One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2012

Are School Reading Assignments Making Your Child Dumber?

Filed under: News,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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High school students are reading books appropriate for fifth graders, often assigned by teachers

By Janice Harayda

Schools are supposed to make you make you smarter. Are American teachers routinely assigning books that make kids dumber? You might think so after reading a major new report by Renaissance Learning, which develops hardware and software that helps schools measure students’ educational progress.

The top 40 books read by teenagers in grades 9–12 have an average of reading level of grade 5.3, appropriate for the third month of fifth grade, the report said. And the picture wasn’t much prettier for younger students. The book most read by seventh graders is Diary of a Wimpy Kid (reading level: grade 5.5). For eighth grade, it’s The Outsiders (grade 4.7). And students often read these books because their teachers assign them.

Students sometimes can benefit from reading books that are below their level. Easy books can build confidence, keep reading fun, and reinforce educational gains. But a steady diet of too-simple books won’t prepare students for the demands of life after high school. David Coleman, a contributor to the Renaissance Learning report, notes that the most important predictor of success in college is the ability to read and understand challenging material. And many books on the top 40 lists aren’t “complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” Students may also lose interest in reading for pleasure if they find easy books boring.

That’s why parents need to fight back when schools frequently require children to read books that are below their reading level. Here are three ways to do that:

Check the reading levels of books that seem too easy. You can find the levels of many books used in schools by entering their titles in the search box on the AR BookFinder site. You can find the levels of others by pasting text from them into the box at ReadabilityFormulas.com. The Renaissance Learning report “What Kids Are Reading, 2012″ has the reading levels of the top 40 books read by grades K-12.

Talk to teachers who assign too-easy books. Find out why they thought your child would benefit from the books. If the reasons aren’t convincing, ask teachers to substitute others suited to your child’s level.

Let the principal know. Don’t quit if teachers won’t assign books at your child’s level or if your concerns go beyond one assignment – for example, if an entire summer reading list is too easy. In some schools or districts, most lists are dumbed-down, and the problem requires action at a higher level.

Some children will find their way to harder books if you do nothing. But most won’t, Coleman says. Children, he says, “need to be challenged  and supported to build  their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

For more information: Read the Huffington Post summary of the Renaissance Learning report. You may also want to read this One-Minute Book Reviews post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level, which compares his level to that of other bestselling authors.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 4, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Christine Schutt’s ‘All Souls’ — A Prep-School Student Gets Cancer in a 2009 Fiction Finalist

A New York City teenager’s overprivileged friends respond to her life-threatening illness

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. Harcourt, 223 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Did the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction intentionally set the bar low this year? Or did their tastes simply run to lightweight books with improbable feel-good endings?

Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the 2009 fiction prize, has odd similarities to the winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The publishers of both books bill them as “novels.” But Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of short stories, a group of linked tales could stand alone.

All Souls, too, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But its tales are so short, they’re closer to vignettes. All Souls has nine sections, each divided into so many sub-units that you keep darting into and out of the minds of different characters. One of the micro-sections has fewer than 50 words. Many others aren’t much longer and read as though written for an iPhone screen. The problem isn’t the use of vignettes to tell a story: Evan Connell used a similar technique to brilliant effect in Mrs. Bridge, a minor classic of American literature. The problem is that the entries in All Souls are so short that – as John Updike said of Bruce Chatwin — Schutt sounds as though she’s always interrupting herself. Her technique makes for choppy reading and limits her ability to develop a rich and sustained narrative.

Like a high school yearbook, All Souls gives snapshots of its characters instead of fully realized portraits. In a sense this befits its subject. Pretty and well-liked, Astra Dell develops “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma,” a rare connective-tissue cancer, at the start of her senior year of high school. How rare is her illness? If you paste “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma” into a browser window, Google returns only one result, which involves the Unitarian minister Alison Miller, whom Schutt credits with inspiring this book.

