Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“Summer was here again. Summer, summer, summer. I loved and hated summers. Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out it me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope. That’s why I loved and hated summers. Because they made me want to believe.”

Now that’s how you start a book! If you need a summer read, why not start with one, that also begins in summer? I had no less than three students recommend this book to me in the last week of school. Thus, when I went to the bookstore to buy my first read of the summer, I picked up a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Honestly, I don’t know how in the world I hadn’t read this book yet.

With Ari’s voice, Sáenz’s writing, the short chapters, the engaging content–I didn’t put the book down once I picked it up. I read it almost all in one sitting.  It tells the story of a friendship between two boys. It tells the story two loving families. It tells the story many of us might have wanted to read when we were young. Ari and Dante negotiate their teenage selves and various identities: racial, sexual, and overall human identity. I don’t want to spoil any of the major events in the book, but I will tell you I loved that Ari’s mother is a teacher. And at one point, Ari talks to her about her job. The exchange just made me smile, nod, and realize just how remarkable Sáenz is, that he could pinpoint our work so succinctly:

“What are you thinking?”
“You like teaching?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Even when your students don’t care?”
“I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not responsibly for whether my students care or don’t care. That care has to come from them–not me.”
“Where does that leave you?”
“No matter what, Ari, my job is to care.”

This book is a must-read (or a re-read). It won the Lambda Literary Award, the Printz Honor Award, and the Stonewall Book Award.  And if you want to listen to the audiobook, Lin-Manuel Miranda reads it aloud! The good news if you read this and loved it, is that there’s a sequel in the making, so there will be more from Ari & Dante.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

 

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Reflection #2

PCTELA was awarded the Fund Teachers for the Dream grant this year! NCTE was extremely generous in awarding this grant. They’ve given us the opportunity to mentor three fabulous pre-service teachers from Pennsylvania. In this series you’ll hear directly from them about their experiences this school year with engaging students in discussions about diversity and self identity. They each used grant funding to develop and facilitate programs in their selected schools. One pre-service teacher chose to establish a book club with fifth grade students reading The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. Another chose to read, discuss, and create dynamic texts meant to guide students through tough discussions and self discovery. The third pre-service teacher offered movie nights to her high school students and used movies like Crash and Schindler’s List as spring boards for discussion. One of our mentors also wrote a blog post about her perspective, and that will be part of this series, too. Join us at our Annual Conference  this October 20-21 in Greentree, PA to hear these three pre-service teachers give a panel presentation about their projects and what they’ve learned.


Written by: Dr. Jolene Borgese

Role: Mentor of Daecia Smith throughout the grant period

I am uncomfortable writing or talking about the different shades of skin color. But the young African American girls in Daecia Smith’s book club were not. Daecia is a senior at Temple University, majoring in secondary English. She is student teaching this semester at a high academic performing school in Philadelphia.

The afternoon I joined them at the elementary school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for their book club I asked them two open ended questions: “How’s the club going?” and “How do you like the book you’re reading?” Like a fire storm, these 11 year old girls all spoke to me at once – eager to tell me about the book and the characters. Aiming to be the one I heard, their responses became louder and more animated but they were all talking about the bullying going on in the novel, The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake, and how it was all the about the lighter skinned character versus the darker skinned character. Without any inhibitions or fear of being politically incorrect they spoke to me candidly about the shades of being Black.

The teacher in me wanted to connect to these free spirited little girls so I shared with them what I knew about shades of skin color. I recounted quickly as to not lose their interest – “I am of Italian American descent and Italian skin color depends on what part of Italy you are from. The southern part of Italy is very close to Africa so if you are Sicilian- which I am part of – your skin is darker. Some of my sisters are very fair but my father, brother and I have darker skin.” They weren’t interested or cared. I got it. I was this white lady talking about getting a tan. I never got the chance to tell them that my mother sometimes wore pantyhose to the beach because her legs were so white.

The girls spoke with such confidence about shades of color that I asked them if they knew of this happening to people they knew or even themselves. With all of their heads nodding “yes” I realized why this was so important to them. Daecia gathered their attention back when she asked them to start reading. Having more girls than books they happily shared books and helped whoever was reading with words they couldn’t pronounce. They all followed along and listened carefully as their club members read.

Daecia would stop and asked them questions periodically about what they were reading. It seemed more like a conversation than comprehension questions because this was obviously important to them. They read for about 30 minutes never inattentive or disengaged. Reading the right book – the book that means something to the reader- was the key. It was obvious they saw themselves in the characters they were reading about.

At the end of the hour they cleaned up their snack wrappers (Daecia had provided snacks for them), collected the novels and journals. The girls put on their coats and headed out the classroom door. One little girl stopped and turned to Daecia and asked, “What are we reading next?” Daecia was exhausted from student teaching all day, and the extra hour she put in with these little girls, but she still managed a smile.

NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Reflection #2

An Evening with Stacey Lee via Centre County Reads

Many towns in Pennsylvania have a one-town, one-book program. This year, where I live, Stacey Lee’s Under a Painted Sky was chosen as the Centre County Read. There were a number of events tied to the book, including a writing contest, culminating in a

First, let me say I just loved Under a Painted Sky. I read it all in one sitting on a cold Sunday morning, and the story held me captive. In the first page, we’re told our protagonist killed a man.  Then we learn how she came to be in that situation, and why she chooses to run away from Missouri (in 1849) and go out west.  Sam pairs up with Annamae, a runaway slave, and the two become a kind of family of their own.  Besides a gripping story of two girls pretending they’re boys traveling west, there are insightful observations throughout: “Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you.”

One of the other reasons I loved this story so much was the wide range of characters and the representations of many groups of people. You have a Chinese-American, an African-American, a Mexican-American, and many other diverse characters who have a voice.  You also can see people who love music, who love singing, who love horses. I was really happy to see a female character at the end who said she didn’t want children (do you know how rare that is in fiction? it was nice to finally have a mirror in terms of that topic).

Anyway, when Stacey Lee spoke last night, it was delightful. She talked about the making of Under A Painted Sky, and also her other books (I purchased a copy of The Secret of A Heart Note, a story about a perfumer with synesthesia). She also spoke about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, and how she has worked with that group, and the importance of representation in books.  It reminded me of the TED talk I use in class by Grace Lin about Windows and Mirrors. 

Finally, I was excited to see Stacey Lee speak because one of my students won a writing contest and was able to meet her.  This reminds me that we really need to encourage our students to submit work for publication and for contests.  There is something really special when a young writer meets a published writer, and I was happy to witness that and see how enthusiastic and encouraging Stacey Lee was with my student. So, if you haven’t read her books, check them out! And if you have an opportunity to see an author speak near your town, you should consider attending.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

An Evening with Stacey Lee via Centre County Reads

Author Visits in PA this week: Laurie Halse Anderson, Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Wein, Stacey Lee

This week is a busy one for literary Pennsylvania. Many towns are having authors visit as a culmination of their community reading program. Here are four authors in PA this week:

*Laurie Halse Anderson will be at  West Chester University, PA Tuesday, April 4 from 3:30 to 4:15 in Main Hall 168.

*Sherman Alexie will be at Shippensburg University, PA on Wednesday, April 5. Alexie’s lecture begins at 7 p.m. in the Luhrs Performing Arts Center and is free and open to the public.

*Elizabeth Wein will speak at Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore on Thursday, April 6. She will sign copies of the 2017 Central Pennsylvania One Book, One Community Book of the Year, Rose Under Fire.

*Stacey Lee will speak in State College, PA at the Nittany Lion Inn, Ballroom C. This is the culmination of the annual one book, one community read: Under a Painted Sky. (Reviewed here by WPSU)

Author Visits in PA this week: Laurie Halse Anderson, Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Wein, Stacey Lee

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

A former student sent me this book as a surprise gift, and I’m grateful, although I’m overwhelmed by all the feelings I had while reading it.  Another friend warned me I wouldn’t be able to read it all in one go, and he was right. I found myself reading about 30 or 40 pages and putting it down to process and to regain some emotional distance.  This book takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions.  Partially because you go from present day Griffin, who mourns the death of his best friend and former boyfriend Theo, to past Griffin, who comes out to Theo, begins to date him, and allows us to see how their relationship formed.

Silvera masterfully crafts the novel with just the right amount of information.  He keeps us waiting to figure out why things are awkward with Wade, what he said to Theo on the phone, and whether Jackson will be a part of his life, too (after all, Jackson was dating Theo when Theo died). He also waits to give us the whole story of the day Theo dies out in California. The suspense created kept me going back to the book even though it was at times depressing.  Additionally, Silvera writes all his characters compassionately. Whether it is Griffin explaining his compulsions (scratching, counting, walking on the left) or Griffin talking about Theo’s family (and younger sister Denise).  These are complex young people who have real conversations, real struggles, and real sex (yup, there’s some sex scenes in here, just in case you thought about handing this to a much younger reader). Plus, there’s plenty of references to Harry Potter, Star Wars, and imaginary worlds with zombie-pirates, so that made me pretty happy to read a book with nerdy people like me.

