Happy Birthday!

Happy birthday to J. K. Rowling, born this day 1965. Rowling gave us the Harry Potter series, which I and many others will be forever grateful. Play a game of Quidditch with your Potterhead friends and finish with a butter beer in honour of this children’s literature titan.

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What’s your favorite Harry Potter book?

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to Beatrix Potter, born on this day in 1866. Potter gave us The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the many spin-off tales, which greatly shaped picture books how picture books are packaged and published even today!

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Naughty Peter!

What’s your favorite book by Beatrix Potter?

Review of Drama

Drama

Raina Telgemeier

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The Story:

Write from back cover: “Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon over Mississippi, she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department’s stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when he doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!”

What Wallace and I think: I am already a fan of Raina Telgemeier from reading her graphic novels Smile and Sisters. Drama is the first of Telgemeier’s work that I’ve read that isn’t directly autobiographical, so it was automatically different. I loved the fictional character Callie, who has purple hair (which no one points out as being weird=awesome), is creative, innovative, driven, and a dreamer. I also appreciated that most of the action centers on the stage crew, not the actors, giving what I felt to be a different perspective from the normative story about school plays. Yes, there was some focus on actors being pre-Madonnas, but the focus was Callie and her crew mates putting the show together, which often involves long hours, lots of hard work and patience.

There are some love triangles, secret crushes, and unrequited love/crushes, but this is not the focal point of the graphic novel, which I LOVED. Callie does want a boyfriend, she has crushes on the wrong boys (well wrong for her, boys), yet the story does not end with her finding “Mr Right.” Instead the happy ending comes from Callie pulling off the set design, and receiving a promotion for next year’s production. I found the happy ending not being facilitated by a boy refreshing, and made me like Callie and Telgemeier even more. If anything, more emphasis is placed on making good friends, and being good to those friends, then being able to find a romantic partner.

Like the past graphic novels I’ve read, I absolutely love Telgemeier’s comic style. Gurihiru Scholastic/Graphix has done the coloring for all the novels I’ve read, this one included, and the color is vibrant and rich. Often with mass produced graphic novels the coloring can be pixelated (think of old Archie comics), so I LOVE that Drama’s color is free of pixilation and extremely saturated.

Though the novel takes place in a middle school, and involves some romance (the most heated things get are a quick kiss on a park bench), it is a tame graphic novel that could be read by older elementary aged children. There is also a diversity of characters (gay, straight, black, white, Asian) which could additionally make this a great book to be read in the classroom if you are looking ways to give voice to a more diverse groups of people. And if you like Drama, I would high recommend checking out the rest of Telgemeier’s work.

Testing The Testing: A Review

The Testing

Joelle Charbonneau

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The Story: From the backcover of my book: “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few, who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career”

Cia has been dreaming of being chosen for The Testing and going to University, just like her father, her whole life. But when this dream is made a reality, her father’s chilling parting advice to trust no one is the first reveal that nothing is as it seems. Cia won’t only be competing for a spot in the university, but for her life.

What Wallace and I Think: The Testing is largely a paint-by-numbers YA dystopian novel that has striking similarities to The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. It has all the characteristics that are quickly becoming the markers of this genre: set in post-apocalyptic America (and spends some time in Chicago, which some of the other books I mentioned do, weird coincidence); society is divided into factions/districts/colonies and are characterized by what they produce; the main character(s) is separated from their family; there is a romance with a childhood friend, and this romance puts the main character in danger; a forced love triangle; a token “dark-skinned” character that is killed off early in the series[1]; and a corrupted government running whatever trials/tests/games the teenage character(s) must navigate.

However, what separates The Testing from other series is the potential relatability to readers. Yes, the final round of tests are eerily similar to the actual Hunger Games, but the first round of tests the university hopefuls must go through include four-four hour written tests on History, Math, Science and English. Sound familiar? These tests may seem tame compared to the last test, in which hopeful students are more than happy to kill one another to improve their chances at earning a spot at the University, but Charbonneau captures the stress written tests can bring (one competitor commits suicide after the written tests). Charbonneau takes the anxiety finals bring, especially those finals that will determine whether you get the grades you need to move on to post-secondary education, and turns it into a series.

