One-Minute Book Reviews

January 28, 2008

Coming Tomorrow — John Gunther’s Classic Memoir of His Son’s Death From a Brain Tumor, ‘Death Be Not Pround’

Many school reading lists include John Gunther‘s classic memoir of his 17-year-old son’s fight to survive a deadly brain tumor, Death Be Not Proud. And perhaps for that reason, some people have come to see it as a book for teenagers. But the book was an adult bestseller in its day and popular among many ages. What does it offer to readers today? One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the reasons for the enduring appeal of the book tomorrow.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 16, 2008

Books Give You ‘a Metaphorical Boner,’ Says Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

[Warning: This review quotes lines from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that may offend some people. I am quoting them partly because many librarians and others expected Alexie to win one of the awards that the American Library Association handed out on Monday, and these words may help to explain why he didn't. Stop reading here to avoid the potentially offensive language.]

Alexie’s first young-adult novel won a National Book Award, but a character uses a racial slur that caused some high school students to walk out when he spoke about it at an Illinois high school

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrations by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 230 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is as a subtle as an old television Western – say, the episode of Bonanza where Hoss has to explain to a fugitive from an Indian reservation why he can’t live on Cartwright land. Sherman Alexie has mostly avoided criticism for this and has, on the contrary, been rewarded for it with the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

It isn’t hard to imagine why: Alexie tries to fight some of the stereotypes fostered by the Westerns in this story told by an intelligent and self-mocking 14-year-old boy who transfers to a good high school in town instead of sticking with the wretched educational system on his reservation. Arnold “Junior” Spirit tells us that “in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity.” That includes homosexuality: “Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!” Alas, the goodwill didn’t last: “Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance,” although a few clung to “that old-time Indian spirit.” Arnold believes his grandmother was good in part because she “had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.”

Alexie is giving you the perspective of a teenager here, not that of a historian. But it’s fair to ask: Isn’t he replacing one stereotype with others by saying that Indians used accept eccentricity and admire gay people but lost “all their tolerance” when white people crashed the party? Don’t such passages romanticize Indians even as other parts of the book show the bleakness of life on a reservation where Arnold had attended 42 funerals by the age of 14?

Critics have praised Alexie for creating a character with a distinctive voice. But it would be more accurate to say that he describes experiences unfamiliar to many teenagers in the sort of voice that has become all too familiar through characters who range from Homer Simpson to Junie B. Jones, the in-your-face heroine of a series of early readers.

Arnold and his friends call others “dickwad,” “faggot,” “pussy,” “retarded fag” and “major-league assholes.” A character tells a gratuitous racial joke that includes the “n” word and “f” word and that caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave in at an Illinois high school. Alexie has stood by his use of the joke with a variation on the but-it-really-happened-that-way defense, although whether it “really happened” is irrelevant in fiction: what matters is whether it works in context. And the literary impact of this book is as muddled as its politics.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian reads less like a novel than a sitcom or screenplay called “The Rez.” Alexie describes life-shattering tragedies in the same breezy tone as a date for the Winter Formal, so that the events have the same emotional weight. He leaves subplots dangling.

Many teenagers love this bestseller, anyway. Some may be responding to Ellen Forney’s amusing illustrations, and others may be titillated by its sexual references, such as the 12 uses of the word “boner.” At his new school Arnold befriends a boy who tells him that he should read and draw “because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.” Arnold plays dumb, so Gordy goes on: “Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense. I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.” Arnold doesn’t ask an obvious follow-up question: What if a book pulls a boner instead of giving you one?

Best line: “If the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Worst line: The gratuitous racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word (which appears the bottom of page 64 in the novel). Apart from that: The last line quoted in the review above. Would any 14-year-old boy say “erect penis” instead of “hard on” when talking with a male friend? Or even have to explain what a boner is?