Schutt shows the effect of the cancer on Class of 1997 at the fictional Siddons, an elite Manhattan prep school for girls, that she follows through an academic year. As Astra gets high-risk treatments such as having a radioactive rod sewn into her arm, her classmates and others tend to respond inadequately or use her illness for their own ends.

At times Schutt captures well the mix of naïveté and overconfidence that tends to characterize teenagers. A senior can’t believe Astra got cancer: “She’s been a vegetarian for three years!” Schutt also offers occasional telling glimpses of Siddons parents and teachers: The adults discuss rumors that the pipes at rival schools are rusting from “the acidic effects of throwing up” by girls with eating disorders.

What are we to take away from all of this? If always intelligent, Schutt’s prose is so elliptical and antiseptic that you don’t know whether it’s intended as satire, social realism or something else. And like Olive Kitteridge, All Souls pulls an unexpectedly rosy ending out of a hat of darkness. The girls of Siddons, we learn, are conscientious enough that they don’t use CliffsNotes much. Schutt has stripped away so much from her book that she often leaves you with the sense that you haven’t read a novel so much the sort of condensation that her fictional students would avoid.

Best line: Siddons girls have been warned that CliffsNotes are “as nutritious as bread someone else has chewed and spit out.”

Worst line: A line of of dialogue by Astra’s father, who tells his daughter about a party: “The Johnsons were not in attendance.” Who speaks like this?

Published: April 2008 (Harcourt hardcover), Harcourt paperback due out June 8, 2009.

Consider reading instead: Black Ice (Knopf, 1991), Lorene Carey’s memoir of her experiences as the first black female student at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark‘s classic about an Edinburgh girls’ school.

About the author: Schutt lives and teaches in New York City. She wrote the novel Florida (Triquarterly, 2003), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for fiction. All Souls was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.

Furthermore: Schutt says the inspiration for All Souls came from the minister Alison Miller, especially from her sermon, “Leap of Faith.” In the sermon at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Miller spoke about developing anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma at the age of 16.

Read an excerpt from All Souls.

This post is the latest in a series on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes and whether they deserved their honors. A reality check for  Olive Kitteridge appeared on April 27, 2009.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 26, 2009

Brendan Halpin’s ‘Losing My Faculties’ — A High School Teacher Tells All

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 am
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It’s odd how few good memoirs there are by high school teachers, especially compared with the many by professors. A worthy exception to the pattern is Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story (Villard, 256 pp., $15, paperback). In this lively book, Brendan Halpin reflects on his years as young teacher in inner-city and suburban public schools in the Boston area in the 1990s. His tone can be smart-alecky, but he’s a passionate teacher who has grounds for complaint about apsects of his work: hostility from older teachers, a poorly designed truancy program, patronizing advice dispensed to teachers by consultants with no classroom experience. Halpin has also written a good memoir of his first wife’s breast-cancer treatments, It Takes a Worried Man, and young-adult or crossover novels, including Donorboy and new I Can See Clearly Now (Villard, 288 pp., $14).

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 26, 2008

A Librarian-Approved Graphic Novel for Teenagers (And Maybe You)

Filed under: Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:16 pm
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Looking for graphic novels for a teenager? Take a look at Boston Bibliophile, a blog by a librarian named Marie who reviews graphic novels every Monday. First in her weekly series was Breaking Up: A Fashion High Graphic Novel (Scholastic, 192 pp., $9.99, paperback) by Aimee Friedman with art by Christine Norrie. I haven’t read the book, but Marie calls it a “charming story” about friendship that may appeal not just to teenage girls but to some adults. (It has sexual content that probably makes it “inappropriate for younger kids”). “To say this book is light reading is an understatement, but I found it really enjoyable nonetheless,” she adds. “Friedman does a great job of showing what high school can be like — passing notes, hanging out with friends, crushes, parties.” Click her to read the review www.bostonbibliophile.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

Great Nonfiction for Teenagers — True Stories With High Drama

Filed under: Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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True tales of disaster on land, on sea and in the thin air of Mt. Everest

By Janice Harayda

I noticed while doing research for a future post on John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Vintage, 152 pp., $6.95, paperback) that this modern classic had won an award for “Books for the Teen Age” from the New York Public Library www.randomhouse.com/vintage/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679721031. The contents first appeared in The New Yorker — not a magazine for teenagers — so the honor might seem surprising.

