A Poetry Collection from Donald Graves

Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash   As I’ve continued to branch out my reading into the world of poetry, I picked up a book called Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald Graves, an author who is best known for his work with improving writing instruction in schools. This collection of poems written about Graves’s childhood has a nice variety of topics, which will allow children and adults alike to find a few to which they can relate. The subjects in the poems range from struggling with math to interacting with family members to getting into some childhood mischief. One of my favorites is “The Firemen”, a poem in which Graves writes about how the desire of boys to pretend to be firefighters leads to the accidental starting of a wildfire that is barely  contained. I really enjoyed the imagery in this poem, like when the fire starts to get out of control:

“but a gust of wind

whips real red fire

past our buckets,

and the dry grass snaps

us awake, flowing now

like an angry yellow wave

toward an open field.”

I feel like this collection will especially speak to boys, as they will most easily be able to put themselves in the writers’ shoes and visualize the poems with themselves as the narrator. Poems that especially stand out in this regard involve struggling with handwriting, playing baseball in an open field, and talking about a crush on a classmate with a group of boys at recess, each boy declaring his love in turn.

Many of the poems in the collection bring happy and light visuals to mind, even though the reader knows from the start that life wasn’t necessarily easy for Donald and his family. In the poem “First Baseball Glove,” the reader finds out that the first mitt Graves ever owned was purchased with the family’s food money. Graves also has poems where he deals with bullying, struggles with learning to ride a bike, or loses the family dog in a car accident.

The poems in Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash are of the variety which will not elicit a “What did that mean?” response from children due to the down-to-earth nature of the topics and writing. If you are looking for a book of poetry to use with a child who has struggled with poems or is disinterested, this collection might be a good place to start.

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Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes   Confession time: I am not much for picking up a book of poetry and simply reading it for enjoyment. Sure, I see the value in reading poetry not only for my own thinking and writing but also for finding resources for my students, but it rarely sits on my to-be-read pile. Although I have been reading more verse novels lately, I still see these to be much different from the collections of poetry which I tend to avoid. As a reader, I need to do a better job expanding my palate, and that begins with Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.

I have read and enjoyed some of Hughes’s poetry before, but this volume helped me to better understand where he was coming from thanks to the introduction at the beginning which provided background on his life. In this section, there is useful information about where Hughes got his ideas from, and it also includes quotes from him; one that stuck out to me encompasses much of Hughes’s poetry: “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,… songs that had the pulse beat of the people who keep going.”

The idea of resilience mentioned in the quote is woven throughout many of the poems in this

Langston Hughes Picture

anthology, including “Mother to Son” and “Still Here.” Hughes manages to portray an optimism that not many African Americans of his time may have felt due to their treatment at the hands of whites in America. He repeatedly brings up the idea that people should never lose sight of their dreams, like in “Dream Variations” and “The Dream Keeper.” The poem “Hey! Hey!” continues this idea that people need to look on the bright side, but it is accompanied by “Hey!”, a poem in which the narrator has the blues.

A common device found in Hughes’s poems is repetition, like in “Aunt Sue’s Stories.” The repetition enhances the important ideas for readers while alluding to Hughes’s love for music. He also has many extended metaphors, like that of life as a rickety staircase in “Mother to Son,” or a personified piano in “The Weary Blues.”

Anyone looking for strong multicultural literature or powerful figurative language will find a lot to like about Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.

Below, you can hear Langston Hughes reading “I, Too,” one of the poems included in this anthology.

Happy reading!

A Sports Novel in Verse: Beanball by Gene Fehler

Terrible things can happen in sports. Seasons, careers, and even lives can end in the blink of an eye.  Although Beanball covermany of us cheer on participants in both youth and adult sporting events, we all know that entertainment can turn to horror in a split second. This sort of unfortunate turn is what happens to a young baseball player in the verse-novel Beanball by Gene Fehler. At the center of the plot is Luke “Wizard” Wallace, a star player on his high school’s baseball team who is unable to remove himself from the path of an errant fastball. This awful occurrence and its effects on a community are the focus for the rest of the book.

The story is told from the perspectives of a large cast of characters, some who witness the event and others who know people who were involved. After reading the book, this seems like the only possible way for this story to be told as well as it is. Readers are able to get many different viewpoints on this  event and its aftermath. For example, the umpire from the game is the one who describes the terrible life-changing moment:

“I still see it all in slow motion,

hear the sounds:

The pitcher shouting

A crack, but not like when ball hits bat or helmet.

The sound of bone shattering.

Then silence. I know it lasts only for a split second,

but with Luke lying there, it seems more like an eternity

before screams come from everywhere.

Probably even from me,

but I don’t remember that.”

Others who offer their perspective include the devastated pitcher who threw the ball, Wallace’s girlfriend, teammates, teachers, and many others. Readers get real insight into the characters, especially when outward appearances are much different from the thoughts running through their heads.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed the sprinkling of fantastic figurative language that Fehler used, especially for the injured Wallace whose life has fallen apart and he is trying to make some sense of how to put together the pieces. While Wallace is in the hospital and he is not sure what will happen, many people come to visit him, though he does not generally show any appreciation for these visits; however, his feelings tell a different story:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped on a desert island.