Published: September 2007.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature www.nationalbook.org. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janicehaarayda.com

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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

10 Discussion Questions
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel
By Sherman Alexie
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Arnold “Junior” Spirit endures taunts that he’s “an apple” – “red on the outside and white on the inside” – when he leaves his reservation to go to better high school in a nearby town. But he knows he can’t let the jeers stop him. At the age of 14, he’s attended 42 funerals, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related. So Arnold tries to fit in at his new school – by going out for basketball, dating a popular white girl and befriending a fellow bookworm – while coping with tragedy at home. And if some Indians continue to see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation, Arnold eventually learns that the world has many kinds of tribes and that more than a few of them have a place for him.

Questions for Young Readers

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows a different side of American Indian life than do many other books. What did you learn about Indians from it?

2. Why does Alexie call his book the diary of a “part-time” Indian?

3. On his reservation, Alexie’s main character is known as “Junior.” But when he switches to a new high school, Reardan, people call him by his formal name, Arnold. “I felt like two different people inside of one body,” he says. Do you think Junior/Arnold was just talking about his name? Or did he feel split in other ways, too?

4. Arnold misses his best friend, Rowdy, after he starts his new school. But Rowdy doesn’t seem to want to join him there. How do Arnold’s and Rowdy’s views of the reservation – and their own lives – differ? What do you think Alexie is trying to show you through those differences?

5. At his new school, Reardan, Arnold gets to know a book-lover named Gordy, who says that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” How does this idea relate to Arnold’s life?

6. Arnold tells Gordy that some Indians taunt him: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” What did they mean? Did their comment describe Arnold accurately?

7. What’s the purpose of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Why does Alexie use it when Arnold is clearly angry about a lot of things?

8. Arnold’s math teacher at Wellpinit High School, Mr. P, tells him that the teachers at the school used to beat the Indians with a stick: “That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” What did he mean?

9. Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and strong language (the “f” word) in a joke on page 64. He repeated the words in a talk at an Illinois high school, and some students walked out. Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face,” a newspaper reported. (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his point, he had to use words that would offend some people? How do these words relate to the rest of the novel?

10. What did you think of Ellen Forney’s pictures for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? What is their purpose in the book? Do they provide a mirror for the text, reflecting back only what you read on the page? Or do they expand it? How?

10. Arnold falls in love with Penelope, a beautiful white student. In Greek mythology, Penelope married Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. If you’ve read about Penelope in that book or others, how does she resemble the student in this novel?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 229 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

Published: September 2007. A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/. A paperback edition is scheduled to appear in September 2008.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award www.nationalbook.org. And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian www.lb-teens.com, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2008

Orson Scott Card Wins Lifetime Achievement From Librarians for His Science Fiction Novels for Teenagers, ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘Ender’s Shadow’

Orson Scott Card has won the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for “his outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens” for his novels Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. The ALA said that Card “weaves the everyday experiences of adolecence into broader narratives, addressing universal questions about humanity and society.” The organization added:

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, both published by Tor Books, present a future where a global government trains gifted young children from around the world in the art of interstellar warfare, hoping to find a leader whose skills can prevent a second attack upon humanity by the insect-like aliens descriptively nicknamed ‘buggers.’ Young Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin may be the savior they seek. He is not alone, as seen in the companion tale, Ender’s Shadow, where orphaned Bean relates his own Battle School experiences. Just as the stories of Ender and Bean are paralleled in the novels, their experiences echo those of teens, beginning as children navigating in an adult world and growing into a state of greater awareness of themselves, their communities and the larger universe.”

Card’s most recent novel is the Christmas tale A War of Gifts: An Ender Story www.hatrack.com, a 2007 novel that takes place during Ender’s early years at the Battle School, where students are forbidden to celebrate religious holidays.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 11, 2008

Will the ALA Honor a Book About a Self-Declared ‘Chronic Masturbator’?

Is a phallic trend developing at the American Library Association?

By Janice Harayda

Will the American Library Association give an award to a book about a self-described “cronic masturbator”? Why not? The ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which has the word “scrotum” on the first page www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/. And Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian recently won the National Book Award for young people’s literature in November (“I Belong to the ‘Tribe of Chronic Masturbators,’ One-Minute Book Reviews, Nov. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/16/).

