The “artesian screw” project is not actually an engineering project but a mispronunciation by Moo. It actually refers to “artesian crew” or the townsfolk who are helping Karen raise money to adopt an orphan from Romania. Through the unusual situations the folks all find themselves in, Erskine also emphasizes the point that we should draw on our strengths to make the world a better place. Mike’s dad might define Mike by his lack of math skill, but the townsfolk instead give Mike the opportunity to use his abilities to: develop websites, create videos, sell products, and list goes on. As for the townsfolk, Mike might define Moo by her failing vision, but everyone else sees her as the lady who rescues all the rejects. Or he might define Poppy as a vegetable, but once upon a time Poppy used to make beautiful things with his hands. And list goes on.

The Absolute Value of Mike is a zany and hilarious book everyone should read, whether or not they struggle with learning disabilities. As for those young people who struggle with dyscalculia, they might learn a few math concepts from the chapter titles. Each features a term and a definition, which is then illustrated in fictional form by the situations which happen in the chapter. But, even if they don’t learn anything about math, maybe they’ll discover they have other strengths that are just waiting to shine.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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