March 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Ridiculous Hilarious Terrible Cool

With ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool, author Elisha Cooper has crafted a literary documentary set in Chicago’s Walter Payton High School. Following eight students through one pressure filled year of balancing private lives and academic goals, Cooper lets the kids fill the pages as he sits back and documents their successes and failures. It’s an interesting experiment in nonfiction writing and far more riveting than I imagined it could be.

The book opens with Daniel Patton, senior class president, hard worker and determined to get into Harvard. From there readers enter the lives of Emily, star soccer player; Maya, drama class star; Diana, a budding swimmer who is overwhelmed by family stresses; Aisha, transfer student; Zef, the music lover who sleeps through class; Anthony, the player wannabe, and Anais, the dancer. Collectively they are a bundle of contradictions, confident one moment and filled with uncertainties the next. They reveal their hopes for the future and concerns for the moment and second guess everything they think and do. The interaction between author and subject is seamless; the reader feels more as if they are a fly on the wall at Walter Payton then reading what amount to research notes. Cooper is almost totally invisible in the text, merely someone observing the events at the school and relating the specific thoughts of the teens he has chosen to highlight.          

It can sometimes be frustrating to read young adult fiction as the adult authors often find it difficult to resist telling us who they think teens are or want them to be. Cooper sidesteps that minefield by going directly to the source in a manner both inspiring and refreshing. These are real teenagers and guess what -- they aren’t stupid or fashion obsessed or determined to conquer the world as part of some mean girls cabal. Mostly they are just trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Some of them have parents who are supportive, others have parents who are distracted and some have parents just as confused as they are. Nobody is perfect, but they aren’t train wrecks either. It’s the real world and Cooper offers it up to readers in a manner that makes you care a great deal about these kids, and about all the others out there just like them.

I’d love to read more books like ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool from other high schools in America -- or the world. It made me happy to read it, and very grateful to Elisha Cooper for taking the time to put this book together.

Wendy Lichtman has done a very unique thing with her novel about a conflicted 8th grader, Do the Math: Secrets, Lies and Algebra. Tess enjoys math a lot -- it is her favorite subject -- and so when several aspects of her life start to go awry it is only natural that she should think about them in a mathematical way. Lichtman illustrates this coping technique by framing each chapter of the book around a mathematical device. It translates into Tess considering how she is supposedly “less than” one of the popular boys, or about how her parents will redirect an uncomfortable conversation off on a tangent (just like geometry). Lichtman illustrates these twists and turns using graphs or equations, but don’t think Do the Math is actually about math, because there is a lot more going on here than that.

First off, Tess’s mother thinks a friend might have killed his wife. Tess and her friends go into high girl detective mode as they try to both find the truth and get Tess’s mom to act on her concerns. On top of all the Rear Window creepiness, Tess finds herself suddenly dealing with a broken personal confidence with all its resulting drama and a school cheating scandal. In a matter of days it seems her whole world crumbles (in a classic 8th grade fashion) and she doesn’t know who her friends are anymore. At each step she uses math in her observations of human behavior, bringing the confusions and conflicts of the average teenager into the black and white world of algebra. Her world gets even more upset when her math teacher suggests that some calculations are unsolvable. Tess finds herself adrift from all she thought she knew and wondering just what answer -- if any -- will bring her world back into focus.

This novel is not a cops and robbers drama, or a whodunit, or anything overly dramatic. It is just a very smart and original take on junior high, that well of all things desperate and dire and the true pit of most teenage years. I was charmed by Tess’s use of math and her struggle to do what she thinks is right, even though she might be a little bit wrong in her actions. I don’t know why this book hasn’t gotten more coverage in the blogs because it is a great story that I ripped through in one sitting. Great for readers who enjoy a different view on life; I think it’s a sweet little wonder. (Lichtman has a second title in this vein, Do the Math: The Writing on the Wall, due out in June.)