Alexie’s novel is the front runner for the ALA’s Michael L. Printz Award, which honors “excellence in literature written for young adults,” so a phallic trend may be developing at the ALA. (Don’t ask how many times Alexie’s book uses the word “boner.”) The ALA www.ala.org will announce the winner on Monday, when it will also award the better-known Newbery Medal (for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”) and Caldecott Medal (for “the most distinguished American picture book for children”).

Other questions to be resolved on Monday: Will the ALA give the Caldecott Medal to Jack Prelutsky’s picture book Good Sports, a collection of poems about sports, some of which the American Pediatrics Association doesn’t recommend for preschoolers, the usual readers of picture books www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/o5/12/? Or will ALA honor Prelutsky’s nakedly commercial The Wizard, maybe his worst book? The librarians didn’t give a medal to Prelutsky’s excellent 2006 book Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and may try to make up for it by rewarding a less worthy book at its meeting in Philadelphia next week.

Check back Monday for the names of the winners and, possibly, commentary on them.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 3, 2008

Good Poems for High School Students (and Maybe for Yourself, Too)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

From Alfred Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

By Janice Harayda

Looking for good poems for a teenager or for yourself? You’ll find them at Poetry Out Loud www.poetryoutloud.org, the home of National Recitation Project, a nationwide competition that encourages high school students to read poetry in class and elsewhere.

Teenagers who enter the contest must choose from among the 400 new and classic poems posted on Poetry Out Loud, which gives the full text of each and a short biography its author. Students can select work by fine contemporary poets such as Kay Ryan and Yusef Komunyakaa or warhorses like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson (identified as “the famous hermit of Amherst, Massachusetts”).

Poetry Out Loud is also a good site for teenagers and adults looking for poems to read on their own (which you can find by clicking on “Find a Poem” in the “For Students” category). You might start with one of Alfred Tennyson’s best poems, “Break, Break, Break,” the first lines of which appear above. This brief lament for a lost friend has elements that may appeal to the most reluctant readers, including rhyme, clarity and a strong rhythm. “Break, Break, Break” also deals in part with a theme that’s easy for teenagers to identify with – the difficulty of expressing deep thoughts and feelings. And because it comes from a great English poet of the Victorian era, many students are less likely to have read in it in school than the work of American poets such as Frost and Dickinson.

Furthermore: “Break, Break, Break” is a great tool for teaching teenagers about poetry because it is relatively easy to read but uses many techniques found in more challenging poems, including assonance, repetition, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. The first three words are an example of three-syllable foot with three stresses, known as a molossus.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 21, 2007

Find Award-Winning Children’s Authors at the Site for the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie Medals

A great place to browse if you’re looking for top authors or illustrators

By Janice Harayda

The British equivalents of the Caldecott and Newbery awards are the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie medals, awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CLIP). And CLIP has a well-designed site www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/home/index.php that’s a great place to learn about some of the best children’s authors and illustrators of the past 70 years. The “Living Archive” page lists all the winners. And if you click on the link that says “Shadow Site,” you’ll go to another site that has reviews and more.

Many books that have won Greenaway or Carnegie medals are available in American libraries if not always in stores. And some of their creators have won worldwide fame and have delighted children in the U.S. for years – Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Shirley Hughes, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Edward Ardizzone, Jan Pienkowski and others. So if you can’t find a medal-winning book, you can often find others by the same author or illustrator. The judges of the Greenaway and Carnegie awards tend to take more risks than the American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott committees www.ala.org, which have to satisfy more constituences. So the British medalists often include worthy books that would have had little or no chance of an American prize.

One Greenaway winner that’s in stock on Amazon and elsewhere is Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s interactive The Jolly Christmas Postman (Little, Brown, $17.99, ages 3 and up) www.allanahlberg.com. In this sequel to The Jolly Postman, a letter-carrier calls on well-known characters from fairy tales or nursery rhymes and gives them small items tucked into pockets in the book — Humpty-Dumpty gets a get-well jigsaw puzzle – before ending with a visit to Santa. This is an ideal Christmas gift for 3-to-5-year-olds for whom getting mail is still a thrill.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 15, 2007

Good Gift Books for Children and Teenagers — What to Wrap Up for Everyone From Babies and Toddlers Through College-Bound High School Students

Season’s readings for ages 1-to-16 and up

Source: http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

New books don’t always make the best gifts for children and teenagers. These suggestions include 2007 books and classics that young readers have enjoyed for years or generations

By Janice Harayda

Ages 1–2
Nobody does board books better than Helen Oxenbury, who has twice won the Kate Greenaway Medal, Britain’s equivalent of the Caldecott. Oxenbury’s great gift is her ability to create faces that are simple yet expressive and never dull or cloying, which is just what young children need. You see her skill clearly in her engaging series of board books about babies at play, which includes Clap Hands, All Fall Down, Say Goodnight and Tickle, Tickle. (Simon & Schuster, about $6.99 each) www.simonsayskids.com. Any infant or toddler would be lucky to have one of these as a first book.

Ages 3–5
Children’s poet Jack Prelutsky pays homage to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile” in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems (HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99, 3 and up) www.jackprelutsky.com, a collection of brief rhyming poems about imaginary animals. But this picture book stands on its own with amusing poems about fanciful creatures such as an “umbrellaphant” (an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk) and sparkling illustrations by Carin Berger.

Ages 6–8
Elizabeth Matthews makes a stylish debut in Different Like Coco (Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 6–8) www.candlewick.com, a witty and spirited picture-book biography of Coco Chanel. Matthews focuses on the early years of the designer who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized 20th century fashion with clothes that reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. The result makes clear that Chanel owed her success not just to hard work but to boldness and staying true to herself and her artistic vision.

Ages 9–12
Brian Selznick has had one of the year’s biggest hits for tweens of both sexes in The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures (Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99) www.scholastic.com, a cross between a picture book and a chapter book. Selznick’s novel involves a 12-year-old orphan and thief who lives in a Paris train station and, in the days of silent movies, tries to complete work on a mechanical man started by his father. The beautiful packaging of this book helps to offset the so-so writing and unresolved moral issues it raises (including that Hugo rationalizes his thievery and mostly gets away with it) www.theinventionofhugocabret.com.

Ages 13-15
Three-time Caldecott Medal winner David Wiesner says in The Art of Reading (Dutton, $19.99) that as teenager he was captivated by Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Roc, $7.99, paperback) us.penguingroup.com. And that modern classic might still delight a teenager who likes science fiction (with or without a companion gift of the Stanley Kubrick’s great movie version). Or consider Mindy Schneider’s Not a Happy Camper (Grove, $24) www.not-a-happy-camper.com, an adult book being cross-marketed to teens. Schneider remembers her eight weeks at an off-the-wall kosher summer camp at the age of 13 in this light and lively memoir. (Sample experience: A bunkhouse burned down when a group of boys put candles under their beds to see if they could warm them up by nightfall.) This book is about wanting to fit in and never quite achieving it — in others, about the essence of being a teenager.

Ages 16 and up
Finally, a book for the college-bound, especially for the sort of high school student who might like to join a sorority or other all-female group: Marjorie Hart’s charming Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, $14.94) www.harpercollins.com, a book for adults that many teenagers might also enjoy. In this warm and upbeat memoir, Hart looks back on the summer of 1945, when she and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa became the first female pages at Tiffany’s, the Fifth Avenue jewelry store. They arrived just in time to watch the city erupt with joy when the Japanese surrender ended World War II and to have a much larger experience than they had expected. Hart’s account of all of it has none of the cynicism that infects so many books for teenagers, and that’s partly what makes it so refreshing.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can read others by clicking on the “Children’s Books” and “Young Adult” categories under the “Top Posts” list at right.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

 

December 8, 2007

Where to Find Lists of Books Recommended for Adolescents and Teenagers

Looking for good books for adolescents or teenagers? You’ll find many suggestions at the site for the Young Adult Library Services Association www.ala.org/yalsa/, part of the American Library Association. Click on the page on the site that says “Booklists & Book Awards” to find librarian-approved titles in categories such as “Books for the College Bound,” “Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults” and “Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.”

This is a repost for holiday shoppers of an item that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in September.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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