Once in awhile a ship comes in.

But not to save me.

Not to take me away.

A visitor shows up and then leaves.

The ship sails into the sunset,

and I’m alone again.”

Even though this is a book with a central focus around a sport, I would recommend this novel to readers who may not necessarily like sports books. Anyone who enjoys realistic fiction and who wants to see how characters deal with the trials they are faced with should pick up this book. Due to some repeated use of minor curses by an aggressive coach, as well as the terrible event at the center of the plot, Beanball is probably most appropriate for middle-grade readers.

Check out Beanball by Gene Fehler today!

Ghostly Reads for October

Crisp, colorful leaves. A chill in the air. The routines of school are established. Ah, it must be almost time for Halloween. In preparation, I always like to have some creepy books on hand to share with students. Now, I am not a fan of horror movies (there’s a lot of cringing), but I do love a good ghost story so I figured it would be the perfect time to share some of the titles and authors I have enjoyed in the past.

 Most recently, I finished the book The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki. This story follows a brother and sister, Neil and Bree, who move in with their aunts after their father moves out to the west coast to follow his acting dreams and their mother has a nervous breakdown. Neil enjoys watching a show about ghost investigators so he is immediately enthralled by the local legend of Graylock Hall, an abandoned (and supposedly haunted) hospital for people with mental disorders. He enlists his new friend Wesley and Wesley’s older brother, Eric, to explore the old building with him, but he is unable to escape without his older sister insist on coming along.

The foursome begins to explore the building while looking for the ghost of Nurse Janet, an employee who was suspected of drowning three children at the institution. Soon after beginning to explore the decrepit structure, weird things happen and Neil gets injured so the kids escape into the woods and are driven back to town by a kind local man, Andy.

It’s not long after that Bree and Neil begin to have terrifying dreams and experience strange events in their aunt’s house. Did something really follow them home from Graylock? And if so, what does it want?

I made the mistake of starting this book after 10:00 one night and had to keep reading until Chapter 8 just so I could go to sleep at a place that wasn’t going to leave me in a cold sweat that night. I enjoyed the imagery that Poblocki uses to create a consistently creepy world that I was (unfortunately) able to picture myself inside. Here’s an example from when the group first enters Graylock: “Shards of glass glimmered in the dim light at the group’s feet. A slimy green stripe of mildew and moss clung to the wall, dripping down from the makeshift entry. A shadowy horizontal line, about five feet high, stretched around the room, reminding Neil of a grimy bathtub ring.” Lines like these help to show students the importance of setting and they are great for mentoring to students how to write descriptively in their own papers. This is a book that I would recommend to middle grade students looking for a ghostly mystery and children who want a book to use as a model for some spooky writing of their own.

I picked up this book due to my enjoyment (read: fear) of Poblocki’s The Nightmarys when I read it last year. There were a few moments in this story where I actually felt myself getting goosebumps because of the creepy occurrences in the book. After I book-talked this novel at the start of the school year, both of my copies disappeared off the shelves and readers are waiting eagerly for a chance to read this book. My copy of The Stone Child, also by Poblocki, has not had an opportunity to gather dust either.

Another book that my students have enjoyed and spread throughout the classroom in the past is Bad Girls Don’t Die. This is another one of those books that I told myself I wouldn’t read after a certain time of the night because otherwise I knew this story of ghostly possession would haunt my dreams. See the video trailer here.

And who can forget two tellers of ghost stories, Mary Downing Hahn and Betty Ren Wright, who have extensive catalogs of books for children. See the book covers below for some of their books that I have enjoyed in the past.

Which ghost stories do you recommend to students who are looking for a good fright? 

The Case of the Deadly Desperados by: Caroline Lawrence

“My name is P.K. Pinkerton and before this day is over I will be dead.” – Opening line of The Case of the Deadly Desperados

After this first line, the story of P.K. Pinkerton, the protagonist, moves along at the pace of stampeding wild horses. This western adventure begins with P.K. returning to his small house in the Nevada Territory to find his foster parents murdered in what looks like an Indian attack. He discovers that a group of desperadoes, led by a wanted man, came to the house looking for a deed that is in P.K.’s possession. P.K. flees to nearby Virginia City where he finds out that the deed in his possession gives the bearer the rights to a vast tract of land which happens to contain many silver mines. All he has to do is officially register the deed in town and the riches could be his. If only things were that easy…

I think readers looking for an adventure will devour this book. In the opening, readers find out that the protagonist is hiding in a mine shaft writing this story about what has happened so far in case he doesn’t make it through the day. There is a constant thread of danger throughout the novel that will leave readers flipping pages to find out how P. K. got into the situation detailed at the beginning of the story. I will warn readers not to read too fast because they will miss out on the great sensory details and the historical facts. Lawrence weaves in details about the Comstock Lode and Virginia City, as well as actual people like Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain) that really brought the story to life and made me want to find out more about these things.