Image result for history is all you left meI would highly recommend this book for the writing, the storytelling, but also for the process of grieving.  Often in the book people tell Griffin to just move on, get over it, let it go. That’s much easier said than done, and this novel shows us why we struggle when someone we love dies sooner than we anticipated. And we need other people to help us through, just like Silvera writes: “There’s nothing wrong with someone saving my life, I’ve realized, especially when I can’t trust myself to get the job done right. People need people. That’s that.”

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories
Edited by Ellen Oh, cofounder of We Need Diverse Books

This collection of short stories includes tales of basketball players, of students trying to be ninja elves, and of young people attempting to discover their identity in the world. Here’s the list of all the authors who contributed a story:

  • Kwame Alexander
  • Soman Chainani
  • Matt de la Pena
  • Tim Federle
  • Grace Lin
  • Meg Medina
  • Walter Dean Myers
  • Tim Tingle
  • Jacqueline Woodson
  • Kelly J Baptist, who won the We Need Diverse Books 2015 contest, which led to her publication in this anthology.

I enjoyed this entire collection of stories but I have to say, particularly enjoyed Grace Lin’s story “The Difficult Path” — not just because I’m enamored with Lin’s TED talk about Windows and Mirrors and use it with my seniors every year, but because her story involved lady pirates. I mean, what adventurous person wouldn’t love a story about female pirates? And it made me research Ching Shih, the pirate Lin based her story on, and I found myself reading all about this phenomenally successful pirate who I’d never learned about in history class. Isn’t that what we hope for with our students? For a story to connect with them and sparks their curiosity?

Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha” also appealed to me, mostly because I feel like I’m a terrible gift giver and always second guess myself.  Sam (or Flame, her secret code name) attempts to find the perfect gift for the new girl, Blade, who’s from California and has never seen know. I just love Federle’s descriptions (“The mall is a zoo, if the zoo forgot to build cages”) and the way he creates Sam’s character–I root for her the entire story, happy when she grows bold and triumphant when she finds her voice.

Kelly J. Baptist also wrote a story I found myself identifying with, as Isaiah often ends up in the library reading or writing, or transcribing the stories his father left behind for him in “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn.” He takes care of his sister, and sometimes his mom, trying to fill the gap the loss of his father created. Once again, I was rooting for the protagonist, watching him make waffles for breakfast, color with his sister, or reminisce while watching the king fu movies he used to watch with his dad.

I could write something about each of the stories in this book and why I loved it, but I want to leave some things for you to discover when you read it. Now that I’ve been reflecting on the book, I think one thing that ties all these stories together (aside from the diversity, of course) is the skill with which the authors invite the reader into the protagonist’s lives. Each of them offers an intimate glimpse into a different life, and yet everyone wants a version of the same thing: strong relationships with others and people to love them as they are.

c1qtkaqxuaaic6gI’ll be giving away my copy of this to someone in Pennsylvania. So either comment below to be entered or retweet one of our PCTELA posts with this link. I’ll choose the winner on Sunday night (2/19/17).

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

5points

 

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was lucky enough to win an ARC on twitter of this phenomenal book. Seriously, 5 stars, hands down. If this is Thomas’s first book, I can’t wait to see what she has in store for readers next. I r32075671ead this book in one day (we had a snow day) but I found myself putting it down to cry, to think, to process every twenty or fifty pages.

This book centers around Starr Carter, who goes to a prep school but lives in a neighborhood with a less-than-desirable school. Her parents, a shop owner and a nurse, look out for her and her brothers and their extended family lives close by, too: uncles, aunts, a grandmother. This is a family I would love to be part of: they celebrate birthdays and holidays together, they joke around with each other, tease each other, but will always be there for any family member in need. In the first thirty pages, Starr finds herself in a situation that becomes much larger than herself. She becomes witness to a crime and has to find strength within herself to stand up for justice–for her childhood friend and for an entire movement.

This book is powerful for many reasons. The content is obviously an important topic. We can see the Black Lives Matter movement from within, from a reluctant participant who fears for herself and her family. But the real power in this novel is the way Angie Thomas creates her characters. The verisimilitude with which she crafts her teenagers is impressive. Starr sounds like a teenager, acts like a teenager, and makes me want to just give her a hug. She loves old reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, she’s meticulous about her kicks, and she worries about her boyfriend, her teammates, and her friends. She’s so real, and that is what gives this novel power. She’s complex–this is no carbon copy character–and that complexity gives the novel the depth readers crave. I want more stories about Starr. I want to know if she keeps up with her blog, or if she finds a different venue to share with the world about Khalil. I want to know how the rest of her family fares, how DeVante does after the end of the book, and where she might decide to go to college.

The point here is that Angie Thomas created Starr, and Starr reads like a real girl with real struggles and real triumphs–and that alone is a triumph in fiction these days. So when it comes out on February 28 in a few weeks, do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy. Just don’t forget to buy some tissues, too.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas