Category Archives: the arts

Free Reading Friday: Caraval

CaravalIf I could pick one book I want made into a movie this very second, it would be this book. I simply LOVED it!

Stephanie Garber does a spectacular job of bringing the darkly magical world of Caraval to life. Part mystery, part magic, part love story, this book has something for everyone. Despite the fact that the book is set in a different world during what appears to be the equivalent of our 1800’s, Scarlet is a heroine any modern girl can relate to. The otherwordly setting is just real enough to be believable to anyone who like historical fiction, but just magical enough to appeal to those who love fantasy. I think this is the perfect book to introduce reluctant readers to the fantasy genre because of all the other elements from the genres of mystery, romance and historical fiction that it also incorporates.

Scarlet and her sister Donatella need to escape their abusive father who has spent the last 10 years making their lives hellish. They are both obsessed with Caraval, the magical game that takes place once a year, by magical invite only. Although Scarlet writes to the mysterious Legend, the master of Caraval for years, it is not until the eve of her engagement to a man she’s never met that she finally gets a response. And not just any response…three tickets to Caraval.

As much as Scarlet wants to go, she cannot let childish curiosity for the game outweigh her desire to save herself, and more importantly her daring, but younger sister from their father’s grasp. She believes her impending nuptials are the only escape. However, when Scarlet is kidnapped and taken to Legend’s private island where Caraval is being held, she toys with the idea of staying. It is not until her beloved sister is also kidnapped and held as the game’s prize that she consents to truly play.

From there the book is a glorious mix of mystery, magic and romance that readers are sure to fall in love with. Garber does a wonderful job of setting up the sequel in a way that has left me clamoring for more. This is my pick for Goodreads YA fantasy book of 2017.

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Free Reading Friday: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon and the Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by  Becky Albertalli is yet another book on the this year’s Rosie list, so I had to read it. Before I picked it up, I had no idea what the book was about. The title was intriguing though and even though I’ve read comments that the cover is keep no of boring, I like the faceless body and the title as a quote bubble.

It only took me about 20 pages to get into Simon’s story. My favorite chapters were definitely the emails between Simon and Blue. I love how cute and genuine their emails feel. I love how vulnerable they are with each other. And even though there was a part of me who wanted Blue to cave and reveal who he was to Simon much sooner, I understand why Albertalli had him wait. Blue’s reluctance to truly reveal himself to Simon (and the world) reflects just how scary first relationships can be. They are terrifying when you are straight and conform to all the expectations of society, so I can only imagine how immensely more terrifying they are for LGBT+ teens. Especially in Georgia…or any area that is intensely conservative.

Since my best friend lives in Athens, Georgia, it was doubly fun for me to read this book which is set outside of Atlanta. It was especially great to see Albertalli mention the Junkman’s Daughter since I’ve been to the original store in Athens. I love when I find places I’ve visited in real life in books as well.

Even though I was not thrilled with the idea of going back to school after the break, I was excited about sharing this book with my students. My school has a growing LGBT+ population and I knew I would have a bunch of students who really wanted to read it. I think it is super important for them to find books which portray romantic relationships they can relate to and see themselves reflected in. Sure enough, the second I book talked it, multiple hands reached out for it.

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Free Reading Friday: The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself Memoir

big tinyI have a student who is absolutely obsessed with tiny houses. As long as I have known her, which has been two years now, she has talked about her desire to live in a tiny house. When she first told me about this, I thought she was a little bit crazy. After all, she was talking about having cardboard furniture and all I could think about was her either getting a ton of paper cuts all over her backside or sitting down to watch some TV and having her “chair” collapse.

After she showed me what her dream cardboard furniture looks like, I felt a bit less worried for her. However, I still didn’t think it looked even remotely comfortable, even with pillows and blankets piled on it. But, to each his own, right?

This student is in my AP Language and Composition class and as part of the class, students are required to pick 4 books off of a rather extensive non-fiction book list. Each book has a different project that goes along with it. The first book, which they read over the summer merely has to be annotated. The second book, which they read during the second quarter, gets an essay over the author’s bias. The third book, which they read during the third quarter, also gets an essay, this time over the theme. The final book, which they read during their final quarter of high school requires a creative project which explores both bias and theme.

Although the list I provide has a wide variety of books to suit just about every reading interest, I also allow students to suggest books for me to read and then approve for their essays/project. Due to her love of all things tiny house, she asked me to read The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself memoir by Dee Williams.

Unlike some of the books my kids suggest, I was intrigued by this one. I wanted to understand the tiny house craze and what would drive someone to give up a perfectly nice sized house for something smaller than my bedroom.

Williams’ journey from slightly hippy Washington homeowner to full-fledged, living off the grid hippy Washington tiny house owner began after a near fatal illness, which made her re-evaluate her life and her priorities.

Slowly, she began downsizing all of her possessions and building her tiny house. The book chronicles here entire journey from her life before her illness, through her sickness, through building her tiny house (almost completely on her own), to actually living in her house (which she parked in friend’s backyards). It was interesting to see Williams go through the planning process to see what was absolutely vital to her.

It turns out that in order to have the size of house that would fit on the trailer she was having custom built, everything would have to fit in a 6X11 area. This meant that there was really no way for her to have even a shower in her tiny home. She also made a rather large measuring mistake and could not fit the small fridge she had intended to use in her new pad. So, she decided she could get by with a cooler. After all, she only has one hot plate burner, so it’s not like she was planning gourmet meals. Since any sort of space heater would be an insane fire hazard in the house, heat was also out. Instead, she invested in thermal underwear, lots of think socks and warm blankets for her sleeping loft. She tells stories of the frost and snow right above her head as she wakes up seeing her breath each morning.

Luckily for Williams, she’s not completely alone in her tiny house. For the majority of the book she has her beloved dog with her. A dog she carries up into the sleeping loft every night and then back down each morning. This leads to more than one slip, one of which does some real damage. Williams was also fortunate not to have to buy any land for her tiny house. Two good friends of hers allowed her to “park” her house in their backyard. While technically illegal for her to live in someone else’s backyard, as long as she claimed to be the caregiver to her friend’s aging aunt, she could live in her house with no interference. Which is exactly what she did.

Living in her friends’ backyard solves a few issues for her. First, she actually has access to a power source if she needs it. Although she uses solar panels to charge the rather large battery which she uses to power her burner and laptop, if need be, she can also plug her tiny house into her friends’ power source. In addition, she had an easy place to shower, negating her original plan to shower at truck stops. This arrangement also gave her access to safer food storage and an extended ability to cook. Since she had not only befriended Rita, the aunt, but was also helping to care for her, she had daily trips into full-sized homes.

The access to some of these amenities makes it easier to understand how she can survive in only 84 square feet.

Although the book is interesting, I think at times Williams comes off as a bit sanctimonious. While I cannot, and would not want her lifestyle, I did like looking into a life so very different than my own.

For anyone interested in seeing inside her home, here is a video she made not long after the book came out. Amazingly enough, since the book has come out, Williams has actually downsized even further, giving up her palatial 84 square feet for just 54. This time she does have a shower–it’s just outdoors. Check out her new house here.

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Free Reading Friday: NEED

NEEDI grabbed NEED by Joelle Charbonneau because it is one of the Eliot Rosewater book nominees for the 2017-2018 school year. One of my goals this year is to read all of The Rosie books. I didn’t really have any idea what the book was about before I picked it up. All I knew was that a student had returned it to the library after only reading 50 pages or so and said it wasn’t for them.

I’m not sure what that student was talking about, because I found the book pretty darn compelling. I love that the book starts off by establishing the difference between a WANT and a NEED. In our society today, we’ve gotten so used to having our needs met that we tend to say we need things that we definitely just want. I know I am as guilty as everyone else. I say I need a new fitness tracker, but I don’t. I have one that works just fine. And even if it didn’t, it’s certainly not a NEED…it’s a want.

As the characters find out in this book, there is a big difference between a WANT and a NEED.

Kaylee, the main character has a definite NEED, even though it’s not for her. Her younger brother needs a new kidney and not only is she not a match, but when her father finds out about his son’s disease, he disappears without getting tested.

Enter her best friend Nate, who’s just found out about a social media website called NEED. The website offers the promise to “join your friends in discovering how much better life can be when you are presented with an anonymous way to express your thoughts and are given the tools to get the things you need.” The premise of the website is simple: Ask for something you NEED, then do a little task the website asks of you and your NEED will be fulfilled.

Nate’s brother gets an iPhone and all he has to do is send friend requests to 5 of his friends to join the website, which is open only to students at their high school. Sounds great, right? Such a simple act for such a great reward.

Of course as Kaylee knows, nothing really comes for free. Although skeptical, she asks for what she needs: a new kidney for her brother.

As the story unfolds, students are asked to do more and more to fulfill their needs. One boy, spurned by the girl he likes, agrees to leave a package anonymously on her doorstep. He thinks nothing of it, as he believes he truly needs the acne cream, which he is convinced is the reason he was spurned, and leaving a package he’s not allowed to look in is really no big deal. Of course, he doesn’t know about her nut allergy or the nuts in the cookies.

NEED is a compelling story that explores the depths people will sink to when they believe they are anonymous. It also explores the idea of taking responsibilities for our actions, what we truly need versus what we merely want and the dangers of social media, all of which are excellent topics for a YA novel.

As someone who has been teaching teenagers for twenty years now, I have seen just how dangerous and addictive social media can be for teenagers and I think this book is one that will not only resonate with teens, but hopefully make them stop and think about their activities online, their own culpability for their actions and the way they treat their peers.

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Throwback Thursday: Pour over butter popcorn

My first job (aside from babysitting) was at a movie theater. The summer after I turned 16, I was stuck in a tedious babysitting gig that paid $15 a day for two kids. Considering those days were about 9 hours, I was making $1.66 an hour. Sure, there were no taxes coming out of my check, I could watch whatever I wanted on TV and since one of the kids was in summer school for the first 4 hours of the day, there wasn’t a lot of “work.” But when the oldest boy decided to shut himself in his room and choke himself because I told him his mom said he was not allowed to play video games, I realized that I was working way above my pay grade.

So, I told the mom I was done and papered every business in town with job applications. The first, and oddly only, business to call was General Cinema. Thankfully, it was the job I most wanted to get. I interviewed with the manager and was hired on the spot. It seemed like a dream come true! Not only would I be paid nearly 4 times my previous salary, but I got unlimited free movies for me and two friends. Wanna know what makes you decently popular in high school? Free movies.

Despite having to wear a polyester uniform that made my butt look horrendous and smelling like rancid oil at the end of every shift, I LOVED my job. My co-workers, none of whom went to my school, were fantastic. Since my theater only had 6 screens, there was lots of down time in between movies, so we goofed off almost more than we worked. Plus, there was one unwritten benefit of my new job: all the popcorn I could eat.

I say unwritten because we weren’t supposed to eat any of that popcorn. We got free movies, but no discount at the concession stand. If we wanted a popcorn, we were supposed to buy it. However, like every other teenage employee in any sort of food industry, we found ways around the rule. Our theater gave out courtesy cups for people who wanted water (or to split up larger bags/buckets of popcorn or, as ushers quickly found out, to spit tobacco in and leave in the theater). When the managers were in the office, we’d just fill up courtesy cups, douse them with butter and snack, snack snack.

Plus any time the popcorn was being popped upstairs (this happened several times a week, but not every day), we could go in and fill up ticket bags full of as much as we wanted. I cannot count the meals I made of movie theater popcorn.

Ever since those wonderful days at the County Seat Cinema, I have adored all things movie popcorn. However, since I have two young kids, we don’t get out to the theater that often. My cravings for popcorn have not abated though. Instead, I’ve found my favorite substitute: Orville Redenbacher’s Pour Over Butter Movie Popcorn.

Good ol’ Orville first started making popcorn in my hometown, which every year has a Popcorn Festival in his honor. For the entirety of my teenage years, both Orville and his grandson Gary officiated at the yearly parade, so I may be a little biased in my love for his particular brand of popcorn.

While I definitely prefer all varieties of his microwave popcorn to any others I’ve tried, the pour over butter variety comes so close to that strange, not quite butter concoction we had at the movie theater, that it immediately sends me back in time. I even have fine popcorn salt just in case I need to make it even better…I mean worse…no, definitely better.

Tonight as I ran to the store to pick up a few essentials we needed at home, I saw the Redbox container and Baby Driver, which I’ve been wanting to see. So I grabbed it and made sure to pick up not one, but two boxes of my pour over buttery favorite. It won’t be quite the same as a true theater experience, but with our projector TV in the basement, my fake butter popcorn and surround sound, it’ll be pretty darn close!

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Wildcard Wednesday: Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Novels

Pop chart fullSome time last fall I saw a Facebook post advertising Pop Chart Lab’s 100 Essential Novels poster. I was instantly smitten.

This is the perfect gift for anyone who loves books. The minute I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I told my husband it was on my Christmas list, which thrilled him because I’m very bad at giving him suggestions for Christmas presents. I’m very bad at giving anyone gift suggestions for myself. I love coming up with gifts for others, but for some reason when it’s my turn to make the list, everything I want goes right out of my head. But I wanted this chart.

Like the wonderful human being he is, he bought it for me. I unrolled it and delighted at all the shiny gold sections I was going to get to scratch off. I didn’t start scratching right away though. As much as I love the poster, I never had any intention of hanging it up at my house. This poster was destined to hang in my English classroom, hopefully as inspiration for my students who might be looking for a challenge OR who might just need a good book to read.