On Amazon, this book is recommended for grades 3 and up, but I can see parents with students in the lower bracket of this recommendation having problems with some of the material in this book. Characters are killed and maimed; P.K. meets women who are referred to as ‘Soiled Doves’; there are a few light swears (though P.K. does edit by inserting ‘blank’ at times in people’s speech); and time is spent in an opium den. Based on these features, I would personally move the recommended reading level to 5th grade or up, but there are always mature readers younger than that who I would not necessarily keep the book away from. Plus, all of these features add to the historical accuracy so they make sense in this novel.

As a reader, I do not seek out western themed stories; however, I find that when I read them, I tend to enjoy them. One novel that this book reminded me of is Black Storm Comin’ (recommended), a story of an African-American boy who must provide for his family. He decides to do this by illegally taking over a route for the Pony Express. Both of these stories follow boys in the American west during the 1860s who must act like adults if they hope to survive.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It had plenty of adventure and a variety of side characters that really made the Wild West setting come to life. There are also a few twists in the plot that keep things interesting. I am now eagerly awaiting book two in this series!

A Novel of Survival and Courage – Nation by: Terry Pratchett

Mau, the protagonist in Nation by Terry Pratchett, has to deal with a tragedy of unimaginable proportions: everyone that he has ever known has died.

Mau lives on an island in thePelagicOcean(think of island chains in the Pacific) and is on a different island as the story opens. His task was to use an axe and his knowledge to create a boat and sail home, thus proving that he is ready to be considered a man. On his return trip to his island village, he encounters a giant wave that sweeps his boat ashore and ravages his homeland, as well as the surrounding islands. As Mau recovers, he tasks himself with sending all of the bodies of friends, family, and neighbors to the bottom of the ocean where their souls can be reborn as dolphins. It is during this grisly business that he realizes he does not see a future for himself.

Enter Ermintrude: an adolescent Caucasian girl and the only survivor of her ship being tossed onto Mau’s island when the wave rolled in. Ermintrude had been brought up in high society in her homeland and her father is a governor on another island, so she has led a pampered 19th century life. Faced with surviving alone, she introduces herself to Mau – first by trying to shoot him, then by feeding him. Though the two share very little in common and can barely communicate with each other, Mau decides that Ermintrude is the reason he will go on living because he wants no one else to die on his watch. Soon, survivors from other islands come trickling in and both protagonists put it on their shoulders to keep them all alive, whether that is through making food available or preparing for the ever looming threat of the cannibalistic Raiders that live in the area. Mau is never able to undergo the official ceremony for becoming a man, but the man he becomes is stronger and more courageous than he could have ever expected.

I did not really know what to expect from this book before reading it. When I did pick it up, I was immediately drawn in through Mau’s ordeal and his subsequent struggle with not only survival but also with his beliefs. The story contains a thread throughout that carries Mau’s anger with the Gods, which he denounces belief in but continues to blame for what is taking place. When questioned about his faith and the reasons behind such tragedy caused by the Gods, he responds: “I don’t know the answers, but a few days ago I didn’t know there were questions.” That statement really shows part of the growth that he makes during the course of the story, going from worrying about what everyone thinks to being a selfless leader and someone who wants to understand his place on the planet.

This book immediately reminded me of other stories of survival, like Hatchet, The Cay, and Touching Spirit Bear. All of these books show characters having to survive against what nature throws their way and growing exponentially due to what they must endure.

As I read the book, I wanted to know more about tsunamis so I looked for further information. One site that I used for background with this was Wonderopolis (http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-tsunami/). The page dedicated to these natural occurrences was easy to read and would appeal to students. (This website in general is a good one for getting students interested in exploring nonfiction more deeply because of the intriguing questions posed on a daily basis)

To see the power of a tsunami, look at the following two pictures from NASA, the top one taken after the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004 and the bottom one taken before.

        

http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/indonesia_quake.html

Mau wished there had been a warning other than the animals escaping right before the wave, so this made me wonder about how the tsunami warning system in the Pacific currently works for helping people survive. I searched and found a short video clip that gives the basics of this system: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psxquPsreb0

For teachers who work with earth processes and may want to help students better understand waves, the National Geographic site contains a lesson plan for grades 3-5 about why there are differences in wave heights:

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/lessons/07/g35/wavesheights.html

I recommend Nation to students in the middle grades, especially ones who are willing to take their time due to the extensive figurative language and the flashbacks that are woven into the story. Both of these aspects can be difficult for students who do not pause to think about what is going on in the plot, and I can see readers getting confused in certain parts if they take events or descriptions literally. The book reads like historical fiction but would actually be considered science fiction. Though this book would seem to mostly appeal to boys due to the main character and the aspect of survival, I could really see girls liking it as well; this is especially true if they relate to the strong character of Ermintrude who grows from worrying about proper cooking and wearing at least 4 layers of clothing to delivering babies, dealing with murderers, and performing surgery. Overall, this is a strong coming-of-age novel that makes me want to delve into Pratchett’s other works.