But there’s no doubt that many teenagers would be deeply affected by this true story of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. Hersey tells what all were doing at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 – one woman had just given each of her children a handful of peanuts – and follows them for a year. The result is a triumph of focus: Hersey homes in on his subjects’ struggle to stay alive, physically and emotionally, so his book has more in common with great disaster narratives than with what many people think of as “a New Yorker article” (long, digressive, full of semicolons). The Vintage paperback edition has a chapter on the survivors lives’ 40 years later. And because its structure resembles some of the most gripping accounts of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this short book may especially appeal to teenagers who have a strong interest in that tragedy.

Hiroshima appears on many school reading lists, and you’re looking for nonfiction for a teenager who has already read it, you might consider two books dramatic enough to have inspired movies — John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a tale of disaster on Mt. Everest (Anchor, 383 pp., $14.95, paper) or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (HarperPerennial, 272 pp., $13.95, paperback), an account of terror at sea. Or try John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive (Vintage, 336 pp., $14.94, paperback). This National Book Award–winner tells the story of a Puritan minister and his wife and children who were captured by Mohawks and marched to Canada, where a daughter stayed and married an Indian after her family members had died or been released. The Unredeemed Captive is more challenging than the others but well within reach of high school students who are strong readers.

A new review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Coming soon: Why do some parents see red about Pinkalicious and its sequel, Purplicious?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 8, 2008

One of the Year’s Best Books About High School Sports, Mark Kreidler’s ‘Four Days to Glory,’ Returns in a Paperback Edition

Filed under: Paperbacks,Sports,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
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Masterly reporting sheds light on an athletic subculture little-known outside the Midwest

You can’t envy parents, teachers and librarians who are looking for sports books for high school students. So many books in the category are cheesy celebrity biographies that foster the worship of false demigods instead of a love of reading or a real understanding of competition. Not Mark Kreidler’s Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland (Harper, 285 pp., $13.95, paperback, ages 13 and up), which recently came out in paperback www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/07/. Two high school wrestlers prepare to compete in the Iowa state championship in this book of masterly reporting that offers a fascinating portrait of a little-known athletic subculture www.markkreidler.com and www.harpercollins.com. Mary Ann Harlan rightly said in School Library Journal: “Teen wrestlers will appreciate a book that speaks to them and respectfully about them, and sports fans may find a new area to appreciate.”

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. You can find other reviews in the “Children’s Books,” “Young Adult,” “Caldecott Medals” and “Newbery Medals” categories at right.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 3, 2008

A Great Question to Ask Your Teenager (Quote of the Day / Michael Riera)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:28 pm
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I don’t review many childrearing guides, partly because most seem to recycle the same dozen or so tips. How many ways can you say, “Set limits” or “Be patient – this stage will pass”? And some of the books are so patronizing that you might wonder: Are their authors writing for children or for people who have them? But I love a comment that the writer and educator Michael Riera makes as part of a broader argument against lecturing children:

“In many ways, it all comes down to what Nobel Laureate Isadore Rabi’s mother used to ask him each day when he came home from school: ‘Did you ask any good questions today?'”

Riera is encouraging parents generally to ask questions instead of trying always to have definitive answers. But the question posed by Rabi’s mother is, in itself, great. Have you ever asked a child, “Did you ask any good questions in school today?” I wonder how this would work with teenagers who don’t aspire to become Nobel laureates.

Michael Riera in Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying (Perseus, 2003) www.perseusbooksgroup.com. Riera www.mikeriera.com is head of school at the Redwood Day School in Oakland, CA.

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

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 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

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