When we returned from break, I immediately hung the poster in my classroom, right on my front white board. I found the prefect place for it where students could see it, but it was still technically behind my desk. I didn’t want anyone to get the silly idea that they could scratch any books off the chart. I could just see it being too tempting for a few of them.

Once it was up, I started raving about it to all of my classes. My Advanced Placement English students were a bit more excited about it than my Film Lit kids were, but that was probably a combination of knowing me longer and being a bit more enthusiastic about reading. They immediately asked me how many of the books I’d read.

I’ll admit it was with a bit of chagrin that I had to reply I’d only read 35 of them. Yes, that’s right, even though I’d read over 120 books last year, only 35 of all the books I’ve read in my lifetime were on the 100 Essential Novels chart. I’m not sure exactly who decided these were the 100 books everyone should read. It’s not like Pop Chart Lab is a known authority on the subject. Many of the books on the list were not ones I’d read, even though I’d read several other books by the authors.

For example, I’d never read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, but had read A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times and Bleak House. I’ll admit that a part of me wanted to scratch it off just because I felt it didn’t really matter which Dickens novel I’d read, just that I’d read Dickens. I mean, why Great Expectations and not A Tale of Two Cities (which I personally feel is the superior book)? It’s so arbitrary!

And while I may have railed a bit about this to my students, I also set a goal to read all 100 of the books on the list. I knew I wasn’t going to do it all this year. So, I set a more reasonable goal for myself: 1 book off the chart each month. That seemed completely manageable to me.

Pop Chart close upI am proud to say that with my completion of A Passage to India last night, I have officially made it halfway through the list.

That’s right, I’ve read 50 of the 100 essential novels. That also means that I’ve exceeded both my Goodreads goal for 2017 (123/100 books) and my Pop Chart Lab goal (15/12 books)…and it’s only November. Granted, I don’t know how many more books I’ll be able to get in before the of the year, but I am going to do my best to get at least 1 more essential novel and at least a dozen more books in before the new year rolls around.

I know it may seem silly, but having little goals like this, and especially ones with fun scratch off pictures, really makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. Sure, it may take me anywhere from 3.5-5 years to read all of the novels on my Pop Chart Lab poster, but that’s ok. I’ll slog through them all. Glancing at the list I think this is completely achievable. Thanks to this list I’ve even found a few new favorite books (I’m looking at you Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao).

Of course I do know which book I am saving for the absolute last book I will read off the chart: Moby Dick. I’m dreading this tale of human frailty and whale blubber.

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Free Reading Friday: Kindness for Weakness

Even if KKindness for Weaknessindness for Weakness wasn’t one of the Eliot Rosewater nominees for 2107, I’d want to read it because Ruta Sepetys, one of my favorite new YA authors (who also has a book on the Rosie list) has a cover blurb claiming this book is a meeting between Monster and The Catcher in the Rye. To me, this is an intriguing combination, so I snapped it up.

I found the story of James, a 15 year old kid who has been abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, abused by her boyfriend and all but forgotten by his older brother who was supposed to look out for him, compelling. Even though he knows his brother is not on the level when he asks him to deliver “packages” for him, James agrees in hopes that they can be closer. Plus, he’s so used to being so severely deprived, that the pittance his brother throws him for helping out is enough to make him nearly giddy. For the first time in a long time, his belly is full. It’s hard not to sympathize with a kid like James.

James becomes an even more sympathetic character when he gets busted while on a drug run with his brother. Despite the fact that Louis, his brother, takes off and leaves James totally alone to face the consequences, James doesn’t rat him out. He doesn’t want to be perceived as a cry baby weakling. He wants to show his brother that he is strong and can do his time at juvie. After all, he had an idea of what he was getting into and he made a choice.

His understandably bad decision lands him in Morton, the one place he’s warned he doesn’t want to end up. Unlike many juvenile facilities, Morton tends to resemble jail more than a rehabilitation facility. James spends much of his time in Morton trying to figure out what true strength means. Most of his peers believe any sort of kindness is weakness. They believe they have to step to someone, even if it means more time in Morton, the hospital or the morgue. In one scene, Mr. E, who is leading a group session asks what they’d do if someone stepped on their squeaky clean Jordans without apologizing. Everyone except James believes a beat down is in order. Even when Mr. E tells them that their response will be the difference between them being part of the 86% who end up back in lock up and the 14% who make it out, few are willing to let the “slight” go because it would show too much weakness.

This book is a great look at the toxic culture that exists which forces boys and men to be “strong,” no matter what the cost. I think this is a really important book for teenagers, especially teenage boys to read. The amount of time James and Shawn Gooodman, the author, spend exploring what strength really means is important.

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