In Adam Selzer’s Pirates of the Retail Wasteland a group of very smart (wickedly, weirdly, almost preternaturally smart) eighth graders use the excuse of a class assignment to turn the economic tide of their small town and strike a blow for independent business owners everywhere. They stage a 21st-century version of a sit-in and invade the local chain coffee shop (a Starbucks clone) to prove a point about how it is so devoid of atmosphere and individuality that it could be an office and not a restaurant. The kids argue that if the town isn’t careful they could find themselves living in a place that is nothing more than strip malls and fast food restaurants. And because these kids thrive on being quirky (actually odd) individuals, the idea of being just like some other bland stop on the highway is completely unacceptable. So they organize, fashion themselves as modern day pirates and make a plan. And then they invade the coffee shop to strike a blow for freedom.

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t recall any kids in my junior high hatching plans for anarchy. There were no communists and no one who decided to get back at the evil coach by driving him crazy with depressing poetry. (Although in retrospect this does seem to be a very effective strategy.) This is a very unusual group of kids and while they are funny as hell to read about sometimes they do seem a bit too clever to be believable. But I’ll take an overdose of cleverness in exchange for no evil cheerleaders, stupid parents or overwrought plots based on clothing, cars and rumors of love. The kids in Pirates want to save their town, an admirable challenge for the modern teen, and one that amused me to no end.

If you enjoy reading Pirates I strongly recommend Naomi Shihab Nye’s Going Going, about a teen who passionately wants to save the individuality of her town, Austin, Texas. It’s a bit tamer and less radical but full of the same powerful desire to effect positive change and the same inspiring courage. (It does lack the wonderfully odd parents from Pirates however, which is a shame. I do love soundly written parental figures and Selzer really has some inspired adult behavior choices in his book.)

A.C.E. Bauer’s No Castles Here seemed at first to be a novel about a rather disaffected sixth grader, Augie. He is being raised by a single mother who works long hours and the two of them are struggling in a low-income neighborhood not far from Philadelphia. It is a place where, quite literally, there are “no castles.” But early on Augie takes a quick trip into the city, happens into a wonderful bookstore and accidentally steals a book of fairy tales. Bauer then alternates between Augie’s life and the interconnected stories in the book he stole which slowly begins to reveal itself to be much more than it seems. The further I continued the more I realized that she had done something really amazing with this format -- Bauer has written a book with fairy tales that middle grade boys will enjoy and that’s quite the achievement.

Rather then craft a coming-of-age story about a boy, his mother and his growing relationship with a nice guy paired with him via a Big Brothers program, Bauer focuses more and more on Augie’s school. It is in the inner city and full of a lot of disaffected students and frustrated teachers. She points out that Augie is one of only two white kids in his class but does not dwell on race so much as class; the kids are collectively poor and angry and seem to turn on each other for reasons most of them do not understand. Augie is the target of one particularly violent gang of three who rob and torment him endlessly. To escape them he begins hiding in the shuttered music room during lunch and immediately after school (budget cuts have removed music class of course). This brings him to the attention of the former music teacher and Augie finds himself becoming part of the new school chorus, which meets before school starts. The group begins to come together only to have their hopes dashed when their school is shut down. Augie has to pull on all his neighborhood’s resources, and find the personal courage the stories from his special book have shown him, to save his school. In the end he finds where he belongs, and also the truth about the book of fairy tales.

At its heart, No Castles Here is a bit of a message book -- in this case that community is important and finding common ground with people can literally save your life. But it’s a message that is placed so artfully into a narrative that readers will not flinch from what Bauer is saying. More significantly though, this is a book about class, something that is rarely ever present in children’s literature unless tied to a race storyline. Augie and his neighborhood are poor; his school is poor and because of that they are easy to dismiss or even worse, generalize. Bauer shows just how important a school can be to the children who attend it and how that school in many ways is the foundation for the neighborhood that surrounds it.

Finally, Wordsong has two novels written in verse that present alternating viewpoints from students coping with unusual school situations. In Where the Steps Were by Andrea Cheng, the third graders at Pleasant Hill School are grappling with the news that their school will be closed at the end of the year. Unlike the situation in No Castles Here there is no potential for a school board miracle; these kids know that they are going to have to face a different world in the future and they are mostly all terrified or angry at the prospect. Several of the students come from challenging backgrounds: one lives in a homeless shelter, another has a brother who has just been released from prison, and others exhibit negative behavior that is evidence of their frustration.