This is what I find original and interesting about the series. The novel raises questions regarding the usefulness and consequences of this sort of testing in our own world. Sure, students in reality aren’t killing one another off to get ahead, but it is well known and documented that student suicide rates, in high school and post-secondary, are highest in December and April: finals season (what is called Dead Week at some universities). In my current dorm room, the windows can only be opened a few inches, and housing states this is for students’ safety, which we students all know and interpret as “so students can’t jump out of the windows.” The issues Charbonneau tackles may be closer to actual challenges and obstacles readers will face when compared to the other series I mentioned. Why does this matter? If you’re feeling the stress that school can bring, reading a series like this may help you to feel that you’re not alone. The academic side of me would put it like this: if someone is dealing with depression, a book like this could be an excellent resource to safely explore and workthrough emotions difficult to express, while also offering an escape from reality.

So while I didn’t find the novel overtly original, found some of the writing clumsy, and characters other than Cia were flat and underdeveloped, it’s engagement with an important issue makes it a worthwhile read, and I will be definitely be reading the second book in the series because I am intrigued to find what the university environment will be like.

If you love series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner AND want to read something very similar, this is the new series for you. I’d love to hear what you think.

[1] Case in point: Rue, Alby and in this novel Malachi. This is a pet peeve of mine. I appreciate that the authors are trying to introduce a more diverse cast of characters, but having the majority of the population as white in a post-apocalyptic world isn’t only troubling, but having these “diverse” characters firmly placed in the background/killed off early doesn’t actual do much to change the absence of non-white characters in YA and children’s literature. See an excellent article by Christopher Myers that calls this the Apartheid of children’s literature here, and another by Walter Dean Myers here

Review of Stargirl

Stargirl (2002) by Jerry Spinelli

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The Story: A new student arrives at Mica Area High School, and the student body doesn’t know what to make of her. She wears costumes, dances in the rain, carries her rat Cinnamon with her everywhere, strums her ukulele and sings Happy Birthday to people she’s never met in the lunch room, and cheers for both the home and away teams. Once the students gets over their initial puzzlement, she inspires outbursts of individuality throughout the school, and she starts a rebellion: “a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves” (40). However, when Stargirl’s antics become more than the students can tolerate her eccentric habits becomes disparaged rather than celebrated. Can Stargirl survive the overwhelming conformity of High School?

What Wallace and I Think: I recently discovered the work of Jerry Spinelli when one of my committee members put Report to the Principal’s Office on my comprehension reading list. Since then, I’ve been making my way through some more of Spinelli’s novels for my dissertation research, and while I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Spinelli thus far, Stargirl is my favorite.

Stargirl is a fascinating character that takes time to accept. Initially everything she did I assumed was for show, to be the center of attention. This undercut the sincerity of her actions and made her weird behavior annoying rather than endearing. However, as I came to know her better through her relationship with the narrator Leo, it’s revealed that she is completely in earnest. One character muses that she is “a little more primitive than the rest of us, a little closer to our beginnings, a little more in touch with the stuff we’re made of” (177). Stargirl is also a flawed character, which makes her even more appealing. She is not completely immune to the desire of wanting to be accepted by her peers, which brings her story from a fantastic realm to reality. She does cave for a time and tires to fit in, and as a reader you do not criticize her for this, but sadly understand.

The narrator, Leo, is equally complex. He embodies the readers’ contradictory feelings for Stargirl: loving her, but not wanting her to get hurt, which means tempering her individuality. Leo is also an interesting character because he falls in love with Stargirl when she is Stargirl, not when she’s trying to fit in, and during a period when the entire school shuns her. He is dazzled by her, and though he is later influenced by the opinions of others, initially falls in love with Stargirl for herself. This is a positive message and frankly a refreshing depiction of a teenage boy in a young adult novel.

Spinelli does a wonderful job of telling a story that is largely a metaphor for the struggle of staying true to yourself in an environment that demands conformity to the norm. The high school he depicts is realistic, not a caricature, and I found myself wondering if I would have the courage to be myself to the extent that Stargirl is not only when I was in high school, but now. Spinelli gracefully captures the fear and risks of being an individual, but leaves us with hope at the end.

Though this story takes place in a high school, it’s a clean story, and I believe would be enjoyed by children twelve and up.