Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

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Books from the Summer Bucket:Theories of Relativity

Theories of Relativity by Barbara Haworth-Attard is another of the young adult books I took home from my classroom for the summer.

I have a lot of students pick up books, read a few pages, sometimes a few chapters, get bored and try another book. None of them get bored with this one. It’s about a kid named Dylan who lives on the street in a big northern city. The author is Canadian so I suspect it’s a Canadian city, although I kept imagining Cleveland. Never been there, so I don’t know why, but there it is.

Wherever it is, life is tough. Dylan is a smart kid – he likes to read about Einstein – and he doesn’t want to be on the street. Everyone from pimps to pushers wants to recruit him, and they offer him some deals, but Dylan wants to maintain his independence and his freedom, things tantamount to suicide in his world. Some adults want to help him, but his pride interferes. He’s a kid with no hope and no chance.

The characters are lively and believable and the situations that Dylan finds himself in are downright disconcerting. Theories of Relativity falls into a category of books that I call “problem books” in that they attempt to educate young readers about very real problems for which there are no easy solutions. Perhaps reading this might give some kids hope and others compassion. Or, perhaps, a few hours of being entertained by a solid modern story. I guess it’s win-win.

Books from the Summer Bucket: Number the Stars

I have a whole set of Lois Lowry’s young adult novel Number the Stars in my classroom, which is why it’s one of the books I brought home for my summer reading.

The story takes place in Denmark in 1943. Word gets out that the Nazis will be relocating all of Denmark’s Jews, and ten-year-old Annemarie Johnsen and her family take in Annemarie’s best friend and neighbor, Ellen, who is a Jew.

During the Nazi occupation of Denmark the Danes helped nearly all of Denmark’s Jews escape to Sweden and Number the Stars is a fictional version of that larger story centered around one child on whom many people’s lives come to depend.

The best thing about the book is the way Lowry evokes place. I have never been to Denmark, but Lowry’s descriptions of the small fishing village across the water from Sweden became as vivid as my own memories.

I also get hung up on weird details such as the apparently true ruse the fishermen used to fool the Nazi dogs so they wouldn’t smell the human cargo. A powder made of dried blood and cocaine would be sprinkled on something the dogs would smell. The blood would attract the dogs, and the cocaine would temporarily destroy their sense of smell. I’m not sure what it says about me that that detail is what sticks out from a moving and well-written book about human courage, but there it is.

Since I already have a class set, I’ll probably use this one next year with my younger students. My high schoolers will stick with Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Books from the Summer Bucket: Rumble Fish

I’ve never read The Outsiders (but it is in the Summer Bucket) so Rumble Fish is my first SE Hinton novel. It’s one of the many in my classroom and it’s relatively popular among the kids, but it was recommended to me by one of the staff who read it as a kid growing up in the Bay Area. Turns out everyone at my school who grew up there in the seventies had to read it.

It’s about a junior high kid named Rusty-James, the toughest kid on a tough street, who loves to fight and wants to be in a gang like his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy, once was.

Rusty-James narrates, and he tells of a few days in which he gets in a knife fight and the Motorcycle Boy comes back to town. Rusty-James idolizes the Motorcycle Boy, an idealized older kid who has it all from street smarts to book smarts with good looks and a rep for being a seriously dangerous dude. The Motorcyle Boy can do anything with his life, but he doesn’t want to do anything. Naturally, Rusty-James only sees the Motorcycle Boy’s rep and wants to be just like him.

SE Hinton does a nice job evoking a rundown urban wasteland full of kids going nowhere fast whose only hope seems to be in maintaining a tough enough rep to stay alive. It’s a pretty bleak look at the all-too-real problem of kids growing up without dreams or any kind of vision of what life could be like, and in Rusty-James’s idealized view of the Motorcycle Boy we see the peril of choosing the wrong heroes.

This is one I’ll probably consider having my kids read next year. It has a very nice (perhaps I should say “nicely written” since it’s not really very ‘nice’) ending, which I won’t spoil, and besides it’s a really good character piece.

I think my students will be able to relate to this as well since so many of them are on the same dark road to nowhere as Rusty-James. Who knows maybe one or two will see in Rusty-James’s story a life they might themselves avoid.

Books from the Summer Bucket: Crank

If there is one book that all my students want to read or reread it’s Ellen Hopkins’s Crank.

It is 537 pages of scattered free verse poetry from the point of view of Kristina, a teenage crank addict (that’s methamphetamine to those of us who still have all our teeth). Kristina starts out as the perfect kid with a lot going for her. Then she goes to visit her ex-junkie dad who isn’t as ex- as they thought and she meets a boy who introdues her to crank, aka ‘the monster.’

Naturally, 500 pages of deadly downward spiral ensue. Kristina begins to change and starts calling herself Bree in a sort of Sméagol vs Gollum battle for her soul.

It’s fairly straightforward good-girl-in-trouble and speed-kills fare, but the writing is vivid and lively. Hopkins’s poetry is often spaced and arranged in ways that allow certain pieces to be read two different ways, which nicely reflects the Kristina/Bree split. For example, “Flirtin’ with the Monster”:

Life was good
before I
the monster

was great

for a little while.

I found myself interested in these kinds of splits that occured occasionally, nicely reminding us that Kristina was still in there somewhere or that Bree was waiting right around the corner.

The book doesn’t pull many punches and even manages to drop a few f-bombs, unusual in young adult fiction, but then within the context of the subject matter highly appropriate.

Considering that many of my students have lived through and are living through similar circumstances and quite a few of them have had personal encounters with ‘the monster,’ I give the book props for ringing true, and it should. It’s based on Hopkins’s own experiences with her daughter.

Books from the Summer Bucket: Murder on the Orient Express

Back in February, I had the opportunity to purchase a ton of books for my classroom. Well, okay, not a ton, but it did take two Old Navy shopping carts to get out of Barnes & Noble and I’m not just talking any old navy shopping carts, I’m talking the kind that could withstand a barrage of cannon.

I got a lot of books is all I’m saying.

I tried to pick ones that my kids would want to read so I got an eclectic mix of young adult, genre, poetry, and classics many of which I had never read, especially the YA and some of the genre stuff. The books were a hit and silent reading days suddenly became quite popular. Often the kids would want to talk about what they read, but I was too often clueless and so this summer I took home a large bucket full of the books that were especially popular.

My wife and I are blazing through that bucket and finding the joys of young adult fiction. My wife was even able to brag that she read five books on Saturday. Five whole books, I swear to God, five books. Since I’m also writing a book, I’m moving a bit slower on the reading, but I did just finish my first book from the Summer Bucket: Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

I’ve never read any other of Christie’s novels (or any detective novel for that matter other than Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel), but it was fun. It’s about Hercule Poirot, apparently Chritie’s recurring detective who finds himself snowbound on the Orient Express with a murder to solve. It’s a clever story with a surprising ending. It’s an easy quick read also, which is why, I think, several of the kids found it so appealing.

I’ll probably read a few more Agatha Christie novels (including Evil Under the Sun, which is on my Lost list) simply to see if this was typical or a particularly unique work. Either way, Murder on the Orient Express had me turning the pages and looking forward to spending a little time each day on that fabled luxury train of the mid-30’s, trying and failing to stay one step ahead on Monsieur Poirot.

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