Cheng shows in her poems the struggles the children go through to understand and accept the upcoming drastic change in their lives. She also presents a glowing picture of a teacher who insists on challenging her students with field trips and lessons and does not allow them to become bored. In Miss D.’s classroom everyone must embrace the ideals of learning, and under her steady hand, the children slowly begin to consider the wider world. Consider the poem “Rosa Parks”:

Harriet Tubman,
she came before Lincoln,
but then how did Rosa Parks
fit in?
Miss Parks,
just died,
Miss D. says.

  1. And she was a slave?
  2. No – she was a seamstress.

who wanted to sit
in her seat on the bus.
We find 1955
on my time line.
Dang,
that was about one hundred years
after slavery.
That’s the year I was born,
Miss D. says.

  1. So when you were little,

we couldn’t have sat together
on the bus?

Where the Steps Were ends quietly, the children recalling what mattered most about their class and their teacher; mourning the imminent loss of a school that has grown to mean so much. These are students who will disappear in their new classes and become just so many more faces in a crowd yearning for more from low funds and less patience. Kudos to Cheng for making us hear their representative voices, and insisting we know them as the dynamic individuals they deserve to become.

Steven Herrick takes a more lighthearted approach on school with Naked Bunyip Dancing. Set in Australia, the students of Class 6C have a new teacher, Mr. Carey, who is so unorthodox that the kids aren’t sure if they love him or simply find him some sort of bizarre creature that must be studied and endlessly discussed. The book’s poems are full of considerations of just what it is that Mr. Carey is trying to make them learn (from Bob Dylan to yoga to belly dancing) while also carrying the full weight of typical preteen obsessions (Jason and Emily kissed! Is Peter the secret graffiti artist? What did Billy do to his hair?!). There is a lot of room for humor here and accompanied by the comic-book style illustrations of Beth Norling, readers will find a lot to laugh about.

In the end though, Herrick is celebrating a certain type of teaching; the kind that pushes back the boundaries of education and insists that students be open to exploration of their intellect and latent inquisitiveness. The book moves along with occasional poignant moments (Alex struggles with parents in the midst of a breakup) until it reaches the day of the class concert, where Jason and Emily must dance, Ahmet must juggle, Sophie has an original poem to recite and Billy unleashes a surprise that is devastating in its timeliness and simplicity. I didn’t see the seriousness of the poetry competition or Billy’s presentation coming, but when the final pages arrived I was struck by the significance of those serious moments in the midst of so much laughter. Life is like that -- especially today. In the middle of all this normal living we do get very serious sometimes and Mr. Carey quite effectively shows his students the best ways to handle those serious moments.

Both Cheng and Herrick have done some lovely work with these two books; the poems all stand out in the individual voices they represent and the clear message of the importance of good friends and good teachers is not to be missed. These are unique experiments in writing that pack significant punch.

Until next month catch me at chasingray.com.

Cool Read: Somewhere between all those cute poetry picture books for the little kids and high school Shakespeare there is a vast wasteland where there should be poetry for middle grade readers. JonArno Lawson fills this gap quite nicely and while I realize he is certainly not the only poet writing for older elementary school kids, he is one who writes such quirky and broad collections that he really does appeal to pretty much every reader. His new book, Black Stars in a White Night Sky addresses everything from undersea treasure to a very mean girl with a tennis racket: “Patty Tackett/held a racket/right beside my head./”Move it once and /boy I’ll whack it/Patty Tackett said.”

In the midst of some truly funny pieces (“Frog on the Cob” is all I’m going to say) he also has the tragedy of Humpty Dumpty (the deadly menace came from within) and some thoughts on fighting conformity, music lessons and walking in scary woods. There’s even a mention of Han Solo.

Between the wide array of styles and subjects and Sherwin Tjia’s nicely drawn realistic illustrations, Black Stars is an excellent bridge book for kids who don’t know yet that they aren’t supposed to like poetry. This one will keep them reading, and hopefully open their eyes to the fact that there is much more out there than the oncoming onslaught of all things a guy named William ever wrote.