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

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

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

 

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