Thursday, September 23, 2010

From Russia With Love: Booktalk 2

Yuri is a teenage boy living in Russia in the 1930s, under a brutal Stalin-like leader. The old rule of the Czars is over: they’ve been murdered and exiled, and no one dares speak of them anymore. The new regime – which Yuri is taught to praise at school – is harsh and unforgiving. People in Yuri’s town live in perpetual fear of being kidnapped and sent away to the work camps, where their chances of survival are slim. Yuri’s parents urge him to keep his mouth shut and his eyes down at the ground. In an unstable police state, anyone can be singled out and disappear without a trace. Yuri’s school is shut down, and he’s forced to do brutally hard manual labor.  When he’s sent to a mining camp in the north for answering a question incorrectly [sentence: ten years], Yuri senses that his life is over. Even if he does manage to get home, his parents may be dead or just gone, like so many others. But youth may be on his side: “Sometimes the sunlight had sparkled so brightly across the boundless sheets of snow. Or, in the stinging wind under the china-blue sky, I’d smelled the blessed spring melt. Once I stood under a tree and my heart sang to see the way its tall brave trunk soared …. I’d watch the eagles soaring overhead. I couldn’t help it” (138).  In a world of bleakness, illness, and semi-starvation, Yuri takes what consolation he can get. The Road of Bones by Anne Fine is gripping historical fiction.

The Road of Bones by Anne Fine. 213 p. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2006. Booktalk to high school, adult.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

From Russia With Love: Booktalk 1

Rose lost her best friend by choosing to attend a special school for the arts [dance, music] instead of the local public school. But even in her private school, Rose feels like an outsider. She's a dancer, like many of the other teens, but she has few friends, no social life, low self-esteem, and no real joy in her daily life, except for fleeting moments of loving dance. Yrena, the Soviet girl across the street whose window Rose can see into, has never spoken to Rose. When Yrena walks to her own school, special agents follow discretely behind her. Rose knows very little about her, until Yrena's face pops up unexpectedly at Rose's bedroom window one day. Shocked, Rose lets her in, and in surprised at Yrena's friendliness and curiosity about Rose's life and the lives of American teenagers in general. In spite of her closely monitored and controlled life, Yrena seems confident, friendly, secure, and happy. She's an outsider in this country, but she has a lot to teach Rose. When they drop in on a party [Rose would never have done this before], Yrena stands up to the girls who bullied Rose. It's like watching a master, a queen bee who's both kind and strong. But can a girl who is under such close governmental control really be available for friendship? Rose Sees Red by Cecil Castellucci is an intriguing novel about friendship, dance, and openness.

Rose Sees Red by Cecil Castellucci. 197 p. Scholastic, 2010. Booktalk to high school.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book talk: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Newbery Honor, 2009)

Our theme so far has been ‘hang in there.’ As you know, it’s another way of saying ‘survive’ or ‘endure.’ This novel, The Underneath, shows us the embodiment of survival and endurance. When you look at the cover of The Underneath [display cover], you see three animals cowering, probably in fear: Ranger, a hound dog chained to the house, and two cats. An unlikely trio. They’re living beneath a beat-up shack in the middle of an obscure forest in far east Texas, with bayous, creeks, wilderness, snakes, turtles, frogs, and alligators. The owner of the shack is a terribly cruel man who lives alone, and his only name is Gar-Face. Gar-Face hates other people and animals, too. He’s abused Ranger, who lives alone under the house in fear and hunger and solitude. But Ranger’s life starts to show a little hope and love when a pregnant cat shows up. She’s literally been thrown away by her owners. When she gives birth to two kittens, she and her kittens live with Ranger in the underneath and love him completely. They’re their own little family, as odd as it may seem. The cat and her kittens make Ranger’s life worth living. Yet there is such danger in the forest. There is a snake who is over 1,000 years old, plotting revenge. There’s an enormous alligator whom Gar-Face wants to catch and kill. And there’s a mysterious, beautiful hummingbird whose appearance to a creature or person announces that person’s impending death. Who will die? Who will survive? The Underneath by Kathi Appelt is a truly amazing novel, beautifully written and brilliantly imagined.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. 313 p. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008. Booktalk to advanced intermediate readers, middle school, high school, adult. Newbery Honor, 2009.